In this podcast interview, James Alburger describes his many roles in, and background to voice acting, and explains why we should “stay in character”. His conversation includes interesting insights into his partnership with Penny Abshire, and a behind the scenes look at VOICE2010. This is the second in a new series of podcasts in which Andy Boyns introduces the people behind the voices.
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Transcript of conversation with James Alburger
Andy: One of those strange quirks in life is that when you watch a film, or go to the theatre, you can easily appreciate that the actor has developed a craft, and you can easily understand that the character and performer are not one and the same. Think of any award winning performance and you might be awestruck by the actor’s achievement. Every day we hear voices on adverts, linking TV programmes, corporate presentations and so on, but these we take for granted… it’s just someone reading a script. Or is it?
To answer this question, back in 2005, I was fortunate to discover James Alburger’s book “The Art of Voice Acting”. Fortunate because I quickly discovered that not only is this a great general background to all aspects of the voiceover business, but even reading it for the umpteenth time today I continue to understand and learn more from it. Today I am honoured that he is able to join me. Welcome James…
James: Thanks. Great to be here.
Andy: I’ve just introduced you as an author, but in fact that is just one of your roles… how would you describe yourself?
James: Wow! There’s a good question. I’d probably describe myself as a performer, producer, entrepreneur, probably more than anything else. I do a lot of things. So… and I pool all of skills from all of the things I have done, and I apply them into new things that I am doing, so… probably that’s more of an entrepreneurial kind of definition than anything else.
Andy: That’s quite an impressive range for just one person! How did you find that you became interested in voiceovers?
James: Well, actually it all goes back to when I was about twelve and I discovered magic. That was around 1962, so I have just given you my age… But I discovered magic, and it… I learned that, I got that from a class – I was in the sixth grade – my science teacher did a little stupid magic trick during the science part of our class and I went home, told my mum, “I gotta have this”, and my mum was a really great, supportive mum, took me down to a magic store, we bought it – actually we went down to Hollywood, it wasn’t just any magic store… we went to Hollywood, which was about a half hour away – so, we went down there, and I bought that and a couple of other little stupid magic tricks, and learned how to do them. I just got hooked and discovered that performing was something that I really enjoyed and I was really bad at. But because I enjoyed it so much I just kept growing and growing, and learned about some magic clubs, and that got me into performing on stage, and in performing on stage I learned how to work with an audience. I learned how to speak, how to perform, and really how to do a lot of things. And one of those was that I discovered that I really was uncomfortable speaking in front of an audience. This was at a time when the Ed Sullivan show was on here in the US, and I noticed every week Ed Sullivan had a magician on the show and they never talked… or very rarely… they always worked to music. Well, I had played a musical instrument around that same time and discovered I could take a recorded piece of music and using the instructions that I found on a box of recording tape I could actually rebuild that piece of music to do what I wanted it to do. That got me into music editing, which got me into radio, which later led me into television recording studios where audio production was something that I had already taught myself how to do. So I was already somewhat good at it when I got into those jobs. That’s applying the skills that I had learned and taught myself. And what I discovered was in recording studios and in television I was working with voiceover talent every single day. Either directing them, or working with recordings that were brought in to us, and I had to figure out how to make the voice track work with the music and with the video that I was working with for TV. You do that enough, you get to be really good at it… and that resulted in a 25 year career in television.
Andy: Well, what inspired you to get behind the microphone rather than solely focus on live performance?
James: Well, again, that goes back to my whole background in performing – and I love being on stage, I love being in front of an audience, and entertaining an audience, and even now, educating the audience. So, when I was working in the recording studios, and in television, I was working on the production and engineering side of the glass – that side of the microphone – but I was directing the voice actors, and I knew what worked, and I knew what didn’t work. When the time came, late 1990s, I decided that I should apply all that knowledge of what I’m doing as an engineer and producer to that of being a performer. So that’s about when I started working on the notes for Learning Annex class that I was teaching, and that became my book, and that evolved into doing more and more as a performer, rather than just the engineer.
Andy: Well, did you get “a big break” or has this been a slow process?
James: Oh! A very slow process. Never really any particular break. Everything has been slow. It all takes time. This is show business. The “over-night success” in show business happens after about twenty years of study and paying dues, and continuous training. So the over-night success is a very rare thing. So it’s always an ongoing process.
