Today I want to talk about something that’s been bugging me over the past few years. It’s not just me – many voice actors have to deal with this problem. Recently, I had a clever agent help me find a solution, and I want to share it with you, so you’ll be able to deal with this potentially annoying part of the job.
What are Scratch Tracks?
This annoyance I’m talking about is scratch tracks. They’re also called temp tracks or guide tracks. Producers and clients create a scratch track when they’re producing a video. They’ll typically get someone from the office to do a basic recording of the voiceover, -often recorded on a phone. It doesn’t need to be a professional voice-over because they’re just putting the VO into their video timeline to see how the words line up to the video. Then they can assess the pacing of the voiceover, see if the script fits, or if the voice actor will need to speak faster or slower in certain sections, or if certain words need to coincide with particular frames.
Let the Scratch Track Be Your Guide
Scratch tracks are useful to the producer, and that’s why they make them. But scratch tracks can also be really helpful to voice actors. When you get a scratch track or guide track, you’ll know exactly where you should be taking the script. Even though the reads are often flat and not professionally done, if you pay attention, you can still hear what words they’re emphasizing and what notes they’re hitting. You can get a good overall idea of the energy, pace, and style they’re expecting, and that’s super helpful.
I can’t tell you how many times I tried to reinvent the wheel with a script, and in the end, the producer just pointed to the guide track and said, “Can you hit this, and can you hit that?” I’m not saying you shouldn’t use your creativity – you’re still doing your own thing – but there’s a lot to follow in the guide track. This isn’t always easy, as a scratch track read might be very flat. But it pays to give it special attention, because the scratch track has a lot of info that can save you time during your recording session.
Here’s a little aside. Did you know our VO auditions often get used as guide tracks? If they’re not using our audition, it’s probably because the recording wasn’t the right pace, or their script isn’t final, or they aren’t creating a guide track for their project.
The Problem with Scratch Tracks
So, what’s the problem I mentioned earlier? The problem is more and more clients are requesting the guide track from me. And I’m sure this is happening to you as well.
Say you’ve recorded an audition and the client is interested in hiring you. Then they come and ask you to record the scratch track. Usually, they’re asking this as a favor. In other words, they want you to do it for free. But you’ve already recorded the audition for free!
Who’s Got Time for That?
I don’t know about you, but between my auditions and my regular workload, I don’t have much time and energy to record free guide tracks. Every time I get that request, I feel bad because I have to explain that I don’t have time – and that’s hard to do without sounding like a bit of a jerk. After struggling with this for a long time, my agent came to my rescue: “We’re just going to start charging for this.”
Brilliant! Problem solved.
A funny thing about scratch tracks is that when clients record them, they’ll record it all flat, just reading the script. But as a performer, you can’t do that! You have to sound good. You have to perform. You have to bring your skills. They have to hear it and say, “Wow, this is gonna be amazing.” In other words, if you record a scratch track, you’ll have to invest energy and time. If you’ve already recorded the audition – and now you’re doing the scratch track – you’ll have to bring your game up even more. And if you haven’t already recorded an audition? The scratch track can become an audition.
For instance, I had a request recently from a client who wanted me for a job. They needed to see if the script worked with their video. So, I had to record the guide track, and it included a bunch of timings to get right. It was a lot more work than an audition where I’m free to do whatever I want. I had to think carefully about what was going on in the video.
One thing I really like about this solution is that charging for the guide track puts the ball in their court. They have the ability to record a guide track themselves – they can just open the audio app on their phone, hit record, and read the script. Or, they can get the “fancy” version by hiring the performer to do it. I love that because it allows me to avoid the tough conversation about free work. It’s up to them to decide if it’s worth paying for a guide track.
When a Scratch Track Becomes the Audition
As I mentioned above, sometimes you might want to treat the guide track like an audition. For instance, if you haven’t already recorded an audition, and you feel the scratch track could land you the gig, you might decide that the extra time investment is worth it for you – especially if the client doesn’t want you to worry about timing and tells you to just record the VO at your own pace.
If you go this route, the recording could give you a head start on the performance too, because they’ll hear it and can give you feedback. Then when you do the actual recording, it’ll be like you’ve already done the first take!
It’s important to have a policy and boundaries – just so you know where the line is. The line might change from situation to situation, but as long as you know where it is, you’re in control. There’s so much in this job that’s out of our control. The things that we can control are invaluable to our mental health and our motivation.
None of us are here to work for free. We record auditions, we record guide tracks, we record pickups after the session… We can spend a lot of time on these peripheral tasks. Time is money. You work hard and you need to be compensated for it. So don’t be afraid to set some boundaries.
I know many of us have trouble setting boundaries, but they are vital to staying happy and motivated in this profession. Without them you could start thinking that people are out to get you by always asking for free things, and that recording VOs is a zero-sum game. That’s enough to make anybody want to quit. So, give yourself a chance to have positive experiences and charge for your work when it’s appropriate to charge.
Want some VO advice you can hang your hat on and act on TODAY? Don’t do it alone, piggy back on my success by joining my “Everyday VO” newsletter here to get exclusive tips from me, so you can do VO the Clever Way, Right Away. My name is Lili Wexu. I’m an actress, a voice talent and an author. To learn how to make $$$ in VO, read my e-books about Voice Acting & Announcing.