Archive for the ‘Voicetrax’ category

Positive direction

May 22, 2009

My four-week workshop on self-directing skills has concluded, and what have I learned?

That my self-directing skills need work.

Not that that’s a shocker.

Actually, I’m proud of the work I did during these four weeks. My script analysis, though still light-years from perfection, is improving. I’m getting better at asking the right questions about the copy in front of me, and coming up with answers that align with the copywriter’s intention (as opposed to what I would prefer to do). At the same time, I’m finding more success at not overthinking my way into performance paralysis.

I’m also finding myself more consistent. I’m having fewer truly wretched first takes, and more frequent final takes that would be strongly competitive in the marketplace. And with less adjustment needed in between.

So that’s progress.

I received an encouraging compliment last evening from another student who’s already a working pro: “You make good choices before you go into the booth.” If that’s evident to anyone besides myself, I must be doing at least a few things well.

Two months ago, I wouldn’t have been able to say that.

My audiobook workshop, originally scheduled to start next week, has been rescheduled for late June. That means I’m entirely on my own for workouts over the next month. I have a plan for approaching this time period that I’m looking forward to implementing. (One of the things I’ll be working on is my entry for Scott Brick’s audiobook narration contest.) I now have ample tools, gained in my classes since the first of this year, that I’ll spend focused hours sharpening each day.

Besides which, the extra month will give me time to come up with a plausible excuse for forgetting Lisa Baney’s name in front of Scott Brick.

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What’s your chain?

May 20, 2009

The other day, I was musing about the fact that, even though I hold a four-year degree in broadcast communications (from San Francisco State University‘s acclaimed Broadcast and Electronic Communication Arts department, no less), my technical skills are rudimentary, to be polite.

Okay, I’ll confess… I sleepwalked through my audio production classes. (Ask Professor John Barsotti if you think I’m kidding.)

Since getting into the VO field, I’ve been wishing that I’d paid more attention in those classes. Yes, they were a quarter of a century ago (egad!), and audio technology has changed immeasurably in that time. Still, I’m sure that the basic principles would be standing me in good stead now… if only I could remember them.

Wherever voice actors congregate, whether in meatspace or cyberspace, they love to talk tools. Microphones, preamps, digital audio interfaces, recording software — all are grist for the VO chat mill. Taken together, the various elements used to capture, preserve, and manipulate a vocal performance are called a recording chain. Thus, at the voice actors’ watering hole, the traditional pickup line, “What’s your sign?” gets transmogrified into, “What’s your chain?”

In case anyone’s interested, here’s my chain.

I own two microphones, mostly because they cost about the same, and at the time I was putting my setup together, I couldn’t decide which I preferred.

The mic I use most frequently is a Rode NT1-A, a steady, solid performer that’s quite flattering to my individual vocal characteristics. The NT1A adds a pleasant richness to the lower end of my range, and is my go-to mic for most copy when I’m using my natural voice or a close permutation thereof.

My second mic is a Studio Projects C1, another fine piece of equipment that emphasizes the brighter notes in my tessitura. I’ll often plug in the C1 when I’m working on character scripts, or copy where I’d like to have more youthful sparkle in my sound. The C1 is also the mic I use on the rare occasion when I record myself singing.

Since my home office doubles as my studio, and the space lacks acoustical treatment of any kind, I surround my mic with a RealTraps Portable Vocal Booth. It’s not exactly like being in a fully treated environment, but for my money, it’s the next best thing.

My preamp and digital audio interface are the same simple device: a cEntrance MicPort Pro. This phenomenal little gizmo shoulders triple duty in my chain. It (1) provides 48 volt phantom power to my mic of choice; (2) converts the microphone output into binary code so that my computer can understand and manage it, via a USB port; and (3) provides a headphone output for either monitoring (which I don’t use; I don’t like to wear my cans when I voice) or playback (which I do use). Most amazingly, the MicPort Pro handles all of these tasks in a sleek, compact unit the size of a cigar. It adds no discernable color to the recording — just serves up clean, accurate sound. And, it’s small and lightweight enough that I can toss it into my briefcase to record when I’m traveling. Everyone who records into a computer should own one of these.

