When people ask about what I do for a living and I say ‘voice-over’ a dazed look of befuddlement immediately crosses their face.
‘Y’know, the voice you hear in radio commercials or the voice menu you get when you call a bank?‘, I add to provide context. With this, their face opens up, eyes bright with curiosity. ‘Oh wow, I didn’t even know that was a job, how does that work?‘.
‘Well…‘. And so the conversation begins.
I’ve had this conversation so many times it feels like improvising on the script of a famous play. In general, people just don’t realise that voice-over is everywhere and because it’s everywhere they don’t think about it.
I’ve written this article to help answer the most pertinent ‘voice-over’ questions. Whether you want to learn about what a voice-over is, how to become a voice-over artist or to find out more about the process of booking and recording a voice-over. The answers lie ahead.
To keep things simple, I’ve divided the article into sections, feel free to skip to the section(s) which are most relevant to you.
1. What is voice-over?
It’s just someone talking right?
Yes and no.
First, a quick point on grammar. Voiceover, voice-over and voice over are spellings each used interchangeably by people working in the media production industry and there is no right or wrong way of spelling it. Throughout this article we will use the hyphenated spelling: ‘voice-over‘, preferred by various dictionaries including the Collins Dictionary which refers to ‘voice-over’ as:
So yes, whilst a voice-over is an unseen narrator, ‘someone talking’, it’s ordinarily a trained speaker. For example an actor, broadcaster or comedian. Their voice is essential to their work and through their voice, they communicate ideas, sell products, explain how things work or simply entertain folks.
Anyone can record a voice-over but without the proper training it’s unlikely audiences will want to listen!
Most of us don’t exercise our vocal muscles and our voices can sound flat and monotonous. It takes many years of daily practice to strengthen the voice. Mastering the art of voice-over is about making one’s voice genuinely interesting and engaging. A voice that adds value to the audience experience and therefore keeps people engaged is marketable and businesses will pay for a professional voice-over artist. It may be cheaper to voice it yourself but it can have the opposite effect, turning an audience off your message completely.
Many professional voice actors are members of unions. Take a look at the world’s top unions in our interactive map.
In our blog: Inventing Authority: The Art of the Documentary Voice-Over we took a look at how voice-over made its way into popular culture. First starting in Radio, TV and Film, but it’s now much more ubiquitous and we’ll look at a variety of its uses in the next section.
2. Where is voice-over used?
Voice-over is used for teaching, selling, informing and entertaining audiences around the world. Below, we check out some of the most common uses. Click the links to listen to professional samples, recorded by full-time voice-over actors.
- Advertisements & Promos
- radio, TV and internet promos frequently use voice-over
- Audiobooks & Dramas
- well-spoken narrators are always needed for audiobooks, dramas and stories
- voicing characters in animated series and video games
- Corporate & B2B
- corporate videos, b2b promos and presentations all use voice-over to lend authority to the message
- narrating interactive eLearning and virtual reality courses for adults and children alike
- the best product and website explainers all use professional voice-over artists
- Museum and Tourist Guides
- we all love to explore and audio guides are often voiced in a number of languages
- many news stories use voice-over and are narrated by the journalist or broadcaster
- Passenger Announcements
- safety and scheduling announcements on trains or in-flight
- Satnavs and GPS devices
- many car navigation systems and GPS apps use voice-over
- professional voice-over is used in IVR (the menus you go through when you call a big company), on-hold marketing and voicemail greetings
- Toys & Electronic Games
- some of the most entertaining gadgets or children’s toys use voices to engage and amuse
- Movie or Game Trailers
- trailers build anticipation for upcoming entertainment releases and a voice-over is intrinsic to emotional engagement
…and so much more! Voice-over applies to basically every industry in one way or another, so why do so few people understand it? Well, we hope to change that.
3. Is voice-over a growing industry?
The short answer is yes. At Voquent, our team has decades of experience in the industry and we launched Voquent.com in 2018 after extensive research. We wouldn’t have launched Voquent if we didn’t see the industry growing fast.
Right up to the early 2000s, getting a professionally recorded voice-over was relatively expensive.
Voice-over artists were in limited supply and demand for their service was high.
