Voquent’s Miles Chicoine speaks to veteran voice actor Kenneth Bryant about the reality of becoming a professional voice actor today. This in-depth interview is crammed with critical insights about becoming a voice over artist.
Right now, there are hundreds of thousands of people that work in the worldwide voiceover industry. For some, it represents a full-time career. For others, it represents an additional income stream ranging from occasional to consistent part-time hours.
Of course, we live in a world where not all things are equal, which is why some voiceover talents will work exceptionally hard to get commissioned for only a handful of jobs per year whilst others are consistently sought-after and earn 6 figure incomes.
Virtually everyone who works in the voice over industry operates on a freelance, self-employed or sole proprietorship basis. Based on conversations we’ve had with many hundreds of voices, we know it takes 5 to 10 years to get established and for voiceover work to be a consistent revenue stream.
Every year, in spite of the many hurdles and challenges, there are thousands of people around the globe that embark on their own journey into the field of voiceover. In the world of performing arts, there is no single rule-book or defining set of principles that will guarantee any degree of success. For many, working in the creative industry is a pilgrimage of self-exploration.
What’s common to almost everyone are the “home truths” – the undeniable facts and realities that must be faced by anyone attempting to break into the voice acting world.
As the co-founder of Voquent, I know a few things about the business of the voiceover industry but I’ve never worked as voice actor myself. So, I sat down with American voice actor Kenneth Bryant who was kind enough to share his own experience with me. His candid insights about what it takes to break into the world of voice overs are refreshing to hear in a world where people are sold the idea that they can be anything they want if only they think hard, believe in themselves and pay a monthly subscription.
Prepare for information bombardment (in a good way)…
Thanks for taking the time out to speak with me Kenneth!
Kenneth: Absolutely, It’s my pleasure.
Everyone who’s found success in the voice acting industry has a unique story to tell, no one single journey is the same. How did you get into the world of voice overs?
Kenneth: Well, first off, I can tell you that I am the extreme exception not the rule.
It’s critical to understand that today’s voice-over industry has evolved far beyond when I first got into the business and my case is singular and quite lucky really.
You see, truthfully, I had never considered it at all when I was younger. Over my life I’ve worked in many different career fields. Like anyone.
All of that was great, but through it all I’ve always enjoyed performing. In my life, I’ve been in dozens of stage shows and other dramatic presentations. It was hard work without a doubt, but the rush I got when I was on stage was like nothing else.
Along with all these live productions, I kind of fell into doing voice over work when I worked for AAFES (the Army/Air Force Exchange Service) – at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. I was working at Central Checkout at the Post Exchange on a military base. A combination of all retail outlets because servicemen are constantly moving in and needing to set up their households. I was ringing up groceries, sporting goods, housewares, furniture, TV’s/Stereos, etc. This was back when scanners were first introduced too…
I was Constantly calling over the PA for price checks, and about a month into working there the Front End Manager told me that Mr. Hodge, the Exchange manager, wanted to see me.
It turns out, he liked how I sounded doing the price check announcements and he wanted me to take over the Exchange spot promos from him. He asked me if I thought I could just take the daily and weekly ad flyers, make up the promos, and record them. It was totally new to me.
He led me to this little room that had an old Dictaphone type recorder in it. I remember it had a little mic and the device itself recorded up to 20 separate 30 second tracks. He showed me how to use it, handed me the flyer, and stepped out.
I spent many hours recording spot promos for the Exchange. I remember getting very creative with them and having a lot of fun doing it.
I wanted to stay with it too… But, Life happens, you know? I ended up drifting away from my stage work, finished college, got other jobs, got married and raised a family.
What led me back into Voice Over started with a tragic event. My Father had a heart attack in the hospital when he went in for a stent replacement in May of 2016.
I remember rushing there to be at his side while he recovered. It was great to be there for him.
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During those weeks, we watched those crime, science, World War II documentaries on TV. I remember mentioning to Dad how it would be something to be the narrator on those shows
I remember his response was so simple, “Why don’t you? You could do that. You always loved that stuff.”
I remember snapping to that, thinking, “I can do that”.
I had just retired from my law enforcement career and was looking toward what to do next in my life. Returning to VO work felt so right at that moment that it lit a fire in me, a burning, unstoppable motivation to pursue it.
When I got home I started researching it online and began gathering the materials to make it happen. I knew it would be a difficult and long road but I was determined to succeed.
That was just the beginning…
Since then, by working every day of the week, I’ve produced audio for radio and TV commercials, numerous other business/commercial endeavours, animations, video games, podcasts, and many audiobooks. I’ve recorded for major worldwide corporations like Mars, Unitron Discover, Dassault Systemes, Swiffer, Sartorius, Mariott Renaissance Hotels, and a veritable host of smaller businesses!
