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Bob Smith's most lucrative tool is his voice.

Smith hawks his vox for a living


Cedarburg's Bob Smith is a man with a common name and an uncommon talent. It says so right on his web site, and it's true. Smith makes his living as a "voice talent" for commercials that air on the radio, television and videos around the world.

"I started doing funny character voices as a kid, working with a tape recorder. And I've been using my voice to make money now for 35 years. I've been in the Milwaukee market since 1983," says Smith.

Smith's voice -- which can be either deep and easy to listen to or morph into countless different characters -- landed him jobs as a radio personality and in several ad agencies.

Seven years ago, Smith left the corporate world to start his own voice business, in conjunction with his wife's marketing communications company, Creative Spark.

Smith says he enjoys doing character voices and impressions the most. Recently, he did a spot for Sentry Foods where he played a Thanksgiving turkey who was impersonating famous people which required him to provide voice work within voice work.

"That was a fun challenge," he says.

Unfortunately for Smith, there is less demand for character voices these days because advertising has shifted to a more savvy, natural style with fewer funny characters and more "just people" spots.

"I'm good at disguising my voice so you don't know who I am, and often have played several parts in a spot. But most of my work these days is for the friendly, smiling, pleasant Bob. And that's fine," he says.

For 20 years, Smith did voice work for Rockwell Automation. Also, he has regular voice gigs with Dominick's Finer Foods in Chicago, PBS and M&I Banks for branches in nine states.

"I'm on web sites today for famous lawn mowers, shoe brands, retail stores and engineering businesses," says Smith.

"Retail is fun because you get to hear your work on broadcast stations when you least expect it. With the grocery stores and M&I it's a kick to hear yourself on the Brewers or Packers broadcasting networks."

Smith considers himself very lucky to have steady work in the field. He says that since 2009, many struggling businesses slashed their marketing budgets to balance the books.

Workload, he says, varies from week to week, but during a good week, he'll have five voice jobs lined up. Smith works primarily in Milwaukee, with some of the work coming from Madison and Chicago. He says people working in the field in Chicago on a daily basis have a lot more opportunity -- about twice as many job opportunities -- simply because of the size of the city and the increased number of businesses.

Smith suggests to anyone who is interested in doing voice work to listen very carefully to other peoples' voices as well as to their own. He says so much can be learned by simply listening to how people say things and noting the nuances in their voices. He says investing in voice demos, having a good agent and being known as a person who is easy to work with are crucial to success in the business.

Also, warming up the voice is extremely important. Smith says he warms up his voice for at least 40 minutes prior to a session using a warmup routine developed by the voice coach for Manhattan Transfer.

"I do it in the car on my way to the studio, so when I arrive my voice is in shape to perform," he says.

Smith says singing with his choir helps to warm up his voice, too.

If a person does manage to make a living from their voice, Smith believes they should acknowledge the awesomeness of being a part of the profession.

"If you can do it, you're very lucky. My ancestors were coal miners, factory workers, fishermen on the Atlantic. They'd be shocked to know one of their descendants would make his living not by hard physical labor, but by walking into a room and reading a piece of paper into a listening device," says Smith. "So anyone who does this kind of work should thank Heaven for the gift they've been given and be eternally grateful."


Talkbacks

Jcubed | March 15, 2011 at 1:14 p.m. (report)

I have used Bob for my client's web site video narration. He is always the consummate professional!

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moisheberl | March 15, 2011 at 8:40 a.m. (report)

Bob's a great guy with a wonderful voice and a hilarious sense of humor. I've had the pleasure to work with him and to be his friend for a number of years. Check out his other venture at http://www.thinkofthat.net/

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TheDano | March 14, 2011 at 5:21 p.m. (report)

Excellent story. I've always wondered if the people who do those spots are local voice professionals. Very interesting!

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