Bored Stiff

The author behind his microphone

I’ve been behind the mic since I was seventeen. By the look of my grey hair, you can tell that’s a pretty long time. Thirty-seven years to be exact. 

“Does it ever get old” someone wanted to know. “This voice-over thing you do.”

“Well, ‘it’ doesn’t get old, but I certainly do,” I replied, not knowing that I had spoken too early.

An hour later I got this really boring script about ladders, and I changed my mind. It was poorly written, poorly translated, and I had no idea why they had selected poor old me to narrate it. Yes, it was money in the bank, but in reality I would rather go back to bed. 

Let me explain something to you. 

I have no particular fondness for ladders. Walking under them brings bad luck, and many of them wobble in a most disconcerting way. Ladders are ugly and dangerous. Just because they take you to the top, doesn’t mean they’re special. They’re just a few steps up from step stools. One of the reasons I became a freelancer is because I wasn’t good at climbing the corporate ladder. So, why out of all people, should I have to sing their praises? 

It’s for the same reason they talked me into voicing videos about agricultural insurance, miracle car wax, and motorcycle repair. It’s part of the unavoidable, unglamorous, unexciting work voice-overs do every day in dimly lit chatter boxes. 

I must admit: that part of the job does get old and boring. Especially if one has to edit, separate, and name hundreds of files per specific client instructions that make it impossible to do this semi-automatically. Of course the client conveniently “forgot” to mention it at the time of the booking.

Come to think of it: that gets old too. You know, clients trying to take advantage. The other day one of them sent me a message saying that I had “forgotten” to read one paragraph. Of course they would need it right away. The thing is, that mystery paragraph was never in the original script. It was a last-minute addition. 

Now, I know that some colleagues would forgive the client for this “mistake,” and record the five or six extra lines pro bono. In my book, however, more words means more money. It’s not that I am greedy. I just happen to run a for-profit business. With the Arctic temperatures we’re experiencing, someone’s got to pay the heating bill!

If you were to ask a contractor to paint your kitchen as a courtesy, right after she’s finished with the living room, do you think she’d do it? Would an Uber driver take you to the town next to your agreed destination, and not charge you for it? Of course not. Then why do some people expect they can get a voice-over to record a few extra lines at no charge? 

“Well, the other guy we hired did it.” 

“Then why didn’t you ask him to do it?”

“Because he sucked.”

It’s the same old story, and it makes me yawn every time I hear it. 

If you’re getting your feet wet as a VO, trust me. There are parts of this job that are “just work.” Work you may hate. For instance, you’ve signed up to narrate a 400-page audio book, and with every chapter you get this nagging feeling that it’s not getting better. In fact, it’s going nowhere. You start wondering how this piece of pulp ever got published. Then you find out this is a vanity project by someone who should have kept his job at the department of motor vehicles. 

Argh!

One of the most boring jobs you can get in this business involves speech synthesis. It’s the artificial production of human sounds by computers. The text-to-speech software “runs” on thousands of snippets of sounds (phonemes) recorded by voice-overs. Recording sessions can go on for months and are notoriously tedious (just ask Susan Bennett, the voice of Siri).

Once the engineers have what they need, they can use the program to simulate speech for apps, navigation systems, or virtual assistants such as Bixby and Alexa. Amazon now has a database of synthesized voices that is rented out to developers in need of voices for their applications. 

Here’s the kicker. As a voice-over you only get paid once for the database you helped create. That’s it. A colleague of mine heard his voice in at least twenty applications varying from computer games to language courses that were created artificially, and he’ll never see a penny. 

Since he recorded his phonemes, technology has moved even further. 

Did you know that Adobe’s Voco (the Photoshop of speech) only needs about twenty minutes of recorded target speech to generate a sound-alike voice, producing sound patterns that were not even recorded?

Watch this (and try not to be bored):

Perhaps they should have Voco read that terrible self-published novel I mentioned earlier!

