What is Voice Acting? We Find Out

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Voice acting is often underappreciated and misunderstood. When you say “voice actor,” many people simply picture someone lending their voice to a cartoon. While that is one form of voice acting, it isn’t the only one. So, that leads us to the question, what exactly is voice acting and what are some ways it manifests in the real world? 

Voice acting is a dynamic, complex art form that can be expressed in a variety of career and job settings. Voice actors exert control over their voices to evoke a response from an audience. They read audiobooks, play characters, provide translations and lend their talent to just about anything else that requires a voice.

If you’re thinking about getting into voice work or you’re just curious as to what voice actors do, this guide is for you. In the following sections, we will break down the different types of voice acting, careers, and techniques in the field. Further, we’ll describe ways you can start training your voice today to help get you started on your path to becoming a voice actor. 

Types of Voice Acting 

Voice acting (also known as voice over) is an umbrella term that encompasses a wide variety of careers and jobs that rely on a spoken vocal performance. These run the gambit from the overdubs you likely encountered while watching training videos for your first job, to that stellar audiobook you just can’t seem to get enough of. 

Below we’ve listed three of the most common types of voice acting that are employed in a variety of career and job fields: 

Narration in Voice Over Work

Narration is performed to tell a story. There are many different mediums that require narration. Narrators are used for traditional storytelling, audio dramas, audiobooks, film/television and video games. Basically, you’re likely to find a narrator in any medium that requires the telling of a complex story. 

Sometimes the narrator is separate from the characters they are describing, while at others they are one of the characters. When it comes to mediums like audiobooks, the narrator may be required to tell the story and play all of the characters. 

For example, voice actor Roy Dotrice famously both narrated and played over 224 characters in one audiobook, setting a world record for the most characters played by one voice actor in one project. To be a great narrator, one must be dynamic, flexible and willing to experiment with new things.   

Character Voice Overs 

As we’ve seen above, character acting often goes hand in hand with narration. However, they don’t always overlap. Many times, character voice actors merely play the roles of a character/characters during a given performance.  

Character voice acting involves manipulating one’s voice to express the personality of a given character. Character actors have to be able to construct a unique identity with their voices that they can recreate consistently. To be successful, they really have to bring something to each character they play that sets them apart and keeps them in the minds of viewers/listeners.   

If you think back to your favorite Saturday morning cartoons, you’re probably well aware of just how dynamic character voice actors can be. Character actors aren’t just used for cartoons, however. Audio dramas, plays, radio commercials and audiobooks also all employ character acting. 

Commercial Voice Acting

Commercial voice acting is that which is used for business purposes–often with the intent of selling a product or service. This type of voice acting requires you to be able to convey often complicated information in a clear and understandable way.

If you’re one of the three people who still listen to the radio, anytime you hear a commercial talking about Mesothelioma, your local auto parts store or a new phone plan, you’re listening to a commercial voice actor. 

The Origin and History of Voice Overs  

If you’re serious about doing voice overs, you should have an appreciation for their history and how they came to be. While we could fill a whole book on the history of voice acting, we’ll simply touch on the origins in major mediums like radio, film and audiobooks. 

The Origin of Voice Overs in Radio and Television 

It’s often suggested that the first voice over came from Walt Disney himself for Steamboat Willie in 1928. However, others have pointed out that while Disney’s performance is more well known and can be considered the first mainstream voice over, the actual first voice over came much earlier. 

In the early 1900’s a Canadian inventor by the name of Reginald Fessenden provided a weather report, singing and a reading of biblical text over the radio. While this wasn’t a broadcast many people were able to hear, it was in fact the first recorded voice over. 

As radio grew in popularity, audio dramas became a staple of many families’ evenings. These required voice actors to inhabit the roles of various characters or play narrators. With nothing but their voices (plus some music and sound effects) they were able to keep listeners on the edge of their seats.  

