Every successful voice-over actor gets asked the same question over and over from fans and even their local plumber. If you want to know how to get into voice acting, based on my experience as a voice actor for 40 years, here’s my answer.
I don’t have a clue anymore. Just kidding. . . Not! It changes every day.
But seriously…I want to give you the real truth as someone who has done voiceovers for over 40 years
When I got started in voiceover, the voice acting business was competitive but strategically located. Although you could get some commercial or industrial work in most major cities, the main markets were Los Angeles and New York.
I’ve done a ton of anime dubbing, which I fell into unexpectedly, but I’ve also done a little bit of everything voiceover throughout the years. During the 80s and 90s in Los Angeles, there was a small group of about 30 dubbers, and every time a project came into town, we would be called to work on it.
Original animation, which is recorded before the animation is drawn, was and still is performed by a very small cadre of extremely talented voice actors. It’s difficult to break in unless you are hugely talented or lucky. The best animation actors are masters of improvisation. Those who are off the wall and have a flexible voice range do most of the work.
Anime dubbing requires a special skill. Anime is probably one of the lowest-paid ends of voiceover but many people want to get into it because they are fans of the genre. The truth is, you must be a serious actor but also have the ability to sync the dialog with a flapping mouth that has already been filmed in another language.
The best dubbers have a sense of musicality or “rhythm.” However, the technical aspect of dubbing is much easier for actors than it was when I first started out because the technology is more advanced. Now a clip can be stretched to fit the lip flaps so an actor doesn’t have to hit it spot on as we did long ago. But, it still takes skill AND talent.
How can I make big bucks in voice acting?
Original animation has always been more lucrative because much of it is done under a union contract. That means you must be a member of SAG-AFTRA or find a producer willing to Taft-Hartley you. You get paid residuals after a certain number of runs on air.
The biggest bucks, in my opinion, is in commercials. One national commercial or jingle can send your kid to college or help pay off your mortgage if it runs for a period of time. Regional commercials are buy-outs, but a national commercial is the crème de la crème.
A few chosen voice actors, mostly men, make a killing doing movie trailer promos and announcer gigs but that’s a hard nut to crack even for highly experienced voice talent.
Video games can also pay well, but they notoriously ruin your voice because there’s often a lot of screaming involved. Gamers love action and violence. You may not think that’s not a problem when you’re young but it can really mess up your vocal cords when you get older.
For a while, I did ADR on films. (Automatic Dialogue Replacement) We sweetened up the voices of extras in films and TV shows and sometimes replaced the voices of other actors. I worked on ANTZ, The Santa Clause, Beverly Hills Cop III, Dr. Doolittle, and many other projects. I mostly came in to do kid or teen party scenes. ADR is extremely difficult to break into but the residuals are incredible.
You will have the best luck in ADR if you have an unrecognizable “normal” voice. My voice has a unique sound so it limits my opportunities. I sound like a kid running through a hall when I’m doing a hospital scene. You have to be realistic about what your voice can do because you will almost always be cast in roles that are closest to your voice range.
How do I become “successful” in voice-overs?
Right now the industry is INSANELY competitive so I don’t recommend spending a ton of money to become a voice actor unless it’s a primary passion for you. Most voiceover work is being done online by voice actors who have home studios. You can live in a tiny town in Kansas, and be successful if you work hard enough. It has really increased the talent pool.
To land a paying job, you have to be talented, persistent and dedicated
Some voice actors have packed up their bags, quit their real jobs, and moved to Los Angeles only to find themselves struggling to survive. I live in Los Angeles and can tell you it’s freaking EXPENSIVE it is to live here. Your entire income will get sucked up into your rent so you MUST have other sources of income or a full/part-time job when you are first starting out. That is, if you want to eat, occasionally.
Young actors don’t always listen to their elders and don’t think about the future until it is too late. I know. I was a young actor once and was never told to save money, create other income streams, or plan for retirement. Most voice actors are never able to fully retire unless they have the luxury of being on an ongoing show like The Simpsons.
