Coaching and the melody of voice-over with Craig Ross of SAVOA

Updated: May 17, 2021

Part 1 - Interviewing the exuberant Craig Ross: voice-over extraordinaire, coach and talent agent.

You can listen to the podcast here if you prefer:

Welcome to Talking Voice-Overs ! Our guest today is Craig Ross from the South-African Voice-Over Academy, better known as SAVOA

Gaelle Gosselin: Welcome Craig, thanks for joining us

Craig Ross: My pleasure, my absolute pleasure. So yeah man talk to me Gaelle - howzit going? Flip we came off a very crazy global network interaction last night. We really had people from the Philippines, people from India, people from China, the UK, Australia; there were people from the States… It was just ridiculous! From Africa—all over Africa—Malawi, Nigeria, it was a milestone, it was a dream come true for SAVOA, the South-African Voiceover Academy. I said it all those years ago that one day I was going to bring a network of global artists together, a niche. You see the thing is when I say a niche everyone thinks: well, how is it a niche in voiceover? Voiceover is not a niche! Well [it’s] people that are like-minded and think very much the same as SAVOA, and have a similar mindset, who want to go out and grow, and continue to grow different branches of ability and different deliveries, and different networks and relationships. You know, those are the people—and that's why I said “global”—and I’m not talking a or a voices123 where you're a number and never get to speak to somebody. No. SAVOA is, well hey: you and me sitting here, we're doing this, and we are accompanying one another on a journey, wherever that may take us! It can be online, for our local guys who are very privileged to be in South Africa, as we are, and we can coach people here. You know Gaelle when I woke up this morning I I thought oh I’m going to chat to Gaelle at 11 o'clock, how fitting is it that I come on to the show with you to do this interview, this chat, and this just happened last night, it's fresh and I think you can hear I’m just I’m wanting to spill! I don't want to overuse the platform but it's just I’m so excited! You know that there's a following, and the people see what we're trying to do.

G.G: Yes, it's perfect that it's today but then let's backtrack a bit and tell us a little bit more. First, what is SAVOA and then what was it that you did last night that got you so excited?

C.R: So, SAVOA is a South-African voiceover academy, which was birthed about six years ago. Before that, it was Venturescape Studios, where I started doing little voice seminars and inviting people in cape town to these voice seminars where we’d do demonstrations.

And as you know I love to perform so I’d do my hard sale, my medium sale and my soft sale to get into all the different types of deliveries. We would showcase this and get people excited, then see whether they wanted to book and come for a weekend. Well, at that stage I think we were holding it on 3 evenings a week. That was many years ago! it was with Selwyn Shandel. We later parted ways and went on our own mission, then we came back together once I'd started SAVOA. I couldn't really take it any further without crawling back, it's just impossible to take this any further without someone like Shandel.

Since we partnered up, SAVOA has just exploded online. It's an agency, a wonderful platform for artists to come on and if you're good enough (because as we know the industry is very competitive) we then represent you to all our clients, and, although your voice goes up against four or five other voices (it's not the easiest position to have as the voiceover having to send your demo in and going up against five people), they're trained and they're now able to record from home; because we also offer that training online. Now they're able to send these audio files beautifully, in a proper way—format 48 kilohertz 24 bit or 44 16-bit or whatever it may be! All the different types of formats we teach.

It's kind of like a one-stop shop for the layman on the street who has a beautiful voice or thinks he does, to come and test it with SAVAO. We hold free Wednesday sessions which is what happened last night: a free upskilling session. SAVOA hasn't missed one Wednesday free voice over upskilling class last year.

Last night, because we've stepped up our marketing and have now opened the doors to the international market, we had an influx of international people. The connection and the talent from the Philippines, from India! Their reading capabilities that some of our first language English people would envy as this is a third language for this Indian person. Yet, they read it as a first language.

It's incredible. It's just such a different culture of learning, it's just fantastic. And to bring all of these different cultures together, all these different countries, it was just wonderful.

Do you know what really got me the most Gaelle? It was that voice over is a universal language. Universal in its teaching because it's music. It's melodic flow. In South Africa we have like 11 official languages and we're still able to break through that and teach, with all our scripts translated into various languages. But it breaks the barrier when you can teach somebody in India who can speak English how they can break into the international voice-over market.

You can actually do that. But it's how much DIY the person is willing to put into it that's where I come in.

I didn't learn this. My dad did. I used to wake up and come downstairs to get my Rice Krispies and my dad would be sitting in his studio and he would be voicing and selling this for 6.99 and doing pop-up liquor stores for dinner and “make sure you get in”! I would sit on the couch and would switch on tv and hear Malcolm Gooding and telling you to “buy the new blue 52 right now for only 99.99”. This influence of my dad and growing up with Malcolm Gooding and these Verimark ads and Glomail…

My mom also being this crazy actress and ballerina! She's also off the wall so you can imagine this

combination creating me! This voice bomb, all five foot five of me.

