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Bored Stiff

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Personal 10 Comments

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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Exhibitionists, Voyeurs and Stalkers

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Internet, Journalism & Media, Promotion, Social Media 4 Comments

In the past these were dirty words for dirty people.

Now these very same words can be used to describe the average social media addict.

We like strutting our stuff in public. We want the world to watch us. And we follow the fools who think that tweeting nonsense all day long makes them relevant.

8:05 AM. In line at Starbucks.

8:10 AM. Ordering a tall latte.

8:15 AM. Should have asked for a double shot of espresso.

8:18 AM. Back in my Mercedes. New Jersey Turnpike, here I come!

8:21 AM. In a car accident. Tweeting and drinking coffee don’t go well together.

9:33 AM. Thank goodness this hospital has a Starbucks.

We can laugh about it. We can cry about it, but things like tweeting and texting are changing the way we communicate. Even the way we dress.

If you don’t believe me, you should shop for winter gloves and count the pairs with holes in them or with special patches. Touchscreen gloves, that’s what they are called. Snowstorms, twisters and other natural disasters won’t prevent mankind from texting.

Every single day, two hundred trillion text messages are received in America alone (source). That’s more than an entire year’s worth of regular mail.

Nielsen reported that the average American teen sends 3,339 texts each month. That’s more than six per every hour they’re awake. The girls are beating the boys with 4,050 texts per month, (boys send an average of 2,539 texts). Mind you, these numbers are from 2010!

But it’s not just the kids. Go into any supermarket and count how many times you’ll hear a mother tell her stroller-toddler:

“Not now sweetie. Mommy’s texting.”

8:42 PM. At Trader Joe’s. Should I buy broccoli or cauliflower?

Thanks to all these very important messages, safety is no longer the number one reason for getting a phone. We just love being social, don’t we?

THE FACEBOOK REVOLUTION

In 2010, Facebook beat Google as the most visited site (if we leave out visits to Google-owned YouTube). A year later, Facebook’s U.S. advertising revenue of 2.2 billion dollars had surpassed that of both Google and Yahoo.

It is THE place to hang out and make new friends. It’s that wonderful platform where -in the midst of an economic crisis- everything is always A-Okay. No matter what happens, the show must go on  and we keep on dancing.

Smile people! Always beware of your brand. Heaven forbid we become real and share our fears and failures.

Occasionally, some Facebook friends will vent their frustrations, but overall, a happy-go-lucky attitude seems to be the norm: Do what you love and the money will follow. 🙂 Really?

Many Europeans consider this attitude to be “typically American.” They see the States as a country where people have a hard time accepting failure. We’d rather take a happy pill than deal with our problems. We’re certainly not going to share them on our Facebook Walls. We’ve turned those into advertorials and infomercials:

9:15 AM. Join me for an online seminar where I’ll teach you how not to waste your time on Facebook. Remember the early bird discount!

10:02 AM. Finished an amazing gig with an amazing director. Life is good. It’s great to be back in L.A.

11:46 AM. Jesus rocks! He guided me to book another gig for Playboy Enterprises. Praise the Lord.

11:47 AM. Deuteronomy 5:11

11:48 AM. John 8:7

11:49 AM. Broccoli or cauliflower?

1:15 PM. There’s a new article on the Nethervoice blog. Be the first one to read it before it appears on VoiceOverXtra.

Yep, Facebook is definitely a site we can’t live without. In fact, we need more of those online chatrooms. What did you just tell me? You’re not on Google+ yet? Boy, you’re missing out on something spectacular. It’s great for your business. The other day I saw a video of a dog. Man, that was funny. Every time his owner began playing the guitar, this dog started smiling. No kidding. I’ll send you the link.

3:30 PM. Wasted another 3 minutes watching a dog on YouTube. 

A WINDOW TO THE WORLD?

Look, I am not going to pooh-pooh social media again, but we should bury the idea that these sites are widening our world and increase interpersonal connections.

First of all, we don’t seem to know the difference between socializing and advertising. Socializing is all about connecting with others. Advertising is drawing attention to oneself in order to sell. If that becomes the main purpose of the interaction, it will turn people off. Sooner rather than later.

Secondly, people mainly interact with people they know or agree with. We block the rest and ban them from our circles. And if we don’t do it ourselves, algorithms will make sure that we see what we want to see and hear what we want to hear. Author and activist Eli Pariser calls this the “Filter Bubble.”

Based on our location and on what you and I have searched for and looked at in the past, certain websites (like Facebook) and search engines now use algorithms to predict and select what we’d be interested in right now. They call it “creating a personalized experience.”

YOUR WEB YOUR WAY

If you’re in the market for a new set of wheels and you’ve been browsing a few dealerships, chances are that you’ll be presented with car commercials instead of chewing gum ads. If you’re a fan of the current man in the White House and you keep track of his party’s politics, you won’t be exposed to Tea Party rhetoric. So far, so good, right?

Amazon and Netflix work the same way:

“If you liked this product or that movie, here’s what we recommend you check out next.”

I once made the mistake of tweeting about how much I love my memory foam mattress. Within the hour I was followed by three companies selling mattresses. I wanted to challenge them to a pillow fight.

But wait, there’s more!

If you and I were to enter the same keywords in Google, we would receive different results, based on past online behavior. You will get sites that are more in line with your interests and I will get sites that -according to the secret algorithm- will resonate more with things I prefer. Why is that so terrible?

DIVERSITY IS THE SPICE OF LIFE

I happen to think that it’s good to be exposed to different points of view. If I am only presented with an invisibly edited and uncontrollable stream of information that confirms my own bias, I lose something very important. Eli Pariser puts it this way:

“The Internet is showing us a world it thinks we want to see, but not necessarily what we need to see.”

We need to see how other people live and we need to hear what other people think. Intellectual discourse is part of a healthy democracy.

If we wish to promote peace, understanding and compassion in the world, we have to open ourselves up to other ideas, other traditions and the very things we don’t comprehend. Things that may make us uncomfortable. Otherwise, stupid stereotypes will go unchallenged and the people on this planet will never overcome their conflicts.

5:15 PM. More of the same is not only boring, it’s dangerous.

5:16 PM. I don’t want some geek at Google to tell me what’s relevant.

Knowledge empowers. Ignorance separates.

NOW WHAT?

It’s time to burst that filter bubble and give us control over the selection of sources of information. I don’t need Yahoo to determine what types of news stories will appear when I switch on my computer.

I want Facebook to be more about sharing and less about selling. I want parents to care more about their children than about their smart phones.

I want drivers to switch off their Blackberries and pay attention to the road. I want more people to be in the moment, instead of describing it on some electronic device.

That’s all great in theory, but here’s the question that’s been haunting me:

Will that ever happen or did we pass a point of no return?

5:24 PM. I am a practitioner of Positive Pessimism.

5:25 PM Hoping for the best. Expecting the worst.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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