The Chronological History of Voice-over: From it’s Dawn till Now

Historically in some form or the other, Voice-overs can be traced back to as early as human’s ability to speak a language, talk to each other, and tell stories. All those bonfire gatherings and the story-telling can be condensed as a form of voice-overs. It could be a long walk to start from the very genesis of humans’ ability to speak. So, it is better to begin the story from its early days of being a recorded art. Recordings mean to document and broadcast in some cases to a larger audience. The voice-over and communication have a very closely knitted history and how sound was recorded, stored, & transmitted is crucial to the history of Voice-overs. Starting from the Acoustic era to the modern age, voice-overs have traveled a long way. So, let's begin from the beginning …

The Acoustic Era – 1860 to 1927

In the Moonlight – 1860:
Many people believe that Reginald Fessenden was the first one to record a voice-over. But the invention of the Phonogram in 1850 has allowed scientists to record and study the wavelengths left on the phonautograph. Even there were several attempts to record and playback sound, out of which only a few have survived so far. The earliest known recording of the human voice can be found in the form of a phonautograph that belongs to Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, singing Au Clair de la Lune (in the moonlight), from 1860. So, Fessenden's work was definitely the pioneer but was not the first-ever recorded human voice. 

The Experiment of Talking Clock – 1878: 
The experimental talking clock of Frank Lambert was thought to be the earliest recorded human voice before the discovery of Au Clair de la Lune. Frank Lambert narrated and recorded himself speaking hours on the face of a clock. Obviously, Frank Lambert’s hours of the clock voice-over recording has better quality as compared to Au Claire de la Lune, thanks to the development in technology. 

The Weather Forecast – 1900: 
Reginald Fessenden, highly impressed and motivated by Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone invention set out to transmit wireless audio communication. Using radio signals, he even succeeded in transmitting the weather forecast to a small radius of one mile. Despite all of its lacking and being too distorted for commercial purposes, it was a quintessential step for the first Voice-over Recording.

Reginald Fessenden Radio Broadcast – 1906: 
Perseverance never fails, so it was with Reginald Fessenden. He worked on his technology and improved it significantly by the year 1906. It was Christmas time when he first broadcasted festive messages and biblical readings. This broadcast was of a much superior quality than his attempt in 1900 and had a farther reach of around 11 miles. Many ships and coastal stations heard the broadcasted radio voice-over that was marked to be a milestone in voice-over history. 

Establishment of BBC – 1926: 
The corporation known as BBC today was at first the British Broadcasting Company. A group of radio manufacturers that did not last for long and was reborn as a non-commercial public broadcaster – British Broadcasting Corporation that was not answerable to the government. Lord John Reith, the first-ever director-general of BBC was a strong advocate of the Royal Charter, and Inform, Educate, and Entertain, became the motto of BBC as it went on to revolutionize the broadcasting for the whole world. 

The Sidelined Instance – 1926: 
My Old Kentucky Home broadcasted in 1926, has been put aside due to its prejudice and racial nature. However, it was one of the most significant steps in the history of voice acting, so despite it being morally reprehensible, it is needed to be mentioned. During the time many were eyeing to make audio-visual entertainment a reality the Fleischer Brothers created the animation for My Old Kentucky Home and the sing-along song was recorded by voice-over actors using Warner Brothers’ Vitaphone. The song and the animation were later synced to the timecode of the film to make the AV. 

The Al Jolson Performances – 1927: 
Again in 1927 Warner Brothers’ using their Vitaphone recorded six songs performed by Al Jolson. Vitaphone mentioned here was an analog sound recording device that recorded the voice on a disc.  Although it was not technically a voice-over sure it ended the Acoustic era and the era of silent films. 

