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Ever wondered how to make a living with just your voice? Interested in becoming a professional voice-over artist?
This week I’m joined by professional voice-over artist Jay Britton, who has done work for companies like HBO (Game of Thrones!), Marvel, Amazon, and more.
He built his voice-over career from scratch in his late 20’s, and in this episode, Jay shares everything you need to know if you want to be a professional voice-over artist too.
We talked about how he got started, what gear he recommends for beginners, how to find work if you’re just starting out, how to get your first agent, tips for improving your speaking voice, and so much more.
Highlights, Takeaways & Quick Wins
- You don’t need the fanciest mic or a ton of knowledge to sound good. Just make sure you aren’t clipping and do some basic treatment to your audio.
- Not every mic is right for your voice. You’ll need to try some different mics out to see what pairs with your voice the best.
- If you want to make a living from voice-over work, you have to think about yourself as a business.
- If you’re just getting started as a voice-over artist, a voice coach is one of the best investments you can make.
- You can make a living in voice-over without an agent. You don’t need an agent to be successful.
- It doesn’t matter how you start, it just matters that you start.
- You’re born with the voice you are born with, that’s it. You can’t change that. All you can do is learn how to use your own voice to its best abilities.
- You’re not going to get many scripts that you can read in advance, so the ability to read ahead while performing a script is essential.
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- 1:49 Aaron: How did you get started doing voice-over work? Were you born with a golden voice, did you know from an early age that you were going to be a voice actor?
- 2:05 Jay: Golden voice? Not exactly. I don’t really have a special Barry White kind of voice. I did know from an early age that I wanted to do something with my voice. I blame the Animaniacs and all those kinds of shows for the inspiration. I just wanted to do voices; I was that guy in school who did the funny voices.
When Did You Get Started as a Voice-over Artist?
- 2:39 Jay: Like so many people, I decided to do something sensible after college. I left college and went straight into an IT job for 10 years or so. But I got to a point in my life where IT work was just too boring; I knew I couldn’t do it for the rest of my life. I asked myself what I wanted to do, and knew that it was voice-over. So I slowly started to take some steps towards getting started. Those first steps are always the scariest.
- 3:25 The first thing I did was look for a voice coach. I booked a workshop in London and got some coaching and recorded some demos. Then (slowly) I started to try to find voice-over work. There was a long journey from then to what I have now; I definitely had a false start, kind of kept it on the sidelines for awhile. I kind of dabbled, I didn’t commit to getting my voice-over business off the ground.
- 4:31 After about 3 years of dabbling, I had a really bad day at my job (still IT) and I was talking to my wife afterwards about how much I hated it. She said, “Why don’t you do the voice-over thing properly?” So that’s when I started taking it seriously. I went over to the states and got some more coaching, got some real recordings done, got some new kit (that’s gear), and really worked hard to make it my full-time business.
- 5:07 So it started off slowly, but when I made my mind up that it was possible and starting applying myself, that’s when it all started coming together.
- 5:19 Aaron: So how old were you when you started dabbling? And how long did it take you to go full-time?
- 5:34 Jay: I’d just got married… so 27? I’m 31 now, so I got started around four years ago. And I kept my job until recently. My hours at the job decreased as my voice-over work increased, and eventually I ditched the day job altogether. But in the beginning I’d work the day job Monday-Friday, 9am to 5pm, and as I got more bookings for voice-over work my schedule got a little crazy. So the transition was hard but it was worth it.
What Kind of Gear Do You Need to Get Started as a Voice-over Artist?
- 6:52 Aaron: What kind of gear did you have when you were starting out?
- 7:03 Jay: I had (and this is terrible)… a $30 USB microphone. It had a built-in pop shield. For my booth (my entire sound treatment), I had two pieces of foam stood up in a “V” behind the microphone, and a blanket over my head. Not terribly professional, but it got me started.
- 7:36 Aaron: Did you actually do some paying gigs with that setup?
- 7:41 Jay: Oh yeah, I booked a lot of work on that mic. I booked and recorded a Marvel gig on that kit. I was supposed to do the voice of Jarvis for some Avengers promo stuff. That’s when I started feeling a little bit of imposter syndrome. It was just me in my little pop-up booth in my house in England with my $30 USB microphone. But they had no idea; I was just a voice on a microphone and I did the job, and that was that.
