Just like desktop publishing changed the printing business, home studios have forever transformed the world of voice-overs.
If you enjoy hanging out in a stuffy, cramped, dark claustrophobic enclosure all day long, having a home studio is heaven.
Most clients seem to love it. They no longer have to hire an audio engineer and a director and pay for studio time. Theoretically, hiring voice talent with a home studio may save a lot of money, but it can come at a price.
Let me tell you about the downside of home recording.
At some point in your voice-over career you want to get rid of the egg crates and the moving blankets hanging from a pvc frame, and move into a real recording space. You have two choices: Prefab or DIY.
Even the cheapest Whisper Room™ will cost you more than three grand and this does not include shipping (these booths weigh as much as an elephant). The standard, single wall models usually don’t offer enough isolation. Double wall is your best and more expensive bet.
Most booths sound boxy and you will need bass traps to tame the “boominess.” Imagine putting these huge babies in your 3.5′ x 3.5′ space. If you enjoy breathing fresh air, add another $500 for a ventilation system.
Of course you can always build your own recording cave. This is not a project you can do on a Sunday afternoon. It might take many months and eat up all your spare time, energy and extra cash.
I designed and built my own booth, but I couldn’t have done it without the help of a contractor-friend. Thanks to him, I was able to keep the costs down. I couldn’t be happier with the result, but if I ever move, my studio stays and I’ll have to start from scratch.
2. More $$$
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Let me preface this post by saying that I feel very lucky.
In the past 25 years I was able to develop a strong relationship with a number of clients. The longer we go back, the fewer words we have to waste on what each side is expecting from the other.
It’s almost like a marriage. And very much like a marriage, a lasting business relationship needs commitment from each partner. It can be love at first sight and it can also end in a divorce, due to unspoken expectations and unfulfilled desires.
Throughout the years I have heard colleagues complain about their clients:
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Etymology is the study of the origin of words. If you love language the way I do, you probably love looking into its history. Delving into the deeper meaning of the things that come out of our mouths is as revealing as it is rewarding.
Take the word competition.
To most people it is synonymous with rivalry or a fight to outdo another; a race that can only have one winner and lots of losers. It’s Darwin’s theory in a nutshell.
It wasn’t always understood like that.
The word competition comes from the latin verb…
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You’ve probably heard the story of the priest who preached the same sermon every Sunday.
After a few weeks, some of the parishioners got tired of it and demanded an explanation.
“Do you really want to know why I’m repeating myself at every service?” asked the priest. The crowd nodded.
“I will continue to tell you the same thing over and over again, until you take it to heart and do something with it.
If you don’t change your behavior, I don’t see any reason for me to change my sermon.”
Well, I may be the son of a minister, but as a writer, I can certainly relate to this priest. When it comes to setting rates, I sometimes feel I’m talking to a sea of people with frighteningly short memories and no backbone.
Watch me as I go to my pulpit and address the crowd:
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“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” from Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking-Glass”
One sunny day, a fishmonger put up the following sign:
TODAY: FRESH FISH
One of his first customers said to him: “What’s this sign I see? You only have fresh fish today?”
“Of course not,” said the fishmonger. “I have fresh fish every day. You’ve been coming here for the past eight years. You know that.”
“Then why did you write: Today: Fresh Fish? That’s confusing,” said the customer.
So the fishmonger erased the word TODAY.
An hour later another customer questioned him about the sign:
“Why does it say ‘Fresh Fish’? Isn’t your fish always fresh? Or have you been selling me unfresh fish all these years?”
“Of course not,” answered the fishmonger a bit annoyed. “Each day I go to the harbor at the crack of dawn and buy my fish straight from the men who caught it. It can’t get any fresher than that.”
“Then why did you write: Fresh Fish? That’s confusing,” said the customer.
So the fishmonger erased the word FRESH. “I don’t get these people,” he mumbled. “Wasn’t it obvious what I was trying to say?”
Our life is filled with unspoken assumptions. The obvious does not need to be stated, does it? If we hold that to be true, we’re forgetting one thing:
What’s obvious to one person might not be obvious to another person.
Language in and of itself is vague, inadequate and ambiguous, and therefore up for interpretation. If you have any doubts about that, talk to theologians or lawyers. In both cases you often need divine intervention to get them to agree on anything, even if they speak the same language.
Polish-American scientist and philosopher Alfred Korzybski (1879–1950) is the developer of what he called “General Semantics.” Simply put, this refers to the study of how you and I react to our environment or an event, and how we derive meaning from it.
Korzybski coined the phrase “The map is not the territory,” meaning that a word is not what it defines (the territory), but merely a symbolic representation of it (the map). That’s why we don’t get wet from the word water.
