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Thursday, 23 August, 2001, 10:37 GMT 11:37 UK
'I could be Stephen Hawking's new voice'
Duncan Wells in his studio
Duncan Wells: In the business for 20-odd years
You don't know his face or his name, but you will know his voice. Duncan Wells is the voice behind hundreds of adverts. And it will be his voice you hear when computers get British accents, as he explains in our weekly Real Time series.

One day I may well be reading your e-mails to you.

Typically, I do radio and television commercials, CD-Rom work, computer games, on-hold telephone systems, airport announcements...

Stephen Hawking
Motor neurone disease robbed Stephen Hawking of his voice
But the biggest and weirdest is a job I've just done for Lucent Technologies in the United States, doing the British male version of their new voice synthesis system. They found me on the net.

They're trying to improve on the voice that Stephen Hawking has - that robotic American accent with an edge to it - but it isn't quite right yet.

So it's quite possible that I'll be his new voice if he gets a new machine. Peronally, I don't think he should because it would change his personality.

It was an enormous job - hours and hours of recording sentences comprising all the different speech and voicing forms.


All of this I did from my home studio, being directed by someone in the US over the phone

I also had to wear a laryngograph - a dog collar device that recorded the vibrations of my larynx so they could analyse these in relation to what I was saying.

All of this I did from my home studio - where I do a lot of my voice-over work - being directed by someone in the US over the phone.

I've got the early development version in my study, so I can type something in and hear myself say it back in voice synthesis.

Voice of the nation

I'm the most-heard voice in the business, but no-one outside the industry knows my name.

Duncan Wells
Duncan installed a home ISDN line in 1994
Currently, I do about 325 radio commercials a month - such as the Bupa national campaign - while on television I've probably got about two or three running at the moment.

Producers just fax me a script and I go into the studio and record it as an MP3 or wav file on my computer, or do it straight down my ISDN line.

I've done ads for New Zealand, the Middle East, Hong Kong, Japan, and Singapore. But the big market I'm trying to break into is the US, where they're beginning to get the idea that I don't need to be there to do voice-overs.

How to get ahead in advertising

I started doing voiceovers in 1984. I'd done quite a lot of amateur dramatics and had set up a radio production company.

Duncan Wells
The voice of Singapore Airlines, Persil, Daily Mail
Then I was approached by a man in charge of the ads you used to get in the cinema, the ones shot in a rather 1950s style for local advertisers.

The scripts were often bizarre, such as 'Come to the Raj restaurant, just outside this cinema opposite the tropical diseases hospital'. But it was fantastic training. I had half-an-hour in which to record 20 commercials going from one to the next, often using different voice styles.

I'm not a frustrated actor because every time I do a voice-over, I'm acting. I consider it to be the purest form of acting, because I don't have a chance to nod my head or wave my hand or shrug. Everything has to come from the mind.

Authoritative, reassuring

The business is changing. The dot.com boom really fuelled the demand for lad and ladette voice-overs - the ads were all 'Geddit now!'

Fairy Liquid
Good solid brands want a good solid voice
I can do that, but these days they want real lads. When I asked a producer why they didn't use me, he said: 'Because you're 50-years-old and I can get the real thing at 22 and he's fine.'

During the boom, the dot.coms came in and took over TV and radio airtime. At the same time, the big names took their money out of traditional advertising so as to join the dot.com revolution. Everyone was seduced by the web.

But whatever the market's doing, there's always a demand for the straight announcer, the voice that soothes and understands. The newspapers, the Anadins, will always use someone like me.


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Duncan Wells
types a message into a new voice synthesis program


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