Andy: Do you think your knowledge as a studio engineer affected your development as a voice actor?
James: Absolutely… Absolutely. As I mentioned earlier, all that work behind the glass, or behind the console, doing the production, doing the music edits, editing the voice tracks, figuring out which is the best take, which inflection – maybe I’ve got ten takes of the same line, but with slightly different inflections – I need to figure out which of those inflections is the one that works best to communicate the message, or to fit with the mood that I am setting up with the music and the sound effects that’s going to be corresponding to the video. So there are a lot of things going on. All of that comes together when you’re performing, and when you understand how the production side of voiceover really works it just makes you a better performer. It can’t help it. And that’s one of the things that we incorporate a little bit into our workshops when I am teaching our voice acting workshops with Penny. We try to incorporate a little bit of that knowledge about the production side… not so much from teaching people how to produce audio, because that’s a whole different workshop, a whole different course of learning, but once we can teach people a little bit about what goes on behind the scenes, or what actually went into the psychology of why certain lines were chosen for a certain spot, it really opens up the perception of what’s going on, and how to effectively deliver a script as a performer.
Andy: Wonderful. You have won many awards for your work including eleven Emmy Awards, Omni Intermedia Awards, and Silver Microphone Awards, but what are the real rewards for you in your work… what really excites you?
James: A couple of things that really feed my passion for voice work: one is just the pure joy of being able to perform. As I said, I’m a born performer, I love being in front of an audience, whether the audience is a live audience of a thousand people, or if it’s a small workshop of ten people, or even if it’s an audience that I never even see that I have to create in my own imagination when I am working on microphone. An audience is an audience, and I love that opportunity of being able to perform.
Andy: The VoiceActing Academy, and your partnership with Penny Abshire – who I’ll be talking with in my next podcast – provides the industry with many opportunities. What’s your vision there? I know that you have many things going on, and something very, very large going on in June.
James: The VoiceActing Academy actually came about after working with Penny for around seven or eight years. Originally when I left television in 1998, I spent about three years just trying to find myself, and to find what it is that I want to do with my life. And I had been teaching my “Art of Voice Acting” workshops, which were based on my book, and Penny came in and took one of those classes in the late 90s, and actually started working with me in the office around 2000, and then we started co-teaching around 2002, but there was that long period of time there where I still really didn’t know what I was doing. I was… I had left television, a 25 year career in television, and I thought that maybe television freelancing as an audio engineer, an audio technician, or live television and/or TV remotes and that sort of thing. I thought maybe that was something that I could move into as a new career. And what I discovered is that, after about three years I realised I really didn’t like doing that. That’s not where I belong. I’m a studio production engineer, I’m not a live TV remote guy. There are people out there that love that kind of work, they thrive on it, and they are very, very good at it. Myself? I belong in a recording studio. I belong behind a console, either producing and engineering a project, or I belong behind the microphone voicing the project. So, in terms of the production side, that’s where I belong. It took me three years to discover that, so again, it’s an on-going process, it’s not like you can just flip a switch and know all of a sudden exactly what you should be doing. I don’t think it works that way for anybody. We all have to discover that for ourselves – and that’s something Penny and I try to teach in our workshops as well.
Andy: Well, before we go into the VOICE convention, I’m really curious: what is it like having a woman for a business partner?
James: It’s really interesting. Most of the time when I have been doing things, I have worked either as a solo – when I was doing my magic, on stage I was a solo act for the most part. Occasionally I would have an assistant, usually a female assistant working with me, and that was fine, it really helped the act. There was a time when I did a magic and mime show, and my partner was a professional mime, and we incorporated her mime work and my magic into the same show, and that was a very successful collaboration for a while. But in terms of the workshops, when I am working with Penny, it’s really nice, because by nature I am a very technical guy. I understand the technology really well. I can explain it in terms that most people can grasp and understand. It’s not that I dumb it down, it’s just that I can teach it in a way that works, and people can figure out what I am talking about. So that puts us ahead on the technology side. But what Penny brings to the workshops is that female perspective. It’s a different point of view. The way she describes it is that I do the play by play, and she does the colour. So it’s kind of like a sporting event there, but that’s really a nice thing to do. It gives our students two perspectives. They have at least two ways of getting the input or the information on anything that we are teaching. It works really nice.