Who Handles the Post-Production for a Voice-over Artist?
- 8:46 Aaron: How much did you know about things like setting input gain levels and EQ and compression and all that post production stuff? Was that handled by you or did your clients do it?
- 8:56 Jay: At that point I knew very little about it. I was flying by the seat of my pants. Most clients at that stage didn’t require much, just a bit of cleanup and normalizing. I knew that I didn’t want to go over the red line on the meters; if you’re chopping the top off, dial it down. But that was about it, I really didn’t know much about recording and post-production when I was getting started.
- 9:29 Aaron: I think a lot of people will be relieved to hear that. I talk about sound quality and post-production a lot because I hate to see podcasts ruined by poor audio quality, but that’s something you have to learn through trial and error. You can’t let it keep you from getting started.
- 10:13 Jay: Absolutely. I’m a big believer in simplicity. I’m talking to you on a USB microphone right now because my home studio is currently being put back together.
You don’t need the fanciest mic or a ton of knowledge to sound good. Just make sure you aren’t clipping and do some basic treatment to your audio.
Jay’s Favorite Gear for Voice-over Work
- 11:07 Aaron: So which USB mic are you using currently? And what other gear do you have in your home studio?
- 11:16 Jay: I’m recording this episode with a Rode NT USB mic ($170), which is really nice. It’s not a very “hot” mic, so it’s good if you’re in a noisy environment. It’s kind of my backup/travel mic.
- 11:35 In my main studio I use a Sennheiser 416 shotgun mic ($999). It’s a beautiful mic. I also have the “voice-over standard”, the Neumann TLM 103 ($1299). I record everything through a Focusrite Scarlett 2i4 interface ($180) (with a 2i2 as a backup).
Not every mic is right for your voice. You’ll need to try some different mics out to see what pairs with your voice the best.
Jay’s Tips for How to Get Started Doing Professional Voice-over Work
- 15:32 Aaron: What advice would you give to someone interested in making a living doing voice-over work?
- 15:38 Jay: The first thing I’d recommend is forgetting about the creative side of it when you’re first getting into it. You are starting a business. You have to get your head around that. You’re going to be pretty isolated as a voice-over artist; most of your work is going to be done from home.
- 16:21 You have to approach it like you’re starting a business. You have to think about things like your vocal training, where you’re going to invest your money, how you’re going to brand and market your voice, what your competition is like, what the market wants at the moment… You have to think about things like that. If you think about those things you’ll have a massive advantage over someone who just buys a mic and records some stuff.
If you want to make a living from voice-over work, you have to think about yourself as a business.
- 16:56 Jay: I’m a huge believer in voice coaching as well. I’ve had four different coaches since I got started. Each genre has particular requirements, and a voice-over coach can help you understand those things and also the industry as a whole.
If you’re just getting started as a voice-over artist, a voice coach is one of the best investments you can make.
How to Find Voice-over Work if You’re Just Getting Started
- 17:34 Jay: After you get a simple home studio setup, you can start looking for work. And there’s really only three ways you can get work. First, through an agent. Second, through “pay to play” websites, where you pay to become a member and you get access to auditions. And third, through direct marketing; reaching out directly to production companies. You phone them up and say, “Hey, I’m a voice-over actor, do you guys needs voices? Here’s my demo reel.” Start building relationships, and if you have a plan and you hit all three of those, you’ll start booking work.
- 18:13 Aaron: Can you share how you got started? Which did you do first, and what worked best for you?
- 18:21 Jay: I had some pretty awful reels (demos) when I first started, but I signed up for a pay to play website called Voice 123 and I got a couple of gigs there. That was where I dabbled for awhile; I stayed on that site and picked up a bit of work here and there.
- 18:47 When I decided I was going to do it properly, I put about $15,000 on a credit card to train with a commercial coach, an animation coach, and a promotion coach, and I flew out to Los Angeles to get some proper reels done. Once I had those, I hit all the pay to play websites again and started doing direct marketing. I started doing research on Twitter and Google, finding the production companies and phoning them up, giving them my reels and my website and stuff like that.
- 19:25 I also started networking, meeting other voice-over actors, meeting game producers, going to events and getting my name out there. Once I had a decent offering, that’s when I went to the agents and said, “Here I am, this is what I’ve got. Represent me, dammit!”
