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Hi, I’m Here for a Recording

The ordinary life of a voiceover artist

Pilar Orti

Hi, I’m Here for a Recording.The ordinary life of a voiceover artist.
© Pilar Orti 2017

Pilar Orti is hereby identified as the author of this work in accordance with section 77 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988


Cover design by Manuel Barrio

Illustrations by Silvina Silva-Aras from Pencilory.com

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This book is presented solely for educational and entertainment purposes. The author and publisher are not offering it as legal, accounting, or other professional services advice. While best efforts have been used in preparing this book, the author and publisher make no representations or warranties of any kind and assume no liabilities of any kind with respect to the accuracy or completeness of the contents and specifically disclaim any implied warranties of merchantability or fitness of use for a particular purpose.

Neither the author nor the publisher shall be held liable or responsible to any person or entity with respect to any loss or incidental or consequential damages caused, or alleged to have been caused, directly or indirectly, by the information or programs contained herein.

Please use your common sense.



1 On My Way

2 Nothing Changes

3 Jury Duty and Google Translate

4 The Audition

5 Edinburgh Memories

6 Getting Married and Freelancing in Soho

7 The Beginning of a Project

8 Put Her in Leather Trousers

9 Long Narrations and Prisons

10 Break a Leg

11 Additional Dialogue

12 The Day London Got the Olympics

13 First Steps in Podcasting

14 The Spain Uncovered Podcast

15 Virtual Coffee


Appendix. So you want to be a voiceover artist?


More from Pilar


I came to London in 1990 to study Biology at Imperial College. Since then, I have worked as an actress, run a theatre company, worked in TV production, taught children and adults, worked as a corporate trainer, written a few books, set up a management consultancy and launched many websites and podcasts. My professional life has taken many twists and turns but one thing has remained constant throughout: my voiceover career.

Now things are about to change.

Since I started working as a Spanish voiceover artist in London, I’ve changed.

How I want to spend my time has changed.

How I want to earn a living has changed.

And Britain has changed… and is about to change some more.

Now seems like a great time to reflect on almost 20 years in the profession, earning a living putting on silly voices and delivering in an “authoritative but warm voice”.

I invite you to join me as I reflect on what I’ve learned about the voiceover craft and my profession; how I’ve stayed sane while being freelance; the experiences that made me see the world in a different light and how podcasting has helped me to discover what “I’m about”. In summary, I invite you to be part of the ordinary, yet varied life I’ve led in London.

Finally, for those of you considering earning a living behind the microphone, I hope that you will gain an insight into the voiceover industry and craft.

Not the Full Story

When sharing these experiences, I’ve had to make a decision of who to name and who to mask. I haven’t written the book I wanted to write. I would have loved to name everyone I’ve worked with and named every product I’ve worked on, but that would have meant getting clearance from many different brands. One of the reasons why I’m a self-published author is to maintain the freedom to release my work at a time that’s right for me. The last thing I want to do is to delay the release of this book while I wait for others to give me the green light. So apologies for not being able to give you the ride I would have wished for, but I hope you understand.

And Yet…

Having said that, I’ve unashamedly named many products and brands while talking about jobs I did some years ago. To leave out every single reference would remove you too far from the real world and this would be a very bland memoir. I’ve also named those people I’ve worked with of whom I have fond memories; I’ve left out those who at some point annoyed me or spoiled the fun.

While the world has moved on enormously in the last twenty years, the voiceover world I’m a part of hasn’t moved on that much. The industry itself has been disrupted, as it’s now quite easy to record, edit and send off a recording directly to a client. However, I’ve remained working in the traditional way.

Some voiceover artists have taken full advantage of the internet and technology, and set up their own studio; I still travel into work. The increase in home studios has led to some professional studios closing down; but then others have expanded. Some agencies have disappeared as clients are now able to work with voices directly; but other agencies have opened their own studios in-house and raised their fees.

