If you logged onto the internet between say ‘95-2005, you’d inevitably hear two things, the shriek of a modem, like a robot orgy in a combine harvester, and a cheery man’s voice saying, “Welcome” and “You’ve got mail.” Elward Edwards recorded those phrases for $200 in 1989, when his wife worked for Quantum Computer Services, the company that later became AOL. At its peak, AOL had 23 million users, all hearing Edwards’ voice. He briefly returned to public attention when a video of him saying the iconic line was posted on social media, by one of his Uber passengers. My name’s …
Every topic I cover on YBOF is interesting to me, anywhere from a little ‘huh’ to an all-consuming passion that dictates everything from my daily schedule to my podcast listening. This is one of those, because I do voiceovers for a living. Hire me today, no job too small. With a chronic idiopathic pulmonary condition, covid provided a real kick in the pants to finally get out of retail. What I discovered, apart from how it’s not as easy as you think, or at least as easy as I thought with two years of podcasting already under my belt, is that VO is everywhere! It’s not just cartoons and dubbing movies. Phone menus, kids toys, GPS, pre-roll ads on YT, website explainer videos, e-learning/training, continuing education, audiobooks, podcasts of course, guided meditations, seriously we could be here all day. Even computerized voices usually start with a real person, more on that later.
Kids these days may not hear a voice that was unbelievably common in the lives of many of us. [sfx “At the tone, the time will be 7:22 and 40 seconds,” “I’m sorry, the number you have dialed is no longer in service”] That’s the authoritative voice of Jane Barbe, one of the most widely-heard voices ever. Barbe was the queen of telephone recordings, estimated to have been heard 40 million times a day in the 1980s and early 1990s, everything from automated time and weather messages to hotel wake-up calls. She wasn’t the only person who recorded automated phone messages, but she practically had the market cornered.
Barbe did most of her recordings for Atlanta-based Electronic Telecommunications Inc., which at one time produced as many as 2,000 voice messaging systems for businesses and government agencies, and for Octel Communications, which is now a part of Bell Labs/Lucent. She was heard on 90% of “intercept messages” — the recording played when something is wrong with a phone number — and 60% of automated time and temperature calling programs. You see, children, before you had the exact time and the collective knowledge of humanity to take to the toilet with you, you might go to the nearest telephone and dial a number you had committed to memory, probably the wildest part of this story, so a recording could tell you the time and temperature.
While I still haven’t encountered my own voice in the wild, which was especially disappointing after I voiced a local political ad, Jane Barbe misdialed her calls as much as the rest of us, an experience she described as “really weird.” One time she overheard her mother dialing a number and getting her on a recorded message. ‘Oh, shut up, Jane!’ her mom groused before slamming down the receiver in exasperation.
The story of how our go-go tech-driven lives became infused with voiceovers well predates YT and phone menus. We have to go back over a century, to the night of Christmas eve 1906. Up to that moment, the ship wireless operators for the United Fruit Company, along with the US Navy, had only heard Morse codes coming through their headphones. But suddenly, they heard a human voice singing “O Holy Night” with violin accompaniment and afterwards a reading from the Bible. This was heard by ships along the Atlantic northeast coast and from shore stations as far south as Norfolk, Virginia. A repeat broadcast was heard on New Year’s Eve as far south as the West Indies. The voice was that of Canadian inventor and mathematician Reginald Fessenden, who was responsible for establishing the first transatlantic wireless telegraphic communication and what is considered to be the first voice work. Fessneden was excited by Alexander Graham Bell’s new device, the telephone, and set out to create a way to remotely communicate without wires. In 1900, working for the United States Weather Bureau, Fessenden recorded the very first voice over: a test he made reporting the weather. The following year, Guglielmo Marconi, who is often credited as the father and inventor of the radio became the first person to transmit signals across the Atlantic Ocean.
