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  • Writer's pictureElliot Hardman

Recording & Editing the Perfect Voice Acting Audition

Introduction

Let's talk about auditions. That part of being in the voice talent industry that makes up 90% of your day of work.


The reality of being a voice actor or voiceover artist is that you will have to audition. So, today, I want to go through the audition process from the actor's side from top to bottom and explore all the different things that make an audition good enough to pitch to a client. Better auditions means more jobs, more jobs means more income, more income means doing this as a full time job - the end goal!


A bit of advice

The very first thing I want to mention is a little bit of non-techy or recording related advice. This is what I say to every single person who asks the question: 'What advice would you give to someone starting out in voice acting?'


Same goes for every single area of performing arts: Get thick skin, fast. The performing arts industry, especially the higher-level professional side of it, is thick and fast. Amazing opportunities will be shown to you in a glistening light, you'll be scouted out for it, your audition will be great, the client will be seconds away from booking you and - poof. It's gone.


This happens more than I'd like to admit. I've been scouted for some pretty damn exciting projects (I remember being scouted out to act for S.T.A.L.K.E.R 2 a few years back - what a dream) and they just haven't gone through.


But you know what? That's the job - it's a hell of a lot of rejection and not hearing back until you finally do. And when you finally do, it's feels so incredibly good that you were the voice that the client was looking for. Ride with that emotion


The reality of the matter is that no matter how good of a voice talent you are, you will not get every job. You can deliver the best audition of your life, but if your specific voice and tone is not what the client is looking for, then you won't get booked for that opportunity. But don't let it get to you - hugely talented and respected VAs including Matt Mercer have come out themselves saying they get booked for less than a quarter of the jobs they audition for. And that guy is everywhere (but I'm not mad about that).


First up, recording

So, let's get into it. The first step, obviously, is to find audition - I'm not going to go too deep with that here, but I'll briefly write about them at the end - also check my previous blog post to learn a bit more in detail.


When you've found an audition, it's time for the fun bit - recording!


Let's go from the top.


Firstly: read the audition sheet! In depth! Don't neglect it! If you decide to just not bother reading through the audition sheet or disregarding it entirely, you're going to just be wasting your time. READ what the client wants. They may say they want you to be creative and use your own imagination to create the voice for the project, which is fine - but you don't know this until you READ. You won't believe how many auditions I listen to on sites like CCC where the read is just so far detached from the brief given.


Secondly: Set up your recording space. This is, obviously, very important. I could type a whole essay on setting up a recording space, but try to sort the important things first:


  • Distance yourself from any noice - ambient noise (close your windows), PC or Laptop fans (buy a nice long XLR cable and take it out of the room), any boilers/ACs/various other electronics.


  • Soundproof your area - Incredibly important. I recently did an audio review over on my Twitter and the overwhelming amount of setups that had even the slightest amount of reverb was incredible. Trust me, anyone with a good ear for them can hear them. I started my voiceover career by draping a thick pink duvet over my head to kill reflections. It sucks, but it work. Don't have much space? Hang some sound blankets (or similar) around your space. More soft surfaces around your microphone to absorb frequencies will negate reflections. I know a lot of European homes (and likely US) suffer from having a lot of hard flooring (I spent a few months in Belgium and found almost every flat to have this), so getting yourself even a nice little rug will help. Just experiment!


  • Setup your microphone - Set your microphone up so you have at least a few inches between your mouth and the microphone. If you're too close, you'll just get extra plosive and mouth sounds - not nice. If you're too far, your voice will just feel washed out. Work out what sounds best for you. Dynamic microphones (like the SM7B) tend to be used closer to the artist (2-6 inches is the recommendation) whilst condensors (like the TLM 103 or NT1-A) are used slightly further (4-8 inches).


  • Extra Equipment - I would say it's essential to have a pop filter of some kind shielding your microphone, whether this is one of the boom style filter or a sock style filter will help immensely in reducing the plosives in your recording. Without a filter of any kind, you'll just be wasting time re-recording when a plosive peaks your recording and sound dreadful. At that point, don't even bother. For placement, give it a little bit of space away from your microphone (let's say 2 inches) - it can act as a good barrier to stop you from getting to close to your microphone. Refer to this video from a professional VO artist in regards to pop filter placement.


  • Audio Interface - Assuming you're using an XLR microphone (which you should be), you'll need to setup your audio interface appropriately. Use the interface's metre to check whether you're peaking when you talk slightly louder. You ideally shouldn't even be close to peaking at any point during the recording. Fixing peaks in post processing is simply not an option.


  • Final checks - If you're an artist that likes to listen to reference music or tone whilst you record, make sure it is very quiet in your headphones and you have closed back headphones. If you're not doing either of these things, it will leak into your recording.


  • Final Final check - I've spoken about it in a previous post, but just be convious of your water & sugar intake - don't gulp or neglect water intake, drink just enough! Avoid sugary foods before a session.