You know people say that what makes a cricketer like Jacques Kallis is having grown up in Korea and Makhaya Ntini, who grew up bowling. They all grew up around cricket. The best boxers grew up boxing or in the streets, and they were so young! So yes, I am that person in voiceover which is probably why I'm one of the go-to coaches in South Africa for voice over and especially for melodic training and understanding melody behind the text. We've developed a lot since you came to boot camp Gaelle. Our knowledge base and our science have developed so much that even if you came and did an online course with us you'd learn something completely brand new.

G.G: Good! it's always good to learn more!

C.R: We're constantly developing the science, constantly digging into it and trying our best to understand “Why this inflection? Why not that? Why that dramatic pause and why isn't that sentence flowing like it should? What can we do to make this more believable? How can we make you believe what you're reading so that you sound more believable? How can we make you sound more interested in what you're reading to you sound more interesting?” These are the types of things we take a look at.

I think I jump back and forth between myself and the business all the time which shows you something: that I am the business

G.G: Yeah, you've got the passion!

C.R.: It's SAVOA, it's Craig, it's Selwyn, it's Craig, it's one body but when I speak about myself, I’m speaking about SAVOA.

G.G.: Well, I wanted to know how you got started in voiceovers, you say it was your family?

C.R.: It was. Then I did an ad when I was like 10 for restaurant Calzone “is where you'll find only the best tasting time made to pizza from calzone! Mama said why cook today calzone, there's some takeaway! I want some chow I need some now please pop into Calzone!” and then my dad came in,

Boom!! And as we were kids, we sang that and I thought it was the best thing ever, and that I want to be a voice artist! But then I wanted to be a pilot, a sound engineer… I wanted to be a lot of things.

I think that naturally what happened, was the course of my life: I went to Muir College in the Eastern Cape, a boy’s school, where I studied music, royal school piano of which I took the exams all my life. I enjoyed sports: rugby and cricket… Then, I decided, you know what? to hell with this formality. I've been in boarding school nine years of my life, it's a long time. Now I’m going to go overseas! So, I went

England and I proper did it for two years and I proper jorled, got into a band, met the right people— met the wrong people—and did my thing.

I came back from England, I was only 20 and my mom saw this article in the paper she phoned the people told me: “look, this is what you're doing” and booked me into the sound engineering course at radioactive productions publishing with Bronwyn Nell, a lot of people know her, she’s a master engineer—she's just incredible—and Polly Cordell, just great people. They really trained us in a way that exposed us to outside influences, artists… it wasn't like just being stuck in the studio and you were encouraged to meet people. It was just incredible.

In doing that I met a lot of radio presenters from Shlongweni FM, obviously my dad was on Algoa FM so I eventually got a stint on Algoa fm, I went through The Bay FM then kingfisher FM, Christian radio, then Algoa FM. I went to KFM in cape town and so I got into radio. That was really where it all started, doing live reads, being a sound engineer for radio stations, creating ads… we couldn't find artists, so I’d do the ads myself. And so, I’d start to learn about all the different deliveries.

But not only that. I thought “wait a minute. I’m seeing things that people aren't seeing. I’m going to write this down, which I did and eventually wrote a book, then wrote courses, which I continue to do. I continue to find things in voice over, and when I say voiceover, I mean the melodic aspect of voiceover: what happens behind the text. Screw the text. Let's talk about the music. Let's talk about what's happening with the melodic flow. We can talk about volume pitch, rhythm-time, I’m talking about melodic flow. Talking about everything that happens behind me. What 3D image am I getting in my head? How are you going to evoke an emotion from somebody if you're reading it like this? There's a whole lot of stuff that needs to happen melodically.

The type of voiceover training I'm not interested in is the “oh are you hitting that note?” that’s not directing anybody by saying “hit that note, stress that more, pause there.” No. What's happening to the melody behind the text? People are putting gaps between words where there shouldn't be gaps. People are treating these sentences as though it's a real-life thing and as though you don't have to look at it and actually speak in context.

New artists are sounding rather contrived. A lot of ads on radio and tv here in South Africa are rather contrived. I often battle listen to a lot of the ads, especially on TV and wonder chose that artist and why wasn't there more thought behind that voice?

I think this is where the passion comes in. What's being taught out there? I'd like to pick your brain on that you know!

G.G.: I agree! So, would you say that people would need to take singing lessons to become better voice artists?