Though wireless communication was invaluable in WWI, broadcasts to the public were largely regional, amateur affairs. The first radio news program was broadcast August 31, 1920 by station 8MK in Detroit, Michigan, which survives today as all-news CBS station. The first college radio station began broadcasting two months later from Union College, Schenectady, New York. Around the same time, station 2ADD (call letters were weird in the beginning), aired what is believed to be the first public entertainment broadcast in the United States, a series of Thursday night concerts that could initially only be heard within a 100-mile (160 km) radius and later for a 1,000-mile (1,600 km) radius. It wasn’t much, but it was the start of broadcast voice work.
The average person knows off-hand that the first movie with diegetic, or native, sound was The Jazz Singer in 1927, but the biggest event in voice work came the following year — the first talkie cartoon. It was Steamboat Willie, with the prototype for Mickey Mouse voiced by none other than creator Walt Disney. Hot on its heels came next year’s Looney Tunes the following year. And that’s t-u-n-e-s like music, not t-o-o-n-s like cartoon. In the early days of animation, Disney produced short animated films called “Silly Symphonies,” to promote and sell music, in the form of records and sheet music. As Silly Symphonies gained popularity, Warner Brothers created its own equivalents, “Merrie Melodies”“Looney Tunes.” As for the “looney” part of the title, Warner Brothers wanted to indicate that “[their] cartoons were a little wackier than the sweeter characters of Disney.” Cartoons quickly solidified their place as entertainment for children and adults alike.
One man in particular made Looney Tunes a powerhouse, “the man of a thousand voices” – Mel Blanc. He is considered to be the first outstanding voice actor in the industry and voiced Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, Tweety Bird, Sylvester the Cat, Yosemite Sam, the Tasmanian Devil, Marvin the Martian, Pepé Le Pew, Speedy Gonzales, and many others. Raised in Portland, Oregon, he worked at KGW as an announcer and as one of the Hoot Owls in the mid-1930s, where he specialized in comic voices. It took him a year and a half to land an audition with Leon Schlesinger’s company, where he began in 1937. He also worked for Walter Lantz, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Columbia, and even Walt Disney until Schlesinger signed him to an exclusive contract.
One of Mel Blanc’s most important contributions to the voice over industry is the recognition that voice artists now get to enjoy. Originally, voice artists were not given screen credit on animated cartoons. After he was turned down for a raise by tight-fisted producer Leon Schlesinger, Blanc suggested they add his name as Vocal Characterizationist to the credits as a compromise. Not only did it give a greater recognition to voice artists but also from then on, it helped to bring Blanc to the public eye and quickly brought him more work in radio.
We almost didn’t have as much Mel Blanc voice-work as we did. On January 24th, 1961, Blanc was in a near-fatal car accident on Sunset Boulevard. He suffered multiple fracture to both legs and his pelvis, as well as triple skull bone displacements. He lay in a coma, unresponsive, for two weeks. After many doctors’ attempts to bring him out of the deep unconsciousness, one of his neurologists tried a different approach and asked Blanc, “How are you feeling today, Bugs Bunny?” After a moment, in a low voice, he replied, “Eh… just fine, Doc. What’s up?” The doctor then asked if Tweety was in there too, to which Blanc replied: “I tot I taw a puddy tat.” Mel Blanc recovered shortly after and continued to do what he did best, until his death at age 81. His tombstone in Hollywood Forever Cemetery reads “That’s all, folks.”
Bonus fact: Bugs Bunny’s habit of eating carrots while delivering one-liners was based on a scene in the film It Happened One Night, in which Clark Gable’s character leans against a fence, eating carrots rapidly and talking with his mouth full to Claudette Colbert’s character. The trouble was, Mel Blanc didn’t like carrots. He would bite and chew the carrots to get the sound needed and immediately spit it out.
