Watching a voiceover (VO) artist at work is like watching a Native American do a war dance, a microphone in place of a totem pole. The VO artist throws himself all over the mic — fists pumping, limbs flying and eyes wild with expressions.
“Eighty percent of communication comes through your body language, which doesn’t translate on air,” explains Awais ‘Wes’ Malik, a veteran who has been associated with the industry for two decades. “So, you exaggerate your body language to exaggerate your voice. While asking a question on air, I’ll even tilt my head and place my chin on my palm, simultaneously acting it out as well.”
Malik started out his VO career by imitating RJs and making intros to mix tapes for his cousins. “I found out how to change the startup music on my laptop and recorded ‘Welcome to Windows 98’. People would be wowed by the spoken intro since their laptops didn’t do the same. I would tell them it was probably because their Windows wasn’t genuine,” quips Malik, adding that people couldn’t figure out it was his own voice.
Sardar Sohail ‘Xin’ Ahmed Khan, the voice behind Sting’s Energy ka Jhatzzzka campaign, came across this industry by chance. He went to interview for a web designing firm where the interviewer recommended that he work in radio as he had an ideal voice. “I thought this was his way of turning me down for the job, but three months later, I ran into the interviewer again and he hooked me up with an audition at an English FM station that had recently been launched,” he shares.
For Mahvesh Murad, the entry into the VO industry was a result of natural progression in her media career. “I worked in TV for a few years and then in radio. Initially, I did whatever voiceover work was given to me on the job.” Mahvesh’s freelance voiceover work picked up pace after she resigned from her full time job at the radio station.
All three VO artists had absolutely no formal training when they started doing voiceovers. “Naturally, my voice is very nasal,” says Wes, “It was only later, that I started training and developing my voice, making it sound deeper.” Mahvesh learnt on the job as well. “I don’t do any exercises. I’ve been doing this so long now, that I’ve worked out my own vocal resonance and range.” Meanwhile, Xin believes in observing and listening to your own self and others. “You need to hear how other people narrate and talk. That way, you pick up new stuff,” he explains.
Scope of the industry
The scope of a VO artist is not just limited to recording advertisements. “VO artists do radio shows, audio commercials, audio books, audio dramas; the recent popularity in dubbing Turkish dramas is an example,” explains Xin, who recently voiced Baba Bandook in Season 4 of Burka Avengers. Malik owns his own studio where he has produced audio commercials for clients such as Subway, Shell, and Telenor. “I also voiced an entire character in the movie Jalaibee, right down to screams and grunts,” he grins. Mahvesh, too, has a diverse list of clientele. She has done IVRs (Interactive Voice Response systems) for most of the major banks in Pakistan. “Who knows? By 2017, I may be on every Pakistani bank’s phone tree; it’s a part of my world domination plan,” jests Mahvesh.
All three VO artists insist that it is not as glamorous a career as it may seem. “Most people think a VO career is just a side career,” explain Xin. “Unlike a 9 to 5 job, VO artists work in their own studios. There is a lack of understanding, in terms of value, voice, time, and mileage.” Malik also has a pragmatic approach. “I was having breakfast with producer Sohail Hashmi once and got an offer to do two VOs right there and then, for a significant amount,” he says. “When I realised that VOs could start paying my bills, I began to take them seriously.”
Mahvesh elaborates on the working conditions. “Most people I meet seem to think this is easy or glamorous. It’s neither. It’s hard work. You spend hours trapped in a small airless studio, sweating profusely, listening to the demands of strangers,” she says. “Trying to connect with certain emotions that are meant to generate a specific feeling in the audience is a strangely intimate process. It’s very odd to be watched by strangers while you do this. You have to lose certain inhibitions at some point and not be embarrassed about sounding silly.”