Andy: So, it’s been a good collaboration.
James: It’s been an amazing collaboration. It works very well, and we’ve been very successful with it so far.
Andy: Wonderful. Can you tell us a little bit about the Voice Over International Creative Experience?
James: Well, VOICE, the Voice Over International Creative Experience, is the only convention or conference for voice actors in the world. There are lots and lots of workshops out there. There are a number of weekend events, that usually will cater to anywhere from about ten or twenty, on up to maybe 50 or 60 people, possibly a few more than that. But they are usually limited in the sense that they only have a handful of instructors. Sometimes it’s just one instructor. Penny and I do a three day masters class, and it’s just Penny and me. We don’t even bring anybody else in to that. It’s just us. And some of the other weekend events that are out there, which might be three or four days, they are centred around one particular coach, and they may bring in two, three, maybe four, five other coaches, but those other coaches are going to have a fairly limited amount of time that they can actually do anything. So… and it’s just a handful. So, it’s a premium price for a limited amount of training over those three or four days.
Well, what we do with the VOICE conference is we do it like a convention, and we bring in twenty, thirty… for VOICE 2010 we are bringing in 36 different presenters, different coaches, business professionals. Actually it’s closer to 48, because we have panellists who are professionals in the business who are taking part of part of that thing, and we’ve got all areas covered. We teach the educational side of performing. We teach about the business of voiceover. We teach about how to run your business. We also cover the technology side at the conference. And really there are three elements to the VOICE conference. There’s the education, which I’ve mentioned; there’s the technology, because the technology is constantly changing – always new toys coming out, there are new microphones, new pre-amps, new mixers, new this, new that, the technology is always changing; and then the third part of the conference is community. And this is something that when I first started working with Penny, back around 2002, one of her first comments when she realised when she realised what voiceover work really entailed is that she realised most of us are now working out of home studios. We don’t get the opportunity, all that often, to get into one of the big buck studios, and when we do even then we’re only working with an engineer and a producer, maybe a client’s there, and sometimes that’s even long distance, we’re not even meeting them, we’re on ISDN. So we never have a face to face with them, with our clients, and really the only way that we have of meeting other voice actors would be through the discussion boards that were common back round about that period of time. VoiceoverUniverse didn’t exist. Some of the other things, and other forums out there now didn’t exist. So it was difficult. It was really a challenge to collaborate with our peers.
So Penny had this idea, we really need to have a convention, we need to do something. And it took us a few years for the timing to be right, and around 2006 we met up with another person, and we collaborated on putting the VOICE 2007 conference together, and did that in Las Vegas, and that was a success. And we decided gosh, you know, OK, well should we take the risk and do it again… And part of our philosophy, in fact, we teach seven core elements of performance which also relates to business and life in general, and the seventh element is gamble. Be willing to take the risk. So we thought long and hard about doing VOICE 2008, and we decided, “You know, the community of voice actors that’s out there got so much out of 2007, there was only 134 people, 2007, and they got so much out of it, let’s do it again”. So we took the risk. We did 2008, and had close to 500 people there. And then after 2008 we went through the same angst of deciding, “You know, OK, do we do this again, OK. Yes”. Keep in mind that this is just me and Penny. This is just two of us that are the Executive Producers. So, you know, we are the people that come up with the idea. We do all the correspondence, make all the connections, and bring everything together.
