Behind the Mic – The Bang Zoom Workshop

A group of a dozen aspiring voice actors gather in a small recording studio in Midtown Manhattan. They are there to participate in a day long voice acting workshop hosted by Bang Zoom Entertainment. Not only have they paid quite a lot of money to attend this class, but their promptness in showing up at 9:00 on a Sunday morning is a clear indication that they are all serious about this.

Their instructor for the day is Tony Oliver, veteran voice actor and dubbing director. “This is a professional class,” Oliver warns his new pupils. “I’m not mean, but I don’t pull punches.” For a full eight-hour day, Oliver will be working with each student in the basics of anime voice acting.

This idea of fans getting into professional voice acting has always fascinated me. Back when I ran anime clubs in college, a few of my members wanted to get into the business. Some of them even took acting classes and pursued theater degrees just to get into anime voice acting. It is also hard not to notice that at almost every voice acting panel I have attended at anime cons, at least one fan will ask the professional guests, “How do I become a voice actor?”

So now that these aspiring voice actors are actually inside of a recording studio for full day, what exactly were they going to be doing? How hard is it to voice act? What kind of lessons could they learn from the pros? What will happen when they go behind the mic for that first time?

Bang Zoom was kind enough to let this blogger observe this workshop, and must say, this was one of the most amazing events I have ever witnessed in my years of fandom. So for this week, I’d like to take you inside of that New York recording studio to see what it is like for a fan to finally get behind the mic.

Getting Started

Bang Zoom Entertainment is one of the largest dubbing studios in America, and they responsible for providing the English voices for many anime shows and video games. The studio decided to open up their facilities in Burbank, California to fans who were interested in getting into the business. For the cost of around $300 per student, a class of a dozen fans get to spend an entire day with one of the studio’s professional voice actors, learn inside tips and tricks, and eventually get to spend some time behind a mic to record an anime dub.

The beginner level class – which focuses specifically on anime voice overs – has become a major hit for Bang Zoom. The studio currently runs about 3 workshops every month to meet up with the demand. Starting later this month, they will be expanding the program by holding their first ever intermediate level class.

But the studio has more in store for this expansion. They wish take the show on the road and host workshops all over the country. “As long as there’s a place where a dozen people are willing to pay for it, we want to be there,” Oliver says. So while Oliver and several other voice actors were in town for the New York Anime Festival a few weeks ago, the studio decided to make the Big Apple the location for its first workshop outside of Burbank.

One of the differences that Oliver immediately notices with this New York class over his normal California turnout is that most of the students are already professionals in the entertainment industry. Sandra is a writer for off-broadway shows looking to get into voice acting. Stefanie and Dave are both musicians looking to do more with their talent for impressions and unique accents. Jane is already working for behind the scenes for a children’s television production company, but she wishes to go into character acting to finally be able to play the voices in these kid shows.

But there are also some students who are still going to school and are looking to get an early start to their careers. Madi is a communications major working on a minor in theater, and she’s hoping to figure out what she needs to focus on for her education. Matthew is an amateur film maker, and likes to put together movies with his friends and post them online. And Allen is still only in high school, but his love of anime and voice acting has lead him to wanting to do this for a living.

Oliver starts off the morning with a lecture about the differences between voice acting and stage acting, and even dives further into the differences between anime voice acting and voices for domestic cartoons. His topics include the importance of pitch, tone, syncing, getting into character, and how to wear the headphone inside of the studio. The students all eagerly listen to everything he says, and vigorously jot down notes into their notebooks.

For the rest of the morning, Oliver goes over acting exercises with the students, including monologue readings and vocal warm ups. He emphasizes how important it is that his students understand regular acting to be a voice actor. “Just remember, when you voice act, you’re performing on stage in front of an audience. Even though the audience is spread out throughout the country, it is still an audience.”

These are all simple practices that you would find in any beginner acting class, but I can already see that these students have some experience behind them already. While they all read the same few lines,  each one takes command of the scene and adds his or her own style to the character. They are all noticeably talented.

Their First Line

After a lunch break, the class moves into the recording studio to actually practice behind the mic. Each student will preform two scenes. The first is one simple line from one of Oliver’s more recent project, Gurren Lagann. The instructor stands next to student in the recording booth and walks them through the entire process.

The girls begin by acting out the introduction from the anime’s buxom female lead, Yoko. First up is Rachel. We are all seated in a mixing room looking in at Rachel and Oliver from behind a glass window. Because she is in a soundproof location, the only way we can hear her is through speakers at the front of the room. We can watch the anime clip playing on a small monitor above the window.