For my part, the nature of the job has changed very little. I receive a phone call or an email asking me if I’m free on such a day and at such a time. If I get the job, I take down the time and address. On the day, I turn up at the studio, press the buzzer and say,

“Hi, it’s Pilar. I’m here for a recording.” I sit behind the microphone and read the script aloud.

Well, there’s a bit more involved than that, or else I wouldn’t have written this book. I hope you enjoy it.

London, June 2017


On My Way

Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to walk there. The sidewalks on Euston Road at rush hour are not the prettiest of landmarks. But I like walking in London, taking in the people and the buildings instead of the smell of the underground.

This was probably the most important audition I’d been to in 14 years. Not only was I going up for a long-term contract (something quite unusual in the foreign voiceover industry), but I was auditioning for a cartoon series with a very big broadcasting company. This could really turn into a dream come true and I didn’t want the crowds in Euston Road to make me late to reach the studio.

Walking does wonders for the mind. I might sit at the computer for ages and struggle to come up with an idea, to solve a problem, or find an answer to an ongoing question. But once I set the body in motion, the solution, which laid buried somewhere deep in my subconscious, wriggles its way to the front of my brain. It was during one of these moments, just as a man in a rush almost bumped into me, that I remembered I hadn’t really prepared for the audition.

Two weeks before I had received the brief from an agent by email:

“The client wants someone who sounds like Penélope Cruz.”

Really? How original. Penélope had become the face of Spain a few years earlier and since then, when a client wanted someone who spoke English with a slight Spanish accent, they always brought up her name. The email had included two attachments: an outline of the series and the characters involved and a description of the part I was auditioning for. I’d only read the brief in a rush a few days earlier and couldn’t recall much of what it said. All I could remember was the illustration that came with the brief (so cute!) and that the client didn’t want a particularly cartoon-like voice (oh, and it would be great if she sounded a bit like Penélope Cruz).

And that’s all I remembered. Not owning a Smartphone then (probably the only person still using a candy-bar Nokia in 2014), I couldn’t check the original email. “Oh well,” I thought. “If I’m right for the part, I’m right for the part. No amount of preparation is going to help.”

In almost 20 years of working as a voiceover, I’ve come to rely on my ability to sight-read. It’s just something I’ve learned throughout the years, one of those things I’ve been doing all my life. When I was little I used to read aloud to imaginary children in an imaginary classroom. An only child, I often created whole worlds of people in my room. One of my favourite pastimes was pretending to be a teacher. I’d lay down bits of paper around the room (for the invisible children of course, they needed something to write on), set them exercises and even mark their work (invisible work, of course). I’d read out prose to them and enjoyed acting out all the characters in the few plays I could get my hands on.

When at the age of 15 my English teacher, Mr Lodge, was stunned by my reading of Juliet during English Literature, my little ego received some reassurance that “proper acting” was something I should look into at some point. I’d already taken part in numerous school plays and had produced my own first show when I was seven, but it’s one thing to put on your own little plays; it’s entirely different to be told that you are good at Shakespeare, darling.

My little reading hobby proved really useful in drama school and became crucial to my earning a living many years later. Turning up in a studio and being able to read off a script you’ve never seen before, with the conviction of someone who’s an expert in the subject is a talent my nine-year-old self never knew she could exploit. Soon I realised that preparation for voiceover work is not part of my process; coming fresh to a page is.

Once I turned up for a job where the client expected me to arrive with a marked copy of the script full of annotations to help me through the read. When I told her I hadn’t even printed it off, she looked a little bit disappointed (and a tiny bit annoyed) and went off to get me a copy. As she handed me the script, her slight scowl was saying, “How dare you come so unprepared.” Not letting her mood affect me, I went into the voiceover booth to get on with the work. During the session, my almost flawless reading made her jaw drop. “If this is you unprepared, what are you like when you mark the script?”

Jump forwards a few years to the Euston Road and I tried to reassure myself that I was ready for the audition. “That’s how I prepare, by not preparing. I don’t need to worry,” I said to myself as I squeezed past two friends walking incredibly slowly.

