Archive for December, 2009

Human Factors in Announcing

Without a doubt, being ill — even with something as routine as the common cold or a basic case of the flu — is a serious setback in productivity and makes even the simplest tasks difficult. Feeling the pressures of work and the need to keep soldiering forward despite feeling miserable is common to almost everyone regardless of occupation; but for singers, newscasters, and those of us who make our living recording our own voice, having stuffed sinuses or a gravelly throat which alters our “sound” renders us absolutely unable to work.

So recognizable is my “voiceprint” — and the importance of my voice today to match my voice of a year ago — that as much as I might *feel* well enough to stand in front of the mic and knock a few sound files off — it’s wasted time if a cold or congestion has altered the way I sound. Many websites geared to voice talent have numerous sponsors in the cold elixir industry, all of them proclaiming to have the remedy to buy voice professionals extra time in front of the mic…..the reality remains: if a cold or flu has your name on it, take care of yourself and let it run its course. (And don’t try to sneak back to work before it’s completely gone; I have long-term clients who know me well who have said to me when I’ve tried to shorten my recovery: “Nope. We can still hear it. You’re 90% there, but not quite.”)

Even something as simple as a teeth cleaning or minor dental procedure which might require freezing of the mouth — and might create an annoyance for an accountant returning to work and worrying about lop-sided face and drool issues — puts someone like myself out of work for half a day, easily.

I was also faced with an interesting challenge earlier this year, when I became one of the several thousand adults per year who are fitted with braces to correct a bite-alignment issue — so worried was I about them affecting my diction that I did some work with a speech pathologist to make sure they didn’t pose a problem with my work….so far, they haven’t proved to be an issue. (I did pass on a procedure which they wanted to do before the braces were installed: my orthodontist recommended that I be fitted with a spacer which would expand my upper palate — and he even went so far as to make me a “practice spacer” which just snapped in to test out the idea. Even after extensive practice, I managed to work up to sounding like I’d had only a *mild* stroke. The idea was scrapped, and I give my orthodontist credit for fully understanding the whole interlocking economy of: “Can’t work/can’t pay orthodontic bill”.

The last aspect of the human factors in voice care is not allowing the voice to be subjected to extreme strain — this is not to say that in-between takes I lie around the house in Celine-Dion-Style-Voice-Arrest, with a cashmere Pashmina wrapped around my throat,  sipping lemon tea, with houseboys using palm fronds to coax the humidifier steam towards me — although, an enchanting idea. No, it’s more about not allowing the voice to sustain injury: I was told by an old and wise DJ years ago to never try to speak above a crowd, never out-shout anyone, and resist roller coasters if they make you scream. Ever notice how deep, sultry, and Demi-Moore-ish your voice can sound the day after a simple night out in a crowded pub, where you’ve been forced to converse at a loud volume? That would be useful if I were auditioning the next day for a Demi-Moore-sounding radio spot (and that’s actually a frequent character description on radio copy specs.) Otherwise: it’s a sign of minor vocal cord strain, and should be avoided if your “sound” is your product.

Voice professionals: let me know if there are any other aspects to this issue I’ve missed — do you notice big differences in your voice at various times of the day? Seasonally? And what’s the wackiest “voice elixir” you’ve tried?

I’ll be taking a break from blogging during the Christmas Vacation — have a wonderful and safe Holiday Season, and be back blogging the first week of January, where I’ll open the year with an article about things which are commonly in telephone prompts which are so basic….so painfully obvious…they cause me to sometimes exclaim: “Do we really need to SAY That?!”

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Behemoth Voice-Over Jobs

I do voice-over jobs which are one-offs — the customer needs literally one recording — ever — and that’s the last they need of my services. I have many, many customers who need me to voice for them on a regular basis — several times a month, let’s say. And yes, I do have clients who hire me each and every day to voice for them.

