“If my rabbi were to find out I was involved in such a project, he’d probably give me the boot — and he has quite a large boot.”
Yaakov Berger is the voice actor and narrator behind many of today’s frum commercials, movies, clips, and promos. He is based in Lakewood, New Jersey.
Where have I heard you?
A lot of people recognized my voice on the Rav Chaim video and the Ten Yad videos. I’ve done all sorts of work for media groups, mosdos, and businesses, both local places and worldwide organizations like the OU, ArtScroll, Shuvu, Oorah. Most jobs follow a typical style — “This yeshivah has been around for so many years, we turn to you now for help,” or “For general information, please press three.” But I also do out of the box, like acting with Joey Newcomb in a commercial for a shul gabbai program, or announcing the names of players in the RCCS hockey tournament.
How did you get into this?
I used to do kiruv work for Project Gesher of Lakewood Links. One day, the Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation called and asked if there’s anyone who could do intros for their hotline — d’hainu, “The following segment is presented by so-and-so,” and “The previous segment discussed this-and-this topic.” People always ask if I acted or did voices as a kid. Believe it or not, I did not — it was this job that propelled me. When I saw I had a knack for it, I went for lessons at Marla Kirban Voice Over school in the city, and then I had a demo made. I sent out ten CDs, one videographer picked it up, and that was the beginning of my professional voice-over journey.
Why do videos need professionals and not just a narrator with a deep, clear voice?
Not every read warrants a deep voice. It can be good if you’re doing something like, “The BMW 5 series, the ultimate driving machine.” But sometimes you need softer, happier, sadder, more exciting, more somber, jumpier — you shouldn’t have the same voice for a car commercial as you do for selling teddy bears or bagels or flowers or sponsoring mishnayos l’zecher nishmas a loved one. We learn things like compartmentalizing. If you’re doing a read that has switches or turns, you go from really excited — “I can’t believe he’s coming!” — to disappointed — “Oh, no, he’s not coming” — and you’re doing these voices yourself, so you have to be able to switch on the dime. Also, there’s the 3-6-4, changing the cadence of your voice when saying, ““It’s exciting, it’s amazing, it’s adventurous.” So for the first, “It’s exciting,” you want a moderate cadence, a 3, then for “it’s amazing,” you go higher, to a 6, and then for “it’s adventurous” you go down a couple notches, but not as low as the first time, to a 4.
When you started, did you struggle with your normal pronunciation?
People say I have a real Brooklyn accent, and it required work to fix that. I had difficulty with the word “happy,” people detected I would say it funny, like “haaapy,” too Bugs Bunnyish. By the way, I’m very happy to be doing this interview — I worked on it! Also, the number eight is interesting, because you need to soften the T at the end for an 888 phone number. You don’t want to say, “Dial eight-eight-eight” with soft Ts — it’s too slow, you’ll sound hungry. You have to soften it, just tap the top of your palate with your tongue so it sounds more like a cross between T and D and isn’t too strong.
What was your favorite job? The toughest?
My first job was for Bonei Olam, and it’s near and dear to me because we didn’t have children right away. My toughest job was at IDT’s animation studio — the client needed a very high-pitched voice for the read. I have a deep voice, but for two hours straight, I spoke high-pitched. Recently I did a half-hour read for a Chabad musical program. We did it in a park in Staten Island in early January — it was like 35 or 40 degrees — and I needed to walk along the river while saying my part. I did whatever I could not to shiver.
Do you have special equipment?
I have a professional microphone, and I have a platform for a recording application to clean up shorter reads, anything from 30 seconds to a minute. It’s not always so glamorous, though, because sometimes an organization needs a recording right now, it can’t wait until I’m in the office. So I’ll go into my closet to record because background sound gets muffled in there, or I’ll go into a bed and put a bunch of pillows around me to absorb the sound.
What sorts of things do you clean up in recordings?
Take me, I breathe heavily, and in normal conversation I don’t think you can tell, but when you look at the audio track of my voice, you can actually see the breaths as small bumps on the monitor, so I erase those. There’s also sound equalization, making sure the whole read is the same volume, and click removers — your voice produces these clicking sounds, you might not even be conscious of it, but on recordings they’re distracting.
Are all your clients frum?
Yes. A couple years ago, I got a LinkedIn message from a non-Jew, the creator and sound director for an animated comedy series. He said he needs voice actors, here’s a link to the project’s site to check it out. To be honest, it was very violent, very graphic, and had crude humor. I messaged him that I’m a family-friendly voice-over, and I wrote, “If my rabbi were to find out I was involved in such a project, he’d probably give me the boot — and he has quite a large boot.” He wasn’t offended, we left off on good terms. Our exchange reminded me of a conversation I had when I was still taking lessons. The teachers give you real scripts to read, and I was given some with a definite lack of tzniyus. I told them I wouldn’t do it.
They asked, “What if you’re hired to do the job? You’ll have to read it!”
And I responded, “I won’t take a job that compromises my religion and standards.”
I’m proud to say it actually happened, and I didn’t take the job.
When is your busy season?
For tzedakah organizations, around Yamim Tovim. There are certain tekufos when organizations hire me for matanos l’evyonim and kimcha d’Pischa. Right around Purim, a guy came over to me at an event and said, “Yaakov, could you please stop calling me?!”
What memorable feedback have you gotten?
A few nights ago I went with my bechor for ice cream, and a guy asked, “Are you that robocall guy?” There’s nothing more insulting than being asked that because it’s like, here he goes again, the guy who keeps disturbing my supper. My wife even told me that maybe I should consider not doing too many robocalls. Actually, I once walked into my house after a long day, and the phone rang, and I heard, “Hi, I’m calling on behalf of—” and I slammed the phone down. It took me a second to realize I had actually just hung up on myself.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 911)
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