studio maintenance for voiceovers

4919975196_41f5870353_zI’m going to start this blog by admitting to one of my shortcomings. Not only am I awful at DIY and home improvements/ maintenance, but I am totaly disinterested in getting any better at them. When we moved into our house my Father-in-law spent an afternoon showing me how to re-roof the shed (it had a huge hole in it, so it really needed doing) but the thing was I couldn’t care less how a shed gets re-roofed. I wished he’s just got on and done it himself and left me inside to do something else. My Dad is also a very practical man and at the age of 70 he’ll still repoint his own walls and fit his own TV ariels on the chimney. But I hate that kind of work. I know I’m not good at it, so I can’t help but find it a colossal waste of my time. They are jobs that need doing, but not by me. They need doing by people who can do them better, leaving me to do something I’m good at. That said I get embarrassed at having to ask tradesmen to do simple jobs for me. There are quite a few people I know who don’t know how to wire a plug, bleed a radiator or change headlight bulbs in their car; all of which I’ll happily do. I’ll also change a tyre (should the need arise), and last year I had to fit new valves in the toilet (we were only without a working loo for 3 days whilst I got it right – not a bad effort!).

I mention this because I want to demonstrate that I am sympathetic towards the situation I’m about to bring up.

2014-09-22 10.29.55Over the time I have been operating as Bee Productive I have visited quite a number of Voiceovers’ home studios and have seen not only a wide variation in studio equipment and set-ups, but also a huge variation in technical know-how. There are a large number of VOs who know exactly how their studios work – and they never call me out as they can fix their own problems – and there are those who can do quite a bit and just need a bit of reassurance, but there are an alarming number who haven’t the foggiest what they own and use on a daily basis. I understand where you’re coming from. You’re looking for a career and somehow you settle on becoming a voiceover artist. You enjoy reading(!), and yearn for the challenge of the performance, of making sense out of the written page, breathing life into the squiggles on the paper. You want the challenge of the lilt and flow of language and can bring meaning into whatever badly punctuated piece of text you’re asked to let your tonsils loose on. But what’s this? In order to fulfil your dreams you need to buy and use some expensive pieces of electronica? You’re not interested in that, you want to read. But what?… I can’t do my job without this kit? Guess you’ll have to buy it then. It’s a necessary evil.

studio repairI do know where you’re coming from. I didn’t buy a car because I love the second law of thermodynamics, but I have to live with it. I know that things will drop off it and they will need repairing.  But there is a difference. If something goes wrong with my car I’m inconvenienced and I need to get it repaired. Unless it’s very serious it doesn’t stop me from working and earning a living. But what about your studio? If that goes wrong there’s a good chance your livelihood will be affected until you can get it fixed. Knowing a few things about how your studio is put together could not only save you a repair bill, but it could save you from losing that big money agency session that’s booked in 15 minutes after you discover that your desk isn’t working. Now do you see the point in knowing a bit more about how it works?

help for voiceoversUnless you’re an accountant you don’t go into business to have to do accounts. I don’t know anyone (accountants excepted) who enjoys doing them and I know so many people who put them off as much as possible. But it’s a necessity of business. For a voiceover I would say studio management is as well. It’s not a legal requirement or anything but let’s face it, would you do your accounts if that wasn’t? It is as beneficial to understand your studio as it is to understand your cash flow. I’m very happy for voiceovers to not know as much as I know about studio mechanics and management as I totally get the value of hiring specialists to do jobs. But I think there is a level of knowledge that you need to have to keep your studio ticking over that is surprisingly absent in some VOs.

So here are a few questions. I would consider these essential to running your own studio.

1. If you’re doing a remote session and the producer at the other end asks you to adjust your levels, do you know how to do it?

2. Do you know what a clean feed is and whether you’re sending it?

3. Do you know the difference between balanced and unbalanced jacks? Or male and female XLRs?

4. Do you know the difference between 16 and 24 bit audio? or 44.1KHZ and 48KHz files?

5. What’s phantom power and why do you use it?

6. What are G.722 and Zephyr? Why/when might you need to know? (possibly not an essential question)

 

 

So here’s the sell-y bit. If you want help answering these questions or making sure your studio set up is as well as it can be then get in touch. I’ve already helped dozens of VOs and upgraded many studios. I’ve been in the industry for many years so I know what VOs need from their equipment. I can attend your studio in person or work remotely (depending on the job) and help you get the most out of your studio equipment. It can only help your career.

