I recognize Dave Leffel’s booming baritone the second I walk into Bam Studios, though I can’t quite place it. Is it the earworm voice from some overplayed game-day beer commercial? Or maybe that zippy “Eat fresh!” at the close of every damn Subway spot? Regardless, it’s like hearing an old friend. Familiar.
The River North audio production house is closing up shop for the night when Leffel, one of the city’s most prolific voice actors and sound engineers, waves me into a plush recording suite. The room is soundproof, and except for a few stray staffers, the office is empty. Still, I’m nervous.
Maybe it’s because I just strolled past a Wall of Fame filled with photos of celebrities who have recorded here over the years: Will Ferrell, Mila Kunis, the actor who played the janitor on Scrubs. Only a few hours before I arrived, John Goodman was laying down some dialogue tracks for a movie project still under wraps. And as I chatted with Leffel in the hallway, I bumped into David Eigenberg, who played Miranda’s on-again, off-again love interest on Sex and the City. He had just finished recording some lines for an episode of Chicago Fire (from which you might know him as the lovable firefighter Christopher Herrmann). I mistook him for one of my old University of Illinois frat brothers. He didn’t seem amused.
I had scheduled a session at Bam because I’ve always thought I had the potential to make it as a voice-over guy—you know, the juuuuust-right offscreen narrator that commands your attention in ads and films. (The job also entails stuff like recording robocalls and museum tour scripts, but those don’t have quite the same cool factor.) I’ve worked in advertising and know my way around radio copy, and I’ve been told by more than one person (OK, including my mom) that I have a distinct sound. (I describe it as “smoky.”) So I tapped Leffel to assess my skills.
Stocky, with a salt-and-pepper goatee and the wiseacre smirk of a guy who probably lacked self-control in his youth, Leffel, 50, helps aspiring audio artists build their demo reels. He hands me a script and points out the reading prompt at the top: “Mature, confident, trustworthy.” I stare at the lines to a 15-second commercial for men’s vitamins and feel like I’m about to walk a tightrope without a net. Deep breath, and I let ’er rip, summoning my internal James Earl Jones: “Research suggests cell health plays a key role throughout our lives. One A Day Men’s 50-Plus is a complete multivitamin designed for men’s health concerns as we age …”
In my head, it sounds contrived and cheesy. What does Leffel think? “Well, you don’t have a lisp,” he says. Uh, thanks? He’s joking and insists my cold reading wasn’t half bad. “Let’s take it up two notches,” he says. “Give it more energy. C’mon, make it tougher!” Right. Who knew that vitamins for middle-aged dudes required such conviction?
Most of us probably don’t realize how often voice-overs influence our day-to-day lives. Whether they’re hyping movie trailers, narrating PBS docuseries (“Tonight on Frontline …”), or shilling for a certain pill (“If your erection should last more than four hours …”), they surround us, aiming to inspire us, move us, and, mostly, sell us shit. The anonymous narrators behind them, who have mastered their vocal instruments, have always fascinated me. Were they born with the talent? Or were their velvety executions honed over time?
Back in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when Leffel started, a voice actor could build a long career as the unseen spokesperson for a big-name household brand, like Hamburger Helper or Pepto-Bismol. Today, competition is fierce and companies are fickle, constantly tinkering with their advertising. “Being the ‘voice of something’ these days is harder and harder to come by,” Leffel says. “There’s not as much loyalty anymore.”
Yet Leffel is in high demand. During our conversation, he casually bends and morphs his voice in ways that remind me of that guy in the Police Academy movies. His big break came in 1998, when he landed the campaign for a short-lived Mountain Dew–esque drink from Coca-Cola. “It was very in-your-face,” Leffel says. Shifting to the edge of his seat, he can’t resist breaking it out: “Surge—it’s a fully loaded citrus soda with carbos. Feed the rush!”
Since then, you may have caught Leffel in your living room hawking everything from the Fiat 500X crossover SUV to Temptations cat treats. “I play my reel, and people are like, ‘Oh my God, I’ve been hearing your voice for years,’ ” he says. In a 2009 career highlight, Leffel beat out John Cusack and Thomas Haden Church for a Budweiser campaign. “I sound much cooler when I’m being a beer guy,” he says, teeing up a back-of-the-throat timbre.
It’s not always lucrative, but there’s a hefty paycheck here and there. The big money is in the residuals that kick in if a spot continues to air for a long time. Once, Leffel did a 15-minute session to record a tagline for another Bud commercial. It was used in several ads over a couple of years. “I thought I was going in the booth for $250, and it ended up being a six-figure job,” he says. “That gig put new windows and siding on my house.”
Hmm. Come to think of it, my kitchen could use a face-lift. Bring on the scripts! During the next half hour, Leffel guides me in playing a peppy sports fan for Merkts cheese spread and channeling my burly DIY persona to pitch Craftsman cordless drills. But I don’t hit my groove till we get to an ad for big-and-tall store Destination XL and I downshift a few octaves: “Look at you. You are more than a man in a new outfit. You are a larger-than-life magnificent man about town. A colossal icon of style. Are you ready to look this good? Is your wife ready? Is the world ready?” Then the close: “All the great men’s brands, waist size 38 and up. Destination XL. You’re looking good.” Stuck the landing.
Leffel sits back in his chair. “Dude, that was really good,” he says. “I felt the animation in your voice and your commitment. There’s a point where everything transcends the voice. It becomes about your ability to tell a story. A lot of people take time finding that confidence in their own skin.”
Peddling formalwear to overweight gentlemen never sounded so heroic. Watch out, Movie Trailer Guy. I’m coming for you.