Back when the BBC was first launched in 1922, the first General Manager of the corporation, Sir John Reith, insisted the BBC be as formal and quintessentially British as possible, and he created a number of rules towards this end. One thing he stressed in particular was that the newscasters spoke the “King’s English.“ He felt it was “a style or quality of English that would not be laughed at in any part of the country”. He also assumed RP would be easier for people across the empire to understand versus a regional accent, of which the tiny land mass of the UK has dozens. Reish wanted things to be ‘just so,’ even ordering that any newscaster reading the news after 8PM had to wear a dinner jacket while on air, on the radio, where no one could see them.
The BBC didn’t create Received Pronunciation, though. We can trace the origins of RP back to the secondary schools and universities of nineteenth-century Britain, making it the accent of a certain social class, the one with money. Their speech patterns – based loosely on the local accent of the south-east Midlands, roughly London, Oxford and Cambridge, soon came to be associated with ‘The Establishment.’ although one of Reith’s goals in using RP was to appeal to the widest audience possible, many listeners still felt alienated by the broadcasts being beamed into their homes because of this “upper class” accent being used. Despite this, newscasters were required to use Received Pronunciation right up until World War 2.
Why change it during the war? Didn’t they have bigger things to worry about? Well, the Ministry of Information was worried about the Nazis hijacking the radio waves. During World War 2, Nazi Germany invested a lot of time and money to train spies and propagandists to speak using perfect Received Pronunciation so that they could pass as British. If they pulled it off, the Nazis could potentially issue orders over the radio in a thoroughly convincing and official-sounding newscaster voice. Therefor, the BBC hired several newscasters possessed of broad regional accents that would be more difficult for Nazis to perfectly copy, and as a bonus might also appeal to the “common man”.
The first person to read the news on the BBC with a regional accent was one Wilfred Pickles in 1941. [sfx clip] The public trusted that he was in fact British, but they didn’t trust, or couldn’t ignore his accent to pay attention to, a word he said. Far from being popular, his mild Yorkshire accent offended many listeners so much that they wrote letters to the BBC, blasting them for having the audacity to sully the news that way. Nonetheless, after the end of World War 2, the BBC continued to loosen its guidelines and began to hire more people who spoke with the respective accent of the region they were being broadcast. That said, the BBC does continue to select newscasters with the most mild accents for international broadcasts.
You can’t please everyone, but if you can get in good in the voicework industry, you can do a staggering number of roles. How many? Here are some examples, pulling only from the cast of one of my favorite shows, Futurama. You might say my husband and I are fans; we had a Hypnotoad wedding cake. Billy West, the voice of Fry, Prof. Farnsworth, and Zoidberg, as well as both Ren and Stimpy, has 266 acting credits on his IMDB page. Maurice LaMarche, who did Calculon, Morbo and Kiff and is the go-to guy for Orson Welles impressions like Brain from Animaniacs, has 390 roles listed. Tress MacNeille, who did basically every female who wasn’t Amy or Leela, as well as Dot on Animaniacs and Agnes Skinner on The Simpsons has 398 roles to her name. Bender’s voice actor, John DiMaggio, without whom the Gears of War video games wouldn’t be the same, has worked on some 424 projects. The man who made Hermes Conrad Jamaican, and gave us Samurai Jack, Phil LaMarr, is the most prolific voice actor on that cast, with a whopping 495 credits to his name. Still, he falls short of the resume of Rob Paulsen, who did the voices of Yakko and Pinky on Animaniacs, and other examples too numerous to list here, because his IMDB pages lists 541 voice acting credits. And did I mention they’re bringing Animaniacs back? [cheer] Paulsen is trailing behind Tara Strong, though. The actress who voiced Bubbles on Powerpuff Girls, Raven on Teen Titans, and Timmy on Fairly Oddparents has 609 roles in her 35 year career, or an average of 17 a year. That may not sound impressive, but have you’ve ever tried getting *one acting job? Strong can’t hold a candle to a man whose voice I can identify from two rooms away, a man who will always be Spike Spiegel from Cowboy Bebop no matter who he’s playing, Steve Blum, who has racked up 798 voice roles. And those are just a sampling of voice actors I can name off the top of my head. So when career day rolls around, maybe skip doctor and firefighter and suggest your kid become a voice actor. Not everyone who does voice work has a face for radio, so I put pictures of all the actors up on the Vodacast app so you can se what Fry, Yakko, and Raven really look like ..
