I have good news and bad news. The good news is that you now have access to affordable, high-quality recording equipment and software. The bad news is that even though your equipment may be semi-pro, your voiceover performance is still amateur. And, hey, that’s not something you should beat yourself up about. If it were just a matter of showing up and talking into a microphone, there would be no such thing as a professional voiceover actor. Unfortunately, you can’t always afford a pro, but you can learn from their craft to improve your own DIY performance.
Get Over Yourself
So let me guess…you hate the sound of your own voice, right? We’ve all had the experience of hearing our voice on a recording and wondering, “Do I really sound like that?” Yes, you really do.
That “awful” voice you hear in the recordings? That’s what the rest of us hear when you talk, and we think it’s just fine. As a voiceover performer, your voice is your instrument, so you had better make friends with it. The more you practice and listen to your recordings, the more comfortable you’ll be.
Got a bad case of the nerves? Practice is the best medicine for that, too. You might lock up when you sit down in front of a microphone the first time, but the more you practice, the easier it will get. Remind yourself that no one listening to your performance is judging you as harshly as you are. Take a deep breath and just keep practicing.
Preparing for the Gig
Professional voiceover performers drink water like it’s their job, because it is. Hydration will have a huge effect on your performance, so be like a pro and start sipping water at least two hours before you’re scheduled to record. This prevents strained, rough-sounding recordings full of the dreaded “mouth click.” Avoid smoking and spicy foods before a performance unless you’re going for the Clint Eastwood/Batman/sandpaper sound. Also, don’t eat dairy the day of your performance—it produces mucus (a.k.a. “mouth sludge”).
While you’re drinking your water, take a look at the script and read it out loud. Are there any tongue twisters? Awkward phrases that look fine on paper but sound weird when you say them out loud? If this is your own script, you still have time to improve it. If it’s someone else’s and you’re not allowed to touch it, at least you can practice those tongue twisters so they don’t sneak up on you during the recording.
Give yourself some direction. Take a pencil and mark up the script. If you want to emphasize a particular word, underline it. If a phrase should be spoken with a rising inflection, draw an upward arrow next to it. There are some industry norms for markup notation, but use whatever works for you.
The best way to deliver copy is standing up, but that’s usually not practical in a DIY recording situation. If you must sit, sit on the edge of your chair with your left knee pointed down at the floor. This forces you to straighten your back and allows you to breathe more easily. It also gives your diaphragm plenty of space. Also, keep your chin parallel to the floor. (When you look up, your vocal chords stretch; when you look down, they constrict. Neither is good for your performance.)
Your breath is the fuel of your performance, so take a deep in-breath before starting each new line of copy. This will prevent you from needing to take a distracting catch-up breath in the middle of a line. A deep inhalation should move your belly, not your chest. Shallow chest breathing will cause you to run out of gas in the middle of a phrase.
When you deliver, don’t try to imitate a “radio voice.” You don’t have a radio voice, and even if you did, that probably wouldn’t be the right tone for your e-learning project anyway. Instead, visualize a member of your audience and imagine you’re talking directly to him or her. A conversational voice is going to carry more credibility than the kind of smooth announcer voice that most people associate with used car ads.
Put some emotion in your voice when the script calls for it. In fact, ham it up a little. Remember that the audience will not be able to pick up on your non-visual cues. What feels like a subtle, understated performance to you will sound like a boring monotone to your audience. What feels like a slightly over-the-top emotional performance to you will usually be just enough for your audience to hear in the final product.
Deliver multiple takes for each line of copy, even if you think you’ve nailed it on the first one. Your perfect delivery might have the sound of a chair squeaking in the background. Having multiple takes to choose from is called “coverage” and you want lots of it. It will help you later in the editing process if you call the take out loud before each delivery (“Take 1…” “Take 2...” etc.).
If your nerves get to you, take a couple of deep breaths and start a new take. If you’re really stuck on a given section, just move on to the next one and come back after you’ve built some momentum. Just keep going until your nerves cool off. Remember: you’re recording digitally, and you’re not going to run out of tape.
If your mouth is sludgy and you’re getting a lot of “mouth click” or other gross sounds in the recording, take a few sips of water. (You should be drinking it throughout the session anyway.) If you’ve got really stubborn sludge, eat a green apple. The acid will dissolve the mucus and other gunk to give you a clean, click-free mouth.
That’s a Wrap
Even if you’ve got a good voice and a decent recording setup, you might still feel unsatisfied with the results. Keep things in perspective: you’re not recording a movie trailer or a luxury car commercial. E-learning is about learning, after all, and your audience will probably learn just as much from you as they would from James Earl Jones. Now go have some fun and don’t forget to keep your most embarrassing recordings for the outtake reel.