Archive for April, 2010

The Challenges — And Joys — Of Working From Home, Part 1

Do you know what a furnace-cleaning truck sounds like? Most people would have to pause and think if they can access that noise from their memory, but for me it’s firmly implanted in my brain. It sounds like the super-charged vacuum cleaner it is — a high-pitched whirring of a central vac multiplied by ten, and which — even blocks away — seems to resonate throughout an entire neighborhood. Why this sound is significant enough for me blog about is that it also happens to be the soundtrack to my nightmares and for any other recording artist who operates out of their home in a residential neighborhood — that high-pitched roar which can sometimes go on for an hour or longer can derail any recording I have scheduled and put me far behind on my promised ETA’s on sound files. Most commonly heard in the spring and fall — when people’s thoughts drift to cleaning winter’s gunk out of their ducts — the noise usually prompts me to stomp outside, arms akimbo, and confirm my worst fear: a truck parked out in our cul-de-sac, with a large PVC hose extending from the vehicle into one of neighbor’s houses, emanating a high-pitched whine that could wake the dead. I have occasionally asked the technicians how long they anticipate they’ll be — and have at times made of the mistake of mentioning that I’m in  the middle of recording. “Oh yeah? You a singer?” will sometimes be the follow-up question. If I explain that I record telephone prompts, that will usually lead to: “No way! So you’re that annoying voice on the phone? Let’s hear it! Do it!” I’ve even gone so far as to call the company and ask for an estimate as to how long their crew will be in the area — they don’t know. Furthermore: they don’t care. They’re making a living, much like I am.

When your goal is to record clear sound files and to not capture any ambient noise, working from home offers a whole suite of challenges one might not encounter in an off-site studio environment; even the best  sound proofing can’t completely insulate you from aircraft overhead, thunderstorms, dogs barking, a late-rising family member showering, and yes, the dreaded nearby duct-cleaning truck. Even when day-to-day noisemakers such as the washer/dryer or dishwasher can be carefully timed so as not to overlap with recording sessions, there are many unpredictable noisy interruptions inherent to being home-based which provide a constant challenge.

The note which I leave on my front door — which expressly stipulates that no canvassing or soliciting is allowed (deliveries = OK) — proves to be of little deterrence to door-to-door canvassers for charities, evangelists, and the oddest yet: a woman selling artwork door-to-door straight out of her portfolio (I’m generous with my use of the word “artwork” — she bought mass-produced prints at Wal-Mart and slap-dashed some paint on them).  Their presumption is that anyone who is home during the day to answer the door must be unoccupied; brimming with free time — the ruining of takes and general disruption of concentration is hard to articulate to those insistent enough to disregard the note — so I’ve just given up.

Of course, the “pluses” of never having to leave the house in order to ear a living are immeasurable — especially in the winter, it’s a soothing thing to know that your “commute” involves nothing more complicated than negotiating the highway between the coffee maker and the office; internal office politics are pretty hard to escalate (or start) when it’s just you; and aside from the initial outlay of recording equipment, your overhead is almost nil.

The “formality” of your office can also be what you make it; I know some voice talent who are literally in jammies all day; I myself find it psychologically more conducive to doing business by being fully dressed, hair and makeup done. As a voice talent with your own home studio, no one is setting your hours for you or dictating when your work day should start or end — but I find, in order to accommodate clients in various time zones (and to maximize my best energy level — which happens to be in the mornings) I find it’s crucial to keep regular, regimented hours, starting at 8 AM. I front-stack my day with the lion’s share of the recording being done in the morning, and handle administrivia in the afternoon when energy starts to wane.

There are distractions, of course, which must be acknowledged when basing any business out of your home — TV is tempting and must be avoided except perhaps for a smart brief break during lunch. The call of the nap can be tantalizing; a confection that should be saved as an occasional treat on a *very* slow day and only for very briefly.

Next week, I’ll continue this thread of discussion about recording from home, outlining strategies from a wonderful close friend and colleague, Edie Tusor, on her coping skills of working even though construction raged around her — contractors can be persuaded to be quiet for twenty minutes of precious recording time — if the baked goods are satisfying enough!

Don’t Mess With Robodialer

I’ve often wondered if the autodialer companies have a way of tracking just how fast I can hang up as soon as I detect that I’m getting an automated call — it’s lightning-fast, and I imagine that they’re analyzing printouts of data which tells them: “Wow — THIS gal only got through SIX syllables of the recording before she hung up! What reaction time! Amazing!” Yes, I hate getting those dreadful automated marketing calls as much as you do — otherwise known as “Robocalls” — and I manage to shut the calls down with ever-increasing speed, long before the option to “opt out” comes at the end of the recording.

The fact that I’ve *voiced* a fair number of them in my career so far makes it even more comical and ironic that I have such a low tolerance for them, but I — along with most of the general population — view them as an interruption; practically an invasion of my day. They disrupt work, and the most unctious aspect of them is the interruption of dinner or the preparation thereof.