The Electric Era – 1928 to 1960s

Steamboat Willie & the rise of Cartoon Characters – 1928: 
In 1928, Walt Disney commercially released Steamboat willie and it was the first of few characters that earned Disney a place in every child’s mind. Steamboat Willie was the first fully synchronized cartoon with voice-over and sound effects. Disney himself performed all the noises and grunts for the character becoming one of the first few people to an animation voice-over. Disney even lent his voice to the famous character Mickey Mouse till 1947. So, in many ways, Walt Disney was a harbinger of voice-over and voice-over acting. 
Now Steamboat willie was the same as any old version of animation at the face value but technically it was created with better equipment. The usual Vitaphone was replaced by Cinephone which was cloned from Lee de Frost’s Phonofilm. It was an optical sound-on-film rather than Vitaphone’s sound-on-disc. The Phonofilm was successful in replacing the old Vitaphone due to its many advantages. It converted the voice-overs and sounds from the voice-over talents into electrical waveforms using microphones. These waveforms were easy to edit and applied to the films making them even easier to sync. After this, in films and animations it became the standard as it was easier to make, edit, distribute, and even cheaper. This Phonofilm’s sound-on-film gave birth to the process of Automatic Dialogue Replacement or ADR simpler that removed the need for audio syncing and took some burden off from the already hectic process of looping. 

The Iconic Tarzan Howl – 1932: 
Everyone has seen, heard, and is familiar with Tarzan’s iconic howl or cry when he cruises through the jungle swinging on the vines. But how exactly this iconic voice was created is a mystery. Some say that the voice of the Tarzan actor was recorded and edited later while some argue that opera singer Lloyd Thomas Leech lent his voice for it. Whatever be the truth, the Tarzan howl shows the early signs of applying effects on sounds and voice-overs being contemporary to advancements in audio recording techniques facilitated by rapid advancements. Another important advent that happened during this time was the arrival of multitrack audio recording techniques. In the multitrack audio recording systems, the voice-overs were recorded on one track while music and sound effects were on the other. This minimized the audio overlapping and mix-ups while recording. Also, it allowed mixing the sounds and voice-overs as and where needed using ADRs, simplifying the process further.

Mel Blanc the Trailblazer – 1936:
Animations and cartoons became very popular in the 1930s, but there was not much for the voice-over talents. Even though Walt Disney voice his characters he wasn’t exactly a voice-over artist. Things were pretty bad for the voice talents and most of the time they were neither regarded as proper actors nor given the credits for the voice. Well, then came Mel Blanc. Joining Leon Schlesinger in 1936, Mel Blanc voiced multiple characters of looney tunes like Bugs Bunny, Tasmanian Devil, Porky Pig, and more. He was duly accredited for his work that ignited the shift and open the gates for many other voice talents and they started getting the recognition and respect they deserved. Before coming to animations Mel Blanc started his voice-over career on the radio. Well, all his work earned him the title of “The Man with Thousand Voices.” 

The War of the Worlds – 1938:
In Britain, the radio industry was totally under the control of the BBC, but in the US people had a different idea about competition. The US created an open environment for multiple radio stations to compete for the listeners’ attention. These were days when Radio dramas were very popular. One incident that made this radio voice-over be immortalized was the sheer panic and mass hysteria it caused. Orson Welles with some other voice actors narrated the book written by H.G. Wells named the war of the worlds. In this book, the Martians attack Earth to colonize and wipe humanity off the face of Earth. Humanity’s all means of defense never stood a chance against the big machines and advanced tech of the Martians. However, the Martian had no immune system against the pathogens of Earth and their plans of capturing Earth failed due to this, as the pathogens started killing those Martians. Well, this was the story, but what caused the mass hysteria was people actually believed the attack from Martians to be true and the panic made this Voice-over an iconic moment in the history of voice-overs. It has received many honors and awards and is included in the National Recording Registry of the US.

Nazis & Voice-overs – the 1940s:
In the 1940s BBC radio voice-overs played a crucial role in providing British citizens the necessary news and entertainment during the Blitz. Due to it being very decentralized Nazis could not cut the broadcasting completely however, it reached only 40% of the population. Even the Axis powers utilized radios to promote their propaganda. A British radio host named Sefton Delmer, who was fluent in German, undermined the Nazis' propaganda efforts and significantly impacted the Nazi image in the eyes of the common German population. He even earned his name in Hitler’s infamous Black Book containing the list of all the people to be arrested or executed. 