“I’m sure I’ll get all the information I need on the character as I go along. Not remembering the brief won’t be a problem.”

And there it was.

‘Les Frogs, an agency for foreign artists, is looking for actors to add to their books.’

“I’m an actor.” (By then, the word “actor” was being used for both genders.) “I’m foreign. And that’s a wicked name for an agency.”

I put together a cover letter, with my headshot and CV, stuck them in an envelope and sent them off. (I’m talking 1997, no emails, no jpegs, no addiction to digital.) Sending off my CV was something I did regularly, without investing too much energy or hope. I was straight out of drama school, so I saw those adverts just as an opportunity to get my name out there. Every CV sent out carried with it the hope that yes, I was the right person for the job; but each envelope also carried the knowledge that quite probably, nothing would come of it. It didn’t matter. What was important was to get my face and name out there. As soon as I managed to get a part in a play, however small (and however unpaid, probably) I’d recruit my flatmates to help me mail everyone on my list. Casting directors, agents, theatre directors – they would all get a headshot, CV and letter inviting them to the show. I’m sure all that paper ended up in the bin.

But not this one. Stephane, the person behind Les Frogs, did get in touch.

“Can you come to do some voice tests in the studio?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Yes” is every clown’s answer to anything you throw at them, that’s why they get themselves into so much trouble. “Can you fix this door handle?” “Yes, of course.” “Can you paint my wardrobe?” “Yes!” “Can you sort out this gas leak?” “Yes, of course!”

Saying “yes” to everything is also the temptation of every young actor, as is to include “horse riding” in a CV when you’ve only done it once, or to say that you can speak French, when you haven’t practised in years. It’s only after you mess up enough auditions and stink at plenty of jobs, that you learn to admit your limitations to others - and to yourself.

Stephane asked me to prepare three contrasting pieces in Spanish for my voice test. I found a multilingual VCR instructions manual, a (very bad) radio commercial my mother had kindly transcribed for me (“I’ve seen the light” and with it savings of blah blah blah…”) and one of my favourite children’s books, “Los Batautos hacen Batautadas” which I had brought to London with me from Madrid. The Batautos were a series of creatures made up by writer Consuelo Armijo which inspired endless stories of my own. That’s probably why the book made it all the way to London with me in 1990, I felt like my creativity might be attached to it.

A week after the phone call with Stephane, I made my way to SDL, a global localisation company based in Maidenhead, half an hour’s train ride from London. This was to be the first of many journeys where I spent more time on public transport than at the job itself.

Meeting Stephane, a French actor who had plenty of audio and film experience, was great fun. I read the texts a couple of times and he gave me the compliment all performers long for, “You’re a very good actress.” I’d obviously been able to bring the Batautos to life very quickly and convinced him to buy a few lightbulbs. My years of reading out loud to an empty room were about to start paying off.

“A good actress that is going to be late,” I said to myself as I dangerously crossed through a red light. Euston Road seemed to go on forever.

“Ten past five. Ok, I have twenty minutes. Plenty of time,” I tried to reassure myself as I passed the British Library. No matter how many times I walk West from Kings Cross, I always underestimate the length of my journey.

I came to the big crossing near Warren Street tube.

“Wow, how this area has changed…”

The traffic and the bustle was the same as ten years ago, but the crossing seemed more open and modern. I’d seen this area change almost in front of my eyes.

Let me take you back a couple of decades, to the North Side of Euston Road, to a one-way street that posed a challenge to spell-checkers and spelling-pedantics all around the world: Osnaburgh Street. Down this street, at number 34, stood a building called the Diorama Arts Centre.

Set up in the 70s, the centre housed a range of artists and therapists. They ran the building themselves, in any way they could and wanted. But as they entered the more formal 80s, the centre became a registered charity, with a formal Board of Trustees and a full-time administrator.

The Diorama housed artist studios and the offices of arts organisations. There were also a small number of meeting rooms and rehearsal studios that were hired out to the public. The largest studio space, the Movement Room, was a large carpeted room full of Tai-Chi paraphernalia. It was regularly used by Gary, who was once quoted as saying, “I have more strength in my little finger than that of ten men.” Urban myth? Probably.

