James has an extensive background in commercial radio – that, combined with the experience of managing the audio division of a major in-flight entertainment company, James is the perfect pro to discuss his career across the Atlantic. So we (virtually) sat down with James to discuss his career as an international voiceover artist. As always, we started at the beginning;
So, James tell us a bit about how your career as a voiceover artist began?
My career as a voiceover artist began by Sheer luck! Since my voice cracked I’ve had a pretty deep voice. People would say, “You should be on the radio!” but I was more interested in working with bands. Fast forward to my twenties, when I was living in Ireland and studying sound engineering.
My first job out of college was as a producer for an inflight entertainment company who provided audio and video services for some 60+ international carriers like Delta, United, Aer Lingus… They didn’t just do music and movies, sometimes they produced hosted shows and (here’s where the luck comes in) one was voiced by an American. Fortunately for me, he couldn’t make a session so the CEO said, “Hey, you’re Canadian – can you do it?” so I said yes! Conscious not to say a-boot and eh, the session went well and I had the VO bug from that point on.
It was hard to find information about it back then – this was 2004, mind. I bought books on how to do voiceover, I listened to TV ads and practiced mimicking them, I paced the floor saying, “red leather yellow leather” as warm-up exercises.
In 2008, I moved back to Toronto and landed a job as the producer at JAZZ FM91 where I wrote, voiced and produced the ads that we played on the station. It gave me tremendous experience that helped me really hone my skills. I have since left radio but still record voiceovers full-time from my home studio.
What has been your best Voiceover Achievement to date?
Well, it’s always fun when your friends text because they heard you voicing a Budweiser commercial on TV, and I’ve enjoyed narrating a couple of TV shows on the Food Network and HGTV/DIY Network.
Honestly, I take pride in every job I do – whether it’s an e-learning or corporate video, or on-hold phone messaging. Voicing something like a PSA for cancer research certainly brings a special sense of satisfaction. I feel very lucky to be able to do the work I do.
What’s been your most Interesting VO job and why?
My first really pro job was for a Kobo Christmas commercial. They built a full-size Santa’s workshop on a soundstage and had me voice it to picture. It was really heart-warming and a great introduction to how much production can go behind an ad. I do on-camera work and got to really see what a big production can look like when they flew myself and the rest of the cast and crew down to Mexico for a week to shoot a Cheetos commercial – tough work riding a Jet Ski and sitting on the beach all day talking to a tennis ball that would later become Chester the Cheetah!
Very early on, I realized that voiceover requires a level of acting if you’re going to do it well. You may not be on screen, but you can definitely “hear a smile”. I felt like I could call myself a pro when I’d reached a point where I could wave my hands around and make some pretty crazy faces and gestures in front of the mic during a recording session, and not be self-conscious about the client, the agency reps, and the producer and engineer watching me.
What makes you unique in the VO industry?
With a background as a commercial producer I have a background on both sides of the glass, so when the producer asks for it “16% faster” I know exactly what they’re looking for. I’ve also given a lot of voiceover coaching – from professional talent to complete beginners. I learned years ago how well a session will go when everyone works together. Oh, and I have a really good ear… I pick up the nuances in recordings. That’s likely due to my Dad playing Beatles’ records and educating me on George Martin and the wonderful work he did.
It also doesn’t hurt that I have a talent for being able to manipulate my voice to meet the needs of a range of clients, from a Red Bull commercial where I get to do the Voice of God, to something upbeat and perky, or a bit tongue-in-cheek.
What do you feel you can offer our clients as a voiceover artist?
A remarkable talent for making fairly clinical scriptwriting sound really fun and engaging! The majority of the work I do is for e-learning and corporate videos – it’s my wheelhouse. So when I get into character, I get behind the work I do. I think the fact that I’m being genuine shines through and I regularly voice projects for hotels, education, healthcare, tech and finance companies among many others.
What’s the best thing about being a voiceover artist?
Just one?? The flexible schedule comes to mind. Also, being able to be creative and work from my home studio. It’s a treat. And of course, working in the VO industry itself, specifically between the talent. I feel a real camaraderie between my peers.
How has your home studio set up developed to meet the needs of clients?
My current studio is custom built, fully-enclosed and acoustically treated. I designed and constructed a workspace that features a nice, wide desk, lots of legroom and the Shure is gone – replaced by a RODE NT2-A. I run it through a dbx 286A preamp, Audient iD14 interface and finally into Pro Tools and PreSonus Eris EX XT monitors. I’ve got my Gretsch hollowbody hanging on the wall for those times I need to take a break and clear my head. It’s a pretty sweet set up – my wife thinks it’s weird when she walks in because it’s so quiet.
In contrast, my first studio consisted of duvets taped to the wall and broom sticks holding pillows shoved in the corners of the ceiling in the guest room, and if memory serves I was using an SM58. It served well as an environment to practice but it’s pretty laughable now looking back. For anyone asking, “what’s an SM58”? That’s a mic you’d see Bono or Taylor Swift using on stage – it’s great but not designed for voiceover work, which requires a more sensitive microphone that can pick up the fine details of spoken word.
What’s the strangest VO request you’ve received?
The award for strangest VO job is a tie between one that never got beyond the audition phase because it dealt with a questionable subject (gun ammo and the script went into specifics about why it’s so effective), and an audition I did do for medication that deals with [ahem] problems gentlemen could have with their, let’s say “physical makeup”. I’m very open-minded but you gotta draw the line sometimes.
Your most challenging VO job to date?
The most challenging jobs used to be anything conversational. When I started doing this work, I assumed everything should be read “voice of God” style like Don LaFontaine (he was THE movie trailer guy who did those, “In a world…” style reads) but for many years now, the trend has been to sound conversational. The reason I struggled with it was because I naturally have a deep voice so it kind of makes me sound like an announcer, but also because I had it in my head that was what a voice actor should do. Now, it’s pretty effortless but it definitely took some effort.
Do you do Live VO work/VOG etc… what’s that like? Can you tell us a bit about the experience (or one particular experience that stands out)?
I’ve voiced award shows where they’ve pre-taped the winners – I always think that’s kind of funny. As for Voice of God style recording – it’s fairly rare to get that request these days, with the trend being “conversational”, but I love it when I get to go all low and booming!
What is your favourite kind of job to voice?
Hands down, anything where I get to be silly and have fun but I also get tremendous satisfaction from using my deep voice to its fullest potential and getting really low, and stretching out the words and letting the rumble come out.
What makes the perfect client? How can clients help you to deliver the perfect VO?
The perfect client let’s me know what they need and trusts me to deliver it. Of course, I’m always happy to get feedback and often things will change on the fly. I recall a session where the script was changing while I was in the booth recording – the agency rep was on the phone and cramming in more legal disclaimers. You know that stuff at the end of a pharmaceutical ad, “may cause this, may cause that, consult your doctor”. Out of the thirty second spot, I feel like fifteen seconds was legal!
Truthfully, it’s always fun doing the work I do and the clients get that.