- 19:47 Aaron: Sounds like a fantastic strategy. And hey, it worked.
Do I Need an Agent to Find Work as a Voice-over Actor?
- 19:54 Jay: There’s a common misconception that you get your work through an agent, and these days that’s just not the case. Thanks to the internet, anyone can find your website and hire you. Agents will always have their place because many of them look after the niche and “big” jobs, things like Coca-Cola advertisements and huge triple-A games. But so much work is now on the pay to play websites and through production companies.
You can make a living in voice-over without an agent. You don’t need an agent to be successful.
- 20:43 Jay: I love my agents, but they don’t make up the majority of my income. You don’t need to worry about getting an agent when you’re just getting started. In fact, agents won’t take you on until you’ve got a lot of stuff to offer them.
Voice-over Gear for People on a Budget
- 21:27 Aaron: I know earlier you mentioned that you got started on a $30 USB microphone. Do you have any gear recommendations for new voice actors who don’t want to spend a ton of money to get started?
- 21:41 Jay: That was 6 years ago and USB mics are way better these days. There’s a starter kit that I recommend from Focusrite. It comes with a microphone, a Scarlett 2i4 interface, and some headphones. Basically everything you need to get started for around $200 (you will need to buy a pop filter and a mic stand, though).
- 22:06 A basic setup like that is all you need, and then just sit in a closet with some pillows and a duvet over your head. I’m a big fan of simplicity. Just get started. You can always buy a better microphone later once you’ve made some money.
It doesn’t matter how you start, it just matters that you start.
- 22:18 Jay: You can always buy a better microphone, you can always build a voice-over booth. But the sure-fire way to make sure nothing ever happens is to never start in the first place. It doesn’t matter how you start, just start.
- Note: If you’re interested in learning more about affordable gear for voice-over or podcasting, check out episode 32: Podcasting on a Budget.
Jay’s Tips for How to Be a Better Speaker
- 22:43 Aaron: Are people born with great voices, or is that something you can teach yourself? What are your tips for improving your voice and the way you talk?
- 23:15 Jay: Some people are both with a voice that makes a nice sound. Is that relevant, does that directly relate to their potential success as a voice actor? No. Not in the slightest.
- 23:31 Like I said earlier, I don’t have an amazing voice. I have a standard voice that sounds like everyone else’s, and so do most of my colleagues. You’ve got guys like Don LaFontaine who have a deep and boomy voice (the “In a world…” movie trailer voice), but you wouldn’t book him to do a corporate voice-over gig. His voice just wouldn’t sound right.
You’re born with the voice you are born with, that’s it. You can’t change that. All you can do is learn how to use your own voice to it’s best abilities.
- 24:17 Jay: I’m proud of the fact that I’m able to do a broad range of characters with my voice. I can go high, I can go a little low, I can do accents and I can make my voice sound funny. But I’m never going to book a movie trailer; I don’t have the right voice for it. That’s ok.
- 24:32 Part of working in voice-over is understanding that you might book work in genres that you don’t necessarily want to work in. You might want to do movie trailers but if you don’t have the right voice for it, you won’t get the gig. This is why you need coaching. You need to understand things like, if you’re reading a promo script for a TV show, you need to know how to make the read less funny, or how to change the inflection. So much is based on melody. Knowing how to play with your voice is so much more important then the voice you were born with.
- 25:40 One of my coaches said, “As far as booking a job goes, 95% of it is how well you understand the copy and how well you perform the copy, and the last 5% is genetics.” Rather than worry about how your natural voice sounds, worry about what you do have control over, which is how you use the voice that you have.
How to Get Better at Reading Scripts Out Loud
- 26:11 Jay: Read out loud every day. It’s not good enough just to read; you need to read out loud everyday.
- 26:27 One skill that is absolutely critical is being able to read ahead of what you’re currently saying out loud when you’re reading a script. You’ll make less mistakes because you’ll know what words are coming, and you’ll very rarely mess up the intonation of a sentence.
You’re not going to get many scripts that you can read in advance, so the ability to read ahead while performing a script is essential.
- 27:10 Jay: Reading ahead will feel unnatural at first, but after you do it for awhile it will get easier and you’ll start making less mistakes. This is especially important for video games because you’ll often get thrown into recording sessions without a chance to read the script or even get a full idea of what your character is like.