But there are those other projects which arise — once-in-a-lifetime projects — massive in nature, requiring a huge committment of time, and multitudinous printer cartridges. I call these The Behemoths — projects which call for discipline, consistency, and a whole lot of congratulation when they’re done, out the door, and all post-production and redos are taken care of. Here’s some examples of such projects I’ve worked on:

1. The Now-Famous Names Directory

A couple of years ago, a large healthcare consortium in Calfornia hired me to voice what seemed like an impossible project: a database of a million of the world’s most common proper names. The intention was to create a very intutive auto-dialer which would call patients and let them know about changes to their insurance policies or alert them to upcoming medical appointments in a very personalized manner (“This is a call for….GREG MASON…..you have an upcoming….CARDIOLOGY…appointment with…DR. STEVENSON…..at….SOUTHWEST CARDIOLOGY PARTNERS….on….FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 9th…..at….8:30 AM….”) There was also an appealing factor of satisfying privacy laws, with several steps of authentication involved to make sure they were relaying the message to the intendee. They sent a laptop with the names pre-loaded into it, which luckily dispensed them in no particular order (they randomly spewed names as opposed to it going through the lists alphabetically.) These names — despite having the mandate of being “the world’s most common names” actually ventured into oddball land, with names like “Hercules” “Pine” “Dreamboat” and “Creampuff” being a common occurance. I found myself compiling lists in my head of various TV character names to see if I could accumulate entire cast names (I was frustrated by my “Sopranos” list: I had said: “Tony” “Silvio” “Pauly”, “Carmella”, “Ritchie”, and most others — no “Meadow”. I gave up hope of “Big Pussy” ever surfacing — and it never did.)  The project lost funding and never quite made it to a million names — we have approximately 250,000 +. Still a very respectbale and usable database, which would have massive uses not only in healthcare, but in Government, military, institutional — the possibilities are limitless — AND — it’s available for sale. If interested, contact me at allison@theivrvoice.com.

2. The PetSmart Store Finder

I was hired by PetSmart to voice their Store Finder Systems (the feature where callers can enter or say their zip or postal codes and get a verbal listing of the stores nearest them) — I had done similar store finders for Diesel Jeans and Marshall Field’s, but nothing on this scale. The initial script contained 900+ store addresses, and each store then had to have a file speaking the hours of the retail stores, grooming salons, and Pet Hospitals, if applicable. It was a long, involved, and arduous task. It required me to set aside 3 hours a day, but once that initial recording was complete, there’s been wonderful recurring work every week as they continue to open and modify stores.

3. The Cepstral Text-To-Speech Allison Voice

I was commissioned by Cepstral — one of North America’s largest Text-To-Speech developers — to have a TTS model built on my voice. Since my voice is already very prevalent on many existing systems, this product would dovetail well with prompts which come pre-installed with many systems — most notably, Asterisk. I was given a modest telephone-book sized script of non-sensical statements (ie: “Molly put her on red jacket and left at noon”) and they feed these statements into a speech synthesis utility which breaks them into phonemes and sub-phonemes. The more material read, the greater the sound “library”, the more expanded the sound possibilities — and the smoother the finished product. Check it out at www.cepstral.com/demos , type in anything, and I’ll say it!  (You can even add effects like “Dizzy Droid”, which some may argue is my natural preset.)

As much as I love the brief “sprint” assignments, I really love knowing when I have huge Behemoth lurking over me every day, which needs daily care, attention, and a huge feeling of accomplishment which only comes from a huge mission accomplished on time and on budget.

Next posting: I’ll discuss the “human” factors which affect announcing — and IVR announcing — in particular. (Hint: cold & flu season is here!)

The Original Telephone Lady

She set the standard for all of us in the IVR Voicing business — best known as the “Time Lady”; for recordings she made for Bell, and for voicing some of the earliest voice mail systems. Jane Barbe was truly a pioneer in the area of IVR voicing, and someone to whom I hold a huge debt.

A Drama major at the University of Georgia, and a former professional singer (she toured with the Buddy Morrow Orchestra), Barbe began reading automated messages for the Audichron Company (now known as ETC), which led to voicing intercept messages and various other IVR platforms.

Her scope of work was international, recording for clients in Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia, and numerous other countries, including handling systems for Australian callers — and perfectly taming her Southern dialect to nail the Australian accent — no small feat, I can tell you.

Jane Barbe set an incredibly high standard of professionalism and helped a tremendous number of companies establish a strong, professional identity by lending her voice to the very framework of a company’s profile: their telephony persona.

Barbe died from complications from cancer in 2003 at the age of 74, leaving behind a strange legacy of telephony prompts which are still in use today and likely will be in perpetuity.

I have to admit to becoming weak in the knees when one of the attendees at the very first Astricon called me “the Next Jane Barbe” — I can only hope to reach her heights and maintain the high level of quality Ms. Barbe established.

Any good Jane Barbe stories or rememberances? Feel free to leave a note in the “comments” section!

Next blog: I’ll discuss some of my biggest, most arduous voice jobs — and no surprise: they’ve almost always afforded the best sense of fulfillment, too!