I use the simplest and most basic recording software available: Audacity, available as a free download all over the ‘Net. So far, I haven’t needed anything more elaborate. One of these days, though, I’d like to upgrade to Adobe Audition, if only because that’s what the engineers at Voicetrax use, and I’d like to be able to understand what they’re doing when I’m in the booth.

As noted above, I don’t often wear headphones when I record. Doing so feels awkward and unnatural to me, and introduces an unnecessary stumbling block to my performing. Since I don’t own a set of studio monitors, however, I do use my cans (that’s tech talk for “headphones,” a vestige of my long-ago radio days) for playback and editing. Mine are Sennheiser HD 280 Professionals — comfortable, clear, and efficiently noise-dampening.

My notebook computer is a Dell Inspiron 9400, running the much-detested (at least, by me) Windows Vista. My aging eyes love its ginormous 19″ display.

That’s my chain. It’s inexpensive and simple, but it works for me — and that’s the bottom line.

Horatio

May 15, 2009

At last evening’s workshop, one of my fellow actors shared an epiphany she’d experienced in a private coaching session earlier in the day.

“How would you describe yourself?” the coach had asked her.

“Strong,” my colleague replied. “Authoritative. Forceful.”

“But you’re not that way at all,” said the coach. “You’re funny. Friendly. Lively. Engaging. And warm.”

“Then I realized,” continued my actor friend, “that I was describing the persona I put on when I’m at work. That’s how I think of myself. But that’s not the person I really am. Or, at least, it’s not the entire person I am.”

I’ve come to that same realization along my voice acting journey. There are aspects of my existence where I put on, not a false front, but a persona designed to craft a certain perception. Certainly, that persona is a facet of me, but it’s not the complete me — nor even the greater portion of me.

The me that comes out at the microphone is often quite different from the me that I once expected to find there. Like my friend, I anticipated a voice that would project the aura that I often project in my non-acting life. But the microphone reveals facets of my personality that I often conceal — some, in fact, that I didn’t even know were in there.

More often than not, it is those hidden facets that seem the easiest, the most transparent, in the voiceover booth. It’s those voices and colors that shine in my performances, whereas those that I am more accustomed to exposing in daily life require far more nuance to ring true.

As Hamlet once said, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

It appears that there are more things within each of us than we’ve dreamt of, as well.

Actor, direct thyself

April 30, 2009

A thought-provoking insight in tonight’s first session of a four-week course in self-directing skills…

Approach every script as though you were going to direct another actor’s performance of it.

That makes so darned much sense I can’t believe I didn’t think of it myself.

After all, how many times have I, as a presenter, reiterated the well-observed point that the best way to master a subject is to prepare to teach that subject to someone else? More times than I can count, much less remember.

It simply follows, then, that one way to gain complete ownership of a piece of copy would be to prepare to direct it.

That single sentence is going to provide a launching pad for my next quantum leap.

If it’s free, I’ll take three (hours)

April 24, 2009

More often than not, you get what you pay for.

This is not one of those stories.

The ever-thoughtful folks at Voicetrax are doing a golden favor for their students this month — offering a selection of one-session group lessons on a variety of voiceover subjects, free of charge. When the schedule of free classes was released, there were two appealing options that fit into my schedule. So, with some counsel from Chuck, Voicetrax’s self-described factotum, I decided to choose the option I hadn’t tried before.

Good call, Chuck.

Last night, a dozen of us placed ourselves in the able hands of Brian Sommer, a Voicetrax-trained actor who today boasts a list of commercial, animation, and video game credits as long as my… well… let’s just say mighty doggoned long. Brian’s specialty is characters — notice that I didn’t say “character voices” (see, Brian — I was paying attention!) — so we launched into a pile of juicy character-rich audition scripts and sides from Brian’s magic bag of tricks. (Silly rabbit — tricks are for voice actors!)

