"Gimme a bray-ay-ay-ay-ake! Gimme a bray-ay-ay-ay-ake! No-oh-oh-oh!"
Standing alone in a soundproof room, a grown man is imitating a sick car. Other adults watch through a small window, listening, coaching, judging. The five people assembled in the small recording studio and control room are making a sixty-second radio commercial for a car-rental company. The idea is to get family-car owners to rent a car for in-state trips, instead of gambling on the old clunker to climb the Mogollon Rim one more time. An engineer sitting at the control board carefully monitors the actor's performance. Another actor waits for his turn at the microphone. Two representatives from the local advertising agency producing the spot watch attentively. The man in the booth is Bill Andres, a longtime local deejay and TV entertainment reporter on KDKB, Y95, KOOL-AM, and Channel 12. He'll be paid a fee somewhere in the neighborhood of $150 for his twenty minutes of vehicular mooing.
Andres doesn't do much freelance voice work. He's glad to have this job and it shows. Andres would like to join the local voice-over elite. Dozens of different voices can be heard on Valley radio and TV stations, either promoting news shows or selling soap. A select few are heard more than others. One of the select few is Bruce Miles, who waits to record the 36 seconds of narration that will be spliced onto Andres' hacking car. Miles also can be heard as the voice of Berge Ford, the Nifty '50s Arizona Lottery game, and the Phoenix Zoo. A popular local actor and theatre maven, Miles specializes in versatility. He's one of the leading talents for "character work" in radio and TV commercials. Other voice-over pros are best at providing a "straight read"--reading copy using an announcer's voice of authority. Others specialize in sounding like the guy or girl next door. A couple of fellows specialize in the Voice of God. These voice-over specialists are commercial artists, working steadily to drive home a continuous aural message: "Buy." Commercials and promotional announcements for radio and television are their daily bread. They also can be heard in industrial films, in airplane cockpits and during scary rides in big theme parks.
You have no idea what they look like, no idea what their lives are like. But there they are. And they are everywhere. It seems like a pretty good living--getting paid for talking--and if you're good at it, it is. That explains the daily telephone calls to Barb Raynard from people who have been told their voices are great.
Raynard, who manages Lambchops Creative Recording Services in Phoenix (one of a handful of studios in town that do a lot of voice work), has turned the telephone calls into a side business. For $50, she offers the callers one-time voice counseling, which means the prospective announcer gets to try some scripts and discuss the business with a pro. Raynard can usually tell right away whether the wanna-be will get work. "If they automatically become Gary Owens--Mr. Announcer--I know we're in trouble," she says.
Gary Owens was the guy on Laugh-In. You remember: acoustic tiles on the wall. Hand cupped over the ear. Lots of insincere syrup coming from the mouth. Owens was an only slightly exaggerated caricature of what staff announcers once were. For years the industry has been shifting away from the often-stiff "announcer" style of read toward more expressive voice acting. "We're looking for rubber voices, people who can read a script 97 different ways and sound believable in all of them," says Raynard. "Or at least half of them. It's a very tough job."
For a fee in addition to the $50 consulting charge, Lambchops will help would-be talent get their rubber voices down on a demo tape, which they can shop around to studios and ad agencies.
Believe it or not, this occasionally works.
For the most part, though, voice-over professionals start as disc jockeys. Some come from the theatre, and most of them keep one foot in the profession they've come from, primarily because it's next to impossible to support yourself with just your pipes.
Charlie Van Dyke, of course, is an exception. He just talks and talks and talks and does quite well. Competitors envy his lifestyle.
Van Dyke's bold announcer's voice--almost everybody in the business calls it the Voice of God--can be heard in fifty cities, either promoting an upcoming television news show or precisely enunciating a radio station's call letters. Van Dyke doesn't do commercials anymore. God doesn't do characters. God doesn't sell tires.
Phoenix isn't much of a hub for national advertising or recording work, but its best voice-over stars are as good as anyone in Chicago, New York, or Los Angeles. Starting with God and proceeding in no particular order, these are the some of voices you've been hearing.