Losing my full-time job of 12 years in August 2013 gave me the push I needed to accomplish a life-long dream: break into the world of voice acting.
The voice-over world was once the exclusive realm of artists in major markets such as Los Angeles and New York City. But today the field is open to thousands of part-time and full-time, home-based voice-over professionals.
There are many avenues through which a self-employed voice-over artist can find work. Two of the main sites dedicated to uniting voice actors and potential employers are Voices.com and Voice123.com. Both sites require a premium subscription to reap real benefits and receive customized audition notices. The beginning voice actor will need to spend considerable time creating a profile, as well as recording and posting demos. See my Voice123 profile for an idea of what a finished profile should look like.
As lucrative as these sources can be, competition is tough. A beginning voice actor will receive many rejections before landing that first voice gig. Persistence pays off.
However, I found earlier success auditioning for Audible, the top online seller of audio books. Their interface between voice actors and book rights-holders is called ACX.
By picking the right books, submitting high-quality auditions, and preparing for the time and effort it will take to complete an audio book project, even inexperienced voice actors can find themselves with a production contract.
This can be a long and complicated process. But that shouldn’t scare you away from giving it a try.
Here are the three main things you must accomplish to become an Audible narrator through ACX.
1. Set up your digital audio workstation
If you already have a moderately good computer – laptop or desktop – you’re about halfway there. The other main components to an adequate workstation are a condenser microphone, a preamp/interface, reference monitors (a fancy term for speakers), studio monitors (a fancy term for headphones), and audio recording and editing software.
But to achieve a high-quality sound you also must prepare a silent recording room or space. There are probably hundreds of ways to do this, from building a blanket fort to spending thousands of dollars on a high-end isolation booth.
My first recording space was a customized closet. I tacked carpet remnants onto the walls and added Auralex acoustic foam where needed.
When we moved to a smaller home last year, I had a custom-designed recording booth built into the corner of a spare bedroom. My increased level of experience warranted the extra expense. The result is a superior-sounding space that will give my clients a much better product.
The point isn’t how much you spend, but whether or not you can achieve the totally “dead” mic sound necessary for audio book recording. Search YouTube for a wealth of DIY recording booth and workstation videos from amateurs and professionals all over the world.
My equipment of choice:
- Apple MacBook Pro with 8 gigabytes of RAM and a solid-state hard drive. These hard drives are more expensive, but much quieter and faster. They are also standard equipment on the latest MacBook Pro models.
- Audio Technica AT-4050 microphone
- Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 preamplifier
- I record using GarageBand software (available only for Mac) and edit using Adobe Audition.
- Mackie CR3 reference monitors
- Audio Technica ATH-M30x studio monitors
There are hundreds more options, ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars. Take the time to find the setup that’s right for your budget and skill levels. Recording and processing a single audio track doesn’t require a lot of computer power. Don’t be fooled into thinking you need the latest, greatest machine for the job.
However, the reason I chose the MBP over the standard MacBook or the MacBook Air was available hard drive size. The extra processing power helps, too.
I caution against using cheap plug-and-play USB microphones, such as the popular Blue Yeti. Many of these models do sound quite good. But for a few hundred dollars more you can get a much higher-quality condenser microphone that will achieve a superior sound. This is why you’ll also need a small preamp unit, which is a power interface between the mic and your computer. Focusrite makes excellent products, but there are good competitors, too.
About speakers and headphones: Do not use or purchase standard, consumer-level products. This is because your typical household audio gear is designed to make music sound good, not to provide an accurate representation of spoken-word audio.
Studio and reference monitors, on the other hand, are designed to provide a “flat” frequency response. There’s no bass boosting or high-end attenuation you’ll find in products such as Beats headphones. Your audio equipment needs to give you the closest possible representation of what your voice sounds like. It will take some time to train your ears to appreciate the difference. But trust me … this is a critical detail you should not ignore.
Currently at $79.99 on Amazon, the Mackie reference monitors I use are hard to beat. You can opt for larger versions at a higher cost, but I have found this model to be more than adequate. It’s important that you mount or position your monitors to point directly at your ears. You can find stands or mounting equipment to achieve this goal.
Your studio monitors should be comfortable enough to withstand hours of recording time. Any of the ATH models will be an excellent choice, depending on your budget. Ensure that whatever you purchase is an over-the-ear model, not on-ear. This will help isolate your voice as you record and block out any external noises.
