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Her voice sells everything from pizza to a bank loan

Tuesday, February 23, 1999

By Cristina Rouvalis, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Amy Hartman is getting wild again. She lurches toward the microphone. She stabs the air with her arms, rocks back and forth and smiles giddily under her fat headphones and baseball cap.

  Amy Hartman records a voiceover at Suite Sounds studio, Downtown. (Joyce Mendelsohn, Post-Gazette)

She looks strange flailing around in that small booth at Big Science recording studio, Downtown. But she sounds just right. So who are we to question the methods of one of the city's top voice talents?

She has to get physical so she can read the script of a bank commercial in a crystal-clear and bright voice.

The 38-year-old woman is heard but never seen on dozens of other commercials. In a medium that runs on imagination, she is constantly reinventing herself.

She looks waifish in sneakers and a ponytail tucked under a backwards baseball cap, but as soon as she leans into the mic, she is as seductive as a lingerie model. "You know, most men can't get along with one pair of Levis, " she purrs, the way she did in a blue jeans commercial.

She can yodel in her down-home, good 'ole gal voice, "That's a darn good meal" at Hoss's restaurants. She can screech into a dizzy receptionist character for a Pizza Outlet commercial, then slide into the "hard-bodied pretty young voice" she used on a Weight Watchers ad.

Her amazingly malleable voice is why she is heard on so many local and national commercials.

"She can do it all," says casting director Donna Belajac. "She can do breathy. She can do straightforward. She can do announcer-ish. She can do sexy. She can do banter with a husband."

A stage actress and playwright, Hartman is uninhibited. She is fearless about walking into a small rectangular room and making a total fool out of herself, bobbing around to vary her pace and pitch, getting into character and nudging the most out of her well-conditioned abdominal muscles. She is more physical than most voice talent, producers and engineers say.

"She makes love to the microphone," quips Joe Poprosky , a free-lance writer and producer, as he directs her for the bank campaign.

"You have to do whatever you have to do to get there," Hartman says. "Nobody can read my thoughts. No one can see me."

Don Ferraro, audio engineer and president of Suite Sounds, help Amy Hartman prepare a voiceover. (Joyce Mendelsohn, Post-Gazette) 

One of a handful of local people supporting themselves with voice-over work, Hartman broke into the upper echelon of Pittsburgh talent about a year and a half ago. She often earns anywhere from $160 to $360 per hour in union wages, and sometimes hundreds and occasionally thousands off residuals.

It might sound like easy money for a little bit of talking. But it's a fiercely competitive field, particularly for women. Advertisers traditionally have favored the authoritative voices of men.

Though there's still more voice work for men, companies are turning increasing away from Ted-Baxter-like voices and choosing intimate, personal ones. It is a softer sell than someone screaming at you to buy, buy, buy.

So Amy Hartman and her musical voice nudge you gently. Anonymously.

Hartman wasn't born with a voice that would pay the rent.

She grew up in New York's East Village sounding as grating as Fran Drescher. She stuttered too.

Her acting teacher listened to her recite Shakespeare in her cloying accent and asked the 18-year-old aspiring actress, "Can you type? You will never find work."

This brutally blunt shot didn't deter her. She was determined to become an actress. She began the first of many voice lessons to rid herself of her accent and to learn how to use her abdominal muscles to expand her diaphragm.

She fell into her first voice acting job almost by accident when her then-acting teacher and current agent, Stephen Black, recommended that she do the American voice for an Australian children's TV show, "Johnson & Friends." Hartman moved to Pittsburgh because the Fox Television show was recorded here, leaving behind a more conventional job as project manager of a guitar factory in Annapolis, Md.

"Wow, this is great raw material," thought Jack Bailey, a senior producer for Production Masters Inc. in Pittsburgh, the first time he heard her. Later, Bailey helped her put together a tape.

She got other voice jobs, but at first they didn't pay the bills. She scraped by posing nude for art students.

"It was a horrible, desperate existence," she says. "It was modeling naked at CMU with the windows open, waving at construction people and saying, 'Hi, I'm poverty stricken.' "

People told her she was crazy to try to support herself off her vocal cords in Pittsburgh, a relatively modest voice market. But she persevered.

Alternatively introspective and irreverently funny, Hartman sometimes breaks into voices to poke fun at herself. But she is not a head-in-the-clouds creative type. She is driven about marketing her melodic voice, constantly sending out her tape, calling clients and sending them thank-you notes. Hartman would even go to some of her early recording sessions with goodies.

"She exploded onto the scene with a box of cookies and a big smile," says fellow voice talent, Buster Maxwell. "She's good, No. 1. She hustles, No. 2."

She also learned a lot from the established voice-over stars in town, including Maxwell, Eric Trow, Mark Roberts, Bob Souer, Darren Eliker, Susan Chapek, Carol Lee Espy and others.

Hartman is obsessive about her job, doing an hour of abdominal and articulation exercises every day. She doesn't smoke or drink. She is so neurotic about missing a job, which are often booked at the last minute, that she rarely vacations.

"I am always afraid if I go away, it will all go away and I will wait tables on Monday."

Her obsessiveness has paid off: Her voice has been used to sell Pepsi, General Nutrition Center and Bruegger's Bagels. She also does industrial videos, CD ROMs and the occasional breathy voice for a racy movie.

She lives comfortably, but is not cleaning up like the voice stars in New York and Los Angeles who are making hundreds of thousands, even millions. "I can't even imagine that," says Hartman.

Most of the Pittsburgh voice talent making $200,000 or $250,000 a year tend to be men, she said. But she is determined to get there.

"I have a billable voice, an up-for-rent-voice, a yours-at-a-good price voice."

It is harder than it looks to make a living off your voice.

The recording booth can be a real pressure cooker. The microphone is so powerful that it can detect gurgling noises from your stomach or the faint jangle of a necklace.

A talent has to walk in off the street, read a script they have never seen before, as the client, engineer and director stare at them from the other side of a glass window. The clock is ticking loudly for the expensive studio rental.

Amy Hartman is telling her voice students how not to wilt under the pressure.

Relax your arms, she says.

"Shake your hands. You look like a seal but it works. I know this sounds obsessive," she says to the six students attending the class she and Bailey teach inside PMI recording studio Downtown.

A week later, inside Big Science sound studio, she uses another relaxation technique - laughter - as she reads a commercial for First Commonwealth, which runs small community banks like Unitas in State College. This is one of eight jobs she is doing this week, a busy and lucrative week.

She begins reading in a super bouncy voice - "There's a party going on. Yes, it's the Cruise into Spring Home Equity" - but stumbles over the name of the loan. She mocks herself. Laughing keeps her loose.

After various takes, producer Poprosky declares it a winner. Her voice, he says, is a little sultry, with a bit of raspiness to it. "Your only chance to make a connection is with the voice."

Hartman walks out of the studio and into the evening rush. The office workers filing past her don't recognize her as a semi-famous voice. But being anonymous is just fine with Amy Hartman.

"We are like good lighting," she says happily. "No one ever notices us."

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