I had the chance to experiment with a pair of fun pieces. In the first, an animation script, I played an evil (is there any other kind?) mad scientist. Brian found me guilty of gnawing a little too much scenery in my first take, so I dialed the broad portrayal back just a touch, picked up the pacing, and made sure I made better connection with my virtual listener the second time through.

Take two was vastly improved, though Brian nudged me about my usual nemesis — worrying about the words rather than simply playing the scene. On the third take, I relaxed a little more, and the character really came together. I love it when that happens.

My second shot in the booth presented me with sides from a Western video game. Here, my character was a charmingly roguish, slightly gonzo Mexican bandito of the sort one might have seen in old Clint Eastwood movies. Ironically, just the night before, my daughter and I were watching the NBA playoffs when a Dos Equis beer commercial came on, starring Jonathan Goldsmith as “the most interesting man in the world.” I can do a pretty fair impression of Goldsmith’s faux-Latin accent — “Stay thirsty, my friends” — which KM thought would form the basis of an effective character for me. I’d spent the rest of the evening tinkering with that voice. So, I started the character Brian assigned with a hefty dose of Mr. Interesting, ladled in A Fistful of Dollars, and built him outward from there.

Not surprisingly, then, Brian’s initial comment after my first take was, “That’s a great character for you.” We both liked the work I’d done in the second and third scenes of the three-scene script, so Brian focused his direction on the first scene, where I didn’t quite nail the balance between the character’s smarmy faux friendliness and his underlying villainy. A tweak here and there, and the whole bit gelled nicely.

In one three-hour class, I came away with two nifty additions to my character repertoire, and several useful tidbits about character acting that I’ll be able to apply dozens of ways. And all for just the price of four gallons of gas. (That’s how much petrol my aging minivan burns on the round-trip Sausalito run.)

I continue to be pleasantly surprised at how easily character work comes to me. It’s diametrically opposed to the kind of things I thought I’d find in my voiceover wheelhouse. Gotta admit, though — I dig leaping outside myself (or perhaps, discovering hidden facets within myself) and letting fly with the myriad people I can be.

The fact that a high percentage of those people are evil or crazy or both? A good subject for psychoanalysis.

Thanks to my mentors at Voicetrax — and especially to Brian — for the freebie. Given all that I learned, and the fun I had, I’d have gladly paid the usual rate. (But… don’t feel compelled to send me an invoice, Chuck.)

The song is ended, but the melody lingers on

April 17, 2009

Sad but true… I now have Friday afternoons free.

As I was preparing this morning for the final session of this six-week workshop, it struck me suddenly how much I was going to miss this weekly gathering, and the people with whom I’ve shared the experience.

The baker’s dozen of us — plus Samantha, of course — became our own little family as we supported and encouraged one another over the past month and a half. I’ve witnessed so much phenomenal growth in each of the other actors in the group, and have come to admire and respect each of them for their unique gifts.

I’ll see most, if not all, of them in other classes as we progress — some as soon as next week — but we’ll never be Sam’s 13 Apprentices again, or join together in this exact configuration.

I’m a touch misty, to tell the truth.

Realizing the occasion, I took my camera with me today to enshrine the moment. The pictures can’t preserve the electricity in the studio, or the raw emotions that we shared as we alternately soared or stumbled in the booth. They certainly don’t capture Samantha’s tough-love, painfully honest but maternal critiques, the hazard of which we each weathered like lobster fishermen braving a New England squall. But when I look at these faces — smiling, reflective, or focused — I’ll remember the 24 hours we spent together, and everything that we learned.

For my final exam, I performed two pieces of copy: an animation script selected for me by another member of the class, and an introspective TV spot that Sirenetta and I had worked on in a recent private lesson. I would never have chosen the animation piece for myself — I still have a hard time envisioning myself doing character voices, even though everyone tells me that’s where the core of my talent lies — but I gave it an earnest whirl.

When Samantha gave my performance her highest score, I couldn’t help asking, “Are you sure?” I’d struggled so miserably over the previous five weeks that it was difficult to accept that I’d done this well. Sam, with characteristic directness, reminded me how frequently I’d complained about my frustration with myself during this workshop. “So, when I finally give you a 3, shut up and take it,” she laughed.

