• Christopher McHale

Voiceovers. The Invisible Art

Stories from the front lines of creativity







Denizens of the Voiceover Booth


This is a story of a city night in late October, years ago now, and a time of particular pleasure, brought by the best work. Selling pizza, or beer, or burgers, or perhaps a train trip. I do not remember which, and it doesn’t matter.


What does matter is the location, a recording studio in midtown Manhattan, and the people, engineers and producers and the stars of the show, the corp of actors, both women and men that made up the professional ranks of the VoiceOvers.


Close your eyes.


The important instruction in these stories, because this is a world often grandly, perhaps unfairly weighted by cliché, called Theater of the Mind. It takes place beyond the eye, so to say, beyond every physical thing, in a world forged in inner imagination, dreams almost. I mean, it is a boundless world and one I’ve always had an affinity for.


Our story of this night begins in the most mundane of places; a commuter train to New Jersey, the car stale and pale in the florescent air.


A man sits on the train. I don’t mean to peg this story to a man. It could have been a woman, and these days gender being utmost in our minds, I suppose, I best revert to the pronoun of ‘them.’


They sit on a train; they are tired; they lean back into the chair exhausted. A day in the city is exhausting. The traffic. The noise. The dense air. It wears a body down.

They lay their head back into the seat and closes their eyes. Forty minutes on the train and they’re home. A home built by the spoken word. Imagine such a thing. It is possible. I’ve sat and had fine dinners in many such homes. The world of voiceovers is a place to earn. It is a place of commerce.


The train car is quiet, that pre-roll sort of quiet. Soon the doors will close the train will begin a clakety roll home. In that muted linoleum quiet, their cell phone rings.

Can you come back? You’re needed.


They have been doing this for years, before the age of phonic mobility. The thrill is still there.


The call.


There is a script to voice. Words to speak. They want me. Every actor’s heart beats faster at those words. I am needed.


With a charge, they stand and grab their shoulder bag from the overhead. They dash to the door that has begun to close, the flat ring of the door closing warning bell ringing. They leap through and just make it back to the platform.


As the train cars slip down the tracks, they turn and head back into the city.


The Magic Take


I worked for years in radio advertising. It was a high-pressure gig. And the fuels of my work were the legions of voices who came to my studio. All ages, all genders, all with the unique ability to read copy and make it seem real.


That ain’t easy, folks. I attest. I swear. And I bear witness. The simplicity of a microphone and a voice lays the thin line between ability and talent naked. There is no filter, there is no color correction.


There is no body flirt or gesture to cover things. And an actor uses his eyes. Where are their eyes in a voice booth? Nowhere. They are gone. All of it gone.


The hands and posture and walk and shrugs. All vanished until we are left with the center of expression. The voice. The beautiful, modulated, trained breath.

The actors in my booth have no quick smiles or provocative tilt of the head. No body language tricks. All they had were their voices. And with those voices, they had to paint a corporeal presence. They had to pull an entire world out of thin air.

They huff and puff, you might say, to a new reality. Create a world of no stuff, bricks and mortar, only of the imagination. A space of no dimension.


The simplicity of a microphone and a voice lays the thin line between ability and talent naked.

They say it’s possible in this hidebound world to slip between dimensions, slip from one reality to the next. I mean, I’ve read it, if not believed it, and certainly not experienced it.


But in our theater of the mind, what are the rules of physics? Why there are none. It’s as simple as that.


The best voiceovers do it in three takes. Like a high average batter in baseball. Three strikes are generous to a quick eye.


In the midtown studios, I employ the best. Union folks mostly. AFTRA and SAG, working for negotiated rates and setting the highest standards of performance. You get what you pay for, they say, and in this matter they are most certainly right.

The best of the best. They show up. They do the job. They get back on the train.

Farther down the winding road in my career, I build recording studios on Irving Place, next to Union Square, and I build my studios with particular principles in place. One of the most important principles is I build my studios so you cannot see the talent. To see them is to miss the magic trick.


That’s what these folks are doing. Magic. Transformation. The voice has nothing to do with the body. The voice transcends the physical world into the invisible world.


It’s amazing to experience.


Imagine you record a young girl. But when you look, it’s a 60-year-old woman. Your mind cannot reconcile one with the other. You hear a vital, sexy man, but when you look you see a crotchety old bastard! How can that be?


In my own studios, I bury the paradox. You cannot see the talent. When you sit in my rooms, you enter the theater of the mind solely. What a fine place to be. It makes thing simpler. It focuses things. Close your eyes. You are there.


The pace of work is fast. Creativity is a ravenous beast in a recording studio. You can build and rebuild. You hear things develop and you think I can make it better. That’s, in essence, what creativity is. Making things better until they are fully made better. Why stop?


