I tell people I’m a voice-artist in Beijing and they usually stare blankly at me.
The English voice-over market here is a complicated one and it’s safe to say that I have run the gamut of all things voice-over. The educational recordings – where my Bongo the Bear has taught English to classrooms full of children; my best parrot has chanted vocabulary; I’ve mustered my smoothest, dulcet tones for business English recordings, detailing the cultural differences of “Chinese” and “foreigners…these days”. I have frequently been stuck at the airport, had no hot water in my hotel room or been lost in London and told to turn left at the next Post Office. I’ve dubbed old men and children, narrated TV documentaries and adverts and recorded answering machines. I have seen, heard and read it all, every which way in every accent and voice imaginable.
I trained as an actor and therefore consider myself well qualified for these jobs, lucky to have so much work compared to the slim-pickings of voice jobs in London, unless you’re the Geordie Big Brother man or Joanna Lumley. But arriving here three years ago I was perplexed by the seemingly endless parade of anyone who could speak English considering themselves fair game for the educational tapes recorded for the colossal Chinese market. The same is to be said of the acting industry here incidentally.
Some of the more amateur recording studios require unsuspecting laowai bait to rattle off the finest Chinglish around. Other more reputable studios and producers take pride in accurate grammar and appropriate subjects being thrust upon the youth of China. The transient nature of Beijing has seen hundreds of self-styled “voice artists” travel through this unusual profession, through dingy, carpet-walled, makeshift studios, desperate to please the producer so he’ll give you another call next week and thrust wads of cash into your eager little fist. This is the breed of voices that are keen for a quick buck. Others, quite rightly, refuse to read substandard English and in turn have gained a reputation for being professional voice-over artists in a sea of unprofessionals. They are the ones who are giving credibility to this lucrative world, where quality and accuracy are all-too-often shunned in favor of simply producing something, anything. Pity the naïve preschool child believing that No. 7 (below) is a common English phrase.
I met with Brit Cath Marsden, pictured at work below, who is a seasoned voice-over pro, having worked in the business here in Beijing for over ten years. Despite her undisputed talent, her real skill lies in the unparalleled professionalism in which she tackles her work, which in turn has helped position her as one of the most requested and sought after voices in the industry.
“I’ve been on a mission” she tells me “to improve the quality of English education materials in China”. This is Cath’s full-time job and she is passionate about it. It’s a fight she is winning as she has seen the industry steadily improve over the time she has been here, often contesting (in fluent Chinese) with studio producers when they may insist she records Chinglish. Job by job she has attempted to stamp her own brand of perfectionism onto the materials in the hope that in the not too distant future these invaluable resources and supporting recordings can be used as trusted, accurate tools for learning English. “Things have changed” she says. “I love my job now and my working environment has changed. My clients are aware that I am not prepared to read Chinglish. This in turn has improved my relationship with clients who respect the way I work. After all, the reason why I’m doing this is because of the students. It’s a win-win situation: the clients are happy with their sales and I’m happy that I’m helping the students.” Sadly, as long as there are anybodies willing to read anything, then the market can’t realistically be fully overhauled and the state of the education materials for the children, who, as Cath reminds me, we are doing this for, will remain substandard.
Cath and I worked together to compile a list of tips for those considering venturing into the world of voice over, specifically for education materials:
1) Learn to sight-read and edit at lightning-speed, often simultaneously as all the scripts are unseen, sometimes read at a brisk 170 wpm.
2) Vocal training is essential. The job of a voice artist is a skilled one and one that can not be entered into flippantly. Vocal training is paramount to accentuating your vocal quality, understanding how the voice works and working with it as an instrument. Cath honed her skills through a classical musical training; I studied acting at drama school.
3) Breath. All good performers will tell you that the use of the breath is key to your success. Again, vocal exercises can help you achieve optimum results using the breath to increase resonance, range, projection and enhance tone.
4) Engage with the listener. Try to imagine they are in front of you in the studio. Speak to them at an appropriate level, to fully engage with your target audience.
5) Music. A musical understanding, background or training is invaluable as intonation is key to the flow of each piece of text. If you are working in a pair, which Cath and I frequently do, you must be in tune with one another and work in tandem.
6) Learn the IPA. The International Phonetic Alphabet will help you no end in the studio when recording phonetics.
7) Flex your accent muscles; an array of character voices will be very useful for the eclectic mix often needed. Schizophrenia is an added bonus.
8) Learning Chinese will be invaluable to understanding some of the many translation errors and also to communicate and negotiate with studio producers.
9) A background in education will be incredibly useful.
10) Humor and patience are required for the many hours you may spend locked in a small white padded room, so get used to it.
For any work inquiries Cath can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Lee’s voicereel and contact details can be found here.