“Sure,” you say, “that sounds like a sweet gig. Walk in, say a few things, and cash the check.” Oh my sweet summer child. If it was that easy, everyone would do it. For starters, there is no “got it in one take” in voice acting. Be prepared to do your lines over and over again, with different emphasis, different inflection, different pacing, or sometimes simply saying it over and over again until, even though each take sounds the same to you, the director gets the subtle difference they’re looking for. Bonus fact: the feeling you get when you say a word or phrase so many times that it stops sounding like a word and becomes a meaningless noise is called semantic satiation.
You may be standing in a little booth all day, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be physically taxing. Actors dubbing anime in particular are required to do a lot of screaming. Chris Sabat, who voices Vegeta in the Dragonball series, says that even with his background in opera and the vocal control that taught him, “I will literally be sick the next day. I will have flu-like symptoms. Because you have to use so much energy, and use up so much of your voice to put power into those scenes, that it will make you sick. That’s not an exaggeration; I will be bedridden sometimes after screaming for too long.”
That is, if you can get a gig. Remember how I rattled off actors who’ve had hundreds of roles each? That’s because, in rough figures, 5% of the actors get 95% of the work. So unless you’re a Tara Strong or Phil LaMarr, noteworthy roles will be hard to come by. One plus side is you get paid by the word, as well as by the tag. A tag is part of a recording that can be swapped out, like recording a commercial, and recording the phrases “coming soon,” “opening this Monday,” and “open now.” The clients gets three distinct commercials from one recording sessions, so you get more money. Assuming the client actually orders the session. You may find yourself on stand-by or “avail,” as it’s called in the industry. You may be asked to set aside a few hours or even consecutive days for a recording session. The problem is, the client isn’t actually obligated to use you during that time and no one else can book you during that time until they release you from it.
But it’s a job you can do in your pj’s, and I often do, and that’s always a plus. Even though no one can see the actors, voice work still uses props and accessories. While computers can be used to speed up or slow down dialogue (which is more of a concern in dubbing Japanese animation, where the visuals are already done), certain vocal changes can easily be achieved using random items in the studio. “If the character is in a hollowed-out tree, I might stick my head in a wastebasket,” veteran voice actor Corey Burton told Mental Floss. “If it doesn’t sound quite right, I can throw some wadded-up Kleenex in there for better acoustics.” Burton, like Mel Blanc, prefers to eat real food when the moment calls for it. “They want you to sometimes just go, ‘Nom, nom, nom.’ No! I want a carrot, a cookie. I don’t want to make a dry slurping noise when I could be sipping a drink.”
Pencils also play an important role, not for making notes on the script or creating any sort of convincing sound effect. The plague of these performers is plosives. You’ve probably heard them on podcasts; they’ve definitely been on mine. A plosive is the noise you get when a consonant that is produced by stopping the airflow using the lips, teeth, or palate, followed by a sudden release of air. It’s also called popping your p’s, since that’s the worst culprit. A round mesh screen in front of the mic helps, but the old-school trick to stop plosives actually uses a pencil. If they’re getting p-pops on the recording, voice actors will hold a pencil or similar linear object upright against the lips. This disrupts the air enough to avoid the giant, sharp spike in the soundwave. Now if only there were some cheap and easy trick to get rid of mouth noises and lip smacks. You may hear a few on this podcast, but for everyone you hear, I cut twenty out.
