Thursday 27 April 2017

We're the real Voices of Ireland - the people behind the voice-overs

You hear their dulcet tones on a daily basis, but who are the people behind the voice-overs? Larissa Nolan finds out

Speaking volumes: Sue Collins has lent their voices to some of Ireland’s most famous ads
Speaking volumes: Sue Collins has lent their voices to some of Ireland’s most famous ads
Tara Flynn is one of the voices for some of Ireland's most famous ads

W e know them from the airwaves as the sexy Cadbury's Caramel bunny telling us to "take it easy" or the Costcutter mother advising us on bargains. They're the strict voice of action directing you to pay your tax before the deadline and update your car test, or the AA Roadwatch man who is so reassuring, he makes you want take out a membership - whether you've got a car or not. Their voices are a part of our daily lives, but what about the person behind the mic?

Many of Ireland's best-known broadcasters, actors, singers and comics become voice-over artists in their spare time, heading into a studio booth and reading a script until it's just right for the ad agency. They are well-known personalities from stage and screen, like Marty Whelan, Risteard Cooper, Clelia Murphy, Flo McSweeney, Ardal O'Hanlon, Don Wycherley and Joe Rooney.

But what does it take to make a good voice-over artist? Is it just "money for old rope" as many people think?

Tara Flynn is regarded by those in the business as possibly the most in-demand voice-over artist in Ireland. Anyone who was ever on the O2 network will have heard her voice countless times - she was the message minder woman who told you "You have no news messages" for 17 years, until O2 became 3.

Tara Flynn is one of the voices for some of Ireland's most famous ads
Tara Flynn is one of the voices for some of Ireland's most famous ads

With a velvety, very female voice, she was also chosen to be the voice of the Cadbury's Caramel bunny for the Caramel chocolate ads. She's all over the airwaves and has done ads for Mace, Axa insurance and Avonmore.

"Back in the olden days, I started by making a demo and cycled around on my bike to all the ad agencies and producers I'd found in the phone book. I made them aware of me. It has all changed since - there are agents now and you can join a database and send a link to an mp3," said Tara.

What was it like to hear your own voice every time you checked your message minder?

"It was slightly disconcerting! I felt a bit like the speaking clock. You could be checking messages three times a day and you're like: there I am again! But I was proud of that gig and I was very pleased to have it for some many years."

The skill to it is in being able to remain clear and distinct - even if the script isn't amenable to that - and having an innate sense of timing that means you know how to shave off a half a second from a reading if directed to do so.

"One of the directions we've all heard at one point is: 'Do it faster so it sounds slower.' Sometimes there can be a lot of information to pack in, prices and dates and so on, but you just keep doing it until they're happy.

"It's your job to make sure that the client is happy. It has to be right, it has to be good and you stay there until that's done," she said.

While it's good work when you can get it, Tara says, you can't rely on it alone.

"It goes in phases - sometimes it seems all sewn up and it's the same voices everywhere; but then they want newer, younger voices, they want someone who hasn't appeared on anything else before.

"There is work out there - make a good demo, work at it and take it seriously. It's not magic, it won't fall into your lap. If you're fortunate enough to have a long career in voice-overs, you have to be aware you will come in and out of fashion, there are highs and lows."

It's a reality of the job that Deborah Pearce, who established Ireland's most successful voiceover agency Voicebank in 1997, makes those in the business aware of. While it was once a job you could rely on to pay the bills, it's now just a form of extra income, she says.

"The industry has changed and the work and the pay is now not as good as it was, say 20 years ago. It's like an added bonus, but it's not a career in itself."

But because it's decent pay for a short amount of time, Deborah hopes that for artists, it frees up some time to allow them pursue their creative endeavours. Fees for voice-over work ranges from the hundreds to the thousands, depending on where it will be heard and if it is a one-off ad or part of a campaign.

She says you can be a victim of your own success. "The work comes in peaks and troughs and actually, if you've had a great run on the radio, you can expect to be a bit quiet for a while after.

"If you're currently in a purple patch, you should expect nothing maybe for a year. If you've done an ad for a car, for example, you'd be automatically precluded for car insurance or say, the Road Safety Authority."

There are trends in the industry - for example, in the UK, only those well-known in another sphere are chosen; they want celebrities like James Corden to read ads. It's unlikely to be a diktat that takes off here, because there just aren't enough celebs, not even Z-list ones.

In Ireland, a light country accent from nowhere in particular is very popular with ad-makers. For this reason, voice-over artists from Cork are the most popular, people like Tara Flynn, Arthur Reardon and Gavin O'Connor, according to Pearce.

For Sue Collins and Phelim Drew, voice-over work is a family affair. The couple - who have four children- are actors and singers and are both familiar voices on the airwaves. And now their talented children Vivian, Milo, Seanie and Lily are starting to get in on the act too. Sue said: "They love it, they really enjoy it and it gives them confidence. It's good experience for them."

The Nualas star has been doing voice-over work for 15 years now and advises that it's not as simple as it looks. She believes a background in the performing arts is helpful for the work involved.

"People think it's easy - they often say to me, 'I must get into that, it's money for old rope'. But there are a lot of different elements to it.

"You need natural rhythm for it and good timing - there's precision in knocking off a second from a read. It's something you get better at the more you do it."

Sue has done dozens of voice-over ads at this stage and can currently be heard on the radio commercial for Costcutter stores.

"You need to know your strengths. I get to do a lot of different character voices and I get more comedy work and dialogue.

"Phelim has that rich voice so he is asked to do things like car ads and the AA ads. It's like this reassuring voice - I remember people said his AA ad would make anyone want to join it, even if they didn't have a car."

Michael Cullen, broadcast director of advertising agency Target McConnell, says it's simply about matching a voice to a target market. The voice is the most important factor in setting the tone of the advertisement - and he says there are very few really good voices out there.

"We choose the voice depending on the ad. For example, for a recent ad for McCain's frozen foods, we were looking for a friendly, upbeat speaker because we were targeting families.

"For a Guinness ad, we'd use someone with a deep timbre and for supermarket ads, you want to be likeable - for example, Marty Whelan did the Tesco ads for a few years. He's a very popular personality."

But there's psychology behind it, according to experts. They say there are reasons we are more drawn to certain voices and accents, above others.

Professor of Linguistics at UCD Bettina Migge explains that - like body language - we form perceptions of people from how they speak. She said voice alone is a form of communication along the lines of body language; styles of speaking are just as powerful.

"Language is an important indicator in society. One of the things we try to do in linguistics is to rethink notions of language as discriminative - we try to encourage less language-based discrimination, something that is socially ingrained in most societies," said Bettina.

"Voice-over work really is acting at its best," said Sue. "You can't hide, because all you've got to work with is your voice. Your performance is under the microscope. You can hear immediately when they've gotten Mary from next door to the radio station to do it."

Irish Independent

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