Now we do have a staff that work with us – another three people. But still, that’s a staff of five, putting together this huge conference, and without these five people – well, two of them are Penny and me – well, without these other three… and for VOICE 2010 we have Sonnie Brown, who is handling our volunteers, and she’s awesome, we are bringing in a volunteer staff to make sure that the conference moves smoothly. We have Connie Mustang, who is… she’s been with us from the very first VOICE conference. She attended VOICE 2007, and 2008, and she’s our Event Coordinator for 2010, and she’s just doing an amazing job keeping in touch with all of our presenters, making sure that everything they need is in place, and that we have that line of communication kept open. And then our Business Development Manager is Curt Byk who handles all the exhibit hall… everything that goes with the exhibit hall, because we have what’s like a mini trade show, that we do for this conference. Curt handles all of that, he handles the advertising contracts, he handles a lot of the marketing. And we’ve just added another staff person in the last few weeks who is Jenni Turner, who is just brilliant with her media connections, and her media relations knowledge, and Jenni is going to be working with us on publicity and promotion, and media relations. And there’s some other people that are working behind the scenes. One of our speakers from 2008 is helping us with social media, social networking, and some other things, that’s Raleigh Pinskey. And we have… you know, there are lots of other people who are helping us in smaller ways, but without the staff, Penny and I would find it very, very difficult to do it on our own. It would be impossible. And it’s just, you know… the thing that’s so cool about this is the support that we get. You know, it’s just Penny and me that had the idea, and we put it together, and said, “Let’s put on a show”, and we went out and made the arrangements, and we’d bring in a few other people to help us and the support that we’ve received from the voiceover community, in general, has been amazing! Just plain amazing. And we can’t thank the attendees enough for coming.
Basically Penny and I put our voiceover careers on hiatus for about a year and a half, in order to put this thing together. It takes about 18 months to make all the arrangements, to contract with the hotels and all the other services, and to be perfectly honest it’s a huge risk. There’s a lot at stake financially, emotionally, you know. We put in 18 hour days. But in the end it’s worth it. It’s absolutely worth it, to walk in to the conference rooms on the days of the convention, and to just see the faces of the people who are there, and what they are learning, and what they are getting out of being able to have a face to face, one on one experience with some of these coaches, like Pat Fraley, and Bob Bergen, and… I mean I could go through the whole list. They are all on the website at voice2010.com (*www.voiceconvention.com) – shameless self promotion, there – but they are all there! And there are some amazing coaches who are coming in from New York, and all around the country, from Canada, and the UK. It’s just awesome. So we are just… we kind of look at ourselves, almost on a daily basis, and say “OK, the dream… is this a dream or reality?”, because it’s just… the support and the acknowledgement that we have had from bringing the community together has just been so tremendous.
Andy: Well, I know I’m certainly looking forward to meeting you. It will be my first VOICE event, so I am very anxious to meet you. But I do have one final question for you.
Andy: Your tag line is “Stay in character”. What do you mean by that?
James: That actually came about because I was looking for a signature line. I’m very big on branding – if you… if anybody has taken our workshops or a masters class, you know that Penny and I are very big on branding. You also know that there is an orchestra conductor on the cover of my book. We use that as our logo. You know, why an orchestra conductor to brand a voiceover company? You know, what’s that about? Well, it’s about conducting, and orchestrating all the pieces, parts, of a performance to come up with something that’s going to be a profoundly compelling message. And that’s our brand. And we use USPs, which is our Unique Selling Position, or Selling Proposition, or positioning statement, and we have a couple that we use. One of them is, “We make you sound great”, which we use for some of our workshops. Another one is, “Changing lives one voice at a time”. That’s our VoiceActing Academy positioning statement. And these things are statements that we gave a lot of thought to before we put them into place. There’s a foundation behind them. There’s a meaning that goes with those which ties in with everything that we do in our workshops and our coaching, and with the VOICE conference.
Andy: But why “Stay in character”?
James: And “Stay in character” is one that I came up with as my own personal brand. I needed something when I was autographing my book, because it goes back to the first few days when the first edition of my book came out, and people were asking me for autographs, and I realised, you know, if I just sign my name, that’s nothing. There’s nothing personal there. There’s nothing special about that, and it really didn’t do anything to tie in with the book. So I toyed about with a bunch of different ideas, and I found that. I came up with, “Stay in character”, because everything that we teach – in our workshops, on the website, with the VOICE conference – it’s all about acting. It’s all about creating characters who are delivering a compelling message. And it just felt natural to say, “Stay in character”. Be the professional that you are. Be the performer. You can look at it on multiple levels. But the general idea is just: be consistent. Stay in character. Do what you love to do. If part of your character is your passion for voiceover work: go for it! Stay in character, and pursue your dreams.
Andy: Well thank you so much, Jim, for being with us today…
James: Oh thank you.
Andy: Really appreciate it. We’ll see you at VOICE.
James: Look forward to seeing you in Los Angeles, this coming June.
The Art of Voice Acting (book)