If you’re interested in hearing some of these dramas yourself, there is a collection of free podcasts from Relic Radio, that has preserved them and continues to present them to the public. Listening carefully to how these actors use their voice to bring a character to life is a great way to get your head in the game for what you want to do in your performances. 

The Origin of Audio Book Narration 

Now that we’ve covered radio and television voice overs, let’s turn our attention to audiobook narration. The first audiobooks were developed in 1932 by The American Foundation for the Blind, with the express purpose of providing books for those who had trouble seeing. They were originally released on vinyl and required many discs to cover a whole book. 

Audiobooks continued to be produced primarily for the blind until the 1960s, when technology (cassette tapes) became available and made it more practical to distribute them on a large scale. Many of these early audiobooks took the form of Shakespearian plays, where it wasn’t uncommon to have a full cast to play the characters. 

Nowadays audiobooks are a cornerstone of entertainment, drawing in some of the most talented voice actors in the world. With the advent of audible and podcasting, even audio dramas are making a comeback.  

Voice Acting Jobs/Careers

There are many different careers and jobs available for those who want to become voice actors. We should note that many voice actors do not just perform in one of these fields, but instead lend their voices to a wide array of different projects. The more you can feel comfortable doing yourself, the more you’ll get your name out there. 

Voice Over Work in Advertising

You don’t have to be Don Draper to work in advertising. Instead of writing advertisements, you can be the person who brings them to life with your voice. Your voice can be lent to radio or television, on a local or national scale, to help generate excitement for a product or service. 

If you do advertisements for radio, you’ll be expected to use a more exaggerated tone to convey emotion and excitement about the product or service you’re promoting. If you do television on the other hand, you’re usually expected to use a flatter, more natural tone. 

While some people may avoid working in advertising because they would rather be involved in works of art (like audiobooks or film), ads can provide a great starting point to gain experience.  

Recording Vocals for Toys 

Nothing embodies this type of voice acting more than the image of Woody from Toy Story saying “I’ve got a snake in my boot” when his string gets pulled. Most of us probably remember having toys similar to that when we were kids. 

While some of these toys merely crop sound bites out of the movies or TV shows they’re based on, many of them have fresh new recordings. These are often made with the work of character voice actors, who come in and get paid to record a few lines of dialogue. 

Language Translation (Over Dubs) and Voice Acting 

When television shows, movies and cartoons are presented to an audience that doesn’t speak the language they were initially recorded in, overdubs are created. Overdubs are made by voice actors who take on the spoken roles of characters in these mediums and try to match a new language to the movement of mouths on screen. 

As you might expect, this process can be grueling and difficult. Voice actors who engage in these overdubs have to be able to convey the information the original language did in a convincing way, while being cognizant of their timing. 

Commercials and Public Service Announcements

Another place to apply your vocal skills is in commercials and public service announcements. Generally, you’ll be required to present things in a way that sounds professional but also personable, so that you leave a good impression on viewers and listeners. 

Audiobook Narration

As we’ve alluded to before, you can become an audiobook narrator. While this may sound like a dream job to those of you out there who are vociferous readers, it requires a great deal of practice and skill. Being a great reader on your own doesn’t always translate into being a great orator of the written word. 

Audiobook narrators have to be able to modulate their voices to play a full cast of characters. This includes the ability to speak in a variety of accents, the desire to play diverse characters and the memory skills necessary to keep them all straight. 

They also have to develop a commanding tone that will hold a reader’s attention during narration and ensure that they can communicate subtext through their inflections. This can be much harder than it sounds and can involve multiple takes to get it right. 

It’s also important to note that the recording of audiobooks is something that requires a great deal of time and stamina. The average recording session for an audiobook is between three to eight hours a day. The process can feel tedious when you get into the pickups, where you have to fix small mistakes during the initial recording. This will be rewarding when complete, however. 