The most sure-fire way to avoid mouth noises and breathing when ordering a recording is to use a computer-generated or AI voice. Now this is a sticky wicket in the VO community, a real burr under a lot of saddles. Whenever it comes up in message groups, a third of people turn into South Park characters [sfx they took our jobs]. I won’t get too Insider Baseball here, but here’s the scoop. AI voices are cheap, fast, and they’re getting really good. Have you ever gotten a robodialer call where it took you a moment to realize it was not a live person? There are companies offering entire audiobooks in AI voices. There is even an AI voice that can cry! So why am I not bothered? The way I see it, the people who will buy the cheapest possible option, in this case an AI voice, weren’t going to pay even my Fiverr rate, and invariably, the cheaper a client is, the more working with them makes you regret ever starting this business in the first place. It’s an irony a lot of freelancers and business owners are familiar with — the $5k client pays you the day you submit the invoice; the $50 client makes you hound them for six weeks and then they say they want you to do it over or come down on the price. So I’m fine with letting those gigs go. The other reason is that while AI applications and devices such as smart speakers and digital assistants like Siri are powered by computer-generated voices, those voices actually originate from real actors! In fact, I just wrapped an AI-generation job this week. In most cases, even computerized voices need a human voice as a foundation for the development of the vocal database. Nevertheless, AI is creating new work for a wide range of voice actors. Are these actors putting themselves out of a job in future? Maybe. Maybe not. It’s definitely something I had to wrestle with before accepting the job. But I figured, AI is coming whether we like it or not, so it’s best to be involved to help steer the ship rather than be capsized by its wake.
When I took the AI-generation job, there were two questions I had for the client: what control do I have over how my voice is used, and what happens if you sell the company? I asked these two questions for two good reasons, Bev Standing and Susan Bennett. Bev Standing, a VO and coach from Canada, was surprised to hear her own voice being used on peoples’ videos when friends and colleagues told her to log onto Tiktok. For one, people could use her voice to say whatever they liked, no matter how vile, and she’d never worked with, been paid by, or given permission for use of her voice to TikTok.
According to Standing, who I’ve taken classes with and is a really nice lady, the audio in question was recorded as a job for the Chinese Institute of Acoustics four years ago, ostensibly for translations. “The only people I’ve worked with are the people I was hired by, which was for translations… My agreement is not what it’s being used for, and it’s not with the company that’s using my voice,” Standing said in an interview.
Standing files a lawsuit against TikTok’s parent company ByteDance on the grounds of intellectual property theft. She hasn’t consented to her performance being used by TikTok, and had very real concerns that the content created using her audio would hurt her ability to get work in the future. Imagine if Jan 6 insurrectionists and other such hateful wackaloons used your voice on their videos. Good luck getting hired after that. TikTok and ByteDance stayed pretty mum, both publicly and to Standing and her lawyer, also a VO, but they did change the AI voice, which certainly looks like they done wrong. The lawsuit was settled a few months ago, but it’s all sealed up in NDAs, so I can’t tell you the details, but I’m calling it a win.
The other name I dropped was Susan Bennett, but that’s not the name you’d recognize her as. Though she was training to be a teacher, it soon became clear to Susan Bennet that her voice was destined for more than saying “eyes on your own paper.” She acted in the theater, was a member of a jazz band, an a cappella group, and she was a backup singer for Burt Bacharac and Roy Orbison. That background helped her land gigs doing VO and singing jingles for the likes of Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Macy’s, Goodyear, Papa John’s, IBM, and more. In 1974, she became the voice of First National Bank of Atlanta’s Tillie the All-Time Teller, one of the first bank ATMs. Her voice made the new technology more user-friendly for a computer-unfamiliar public.
Bonus fact: one of the earliest ATMs in NYC printed the security picture of the user on their receipts. According to the man who sold them to the bank, “The only people using the machines were prostitutes and gamblers who didn’t want to deal with tellers face to face.” Or it could be the hours they keep. I can neither confirm nor deny this, but I like to think that sex workers are the underappreciated early-adopters that helped the rest of us to be able to hit the cash machine on the way out of town (or the Mac machine, as my mom called it well into the 90’s). Bennet also became the voice of Delta Airlines announcements, GPS’s, and phone systems.