Struggling actors work as Uber drivers, deliver food, do temp work, work as extras, or do flexible jobs online like sitting on a mock jury. Some even work as clowns for children’s birthday parties. Hey, being a clown is acting, right? Whatever it is, be proud you are doing what you have to do and are not sitting around doing drugs or getting depressed.
The truth is, you can be a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond. Are you sure you want to pack up, move to LA, and swim with the swarm?
Cattle call anyone?
I always had better outcomes when I walked into a casting office and did an audition. When I recorded auditions at my agent’s office and they were sent to casting directors, I wasn’t nearly as successful. Can you imagine what it’s like now with thousands of actors emailing their clips from home? You have to record hundreds of auditions to book one gig. In-house auditions are almost non-existent. Getting cast is almost like winning the lottery!
I’ve also noticed voice actors responding to Twitter threads asking them to send links to their reels. In my opinion, cattle calls like those are a waste of time usually resulting in little to no pay. Some of these “casting directors” may even be data mining so be careful.
I don’t mean to be a Debbie Downer but . . .
Realize there are people out there who are ready and willing to separate you from your money even if you don’t have a chance in hell of becoming a successful voice actor.
Only get into voice acting if you are TRULY passionate about the work, can deal with rejection well, are mentally stable, and have sufficient talent as an actor. If you only want to do it because you are a fan, good luck, but I don’t recommend it!
DO NOT pay big bucks for classes, demo reels, websites, home studios, advertising unless you are absolutely determined to succeed and you are ready as a trained actor!
Do you really need a voice over coach?
To be completely honest, I never worked with a voice acting coach other than a one-hour session at the SAG Conservatory and a few singing lessons. Instead, I was fortunate to learn on the job.
I’m not saying hiring a voice coach is wrong or bad. They can really make a difference in your career outcome. The problem is, many “coaches” are overpriced, unqualified, and their main goal is to get you to make a professional demo reel, which costs a fortune. An actor’s income is unpredictable, so be careful what you invest in and do your research.
Scammers and those just out to pay their rent are willing to take on anyone who says they want to be a voice actor even if they have zero talent. But, what happens is aspiring actors spend money they need to live on with no return. I know one voice actor who took 50 classes online during the pandemic. He must be rich, his parents are paying for it, or he’s deeply in debt. Just saying.
Find a coach who is doing what you want to do successfully and who you resonate with.
I trained as a theatre actor starting in high school, all through college, and performed on stage in Los Angeles where I won awards for outstanding performances. But, what got me gigs as a voice actor was MY VOICE. I naturally sound like a kid, even in my 60s. I responded to an ad posted in a trade magazine that was looking for adults who could do kid voices. They liked me and I began working regularly as a dubber in anime and foreign films.
Don’t feel that you need to create a wide range of character voices. The majority of roles you will land will be those that most resemble your real speaking voice. Almost all the parts I have played in voice over are variations of my own voice. Remember that when you work outside of your range it’s difficult to maintain, especially in a large role and you could damage your vocal cords over time. That’s not to say you shouldn’t try to stretch or be original but there will always be actors who are more suited for certain types.
Focus on what you do best.
Are agents still necessary?
I was signed with a top voice-over agency for 25 years that set up my commercial and animation auditions. I booked several including some national commercials. However, I got the bulk of my work on my own, through friends I knew in the business.
Then, life happened, my agent retired, and I got booted out because their main focus was more on movie trailers and spokesmen and not animation. It’s sad to say but the industry is not necessarily loyal, especially as you age. There will always be someone newer and cuter and there are fewer roles for women, period.
An agent is most helpful if you are in the union and live in a large market like Los Angeles or New York. They get 10% of what you make in commission but that 10% does not come out of your pay. It is on top of whatever they negotiate for you with the production company. A manager, on the other hand, can take more than 10% and it comes right out of your pocket.
