As the apartment door opened, a cloud of marijuana smoke greeted me. I didn't think that boded too well for our recording session, but I told myself not to be judgmental. I'd found this "home studio" in a trade paper - the rates were fair and I just needed to record a couple of projects for clients while traveling.
There didn't seem to be a booth in the one room apartment, but my host assured me it wasn't necessary. His studio had a great sound. So, I got behind the mic and we got stuck in. The buzz and hum coming from his recording equipment had me a little concerned. I asked if we could do a quick test and he assured me we should just go for a take. So, we did. And the results... were shockingly bad.
I suggested that possibly I needed a slightly more professional set up, which offended him. In his defense, he told me he'd recorded an entire album with the exact same equipment. He would play me a song from it. He was sure it was going to be big - really big.
I listened, dumbstruck, to him singing a ditty about his cat, Jake, accompanied by guitar (plus hiss and hum) Jake's picture hung in a grand frame on the wall next to us.) He was - alas - no longer living. (He'd probably suffocated in marijuana fumes or had a brain embolism from listening to his master sing.) I extricated myself from the "studio" as fast as I could and went for plan B.
As I entered the second studio on my list, I felt reassured. It was clearly a professional studio with quality equipment. My relief was short lived. I entered the reception area and found myself interrupting what seemed like a rappers' gang meeting. I wished I were wearing a medallion, or at least a baseball cap turned sideways to blend in.
After what seemed like an eternity, the engineer arrived to take me to our session. (We'd spoken on the phone, so I thought I'd try to build rapport, maybe downplay the English accent and try to sound a little hip...)
"So, Dave" I said, as he led me down a winding corridor, bopping as he went to some music only he could hear, "Basically, I just have a short e-learning script for one client and a few pickups..." He interrupted me: "It's not Dave, it's Daze - like Dazed and Confused." I wished I could counter with something like, "Actually, it's not Susannah, it's Deja Banana," but I let it slide.
I've recorded with engineers who spoke a completely different language from me, and this was no exception. I could see, with each word I spoke, that none of it made the least bit of sense to Daze. There were no rhymes, there was no rhythm. He kept waiting for me to get to the good bit, but it didn't happen. There wasn't much juice for him in the script about ocean ship navigation systems. I left the studio 45 minutes later with my project in hand and my engineer looking truly dazed and confused.
Growing up in Europe taught me to expect the unexpected. Like the day I was driving through Barcelona and saw a man crossing a street wearing just a leather handbag strapped over his shoulder, and nothing else.
Or, there was the voice job when I showed up to do a tagline for a men’s cologne and the male voice talent recording with me was smoking a cigarette in the booth.
But the dubbing job I got to record one day at a studio in the Champs Elysees really opened my eyes.
The movie was a period piece, and I believe we were dubbing it from Russian into English. My roommate at the time, Karen, had also been hired for the job. And so we found ourselves, side by side behind the mics and in in front of the huge film screen, adding our voices to two beautiful actresses who were dressed in stunning 18th century dresses.
We were doing well, and congratulating one another on how few takes we were able to nail the phrases in, when the conversation of our on-screen characters started to drift in an unusual direction:
Sophie (my character) said: “Ah my dear, at last we’re alone. This corset feels so very tight. What if you helped me out of it?”
And Celeste (Karen's character) replied: “It would be my pleasure, I've been hoping you'd ask.”
The next thing we knew, we found ourselves dubbing a lesbian love scene, complete with moans and kisses (we were told to make the lip sound by kissing our own hands).
As true professionals, we acted our way through to the scene’s completion.
At the end of the session, we queried the director about not having been informed ahead of time that we would be dubbing a porn movie. To that he replied, shocked: “Porno? Mais non, ce n’est qu’un film rose…” It was pink, not porn.
My first big voice job in Paris was for a national TV commercial about lawnmowers. I showed up to a very ritzy recording studio, with a panel of people ready to scrutinize my work. It wasn’t just a case of the engineer and the director, the casting director was there too, as well as the Client, with a capital “C” and her assistant.
I was to dub the Lady of the Manor, in the commercial, speaking French with a posh English accent. Doing my best to look like the professional I hoped I would some day become, I headed for the soundproof booth and nonchalantly tried to put the headphones on the right way round.
We were soon underway, recording several takes. The lip-syncing thing was a little tricky, but I got stuck in. After several passes, the director called me out of the booth with a serious look on his face. The client was extremely unhappy – so unhappy she wouldn’t address me personally, but kept complaining to the casting director, in thoroughly disgusted tones: “Ah non, ce n’est pas ca – ca ne va pas du tout! – elle est beaucoup trop jeune.” She had a point. I was in my early 20s and the character on the screen was pushing 50 – my voice wasn’t an obvious match.
I was about to learn an important voice over lesson. It’s a business that demands a multitasking mentality. You might have to use a foreign accent, while focusing on time codes, hitting the words the client wants underlined, while maintaining an authoritative, yet soft sell tone…
It was sink or swim. I realized that my takes were missing an element. Yes, I was speaking French. Yes my accent was English. And yes, I was doing a fair job of lip-syncing, but the CHARACTER was missing. I thought about it for a moment and realized that if I were to dub that actress in English I would place my voice up in an operatic register and mimic a tedious schoolteacher I once had. I demonstrated my point to the team, speaking in English, and there were murmurs of approval. So, I jumped back into the recording booth and the project was completed to everyone’s satisfaction and my relief.
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