With the spread of low-cost home studios, more and more people are aspiring to become audiobook narrators. But producing a good audiobook requires more than straight narration: the reader must be a voice actor. “Narrating is what the voice in the National Geographic films does—narrating is outside the action,” says actor Bronson Pinchot, who teaches at the Deyan Institute, a training program for voice actors established by the founders of Deyan Audio (see “Audio Education,” May 19).
Actor and voice coach Johnny Heller notes, “To be a voice actor, you have to study acting, plain and simple.” Many fledgling voice actors, even those with theater or film experience, overlook the fact that vocal acting requires a deeper rapport with the text than is needed for stage or screen acting. Casual readers can gloss over punctuation, but voice actors don’t have that luxury. “For the actor, it’s a place to stop, catch your breath, or use pregnant pauses,” Heller says, adding that, in many cases, attention to detail is more important in the voice world than the stage world.
Even while narrating, voice actors have to decide who is influencing the text—whether it is a specific character, for instance, or the voice of the author—and calibrate the performance accordingly. Heller has found that when he doesn’t make the right acting choices, his mind wanders. “I’ll start wondering whether I should do the laundry,” he says. “And if I wandered, listeners may have stopped paying attention, too. I can’t have that.” Heller’s choices must be dictated by the text—and this is why prep work before recording is so important.
For actor Coleen Marlo, who also teaches at the Deyan Institute, the first read-through is key. “I try not to do it in fits and starts,” she says. “I try to take time to get through as much as possible so I can get the overall tone, pacing, and feel of what the author is trying to say.” After the first read, Marlo begins to take notes on the characters—who they are, whether they speak with accents or have any peculiarities in their vocal patterns or intonations.
“It’s not just a matter of changing your voice when a new character comes along,” notes actor Fran Tunno (another Deyan instructor). “It’s about changing your whole intention and attitude.” Pinchot recalled a female performer who came to him for help while struggling to voice a male character. “Turned out all she did was shut down on her larynx and try to sound like a guy,” he says. Only after Pinchot told her to stop changing the register of her voice did she get it. It was more a matter of finding the unique rhythms in the male character’s dialogue than forcing her voice into a lower octave.
P.J. Ochlan, who teaches at the Deyan Institute as well, has noticed that inexperienced voice actors also fail to distinguish between dialogue and narration. “The natural instinct is to not do this,” he says. “Even in the first person, the narrator’s voice [should be] different when that narrator engages in dialogue.” Listeners need to know whether a line is delivered as dialogue or narration, and that distinction is not always easy for the actor to communicate.
A good voice actor also has to be comfortable working with the recording equipment. “Mike technique is important with regard to staying in character,” Tunno points out. When voice actors get involved with the text, they tend to move their whole bodies. But they also have to be cognizant of any background noise they’re making. On the flip side, Heller has noticed that some actors unfamiliar with mike technique sit as still as possible, which makes their performances seem robotic. “You need to be yourself,” he says. “You’re connecting with a listener via your voice. But the only way you’re connecting is if you’re true to the text. The author wrote the text; your job is to convey the truth, as a storyteller.”