Man of a thousand voices

Ray Nakamoto, voice actor

photo by LISA BAETZ

During 30 years as one of the top voice actors in Sacramento, Ray Nakamoto practiced reading aloud for hours every week to maintain his lucrative speaking skills. Always community-minded, Nakamoto added meaning to these drills by reading newspapers and circulars for the Society for the Blind.

“I even read Talking Personals in SN&R,” he said, “because the print was so tiny. I thought, ‘Man! If I can sight-read all those abbreviations and that tiny print, that's going to help me with my technical discipline.' It was really informative, and that's how I met my wife, Emma.”

Emma is now the talent liaison at Nakamoto Productions, the Sacramento recording studio where Nakamoto works on his current passion—teaching others to break into voice work. A battle with throat cancer ended his voice-acting career in 2004, but didn't diminish his love for the industry. “I've been so blessed that God gave me this talent for 30 years to do voice work,” he said. “Now I want to give back to the community.”

How has technology changed the voice- acting industry?

Fifteen years ago, building a home studio would take $2,000. Now you can do it for $250.

Does that increase competition for jobs?

There's a lot of competition. No longer are we working only in Sacramento. The competition is nationwide, but the jobs are nationwide. In fact, they're international now. So if you're really good at voice work, the world is your oyster. We've never had opportunities like this.

Sacramento's in a recession, but you've got all these little towns all across the nation that need voices. There are thousands of channels on cable now. When I was growing up in Sacramento, there were five TV stations. There were 10 radio stations. Now there are, like, 60 just in Sacramento. Then you have Internet radio, website audio, audio wherever you look. Cammie Winston, my co-instructor, does Regional Transit. You hear her voice: “Next stop, Watt Avenue.”

You’re a native Sacramentan?

Third-generation Japanese-American. My parents were in the internment camps. When they got out, they said, “We aren't going to speak Japanese at home. We're going to live in the white American neighborhood, and if we speak Japanese, we're going to do it when the kids are asleep. We want our kids to grow up and blend in.” So, [the only Japanese] I know is “teriyaki.” I'm full American. I took broadcasting at [Sacramento State University].

Is that how you got into voice work?

Do you see that black-and-white photo on the wall there? That's me in high school in [my band] Children of Stone. We cut a 45 [record] at Bill Rase Productions, and that was my entree into the recording field at the age of 17. I thought, “Wow! I love this.” I loved the microphones and speakers, I loved working on tape recorders. So I was a producer and voice-casting director at 19, not knowing what the hell I was doing.

You started on the production end?

Yes, because I was too shy. I was afraid to get behind a mic.

What was your first paid voice gig?

1975, I think. It was [a commercial for] the Transist-Ear AM radio you put in your ear. I got paid 15 bucks. I thought, “Wow! This is fun!” Then I went on to do Lombards, which was a stereo store. It aired every week on Casey [Kasem's] American Top 40. And then, my latest jobs, before I stopped doing voice work in 2004, I was the voice for Harrah's Lake Tahoe, Harrah's Reno, Harveys [Lake Tahoe] and for Tower Records. We produced all the Tower Records spots all across the country.

What was your “money voice”?

I did everything. Back in those days, if you were a man of a thousand voices, you were going to get jobs. And I was that, in Sacramento. Now, everything is very specific with all the competition. So you want to narrow your niche and become the head of your niche.

Can anyone do voice work?

You have to be able read well. You have to have a good ear to take direction. Average voice. You don't need a spectacular voice. Ninety-five percent of all spots out there are regular people talking. You have exceptions—Sam Elliott, your deep-throated movie-trailer voices. Ninety-five percent of everybody is just talking normally. The more real you can sound, the more jobs you're going to get.

How do you sound energetic if you’re reading boring copy?

We're in the digital age, so if you can only maintain high energy for two sentences and then take a breath, you can edit the breaths out. All the radio spots you hear, no one's breathing because it's retail. We're accustomed now to hearing spots where no one's breathing. When you do audio books or narration, you need the breath for transition and pacing.

What’s the secret to recording a compelling demo?

Because there is so much competition, the attention span for a demo is nine seconds. … If you can't grab the producers' attention in nine seconds, you're out. My strategy on producing demos is to get the producers' attention on the first spot, and lead them into the next spot so they won't stop.