It’s been an amazing journey.
There’s always been a lot of debate about how much ‘natural talent’ is required to carve out a career in voiceovers.
What would you say are the most common misconceptions about the baseline aptitude necessary to build a career as a voice actor?
Kenneth: I’d say the most common misconception is that having a great voice is all that it takes to succeed in VO.
Yes, being able to speak well is critical to VO work but that is only the most basic starting point.
The fact is voice over is a form of performance work and dramatic presentation.
Acting skills are required. Being able to perform in a studio environment is required. This may seem overstated but, truthfully, it isn’t. Being able to sit in front of a microphone and perform a host of different vocal styles and accents with a sound engineer, director, and clients watching you is not as easy as it sounds.
This holds true for personal recording booths as well because directed sessions are common in VO work. Many clients want to listen to you in real time as you record their scripts to offer direction.
The experience is akin to being on camera or on stage. It can be daunting for some.
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A certain temperament is required as well. A high degree of patience and the ability to be brutally honest with yourself over your performances. Many takes are often required to get what the client wants, and revisions of scripts or your previous takes are common as well. It’s part of doing the job.
I always suggest to aspiring talents to seek some initial coaching and sit in a studio to gauge if they have the aptitude in this regard.
And I always advise them all to be honest with themselves and listen to their coaches feedback. Running a VO business is expensive – start-up costs included. Aspiring talents need to be certain they have the temperament and performance talent before investing their money.
The next most common misconception is that success is virtually guaranteed if you have the talent. That in a few weeks they’ll be the new “Voice of GEICO” by just recording on their iPhones!
And as wonderful as that sounds, it isn’t true at all, I’m afraid. It can take years of work to win your first audition for a few hundred dollars.
There are a lot of hopefuls who’ve been told that they have a “nice voice” or even a “great voice’ but don’t realize that access to professional studio equipment plays an important role in getting the best jobs.
What advice would you give to someone who needs to prepare some professionally recorded audio for the first time ever?
Kenneth: – The role of proper equipment and recording environment are vital to voice over work. A quiet space to record, that is carefully soundproofed is job number one!
A quick note here, condenser microphones are what you need for VO work and there are many options to choose from.
IMPORTANT: DO NOT get, or try to use, any of these: – gaming headphones with a mic attachment, a handheld recorder, a stage mic (or dynamic mic), a web cam mic, or your cell phone mic. – they are not appropriate for voice over work.
To specifically answer your question there are two ways. Both require work and money, and will take time to put together, one more so than the other.
First way, getting some coaching like I mentioned earlier to determine your aptitude. Constructing and equipping a recording booth can be done for around $1,000.
This first way may take longer to assemble based on individual budgets, and you’ll need to spend time learning how to edit and master your own audio files with your recording software once you get it all set up. This is so important and cannot be skipped.
The second way? Again, getting some coaching, then going to a recording studio near you and paying to use their studio and an audio engineer to edit and master your recording.
This way can be faster, but it can be very expensive – studio rates, engineer’s rates, etc.
So, the real takeaway for either option is to be prepared to spend money and time to create your first professional quality audio files.
How long did it take you to get established and to consider voiceover work as a consistent source of revenue?
Kenneth: – Fortunately, because of my theatre background and my experience doing VO work for AAFES I was able to hit the ground running when I started my business back in 2016. I’ve achieved great strides in the past 4 years, and I’m very proud of my work.
But, I’ve had to make tremendous sacrifices to make it happen. I’ve had to work every single day since then to achieve my success. Many days I’m in my booth all day long. It’s taken me 4 years to get where I am today working everyday of the week. It’s exhausting sometimes but the rewards are amazing!
What budget advice would you give to someone who wants to setup a professional home studio recording environment?
Kenneth: Save your money. Good VO equipment is expensive. Very few people can immediately pay up front for everything.
Research your recording set-up well. You’ll need the quietest possible environment and then sound proof it even further. You’ll need money for the materials.
Now there are many different options and brands for setting up a home studio and some are less expensive than others. You’ll have to do your research to find what fits in your budget.
Creating a sustainable freelance career takes discipline and determination. If you were to suggest a legitimate daily routine for a voice acting professional, what would that be?
Kenneth: Most aspiring talents already have jobs while pursuing a career in voice over work and what is required is setting aside time before and after your day job to pursue it.
This means disciplining yourself to get up earlier and stay awake later. It means staying frosty and alert when you sit down in front of your microphone because you’ll need to be able to affect many vocal styles for different projects.
Additionally, you’ll need to take good care of yourself because this new regimen can be stressful. Stay hydrated always as well. Being dehydrated is bad for your vocal performance.