- 29:51 It’s an immensely helpful skill because no one in this business has any time. If you can nail something on the first take, then you’ll do great.
- 30:02 Another tip is go and do some improv and learn how to ad-lib. It’ll speed up the auditory part of your brain, you’ll learn how to come up with words and get them out quickly. That’s a great skill to have. Increase that “brain-to-mouth” speed.
- 36:43 Tobi asked: What are your thoughts about working with unions?
- 36:49 Jay: It really depends. If you’re just starting out, there’s no reason to join the union, and more and more work is going non-union in the US. So if you’re in the states and you’re trying to do voice-over work, don’t join the union until you’re forced to join the union. You can actually book your first union job without being a part of the union, and it’s $5000 to join after that, so at the start of your career, it’s not really necessary.
- 38:49 Richard asked: What are some of the best methods to get in front of casting agents? What elements are they looking for in a vocal reel? Is sending in a vocal reel the best way to get hired for voice over gigs/start a relationship with casting agents?
- 39:08 Jay: There’s two sides to this. There’s casting agents (or as we call them here in the UK, casting directors), and then there are agents. An agent will represent you and present you to a casting director (who will then consider you for a job).
- 39:36 If you want to get yourself an agent, the best way to do that is by referral. So make sure you have a great sound reel (demos) and do lots of networking with other voice actors, especially the ones who work with agency you’d like to work with. Don’t be weird, but develop relationships with other voice actors and agent. If you’re good, they’ll notice.
- 40:26 Thousands of people want to be voice actors and work with these agents, so you’ve got to find a way to stand above the crowd. Doing great work and getting referred by another successful voice actor is one of the best ways to get an agent.
- 40:49 In terms of working with casting directors, generally they are “behind the scenes” people. They’re not the most receptive to being bombarded by voice actors. The best way to get to know them is to organically get a job for them and just start a relationship with them. Another way to meet casting agents is on Twitter. Social media in general is a great tool for growing relationships, just don’t be salesy about it. If they tweet a funny picture of their cat, don’t reply with “I’m a voice actor, please hire me!”
- 41:57 Ultimately, people work with people. Don’t smash your voice reel in their face; take the time to build a relationship. That’s the way I play it.
- 42:34 Aaron: Relationships are so important if you want to be successful as a freelancer. When I was getting started as a podcast editor, most of my best clients came from referals. I always made sure I was friendly and I did a good job and if I saw an opportunity to provide some value, I’d do that. Eventually people grew to trust me, and if they knew someone who needed my services, they’d send them to me. So I got a ton of work that way, and I think that works in almost any industry.
- 43:22 Jay: Exactly. I’ve done voice-over work for 22 games in the past 2-3 years, and something like 80% of those jobs came through networking.
- 45:08 Another tip is give it time. It’s natural to want everything to happen yesterday, but it takes time to develop those relationships. I’m going to be working on a big game project pretty soon, and I only got the gig after talking with the casting director for over eight months. That’s a long time to pursue a lead, but things don’t happen overnight. You’ve got to be prepared to play the long game.
- 46:44 Eric asked: Do clients expect you to do post-processing on your recordings, or is that something they typically handle? Is it important for you to know how to master your own recordings?
- 46:46 Jay: It’s usually a 50/50 split. If I book something through my agent, I’m usually going to a studio where they have professional audio engineers to handle everything. If you record something at home, the client will most likely expect you to handle the mastering.
- 47:16 If you’re booking work through the pay to play websites or through direct marketing, they’re probably going to expect you to do the post-production. Quite a few of my clients also want me to match the audio to the video as well.
- 47:56 In general, most clients just want the audio to be clean and pretty level in terms of dynamics. So you do need to be comfortable with editing audio and doing basic treatment (equalizing, compression, normalizing).
Find Jay Britton Online:
You can find Jay’s website at VoiceOfJayBritton.com, and follow him on Twitter @voicejaybritton. If you’d like to make a living as a voice actor, I highly suggest hiring Jay for coaching. It’s an investment that will pay off 10x in the long run.
If you’re interested in learning more about being a successful freelancer, check out the seanwes podcast. It’s jam packed with great advice about attracting clients, charging what you’re worth, and so much more.