C.R.: I think if you click on YouTube type in singing 101, I think that would do any voiceover artist very well. Why? because you're going to understand that Gaelle as I'm speaking to you. I can go and play that sentence on the piano right now. Don't tell me I'm not singing! I am! And I'm listening. What if I take it even further and further, before I drop down? Do you see? What I'm actually doing is creating melodies. Perfect and imperfect cadencing, which is it you see in music. We're going back to music again. In music, you get a perfect and an imperfect cadence. A perfect cadence is a five-one, boom. Like you’d hear at the end of a song: that is called a perfect cadence. A perfect cadence in voiceover: buy that car right now for only 6.99 and you could be a winner: do you see? that's the perfect cadence; versus the song which is boom boom. It's music. It's just cadence. It's pitching. Inflection up and down.

Gaelle, the radio’s on the top right!

Gaelle the radio’s on the top right!

It's just pitch. Same words, different meaning; it’s all about the inflection, pitch, melody behind the text. This is what I'm pushing at the moment.

G.G.: That’s great because it shows that if somebody tells you that you've got a great voice and should

be doing voiceovers, that's not enough to get you into the voice industry.

C.R.: Well not only the voice. Are you likeable? Are you able to sight-read? How good are your

comprehension skills? Do you know how important the sight-reading aspect is? You sometimes get your script five to ten minutes before a session in an external studio and aren’t in your home booth. Sometimes you get a script change ten minutes before you're even in your home studio.

And you're like “oh I’ll practice this…” No. I think that's where the ability to sight-read is so important. To get a piece of text in front of you and be able to perform it on a whim, already with colour, with some beautiful light, with some shade already. The words should be popping out at you and you should be thinking “oh I could do that” then “ooh let me try this then” or “well that doesn't sound how I would want that said to me” “okay let me read that”, “let me stress differently”, “let me put emphasis on different words in the sentence to see how I could change the meaning”; “Okay let me swap the inflections around”, “let me pause over here and think and go on with the rest of the sentence”.

There are so many different things that you could do creatively with the script it's ridiculous.

Now that's just talking about sight-reading. Comprehension is another thing! If you do not understand, Gaelle, how to comprehend the script, if you do not understand the script on a deep level… Because comprehension is understanding something on a deep level. Remember in school, you start that piece of text and they would ask you loads and loads of questions on this piece of text to see how much you understood it. By the time you got to the end of those questions, you really understood that piece of text. The teachers hoped that you did. Now in voice over, and this is where the crux of the matter is, to accurately nail the delivery in your voiceover you need to comprehend your script on a deep level. Why? Because it manipulates your vocal components naturally which is very, very important. When you deeply comprehend the script, it allows you to go to a place that's uncontrived in which you can go into this delivery because you're in the BMW (it's a BMW script) you understand it so intimately now because you've really gone through the script. Ask yourself these multiple questions:

- who am I speaking to?

- what's my audience?

- what does it smell like?

- what does it look like?

- what does the person look like walking towards me going to buy the BMW?

- do they have a suit on?

- What’s their eye colour?

- are they wearing glasses?

We need to start creating and imagining! People don't imagine enough anymore, Gaelle! People don't use their yonkers anymore. They don't use their brain. You see, visually, I read this thing: “the all-new BMW X3. Living to the power of X” as opposed to reading it in a dramatic way. It's confrontational, it's different, you’ve got to think about where you are, it's a mean car, it can take you up mountains, it can drive and steer on its own. You need to give that car something GREAT! Okay? Can you see that something's happening to me because I'm visualizing, comprehending the text? Why can I visualize it that deep? Because I comprehended the script on a deeper level. Why? Because I’ve asked myself more questions about the script than you did. That's really what it is.

G.G.: By “you” do you mean the audience or the director?

C.R.: When I say you I mean the audience, I intimately always speak in radio! It's very intimate. We don't talk about “you guys” we talk about “YOU”. In radio, it's always about you. I have this radio tunnel vision sometimes!

So I’ve had no formal training. This came out of passion. I wrote all the stuff; I met a creative director John Vonker from Jupiter Drawing Room who at that stage came and helped me put the book together which is when everything just started to unfold. We started to book cape town booth camps and then Joburg, then Durban and PE happened. Then it started to happen everywhere and eventually covid hit, so we really invested a lot of time taking our business online, which has been a success so far.

G.G.: so, you don't even need anything like an agent or anything - the work just comes to you because

you're so good at it?

C.R.: I'm an agent but I'm also not an agent and I have an agent! So, I am with an agent which is quite a weird position to be in. There's been some red tape that we've had to sign but legalities aside, everything is cool now. Craig Ross can do what he needs to do, which is great. So, I have an agent, ONS Management in Johannesburg, one of the biggest voice over agents in the country and they send me a lot of work to do from my home studio where I am right now in Port Elizabeth.

I think the next question is “should somebody get an agent?”

I'm going to play this demo (that I produced in my home studio) to you and we’ll talk afterwards okay?

