The Basic Mechanics of Voice Overs

Posted in For Beginners by Administrator on the February 6th, 2009

By Jim Conlan
Copyright Jim Conlan, Voice Overs 2009
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For some time I have been providing my workshop participants and private clients with this handy list I call the “Elements of Good Voice-Over Practice.” I wish I had a catchier title. Maybe “The Voice-Over Artist’s Tool Kit” is better. Please feel free to comment on these observations and add your own.


These are the fundamentals of the craft of voice overs – the tool kit you should always have handy no matter what kind of voice-over job you’re doing, and no matter how long you’ve been in the business. It’s also a good check list to keep handy whenever you finish recording an audition, before you send it off to the complete stranger who is going to evaluate it.

All good voice-over practice starts with an understanding of one’s unique voice. Every voice has an ideal pitch, with a tonal range above and below that pitch that facilitates speaking both powerfully and effortlessly. For more on this, read my blog, “Understanding Your Voice.”

The proper way to breathe is to let your stomach move, not your chest. The chest and shoulders should be relatively motionless. Breathing from the upper torso will result in a thinner sound, and it requires more effort.

You may also find that it helps to vary the length of the breath. Between groups of sentences, you may want to take a long breath. But if you have a long sentence, you may need to break it up with shorter breaths.

It is also important to know when to breathe – and when not to – to support both the voice and the message. (See “Phrasing”)

The mark of a non-professional is a tendency to slur words, drop syllables, or fade off at the end of sentences. Whether the read is super-formal or super-casual, the fact that you will only be heard, not seen, requires that you speak clearly and distinctly. That doesn’t mean, though, that you need to sound like a newscaster. Everybody has their own way of speaking clearly. It’s part of their style.

“Pace” refers to the length of time one takes to go through a script. Every script requires a specific pace – some faster, some slower – to match the mood, tone, and content of the message. Beware the 70-second script that must be done in 60 seconds! Better to plead for copy cuts than to just shoehorn it all in.

Longer scripts (and sometimes even short ones) frequently call for a change of pace, as the content changes. This change of pace adds to the overall interest and impact of the message.

As we use the word, “timing” refers to when one chooses to pause or to continue to speak. Again, mood, tone and content will dictate the proper timing for a script; but often it is the voice talent, rather than the writer or producer, who really understands how to add more to a script through expert timing.

In dialogs, timing takes on the added dimension of how two or more actors time their lines together. Generally, the better actors know how to overlap, or “cover” each others’ lines to achieve a fluid and natural conversation. Often, though, circumstances will suggest gaps between lines. Timing is a skill that will make even poor scripts sound much better.

Phrasing is a kindof companion to timing. The speaker reads over the script to understand it, then (often with a pencil) groups phrases and sentences together so they make sense. Even extremely complex technical and medical scripts can be rendered intelligible by proper phrasing.

A lot of life can be added to even the driest scripts by adding dynamics – that is, the loudness or softness of delivering a word or phrase. When we vary our speech by emphasizing certain words dynamically, we’re adding expression to the script that will heighten both understanding and enjoyment for the listener.

Unless you are Ben Stein, you won’t be appreciated if you deliver the entire script in a monotone. Just as dynamics refers to loudness and softness, inflection refers to how we vary our pitch. Any particular script may require a large or small amount of inflection… but almost all scripts require at least some inflection. A good way to practice inflection (and dynamics, too) is to read a good story out loud.

One of the gremlins in the workings of even skilled announcers and voice actors is that something in their delivery changes between the start of the script and the end. Sometimes it happens because there have been so many takes. Sometimes because it’s a long script. Sometimes, maybe, because the speaker didn’t start out on the right foot to begin with.

Consistency is often a problem in voice acting, where the speaker is pretending to be someone else. They may not have a good handle on that character, and so they fall out of character.

Obviously, for announcers, consistency will never be a problem if they stay true to their natural voice. For voice actors, practice and a good ear will help. It’s also a good idea not to attempt to voice a character with which you’re not thoroughly familiar. HINT: Say “No” to Scottish accents!

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