Hopping back to Disney, the house of mouse also pioneered the full-length animated feature, to much soon-to-be-disproven skepticism and derision, with Snow White in 1937. Adriana Caselotti was the daughter of Italian immigrants living in Connecticut. Both her mother and older sister sang opera and her father gave voice lessons, so making best use of one’s voice was sort of their thing. After a brief stint as a chorus girl, when she was only 18, Caselotti was hired to provide the voice of Snow White. She was paid $970, equivalent to $17K today, typical for the non-union times. In most Hollywood stories, this would be step one of a meteoric rise. The movie was certainly a success, even briefly hold the title of highest grossing sound film, so why isn’t Adriana Caselotti a household name? All my research indicates that Disney did it on purpose. Caselotti was under contract with Disney, so she couldn’t work for other studios, but Disney never provided her with any other roles. Even radio and TV legend Jack Benny was turned away, with the explanation, “That voice can’t be used anywhere. I don’t want to spoil the illusion of Snow White.” It’s the same reason Disney didn’t credit voice actors for the first six years of feature films; he didn’t want anything to remind the buying public that the characters are just make-believe. Caselotti’s only other cinematic contribution, for which she was paid $100, was to sing the falsetto line “Wherefore Art Thou, Romeo”, in the Tin Man’s song in The Wizard of Oz. She was a lovely girl; you can see pictures of her if you’re listening to the show on the Vodacast app.
I’ve actually got a few bullet points on the dark secrets behind the happiest place on earth. There’s enough to fill a movie. I can see the trailer now. “In a world…” I can’t do the voice. Only one man could, the epic movie trailer guy, Don LaFontaine. Donald LaFontaine was called, “The King,” “Thunder Throat” and “The Voice of God.” His CV includes 5,000 movie trailers and over 350,000 television commercials, network promotions, and video game trailers. His signature phrase, “in a world…”, is so well known and parodied, LaFontaine parodied it himself in a Geico ad. [sfx]
LaFontaine was born in 1940 in Duluth, Minnesota. to Alfred and Ruby LaFontaine. At age 13, his voice changed, all at once, mid-sentence, and never went back. He began his career as a recording engineer at the National Recording Studios producing commercial spots for Dr. Strangelove: Or how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb. LaFontaine worked behind the mic until 1964, when he had to fill in for a missing voice actor to finish a promo spot for 1964’s Gunfighters of Casa Grande for a client’s presentation. The client bought the spots, and LaFontaine’s career as a voice actor began. LaFontaine developed his signature style of a strong narrative approach, and heavy melodramatic coloration of his voice work. In 1976 LaFontaine started his own company producing movie trailers. He moved to Los Angeles in 1981 and was contacted by an agent, launching a career that spanned three decades. LaFontaine’s signature voice came with a busy schedule. He could have voiced about 60 promotions a week, sometimes more than 3 in a single day. Most studios were willing to pay a premium for his service. It has been said that his voice-over added prestige and excitement, a certain gravitas, to what might otherwise have been a box office failure.
In a 2007 interview, LaFontaine explained the strategy behind his signature catch phrase, “in a world where…”: “We have to very rapidly establish the world we are transporting them to. That’s very easily done by saying, `In a world where … violence rules.’ `In a world where … men are slaves and women are the conquerors.’ You very rapidly set the scene.” Wait, what movie wa that second one? LaFontaine became so successful that he arrived at his voice-over jobs in a personalized limo with a full time driver, until he began recording from his palatial estate in the Hollywood Hills, thanks to the internet and ISDN. It’s hardly worth talking about ISDN as a voiceover today, as it’s rapidly on its way out, but as a podcaster, I’m happy to. ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) is a system of digital telephone connections, which enables recording studios anywhere in the United States, Canada and abroad to connect digitally with voice over talent working remotely in their home recording studio. It’s as clear as being in the same room. It makes a Zoom call look like two Solo cups and an old shoelace. But nobody’s having a dedicated ISDN line installed these days. It costs at least $1500 for the unit, plus anywhere from $75 to a few hundred dollars per month for the service, so [sfx raspberry] onto the rubbish heap of rapidly-outdated technology it goes!
