Recent Article in Record Newspapers by Lisa Welz
Chances are, if you’ve ever worked for Aldi, Walmart or Saks Fifth Avenue and been through the video training series, or called Victoria’s Secret, Carmax, McDonald’s, the Better Business Bureau, or, locally, Old Second Bank or Brenart Eye Clinic, you’ve experienced the work of Illinois Audio Productions, Inc. (IAP).
The voices you’ve heard when using the automated telephone systems at those businesses, and many others, or the voices heard during training, are IAP’s trained staff members who have recorded thousands of hours of voice overs, on-hold scripts, messages, and music, commercials, computer-based training, e-books, and interactive voice response (IVR), also thought of as automated voice message systems.
The Plano-based company was founded in 1986 by Chuck Filippi, who at that time was running Aurora’s WKKD radio, 95.9 FM, known today as “The River.” He holds the title of CEO while his co-owners, and family members, are his wife, Pat Filippi, who is president, and his son, Brian Filippi, who is vice president.
Chuck said IAP started because of of a concern about copyright infringement.
“A client of mine in radio, Ron Westphal, from Ron Westphal Chevrolet, called me one afternoon and told me that he could no longer play our radio station in his showroom without paying licensing fees to companies like ASCAP and BMI. So he said, ‘Chuck, I’m going to take your station off’ and he didn’t like that because he was spending money advertising with us and he liked to hear his commercials in the showroom.”
“He said, ‘I have to take it off my telephones as well, because they say if you want to play, you’re going to have to pay.’ Music on hold is considered an infringement of copyrights if it’s played for commercial consumption. And, obviously, if you put somebody on hold, you’re entertaining your callers and the big royalty companies want a piece of the action.”
Brian referenced a blog article he had written, at www.ilaudio.com/blog, explaining about music on hold and royalty collection agencies ASCAP, BMI and SESAC. In his blog, Brian wrote, “In most instances, there are no slap-on-the-hands or verbal warnings. Generally, they take action with invoices, money demands and fines. In fact, for each copyrighted song being performed without license, fees up to $30,000 can be imposed or up to $150,000 if the infringement is willful.”
“So many people are unaware that they can’t take consumer music, even though they go buy the CD, or on iTunes, and pay for it, they can’t put it on their overhead system in their showrooms, or put it on their telephone, music on hold,” Chuck added. “So Ron said, ‘If I have to pay to play music on my telephone, I might as well tell people about what I do, what I offer. Can you come up with some idea?’”
Westphal became their first customer as they worked out a program for him and put it on his phone system using an auto-reverse cassette tape system that, although archaic by today’s standards, was the current technology in 1986.
Thanks to that job, word of IAP spread as other businesses called Westphal, heard the on-hold messages, wanted to know where they were done. The first referral of that type was Bill Jacobs Chevrolet in Joliet and, Chuck said, both businesses are still IAP clients today.
In 1993, when Chuck left radio, he jumped into the business full-time, buying out a partner he had brought in when starting the company so there would be no conflict during his tenure as president of SBC Broadcasting Group. “Many of the employees who worked for me 25, 26 years ago still work for me today,” he noted.
For many years, the firm operated out of his home, before moving to the current location in Plano 10 years ago. “We knew we had to do that eventually, because we wanted to downsize our house as empty nesters, but we couldn’t do that without moving the business out.”
Chuck doesn’t miss his time in broadcasting, he says, because with IAP, “I do the same thing. The difference is that the reach of WKKD was maybe a 20 mile reach all the way around. With IAP, I’ve got my listeners, if you will, listening to our on-hold systems from coast to coast and border to border. So I kid my colleagues in broadcasting, telling them I’ve got the most powerful station in the world. They can hear our work in Los Angeles, New York, Canada, all over. I’m doing the same thing, except instead of going over the airwaves, they’re going into my customer’s telephones for their callers to hear. So I’ve got a captive audience.”
Working at IAP is challenging, he says. Rather than being limited to a potential customer base of primarily retail businesses, “In this business, it’s almost entirely different.” At 69, Chuck said he will be handing things over to Brian and slipping out of the business to enjoy retirement and traveling with Pat.