The reason they are so prevalent, of course, is that they are an incredibly efficient way to reach a startlingly large number of potential customers simultaneously, with practically no overhead and very little in the way of set-up.  And some dialers serve some very practical applications (utility companies calling entire grids to inform them of an anticipated power outage) and even some humanitarian uses (I did a very successful fundraising autodialer voice-over for the American Red Cross to raise funds after Hurricane Katrina) — all too often, however, they are used merely as an advertising vehicle, and in additional to their reputation as a device through which to shill, autodialers also carry with them the stigma of  none-too-reputable conduct: in one of the best-known violations of their use, in May of 2009 the FTC shut down a telemarketing campaign which had been inundating consumers to sell them service contracts, under the deceptive guise that their auto warranties had run out. At 1.8 millions dials per day, and an estimated $40 million amassed before it was shut down, this mere single dark incident in auto-dialer history proved to be a highly profitable — albeit short-lived venture.

Do Not Call lists allow the FTC to levy hefty fines if there are violations of the act (ie: someone is autodialed when they have clearly registered their desire to *not* be called) — and the laws vary from state to state as to just what type of companies are allowed to call (in some areas charities and political campaigning by autodialer are the only circumstances allowable), and the stipulation of specific times at which they are allowed to make their calls — but in other areas, where the laws are still fairly relaxed — Robodialer reigns.

In voicing the occasional dialer (I don’t actively pursue work in that milieu — it finds me occasionally) — I’ve learned that newer laws require that anything in the guise of a “survey” might successfully manuever around the autodialer laws — so even scripts which, for all intents and purposes, have all the usual components of an auto-dialer script, can get by so long as I say something along the lines of: “Please press 1 to participate in a “survey” about your current health plan”. I’ve carried some heavy guilt about dialers I’ve voiced which persuaded the recipient of the call to take advantage of amazingly low interest rates on their mortgage (how many got in over their heads do to my urging?),  and I’ve always struggled with the serious, almost “emergency-like” tone some clients have requested from me to increase the rate at which the callees press through deeper into the bed of options — the more serious; the more dire — the more apt the consumer is to seek more information. And that’s where they get you.

I gave some thought about whether or not I’d feel differently about Robodialers if they actually enhanced life — what if they imparted messages about getting mammograms? Not just broadcasting partisan political messages promoting any one party — but messages communicating the importance of voting in the first place? Autodialers with messages about recycling? Volunteering?

Nah — I think I’d still resent the use of my own phone line as a way for someone else to market to me. I’d still see them as a bump in my concentration; an unwanted disruption, an opportunity to get another flour-laden handprint on my receiver; and as much as we all universally loathe them — like it or not — they’re probably here to stay.

Next week, I’ll start a multi-part series of articles based on the joys — and pitfalls — of home recording. I’ll be interviewing a couple of colleagues of mine with similar home sound labs about the pros and cons of working where you live!

Thanks for reading!

A Voice Heard Round The World

After sending an MP3 of my audio demo to a sound production house in Scotland, I was pleased when the talent coordinator e-mailed right back. His cryptic message made me scramble a bit, however: he wrote: “Now here’s a Brill demo!” “Cool!” thinks I: “He has a demo he wants me to record! For a product named ‘Brill’! Is that like ‘Brillo’? We have that here. Is it a Scottish scouring pad? I wonder…” I inspected his e-mail and couldn’t see the copy for the demo either in the body of the e-mail or as an attachment, so I e-mailed back asking where the script for “Brill” was. His reply indicated that much laughter had erupted from across the pond — he explained, simply, that he thought *my* demo that I sent was brilliant — or “Brill” in Scottish shorthand (in my defense, this was long before “Brill” slowly made it into North American slang. Now, you hear it all the time.)

Aside from differences in vernacular, worling with an international clientele poses some interesting challenges; home recording and connectivity makes borders non-existent and eliminates limitations of where you can work — if you can find sound studios, ad agencies, or private companies who are seeking a North American-accented voice to work with, the possibilities are endless. Be prepared for the phone to ring at odd hours — some international clients I have — despite careful explanation — still do not understand the differences in time zones.

I interacted with a jingle producer in Turkey a few years back — I explained to him, while we were ironing out the working details of our partnership — that I must obtain pre-payment from him, at least in the formative months of us working together, until some trust had been established. The malapropism in his reply still makes me smile to this day;  he wrote back: “I need to THRUST you; you need to THRUST me…” Not quite the partnership I envisioned.

I’ve worked for years with a sound studio in Germany, as the voice of US Military Hospitals across Germany — a reassuring “voice from home” for those stationed there whose families require medical attention. After sending a routine e-mail to the engineer in Munich after the session, asking how everything was sounding, he wrote back: “Well, it all sounds strange to our ears, but that has nothing to do with you!” We think of a North-American “sound” as prevalent, and neutral — it’s odd to think about engineers overwhelmed by my “strong, exotic accent” , much like engineers in Iowa would gather round and listen to — and shake their heads over, say, a German demo.

