An AI Guinea Pig for Voice Actors

Photo of Gene Wilder from Willy Wonka and the text reads: Tell me more about artificial intelligence.

Not long ago, I wrote about a prospective client with regard to AI. The post attracted attention on Facebook and on LinkedIn. Now, in the words of the late, great Paul Harvey, here comes “the rest of the story”.

First, you need to know that I wrote the original post only after I was certain that I wouldn’t work with the company. It centred on my unwillingness, despite their tenacity, to give away my product – my voice. I didn’t use their name or the nature of the project, but I did include some details about the proposed terms. It was enough for the client to recognize themselves. Because, as I was checking them out, they were checking me out.

Part of my post from LinkedIn which reads: Voice actors - and all creatives - have been discussing the implications of AI for a long time now. What will it mean to our businesses? Will we be replaced? And the scariest question: will we be replaced by a version of ourselves?!

This week, a prospective client told me my rate - which is pretty much the industry standard - was too expensive. This happens regularly to entrepreneurs and sometimes we negotiate and sometimes we simply stand firm. It depends on the job and other factors. But this person had a "creative" solution.

"How about you narrate half the job and I'll do the rest with AI of your voice?"

They had no idea how offensive, insulting, and frankly, frightening this prospect was.

It was as if they said, "Hey, I'm going to take the thing that's special about you and make my own version of it which I will keep and use any time I wish, with no compensation to you."
Part of my LinkedIn post.

Here is the upshot: I’m working with them after all.

The back story: my (reasonable) fee was bigger than their budget. To compromise, they proposed creating an AI version of my voice to cut down on the amount of work and therefore reduce the fee. I would narrate half the job and AI Lisa would narrate the other half. But how could I allow someone to essentially own a synthetic version of my voice? I couldn’t and after saying, no thanks, I thought we were done. I closed that door and went on with another large project on my desk.

The Boomerang Effect

To my surprise, the client returned with another proposal. What if I allowed them to create AI of my voice for other languages only and they paid me a fee each time? This was interesting. It would keep things consistent for them and it was no extra work on my end. What if I looked at this as an experiment and just went with it? I’m not protected by a union or collective agreement. Each of us is navigating this new territory on her own. Artists and musicians signed an open letter this week calling for protection from AI, while also acknowledging that AI has a place in creative work.

Make no mistake: we believe that, when used responsibly, AI has enormous potential to advance human creativity and in a manner that enables the development and growth of new and exciting experiences for music fans everywhere.”

Excerpt from a letter signed by Billie Eilish, Nicki Minaj & hundreds of others in the music industry

We already use AI when we communicate with a chat-bot online, or an automated voice system or even a robot vacuum. Like it or not, AI is the future of voice-work. SOME voice work, at least. We’ve been scared by it because in some cases, a voice has been taken and duplicated without its owner’s knowledge or consent. But what it if was all above board? My peers are talking about making clones of their own voices to “rent” to clients. It requires a certain level of confidence in the other party. But so does a regular, human voice-over project.

A Matter of Trust

The woman I was communicating with in Europe was absolutely lovely, completely above-board, gave me all of her contact and proof-of-identity information. I agreed to work with her. Our contract gives her company approval to create my synthetic voice-over for languages other than English, and specific to this current project, with a set fee each time.

Ultimately, I decided that even if things went sideways, I would survive. AI Lisa will enhance the project, not replace me. I don’t speak Greek or Italian. AI Lisa can do that and get me paid for it.

In the meantime, my huffy post about the original proposal was getting likes and comments on Facebook and LinkedIn. To her credit, the client was cool about it but she wasn’t thrilled. Fair enough. I thought we were over, never to speak again! I like to share client or almost-client stories because I also like to read them. They help add to the knowledge base of the industry. That was my aim. And when it comes to the tricky terrain of AI, there’s a lot to learn and share.

How It’s Going

The English version of the script was a large and challenging project, full of Russian names. Many of which I butchered the first time through despite my best efforts and a pronunciation guide. If you’re not aware, many Russian words have about a million consonants and none of them are pronounced the way you think they should be. Syurpriz!