Here’s the problem: if we don’t know what the territory looks like, how on earth can we know what the map refers to?
Take Nike’s famous trademark “Just do it.”
Without knowing anything about it, would you have any idea what these three words stand for? For instance: what is “it”? And if we don’t know what “it” is, how are we supposed to know how to “do” “it”? It could mean a million things, and we’re supposed to “just” do them? Forget it!
Let’s move away from fishy advertising and “just do” a little experiment. Take this simple sentence:
“We only have a small budget.”
That’s plain English, isn’t it? But what does it really mean? Do we have enough information to know what the writer intended it to mean?
If you say “yes” to the question, please tell me what you think it means and what you are basing it on. If you say “no,” tell me what is missing.
I have a feeling that you’ve seen this sentence before. I will also go as far as to imagine that every day, freelancers like you and me allow these six words to influence the bids they put in, to win a project. Am I right?
In order to truly know what the client means by “We only have a small budget,” a lot of blanks need to be filled in. First of all: who is “we”? Is it a client? And if so, who is this client? Donald Trump? I bet you anything that what “the Donald,” considers to be small, will forever redefine your meaning of the word!
My voiceover agent sometimes sends me five hundred-dollar jobs and apologizes for the “small budget.” To some, five hundred dollars might be a huge step up from the hundred-dollar jobs they’ve been auditioning for, just to break into the business. But considering the fact that this client is a key retailer and that the job involves all major markets and a six-year buyout, five hundred bucks is very low pay.
It’s all relative, relatively speaking.
By giving you these examples, what did I just do?
I provided you with some context.
The meaning of words is not only determined by what you find in the dictionary. It is defined by the setting and circumstances in which they are used. In fact, dictionary editors define the meaning of words by studying the context in which they appear. They even come up with sentences in which a word is used to illustrate its meaning.
But let’s assume that little or no context is provided. What do we usually do to attempt to understand the words we read or hear?
We start making things up. Believe it or not, there’s a mindreader in all of us! To me, this is where things get really interesting. On what exactly do we base our uninformed guesses?
I remember the first time I drove on an American highway and saw a sign that said RAMP. I must confess that I had no idea what it meant (for first-time readers: I’m originally from The Netherlands).
In an attempt to understand its meaning, my mind started making associations based on my personal frame of reference. In Dutch, the word RAMP means DISASTER! Till this very day, I get uncomfortable whenever I see that sign.
Without a clear context and without the ability to ask any questions, we generally base our understanding on speculation, which in turn is based on our subjective experience. In other words: the way you interpret “we only have a small budget,” will tell us a lot about you and next to nothing about the person who wrote it. This gets us into trouble all the time.
As a service provider it is not supposed to be about us. It’s about what the client wants to see and needs to hear. But clients typically hand out maps and leave it to us to second-guess what their territory is supposed to look or sound like.
They’ll tell you:
“I don’t know how to describe to you what I want, but I know it when I hear it. As long as you try to sound warm but professional…. If you know what I mean.”
No I don’t know what you mean. How could I? We have never met. Sometimes I don’t even understand my wife, and I think that I know her better than most people.
Now, do you still wonder why you didn’t land that ‘warm and professional’ gig?
Could it be, because you were led by your own assumptions? Did you forget to ask critical questions, or were you unable or not allowed to contact the client and get some context?
Beginners often wonder: “If only I could get some feedback after the fact. That would give me some idea as to why my audition was rejected.”
I think it would be much more helpful to get some perspective before the fact; some sense of direction. Dump the vague and ambiguous verbiage. If you don’t tell us what you want, how are we supposed to give it to you? I know that words are inadequate ways of describing an experience, but can you at least try a little harder?
While you do that, let’s go back to the story.
TODAY: FRESH FISH
After erasing the first two words, the fishmonger stared at the sign that now read “FISH.”
That should do it, he thought.
No one can argue with that.
He was ready to go inside when a boy walked up to him. He had a ten-dollar bill in his hand.
“Sir, sir…” the boy said, “Can I ask you a question?”
“Of course,” said the fishmonger. “What can I help you with, young man?”
The boy looked at him with big, hopeful eyes.
“Sir, I just saw your sign and I was wondering: do you sell goldfish?”
The fishmonger made a gesture of utter exasperation.
People are completely clueless, he thought.
Then he took a damp sponge and erased the word FISH.
After much use, even the sharpest knives get dull. Paul Strikwerda
Can a voice-over pro ever take time off?
Do you have to be available 24/7?
Is it okay to shut down your business for a few weeks of Rest and Relaxation?