You get ideas. You reach out to the voice. You ask them to return. You get them back off the train.


The Writer’s Dream


Writing for voice is another trick. How to pace the copy? How many words can you actually fit in sixty seconds? There are answers. This is the physics of my work. The ties to a verbal earth. I’ll tell you. As I remember. 70 words in :30, 130 in :60. That’s it. Word count is your friend.


Oh my gosh, I’ve had mini-revolts in front of me when I’ve spoken those words in seminars and such. Writers hate them. Word counts are chains that chaff the imagination!


Creativity is a ravenous beast in a recording studio.

What can I do? Thousands and thousands of soundtracks have taught me the truth of it. No matter how hard it is to bear. 70 words in :30, 130 in :60. That’s your motto.


We easily seduce the eye. In seconds, the eye takes in a lot of information. It is not the same as the ear. The ear takes its time to absorb things. The ear is a pokey beast, ambling along. Charming but with a tendency to get lost. You need to pace your words into an ear.


And this other very important thing. It is the ultimate test in our ear world. The ear is discriminating. It hears bullshit. The ear is appropriately skeptical. The ear sees things as they are. If you want to decipher truth in a person’s speech, just close your eyes.


What a fine bullshit detector. The Great Ear Designer knew exactly what they were doing. You can close your eyes but not your ears. Your ears will never let you down.


The snake oil salesman will have shelves of pretty bottles, but close your eyes when hearing the sales pitch and you’ll quickly see the cheap, meaningless oil in the bottles.


So most writers I know love receiving an assignment to write copy for radio, or as they say in our disrupted culture, podcasts. They love filling their backpacks with nouns and verbs and taking a hike into the theater of the mind.


But they quickly confront the truth of the matter. Paper is paper. Paper is a one dimensional space.


I don’t work in a one-dimensional space. When I hear the voice, things change. My ear is a taskmaster. We move into the unfettered dimension.


You can close your eyes but not your ears.

I listen. I look at the engineer. The engineer looks at me. Make the call. The agent is at dinner but they answer the phone. I ask the voice to return. It’s 6:30 pm. Can you find them? I need them.


The magic words.


They get back off the train. Get on the ferry. Jam into the subway. Walk quickly through the city. Come in. Bright. Energized. Ready. Put on headphones. Returns to the sonic landscape we’re creating. Take a stance, a focus, and wait for the cue.


Standby.


The Wizard of the Circuits


A former boss of mine once said radio is only three things: Voice. Music. Effects. I’ve never seen it any other way. The combinations of those elements are endless. My old boss was wise. He knew things. He’d crafted his way through these lanes.


Voice. Music. Effects. Go.


We get the script and work to hear it. I have to get it in my ears. The voices lead me there.


The process is arcane, long gone now. Rooms filled with the anxious. Actors lined up like cattle. Crude but reality. Couches filled with talent, all with the script in hand, waving the paper back and forth, chatting and studying, drawing lines on the page, beats and breaths the tools of the trade.


I miss it. There’s nothing like it. We listen in isolation now and read our copy alone, but nothing is close to that tribal gathering now made digitally redundant.

We listen to hundreds of voices. A conveyor belt of voices reading the script. The same words. Again. And again. And again. Until one read hooks us in.


There’s always one that rises above the rest. What is it? Why that one? I do not know. It just is. The voice stands out. It contains some magic unnamed mineral. Who knows?


We put that voice in front of the microphone and paint in sonictude. A particular medium. Like fine oil, or soft pastel.


The medium leads the creation. We paint in breath; I suppose. Air is our medium.

That’s a crazy thing to contemplate. You grab some air and think it’s not tangible.


But it is. Air is my medium.


We capture thirty, maybe forty reads, but honestly, it was usually the third or fourth take we use every time. I did thousands of these ads. I’d say I used take 3-6 as my main take 80% of the time.


But nothing is perfect, and as we chase down our circuit boards and out our speakers, some things become clear to us that were hidden before.


Our obsession takes hold. We need it right. Like Mad Merlin looking for the perfect spell to slay the dragon before the dragon takes flight.


It. Must. Be. Right. Perfection is heroin and I’m a hopeless addict sometimes.


A word missing, a beat, a pace. Like I said, it’s impossible to deceive the ear. The ear is the best BS detector we have. Strike a false note in a voice read and it’s like the Humpback of Notre Dame ringing the damn bell. You can’t avoid it. The noise is loud. It’s rude. It drives you crazy.


Air is my medium

The fix is the voice itself. The voice actor returns to my studio like a medic flying into a war zone. Sonic triage.


