The Legend of the “One Take Wonder”

It's not a Spectator Sport, People!

I’ve seen it happen many a time.

I’m hired to do a voice-over at a public studio — a two-hander with another voice talent. We introduce ourselves, pleasantries are exchanged, and we’re led into the booth. We’re asked for levels, so each of us gives the engineer some sample lines — and we launch into the first official take (which, I can tell you — unless one of us stumbled over our words or mis-pronounced the client’s or product’s name — that first take will typically be pretty darned awesome).

The talent director of the studio will usually say that the first take was, in fact…solid — but then offer up suggestions of ways in which the next take (s) will be even better: “Rick, on your line when you hear the wife at the door, can you sound more startled, like you’re hiding something? And, Allison, your lines when you make your way down the  basement steps need to build more in suspense so that payoff when you discover it’s a new furnace he’s hiding is funnier…”

Subsequent takes are done, hopefully taking into consideration the direction which was just given (and, for bonus points, keep what was “working” from all previous takes) — it’s just a natural part of how audio tracks are crafted; the give and take between the director and talent. It’s the director (or engineer’s, or ad agent’s) job to make the talent clear on the material’s message, to keep and use what the talent naturally brings to the table, and to gently guide and shape the performance into something they can use and which will ultimately make the client happy.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen it all too often: with every additional take being asked for; with each suggestion being offered; it’s not unusual for the voice talent’s confidence to become eroded. The pressures of redo after redo (especially if — in their estimation — the talent perceives that they are being asked for multiple changes with every take, and the other talent seems to receive minor direction, if any)  — take their toll on the voice actor’s performance. They imagine (hope) that the last take they did was “it”; they’re dismayed and little shaken to find out it wasn’t.

Especially if they have in their mind the image of the “One Take Wonder.”

We’ve all heard about the voice talent who breezes into the studio, walks up to the mic, delivers their piece flawlessly, holds briefly for the applause of everyone there, and drives off in their car; engine still warm. While there may be actual moments like that in every announcer’s life (“Yep. You nailed it. Get out of here”), the reality of doing voice work is that you’re there to create something with a bunch of other creative beings — much like a jam session. Your job when you’re there is to collaborate — and this involves multiple takes. It’s not a theatrical performance, like a stage actor striding out on stage and having one chance to hit their mark, and say everything correctly and flawlessly.

Here are some concrete reasons why you should shed the image on the One Take Wonder (and put more than 15 minute’s worth of change in the parking meter the next time you arrive at a V/o session):

Time Isn’t Money

Ok, yes it is. Especially when it comes to ad agencies and recording studios and purchasing air time in which to play the spot which you’ve voiced. But the people who have the studio booked to record the voice-over are not interested in you doing a “drive-by” voice-over and nailing it in two minutes. They would have an impossible time justifying to their bosses why they used up ten total minutes of an hour of expensive studio time. They’ve hired you and the other voice talent in the spot; they’ve paid for the engineer’s and studio’s time; they’ve included reps from the ad agency, writers, and occasionally the client themselves to sit in on the session — they’re going to make use of you. In the most optimal way they know how — which is having you do the spot over and over — with you listening carefully to their direction, responding to it as intuitively as you can, and giving them as many options as possible. (Be warned: the more people attending the session — especially the greater the number of people from the ad agency attending — the longer the session will take. Everyone there needs to justify why they’re there; everyone needs to offer their input — even if it flies in the face and directly contradicts what you’ve just been told by another member of the team. The “Mad Men” want to show the clients that they know how to direct and that they’re good stewards of their product, which they’ve been entrusted to market.) I am reminded of a particularly laborious session when I was voicing the radio spots for a national grocery chain and was put through some 15+ takes of a spot, at the request of an ad exec who was literally stretched out on the studio sofa, grateful for the hour or two out of the office, and somewhat making a sport out of recommending take after take. When take #15 was in the can, and she requested playback, the engineer played back — what I knew to be — if not the first, a take from very early on in the session. I almost started to point this out, when he gave me the “shush” signal. After listening to the spot, the ad exec yelled over the studio mic from her repose on the sofa: “That’s the one! Finally!”)

You’re Human

Get used to it.