A voice-over almost always had to be recorded in a professionally equipped recording studio with an experienced sound engineer. If the voice-over was being used to narrate a video, it could be doubly expensive. Only a bespoke post-production studio would have had the necessary – and expensive – equipment.
Of course, the explosion of the internet, faster computer processing and mobile technology have changed all of that forever.
Whilst many recordings still take place on location in specialised voice-over studios, the vast majority of voice-over is recorded in-home studio environments. This is because most voice-over recordings do not need to be directed live and do not have complicated time-syncing or lip-syncing requirements. They also don’t have the budget to pay for the studio time!
The explosion in cheap technology has given large numbers of people a lucrative voice acting career which traditionally would only have been open to an experienced broadcaster, actor or entertainer. This surge in the number of voice-over artists and the proliferation of online casting platforms has reduced working rates considerably. However on the flip side, the number of opportunities has grown exponentially thanks to reduced video production costs, tech giants like YouTube, Facebook and Instagram and apps like Audible.
All this cheap tech has driven the costs of getting a professional voice-over recorded down and it provides an opportunity for businesses to reach truly huge audiences via the web and social media. Especially if they localise the voice-over into world languages.
Pre-YouTube, to reach a big audience you had to advertise and the main routes to the public were via radio or TV. It was so expensive that businesses generally rejected this kind of advertising.
Now everything is connected and advertisements can be targeted at micro-regions to viewers with specific interests and matching detailed demographics. This has been game-changing for the small and medium-sized businesses that can feel the benefit of this.
Almost everything now is ‘publicly broadcast’ and fair usage fees for broadcasting content on social media is a huge topic (more on this in section 7).
Basically, every website contains video content. People like to watch video and with a lot of videos using voice-over, it’s not surprising the voice-over industry is growing incredibly fast. Even the general-purpose freelancing sites like Upwork and Fiverr have jumped on the bandwagon with a category specifically for voice-over.
4. Who are the industry leaders?
There is a multitude of companies involved in the production of voice-over such as:
- video production companies
- marketing and branding agencies
- communication agencies
- translation agencies
- video game developers
- animation studios
- recording studios
- book publishers
- training consultancies
- contact centre services
- …and many more!
All these companies add value. Whether they are coming up with the concepts & scriptwriting – the creative – or producing and publishing the content. Who the voice-over industry leaders are, will depend on your own perspective.
If we focus primarily on the companies that represent voice-over actors and produce voice-over recordings there are 4 main types of companies:
General Freelance Peer to Peer platforms
Voice-Over P2P platforms (Pay to Play sites)
Studios / Agencies/ Production Companies
Exclusive Voice Agents
We discuss the different types in more detail in our 101 Top Voice Over Websites guide.
From the perspective of a voice-over artist, the industry leader is really dependant on the style of voice-over work they specialise in and where they obtain the majority of their opportunities.
Amateur voices who are just starting out will often use the general freelance sites to build up their experience first. More specialised online voice-over casting platforms are often the next step for voice-over artists with more experience and better home studio equipment. Most of these sites require the voice-over talent to pay a subscription fee for the opportunity to audition for jobs. But this isn’t necessarily the path every voice-over actor takes. Many voices train first as actors and get exclusive representation with an acting agent. Indeed these actors may not do any voice-over work until they are already established, actors. For example, Keanu Reeves very rarely did voice-over work but was cast specifically for his ‘sci-fi’ kudos for the videogame Cyberpunk 2077.
The general freelance sites and casting platforms are great at connecting individual voice artists with producers, but they aren’t the best at organising multi-voice or multi-language projects. They generally work by asking customers to post a job and voice-over artists have to submit auditions before the customer selects the one they like best. Some jobs can attract hundreds of auditions. With 50% of voice-over artists reporting they have to audition for 51+ jobs to get chosen for ONE gig – that’s a lot of unpaid work!
For customers looking for more than just one individual artist for a specific project, or for additional services such as script translations or audio post-production, their needs are usually fulfilled by the tens of thousands of production companies, studios and creative or translation agencies all over the world.
Typically there will be an industry leader in key locations such as London, LA or Singapore, but who a customer chooses to work with may also depend on what other services are needed.
For example, here at Voquent one of our main services is translating audio and video content for audiences anywhere and also making content accessible to the deaf or visually impaired. We prefer to work in post-production on projects where the creative is being handled by the customer or is already done in one language. This makes us a good partner for translation companies and creative agencies alike.