Once you have everything set up, it’s time to test your recording environment. I strongly recommend you submit some sample recordings to a qualified audio professional before your first audition. Get the opinions of a knowledgable person about whether or not you have truly achieved the right sound. It may be worth the expense to pay for a personal sound consultation before you begin auditioning.
2. Establish a profile on AXC
ACX is the online interface between audio book narrators and book rights-holders. There is no cost to join ACX, but you’ll have to do the work to establish a proper profile. See mine for an example.
Next, scan the list of available book titles seeking narrators. There are usually a couple of thousand titles on any given day. Begin by selecting male or female from the gender filter. That way you can at least immediately narrow down the books according to what rights-holders want.
After that, it’s up to you to find the right book for an audition.
At least in my experience, it is extremely rare that a rights holder will contact you out of the blue to offer a recording deal. The two or three times this has happened to me I have turned the projects down because the books did not match my personal requirements or preferences.
It’s much more likely you’ll have to do the work of searching through available titles and sending in auditions. Here are a few tips that may save you some time in this process. Ask yourself …
- Do I have the free time necessary for this project? Each “finished hour” of an audio book will probably take you four to five hours to produce. Will you be able to complete it by the contract deadline? Some rights-holders are lenient about deadlines. But don’t assume.
- Would I read this book myself? If a book isn’t something that interests me purely as a reader, I won’t audition for it. Your enthusiasm for the material will reveal itself in your recording. Plus, if you get the contract, you’ll have the added benefit of reading the book for free.
- Can I accept a royalty contract, or will I only work for a payment per finished hour? Most of the contracts available on ACX are royalty-only. You have to decide if you think the book will sell well enough to be worth your time and effort. Of course, you can help out by promoting the audio book through your social network.
- If this is a fiction title, do I have the skill to voice multiple characters? Fiction authors will want this from you. Do you have a theatrical background, or are you more of a straight reader? If you’re unsure, pick nonfiction titles until you get a few under your belt. If you really do want to pursue fiction titles, I can’t suggest strongly enough that you take some acting classes. I have personally performed in about 20 stage productions, both comedies and dramas. They have been invaluable experiences in learning the skills of vocal characterization.
- Is this project truly something I can put my name on? Once your book is finished, your name and profile will be associated with it through Audible, iTunes, and Amazon. If there is any hesitation about whether or not this title is right for you, don’t do it.
3. Complete your first ACX project
Being awarded that first contract with Audible is both thrilling and frightening. You’ll inwardly doubt whether or not you can really get it done. Pressing on and doing your best despite your fears will be a great accomplishment and will prepare you for future projects.
Here are some tips that will get you to the finish line more quickly and with less stress.
Be communicative. Keep a dialogue going with your rights-holder. You can do this through the ACX message interface or via your own email or phone. Ask as many questions about the book as necessary. If you have problems, let them know right away.
During production of an 18-hour book I came down with an illness that wrecked my voice for three weeks. I thought it would ruin my reputation. But being honest with the rights holder helped us both come to an agreement to extend the deadline. They’re going to want the best product possible from you. That will mean being patient if you get sick.
Be consistent. Nothing is worse than having one chapter sound different from another, or forgetting how you voiced a character from one scene to the next. Write up character descriptions if you have to. Keep listening back to previous chapters. It hurts to have to do it, but re-record when necessary rather than settling for mediocrity.
Be caring. Your voice is your instrument and your livelihood. Be realistic about how much it and your ears can handle. You only have so many good hours a day of recording and editing before fatigue sets in. Don’t push it. You will discover your limits by trial and error. My personal limits: three hours of recording and five hours of editing per day, period.
Be your own calling card. Every audio book you complete can become an advertisement for your next gig. It isn’t just a product you help sell. Its a digital resume that helps sell you!
So, be ruthless about quality. Allow for more time than you think you will need. Learn as much as you can about audio editing. Keep pushing yourself for better performances. Do not settle for a meager product or hope they won’t notice the mistake.
And one more critical point … Back up your work every night. I don’t need to tell you how devastating it would be to lose your recordings forever before you’re able to submit them for approval.
Beyond these three basic items, your journey toward becoming an Audible narrator will differ depending on your skill level, determination, and sometimes just plain luck.
Don’t give up. And keep seeking advice from the voice-over communities online and through other web-based channels. There is more free help and information out there than you could ever use.