Squashed Tomatoes and Stew

On his 1984 album ‘About Face’ David Gilmour sang

“Thinking that we’re getting older and wiser
When we’re just getting old.”

Today is my birthday. So I thought I’d share with you one or two things I’ve learned in my 42 years on this earth. I can’t claim any great insight into the Human Condition, but it’s my birthday so you have to indulge me. But I will keep it roughly work related just so it bears some relation to the rest of the site.

The first thing to say is how important it is to do something you love. Over your working life you’re going to spend an awful lot of time at work, so if you’re working at something you don’t enjoy how is that going to make you happy? I’ve seen too many people made utterly miserable by their jobs and careers and in the end it’s their health (mental and physical) that’s going to suffer. When I left school I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do for a career, so took the first job that was offered to me, and consequently spent far too long working in catering which I absolutely hated. But here’s a thing – when I’d figured out what I wanted to do and was on the verge of going to college to train I ran into an old school friend who I hadn’t seen since leaving school. We sat over a beer and moaned about how we both hated our jobs. I was earning minimum wage and he was earning good money as an accountant or salesman (I can’t remember exactly what he was doing, but it paid well). On the face of it he was doing better than me –  he was at least being rewarded better for his crappy situation – but take a step back and look again. I was about to re-train to do the thing I wanted to do, he couldn’t do that as he couldn’t afford the loss of salary whilst he trained. He had become trapped in his unsatisfactory career choice by the financial package it gave him. A better situation to be in than mine at the time? You decide. Did he escape his job? I don’t know I haven’t seen him again.

 

 

The second thing to say is that whatever career you choose for yourself, it’s all about the people. Easy to say if you’re working in a service industry, but it’s equally as true if you’re not. There are very few jobs that aren’t done for the benefit of humankind in one way or another so we should think about them as we work. One of my crappy catering jobs was doing hospitalities in an NHS executive building and it was quite disheartening delivering refreshments to meeting rooms and hearing people talking about cancer treatments in terms of financial costs and not in terms of the lives that would/wouldn’t be saved and the families that could be affected by decisions made around the boardroom tables. Particularly if we work in a service industry we should give the kind of service we’d want to receive if we were our customer. Treat your customers like human beings and they will come back to you and may even recommend you to their friends. Yes, they’ve asked you to do this tiny thing for them and strictly speaking it is chargeable, but maybe if you did it as a freebie it’d help build up a long term relationship with them and maybe stop them asking one of your competitors for something bigger when it comes along. I think if you lose sight of the people and just think about the money you may make a few short term gains, but in the long term I doubt it does you any good. People don’t like having to deal with people they don’t like. So be nice to people, give good customer service, and you will win customers.

 

 

Thirdly and lastly, listen to criticism. I find this one really difficult, but it’s important. Some criticism will be unjustified and erroneous but you should still give it your attention just to make sure it is. However good we are at our jobs we are not perfect. However much experience we have in our field there is still more for us to learn and improvements we can make. ‘The customer is always right.’ Even when they’re wrong about what we do they may be right about the way we do things. I used to hate it at school when I had to go up to the front and let the teacher mark my work whilst I stood there, but training, correction and criticism are all vital parts of an improvement process. So man up and hear your faults; then do something about them.

 

Right, enough of being serious on my birthday. I’m off to the pub.

 

 

Update

So I haven’t been blogging. It’s because I’ve been busy working, and what a couple of months it’s been. I’ve been very busy with some really great projects so I thought I’d just tell you a bit about some of what I’ve been up to.

I’ve been working in some voiceover production studios around Manchester and have been allowed to complete some lovely pieces of work which have included national TV and radio commercials and a short film for the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) which was shown at the Glastonbury festival (you can see it here). The MAG film was especially pleasurable to be involved with as they are a Manchester based charity that I have  given support to for a number of years.

2014-06-23 09.00.58

I got my own parking spot and everything.

I was also presented with the opportunity to go and teach 2 groups of voiceovers how to edit and produce audio using Adobe Audition. I have taught a few VOs how to use Audition over the internet, but to be asked to go and teach a few at a time in 2 different parts of the country was amazing. I spent 2 very enjoyable days – 1 in Reading and 1 in Cardiff – in the company of some great people. Hearing muttered comments like,, “Wow! doing it that way will save me SO much time,” and “That’s amazing!” was very gratifying. It was a privilege to be asked to do this and I recieved some fantastic feedback from the days as well as a few other VOs asking when I’ll be leading days closer to where they live. Definitely something to look into doing more of!