The centre was run by a management committee and an administrator. Yours truly joined the committee at one point – being too young, naïve and inexperienced to realise that running anything by committee was bound to lead to disaster. Disasters which were even more likely to happen when people like me were involved, ready to challenge the status quo and surface legacy problems. Those who can’t stand issues that everyone complains about but rarely does anything to solve. I’ve never been very good at ignoring that which could be improved and doing nothing about it. Maybe that’s why I’ve always freelanced and looked for my own clients – being part of an organisation where I regularly saw room for improvement but where I didn’t have the power or authority to change it, would have driven me crazy.

I spent almost ten years at the Diorama, where we had the office for Forbidden Theatre Company. Don’t let the name mislead you, there was nothing forbidden about the work we did. We were tame little artists, playing at running a business while doing something we loved, with people we liked to work with. The company was founded by ten of my fellow students at Mountview Theatre School in order to take a show to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. As our contract with the school forbid us to do any kind of acting work, amateur or professional, while still training, the company was born under “Forbidden Theatre Company”. The irony was, of course, that all tutors supported this venture - there seemed nothing wrong with a group of actors taking the initiative to create their own work.

Even though the company’s “Dr. Faustus” had gone down extremely well in Edinburgh, none of the actors had the interest or energy to continue with the venture once the festival had ended. None except one: Phillip. I saw the opportunity to join someone who was as keen as I was to take charge of their own destiny and I managed to wriggle my way in. We ran the company together for almost a decade.

There’s plenty to talk about my journey with Forbidden and so much took place in a building that no longer exists: the Diorama Arts Centre. What went on in there was sometimes a bit dysfunctional, sometimes very silly (playing bumper cars with our office chairs on wheels comes to mind), sometimes surreal (like the time when our dressing room got broken into while we were performing in the Studio Theatre). But above all, the Diorama helped us to feel like we were a “proper company”, with our filing cabinets, our computers and our bits of set and costumes lying around us.

I never earned much money from the company. Financially speaking, it was one of my smaller “clients”, one I billed every now and then, but running the company taught me a lot about what kind of theatre interested me and the effect I wanted to have on other people. The stories and lessons learned from Forbidden could fill a whole book on their own (and indeed, I’m sure at some point they will) and they will continuously appear throughout this memoir, as the company was a big part of my life.

Running a company with very little cash can only be done if you have another source of income. In my case, that was my voiceover career, the profession that’s supported everything else I ever wanted to do. Being based at the Diorama was perfect for merging company and voiceover work due to its location. Sometimes I would hop on the tube at Warren Street for a couple of stops into Soho. On the rare occasions when the recordings took place at The Sound Company on Gainsford Street, nearby, I could even make my way there on foot.

The first time I went to The Sound Company, I got lost and had to phone reception for directions. It wasn’t the first time I’d had to ask for help to find my way and it wouldn’t be the last. Being a voiceover has meant I’ve had to get over the fear of talking to strangers. I am, deep down, quite shy. I remember the anxiety I felt when I was little and my mother would ask me to buy something at the kiosk (usually cigarettes, but I’m sure she doesn’t want to be reminded of this…). Even having to interact with the kiosk owner, who I’d known all my life, made me quite nervous. Just popping over to the neighbour’s to ask for an egg required some extra courage too. Even now, I still hesitate to ask strangers for directions. However, every now and then, I exchange casual words with strangers or I run after people when they drop something - a travel card, a kid’s sock or even… litter. “Excuse me, I think you’ve dropped something.” I can’t stand people dropping litter on the street - though sometimes they don’t do it on purpose, it’s easy to drop a used tissue on the ground when you take out your keys from your pocket.

I’ve had no choice but to overcome my shyness when talking to strangers or conversing with people I don’t know that well. As a foreign voiceover, I rarely work for the same client more than once or twice. I’ve had to get used to meeting new clients or producers at almost every session and, quite often, I need to work with engineers I’ve never met before, so there’s no time for building rapport, or “getting to know each other” before getting on with the work. We’re a bit like a cabin crew team, meet, shake hands and go!