Anyway, thanks to modern technology, the most boring parts of voice-over jobs might be behind us. If we can get machines to say anything we want them to say, why use humans? Computers can work without a break, and don’t require a SAG-AFTRA contract. 

In a strange way, that’s music to my ears. 

I might lose a few dollars, but very soon people like me won’t have to talk about ladders anymore.

How exciting is that?!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS If you’d like to hear an audio version of this story, be my guest:


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About the author

Paul Strikwerda

is a Dutch-English voice-over pro, coach, and writer. His blog is one of the most widely read and influential blogs in the industry. Paul is also the author of "Making Money In Your PJs, Freelancing for voice-overs and other solopreneurs."

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Personal

10 Responses to Bored Stiff

  1. Paul Payton

    I auditioned – and made the semi-finals – for an IBM artificial speech program a while back, but it wasn’t as scarily realistic as Voco. On the other hand, “realistic” is not “real,” and until they can convey emotion in these programs, I think most of our work is safe. But I do feel Voco and its brethren (and “sistren”) nipping at our heels.

    Thank you again for another interesting – and definitely NOT boring post!

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Well, these virtual words can be given inflections to infuse them with fake emotion. Going by the video, it seems like a time-consuming process. However, it’s probably cheaper than having an A-list celebrity come in to re-record one or two words that got lost in the mix.

    [Reply]

    Paul Payton Reply:

    Yes – a potentially good use for a potentially evil technology. As Paul harvey used to say, “Stand by for more….”

    [Reply]

  2. Rick Lance

    Oh, stop yawning, Paul! (nice pic)

    I enjoyed your audio version. And your candor and entertaining bantor… “piece of pulp”? Never heard that one before! Well, said… sounds very European of you!

    We do make money from some unusual VOs. Actually, I’ve voiced at least 4 jobs about “ladders” for a client video series in explainers for their systems installed in utility vehicles. I get to play around with my “workin’ man” voice.

    I didn’t know all that about Text-to-Speech voicing. Thanks for elaborating! Hearing me “automated” sounds like a scary thing… not something most people would want!

    So, stay warm up there! Take a nap! Better days.. or at least challenging days… lay ahead!

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Thank you, Rick. Sampling our voices would be the auditory equivalent of creating a hologram. It’s one step closer to having an eternal but virtual presence on this precious planet of ours. A presence that can be manipulated. I’m not sure I’d like that.

    [Reply]

  3. 'Uncle Roy' Yokelson

    Your posts are NEVER boring, Paul! Ya know, since I’ve been producing audio for (over) 40 years, I treat every job with great excitement; whether it’s a 60 piece orchestra (I recorded the first ‘Cats’ commercial with Andrew Lloyd Webber), or a single voiceover, or doing live event mixing, or tech support – it’s all about the people and relationships and creative problem solving and helping everyone achieve their goals. HAPPY NEW YEAR, Voiceover Community!

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    And it’s your contagious enthusiasm that we all love so very much. Happy New Year!

    [Reply]

  4. Brian Broggie

    Watch what you wish for, Paul. Maybe in ten years Voco will have become sophisticated enough to replace ALL voice over work, including the “exciting” stuff. Then what will you (and I) do for income?

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Ten years? I think technology is further along than most people realize. However, just as a computer will never be able to play as soulfully as Yo-Yo Ma, no text-to-speech program will ever be able to infuse a script with real emotion as a human narrator is able to do. So, some of the more boring VO-jobs will go to computers, but there will be plenty left for those who are at the top of their game.

    [Reply]

  5. Ed Helvey

    Gee, Paul, at the rate technology and AI is advancing, pretty soon we’ll all be able to just sit around eating bon-bons, sipping craft beers served by household robots while watching first run gangbuster movies on our 144″ curved, ultra HD, wide screen, backlit LCD video screens with 7.2 surround sound UHD audio while our computers are narrating, editing and producing 400 page boring, vanity published audiobooks from samples of our voices taken from work we’ve done in the past. “It’s a Wonderful Life,” eh?

    [Reply]

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