LaFontaine died suddenly in 2008 and now all we’re left with is the Inception noise. [sfx] I mean, it was cool at first, but now … meh. You can also hear shades of LaFontaine in the work of a Barbadian-British VO known professionally as Redd Pepper. His legal name is on wikipedia, but I don’t like when mine comes up, so I won’t use his. (Also, if you find out someone goes by a name other than the one on their passport, just leave it, will you? Be they trans, an actor, an exotic dancer, or a check-out girl, don’t matter. You don’t need to know what my “real name” is unless you’re writing me a check.) Anyway, Pepper has voiced over 100 trailers, including blockbusters like Jurassic Park, Men in Black and Space Jam, so you’ve probably heard him, even if you thought he was the old “in a world” guy. Here’s LaFontaine [sfx] and here’s Pepper [sfx].
Speaking of signature sounds, if you’ve ever heard old movies or newsreels from the thirties or forties, then you’ve probably heard that weird old-timey voice. It sounds a little like a blend between American English and a form of British English. Did everyone talk that way between the world wars? Not everyone, no, only the people being recorded and they did it on purpose.
This type of pronunciation is called the Transatlantic, or Mid-Atlantic, accent. Not mid-Atlantic like Virginia and Maryland, but like in the middle of the Atlantic. Unlike most accents, instead of naturally evolving, the Transatlantic accent was acquired. People in the United States were taught to speak in this voice. Historically, Transatlantic speech was the hallmark of American aristocracy and by extension the theatre. In upper-class boarding schools across New England, students learned the Transatlantic accent as an international norm for communication, similar to the way posh British society used Received Pronunciation, which we’ll get to in a minute. Mid-Atlantic English was the dominant dialect among the Northeastern American upper class through the first half of the 20th century. As such, it was popular in the theatre and other forms of elite culture in that region….
Transatlantic has several quasi-British elements, such a lack of rhoticity. This means that Mid-Atlantic speakers dropped their “r’s” at the end of words like “winner” or “clear”. They’ll also use softer, British vowels – dahnce, fahst. While those sounds were reduce, emphasis was put on t’s. In American English we often pronounce the “t” in words like “writer” and “water” as d’s. Transatlantic speakers pounce on their T’s, writer, water.
This speech pattern isn’t completely British, nor completely American. Instead, it’s a form of English that’s hard to place and that’s part of why Hollywood loved it. With the evolution of talkies in the late 1920s, voice was first heard in motion pictures. It was then that the majority of audiences first heard Hollywood actors speaking predominantly in Mid-Atlantic English. But why do so many speakers have such a high, nasal quality? There’s a theory that technological constraints, combined with the schooled accent, created this iconic speech. According to Duke university professor Jay O’Berski, this sound is an artifact from the early days of radio. Radio receivers had very little bass technology at the time, and it was very difficult, if not impossible, to hear bass tones on your home device. Speakers with pleasing full baritones were no good on early radio.
The Transatlantic accent made Americans sound vaguely British, but how can you make British people sound more British, like, the maximum amount of Britishness, like a cup of earl grey tea served with a dry scone smeared with marmalade and imperialism. You teach them Received Pronunciation. Received Pronunciation, or RP, is the instantly recognisable super-British accent often described as The Queen’s English’, ‘Oxford English’ or ‘BBC English.’ RP is described as “the standard form of British English pronunciation,” though only 2% or so of Brits speak it.
So where did Transatlantic pronunciation go? Linguist William Labov noted that Mid-Atlantic speech fell out of favor after World War II, as fewer teachers taught it to their students and radio and movie sound technology evolved to handle bass. It’s not gone entirely, though. British expats like Anthony Hopkins still use it and it pops up in place of actors’ natural British accents in movies. The example that leaps to my mind is Warwick Davis. You also know him as The Leprechaun, Professor Fliwick in Harry Potter, among 80 other roles. For his first major film role as the titular Willow in 1988, he was taught the Transatlantic accent because the studio heads thought that Americans wouldn’t be able to understand his British accent. *sigh* I could probably do a whole episode on executives thinking the average person was sub-moronic. Did you ever once have a problem with Warwick Davis’ accent, or anything less clear than Brad Pitt in Snatch? Pop on to our social media…