Jumping in, mic first: Local voiceover artists talk about the trade

FARGO - Do you ever wonder who's telling you to eat at Burger King, reading your favorite audiobook or narrating training videos at work?Welcome to the fascinating world of voiceover artists.You may be asking, what constitutes "voiceover work" an...
Larry Homuth has been recording voiceover work in his home studio for 26 years. Alexandra Floersch / The Forum

FARGO - Do you ever wonder who's telling you to eat at Burger King, reading your favorite audiobook or narrating training videos at work?

Welcome to the fascinating world of voiceover artists.

You may be asking, what constitutes "voiceover work" anyway?

From TV and radio commercials to a business' phone system voicemail and on-hold messages, the spoken word is needed for more than most might imagine. In fact, some of the most common jobs is those of industrial reads, voicing training videos, e-learning, Powerpoint presentations, professional demonstrations or web series for many departments, industries and topics.

"It can be some boring stuff - if you want to say that - but it's voiceover work," says on-air personality Cori Jensen of Bob 95 FM who does voice acting on the side. "But the bread deserves the butter, too. The steak doesn't get all the shine."

Narration is another hot topic in the vein of audio books. While Jensen has used her voiceover experience to informally record her kids' favorite stories for long car rides, she hopes to land more audiobook gigs in the future.

"The thing about being a local voice talent is you want more work but pretty soon you saturate the market, and your voice becomes so well-known that it becomes not as useful," says Larry Homuth, owner of Larry Homuth Voiceovers for the past 26 years. "I have clients in Las Vegas, some in Idaho, down south like Louisiana, Georgia - places like that."

Arguably one of the most stable, better paid jobs to get, Jensen says, is those of commercial radio or TV imaging for stations across the country. (Think: the trademark voice behind a TV channel or radio station - not to be confused with the full-time, on-air personalities.)

"If you get hired by a radio or TV station anywhere in the country, it's a nice, long-standing job," she says.

Jenself does work for a Charlotte, South Carolina, news television station and radio stations in Washington.

"They'll send me scripts a few times a month. It'll be a page or two and it'll be a lot of 'More variety on 95.7' - or whatever they want me to say. Then somebody else produces those pieces later on," she says.

Representing furniture, financial, car, salon and insurance companies, voiceover artists take on work that can vary from 30-second ads to complicated medical training videos.

"One of my favorite jobs I just finished a year and a half ago was being the voice for Liberty Mutual Insurance out of Dublin, Ireland," Homuth says.

Truly, the possibilities are endless.

Making money

A lot has changed in the industry over time. Back in the '70s, there were no talent fees for commercials, Homuth says. It was just part of the radio gig. That is, until they started charging $15 a spot for ads.

"Along the way, the talent fees kept going up as the industry grew," he says. "I did a job for (a Kentucky business) once and wasn't sure what the talent fee would be. When it came down the pike and I had to send them an invoice, it was $5,000."

There's wide disparity. While a local spot might yield $100, a larger market like Boston, Atlanta, Chicago or Los Angeles may pay thousands. Jensen recorded a 30-second Toronto casino ad for $500.

"If you're really big time then your stuff is worth tens of thousands of dollars," Homuth explains.

For some artists who work with an agent to get work, 10 to 15 percent agent fees may apply.

"They found your client. They found a your job. That's how they make their money," Homuth says. "More and more now, if I'm not selling my voice locally, I'll have other voices come in. So even if I'm not the one that's voicing it, I can still be in the project and have my fee."

In fact, because she doesn't have her own studio, Jensen often visits Homuth to record voiceovers and works with Video Art Productions' Hired Gums studio.

"When I'm hired and going into these separate studios, I'm truly the voice talent only," she says. "The luxury for me is you really do kind of feel like the actor. You get to be the primadonna who gets to go in and just do the talent portion and then you wash your hands of it."

All mic'd up

While specific equipment is required, "one of the cool things is you can get into it fairly inexpensively, as long as you pick up a decent microphone and work in a quiet space in your home," says Daron Selvig, owner of Daron Selvig Voice Overs. "For me, shockingly enough, the closet ended up being where I started recording the voiceovers. You'd be surprised how many national commercial spots have been recorded in people's closets. It just happens."

Getting an early start through his hometown radio station at just 17, Selvig was able to ramp up his part-time voiceover to go full-time as of January this year.

Besides a microphone - which can range from $300 for a starter model to upwards of $10,000 - voiceover artists need to consider sound proofing their surroundings.

"Inside my spare bedroom that I've converted into an office and studio, I have a whisper room," Selvig says. "It's a room that's acoustically treated; it actually isolates the sound. If the kids are having a rambunctious day or if the dog is barking, I can be in the whisper room, with the door closed and I won't hear that."

When recording, analog to digital converters transform sound into digital files that can be edited and manipulated with computer software.

"It's just so fun - all the different projects. Talk about never boring," Jensen says. "Every project is a little different, and then when somebody really throws you a curveball - if you go into it with a good attitude - that's what can really set your soul on fire."

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Ready, set... record

While the process varies slightly for each voiceover artist, here Jensen, Homuth and Selvig share the steps for getting the job done.

1. Review the script. "A lot of clients have something in mind and have gone through that process of proofreading," Selvig says. "But every now and then, I'll work with an international client who is not as familiar with the English language so they're looking for input from me as to how to deliver it."

2. Ask for details. "I will ask them, 'How would you like the delivery to be? Would you like it to be institutional, serious or do you want something lighter and faster?" Homuth says. "You want to get the attitude right. You can be warm, rich, smooth, pleasant, soft, compassionate, conversational, light and fun, and upbeat. There's lots of ways you can deliver a script."

3. Practice. "For most scripts, it takes me about three or four reads," Selvig says. "I'll scan the script and try to find a key sentence or paragraph that explains the intent. I'll zero in on that and, as I read, I'll try to get into the emotional mindset of what it is I'm supposed to read. Once you're in that zone completely, and I've read it once, I'll usually go back and re-do the first three paragraphs."

4. Record. "I have equipment that puts my voice through the internet and, on the other end, they pick that up and record it there," Homuth explains. "It isn't always recorded here. It's often done live through different means."

5. Edit. Whether it's the voiceover artist themselves or the sound engineer, editing is done to punch up the audio. "Maybe it's the editing breaths out, or maybe they have to compress audio a tiny bit to make it faster or slow it down, or they're adding music and sound effects to really paint this beautiful picture with sound," Jensen says.

6. Deliver. "Most clients need their voiceovers pretty quickly so it usually doesn't sit on the shelf very long for me - an exception might be an audiobook," Selvig says. "You may have a matter of a few weeks to read a long audiobook.