Also, check out our guide to 161 voice-over agencies from around the world to find voice-over agencies in 35+ countries. Some of which are the industry leaders in their location.
5. Who are the voice-over artists?
You will probably already have heard of famous voice-over actors like Don LaFonaine (the original movie trailer guy) or Jennifer Hale and Nolan North (voicing characters in countless video games).
At Voquent we represent thousands of voice-over artists – all of them non-exclusively. This means we may book them directly or via their agent. Most of them you probably won’t have heard of by name. But you may recognise their voices from adverts, audiobooks, animations or games you’ve played. Here are a few we work with regularly.
A London based professional actress and voice-over artist of 10+ years. Classically trained in acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
A professional voice-over artist & producer who also runs her own VO agency.
20+ years of voiceover experience, providing native Lancashire and RP accents.
The original voice on Sky TV with particular emphasis on the Movie Channel. Vastly experienced with over 40 years in the business and in all forms of media.
Professionally trained in a wide array of English dialects, specialising in: American, British, Australian, and South African accents.
Narrated 100+ audiobooks and award-winning commercial work including major brands like Subway Restaurants and top automotive dealerships.
A Kenyan, British Educated voice-over actor with extensive experience, living in the tropics of East Africa speaking in Swahili and English.
A youthful voice-over actor and performer with extensive experience. Voice Arts Award winner for ‘Best Voiceover Performance’ in the e-Learning category.
6. How do you become a voice-over artist?
If you have hands, you can paint a room, but are you going to get a job as a painter and decorator? Like being able to hold a paintbrush helps with decorating, having a ‘nice’ voice is a good start for voice-over. You can get behind a mic easily enough, but becoming an expert voice-over artist that customers are willing to pay requires lots of practice. Don’t kid yourself that customers will be vying to work with you. In reality, it’s a competitive business. Standing out requires a mixture of luck and consistent effort. Only a small minority work full-time as voice-over artists. Many use voice-over work as a way to supplement their income and will work for a decade or more to build up their network of customers before going full-time.
Here’s a quick summary of the steps involved in becoming a voice-over artist.
Step 1 – Get professional vocal coaching
Invest in professional coaching. Unless you’re already a regular public speaker, broadcaster or singer it’s unlikely you give your voice the daily workout it needs. Your vocal cords are muscles and if you intend to use these muscles every day in your work you need them in optimum condition. Like an athlete, you need a daily regime of exercises and we’d always recommend finding a local voice-over coach in your area for some 121 sessions.
Step 2 – Record demo samples
Pre-recorded demo samples and/or a showreel mix is really important to securing voice-over work. It’s the best way for customers to preview your capabilities. If you don’t have any samples, how will anyone be able to trust you can do the work? Whilst you need samples, please don’t rush into getting them before you’re ready. There’s no point paying good money for a professional showreel if your instrument – your voice – is sub-optimal. There are lots of companies offering expensive showreel production services but you arguably don’t actually need them when you start out. Scripts are available for free online. Rehearse and record them yourself. Get feedback from a professional coach and perfect your performance. Then book yourself into a studio, record the scripts and find an audio engineer to mix and master with music and create individual samples for your Voquent profile.
Step 3 – Build a home studio
You don’t need a home studio to get voice-over work, but it’s highly recommended. With no home-studio, it’s more difficult to handle last-minute requests and you will have the added expense of booking a local studio, which can put clients with tight budgets off working with you.
You can set up a home voice-over recording studio quite cheaply. We’ve posted some helpful blogs which detail all of the equipment you will need. Start by choosing the best microphone in your budget.
Step 4 – Freelancing
Start small. Don’t immediately go out to voice-over agencies with your demo samples or showreels and expect them to care. The top agencies get dozens of voices contacting them on a daily basis and many of these voices will have much more experience than you. First, put yourself out onto some of the general freelancer websites and non-exclusive agencies, like Voquent. Offer to do voice-over work for a fee you are comfortable with and look at it as training. It’s a great way to get a diverse range of low-budget opportunities to build up your vocal abilities and learn how to work with customers. You’ll probably be auditioning for 100+ opportunities to win a single job to start with, but this is a superb way to grow your abilities and industry savvy. You should also join some of the voice-over networking sites and groups on Reddit, LinkedIn and Facebook.
