“I warm up on the subway en route to a gig,” says voiceover artist Debbie Irwin, “and engage with people in the elevator on my way up to the studio – to put a smile on other people’s faces, which makes me feel good, and is a great vibe to bring into the recording session.”
New York City-based Debbie Irwin is the voice of The Statue of Liberty on the landmark’s audio tour as well as the Telly Award winning video for LA’s Segerstrom Center for the Arts. “I often refer to my ‘sound’ as intelligent and elegant. My voice is better suited for audio tours of museums, cities, real estate, corporate explainer videos and medical narrations than car commercials or talking toys.”
A Standout Voice
What makes her voice sought after by clients? “The more I pondered (this question), I realized that… I bring strong life experience to my work. Having lived in Italy and Mexico as a kid, pushed by my parents to excel academically, pursuing my dream of being an actress in NYC, having a passion for the visual arts, working at the Guggenheim, being a broker on Wall Street, leaving Wall Street for Sesame Street when I decided to have kids and raise my family, then coming back to my original passion, acting, but in the form of voiceovers… All of these experiences infuse my work.
“There’s probably no one thing that makes me effective,” says Irwin, “but rather a combination of factors that come into play when one is successful in this business:
- What you sound like
- What you do with your voice
- How you interpret copy
- How you to take direction
- Having acting training
- Knowing how to be professional before/during/after the job
- Being a positive person that people enjoy being around
- Being considerate of other people’s time
- Staying in touch
- Making other people look good
- Expressing gratitude to people throughout the process – no matter what their job may be – receptionist or company owner
How A Voice Is Perceived
“Knowing where you fit and what your type is,” says Irwin, “can be very hard for actors to assess… and one of the best ways to figure that out is by seeing what kind of work you’re being hired to do. Take a look at the specs (character notes/voice qualities/adjectives) listed on scripts that have been sent to you by an agent or casting director who knows your work, and you’ll understand how your sound is perceived.
“Here are some very common specs for projects I’m asked to audition for: professional, warm, confident, strong yet comforting, real, trusting, believable, knowledgeable, intelligent, worldly, sophisticated, cultured, empathetic, smart, conversational, mature.”
Telling The Story
Asked how she gets past the words, the script, to tell the story the client wants told, Irwin says, “I don’t think you want to get past the words, you want to inhabit them! And there are so many clues for how to tell the story in the words themselves.
“Everybody’s role in the creative process is important – the writer’s words which need to be respected, the creative director’s vision for the overall look and feel of the piece, the sound designer’s insights for the music which supports the story, and so on. The voice is one piece of the rich tapestry.”
Irwin says, “One of my coaches, Joan Baker, told me that before I stepped up to the mic, I had to read the script twenty times! While this was overwhelming at first (and to this day, truth be told), there’s something fascinating that happens over the course of reading the script over and over.
“Your brain first needs to recognize the words, then become familiar with them, and only after a while does the emotional self begin to seep into the text, generating context. Some teachers focus on knowing who you are and whom you’re talking to. Others focus on knowing your general attitude in the script. Some have you break down the copy so you understand its structure – like a piece of music… A/B/A.
“Conflict/Solution/Resolution… All of these techniques come into play, and with enough experience, become second nature.”
Working With Directors
Irwin frequently works on documentary, web commercials, explainer videos and medical animation projects. What’s her secret to working effectively with directors? “The most effective way to work with people,” she says, “is to be prepared. Gather as much information about the project as you can ahead of time: the script, the storyboard (which is an illustration of the story) or rough cut (an unfinished video illustration of the story), samples of your work they like, or examples of someone else’s that they don’t like, learn what the client’s thoughts are for the sound they imagine hearing in their heads – the tone, the tempo, who the audience is, who your character is, and how they want their message communicated.
“Having ideas for different ways to present the material is important because sometimes a client doesn’t know how to express what they want until they hear it. Know your material going in… not memorized, but be really comfortable with the words, the arc of the story, where you want to focus/pause/paint colors.
“My scripts are always marked up with notes to enhance and guide my delivery. Also, I tend to be detail oriented, so if I notice an error or inconsistency in the script, I’ll raise that as a question at the beginning of the session, and usually clients are grateful for the level of attention I’ve paid to their work.
“Then, you have to be prepared to throw all that away, since you don’t know what might happen in the session. Maybe they have a completely different idea of how the script should be read, or who the audience is, or perhaps the timing is such that you don’t have a choice but to speed through the lines (in as calm a way as possible), to fit the words to the picture. Sometimes the script changes while you’re in the session, so you’re starting anew.
“That’s why I never stop training because there’s always more to learn, and it’s easy for some tools to become dull if they don’t get sharpened regularly.”
The Voiceover Studio
“My studio is in my home in lower Manhattan,” says Irwin. “I live near Ground Zero (and yes, was there that day).
“My preference is to go to a studio here in NYC, or in nearby New Jersey or Connecticut, and be with a studio engineer, writer, creative director, producer, client, or any combination. It’s a richer experience all the way around.
“Being in NYC, I’m lucky because there are tons of studios here – which means that I may just as often record outside my home as in my home. Clients are all over the world (California, Dubai, Ireland, Israel, Iceland, etc.) but we can all get connected rather easily through Skype, Viber, IpDTL, Source Connect, ISDN, Phone Patch, and more. Half of my work I record from home, and of that, I’d say twenty percent is with connective technologies so my clients can be in the session with me.”
Voiceover Studio Gear
“As for microphones, I’ve been experimenting of late,” Irwin says. “The Neumann TLM 103, one of the best, has been my mainstay for years, but at the suggestion of some of my colleagues, I’ve been working with the AKG Perception 220 and I think it’s giving me a richer sound. Microphones sound different depending on who’s speaking into them and the environment that they’re in. It’s hard to recommend one over another, since it’s a very site-specific and person-specific relationship!
Neumann TLM 103, AKG Perception 220
Computers & Software :
MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, Source Connect, ProTools LE8, Twisted Wave
Focusrite Scarlett Interface, MicroPort Pro, Mbox, Mbox Mini, Phone Patch, IPDTL, (ISDN and Source Connect accessible)
Delivery Methods :
MP3, .WAV, AIFF, FTP, CD (although I can’t remember the last time someone asked for a CD!)
The Voice of Voicemail
In closing, Irwin says, “I’m also the voice of many companies’ IVR systems (Interactive Voice Response) – you know the ones… when you just want to talk to a real person but are stuck in the ‘Press 2 for sales’ circle of frustration.” The next time you’re caught up in a voicemail loop, smile. The voice you hear may be Debbie Irwin!
Listen to samples of Debbie Irwin’s voiceover work:
Contact Debbie Irwin at: