Voice over guy
We're about an hour into our interview when the computer behind Larry O'Brien makes a noise. He spins around to check his e-mail. It's an audition call. He sets to work in his downtown Fargo studio, a room carpeted with black egg carton foam and an acoustic tile ceiling.
O'Brien is dressed for comfort in a pair of olive green cargo shorts, sandals and a light green Ping golf shirt. With his blue eyes, thin eyebrows and shaved head, he bears a passing resemblance to "The Shield" star Michael Chiklis. He skims the call sheet: "Looking for a male or female for local TV. Warm, confident voice, charming. Will end a 30-second TV commercial only airing in a local area." He sets up the computer to record, and in a voice smoother than his conversational tone, reads a few sentences into the microphone, stopping and starting again at times to try out different inflections. Satisfied, O'Brien turns to his computer. With a few mouse clicks, he splices the good bits together and cuts dead spaces caused by the need to breathe. He sends out an e-mail with the sound file and his standard cover letter. All in the space of two minutes.
He has to be fast to beat the competition. More than 3,800 voice over artists use the same Web site to get work. O'Brien figures if his audition is among the first 30 received, his chances are far better. More often than not, the eight to 15 auditions he completes per day will go unanswered.
He also works with four talent agencies around the country. When he lands an audition through a talent agency, the jobs typically pay better. Newcomers think voice over work is easy, he says, and charge small fees to get their foot in the door, which drives down prices across the field. "They're just belittling their own product when they do that," O'Brien says. Voice over work is a scratch and fight business and it takes years to grow a reputation. O'Brien has his successes, but they come only through hours of auditions and self promotion.
Even on a slow audition day, he doesn't dare leave the office to do errands. The next audition call might lead to a paycheck. During lulls, O'Brien keeps busy by sending out demo CDs for his "Ads On Hold" business, which offers his services for corporate answering machines. He also shotguns about 100 resumes to advertising agencies every month. He spends about 30 percent of his time as a voice over artist getting his name out.
O'Brien reads scripts for clients such as The Radisson Hotel in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Global Electric Motors, Microsoft, Scheels sporting goods and the International Bank of Qatar. His voice even announces emergency warnings before tests on an oil rig off the coast of Saudi Arabia. "Why do they want an American guy? The same reason we like a British voice here," O'Brien says.
In 2005, one of his demo discs led to a job reading for Corvette. For two years, his voice was on the owner's manual DVD for every Corvette sold in North America.
O'Brien grew up in Bismarck, N.D., and thought being a disc jockey would be the "coolest job in the world." His real last name is Robertson. He adopted his professional name at 17 due to an admitted lack of understanding of reality.
"I thought I would have all these women throwing themselves at me and I just didn't want to be bothered by people calling me at home."
O'Brien started out in radio in 1976 after graduating from the Brown Institute in Minneapolis. He tried several times to move into other careers. He earned two bachelor's degrees in the 1980s at North Dakota State University - one in psychology and the other in corporate and community fitness. By the time he finished each program, he knew he didn't want to pursue jobs in those fields. After earning each degree, he fell back into radio.
By the time he finally left radio in 1993, he was unhappy with the national climate - huge companies were buying radio stations across the country and cutting them down to shoestring budgets. O'Brien believed the companies no longer cared what announcers sounded like, and it stung.
He found work with TMA Hospitality Group, which owns various nightclubs and restaurants in the upper Midwest. TMA hired O'Brien to do their radio ads. They set him up in a small office above CI Sport in downtown Fargo, not the ideal place for a studio. Trains rolled by every 15 minutes. The flight path for the local airport was close enough to cause problems. The vent above his head didn't bother him, but the occasional vibration of large compressors two floors below did.
After a few of the nightclubs closed, O'Brien was no longer needed full time. He got to keep the office space to write and record commercials for the remaining nightclubs. But that only took up a few hours a week. O'Brien had to branch out. He started HotVoiceover.com, Inc. in 2004 and began building a resume that brought his voice around the world. Two years ago, a simple audition call led to his biggest success to date - Madden NFL videogames. Madden publisher Electronic Arts Inc. sold 7.4 million copies in North America last year and 60 million copies in the last 17 years. It's also the official game of the NFL, which allows only the Madden series to use the names of real players and arenas.
Long-time television announcer Al Michaels used to call the plays in the video game, but when the next generation of videogame consoles, like Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and Nintendo Wii, started to roll out several years ago, the designers wanted a new sound. EA chose to model the play-by-play calls after a nonspecific hometown radio announcer who always roots for the home team. O'Brien beat out a slew of voice talent during an extensive search and audition process. "Larry adds excitement to the game," said Jason Ostresh, assistant producer at EA Sports. "Larry is the voice of next gen Madden football." But no one buys a game for the voice over, Ostresh said. The key is to have it present, but not overwhelming. It took time to get it just right. For Madden NFL '06, his first year with the series, O'Brien logged more than 70 hours of recording. Each player's name, for instance, had to be read three different ways to match the different moods at that point in the game - so, for example, Brett Favre's name sounds different when he is sacked compared to when he puts up a touchdown pass to win the game.
"It's physical work to sit and yell into a microphone for an hour," O'Brien says. But it's work he loves. He loves not knowing what he'll be doing today, tomorrow or a year from now - whether he'll be voicing a doll of Moses or shouting the warning alarm for an oil rig. He doesn't know until the computer makes a noise, another audition call comes in by e-mail, and he's gearing up his equipment for another session.
-- J. Hagen