[Demo: TC:23:16]

Now I think that there's a stage that you get to when you've done enough DIY as I did on my own

for the first two-three years. I became great at this art, I made mistakes, sent my demo to community stations, sent my demo to small production companies, rented out my voice for free, any opportunity I got I’d put my voice on but I wasn't yet ready for an agent not in the first two years.

Then, study year three came and I got a Shoprite gig. Suddenly, somebody said you should get an agent and then all of a sudden because I was a sound engineer and also a mixing engineer (which is really handy) I can create these wonderful pieces of product for voiceover artists but really, I want to make mine stand out. I know the deliveries that clients are looking for, I also know how I want to sell myself. That’s something: how do you want to sell yourself? You want to get an agent, but are you agent ready?

What does that mean? if your agent goes “well okay” at your demo clip - firstly that's not good by the way, you want an agent to go [wow] I sent my demo to ONS and they called me in 15 minutes. They

called me back in 15 minutes!! And you know what? I’d been doing voice over for eight years before I could get into ONS.

G.G.: Exactly. So, what you're saying is that you can't just get an agent when you're a newbie.

C.R.: It took me eight years, and you know what I went in a bulldozer of 38 clips of tv ads, radio ads, e-learning, audiobooks! “Here you mother flippers! Take this on!” I gave them a tank full of voice-over ammunition and I just went in. It was only in 2017 that I got into ONS because they also know what works and doesn't work so I think when they hear a talent they go “wow okay, this guy would be capable of doing this without us having to babysit them”.

G.G.: They only hire the best for sure.

C.R.: But why? Because it's a guarantee Gaelle. There’s no “I wonder if he's going to be able to pull it off.” It's “he WILL pull this off”. And that is unmerited confidence because every single day I'm working at building this art, unpacking the science behind it. Don't get me the wrong way, I'm a freak! I know that. I put nine - eight hours into voiceover a day to be honest with you no one does that.

G.G.: Really? Well, all the good people do maybe?

C.R.: What I’m saying is the people that want to become great—sorry I didn't make that clear—people that want to become pro and want to become great are not spending that time on it and you can be as talented as you want if you're not working, somebody with less talent will work harder and beat you at voiceover. Somebody else will beat the pro

G.G. Not that it's a competition

C.R.: Well it is a haha!

G.G.: It's competitive…

C.R.: Okay it is a massive competition out there. It is competitive. Doesn't it mean it's a competition if it's competitive?

G.G.: Yes but you don't get ranked you just get more jobs, which is a kind of ranking I suppose.

C.R.: You're rewarded more. I think the competition needs to be with yourself I think that you need to be better than you were an hour ago, a second ago, yesterday, last week, last month. What counts is putting in the time. Do you know how many times my voice goes a year? Probably about 20. I lose my voice 20 times a year more

G.G.: That’s no good!!

C.R.: It's no good. I even take Homeovox, I do a lot of things but sometimes my voice just says “no more. Shut up”

G.G.: Just goes to show how much work you're actually putting in.

C.R.: A hundred per cent and really doing all of that, I've developed, as you would imagine, muscles within the voice box, within the neck, different parts of the diaphragm, breathing has developed, the way I breathe in sentences. Every single thing has developed, I’m actually… Is this on topic? I meander so much you know. Because of the way that my brain works…

G.G.: You're good! well everything that's related to voice over is on topic!

C.R.: Okay good. I think there's something important that we need look at look at. Your studio: it's fantastic. look at my studio! We are very privileged to have our studios. So having said that, you can't just be a voice over and have an agent anymore, sitting at home. Not be a new voiceover who hasn't broken into the market and just sit at home. You need to be looking at ways to set up your microphone,

your audio card, your software, then what you need to do is to learn how to use it. SAVOA actually teaches you exactly how to do all of that. We teach cross-platform: Presonus, Logic Pro, Audacity, Cakewalker, Adobe Audition, Pro Tools. We can teach you on any program that you bring us.

G.G.: That's useful

C.R.: Remember we're on zoom, we can flip screens and take over your screen to show you. We do level testing to show you exactly right from the word go. Because YouTube can be quite a nasty one as there's no interaction and you can't say “Stop. Wait, can you explain that again and in a different way?” That's what we do. We don't just have one set way of explaining things.

We can enter on an intro and in a personal way into people's brains because this is what we do, this is our passion, to just give on this knowledge very unselfishly in an industry known to be quite selfish and quite “mine, mine, mine, keep the knowledge to me”.

This is really something that's important and I think that each and every artist needs to learn how to set up at home, needs to learn to record at home because the days of walking into a studio and just doing voiceovers are few and far between. Look at what just happened with the pandemic you know? So, keep safe, learn to record from home. It also doubles up in your opportunity to receive work because now you're connected on the internet, technology’s connected you and now you're doing voiceovers in India and in Pakistan and Norway, Denmark and it's great, you're building an online business really. That's what it's all about!

Contact Craig here:

+27 71 889 2179

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