I’m just glad you got me before the train pulled out of the station, they say. It’s their art too. They want it right too. The perfect collaboration.


We need that in our sonic art.


Once we have the take built, edited, arranged, we add the spice.


Music of the Spheres. And woofers.


By the time the take is recorded and edited, I usually have the music in my ear. It feels that way, at least. But what is the process? How do I tune this ear itch I’ve gained into the perfect pitch?


Listen. Always the same answer in this beautiful alchemy. Your ear takes you there.


There are libraries of music, an army of composers around the world writing little fruits from the musical tree. They have been organized and categorized, but I find the labels distracting. I don’t want the tidiness. I want the random search.


I pull tunes up in no particular order, because I have no particular idea. The search becomes another wand of creativity. The search casts its own spell. What will I run into? I don’t know, but I’m all ears,


There are choices here. We can compose an original piece of music. That’s always the best thing. I say the same thing to all my clients. The libraries are rich soil, but the libraries are soil tilled by all. You can share the same potato as the other guy.

These decisions are of course most often driven by that four-letter word creative workers must always account for—budget.


After a time, you develop an innate sense of what music marries with the voice. What helps paint the picture? Experience, the most valuable of asset of all leavens the random search. When you hear it, you know.


Like Mona in Cousin Vinny. You blend.

Every time I search for music, I’m waiting for the jackpot. That’s the way it feels when you find it. It takes patience. Sometimes buckets of patience, but if you stay the course, you will find it. And it makes all the difference. So you search, you set your tact; you turn into a fresh wind. Until you sight land.


And then you carry your treasure back into the mix. You listen.You blend. Like Mona in Cousin Vinny. You blend. The best voiceover actors are like a solo artist in front of a band. They react to the music. The singer moves to the grooves. They fold into the mix.


I play the track to my voiceover. Listen to this. Listen to where I’m at. The space has grown, changed, morphed into another world.


I understand, they say. I hear it. And they read, to marry their voice to the world we’ve built.


The Silence of Space


Even silence paints a picture.


There’s an infinite world of silence. The tone of a room. It colors things. Invites you in. The best recording engineers all have their trademarked sound.


I’m in love with silence. I’ve traveled to the most remote parts of the world to hear the silence there. In silence, imagination roams.


Once you have the space, you add other things. Footsteps. A sigh. A busy street.

We build layers from our trinity: Voice. Music. Effects.


The voiceover plays in the space.


Like all the great voiceovers, they have a perfect internal clock. They can shape the sentences to the time.


Time is finite in a soundtrack. It’s regulated. The beat is steady. Here are the fences. This is the sonic corral. You operate in here.


The voiceover listens and finds the way through the sonic labyrinth we’re drawn. They make a steady compass for us. They guide us through.


They take the headphones off and look up. I give them a thumbs up through the glass.


I’ve got my work to finish.


They pack up their bag and head back out into the city night. We barely see them go. They have helped make the invisible visible.


What more can I ask of them? We fall into our speakers. There is a mix to complete.


On Air


Nothing is complete until you hear it on the air. Floating above the city. Sparking against skyscraper towers. Caught in a transistor net and brought to earth.


It’s the nature of creativity. A song is not a song until it finds a coffee house stage.


A book is unwritten until it’s read on a crosstown bus.


If I’ve learned anything from my lifetime as a creative worker, it boils down to this:

Publish. Perform. Broadcast.


They can shape the sentences to the time.

The opening of the movie ‘Contact’ begins with a wave of sound broadcast from earth, a timeline moving back to the silence of the caves and the edges of the universe. It’s a powerful movie opening, and it always rang true to me.


A raspy breath travels into space. Every struck note. Every tinpot dictator’s rant. It’s all moving, sonic debris circling the stars.


Sometimes I listen to our work again and again. I put on headphones as I walk home after a session. It’s the best time in the city. The streets are quiet. I listen to the voice. The mix. I play it again as I walk.


It’s a secret I’ve never shared before. I can listen to one of my tracks a hundred times in a row. Am I alone in this private obsession? I don’t know.


I let it run into my ears. It’s an intimate relationship. The best voices feel that way. Late at night voices. Voices that take you into dreams.


In another part of the city, the voice has taken physical form again. A metamorphosis, I guess. Another tired rider on New Jersey transit. A steel rail lullaby. They sleep on their commute home.


We join each other in the ether. Make magic on the airwaves. Free of this coil. There’s nothing quite like the world I can paint when I close my eyes. We all can share in this mental metaverse. All and always.


Our global culture is untouchable here, free to grow in any way it desires. A sonic miracle constantly unfolding.


Come with me.


Close your eyes.

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