Most actors do not need a manager unless they are at the top of their field. If you land an agent, that’s great but not all will be worth your time and some are even shady. Always check the list of SAG-AFTRA franchised agents and look at online reviews.
Why you should join SAG-AFTRA when you qualify
I’ve been a member of SAG-AFTRA since 1981. Union membership protects actors from shady producers who want to take advantage of them financially. The union is not easy to get into and it’s expensive but I’m proud to be a member. Working non-union undercuts actors’ rates and you get nothing in return for the future.
What else do I need to make it in voiceovers?
If you want to get into voice acting you first need to realize it’s a business. As artsy as you think you are, you have to market yourself. Successful voice actors know how to sell themselves. They get the people who are hiring to hear their auditions and demos.
Other voice actors or fans are not the ones you should be targeting to get jobs. Instead, get to know casting directors, producers, and collaborate with brands that may need your type of voice. Connect with them in person, online, and on social media.
As much as it kills me to say this, you can get started doing work on sites like Fiverr, Upwork for freelance work. Some people do well doing this although it is not taken seriously in the industry. At least you can set up a free profile and get work, probably after doing hundreds of auditions. ACX seems to be the go-to for audiobooks.
Here are some of the things you need to make it in voice acting.
- Talent – As I mentioned before, training as an actor (theatre, improv) is essential if you want to be truly successful in voice acting. Don’t delude yourself if you’re not.
- A qualified coach – Bob Bergen, Kalmanson and Kalmanson, (Cathy used to be one of my agents) Steve Blum, & Marc Graue, are a few “qualified” coaches who come to mind. DO NOT SPEND large amounts of money on classes, equipment, or demos unless you ARE SURE they will benefit you.
- Persistence – You need to get your name out there. Meet people, stay in touch with them, call them up if needed, and network. I honestly have to say I SUCK at that.
- Build a professional website – This is important. It wasn’t a thing at all when I started. In the old days, we mailed out reels, headshots, and resumes, which usually ended up in the trash. The reason your website is your most important online real estate is because you own it. Social media platforms come and go. You may have a zillion followers on TikTok, but what would happen if TikTok suddenly went away? I created this website by myself because even though I’m a Baby Boomer, I’m tech-savvy. I recommend WordPress because it has the most functionality and is fairly easy to use. Your website needs to be responsive and mobile-friendly. If you can see your entire site when you look on your phone, it’s as OLD as ME. Here is a step-by-step tutorial on how to set up a WordPress website without paying someone your grocery money.
- Build up your following on Social Media – Your website is your online real estate, but you must also have a Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube presence. Some people have created their own celebrity by uploading home-produced videos on YouTube, TikTok, Reels, or whatever the latest platform is. Use your social media profiles to make connections and don’t rant. (Okay, I got booted off one of my Twitter accounts for ranting – my bad!)
- Avoid P2P – I abhor the proliferation of “pay to play” sites. When I was coming up as an actor, the Screen Actor’s Guild always warned us, “If anyone asks you to pay to audition, run away as fast as you can.” Charging for auditions is WRONG and most of the work is non-union and underpaid. Those companies are only out to make a buck . . . from YOU. Still, if you are a beginner, they, along with Upwork and Fiverr may be good to practice with.
- Have a home studio – I ADORED having an engineer set up my mic and worry about the sound quality so all I had to focus on was my performance. Now YOU have to be an engineer and all those cool engineers are out of work. Many struggling actors do not have a suitable space to work in so you may have to be creative. You need decent equipment and the right software. Still, you don’t have to invest in an expensive booth. My home studio is in my closet because I rent a room in a house. Clothing is awesome for sucking up sound and so are furniture pads. Set up a space between your sweatpants and your winter coat. Then, hope your dog won’t bark or the gardener doesn’t show up when you are recording. In my case, it’s my roommate who watches TV all day in the next room. Once you become wildly successful, then, maybe, build a professional sound booth.
