‘Your voice has power’.
What do you think of this phrase? Often it’s used in an abstract, political, constitutional vote kind of way. But, as a voice-over artist, where does the power of the Voice with a capital ‘v’ lie?
When you’re a voice-over, it’s less about what you say and more about how you say it. And not in a hit this word or that word kind of way. Not in a percussive, performative way (though naturally that is also important). The fundamental power of a voice lies in its natural tone. And when I say tone I’m talking vibration. The word ‘vibration’ is active and instinctive, indicating movement and intuitive signalling. Simply put, when you’re a voice-over, it’s all about the vibe.
When you’re a voice-over, it’s all about the vibe.
There’s something very unique about the natural tone, or vibe of a person’s voice. To ‘vibe with’ someone or something indicates states, moods, feelings and emotions that accord between different people and situations, just as when one bell vibrates, other bells nearby will vibrate at the same pitch or frequency, and this is what a voice-over artist must do with their voice in order to create the exact mood that the piece requires. As a result, they are likely to vibe with the audience it is intended for.
When we listen to a piece of music it inspires within us a certain mood, or vibe. And when a voice-over artist is given a piece of copy, they must intuitively identify the vibe of the words and navigate the spectrum of their own unique voice to match it. This will be helped along (or hindered in some cases) by the client/producer/director who is leading the performance. If their interpretation of the copy accords with the voice talent’s – great; if it differs, a discord can arise. Though, of course, as the voice-over and hired gun, it’s wise to defer to the client in pretty much every situation.
Well, you don’t have to. Of course you can (if you really believe in it) fight with them about how a certain word or phrase in the ad for Barclays tracker mortgages ought to be interpreted; you just might not ever get booked again!
As a voice-over you have to become a rapidly skilled reader.
Not just in the literal sense of reading the words presented to you on the page, though that is a vital skill for the job (especially when much of the copy is being rewritten as you speak it) – but you must also become adept at reading a room and the people in it, as well as clearly and accurately reading the directions that people give you, even if they are not explaining it in a way that is clear.
Again this comes down to the idea of vibe-ing.
Ultimately, as a voice-over, you are hired by copywriters, producers, clients and art directors who have a wider vision about the vision of their project and the mood & emotion they want to inspire in the audience. So, while it is important and valuable to have your own ideas and responses to a piece of writing (you don’t just want to be a marionette), it is equally important to be flexible with those responses and to allow the direction of the people who hired you to inform your performance.
A voice-over is chosen for the unique quality their voice possesses, and, in a way, that’s the most important part of the matchmaking process between vocal vibe and project vibe. Of course, you want to do the best job you can, and a large part of that includes giving the people who booked you what they want. Case in point: this video.
Toast of London: “Yes”
Sometimes a client who books you may not know, or be ambivalent about, what it is they want and in those cases you have a free rein to voice your ideas about a particular project more clearly. And this is where building upon your own natural vibe comes in handy.
Let’s focus in on the idea of vibe, or mood, a little more.
Listen to this piece of music, and have a think about what mood it inspires within you.
Britney Spears, Hit Me Baby One More Time
What mood does this piece vibe at?
Though it has words that communicate the meaning of the song, they don’t necessarily match up with what the vibe of the song is telling us. It is an easy-going, upbeat pop sound, but that sound is layered on top of words that suggest heartbreak. This creates a dissonance between words and vibe, and is probably a contributing factor to why a lot of pop songs like this are often reworked for BBC Live Lounge style music shows in a way that better reflects the lyrics.
Travis does Britney
The second version helps us identify straight away what the artist was trying to communicate through their lyrics by allowing the vibe of the lyrics to inform the music, rather than by counteracting the lyrical intent with pop bells and whistles.
Every voice-over talent, just like these two very differently performed versions of the same song, has a unique vibe. So you might have a voice signature that naturally rests around sombre, or soft, or bright, or joyful, or enticing, or funny…
Identifying your unique signature is the start of identifying what your potential strengths as a VO are.
The mood, or signature, of a voice is very important, and is usually the main factor in how voice-over artists get chosen for a particular job. If your voice is naturally light, high-pitched and joyful sounding, you’re unlikely to be chosen to voice a serious, meaningful ad about world hunger, even if you make an effort to mould your performance that way. There’s only so far most voice-overs can navigate away from their unique and natural vocal vibe.
If a client was looking to book a voice-over for an ad that sells car insurance, what sort of voice vibe might they be looking for?
They would need to have a clear, eloquent tone for starters. Car insurance ads tend to have the complicated terms and conditions bit at the end, but because of its association with being complicated, the voice-over artist would likely have to sound approachable, average, but with a great sense of humour, like getting car insurance is the easiest thing in the world. It’s fun!
And if someone was selling mortgages?
Or a soft drink?
Or had written a character that commands authority?
Each role has a vibe
In Britain there was a nationwide search a couple of years ago for The Speaking Clock – a British institution. The speaking clock is 72 years old and has had four permanent voices since 1936. What do you think they might be looking for when replacing the voice of the British Speaking Clock?
This time, they wanted someone who sounded like a non-professional voice-over artist. This is not unusual these days. The voice-over style trend that many people are looking for now is that boy or girl next door, someone who could have walked in off the street, who seems ‘normal,’ and somewhat unpolished and unprofessional – whilst paradoxically being both of those things at the very same time.
Then there are voices that are picked less for their own unique vibe and more for their ability to sound like a variety of other people.
These vocal shapeshifters are most likely to work in the world of animation and gaming. Though characters are sometimes necessary in promos and advertisements, most of the time the voice-over is picked for the unique mood that their voice inspires, rather than the ‘magic tricks’ they can perform with it!
Of course, some lucky voice-over artists can do both. But regardless of what the performance tells the listener in words or performance or through the bells and whistles of sound effects, one thing remains unchanged: those vocal vibes don’t lie.