Now, this seems like a lot. But the reality is that you'll only have to set all of this up once. I have my interface at a set level that works for all volumes of talking, microphone & pop filter placement never moves, booth never changes... it's a one time thing. Once it's perfect, it's perfect for good.


And you're good to go! Dive into that booth and give the best performance of your life.


Secondly, editing

But you're not done yet. Oh, no no. You've got the least fun part now, depending on who you ask. Editing.


I feel like editing is a bit of a point of contention around auditions. I've heard people argue different things - don't edit at all! Do edit! Clean it up!


I personally sit on the latter side of the argument. Clean up your auditions. It doesn't hurt at all - just don't do too much.


So, what do I mean by this? When I say clean up your auditions, I'm talking about non-intrusive, general cleanup techniques. The end goal of this cleanup process is to edit your voiceover in such a way that your voice sounds as nice as it can be to listen to, whilst keeping the tone & sound of your studio as natural as possible. Clients want to hear that you have a good setup as well as the chops to act in their project, so don't over-do it and send them a processed heap.


I'll be referencing my previous blog post about iZotope RX here, as it's the main tool I'd recommend using for cleanup. I've attached other alternatives where possible.


You've got your recording, where do you start? Let's go through this bit by bit.


  • Listen through your whole audition again - Don't assume it's all OK. I've read many an audition in the past and come back to my recording to hear a mouth click or plosive I didn't realise had snuck in. If I didn't listen, they'd be sent with my audition. Sift through the full audition and listen for the things that sound bad.


  • Plosives! - My favourite buzzword! Listen out for plosives. Read my blog post on plosives for how to effectively deal with these.



  • Sibilance - Again, my previous blog post goes a bit more in-depth on these. I should just note, don't go too crazy with this for an audition. Just enough to dull that harsh hiss on your 's' sounds.



  • Breath sounds - I'm going to preface this by saying I would generally only recommend this for commercial VO work. Also, I don't think it's entirely necessary. It's become a bit of a habit for me to cut the gaps between lines in my recording so that any breathing isn't heard in the final audition - I'm not sure many clients want to hear me gasping for breath. For VA's, I would either keep the breathing there or just try to lower it's volume if it's significant. There's a definite argument to be made that having breath sounds in a character will humanize it, which I certainly agree with.




  • De-noising - Honestly? Don't. If your studio has problems, I think that it's important that you're honest with the client rather than trying to surpress the issues and just nuking your quality into the ground. I got jobs with a pretty awful sound at the beginning of my career without noise surpressing. My advice here? Fix that studio.


So there's your cleanup editing. But what about plugins?


Yes! Throw a few general clean-up plugins on there. But again, I must stress - do not go too hard with this! You're trying to keep a natural sound!


Here's what I do:


  • Equalizer (EQ) - Very important, for me personally. I've got a low voice and I'm recording in a small space. I get quite a lot of unwanted low end (<100Hz) from my recordings which is very easily fixed by a simple high pass/low cut filter (shown below). Boosting your high end ever so slightly (also in the image below) doesn't hurt a lot of the time, unless you find that your voice is already quite bright and airy. Don't bring the low pass so high that it cuts the low tones or your voice, and don't raise the highs too much that your voice just sounds like nails on a chalkboard. Experiment.



  • Gating - I tend to gate all my auditions as it saves a little bit of time in the previous editing section. This tends to be really low, just to catch any slight body movements or clothes rustling that may be ever so slightly audible in the clip. The image below shows the gate parameters I run on an audition chain. To explain: the threshold set at -52dB means that it's only affecting sounds below that level (aka, very quiet ones). A high ratio is attempting to quash those unwanted sounds. Don't worry about the 'range' option, as most gates won't have this. I run this gate with a reasonably slow (high) attack and fast (low) release, to keep the gate acting reasonably tight, but not too extreme.



  • Compression - I don't compress my auditions. As I've mentioned a few times, I'm trying to keep a natural sound, not an overly processed one, the latter being something easily obtained by using a compressor. That being said, I don't think it's entirely a no-go to compress an audition. I've attached an image below of something that I would consider the most you'd want to do to an audition. To explain what this is doing; the threshold is set quite high. If you've done your gain staging and volume control correctly, this threshold should be set to whatever your highest peaks are hitting. Here, it's -10dB, meaning that if a signal goes over that threshold, the ratio will begin to affect the signal. A reasonably low ratio of 3:1 is only attentuating the signal above -10dB at a rate of letting 1dB through per 3dB of signal above.



  • Normalization - What I would recommend above compression, is it's less intrusive brother, normalization. While compression is an ongoing process that affects a recording in real-time, changing the volume of a signal above a threshold, normalization is a one-time affect that you would apply to a signal that changes the volume of the entire audio based on it's worst peaks. Effectively, it's automatic volume control, which can be a little more desired in this situation. General guidance tends to be to normalize to a level of -3dB, but I'd recommend using the levels of your recording to judge what a good level for this is. Again, don't go too crazy.


