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New Alexandria woman turns home office into makeshift studio for voice-over work

| Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2013, 8:45 p.m.
Dana Rizzo discusses voiceover work inside her studio in New Alexandria on November 30, 2012. Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review

The next time you call a business and a recorded female voice directs you to “press one” or “leave a message,” you may be hearing a New Alexandria woman.

Dana Rizzo works as a voice-over artist in her spare time while serving as a water quality educator with Penn State.

She often would have to give presentations as part of her Penn State post, she said, which led her to an interest in using her voice in other ways.

“In my opinion, everyone has something to say, but not everyone knows how to say it,” she said.

A small office in Rizzo's New Alexandria home has become a makeshift studio, complete with a sensitive directional microphone that she uses while making the recordings.

After taking a few classes, Rizzo recorded demos to present to prospective clients, which recently helped her land a job recording the outgoing message for a Bridgeville company.

Rizzo said that having someone with experience record phone menus and messages can help present a better image to callers.

“They just like to have something that is a little bit more polished and professional,” she said.

In years past, anyone specializing in voice-over work — which can include commercials or any other narrations — would have to be in large cities like New York, Chicago or Los Angeles to record in a studio, but now anyone can set up a simple high-quality system in their home, Rizzo said.

Pittsburgh voice-overs would have been done by local artists before the advent of the Internet and near-professional recording and editing software, but now it's a very competitive field, said Doug Wilkin, owner of Wilkin Audio.

Wilkin works with about 10 to 12 voice-over artists in his recording studio, which was based in Greensburg for six years before moving to Pittsburgh's Regent Square in 2006.

What makes the industry competitive also makes it easy to break into, Wilkin said.

“The human voice is unique,” he said. “No two sound the same. ... Your voice might be the right one.”

Finding work is challenging, but a voice can become identified with a particular product or ad campaign and provide a full career.

“There are subtleties to making speech understandable and articulate,” Wilkin said. “There's something really satisfying about nailing that perfect script.”

Gary Sheppard, Penn State Extension district director, said he encouraged Rizzo's interest when a voice was needed for the Westmoreland County office's annual report video a few years ago.

“She really enjoyed doing that and had a talent for it,” Sheppard said.

A weekly radio show on 1480-WCNS about agricultural topics also evolved into a podcast, and Rizzo uses her voice to contribute.

Since the office works to educate the public, it needs a strong voice, Sheppard said.

“We've got to be able to articulate clearly through a variety of media,” he said. “Having a highly professional voice and someone who can articulate things rather well is critical as you move into other areas.”

Voice-over actors can be members of the Screen Actors Guild, but Rizzo does nonunion work.

She has padded the window of her office with foam and a moving blanket and set up a screen covered in the same materials around the microphone.

To prepare for a recording, she even takes off her dog's collar to keep the jingling tags out of the background noise.

“You don't need a big, huge, fancy studio to do it,” she said.

After affixing headphones over her ears, she sets up the computer program that records each track with pre-programmed audio levels for her voice.

She hits the computer's space bar to begin recording and swings around her chair to the front of the microphone, where she reads from the script. A recent audition had her describe a woman choosing the perfect dress.

“I like to put emotion behind things,” Rizzo said, adding that she often moves her hands while talking or reads expressively.

She learned how to adjust the lilt of her voice and smile to add inflection.

In the last few decades, voice-over artists have gone from James Earl Jones-types with the “voice of God,” as Rizzo calls it, to more “everyday” voices used to sell products, make announcements and give instruction, she said.

The key to a successful voice-over is having a clear and expressive voice that helps convey the information, not take away from it, Rizzo said.

“You don't want the voice-over to be what the people are paying attention to; you want it to be the message you're trying to get across,” she said.

Whether it's announcements for a bus company or narration of a full-length audio book, as a voice-over artist, each job deserves the same dedication, Rizzo said.

“It's almost like storytelling, whatever you're talking about,” she said.

Stacey Federoff is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6660 or