What is the Average Salary for Voice Actors 

The average salary for a voice actor in the United States falls at around $38,289 per year. The top earning voice actors make up to $90,000 per year, while the bottom earners can make as little as $18,390 per year.

We should note here that these numbers should be taken with a grain of salt. Voice acting encompasses so many different mediums and can be done at a variety of levels (local, national & global). Because of this, it can be misleading to simply read the average salary and expect to make that much out of the gate or even ten years down the line. 

Union vs Non Union Pay for Voice Actors

Another variable that will help predict how much you can expect to make as a voice actor is whether or not you’re part of a voice acting union. Voice actors that are in unions tend to get paid more per job along with benefits like healthcare. At the same time, many non-union voice actors have been getting jobs quickly online

You’ll have to decide which route you want to go down if you decide to become a voice actor. 

How Hard is It To Get Into Voice Acting?

While we’d love to tell you that becoming a voice actor is as easy as one, two, three, it’s not. Voice acting is a highly competitive industry with a lot of talent. If you’re looking to get involved, you have to be willing to put in the work and go through a process that will inevitably involve a lot of rejection (unless you’re the luckiest person alive).

That said, just know that audition after audition followed by rejection upon rejection, is a completely normal part of the process. Even the most talented voice actors get rejected quite a bit during the beginning of their journey. The main thing is to keep pushing forward and don’t give up just because you didn’t succeed on your first try. 

When you do get that hallowed first job, use it as leverage to help get your foot in the door on bigger projects. Any job is better than no job and it’s good to not be picky in the beginning. 

How to Become a Voice Actor

So you want to become a voice actor, but you’re not sure where you should start. No problem. We’ve got you covered. Below we’ve laid out a number of steps you can take to begin making your voice acting dream come true: 

  • Listen to the pros: The first thing you want to do is get an idea of what voice acting sounds like. While we all have enjoyed media with voice acting in it, we don’t generally listen extremely closely to try and hear how it’s done. Do yourself a favor and listen closely to what voice actors are doing in whatever medium you want to take part in. 
  • Have a consistent schedule for practice: Practice makes perfect. You should make sure that you set aside enough time to practice your vocal performance for around 20 minutes each day. Going over 20 minutes a day can lead to injury. See the following section on voice acting techniques for a few exercises you can try out at home today. 
  • Record a demo reel: Making a demo reel of your best vocal performances is vital to picking up your first voice acting job. Make sure you use high-quality recording equipment and keep the recording short. Many in the field recommend that you keep the demo 60 seconds or less, however this can vary depending on your medium. 
  • Consider getting a vocal coach: It’s a lot easier to improve quickly if you have someone to help you. If it’s within your means, you should seriously consider hiring a vocal coach to get you to the next level. 

If you want to be a voice actor, the most important thing you can have is perseverance. You’ll need it when you don’t feel like practicing even though you know you should and you’ll need it when you’re going to audition after audition without yet landing a role. If you can learn how to push forward no matter what, you’ll eventually find that first job.  

Voice Acting Exercises

There are a whole litany of exercises employed by voice actors to make their voices more commanding of attention, adaptable and interesting. While we could fill a whole other guide with nothing but the many techniques these actors used, we’ve gathered some of the most fundamental ones for you below: 

The Roller Coaster

The roller coaster exercise is fun, easy to do, and it helps you figure out and improve your vocal range. Essentially, to perform this exercise you need to take a script, book or really anything that’s in writing (preferably something related to what you’d like to do) and carefully read it while undulating your voice. 

If you want to play characters or be a magnetic narrator, this will really help you with your vocal inflections. You’ll be better at conveying emotion and keeping your recordings from feeling flat.  

Working Out the Diaphragm

Just like with singing, a good voice actor will project from their “belly” instead of putting all the strain on their vocal cords. That said, it’s not actually your stomach that needs to do the work but rather your diaphragm; the muscle that expands and contrasts to aid your lungs in taking in and breathing out air. 

