Timing and Scratch Tracks

Posted on August 19, 2011 by


VO Tip – Own a stopwatch and some sort of way to record your voice.

As a voice talent, I frequently receive receive a script that either sounds like nobody ever read it aloud, bothered to check the timing of it, or both. For these two reasons, every copywriter, director, producer, client or whomever is tasked with either writing a script or casting a talent, should own a stopwatch and some sort of recording device.
This past week, I received scripts for 30 second t.v. commercials that ranged in length from around 30 seconds to one that even read in a rushed pace, took almost 55 seconds to read. That 55 second spot also indicated that it had a musical intro and outro, as well as a number of sound effects, thus making the actual finished 30 second spot, somewhere around 62 seconds long.

Interestingly, scripts like this can and do come from even some of the largest ad agencies and biggest name advertisers. Is it a goof? Did someone just assume it was a 30 second tv spot, and in reality it’s a 60 second tv spot or maybe even a radio spot? It’s possible. But when that hits the hands of the voice actor who is trying to figure out what to do with it, invariably what you’re going to get back won’t be representative of the best possible work the actor can do. We might assume incorrectly, that the length is wrong or we might try to read full speed ahead and then edit out every tiny piece of breath and space in an attempt to get the timing close to what you are asking for.

Sitting and reading the script out loud, using a stopwatch will usually get you to within a plus or minus of 10% of how long the spot is. Of course you will need to add the timing of sound effects, music, intros and outros, etc. to this number. Generally, if you are within 27 and 33 seconds or so for a 30 second spot, you’re okay. If you actually take the time to read or have someone read the script before hand and factor in time for effects, etc., then you have what is commonly called a “scratch track”. This will really help you fine tune the spot before you send it out for casting. This particularly helps, if your intention is to really have the audition be as exact a duplicate of the actual spot as possible. And realize that while my examples are of tv and radio spots, you can benefit from doing this with just about any copy that needs to be read.

One additional benefit of recording the scratch track ahead of time is that it can give you a sense of whether the copy needs to be tweaked. A sentence may read well, but sound awkward to the ear. You may have examples of alliteration in your writing or sentences where the last word becomes swallowed by the first word of the next sentence, etc. It can also lead you to proper names or words that may have pronunciation issues. As you can see, having a properly timed scratch track is a very valuable tool.

As for recording the scratch tracks, it could be something as simple as an inexpensive handheld solid state recorder. Or it could be an inexpensive USB microphone that can easily plug into any computer. The latter has the advantages of being more easily edited, as well a being able to have sound effects or music added. I also suggest that whenever possible that sound effects and music be added to scratch tracks. Without going into great detail, suffice it so say that some music might work better than other. Certain instruments may actually cancel out parts of a voice over, mask them or cover them up. In some cases, choosing a male voice vs. female voice or vice a versa might make a significant difference in the overall effectiveness of your communication. The pacing of the read may or may not match properly with the music you intend to use. You may decide to pick out different music.

The more you can do before sending your audition out, the better your casting results will be.

About the Author

J.S. Gilbert, or as he’s known in the advertising world as “Old What’s His Letters”, has been hiring voice talent and performing v.o. for many years. If you have any questions or want to get in touch with him, his website is http://jsgilbert.com and you can find his phone number and email address there. Call him J S or Jay, whichever you prefer.

J.S. Gilbert J.S is a guest blogger and a talent of Voice123

Photo by Julian Lin

Posted in: Cast Smart