Will your Facebook fans unfriend you?
Will your Twitter followers desert you?
Will your voice-overworked agent ever talk to you again?
Let me answer these questions with a question:
What won’t happen if you don’t do it?
I am a big believer in a balanced lifestyle. As a European living in the States (the number 1 “no vacation nation”), I see a lot of people around me who are absolutely addicted to their jobs. Modern technology has made it easier than ever to stay connected and become a burned-out, boss-pleasing slave laborer.
Have we forgotten our history?
On January 31st, 1865, The U.S. House of Representatives passed the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, abolishing slavery in the United States. It read:
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude… shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
I guess the keyword is involuntary servitude.
We are free people, living in a free country who have earned the right to free themselves of any free time. Instead, we have chosen “voluntary servitude.”
Now, that’s what I call progress in a society built upon the principles of “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness!”
But let’s put the cynicism and sarcasm aside for a moment. If you’re pursuing happiness as a full-time freelancer, you are in charge of your own destiny. You set your own hours. You determine your own rates. You’re the only one who can call it a day and shout from the roof tops:
Give me a break!
You’re self-employed. You embody your service. Literally. If you don’t take care of yourself, no one else will. If you don’t guard your boundaries carefully, good people with the best of intentions will step on them and leave you depleted.
TRAPPED & TIRED
A few weeks ago, I was asked to do a presentation in front of hundreds of people. Prior to that, there was a reception and -of course- you can’t have a reception without background music. It’s a known fact that most musicians aren’t capable of staying in the background. No matter the crowd, they have to be LOUD.
I knew that if I were to schmooze prior to my presentation, I would have no voice left, even though my vocal cords are well-trained.
As they say: “If you schmooze, you lose.”
Besides, the next day I was going to New York for a recording session and my voice had to be in top-shape in order to sell well.
So, I was left with a choice. Either slip something into the drinks of the band that would have them running to the restroom in a matter of minutes… or hide myself from the crowd until it was time to go on stage.
The first option was obviously more entertaining, but I ended up hiding in the basement. Unfortunately, an overzealous janitor came down, turned off the lights and kicked the door shut, leaving me trapped.
This is where cell phones can save the day. I called the organizer of the event:
“Hi, it’s Paul.”
“Paul, where are you? We’ve looked all over for you!”
“I am trapped in the basement. It is dark in here. Rats are nibbling on my feet. Please rescue me!”
That day, instead of being a voice-over, I became a voice-under.
I think you get my point.
In order to give your all, you sometimes have to get away from it all. But avoid being locked up.
Now, in an ideal world you would just pack your bags and go where no one can reach you. But what to do when you’re waiting for that all-important callback or that once-in-a-lifetime chance to audition for something you can’t afford to refuse?
In that case, you need to take some gear on the road and improvise. Rather than spending a few hours going over all the options, I suggest you read Harlan Hogan and Jeffrey Fischer’s classic Voice Actor’s Guide to Recording at Home and on the Road. It’s jam-packed with practical information and I highly recommend it to anyone remotely interested in a voice-over career.
Here’s what I take along on my travels:
a CEntrance MicPort Pro
A MicPort Pro is a nifty mini audio interface/preamplifier that plugs directly into your microphone. On the other side there’s a USB cable that plugs into your computer. In other words: this device can turn any microphone into a USB mic. It has phantom power, a headphone jack and two knobs for setting the record level and the headphone volume.
So… after all that subtle product placement, let’s get back to the original question:
Can you take off for a period of time without ruining your career?
Here’s an experiment you should do at home:
Fill up your watering can to the brim and start watering your plants. Keep on watering and watering and watering… until there’s no more water left.
I don’t have to tell you that -in order for those plants to grow- you need to water them regularly. An empty watering can is useless. The moral of the story:
You can’t give what you don’t have.
Now, why is that so easy to understand when it comes to our plants, and why are we surprised that “We the People,” are so stressed, so drained and left without an ounce of creativity?
Take my advice and get lost! Recharge your batteries. Discover that you have significant others in your life who’d love to get to know you. It can’t be all work and no play… Your job is just a means to an end.
TAKING TIME OFF
Be sure to let your voice casting sites and agents know that you’ll be gone for a particular period of time. If you must, bring your gear, but promise yourself that you will only do what is absolutely essential. Otherwise, you’ll get sucked into obsessive email checking, incessant instant messaging and frantic Facebooking.
Only use your cell phone when you’re stuck in a basement and someone’s thrown away the key.
When you come back from your well-deserved vacation, notice how refreshed, alert and full of energy you are.
People can see it in your face. They hear it in your voice.
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