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OTM Essay 6: The History of Voice-over

To really understand voice-over, you have to go back to the very beginning.

Here’s a crash course in how it all started.

Voice-over is still in its infancy, if you compare it to traditional acting. Acting has been around for over 3,000 years, with the first known actors performing in outdoor amphitheatres in Ancient Greece around 1,200 B.C.

It wasn’t until the 1930s that performing voice-over for a living began. Take a look at Mel Blanc’s IMDB page, one of the greatest voice-actors ever, and it wasn’t until 1937 that he started voicing characters.

It’s been almost 80 years since Mel was performing in front of a microphone. That’s less than 3% of the time that acting has existed! Voice-over is still a baby. In the last 5 – 7 years there’s been a shift of things going on-line, this will go down as one of the major shifts in voice-over’s history, because now people are able to record in their home studios and do work for clients all over the world. You’re a part of this, so it’s best to start now. Get in on the ground floor, because in another 10 or 20 years there’ll be another major shift in technology and you don’t want to be left behind.

Let’s talk about the microphone:

While at the U.S Centennial Exposition, Emiler Berliner saw the Bell Company telephone and was inspired to find ways to improve it. In 1876 Berliner invented the first microphone used as a telephone transmitter. Bell was impressed with Berliner’s invention and bought the patent for $50,00

Here’s Berliner with his carbon-button microphone. In certain configurations, carbon-buttons behave as if they have built in amplifiers. They not only convert sound into voltage but also increase the strength of that voltage before it leaves the mic. The crude transmitters of the 20’s required high-input signals in order to function. Vacuum tube were new and not in widespread use, transistors were years away from being invented. Powerful carbon-buttons were a must.

Let’s look at when the first radio transmission was broadcast:

Guglielmo Marconi was the first scientist to achieve successful radio transmission. In 1895 he built a wireless system capable of transmitting signals at long distances (around 2.4km). Prior to this, public experimenters had only made short distance broadcasts. Marconi achieved long range signalling due to a wireless transmitting apparatus and a radio receiver. His experiments gave birth to “Marconi’s law”, which refers to the lengths of antennas and how they relate to the maximum distance of radio signaling. Marconi’s experimental apparatus proved to be first complete, commercially successful radio transmission system

In 1896, Marconi was awarded British Patent 12039. Leading to improvements in transmitting electrical impulses, signals, and apparatuses for radio. He established a radio station on the Isle of Wight the following year. He opened his “wireless factory” in a former silk-works at Hall Street, England in 1898. Marconi held the patent rights for radio shortly after the 1900s.

In 1896, Marconi was awarded British patent 12039, Improvements in transmitting electrical impulses and signals and in apparatus there-for, for radio. In 1897, he established a radio station on the Isle of Wight, England.

Onto Animation:

 John Bray opened John Bray Studios in 1914, it would go on to revolutionize the way animation was created. Earl Hurd, one of Bray’s employees, patented the Cel technique. The technique involves animating moving objects on transparent celluloid sheets placed over a stationary background image, they are then photographed to generate a sequence of images. This was coupled with Bray’s innovative use of the assembly line method allowed John Bray Studios to create Col Heeza Liar, the first animated series.  In 1915 Max and Dave Fleischer invented rotoscoping, the process of using film as a reference point for animation. Their studios went on to release such animated classics as Ko-Ko the Clown, Betty Boop, Popeye the Sailor Man, and Superman.

Finally, let’s look at when commercial voice-over begins:

The first radio broadcasts aired in the early 1900s. However, it’s not till 1919 that radio stations began to broadcast continuously, similar to what we know today. KDKA made history on November 2nd 1920 when they aired the first commercial broadcast. Soon more stations began operating on a continuous basis.

What we do as voice-over artists is hardly older than 100 years. I’m not sure where voice-over goes from here, but I’m at least thankful that the human voice can’t be replicated (at least not in my lifetime). Films like Avatar show how CGI can be used to replicate the human body. But, I believe that the voice comes straight from the soul, and no computer can replicate that.

Hope you enjoyed the history lesson. Knowing about the history of business, the technology in it, and all the other elements is important and will only help you down the road.

Until next time – stay On The Mic!

I’ll see you in class.

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