A wonderful sound house in Melbourne  Australia hires me to voice a lot of projects for the Middle East market — the Sheraton Kuwait, Crown Plaza Abu Dhabi, and Raddison S.A.S. Sarjah all run IVR’s and on-hold systems voiced by me; as well as The National Bank of Kuwait. I’m also kept quite busy voicing the English prompts for the mobility platform for a fast-growing telco in Singapore.

It’s satisfying and fascinating working with clients from other countries — it’s gratifying to supply rapid turnaround on projects for customers even thousands of miles away, and it’s interesting to ponder how friends and family members of mine who are spread far and wide have as good a chance of randonly stumbling across my telephone prompts by accident just as easily as local family members calling our local utility company.

Next week, I’ll delve into the dark world of telemarketing — either by auto-dialer or by live operator (which I’ve found to be fairly easy to ditch if I drop into “telephone voice” and ask them not to call again!)

The Voice of Big Pharma

A 20% chance of blindness? I like those odds....

You’ve probably seen the magazine ads and television commercials, advertising various medications available to the consumer — they have been on the rise since the FDA relaxed the guidelines for direct-to-consumer advertising of drugs in 2005. In fact, an estimated $700 million dollars was spent in 1997 on promoting drugs to the public — the figure catapulted to $4.2 billion dollars in 2005. We’re all guilty of cringing when the voice-over for a drug commercial casually works in some of most prevalent side-effects for patients who have taken the drug (especially when they cavalierly toss off “death” as a remote but real risk. Or the announcer warning that depression can be a side-effect of taking a well-known anti-depressant.)

While not being quite fortunate enough to land a national pharmaceutical commercial V/o, I have voiced the IVR’s for many large drug store chains, and was particularly intrigued when I was approached by a pharmaceutical marketing firm a few years ago to voice the product monographs to a wide variety of drugs — the monograph is simply that page on the other side of the magazine ad — in excrutiatingly fine print — warning patients of contraindications (existing conditions which might preclude you from taking the drug in the first place), possible drug interactions with medications you’re already on, and, of course, the dreaded *possible* side effects of taking the medication. All that fine print needs to be read in audio format for the sight-impaired for the drug company’s information line, (due dilligence and all that); so there I found myself with the challenge of conquering a great deal of medical terminology (which I love), having to list off other medications which conflict with the drug (no easy task — most of them are derived from industry-significant acronyms and have no grammatical intelligence — ever heard of Premarin? So named from a combination of PREgnant MARe urINe — its chief ingredient. Google it if you don’t believe me!) It can be a rather laborious session to voice these product info projects; I try to bring as much “life” and conversationality into the otherwise somewhat dry copy, and I attempt to sound as matter-of-fact as I can — without underplaying the real risk — of the side-effects (one has stuck in my mind ever since I started voicing them: “Use of (the drug) in laboratory mice resulted in wavy ribs found on necropsy.” Wavy ribs? Cool! Sign me up. At least it’s not as serious as “Golden Retriever Head” or “Hot Dog Hands”, as was mentioned in a mock pharmaceutical commercial a few years back.)

I have also voiced auto-dialers which went directly to the patients in clinical trials of drugs, reminding them to take their meds on a regular basis, giving them hints about diminishing the negative side-effects of the drugs, and suggesting ways to improve their progress in the study — those I definitely approached with as upbeat and encouraging a tone as I could muster. I’ve also voiced telephone surveys which track the progression of patient’s chronic diseases; Diabetic and COPD patients have participated in surveys which I’ve voiced, which have helped researchers chart the effectiveness of treament and the overall compliance of the patients — and therefore helping future patients similarly afflicted with the disorder.

Some monographs have been frightening to read: I did one for a narcotic taken by end-stage cancer patients which sounded exponentially more addictive than Oxycontin; most of what I voiced had to deal not primarily with the drug’s side-effects when taken responsibly (which were considerable); most of the recording was about the dangers of stockpiling it, re-distributing/selling it, and most pivotal: the strong advisory that one should never even entertain the *thought* of it in its ground-up form — it was considered to be multiple times stronger and frequently fatal if taken as a powder.

The pharmaceutical industry has a lot invested in advertising, and making the health consumer more aware of what’s out there assists them in selling more medications — their admonitions for you to “Ask you doctor if (medication) is right for you!” makes you a pharmaceutical rep of the highest order. The least you can do is be as informed as possible — and if I can play a part in that by voicing clear, easy-to-understand spec sheets for the drugs, it will hopefully make people better consumers and better advocates of their own health.

Next week, I’ll blog about the challenges and rewards of working with an international clientele!

Thanks for reading! Feel free to leave a comment….