The next generation
Brian came on board in 1993 when Chuck fell, breaking his wrist and requiring rotator cuff surgery. “At the time, we had to do a lot of maintenance for customers and the install work, he could no longer do it, because his dominant hand was in a sling. I was in college and it basically became an internship. I just never left.”
With a grin, he admitted that working at IAP had not been part of his game plan, but his degree in marketing, he says, “Meshes well. It was one of those things, you have to help out the family business. I had no intentions, but I then I saw areas where we could definitely expand. Back at the time, when it started, almost nobody was doing what we were doing…probably, until 1998 to 2000, when the internet really got popular. For the most part, almost all of our business was word of mouth.”
Recalling how he began at the company with maintenance and installations, then sales, he said it has become more managerial. “We don’t just niche ourselves into one area of business,” he said.
The family connection became even stronger when he married one of the women whose voice is used in countless customer recordings.
Unsurprisingly, there was a bit of head-butting between generations, Brian said with a grin, but eventually computers were brought on board and his wife was instrumental in the transition to digital sound editing, a process that not only eliminated the old reel-to-reel format, but is an essential part of the editing process today.
“It’s beautiful,” he said. “You can see it on the screen and copy and paste, take breaths out. In a lot of ways we were always a step ahead…as far as sound quality, sound editing. I’ll put my studios up against anybody’s as far as sound quality.”
Voices, an integral part
The common denominator between all the different facets of their business are their “voices,” those people who record the scripts that are eventually edited and, sometimes, put with music before being sent to the client.
“I probably get an inquiry a day from people who want to do voice overs for us,” he said. “The thing I listen for, number one, most importantly, can they read the copy? You can have the best voice in the world, James Earl Jones or whoever, but if you can’t make that copy come to life, it’s not going to work. I could have 10,000 voices if I wanted, but I’m pretty picky, pretty choosy, and I’ve always been. I’ve always held us to a higher standard and not taken somebody because they’re cheaper.”
“To have a good voice, you have to be born with that. But there are a couple of people on our staff that I would say don’t have the best voice, but they read well. When you read well, it means whatever the copy is, you don’t want to sound like you’re reading, like you’re sitting there with a piece of paper in front of your face. You want to be able to make what you’re saying believable. You can be talking the words about how great a product is, but if you don’t sound believable, it’s not going to fly.”
Believability could be excitement, Brian explained, but even more, it’s putting the right inflection, emotion and enthusiasm into their voice at the right times. Another facet is great sound quality, which is achieved by the recording equipment and studio that is used.
Two doors separate IAP’s sound studio from the hallway. The top half of the wall and ceiling are covered in a foam material, with rows of pointed, pyramid shaped, pieces. The lower half of the walls are a soft fabric and the floor is carpeted. Even casual conversation sounds different in the studio with no echo whatsoever.
Opening the doors, Brian commented that when not recording they want the doors open because the lack of air circulation can make the studio rather warm.
He noted that voices from different parts of the country can have accents, whether the east coast, south, or from Canada. North of the border, those accents tend to have flattened o’s and funny vowel sounds. Certain words are impossible for them to say correctly.
“Right now a lot of people like the British fad, the female British voice,” Brian said. “We have three females that we use and they are all outside the United States. The thing is, it’s often not a garage. It’s a gareash or a garriage. And it’s not apparel, it’s aparele. Things like that, people like the sound, but all of a sudden they don’t want them to use the British version and so it becomes somewhat complicated.”
“I’ve had customers request that a voice sounds ethnic and we’ve had people that sound, maybe, African American and so forth. I’ve had people that wanted somebody from the south for a clothing line strictly in the south. Right now I have somebody that wants a voice that is very ‘Lords of the Ring’ trailerish, elfish, a female, British elfish voice. So sometimes I have to go outside my 20 to 30 voices that I use all the time.”
They have done a lot of work in Spanish as well as French Canadian, Chinese, Brazilian Portuguese, and he recently bid on a project in Russian.
“What I mainly look for in new voices is something I don’t have,” Brian explained. “There are a lot of times that I think, she may be good, but she doesn’t have me clamoring, saying I want to hear more. About a month or six weeks ago, our newest voice, her name is Moe, sent me a demo. When I heard it, I thought it’s something we don’t have. She sounded a little bit like an older female, but not senior. She read with emotion; it was very believable and right away I knew I wanted to work with her.”