Step 5 – Grow your network
After 1-2 years of freelancing, and as you build up your confidence and experience, you can start investing more in your business. You may decide to upgrade your equipment, record higher quality demo samples, create a website and market yourself on social media. It’s also worthwhile creating profiles on the voice-over casting platforms (P2P sites). You should also reach out to local voice-over agencies and voice-over websites about getting represented non-exclusively. At this stage, you will likely still be working part-time but you will need to increase your rates to account for your additional marketing and equipment costs. Check the industry rate guidelines in your region and work at the lower-end. Keep working consistently. Grow your network of customers and you could go full-time. Getting an agent is not a silver bullet – always be in control of your own destiny.
7. What is the process for getting a voice-over recorded?
Getting a commercial voice-over recorded is almost always at the end of a lengthy production pipeline that may look something like this:
The client decides on the desired goal of the campaign.
The client prepares a request for proposals (RFP) and sends this out to creative agencies to bid.
The client shortlists creative agencies and invites them to pitch. At this stage, there may be some budget available for the agency to spend on a draft creative.
The client chooses an agency and sets a budget for the creative and production (including the voice-over).
The creative agency does the scriptwriting and storyboarding.
The creative agency subcontracts a video producer, production company and/or other creatives.
The production company or creative agency will start casting for voice-over artists. Which platform or company they use may depend on the available budget. They may post a job online requesting auditions of their script or they may pre-select a voice-based on demo samples they hear on a site like Voquent.
The voice-over company or freelance voice-over artist will need to be available at short notice, as the voice-over is normally the last element of the project, and a hard deadline will be approaching fast!
Things can get even more complicated, particularly where consultants or external casting agencies are used. It’s normal for the above process to play out before a voice talent is contacted, but sometimes they may be cast before any creative starts.
Once the creative is completed in the primary or source language, translating the voice-over to other languages will normally include the following steps.
Transcribing speech to create a script is only required if no script is available. However even if the script is available, if the voice-over is being synced to video or has other time constraints, it’s recommended to time-stamp the scripts prior to translation to give a clear reference to the translator, voice talent and engineer in the session.
It’s important that the translation is done creatively, observing any time constraints in the source. The translator needs to remember it’s a spoken script, so it should be easy to read aloud. They may also need to condense the translation to fit within the existing timing of the video.
Prior to casting work starting, a brief stating the gender, age, accent/language, and tone of the voice-over required should be agreed. If it’s a commercial project, auditions may be needed from all suitable voices. If you’re working with an agency like Voquent, they will recommend voices based on the available budget and recording requirements, but always bear in mind that most voice-over talents are freelancers and ultimately will decide whether they want to do the job or not. Once the samples or auditions are reviewed and voices shortlisted, it’s time to start scheduling the recording.
The voice-over artists will be booked and studio time scheduled. When the voices are recording from home-studios, it’s normal for the agency or producer to direct the session live via Skype (other platforms are available).
After the recording is completed, the audio will be rendered out as a .wav file from the studio. Then it’s time to clean up the audio. Editing the voice-over includes removing all mouth noises, clicks, pops and sometimes chopping up the audio into multiple files, labelled as per the script. If the audio is being added to a video or other content such as an eLearning course or presentation, additional resources may be scheduled to sync it up or mix it with music.
6-Amends / Delivery
If there has been budget agreed for revisions, e.g. script amends, this is when these are normally recorded. It’s important to agree who will take responsibility for the cost of re-records and our recommended approach is as follows:
The customer is responsible for
- approving script translations
- proof-reading and editing the script before recording
- ensuring translation can be read naturally within time constraints
- re-recording mispronounced terms (no glossary)
- confirming the style and tone if live directed
- cost of re-recording script changes or amends
The artist & agency are responsible for
- mispronunciations & mistakes (general speech)
- mispronunciations of terms (if glossary provided)
- performance doesn’t match approved demo-sample or audition
- poor recording quality & extraneous noise
- not recording to time constraints (if required)
- a clear mismatch between final delivery and original brief
And that’s it! I hope this has helped demystify the dark and arcane voice-over industry for you. It’s not as complicated as it might seem, but it certainly isn’t like anything else!