But even with all that, that’s not where you know her voice from. “Hey, Siri, how big is the Serengeti?” [sfx if Google was] Susan Bennet was the original voice of Siri on the iphone, but she never actually worked for Apple. In 2005, she recorded a wealth of words and wordy-sounding non-words for a company called ScanSoft or Nuance, I’ve been seeing either listed. For four hours a day, every day, in July 2005, Bennett holed up in her home recording booth, saying thousands of phrases and sentences of mostly-to-completely nonsense, which the “ubergeeks” as she called them, could use for generating AI speech. According to Bennet, “I was reading sentences like ‘cow hoist in the tub hut today.’ ‘Militia oy hallucinate buckra okra ooze.’ Then I would read these really tedious things that were the same word, but changing out the vowel. ‘Say the shrayding again, say the shreeding again, say the shriding again, say the shredding again, say the shrudding again.’ “ These snippets were then synthesized in a process called concatenation that builds words, sentences, paragraphs. And that is how voices like hers find their way into GPS and telephone systems.
The job was done, the check cleared, and life went on, then 2011 rolled around and Siri was unveiled as an integrated feature of the Apple iPhone 4S. The actors who’d worked for Nuance had no idea until well after it happened. Bennett found out that her voice is actually Siri after a friend emailed: ”Hey, we’ve been playing around with this new Apple phone. Isn’t this you?’ Apple had bought SoftScan/Nuance and all of its assets. “Apple bought our voices from Nuance without our knowing it.” As a voiceactor, this turn of events was problematic for a few reasons. Typecasting and stereotyping, for one. The downside of being successful in a role can be that that’s all people want you for after that, like Sean Bean and a character who dies. So Bennett kept her identity close to her vest until 2013, when Apple switched voices. “My voice was just the original voice on the 4s and the 5. But now it no longer sounds like Apple because [Siri] sounds like everyone else. The original Siri voice had a lot of character; she had a lot of attitude.
Bennet has never said how much she made from Nuance, but we know how much she’s made from Apple. In round figures, give or take for inflation, [sfx calculator] she made $0. Her voice was on something like 17 million phones. Even a penny per phone would have been a handsome payday, but no, no penny for you. “We were paid for the amount of time we spent recording but not at all for usage. The only way I’ve been able to get any payment for it, really, is through my speaking events, but I’m very grateful to have been the voice of Siri. She’s very iconic; it’s led to a whole new career for me.”
Another widespread voice that didn’t get commensurate royalties is known for a single phrase, barely a full sentence. [sfx clip] From FIFA and Madden to UFC and NBA, Andrew Anthony’s voice has opened EA Sports video games for 30 years now and let us all have a collective shiver of mortality at that fact. Anthony had a friend who ran a small ad sales company, who had taken on the not-yet-industry-cornerstone Electronic Arts as a client. “My friend then called me up in Toronto and said ‘Hey will you do this thing… for free?’ I said ‘yeah, of course, I will! I don’t even know what this is but I get a free trip down to see you, so for sure’. So Anthony went to visit his friend, read the line, which was originally “If it’s in the game, it’s in the game,” and assumed he would never, ever hear anything about it again. Call that an underestimation. EA is valued at $37B, with the Sports being a big chunk of that. And Anthony has seen exactly none of that money, and he’s pretty okay with that. Over the years, Anthony has met plenty of other gaming fans and happily agreed to do his EA Sports voice impression on camera.
Not every screen actor’s able to do voice work successfully; we’ve all heard flat, lackluster performances from big name stars in animated features. Looking at you, Sarah Michelle Gellar from the recent HeMan cartoon. Not so with the person who arguably kicked off the trends of booking big names stars for voice work, Robin Williams in his role as Genie. Williams recorded 30 hours of dialogue, most of it improvised, for the 90 minute movie. He took the role for *9% of the fee he normally commanded with the condition that the recordings not be used to merchandise products. He wanted to “leave something wonderful behind for this kids.” Thanks for spending part of your day with me.
And that’s where we run out of ideas, at least for today. So a wife overheard her boss saying he wanted a voice to notify people when they received email and volunteered her husband. “I recorded it on a cassette deck in my living room,” Edwards told the New York Post on November 7. “Most people think I’m retired and own an island.” Instead, he works at WKYC-TV from 3:30 a.m. to noon, and drives an Uber from noon to 6 p.m. In 2014, Edwards told CNBC that he pranks people by standing behind their computers and booming, “You’ve got mail!” Explained the voice-over actor, “I have fun with it!” He’s not bothered by not getting royalties, so I guess we shouldn’t be either. Remember…