So the fact that my dream audition was taking place at The Sound Company made the whole experience a little bit less daunting. The familiarity of the surroundings, not having to ask where the toilets were and even just getting a knowing smile from the receptionist always helped me feel a little bit more relaxed.

Ah, Gainsford Street - here we go. The Sound Company.


Nothing Changes

“Hi, I’m here for an audition at 5pm. My name is Pilar Orti.”

“Good, I’ll let them know you’re here. Take a seat. Would you like something to drink?”

As I write this I wonder how many times I’ve heard those three sentences in my professional life or how many times I’ve turned up at a studio not really knowing who I’d be working with. Sometimes, I don’t even know who I’m supposed to be asking for, who the client is or what product I’ll be working on. I just look up the address and turn up on time. It shows ultimate trust in an agent, who’s in charge of liaising with the client and looking after all the paperwork and financial arrangements. Other voices are more diligent. They make sure they have all the details in advance, including the fee for the job. As a foreign voiceover artist, I need to extend this trust to many agencies. There is not much work for foreign voiceovers in the UK and it wouldn’t be possible to live off the work provided by just one agent, so unlike the British talent, we are not bound by exclusivity.

I’ve always operated on trust: if an agent sends me for a job, I trust that it’s a decent job and that I will be paid fairly. I also extend this trust to people working for me. When I was running Forbidden Theatre Company, if someone couldn’t make a rehearsal or if they asked if we could change one of the dates, I never asked what the reasons were. I just trusted that their reasons were good enough. I’ve always believed that trusting others lays down the foundations of a healthy working relationship.

When this trust is broken, I break off the relationship. There was a production house in Reading I worked for occasionally for about a decade. I began to lose trust in them during the 2008 recession, when they started to drop their fees without acknowledging the damage they would be causing the industry, or indeed, our bank accounts. My reply to their generic emails asking if I was available for a job became, “Sorry, I can’t take that job for such a low fee.”

I found it difficult to hold a grudge against them for dropping their fees to try and stay afloat, so I remained on their books. One day, I received an email asking me if I was available for a job, voicing a little boy, for £100, two thirds of the going rate. I sent my standard reply and thought no more of it. A day later, I receive an email, forwarded by a friend of mine.

“Hi, Louise.” (Let’s pretend the agent’s name was Louise.) “Thanks for your email. I’m not free for that job, but if you’re looking for someone to be the voice of a little boy, I can highly recommend my friend Pilar, she’d be perfect.”

“How nice of Montse,” I thought, as I scrolled down the email to check this was the same message I’d received a day earlier. It was. And the fee quoted to Montse? £150. I never went back to Reading.

I’m lucky in that I can end a relationship with a client or agent, without fearing that the work will eventually dry out. Knowing that I don’t have to watch my back with a client and make sure I’m not being taken for a ride is crucial to me. I’m also not that different when it comes to personal relationships. Once I’ve met someone, I like them and think that they like me back, I have no reason to doubt them or be suspicious of them in any way. Maybe that’s why I put so much energy into building long-term friendships: I need to get to a place where I can just be myself, relax and not have to worry about anyone sticking a knife in my back. What this means is that as soon as I start doubting someone or stop trusting them, that’s it for me. There’s no point in staying in touch, in just getting together to have a laugh. A superficial friendship is just not worth maintaining - I meet so many new people regularly that I don’t need to hang onto those I can no longer trust.

After checking in with the receptionist at The Sound Company, I sat down on one of the sofas. The studio has quite a nice waiting area, with a couple of sofas placed around a video game themed coffee table. It gives the place a kind of “retro, start up feel”. Next to the coffee machine, there is an electronic version of a foosball game and a very important warning saying something along the lines of, “Go easy on the coffee. It dehydrates you and makes our engineer’s job more difficult.”