Rise of Television Commercials – 1950s:
In the US, the proliferation of free-market led to the birth of small screen commercials now commonly known as TVCs. The TVCs at the time featured the ad with a voice-over tag at the end. These voice-over tags would later go on to become part of every advertisement voice-over and it is popular even today. Also, to mention here, the 1950s were the time when Disney started its ascend to become the giant it is today. Experimenting with multiple characters and Voice-overs cemented the road for Disney to become the modern-day Goliath.

Don Lafontaine – 1960s:
 Don Lafontaine was the man who enabled movie trailers to have a voice-over. He bridged the gap between the commercials and cinemas by lending his voice to numerous movie trailers. He was the busiest Voice-over actor in the history of voice-overs. Lafontaine and others like Don Morrow and Hal Douglas enhanced the impact of voice-overs and took it to another level and paved the way for voice-over artists to make a career and be respected.

The Magnetic Era – 1970-79

The emergence of Audiobooks – 1970s:
The magnetic technology grew after World War 2, and one of the things that came out of it was the magnetic tape – as a storage device. Soon these magnetic tapes took the form of audiocassettes and became very popular as the popularity of Sony’s Walkman grew in the western world. Although, it was primarily used for listening to music but also paved the way for abridged versions of books to be recorded on these tapes. The major outburst of Audiobooks happened when the Olympic Gold Medalist Duvall Hecht founded Books on Tape in 1975, specializing in recording the narrations of the books by professional audiobook voice-over artists and converting them into audiobooks. 

Darth Vader – 1979:
Towards the end of the 70s and beginning of the 80s was a troublesome time for voice-over. Due to further advancements in Automated Dialogue Replacement or ADRs it had become easier to re-record the dialogues in a studio environment. There were very few films other than animation and foreign language films that required professional dubbing services. However, the original Star Wars character, the famous Darth Vader, was completely dubbed by James Earl Jones while it was performed by David Prowse. The distorted, heavy, and intimidating deep register of Jones’s voice made the character iconic and legendary. The voice was so iconic that it became very difficult for the later actors to justify the voice of the character. 

The Digital Era – the 1980s to early 2000s

Early Voice-overs in Video Games – the 1980s:
The proper use of voice-overs in video games can be traced back to the 1981 launch of Castle Wolfenstein for Apple-II.  The character B.J. Blazkowicz had to escape a highly guarded Nazi fort of Wolfenstein. The Nazi guards shouting Kommen Sie and Halt in a very poor-quality sound was due to the limits of voice technology of the time. Considering that now video games have some of the best ever voice-overs in history. Video game voice-overs have now become very crucial for makers to keep the players engaged with the story. There have been instances in recent years when games are sacked because the voice used to play the character did not connect with the player. Later on, the game voice was re-recorded with a different voice artist and released again. Comparatively, video game voice-overs are almost a galaxy away from where it all began. 

The 90s Digital Revolution:
The internet broke out a digital revolution making voice-over recording more lucrative and freely accessible. It gave freedom to anyone and everyone with enough technical knowledge and ability to put out quality content. The development of Digital Audio Workstations or DAWs has allowed small studios and independent voice artists to thrive in the voice-over market. In the 90s the Integrated Service Digital Network or ISDN, though expensive, was widely used for radio and TV commercials. However, soon the production prices fell due to advancements in technology and the quality of the voice recordings soared up making it accessible in a true sense to everyone. It allowed even a layman to create and market pro-level content using soundcards, uncompressed .wav files, and affordable PCs.
The voice acting these days was closely regulated by the unions. Voice artists would come, record their part and receive the payments through agents or the Union. Although, it doesn’t work that way anymore. Nowadays, voice actors work from their own studios, market their work, and negotiate the prices, all by themselves. 