Meanwhile, an AI program was fed my English narration and formed them into a Greek version of the same script. AI Lisa will toil away and real Lisa will simply collect her fee. Yes, things could go awry. (Can’t they always?) But I believe that I’m working with ethical people who will honour our deal. It’s an experiment. A trial. There’s always a risk. .

So, does it mean I’m in full support of AI for voice work? Of course not. I still believe the human voice has qualities that AI can’t match. People regularly send me links to AI projects so I can also hear how bad they are. There are too many variables for an AI voice to get right – yet. But this was an acceptable opportunity to test the waters. I’ll let you know how it goes.

7 thoughts on “An AI Guinea Pig for Voice Actors”

  1. Fascinating journey, Lisa!

    As a user, promoter, and teacher of AI tools, you have made very valid points. Namely, ethical and legal use.

    What is happening now, as an artist, is that another person is using your talent as “inspiration”. That is something artists have been doing… well, since there was more than one artist, in my opinion.

    The math that drives AI tools is a few thousand years old—all the way back to Aristotle when he created means-end analysis—the process we still use today in neural networks and machine learning. There is nothing new here.

    Fire allowed us to cook meat and have more time to evolve.
    Gutenberg invented the printing press; book designers were left behind.
    The Industrial Revolution took work out of the home and into factories, removing artisan people.

    There are too many examples to count.

    Rather than fight the tide, do what you did and educate, inform, and teach. There were two very different lenses of reality here: a business owner and a voice talent. Both had to come to the middle to move ahead.

    AI has no soul, so it is never going to replace a human. We have CD’s, yet audiophiles prefer vinyl. The process is to teach. I was in an online small business group; there were artists in there, and they mentioned AI. The storm of rhetoric from the group owner was horrific. They paternalized me, insulted me, and then stormed off. Their business is repurposing other materials into their “art,” which they sell. I mentioned that AI does the same thing by copying patterns and creating new patterns that follow a guideline, yet electronically, so if they can help me understand the difference, that would be interesting.

    No, they insulted me and stormed off, telling me to “go learn something.”. All in all, I will not be shopping there any time soon.

    The thing about a closed mindset is that you never grow.

    As an artist myself in various mediums, my opinion is that instead of a sturm and drang tantrum, a great sighing hue, and a cry, a more community-based option is to take that time to ask a question. This is a time to teach, educate, and involve people in why this is an issue, why there is a serious concern for artists of every medium, and why this is a tool that needs to be used ethically. In my opinion, this is a much better process. We never know what we don’t know—offensive though it is at times to others.

    As this story unfolds, it was only a business decision, yet it became personal, and when everyone started talking, progress was made.

    1. If not for the patience of the client, who was determined to get me for the job, we never would have gotten together, that’s true. I fend off low-ballers all the time. People who want me to read long scripts for as little as $5. (I wish I was kidding!) I know my value and don’t mind walking away. But she found a creative solution that worked for both of us. It’s a whole new world! BTW I’d love to know who told you to “go learn something”. I don’t want to shop there, either.

  2. Your voice over contracts have now gotten much more complicated and my advice and recommendation is to seek out legal advice, do not go it alone and have a standardized contract or addendum which you can use with all contracts protecting your Personal (IP) intellectual property I.E. your voice, image and its usage.

    Voice sampling has been around since the 80’s in the music industry with AI making it such that anyone can reproduce someone’s voice and use it in ways without the owner’s permission.

    1. Thanks, Allan. Fortunately, a bunch of us share best practices about wording, etc. It’s still not ideal but the cost of a lawyer versus the return on a job makes it prohibitive in most cases. Even without contracts, VO artists are winning lawsuits, though. I hope it never comes to that.

  3. The right of an adult is to change their mind when they get new information.

    I think it’s actually a good thing the client got miffed when they saw your post — I think this says good things about them. They care.

    Please keep us updated on your AI adventures!

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