“Yoko is my name,” she lets out in a sugar sweet voice. “I never introduced myself, did I?”

There is a brief moment of silence as the rest of the class takes this in.  As Rachel’s voice comes through the speakers and we watch the cartoon playing out on the monitor, it feels like we are watching a finished, post-edited, fully dubbed show. But no, once we realize that Yoko’s voice was live in the next room over, everyone lets out a small cheer for their fellow classmate’s debut performance.

One-by-one, the girls step up behind the mic for their shot at the Yoko line, and each one brings a different style to the character. But all of them sound like a pro as their voice is synced to the video, and it impresses all the other classmates.

“You totally have an anime voice!” one girl tells the other back in the mixing room.

“You too!” she replies.

Then it is up to the guys to have their first shot. They will be playing a rather famous line from Laggan from the show’s badass hero, Kamina. The character is known for wild personality and over dramatic speeches, so the male students will have to go pretty extreme with their first line to capture Kamina’s cocky attitude.

Matt is the first guy to try it. He has been mostly quiet up until that point, so it came a surprised to everyone what happened when three beeps go off to cue him to start recording.

“Believe in me!!” Matt belts out into the mic, “Believe in the Kamina who believes in you!”

His voice roars through out the mixing room, and everyone erupts into a huge laughter and cries of “wow” and “oh my God!” How did this kid manage to sound like a badass anime hero so easily like that? But surprisingly, as every guy gets his chance to preform the line, they all come off as being that badass. It was amazing to see this all happening right there in front of me.

“That is the job,” Oliver tells his class after they all had their first taste behind the mic. “That’s what we do for a living.” At this point, everyone was in high spirits as they move on to the next stage.

A Whole Scene

In the next part of the workshop, every student picks out a scene and reads about 3-5 lines from one of the characters. The selections are from several of Bang Zoom’s recent series like Lucky Star, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, Haré+GuuEureka 7, Ghost Slayers Ayashi, and of course, Gurren Lagann.

Each student takes another turn in the recording booth to record each line one at a time. First, they hear the line being played back from the original Japanese recording. This is a step that is unique to Bang Zoom and not every dubbing studio does it. But I have often heard professional voice prefer it this way. “If you don’t know how to play a certain line, just imitate the Japanese actor and see how that works,” Oliver instructs his students. After they hear the preview of the line, a series of three beeps go off and the actor begins the line on the imaginary fourth beep.

For this stage of the workshop, Oliver moves out of the recording booth and sits in the director’s chair in the mixing room surrounded by the rest of class. After each take, he talks into a mic and provides feedback to the student in the soundproof booth. For every new mistake made during the recording session, he takes some time to discuss is with the class and go over ways on how to improve on it for the next take.

For his scene, Matt selects to play the role of the timid Simon from Lagann. “That’s right, bro! You can use to this to – boo!” He messes up the line, and the rest of the class laugh over the outtake.

Oliver talks back to Matt over a microphone. ”Actually, that was a very good take – except for that ‘boo’ part.”  He then turns his attention to the rest of the class and makes a lesson out of it. “Don’t ever assume you blew the take. Just leave in some room for the director or engineer to edit around and fix it, but don’t ever assume you blew the take.”

Much to my surprise, a little bit of editing work can actually be done to make a bad take come out right. A sound engineer sits in the mixing room with the class and has full control over everything from his laptop computer. If the student does a bad take, the engineer just goes back and records over it. If one of the students were a little late in starting the line, Oliver asks the engineer to move the recording over a few frames, and the problem is solved.

After Oliver consults with the engineer and they both feel confident about a good take, the student moves on to the next line. For some of the students, they record their scene quickly with one good take after another. But others struggle a little with each line, and often have to do several takes before the director is confident enough to move on.

One such unexpected problem happened with Madi’s selection of a scene from Lucky Star. She was familiar with the series and the characters, and thought her voice would work well for the brash and tough character of Kagami. However, she accidentally confused Kagami with her twin sister, the super cute Tsukasa, and didn’t realize the mistake until she got behind the mic.

Madi’s naturally low voice was clashing with the childish character, and Oliver takes some time with her to find the right voice. After several takes, she finds it and breezes past the rest of the scene with few interruptions.