Anime of the 1990s:
While in the west the animation industry was flourishing under the banners of Pixer and Disney, in the far east the Japanese animation better known as Anime was about to blossom into a powerhouse. The Anime relied on their voice-over talents to bring the characters to life and they did. Since the 1980s Anime has been rooting up in the Japanese culture. The 1984 release of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and the 1986 Dragon Ball release gave high aspirations but due to the economic crisis of the country, the anime and voice-over industry barely survived. However, in 1995 the anime industry stood up again with amazing story-driven anime supported by an equally amazing voice-over in the released anime named Neon Genesis Evangelion. With the further release of Cowboy Bebop (1998) and RahXephon (2001), the Japanese anime industry never looked back and the demand for exceptional voice-overs for the story and character-driven anime rose significantly. Even today in Japan the anime voice artists are treated as celebrities and have a more hectic work-life balance than many movie stars. The Japanese anime movie Spirited Away released in 2002, was the first-ever non-American film to win an Academy Award for the Best Animated Film.

The 21st Century and Voice-overs

Celebs in voice-overs:
Well, there are still many who do not consider voice acting as real acting. For all such people, their myths have been busting year by year as more and more “real actors” are coming forward to do voice acting like Tom Hanks giving voice to Woody from Toy Story. Many A-list celebrities have given voice for animated films, video game characters, commercials, and audiobooks. One such example is Samuel L. Jackson voicing the character in Rockstar’s video game Grand Theft Auto. Later on, celebrities like Keanu Reeves and Christopher Judge voiced characters from Cyberpunk 2077 and God of War lead character Kratos (2018) respectively. Even in the animation industry, Global Stars such as Jackie Chan, Angelina Jolie have voiced their characters in the film Kungfu Panda. In 2016, Dwayne Johnson AKA The Rock gave voice to the famous character MAUI in the movie MOANA. Even in Bollywood, stars like Shahrukh Khan, Priyanka Chopra, Nana Patekar voiced different characters for the Hindi version of the film Jungle Book. Shahrukh Khan even voiced the character of Mufasa in the Hindi dubbing of the film The Lion King: the rise of the King.  All these instances establish the professional value that has been the cornerstone of Voice-over’s History.

The Emerging Trailblazers:
Apart from celebs, various artists rose from within the industry and made their mark and now are shining stars of the industry. Voice artists like Nolan North, Tara Strong, Troy Baker, etc., crafted their skills and paved their way to stardom. However, in India the not all the big-time voice actors are well-known. Some famous Indian voice-over actors are Piyush Pandey, Ninad Kamat, Samay Raj Thakkar, Rajesh Khattar, etc, but they are mostly involved with dubbing films.

New Digital Landscape:
The rise and growth of YouTube have blurred the line between producers and consumers by starting a prosumer culture and further diversifying the content creation process. The rise of the new digital landscape has opened the floodgates of opportunities for every industry including Voice-over. The rising need and demand for Explainer video voice-overs, independent animations, Vlog narrations are just a few examples. There is an unlimited number of YouTube content creators producing different types of content every day.

Ease of Everything:
With faster computers and internet speed the advancements in voice-over technology have made the production process and prices very easy and affordable. Further, the opening of various freelancing networks and productive voice-over marketplaces like Voyzapp has facilitated the further growth and development of the artists and industry as a whole. In the history of voice-over, there has not been a time when voice artists were in such a controlling position, like only accepting the work that they like to do or negotiating the prices themselves, etc. The ease of access has made the competition fierce and the industry more productive. 

Closing Thoughts  
The History and Business of voice-overs have come very far from where it all began. It has transformed itself from a background thing to now being the forefront needed thing for many industries. The long and rich history of Voice-overs had been built by some resilient, curious, and talented geniuses throughout. Now the History is inherited by those professional voice-over talents who use their voices every day to sell, entertain, inform, and educate. 
The more exciting times are yet to come, the industry is developing and is all set to become a giant. So, make most of its services.