The biggest test is when a “voice” is asked to record a demo from a script IAP provides. They don’t have a week to wait to get the recording back, especially when they often turn projects around in a day or two.
“You get some of these demos and they sound great and then when you ask them to demo your thing and get it back right away, it’s like, are you sure you’re the same person recording that? It happens a lot,” Brian said.
The most booming voice they have, Brian said, is Ed’s. “If you listen to Ed, you’ll hear what I mean. He’s got the pipes, but he can also read. He does all kinds of WWE promo’s. Not for us; most of these people have other jobs. We couldn’t feed 30 people full time so they do other things for other agencies. He’s got that great voice and a range where he can do classy too.”
For those interested in getting voice work, he suggested, “If you still have a local radio station in your area, that will allow you to come in and do spots, I would offer to do it for free, just to get the experience. Start low, just to get the experience, and then you can move on. You can build up your resume…it’s feast or famine. There are people that make a lot of money, the middle people, and those who there is no way they can survive on this.”
When the business started, message on hold was 100 percent of the business, then people started asking them to do radio commercials for them. One of their clients wanted them to put together a voice over for a video to be used as a commercial at the Wow 7 movie theater in Sandwich.
He recalled that the owner wanted to record the script himself and when he heard it played back, said it was horrendous. “He had one of his employees there and she was 10 times better. Was she as good as one of our voices? No, but she was so much better than he was. He knew, he didn’t even want to hear himself.”
Generally, regardless of the format, whether a voice over for messages on hold, for IVR, commercials, or another form, the overall process is the same. It begins with a script which may be written by one of IAP’s copy writers or supplied by the company, particularly if it’s for training purposes.
Next the client chooses which voice they want to record the script, which means choosing gender first and then going through each one to get the right fit for their company.
The third step means choosing what music they want, if appropriate to the format. After the script is approved and recorded, the music set, the editing is done on the recording, cleaning it up. The clean up can include digitally erasing the intake of breath that is a normal part of speaking, but can be either a distraction or take up valuable time in a 30 second commercial. It can also include compressing the recording if needed to fit the allotted time.
On average, Brian said, it takes an hour of editing for every 10 minutes of recording time.
Once all the elements are in place, the product is sent to the client for the intended purpose. It is not unusual for Chuck and Brian to get unsolicited feedback from clients, raving about the quality and value of the product and service they provided.
One of those came from a Florida firm, Restoration Specialists, which does cleaning up after storms and hurricanes. IAP had done their on-hold messages and they came back to ask them to do a jingle. Since that isn’t something IAP does, he put them in touch with a friend in Wisconsin and IAP did the work on the commercial that included the jingle.
“He doesn’t like straightforward commercials,” Brian commented. “They have to have some kind of humor in them, hokey, fun humor. We’ve done a play off of Godzilla, off of Dorothy and the ‘Wizard of Oz’, a tornado just came through here and Restoration Specialists will clean up the mess. He told me that within a year of first using the jingle and the radio commercials, ‘I can’t tell you the kind of response we have. I’ve been in places where people are coming in, humming that jingle they heard on your commercial. We pulled up to elementary schools. The kids see the lettering on our trucks and start humming the jingle. I can’t buy that kind of recall.’”
“It’s another one of those things where he loved our on hold, asked us to do something more, and we’ve helped him out. That’s how we’ve grown from on hold to radio and from radio to automated attendant and IVR prompts. Our customers range from mom and pop companies to McDonald’s, White Barn Candle Company, Bath and Body Works, Nationwide Insurance, Victoria’s Secret. We also do work for Northshore University Healthsystem and DuPage Medical Group.”
Other work they have done includes recording messages for cell phones as well as recordings for messages at the gas pumps and in elevators. In addition, they will also rent out the studio for individuals to use, but caution they are not set up for use by musicians, something they are regularly asked about.
With McDonald’s, he said, they record the nutritional information for every new product, so he know’s what’s coming before the public does.
For additional information on Illinois Audio Productions, Inc., visit their website, www.ilaudio.com, or call them at (630) 552-9600.