To say the last few weeks have been a little ‘out of the ordinary’ is a complete understatement and I don’t think I need to recap how the new normal has changed. That being said, in my little microcosm of the entertainment world – voiceover, the show continues to move on. Thanks to the approach that many talent, agencies and studios alike are taking by finding alternative home-based ways of getting work done, some new challenges are being presented. The key to being a valuable asset amidst the current shifting landscape, is to bring solutions to the table for these challenges. I call it the ‘Vanilla Ice Effect’. To quote Mr. Van Winkle from his 90’s mega hit, “If there was a problem, yo’, I’ll solve it…”
For most voice actors, a home studio used to be a ‘nice to have’ and not a necessity. In fact I know plenty of actors in major centers who work exclusively in studios for their sessions be it commercial, promo, ADR, narration etc. However, with the increasing number of cities and places moving towards working from home in the interim due to Covid-19, having a home studio has become an absolute ‘necessity’. I’m seeing plenty of posts from voice actors now scrambling to get something setup at home and finding themselves behind the curve. And it’s not just about equipment, it’s about the recording space, the technical knowledge of how to record from home, how to transport the audio, connect with the studios and directors, etc. So many factors that many voice actors have either neglected or just simply didn’t think they’d need…until now.
When I first got started as a professional voice talent, a good friend and former production colleague of mine Carson Manette gave me the best advice ever; ‘Mikey…as soon as you start making some bank, invest back into your gear and your space.’ That’s exactly what I did. Now it should be mentioned that ‘investing in your skills, both tech and acting’ are also key. But I had a head start in both of those thanks to my previous incarnation as a radio imaging and commercial producer, computer nerd and hobbyist stage actor. I had the raw skillset, I just needed to make sure I had the proper tools to cultivate them. So I started with a cheap but decent condenser mic, some home built acoustic panels and a quiet corner of my basement. I moved on to building a makeshift vocal booth out of a bedroom closet. I bought my first Neumann (The TLM102). I built a travel rig for vacations and for a period when we were displaced during a new house build that consisted of a Rode NTG-3 shotgun mic and a MicPortPro. When we finally moved into our new house, I had an unfinished basement as my canvas to build a proper new recording booth, and with that the ability to finally step up my gear game to the next level. At this point in my career I had done a substantial amount of recording in pro studios in Toronto. I’d worked in some of the finest places with some of the most incredible engineers, and each place I’d make note of what their space was like and what kind of gear they used. I asked a lot of questions and sought their technical advice. The goal for me was to be able to get my home studio to a point where if needed, these studios could trust my home audio to be as good as theirs if the situation presented itself. If you’ve ever worked with pro studios and pro engineers, you’ll know that this is no easy task. Their ears are far better tuned than the average client who wouldn’t know the difference between a recording on a real microphone or an iPhone. So I decided to take that extra leap and invest in the kind of gear and space that would allow me to confidently approach these people and say ‘hey…if you’re in a pinch and the client needs a pickup ASAP, here’s the audio I can provide you. These are the mics I’m using. This is the space I’m working in.’ Most of those studios generally had Neumann U87’s or Sennheiser 416’s. And despite what many say, telling a professional engineer that you have this kind of gear at your disposal, shows them that you’re not messing around. Again, the average VO end client won’t give two craps about the type of mic you have as long as it sounds good. But if you want the higher end studios (which also bring with them higher end clients in many cases) to buy in to you providing audio from your ‘home studio’? The name on the label really does go a long way in convincing them. Besides – I got a great deal on my U87 all those years ago and it continues to hold it’s value. It’s all part of your career progression, and what kind of solutions and options you want to be able to offer your clients as you move along. I’m not saying you need to go out and buy the best of the best right away, and some will argue that you may never want to anyway. It’s all about what your gameplan is, and in my case –my gameplan was to have the studios I worked with be able to trust my home recorded audio. For me, its worked out.
So fast forward to this week. For the past 3 years I’ve been the narrator for a show called ‘Best Cake Wins’ from Architect Pictures here in Toronto. It’s a cute little show where two cake makers go head-to-head in a battel to recreate a cake that’s designed by the birthday boy or girl. It’s been such a fun experience, and I absolutely enjoy working with the engineers at Studio 19 in Toronto, as well as the incredible directors. We managed to get 4 episodes in the can before Covid-19 struck. Now because of the increase in #stayathome and self-isolation, Architect and Studio 19 were presented with a bit of a challenge in how to track the rest of the episodes. That’s when my brain went into solution mode. I sent the director of the show an email and offered up that we could record the shows remotely from my studio – which she was surprised and thrilled at the option. That morphed into a group email between Architect, Studio 19 and myself to figure out the logistics. I suggested that Architect send me the Pro Tools session along with a QT of the episodes, and I’d record audio on my end here and then forward it to Studio 19 for them to do the final audio mix. We still needed to have Jo on the line to direct the sessions though. Not a problem – I have multiple options at my disposal; phone patch, facetime, Zoom, ipDTL, Source Connect. But there would still be a little bit of a disconnect without her being able to see the picture matched to the audio in real time to get a sense of timing and how it looked overall. Source Connect wasn’t an option because they hadn’t had the chance to get it implemented in time. So now the challenge was: How can we mimic our usual session as close as possible? That’s when my nerd brain kicked into overdrive. I originally thought we could just do FaceTime, and I’d aim the camera at my screen so Jo could at least see and hear what was going on. But then I shifted towards using ZOOM and screen sharing my desktop in real time. That way I could run my good audio feed into ZOOM, and have the video window open so that she could see and hear both with minimal delay. I hooked up with Mark at Studio 19 to work on the technical specifics and how they preferred to have the audio delivered, and then we setup a test recording session for this morning. Needless to say, it went off better than expected as you can see in the video I posted here. So now we’re set to move forward with tracking the last 6 episodes of the season with nary a hiccup in the process.
Back in the old days (before I yelled for kids to get off my lawn), having a home studio was cost prohibitive. Today, anyone and everyone has the ability to have one. Like anything, some are better than others. I don’t need to remind you how competitive the industry has become. The key to being successful and staying successful is providing added value to your end clients. What can YOU provide that the other voice actors you’re competing against can’t? You can blog, vlog, market, postcard, blah blah blah all you want. Clients really don’t care about that. Ultimately they care about what YOU can do to make the process of their project as stress free and professional as possible. Quality…Service…Solutions…If you can provide that at the highest level, you’ll separate yourself and your business from the rest of the pack. Instead of spending time thinking of ways to market your VO business, take stock and really look at what you’re marketing. If it’s just a catchy tag line or cute branding logo you had made along with a generic ‘professional voice over to bring your words to life’ bio? I suggest to take some of this quiet self-iso time and dig for something a little deeper.