Think about how many times — in normal conversation — you get tongue-tied; you trip over your words; your brain gets ahead of your mouth. Voice-over requires an “Eye-To-Brain-To-Mouth” coordination, which, quite frankly, doesn’t work well sometimes. Mistakes — in everyday conversation — are normal. So will they be in front of a mic — especially compounded by the eager faces on the other side of the glass watching you bring their words to life. I know of a well-known and extremely successful voice talent — who also happens to be dyslexic. It’s a condition that he has worked hard to overcome — especially with his chosen career path — and he doesn’t make a big deal about the extra takes he may need to “knock it out of the park”. And knock it out of the park he *does*. He arrives well prepared, and refuses to take it personally when asked for multiple takes. There’s a good lesson there.

I, personally, have dubbed myself the “Ella Fitzgerald of Voice Over” — it’s not enough when I mess up to simply stop, take a breath, and start cleanly again: I draw out the mistake in kind of a scat-singing flourish: “Please enter you pin number… fllollowed…..scobbededoooo….wahhhhh!” Like a Viking Funeral, I go out big. I recently had a client request a re-do of a really basic prompt — one that I could probably do in my sleep — “Please hold for the next available agent”. How many times have I read that exact prompt? Hundreds. I asked what the problem was, and he just e-mailed cryptically: “Have a listen”. And there it was, plain as day: “Please hold for the next available Asian.” I also frustrated myself into a tizzy just the other day, by saying — three times in succession — “We apologize for any convenience.” For some reason, the word “inconvenience”  — “convenience”‘s tricky cousin — eluded me. We can’t ponder why the brain “hiccups” when called upon verbally — we only need to accept that it’s a normal human glitch and move on.

This Almost Never Happens To Me When I’m At Home

Those of us with chushy home studios have the best of all worlds — an international clientele at our fingertips, and we could greet them — if we chose to — in our cowboy pajamas. It’s a whole different dynamic when you’re running the show from your own setup….and it was soon after I established my home studio (about twelve years ago) when it really dawned on me how absolutely unimportant it is to get things exact, correct, and perfect on the first take. Clients never know how many takes get scrapped, they never need to know which fragment was brought in from which other random take, or how much editing actually goes on. Even in a phone patch session while recording from home, there is still less inclination to turn the whole thing into a performance piece, and much less nervousness arises when thing do go awry. Editing software is gloriously easy to use; it’s not hard to learn to splice digital files absolutely cleanly; and personally, my best performances come with the state of relaxation attained from clients who explain what they need, and then let me “do my thing”.

My advice to journeyman voice artists who are prone to the jitters in front of a mic at a public studio: come prepared (try to get ahold of the script ahead of time), arrive well rested, well hydrated, and completely focused on the task — and learn to invite — nay, encourage — numerous takes. They’re your way to stretch personally and see how far you can go. Rather than feeling “beaten up” in the studio, be grateful for the opportunity to be sent in direction in which you might not ordinarily go.

Look on the bright side — you could be the guy in the sound file below….actually, it’s Colonel Harlan Sanders, in a recording which makes its way virally among audio people from time to time. He voiced his own radio spots throughout the success of his empire, and continued to do so — some say — long after he probably should have. Cringeworthy, yes. Difficult to listen to, certainly. But it never fails to make anyone in front of the mic grateful that their session — as laborious and stressful as it might have been — didn’t go in the direction of this one (click below):

Col_Sanders

Next week, I’ll blog about telephone operators — their rich history, and how the technology is sadly making them an anachronism.

As always, huge thanks for reading!

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5 Comments »

  1. Allison- Great post! To me, the one-taker is as elusive as a unicorn. I deal with dyslexia and have become comfortable with multiple takes. During a recent patch session, my client ask me if I was the talent they hired for the project. We had a good laugh at my expense. The finished production is what counts, regardless of the number of takes.

    • voicegal Said:

      Christopher:

      Thanks for the comment — yes, I think too much emphasis is put on exactness and precision right out of the gate, and those of us (myself included) who don’t necessarily nail it on the first try, need to remind ourselves that this is not Olympic Figure Skating, with technical points deducted for “too much ice shaving kicked up”.

      Thanks for reading!

  2. I particularly love the “next Asian.” Many of our customers ask me to do their recordings, and I have a cultural speech impediment. I’m Cuban, and we tend to drop the ‘s’ sound in many words. Now, I hear myself saying it, but nobody else does. And if I want others to hear it, I have to sound like a snake to myself…”ssssss,” and still people will say I dropped the ‘s’ in their company name. One customer finally gave up and took my advice to get a professional–you–to do it.

    • voicegal Said:

      Sorry to bump you out of a job, Carlos!

      See you at Astricon!

      • We won’t make it this year unfortunately, but will be looking forward to pics. Kevin has already warned us we’ll be missing something great.


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