Have you ever paused to think about your journey as a voice over artist?
How technology has changed or about how you’ve managed to adapt and thrive in the online marketplace?
Voice talent Bill Kates shares a story full of twists and turns and highlights that although some things do change, many in a way, remain the same.
Sailing Shifting Media Tides:
How Voices.com Has Helped Me to Navigate Uncertain Seas
By Bill Kates, voices.com member since 2008
Someone once said the only thing you could count on is that things will change.
When I was a little kid in the suburbs of New York City in the early 60s, one of the coolest things besides a bicycle that you or your peers could possibly possess was a wondrous, fragile, heavy little rectangle about the size of two or three iPhones stacked together called a transistor radio. The wonder of being able to walk down the street and hear your favorite songs or news broadcasts was still fresh for any kid I knew, when my parents gifted me with one for my fifth birthday in 1963. My own radio! What could possibly be keener than THAT? From that spring onward, my little Zenith and me were inseparable.
I must have put that small plastic radio through one thousand Ray-O-Vac alkaline batteries. With one eye on the family TV (black-and-white, of course), I pressed that mystical, musical box up to my ear (it sounded best that way) and listened to pop music stations after school until bedtime every night. I was fascinated with novelty songs, particularly one by a crazy sounding band called The Chipmunks. More on that shortly.
The sudden and tragic death of JFK that November threw everyone’s world into a tailspin, it seemed. The world of the grown-ups was somehow shifted, thrown off-kilter. The radio and the TV helped hold that world together, from what my childish eyes and ears could see, but a certain safety was gone, people were struggling for balance and spiritual solace. My family and I went over to our neighbors, the Brownings, for dinner one night not too long after that terrible day, as we often did.
As some way of trying to make sense of it all, Mr. Browning was taping the sound off the 6 PM TV newscast (this is way before home VCRs), so he could play it back later, on his Wollensak tape recorder. I was flabbergasted. I had no idea such a magic thing existed, let alone that people could OWN one, in their homes. I thought all the voices I heard on the radio or on TV when you didn’t see them on screen were simply people standing and talking into microphones, in real time, like they showed on the Little Rascals. Hey, I was five, okay?
I must have made my fascination with the tape recorder obvious, and after dinner, Mr. Browning proceeded to show me the wonders of the thing: Go “doop doop boop” into the microphone when the white and red buttons were pushed, stop it, rewind the reels of tape back to where you started, press the white button this time (But NOT along with the red!), and- miracle of miracles!- “doop doop boop” came out of the built- in speaker, plain as day! Same as you said it! As if this weren’t enough, if you switched the lever to the faster speed, lo and behold, your recording “munchkinized.” This was the secret to my beloved Chipmunks record. Actual human beings could do this themselves. I was hooked.
The Beatles came along on the Ed Sullivan show a couple of months later and seemed to offer a balancing, a certain joy and optimism the country needed. Any kid could feel it, see it around them. Along with transforming the world in a thousand different subtle and obvious ways, the Beatles created a sea change in the sound of TV and radio itself. Schmaltzy Bert Kaempfert background music gave way to snazzy secret agent guitars, played by guys that you just knew drove Mustangs and wore Ray Bans.
Disc jockeys suddenly had license to be “whacky” in a way they never had before, hemlines raised up and inhibitions melted down. The 60s were ON, and I loved seeing all of it happening, as I fell more deeply in love with the poetry and wonder of radio. It was then that the seed was planted deep within me. I had to do this. I had to be a part of this world, of making this sound happen.
On my 6th birthday that spring, my parents surprised me with one of these miraculous toys: my first tape recorder, complete with a shiny little round condenser mic the size of a small stack of silver dollars. It had two speeds, 3-inch reels, and the simplest mechanism imaginable for such a thing, but it WORKED. From that point on, in terms of what I loved and what I wanted to do for a living, I may have branched off here and there, but I always moved forward, and I never looked back.
You can draw a line curving straight up to the 2000s from there. Training in acting and music, the school plays, film school, high school, summer camp, go-karts and sweethearts straight through to college in Boston, where I got my foot in the door at the legendary WBCN, first as a phone line guy, then a news intern, and then into production and weekend air shifts. Marriage and my amazing kids blessed me and came into being, and K-Rock in New York picked me up as production director in ’88, I began doing the occasional freelance VO and production gig, and I eventually migrated over to XM Satellite Radio in 2001, where I became their New York City director and supervisor of production; probably the grooviest full time position I ever had in terms of freedom to stretch out and really take the ol’ production chops to the limit.
Then, in 2008, the big merger happened, and what I thought was a sure thing, security and stability, came to a crashing halt as just about everyone I knew in my department, including my supervisors and me, were downsized. Suddenly, there I was, standing there in the ashes of my 25+ years career. Most of the great rock stations I knew and loved were gone or about to crash themselves, victims, it was said, of things like Napster and iTunes, and a nefarious little device called the iPod, along with its new cousin, the iPhone. The big broadcasting companies were consolidating even further still, slashing personnel as ad dollars evaporated and budgets shrank geometrically. Luckily, there was one card I played in anticipation as it all came down that has paid off better than I could have dreamed. It happened when I chose a membership in voices.com.
By using voices.com as a sort of “base camp,” I’ve managed to become something I never was before: my own boss. Suddenly, I was meeting clients involved in emerging technologies and games, venues I’d never been involved with, who sought my expertise, style, and broadcast smarts to bring their sound a snappy, professional finish. Rather than falling into some kind of depression because “the radio jobs were gone,” my own world was suddenly expanding, new horizons were opening up and I was learning new things as my skill set grew wider.
Now, thanks to an amazing and flourishing client base, I not only continue to voice commercials at a comfortable pace, I’m doing sound design for iphone* games (like Star Wars Arcade: Falcon Gunner), and iPad aps and games (The Art of the Adventures of TinTin, Mathflow, etc), comedy ringtones, audiobooks, and more. I’ve even done 3D photography with the Black Eyed Peas! How futuristic is THAT? I create post production sound for videos and animation (a lifelong dream come true), and I now have the best demo reel of my career online at voices.com.
Obviously, none of it was automatic. I’ve worked very hard to be where I am, and of course I’ll continue to do so. But I absolutely would not have made the connections, and had my stuff seen and heard by so many clients and potential future clients, had it not been for this amazing, flexible, ever expanding and ever evolving website, and the team of amazing people who continue to keep it the gold standard in the field. No, they are not paying me to say this. I pay them, and it’s worth it! So really: Thank you, voices.com. It never fails to amaze me, what I’ve been able to do thanks to you.
*An interesting technical side note to all this, as a wrap-up: In radio, we were taught to make it sound great in the studio, but to also make sure it would still be clear and pretty on the crummiest transistor radio imaginable. Now, creating sound for iPhones, I need to make sure it sounds big and beefy on good headphones or speakers, yet still comes across clearly on the little iPhone speakers– not always easy! Anyone else notice this parallel?
Any and all comments are welcome. I hope you enjoyed this article!
You can follow Bill on Twitter @soundgenius