'Training is so important' Award-winning voiceover artist Alexia Kombou shares her success story
Alexia Kombou is a voiceover artist who has worked for brands including Thameslink, Novotel, Nespresso, HSBC and just picked up Best Female Voiceover of the Year at Gravy for the Brain's One Voice Awards 2018. Here she tells Mandy News how she got started, what an average day as a voiceover artist looks like and what aspiring voiceover artists can do to succeed.
Please introduce yourself and tell us a bit about how you got involved in voiceover work.
I’m Alexia Kombou and thank you so much for inviting me to be interviewed! After graduating from Queen Mary University of London with a BA in Drama and Film, I wanted to be an actress but while auditioning and exploring the acting world, I came across voiceovers. There was a class, “Intro to Voiceover”, and I thought I would give it a go and see what it was about. I didn’t know much about voiceovers at that point. I went on the course and the second I got into the booth and started recording, I knew this was the career path I wanted to pursue. It just felt right.
I decided to leave acting behind me and go into voice acting. It’s still performing but of a different kind. You’re behind the screen rather than on the screen, so you have to learn a whole new way of performing and using your voice.
How did you go about securing voiceover work initially? Did you get an agent first or did that come after the work started to come in?
Initially, I was quite lucky in that I had my voice reel made and I managed to get in with a small agency quite quickly. There was a gap in their books that they were looking to fill. There are exclusive and non-exclusive contracts and this was a non-exclusive so I could be with whomever I wanted to. That was great as it meant I could explore voiceovers even more.
My voiceover career started off pretty quietly to begin with and the work wasn’t flowing in. It was actually quite slow. I was working part-time jobs and the only voiceover work I was getting were small, corporate reads which weren’t giving me enough income. I realised what had to change was my marketing. Sitting back and just waiting for the phone to ring? It doesn’t work like that. I’d say it’s 90% marketing and 10% recording in the beginning.
I upped my game by taking some courses in marketing, specifically marketing for voiceovers, and got my name out there by making companies aware of me. Slowly, the work started to come in and I eventually built up a client base, with clients coming back and booking repeat work. Eventually, I was able to stop my part-time work and transition into being a full-time voiceover artist. This took about three years to accomplish. I’ve been in voiceovers for five years but I’ve been full-time for two years now.
What’s your process like in terms of applying or auditioning for a job?
In some cases, your voice reel acts as your audition. So a client will listen to your reel, will say they want to hire you and you don’t have to audition – you just get sent a script, which is great. A lot of the time, you are asked to send a short sample read. For the audition process, I’ll be sent a snippet of the script and I’ll then go into my studio to record a few takes and send that off to the producer, agent or whoever sent the email. The client then selects whose voice they want to use. In my experience, auditions are quite common in the voiceover industry.
What do you think makes a good voice reel? What have you been improving on every time you’ve done one of those?
I’d say, versatility. You have to play to your strengths, know your signature voice and what style works best for you, but there’s no point in having seven reads that sound the same on a demo reel. This is your chance to show the listener what you can do! You need to prove that you can manipulate your voice to suit many styles and scenarios. That’s my number one rule, for sure – be versatile.
What does an average day look like for you?
On an average day, I’m usually recording at home or sometimes I’ll go to a studio in Central London. I’ll go to the gym early morning – healthy body, healthy voice – get to my laptop around 9.30am and, if there isn’t anything booked in already, with any luck the emails will usually start coming in around 10am. By the afternoon I’ve usually recorded a couple of things. Some days are really quiet and I might not have any at all but then other days, it can be insane. There was one day where I had six voiceovers down by 4pm – but that’s quite rare.
Like I said, the workflow is in constant flux, you never know what’s coming from one week to the next. You can never guarantee you’re going to have any work which is why, when it’s busy, it’s great, but when it’s quiet, that’s when you do your marketing. That’s when you send your emails, do your invoicing and all the business-y things and when you’re recording, you’re focused on recording.
You mentioned you do most of your recording at home. What equipment and programs do you use?
I use a Sennheiser MK 4 which is an amazing microphone that Hugh Edwards at Gravy For The Brain recommended. I love it and I think it works well with my voice. It’s important to know which microphones work with your voice. When I first started, I knew nothing about the technicalities of recording voiceovers but as you get more experienced, and when you do have your own studio, you have to learn these things.
Learning how to edit is so important too and, for me, it’s quite a simple process as most clients just require simple editing with only the mistakes and breaths edited out.
Having your own studio can be quite overwhelming to begin with but it’s not as scary as you think and you get to grips with it after a while.
Are you self-taught in terms of recording, editing, etc?
Pretty much! I learnt from just playing around and picking things up. Also, I use a lot of YouTube videos and webinars from Gravy For The Brain to help me if I’m not sure about something.
Not having to travel much for work and being able to schedule your life around that must be a bonus!