Make time before and after your job to record and submit auditions. Make time to learn about the industry.
Learn to section out the tasks over time so it isn’t overwhelming – posting about your work on social media, learning new techniques, pursuing alternative sources of work, reading what the current professional VO trends are, keeping your books, etc.
For myself, working VO full-time, I get up early in the morning and immediately check my email about my website activity and for auditions and I jump on them asap.
In between auditions I work on awarded work, my latest advertising/promotional efforts, respond to emails and messages from potential clients and colleagues, write posts or articles or make time for video promotions, work out my coming schedule of directed sessions, networking events or meetings with clients, look over my website and update files, work on blog post drafts, etc…
I do these daily in a rotating fashion. Some duties will require more attention than others on a day-to-day basis. For instance, weekends slow up on the audition postings so instead I’ll focus on awarded work or advertising or any of the above administrative tasks I listed. It all requires daily attention.
The key is to be diligent in your approach and flexible to whatever opportunities present themselves from day to day. For instance, there are times when I get awarded big jobs like an audiobook or high paying jobs in the business/commercial realm with a quick turnaround time. So, I set everything aside to immediately begin rehearsing, preparing, and recording that job. It may include a directed session over Source Connect, Skype, or my phone the next day or day after and I rearrange my schedule for that also.
We all deal with quiet periods from time to time. What methods or inspirations do you draw upon to stay productive during those times?
Kenneth: I keep my eyes on the long term goal. I want to be successful in this industry to leave behind a good legacy for my family, and if I leave behind a great body of work also then that’s icing on the cake.
I think everyone wants to be successful and there are many ways to achieve it. The key is remember your own personal reason for your efforts.
Everyone who’s achieved success in the entertainment industry has a formula for dealing with regular rejection. What’s yours?
Kenneth: I do the best job I can on every audition, submit it, then I forget about it and move on to the next one.
The simple fact is this -the voice over industry is FIERCELY competitive and for the 500 or so jobs (sometimes more, sometimes less) posted everyday there are over 10.000+ serious and good voice talents competing for them.
So, along with this reality is the bitter pill to swallow that is simply a part of this industry – I know that I’m NOT going to get hired for every job. Worse, I’ll never know why my audition was rejected – I just simply didn’t get the job.
I audition over and over again everyday. Every day putting in as many Broadcast Ready auditions for as many posted jobs as I possibly can with the “Submit it and forget it” mentality firmly in place.
And it’s difficult, especially when I have existing (awarded) work to record, but it has to be done.
And most of the time I never hear anything back about any of them. It’s just part of the job for many reasons. Mostly, they don’t have the time to send an email to the 100 voice actors who didn’t get awarded the session. They only have time to email the 101st voice actor who did get the job, and most likely, he submitted his before 20 auditions were collected by the client.
Casting directors can’t listen to every audition, so submitting mine quickly or even first is critical.
Casting, marketing, creative directors, recording studio reps, and their clients are professional people, and they all have their jobs to do. This means they may not contact me until months after they posted the job IF I won the audition. All the more reason to submit as many as I can everyday to build up a consistent return on my effort.
It can be incredibly difficult to get feedback as a voice actor. What do you do to perfect your craft?
Kenneth: I listen to my competitors work, watch videos they’ve posted, and read up constantly on developments in the industry. I’ve learned many new recording techniques this way.
I also listen very carefully to what my clients have to say about my work and make adjustments as needed.
I read the reviews on my various audiobooks as well. I’ve gotten solid feedback on my performances from these.
Above all, I am very self-critical of my work. Every VO job has it’s own way to be read, and if a take doesn’t sound right, has plosives, excessive sibilance or a mouth click that I can’t edit out then I record it over again. Sometimes I do this many times until I get the performance that resonates with me.
What would you say is the most rewarding aspect of being a professional voice actor?
Kenneth: Being able to fulfil my creative potential. There’s nothing else like it. It’s tremendously satisfying.
Working with other creatives/artists/authors/clients as well, being a small part of their project. Being privy to the proprietary work before it’s widespread release and being periodically asked my thoughts on it overall. Even better when my feedback is implemented into the project. Wonderful.
Playing all the characters in an audiobook, especially the villains. It’s like being on stage again!
Generally, the knowledge that I’m doing what I Love to do. It’s amazing.
Lastly, if you could go back in time and give your younger-self one single piece of advice, what would it be?
Kenneth: Ahh, if only we all had the benefit of hindsight right? I would’ve ordered my younger self to stay with AAFES and continue working on my voice over career. I know it would’ve led to bigger and better things in the Voice Over industry, and I would be so much further along now.