Although the character was completely unsuitable for her voice, Madi still came out satisfied with her performance. “It was definitely interesting to see how my voice could actually fit that character,” she tells me after she has had a chance review the scene in the playback.

And for the most part, everyone is a little shocked at what they see at this point in the process. After the student has recorded all of their lines, they step out of the recording booth and join with the rest of the class in the mixing room. They then watch a playback of the scene on the monitor, and the lines that were just recorded moments before are now edited and mixed in with the voices of the other characters on screen.  What was once a couple of audio bits and pieces now come together to form a comprehensible and entertaining scene of anime.

As Stefanie was behind the mic recording an entire scene as Lagann‘s Yoko, she felt that her performance was not going so well. She was suffering from slight seasonal allergies that day, and Oliver had noticed a clicking in her voice because of it. But when she came out to listen to the playback of the scene, she was amazed at the way her voice turned out.

“I guess I sound a lot different inside of my head than I do outside,” she says, completely impressed with the playback. In fact, everyone sounded fantastic, and I found it hard to actually tell the difference between the pros and amateurs while watching the scenes.

For me, one of the most interesting students participating in the workshop was Allen, the youngest of the group. He is a hardcore anime fan, and through out the entire day, he would ramble on about all things geeky. This guy reminded me of all the fans I know who wanted to be voice actors. He idolizes the pros, and if you give him the name of an anime character, he could probably tell you the name of the actor who played them. So I was interested to see how this textbook otaku would do behind the mic. While he has taken several classes in acting and narration before, this was the first time his voice had ever been put to anime.

He selected play the samurai Yukiatsu from Ghost Slayers Ayashi. He is a little too passionate with his character while in the recording booth, so Oliver has to work through several takes with him to adjust his acting a bit. But once every line has been recorded and the playback brings it all together, the final product was amazing. While watching the scene, I felt the same kind of gruff attitude coming out of Allen’s voice as I felt watching Steve Blum play Spike Spiegel in Cowboy Bebop. This mega fan had now become the same type of voice actor he idolizes.

How did it go?

Time passes by quickly during the recording process, and before we know it, we’ve reached the end of the workshop. In the final hour, Oliver runs through a couple more points about video game recording, putting together a demo reel, and any other questions the students have for him. But finally, it was time to say good-bye and everyone goes home.

There was no doubt that everyone had fun during day, but was the high price tag it worth it for the students? Well, I think it was. The feedback I got from the students afterward were all very positive.

“I love going to classes like this because it keeps me motivated,” says Rachel. “It’s great being around other people who are so invested in it.”

“It was definitely a strange experience,” says Madi. “I had always dreamed about being behind a mic, but actually being there seemed very surreal. And actually, it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be.”

Allen also felt the same way when he finally got into the recording booth. “I’ve watched a whole bunch of interviews, and I’ve always wondered what it would feel like. But it just felt awesome having the opportunity to be behind the mic.”

Having that first hand experience was great, but from my perspective, I think the biggest accomplishment that these students achieved that day was just simply getting their foot inside of the door of the industry.  A key tip that was brought up was “networking, networking, networking,” and that is exactly what most of the students did. Notebooks were being passed around like a high school yearbooks and people would write down their contact information for one another. They hope to keep these professional connections going in the future, and will try to help each other out in landing roles. But the best connection they formed that day might just be that with Oliver and the studio itself.

Oliver was frequently mentioning though out the workshop about how some of his students have gone on to land real roles after taking his class. When Geneon Entertainment needed an English dub for their Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha series, they simply could not budget enough money to hire Bang Zoom’s regular actors. So Oliver selected his best students from previous classes, and gave them all roles in the anime. Now a show with a dub cast comprised of only workshop students will be released in a box set next month.

So in my many years of fandom, I have never seen anything as amazing as this workshop. Thanks to the talents of the instructor, the engineer, and the students participating, I got to see these normal anime fans easily become lively anime characters right in front of my eyes. I don’t think I’ll ever look at the medium in the same way ever again.

I would have to say that the high price tag would make this class not suitable for the casual fan. If you are just curious about voice acting, then I recommend attending one of Bang Zoom’s smaller workshop that they offer for free at certain anime conventions. But if you are serious about becoming a voice actor, then this workshop is the best way to get yourself started with your career.

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If you are interested in attending a future Bang Zoom workshop, visit this website for a schedule of upcoming classes. If you’re not in the Burbank area, then sign up for their newsletter and let them know what city they should hit next.

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