That’s very true. And it’s not just coffee, fizzy drinks too. Having always stayed away from coffee before a recording session, I do remember cursing my addiction to that “sparkling soft drink with vegetable extracts” when I once sat down in front of the microphone after drinking a can. My mouth went dry and all sorts of useless noises crept into the recording. (Next time you listen to a guest on the radio, listen carefully and you might hear them making mouth noises that presenters rarely make.) I now avoid having coffee or Coke an hour or so before recordings and I rarely drink coffee in the studio unless I’m working on dialogue, which is much more forgiving.

So my answer to, “Would you like something to drink?” is usually “Water”, or “Just some water for the studio.” Unless it’s mid-winter in which case I’ll have a peppermint tea to warm me up, thank you very much.

Back in the early noughties (that’s the 2000s) I used to visit The Sound Company regularly, as it was the main studio used by the agency VSI (Voice and Script International) before they moved their recordings in-house. It was through VSI that I landed a couple of great jobs early on in my career, including a three week job in Edinburgh (more about that later) and dubbing the promos for the Spanish feed of a channel showing mainly drama series.

Promos are the 30 seconds TV spots that advertise the channel’s own programmes. Those I voiced for this channel were especially fun because, as well as doing the voiceover narration (“There are times in life when you have to make a decision…. Sometimes it’s easy…. Sometimes it’s hard… But it always involves making choices. “Another Series” on Wednesdays, at 2pm on the Channel.”), I also got to dub the sound bytes spoken by the characters. More specifically, by ALL the female characters. I had the most fun with a spot where I dubbed three women from three different generations: a 40 year-old, a 70 year-old and a child. This was obviously the most cost-effective way for the channel to dub the spots - and it suited me, it was a lot of fun. And a prime example of “getting paid for putting on funny voices in front of a mic”.

Even now, after twenty years of being in the industry, I still marvel at the fact that I get paid for speaking into a microphone. In many cases, I would probably do the job for free. In some small cases, especially when the recordings are at two in the afternoon and involve a lot of repetition of reading material I have no interest in, I remind myself that this is how I earn a living, and so I must do my job well. The average rate for a voiceover job is £200, although I don’t always earn that. It’s an extremely good hourly rate, but it gets diluted when you take into consideration that in London, you have to allow for a full hour to get yourself from one place to another. As most jobs take only an hour, in effect the fee turns from an hourly one, to a half-day rate. However, occasionally, I attend recordings that only last ten minutes - in that case, the rate per minute becomes extremely high.

I often ponder about all this when I attend studios like the Sound Company. I reflect on how much time has passed and how little has changed within the voiceover industry. With the explosion of the internet and the drop in price of recording equipment, many voiceover artists have set up studios at home. This has meant that in some cases, the price of hiring a voiceover artist has dropped considerably: no studio hire fee, direct contact with the artist (instead of having to go through at least one agency) and maybe even a drop in hourly rate for the voiceover, who no longer has to invest time in travelling. I, however, don’t have the space to set up a proper studio at home but my fees have dropped anyway. I now earn only slightly more than I did in 1998, which, when you take inflation into account, means a considerable cut in fees. But apart from that, for me, very little has changed in this industry. I still get a phone call (or an email, that’s changed), turn up at the studio and do my job. The nature of the job has changed very little.

One thing that has changed though, is the nature of auditions. Auditions are rare in the voiceover industry, unless you’re up for an animation or a long-term job. The first time I had an audition as a voiceover, I thought, to translate a Spanish phrase, that I was “hallucinating in colours”. Being used to auditioning for the theatre, I couldn’t believe my luck when I was told I would get paid to audition. £100 to go somewhere to try out for a job. Not bad, eh?

That was back in the 90s but things have really changed. Now that we can all record our voices to very high standards on our smartphones, clients don’t settle for our voiceover demos and regularly ask that we record a short audition piece at our end. Again, I can’t really complain. Recording five lines takes about 15 minutes, it’s faster than going into a studio to record, but I’m still surprised that anyone can get a job this way.

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