The TV spot wasn’t perfect, but I was nonetheless happy with my read. Sam’s score for this one was, predictably, not quite as lofty, but still good. It also came with compliments and encouragement — I’d taken her direction following the first take and implemented it into the second. All it lacked was confidence, which I probably would have nailed if given a third bite at the apple. Still, coupled with the other piece, it represented my best work of the entire course.

It had taken me six weeks to find it, but the old mojo had returned.

Without exception, everyone in the group delivered her or his best on Finals Day. In several cases, the comparison with the first week’s work represented a quantum leap forward. Some of the newer students, in fact, pulled performances from their inward depths of which I would not have believed them capable. I was overjoyed for them.

For the more experienced of us, the increments of improvement were smaller and subtler, but still vibrantly evident.

Besides which, we gained something beyond our own talents — the connection with others traveling different, yet largely parallel, paths.

When next those paths intersect, we’ll tap into that synergy.

You do me, and I’ll do you

April 13, 2009

We did an interesting exercise last week in my Friday afternoon workshop.

During our first meeting five weeks ago, we were each secretly assigned another participant to “shadow.” For our fifth session, we were to bring a script perfectly suited to the person we have been observing, and perform that script in the booth as we thought that person would — using the qualities we’ve noted in that individual’s vocal and acting style.

My challenge was both easy and remarkably difficult. Easy, in that I’ve shared several other classes with the person I shadowed, and was more familiar with his work going into this exercise than I was with any of the actors in the group. Difficult, not only in that this person’s style is in many respects antithetical to my own, but also in that I like the guy — I was afraid I’d do a lousy job of imitating him, and he’d never speak to me again.

Fortunately for me, however, I’d had a fair amount of practice.

Since my challenging experience in narration class back at the beginning of this year, I’ve been grasping at every hook I can find to help me master what is, for me, a consistently frustrating aspect of VO. Because my natural vocal quality is energetic and expressive, it’s tough for me to dial down to the lower-intensity, more understated tone necessary for effective narration. Watching tons of TV documentaries has helped some, as has my growing appreciation for “vocal colors.” (When I narrate, I have to think “blue”cool, get it?)

As it happens, the actor I’ve been observing for workshop has one of the “bluest” voices I know. A couple of months ago, I discovered that modeling his thoughtful, measured, laid-back delivery helped me find my narrative voice. So, even before this exercise, I’d been imitating him for some time in my daily workouts.

I chose a piece of narration copy for the exercise. And what do you know — the read that came out of my “impression” might have been the best work I’ve done in weeks.

After class, I had a chance to catch up with my unsuspecting “model” and let him know how much practicing his delivery has helped me grow as a narrator. I think he was more than a little stunned. This was also my opportunity to let him know how much development I’ve noticed in his work over the almost-year that we’ve been in classes and workshops together. He really has come a long way from the first time I heard him read.

The person who has been shadowing me chose an animation character script for her exercise. She’s mentioned to me on prior occasions that she thinks animation might be my niche, so when I learned that I had been her observation subject, I wasn’t surprised by her selection. It was hilarious to hear my boisterous delivery rumbling out in her angelic, childlike voice, but she made it work — I knew immediately upon listening to her read that I was the one she was imitating.

What did surprise me was the evaluation my observer gave after a month of monitoring my voice. She described my vocal quality using words like “emotional,” “sensitive,” and “vulnerable” — characteristics that I would never in a million years have associated with myself. (Even more surprising was Samantha‘s follow-up comment: “That’s exactly how I hear you, too.”)

I’ve always envisioned myself as the aloof, detached, intellectual type. But I guess I don’t sound that way to others.

I hope that’s a good thing.

Next week, I’ll get my chance to perform the animation script my observer chose for me. I’ll try to do it justice.

I’ll also be interested to see how the person I’ve been shadowing presents the copy I selected for him. I suspect that he’ll give it a better read than I did. Which, I guess, is kind of the point.