Voice Acting in the Age of AI

One of the most controversial topics of conversation right now in the voice-over industry is the use of Artificial Intelligence, or AI. For those of you who don’t know, AI is the automating of our voices into synthetic, human-sounding programs that can be made to say anything at all. For the most part, these programs work by using existing recordings and synthesizing them into “voices” using fancy coding.

The issues that arise out of this are pretty obvious: Will my voice be stolen? Will my jobs be stolen by this programming?

It’s a hot-button topic for a reason, and there are a lot of contrasting opinions out there around its usage. I’m going to speak mainly from my own personal experiences as a voice actor. I hope that by the end of this article, AI is a little less daunting, and my voice-over peers feel a bit more at ease.

In the past couple years, I’ve started running into AI more than I ever had before. I’m now regularly asked to audition for “Text-to-Speech” projects (which I decline), and I see thinly-disguised casting calls everywhere asking for actors to lend their voices, with a full buyout, to the AI machine. A lot of these read as scammy or shady, but I honestly have seen a lot of these casting calls offer a fairly decent rate and terms as well. I can’t even really judge actors who do decide to automate their voices: if it pays, and you’re consenting, then at the end of the day I think it’s okay to chalk it up as a win. It’s a gray area.

We were going to use a picture of a robot here but they all looked way too creepy.

I’d personally prefer to rally collectively against automation, but when these companies are getting clever about pay and contracts, it’s hard to unify all actors against it. If you are someone who’s already done a text-to-speech project, I want to emphasize that I’m in no way condemning you for it. It is becoming more commonplace, and at the end of the day it’s what you personally are comfortable with.

There is plenty of good that can come from text-to-speech voices. First, it can help give a voice to those with disabilities that prevent them from being able to communicate through speech and sound. Being able to speak, let alone use our voices as a career, is a huge privilege that I often forget I have. To give my voice up so that someone else can have that privilege is a job well worth the effort, in my opinion. AI voices can also be used to break down language barriers. I don’t speak French, but I have used translation AI voices to type in what I need to say in English and have it read out loud in French so that I could communicate with others on a trip to Montreal. It made travel and getting to know others so much easier for me, when before, it would hardly be possible! In both of these cases, I recognize the value of AI for many people.

That said, I’ve also been on the losing end of AI: I was directly replaced on a project by an AI voice! I do have to say that this is still pretty rare. Luckily, in this situation I had already fully recorded the infomercial script and been paid for it. I later looked up the video to see the finished product, and realized they had instead dubbed all the videos with an automated Tik-Tok voice.

A bummer for sure, but guess what? Their videos bombed. Almost no engagement at all. At the end of the day, I think that’s still a win for Hannah.

I’ve had a company directly ask me if they could automate my voice to use for their advertising. I already regularly record audiobooks for them. It was honestly a bit worrying to get that email from them – they’re one of my biggest sources of income. What if I let them do this, and then they start to phase me out in favor of my AI voice for future book narrations, too? I did appreciate how professional they were in asking. They sent me a full contract, offered to pay me a smaller rate for everything my auto voice would do, and told me it was completely up to me. I expressed my appreciation, but ultimately said no – offering to do their ads for them anyways using my real voice! In having that conversation, they also ended up reassuring me that their customers love real voice acting for their books, and they won’t be pursuing it further.

I think if you are careful and thorough when taking on AI projects, they can bring about a lot of good. It ultimately comes down to how well you trust the client. Using contractual agreements and having open, honest conversations with clients about AI can go a long way.

Plus, you’re not in this fight alone! The National Association of Voice Actors (NAVA) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have both done extensive work to help protect actors. Here’s two important resources from them both to assist you:

Preventing Harms of AI Enabled Voice Cloning
NAVA AI Rider

More and more casting directors are starting to use NAVA’s Voice Rider in particular to help assure their actors of copyright safety. If your client isn’t using it yet, feel free to ask them to!

Although we do have to learn to navigate these new waters, at the end of the day, the audience does prefer real voices. Can you imagine a cartoon, video game, or commercial with only robotic voices? It would sound horrible! Even the most high-tech AI can’t capture the true creative performance of what a voice actor can do in the booth to bring a character to life. I hear this sentiment all the time. Just last week I was at a dinner party with my neighbors, and I told them what I do for a living. One of them was extremely passionate with me about how much they hated their company’s AI e-learning voice – and asked for my number so that they could hire me instead.

We have to learn how to have these conversations with our clients, friends, and neighbors, and stand up for ourselves when it comes to our rights and our pay rates – but all of that confidence is good to have regardless!

 


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