  • Envelope/Transient Shaping - The only other thing I do to my auditions is a light envelope shaper (or it may be called a transient shaper in your DAW). Effectively, this plugin just softens the attack at the start of an audio clip. If I were to record a clip and it had a hard 'K' sound, for example, I may want to soften that using a transient shaper, just to have that sound less intense. Cubase's default envelope shaper is a wonderful little tool that isn't intrusive and makes a noticable, natural difference to these transients. Think of it as a very short fade in for the volume of these hits.


That's about all the editing I would consider doing to an audition. It seems a lot, but it's really a maximum of, say, 3 plugins, with a bit of pre-editing. The process of recording a 200 word audition through to sending it off takes me no more than 5 minutes and works a treat! I can expect to get booked for a few jobs a week using this process.


Penultimately, let's talk about loudness & levels

Arguably the hardest part to talk about here, is levelling your auditions correctly. It's reasonably complex, since I first need to explain the concept of loudness, but I'm going to keep this as short and simple as possible - this blog is already quite long.


So, first and foremost, let's hit the two big ones - don't record too quiet. Clients don't want to crank the volume to hear me. On the other end, don't record too hot. Don't give the client a heart attack when they click play on your audition.


Got it? Good. But what is too loud and too quiet?


I can't really give you a solid, definite number, as there isn't any real guidance on what the level absolutely SHOULD be (unless you're on ACX, which I'll touch on shortly). What I can say is this - don't let you audio peak above -3dB. use that as a guide and keep your volume relatively tame below this level. This is generally accepted as the industry standard for peaking audio.



For levels, let's quickly talk RMS. RMS and loudness are different measures of volume to the standard decibel meters you may be used to. I'm going to reference ACX's guidelines for this, as it tends to be a pretty good standard to hit for other recordings:


"Each file must measure between -23dB and -18dB RMS"


So, how on earth do you check RMS? I know a lot of people reading this use Audacity, so I'm happy to say that there is a plugin that you can install for Audacity for measuring RMS. This should be fairly clear and simple to use. For the rest of us, Waves' WLM Meter is fantastic, or here's a free alternative if you don't want to splash out for a Waves product.


Keeping your RMS around that sweet spot and your LUFs (loudness) level around -25 to -20 should keep you sorted for most situations. Occasionaly clients will ask for something different. That's fine - just adjust to the client's needs. Even if they are a little ridiculous sometimes and have clearly come from someone who doesn't know a lot about audio.


To understand RMS and loudness levels a bit better, I would much prefer to direct you to someone who knows a bit more than me on the subject, though this isn't specifically about voiceover.. I learnt a lot about LUFs at university, but I'd be lying if I said I knew them like the back of my hand.


Exporting and sending

Congratulations! You've recorded and edited your audition. Good job.


Now you've got to export it. What settings do you use?


Nice and simple - almost always export in MP3. I always export my auditions as an MP3 at a sample rate of 48kHz and bit rate of 320kB/s. Unless stated otherwise by the client, this has never caused any issues with general submissions. It's also the only format you can upload to most audition sites.


One other note about exporting, try to export as a mono file (mono downmix) where possible. This saves a bit on file size - there's no reason your voice should ever be stereo, unless you've processed it with some funky effects, which you shouldn't really be doing for an audition.


Writing a cover letter

The last step is to write a cheeky little cover letter to the client. I keep this short and simple every time. If you know the client or you don't feel like they're quite as formal as this, keep it a little more colloquial


Start by giving a brief introduction to yourself. What's your name? Your age? Where are you based (roughly)?


After that, give your voice a very brief rundown - for example; 'I speak with an RP British English accent. My voice is baritone, with the versatility that allows it to portray maturity with deeper tones, through to lighter, more youthful tones.' This is just an example off the top of my head. Don't copy that.


Include anything else you think is important; what you record with, your availbility, attach a link to your website, if you have one (you should).


If it's a voice acting gig, a little elaboration on your take of the character can be interesting, but keep it short. Keep in mind that clients have to go through a hundred different submissions per project. They don't want to read your life story.


If rates aren't disclosed and the client/website specifically asks for your rates to be included in your submission, you should include them. I can't help you with your rates, though. Value yourself as an artist!


Conclusion

I feel like these blog posts are getting longer and longer. Unfortunately, I'm consistenly getting lost in the sauce and just typing away.

That being said, I hope this is helpful! I'm by no means saying that my way is the perfect way to do this - feel free to make changes to your process as you go. I suppose my main goal here was to give a little guidance on what I generaly think is OK to do when submitting an audition.


Other than that - good luck. It's a tough climb to becoming a professional voice talent, but if you've got the will, you'll get there.


Peace out. Be kind.


Elliot


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