- Equipment – Smartphones are getting better all the time but they aren’t a replacement for a professional microphone. I use an Audio Technica 2020 condenser mic, a pop filter, a small Beringer mixer, Sennheiser headset, and record with Audacity, which is free. There are more expensive setups out there but remember all your business expenses will add up so wait to upgrade AFTER you start making lots of money. You will also need Source Connect, Skype, Zoom, or whatever is required for your gigs.
- Demos – You can spend a huge amount of money on demos, then get an agent, and 99% of the time, they will want you to make new ones to their specifications. If you are at the start of your career, be careful, and only make a professional demo when you are ready.
- Get a knowledgeable tax advisor so you can write off your business expenses properly.
- Find out if voice acting is for you. Start a podcast. It’s fun and you can even make money doing it. You’ll get practice using equipment, work on marketing, and see if you like the sound of your own voice. I had a podcast for a while and made awesome connections. Give it a try.
- Be prepared to fly by the seat of your pants – Acting work is cyclical and unpredictable. You may be flying high one year and live on food stamps the next. This can take a toll on you mentally and could affect your family and kids. There are many imensely talented actors out there who never got a break and end up on the street. You have to be strong enough to work through the ups and downs.
Think about your future because I didn’t
One day you will get old, trust me. As a “senior” I get Social Security and a small SAG-AFTRA pension in addition to any gigs I get and my blogging business.
You have to have a fallback plan and invest in your retirement because if you only work sporadically, as most voice actors do, life might happen and you will have to survive it. Contribute to your Social Security account by either working W2 income (in the union) or taking it out through self-employment or corporate taxes. JUST DO IT!
Books on voice acting that are worth checking out:
- Voice-Over Voice Actor: The Extended Edition by Yuri Lowenthal and Tara Platt
- Voice-Over 101: How to Succeed as a Voice Actor by Debi Derryberry
- Sound Advice: Voiceover from an Audio Engineer’s Perspective by Dan Friedman
Technologies change in a heartbeat. You can learn just about anything on YouTube but check the date to make sure the videos you are watching are current.
Voice Over Tips Online
- VO Buzz Weekly
- Bob Bergen offers free tips online on his Instagram account and is extremely generous as an online mentor.
Conventions as a guest voice actor
A popular anime voice actor once told me the bulk of his income comes from being a guest at anime conventions. That says a lot about the unpredictability of working in voiceover. Some actors have convention agents. You get paid to attend as a guest, free airfare, hotel, and per diem. As a guest, you can sell your autographs and other merchandise.
I don’t love that idea but that seems to be the current business model. The convention will require you to do panels and sometimes hold a class. I have been a guest at many anime conventions. What I love is the free travel and engaging with my fans. I enjoy the extra income too. You still have to come up with a banner, pay artists to commission drawings for you, and print out copies, which can be costly. Sometimes that will be provided depending on the gig.
You need to have a life aside from acting
I have two kids who are now adults, I love to travel, have hobbies, am a blogger, and enjoy dogs (although I am dogless at the moment) Do whatever it is that sparks an interest in you in addition to acting. Go to museums, art galleries, concerts, films, theatre, take a cooking class, learn to fly, whatever. Acting is not the end-all, be-all of life.
Stay fit. OMG! As someone in my 60s, I can’t tell you how important that is! You can’t stay in a dark booth or a recording studio all day. Go for a walk, take a hike, workout, swim, whatever as long as you keep moving and get some sunshine!
Eat SMART! You don’t have to be a vegan but make sure to consume plenty of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, protein, and stay away from soft drinks and too much alcohol. Drink lots of water!
Become a whole and interesting person and not just a workaholic. Be present at the moment. If you are traveling you don’t have to do auditions all day in your hotel room! The truth is, working as an actor or voice actor can be brutal to your ego and you can age out even in voice-acting. Enjoy life, have a family if you want to take care of yourself in your old age, and have fun!
If you have questions about voice acting follow me on Twitter @rebeccaforstadt or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org