Clients often have unrealistic expectations of their VO artists as well. “I do two renditions of the VO, the first one is how I think it’s supposed to be done. After that, the feedback is usually, ‘Kindly energy daal dein,’ which results in a second, more energetic version,” explains Malik. Xin attests to this fact, adding that corporations should settle for just one voice that defines them. However, due to lack of maturity, this does not happen very often. “A lawn company wanted me to make their VO sound like Cate Blanchett’s voice in Lord of the Rings,” says Mahvesh. “I tried telling them that this was well below my natural range and perhaps they could do as [Peter] Jackson did, and use some effects, but they insisted it be all me. I’m not sure how I managed that one!”
Video killed the radio star
The loose structure of the VO industry is a massive concern. “There is no association of VO artists and hence, no regulations and no set rates for payments,” laments Xin. “The agencies charge clients a lot of money using your name, but the VO artist gets very little of it. If the VO artist demands an increase in the fee, he or she is frozen out of the industry by the agencies.” Xin is baffled by clients willing to pay music producers and vocalists, but not the VO artist.
Mahvesh also laments the dearth of professionalism in this industry. “Barely anyone is punctual and hardly anyone pays the artists in a timely manner. Even the studios claiming to be professional, with staunch rules about payments, will blatantly break them if they think they can get away with it.” She maintains there only a handful of people who are great to work with.
Wes Malik busts a few other myths about VO artists. “People assume I’m available 24/7; clients call me at all kinds of hours or during weekends and expect me to work at odd times. People assume it’s just voice and talking. If that’s the case, about 200 million Pakistanis can speak.” Wes’ production house has set up price lists and rates that they use as a reference base. “The standards are yet to stick, but we are trying,” he adds.
Mahvesh also discusses the additional scrutiny she has to face, based on her gender. “I’m sure you didn’t need to ask Wes or Xin this question,” was her first response. It took a moment for the significance of this statement to sink in. “I could tell you about how men love to infantilise female professionals or how many times I’ve received a call late in the evening from a strange man aggressively demanding I show up for a recording at a completely random place, or how many times I’ve been told I shouldn’t worry about my payment because surely my husband takes care of everything, but I think I’ve made my point,” she says. She also finds it ironic that often, the marketing team for a women’s product is filled with men.
Mahvesh advises upcoming RJs to never compromise on their personal time, space and professionalism. She adds that they should always have a backup plan. Malik insists that newcomers contact professionals for advice and not be afraid to ask for help. Xin’s advice to upcoming VO artists is quite straightforward: “Don’t join the profession. You’ll just increase the competition”. He, however, quickly adds that he’s only joking. “Be yourself, don’t try to mimic anyone.”
Tricks of the trade
Wes Malik: Take precautions to maintain your voice when you get sick. Drink honey mixed in water as it really helps the vocal chords. Try not to do more than two to two-and-a-half hours of continuous work as your voice gets strained. Working as soon as you wake up, without eating or drinking anything, will result in an inconsistent ‘morning voice’. Working if you’re tired also results in your voice sounding exhausted. Practice impersonations in different tones and styles, for example, a VO of Shawshank Redemption or Matthew McConaughey. I also trained for classical singing in 1995 for two years, and the vocal exercises really helped.
Xin: You need to take care of your throat quite vigorously. I have to make sure I don’t eat things that I need to chew hard before a VO, and avoid fizzy drinks. My secret weapon is Sharbat Toot Siah. No one does exercises they show in the movies. You need to read a lot, and aloud, to correct your diction. Practice helps control your voice box. Singers can transition into the VO industry because of the control they have over their voice.
Mahvesh: To some extent, you have to have a decent voice to start with but even the best voices need control and the ability to express a lot in very few words. Listening carefully to good voiceover artists from around the world will help. You do have to find your own range and resonance though, and adapt those as well as possible to the demands of each individual job. Quit smoking. Stay healthy. Learn to mimic tones because sometimes that is all that’s required of you. It’s helpful if you have a flair for dramatics and a good understanding of how the rhythms of language work, especially in recording long-form things like audio stories. And you sure as hell can’t be shy!
Ans Khurram is a freelance writer.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, October 25th, 2015.