It is good, although I do love going to a studio. I love being able to interact with the sound engineer and the client, and feeling as though I’m really part of a team. It can be quite isolating and lonely in the booth sometimes so it’s good to get out, go to a studio and work with people face-to-face. When I get an email asking me to go to a studio I do get a bit over excited I must admit.
You won a One Voice Award for your voiceover work. What can you tell us about the award in terms of what it was for and how it came about?
Yes I did! I won Female Voiceover of the Year 2018 which was just incredible and totally unexpected! The One Voice Awards was held in London in April and was hosted by Peter Dickson, the voice of the X Factor and E4 to name a few. The judges were all industry experts from ad agencies, network radio and television companies. You could submit your own work for many different genres, so I submitted some of my work in a few categories, and was shortlisted for four of them; Best TV Commercial, Best Radio Commercial, Best Demo Reel and the Female Voiceover of the Year.
I submitted my commercial reel for that category so I assume they used that to judge it. The competition was insane and it was an absolute honour just to be nominated, let alone win it! I had the chance to meet so many amazing fellow voiceovers and industry professionals. I still look at my award on the shelf and can’t believe it.
Other than that fantastic achievement, what has been your most exciting challenge and the moment you have been the most proud of?
Other than the award, I would say managing to secure some really nice clients. I have regular work with Volvo and HSBC and I’m really proud of that. I also voiced a promo video for the Adidas kit for Team GB at the Rio Olympics which was really fun to be a part of and a cool brand to work with – especially as I’m really into sports and fitness! I’ve always wanted to work with a big sports brand, so that’s up there in my list of achievements.
In terms of challenges, the feedback that I get for my voiceover work is that my voice is very much in demand but there are a lot of people that I sound like, if that makes sense? It’s great to have a voice that’s in demand but it makes the competition even harder. If your voice is undeniably unique and there is no-one else who sounds like you then the competition might be a little less tough for certain jobs. So when you have a voice where the competition is high, that can be a challenge in itself when auditioning.
I’ve had to learn a few little tricks to try and set my voice apart from the strong competition and hopefully that comes through in the auditions.
What’s next for you in 2018?
The past few months, I’ve actually been recording a few audiobooks, which has been very interesting for me as I haven’t done many in the past. I am currently working on a new commercial reel, which is a completely different style to my usual RP (Received Pronunciation) performance. It’s actually an urban style, so I’m getting in touch with my North London roots which I’m really excited about and can’t wait to share. What I’ve recently discovered is that regional accents are really in vogue at the moment and RP is fading away a little bit, so showcasing a more current style is really exciting.
There are a few more things coming up that I can’t tell you about at the moment, sorry!!
How does the process differ from working on an audiobook compared to a commercial?
I read the book beforehand, which is time-consuming, but great if it’s a good book. The process is very different to a commercial though. With a commercial, you could be in and out within 15 minutes or an hour. It depends on the job, but they are much shorter. With an audiobook, my sessions have been around three hours at a time. It is a tricky one because you’re reading for long periods of time so you need to take regular breaks and make sure your performance is consistent all the way through. It’s about using your voice in a different way.
I’m still not sure which one I prefer but I don’t think I’ve done enough audiobooks yet to decide. I do believe my heart lies with commercial and corporate work but the audiobooks have been really fun to be involved in.
What advice would you have for an aspiring voiceover artist looking to get into the industry?
My first piece of advice would be to get your showreel made and get it made by a reputable company, where you know you’ll get a quality reel at the end of it. Also, don’t get bogged down with finding a top agent because a lot of the work you do will be found yourself.
Once you’ve got your reel, you then have to learn how to market yourself. I will usually get a load of email contacts and send out my reels but they are tailored emails, relevant to each company you’re sending them to. It’s important to research the company, know what they do and make sure that you are a good fit together. It sounds scary but once you get into the marketing groove and you start seeing the results, it feels amazing because you’ve created it. You’ve brought that work to you and made it happen. This way, you create your own working relationships with clients and it’s lovely to have that one-to-one communication with them.
Training is so important as well. Probably THE most important – you may have a great voice but you have to know how to use it properly and how to use a microphone. I still go to classes, listen to webinars and I’m always learning. I don’t think you can get into this industry, stay in this industry and be successful in this industry without keeping up with your training to keep your tools sharp.
You mentioned that you went to classes on how to market yourself in the voiceover industry, did you find that helpful at all? What was the name of that course?
I have completed some marketing courses with Marc Scott, who taught me so much about marketing, specifically in the voiceover industry. He is a voiceover artist so his methods are all tried and tested and I tell you, they really work- but only if you work!
The first course I went on that introduced me to voiceover was at The Showreel in Central London and I think it was called “An Introduction to Voice-over.” After a full day in the studio, you were given some advice on how you can go about trying to make it in the industry, what category your voice sits well in and whether or not you have what it takes to have a demo reel made, or if you need more practice first. It was so valuable. Everything I was taught and learnt in that day made me fall in love with voiceovers.
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