Learning to use your diaphragm can help your vocal performance in a number of ways. Firstly, it can allow you to project your voice and control your volume much more easily. This is because you’ll have more control over how much air you’re taking in and letting out. 

Using your diaphragm can also help you to more efficiently speak for prolonged periods of time without having to stop and take a breath and give you more control over your voice in general.

Have Fun With Tongue Twisters

Tongue twisters can be a great warm up exercise before recording a demo reel. They help you to ennunciate better by loosening up your lips. You’ll find it much easier to glide between different consonant sounds. You won’t as easily get tripped up during a difficult line. 

Tongue twisters can even extend your range. Plus doing them just before you record can improve your performance by making your speech smoother and more exacting.

Do Vocal Sirens

Vocal sirens get their name from an exaggerated comparison between them and the kinds of sirens you would hear on an ambulance. There are many differen’t types of siren but they all essentially involve you holding a pitch and modulating it with your lips or through the pronunciation of certain consonants.

The following are different siren exercises you should do before you record a demo reel: 

  • Vibrate Your Lips: With this siren you press your lips together in a P like sound and sort of buzz them undulating your voice up and down.  
  • Using M Sounds: With this siren your lips should remain shut as you make an mmm sound and modulate your voice up and down. 
  • Using Z Sounds: This is the same as the M siren, except you press your teeth together and make a zzz sound.
  • Using La Sounds: Another method that can help you is to make “la la la” sounds while moving your voice up and down. 

When you do any of these siren exercises you should start out with the kind of volume you would use in a normal indoor environment. After a while you should slowly move the volume up and down to work on your vocal control. 

Do An Over the Top Reading of a Script

This is a fun exercise that can loosen you up and help you work on your vocal control and build up momentum for an exceptional performance. Take a script or a book and then read it in a silly over-the-top way. You can feel free to wheel your arms around to get more in the spirit as you loudly read out the words with as much enthusiasm as you can muster.  

Notable Voice Actors 

There are too many great voice actors out there to count. Still, we’ve compiled a list of some of the foremost voice actors working today, across a variety of mediums, so you have a good starting point if you’re not sure whose work to study: 

  • Nancy Cartwright: You may not have heard her name, but if you’ve watched cartoons in the last several decades you’ve probably heard her voice. Nancy Cartwright lent her voice to The Simpsons, Rugrats, The Land Before Time and enough other big name projects to fill an entire article of their own. 
  • Bahni Turpin: Bahni Turpin is an actress and award winning audiobook narrator. She’s one of the best working today, having won over a dozen awards for her vocal performances. Her ability to properly shift between different accents alone makes her work worthy of study for anyone wanting to do narration work. 
  • Jim Cummings: Jim Cummings is a voice acting legend. Having played over 300 roles in his distinguished career, he has carved out a space as one of the most well known cartoon voice actors. You’ll notice him in franchises such as Winnie the Pooh, The Lion King, Toy Story, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and more. 
  • George Guidall: George Guidall has lent his voice to over a thousand audiobooks. They range from classics like Don Quixote and Les Misérables to modern fantasy’s like Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. If you want to know how to narrate an audiobook, studying the work of George Guidall is a great place to start. 

If you want to be a great voice actor you really need to study the greats. While you will inevitably develop your own style overtime, it can be useful to begin by imitating those whom you admire. 

So Really, What is Voice Acting?

Voice acting is an art that can be applied to many different careers and jobs. These careers include everything from the voice overs you hear on local advertisements to the voices of characters in your favorite animated films. Voice actors are able to captivate whatever audience they are speaking to by knowing how to convey emotion and information with their voice. 

If you want to be a voice actor it’s important that you practice. You’ll need to demonstrate your ability to be flexible and capable of exerting vocal control. You want proper inflections, volume control and consistency. Once you’ve mastered these skills, create a demo reel and begin seeking auditions. If you’re not picked on your first attempt, know it’s normal and keep trying!