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Careers clinic: How do I put a voice reel together?

John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher
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I’m not quite ready to give up acting altogether, but I do feel I’m getting too old for constant touring. That’s where most of my work has come from so far. There have been the odd few TV and film jobs, but the different rate of responses my agent gets when she puts me up for stage roles rather than screen castings leads me to conclude that my face better suits the footlights than the camera’s red dot. 

Despite this, one thing I have always had compliments on is my voice quality. I wondered if this would be something I could make use of to find work that might replace the touring jobs.

I’ve worked with several actors who seem to make a reasonable living from doing voice work alongside their other activities. My agent, whom I have been with for a long time, says, while she has no problem with me chasing voice jobs, it’s a different field and she thinks I should get a separate voice agent. She did suggest I need to get a voice reel together. I have a small amount of money to invest in this. Can you give me some tips on spending it wisely?

John’s advice

With the vast range of courses, books, articles and online videos already available on voice work, I can probably be of greatest help by giving you ‘advice on choosing the right advice’. For a start, let me remind you that when you start googling for information, the first links that pop up are not always the best ones.

Any headline that pops up telling you how ‘you can make big money as a voice artist in a week’ really isn’t worth clicking. (This applies equally to any other performance skill where the suggestion is that it can be learned in a ridiculously short time.) Be wary too of ‘catch-all courses’. From the traditional ‘announcing’ and ‘selling’ jobs that are often associated with voice-over to audiobook reading or providing voice characters for animation or computer games, specialisation is just as much a trend in this industry as in others.

This doesn’t mean versatility isn’t still a selling point, but, in an already competitive field, you have more chance of building a niche if you aim to become excellent at one thing than passable at several. Bear in mind that styles and technology change quickly. If you are paying for instruction in person or online choose somebody who is currently working regularly in the industry, and therefore up to date with current requirements, rather than somebody who may have an impressive CV but from years ago.

Listen carefully to voice work that is currently out there, not in an archive. You should be aiming for your samples to sound as though they fit in with real-life and modern examples.

Apply the same ‘is it contemporary?’ criteria to any sample reel formats you are offered. I often meet actors who have paid for expensive reels that include jaunty traffic reports and advertising jingles that might suit a drama set on commercial radio in 1978 but sound like nothing you hear on the air today.

Identify voice artists currently working that you admire and who have qualities similar to your own. See what you can learn from how they present and market themselves. Ideally, these shouldn’t be the celebrity names.

This is not to suggest famous actors don’t do good voice-overs, but once they are household names, the recognition factor can play as much a part in getting the jobs (and setting the fees) as vocal dexterity. For the moment, you want to focus on becoming ‘famous’ to the voice casters and producers. Taking the time to learn your new craft properly will give you the best chance of doing that.

Contact careers adviser John Byrne at dearjohn@thestage.co.uk or @dearjohnbyrne

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