I’ve been working with some VOs on some audio book production as well. Editing for some and just processing their edited reads for others. This is another area of work which is quite new to me, but I’ve enjoyed getting my head around the audio specifications required by the publishers as well as the content of the books I’ve been editing.

2014-07-04 10.41.00

The new set-up.

And what is for me one of the most exciting bits is that I’ve been working on upgrading my studio. My old PCs were past their best and so  I replaced them both with a couple of  Macs. This has necessitated upgrading my software as well, so I am now running my studio on the latest versions of ProTools and Adobe Audition. My PCs are still kicking around, so if you need tuition in Sound Forge, Audition 3.0, or another PC based DAW I can still accommodate, but for my production work the Macs have increased the efficiency of what I’m able to turn around and look shiny sat on my desk. Plus, as an added bonus, I’m re-discovering lots of great music in my CD collection as I totally redo my iTunes library.

All this on top of my usual bits of editing and consulting work is why I’ve not blogged – and why this is short as well. Something’s just come in that I need to get on with. If you need me you know where I am.

 

Non-Surgical Bottom (end) reduction

Doing what I do for a living I get to hear a fair amount of audio that voiceovers have recorded in their home studios. The standard I receive can vary, sometimes the levels are a bit too low/high, sometimes the room isn’t as well treated as it could be or sometimes. But there is one thing that recurs over and over again that would really improve the quality of the recording – the use of a high pass filter.

So here we go VOs. My guide to what a high pass filter does and why you should be using one. Now I know that when you get your brief from your client they ask for un-processed audio, so you sent them exactly that – you record the script, you may edit it (depending on the client and the brief – you almost certainly  take out the fluffs, burps and sneezes) and you send it off. You certainly don’t add compression or EQ. But in my opinion, although a high pass filter (HPF) is technically an EQ process it doesn’t count. By using one you will tighten up the audio you send and help it sound more professional. Your client won’t notice that you’ve applied it (if you apply it properly) but may well notice if you haven’t.

Look for the little funny tick

So what is a high pass filter and what does it do? We need to take a step back first to explain it properly. Sound is a form of energy – you may call it acoustic energy but physicists would probably call it kinetic energy. So a sound wave possesses energy which it passes on as the wave spreads. As it spreads it loses energy and the sound dies away. High frequency sounds have less acoustic energy than low frequency sounds – I’m sure at some point you’ve heard your neighbours playing their music coming through your walls; it’s the bass frequencies that come through and you hear the boom boom boom of the kick drum keeping you awake until 4 IN THE BLOODY MORNING! Higher frequencies simply don’t have the energy to pass through the walls. With this in mind, it’s always going to be the bottom end frequencies that take a greater effort to ‘tame’ in any recording environment.

A high pass filter attenuates bottom end frequencies by increasing amounts the lower they are, so by applying a high pass filter to your recordings you can hugely reduce the very low frequency sounds that may otherwise mar your recordings – the rumble of the main road 3 streets away or the occasional lorry passing your window, the washing machine going into a spin cycle 2 floors down, the person walking across the floor in the next room who’s managing to vibrate the floorboards enough to transmit the vibrations up your mic stand. It can help no end in lowering the noise floor in your studio, making it seem quieter than it is.

It's a bass

Get it?

Plus there are other considerations – your voice and your mic! If you’ve taken advice on which mic you bought as your voicing mic you probably bought a mic with a cardioid response – ie it picks up your voice from the front and sides but not the back. It’s a good choice of mic as rejecting sound from the back makes it much less likely to pick up unwanted sound sources. Except that all mics other than omnidirectional mics are subject to what’s called the bass proximity effect. Simply put, this is where the bass frequencies are boosted when the sound source is very close to the mic. You will no doubt have been taught that the best place to voice from is close up to your mic thereby increasing the amount of unwanted bottom end on your recordings. Using a HPF really can clean up a lot of this extra bass that you add by utilising good practice. Plus it can clean up a lot of the bottom on pops caused by plosive Ps and Bs.

Still worried that your client wanted unprocessed audio? Don’t be. The frequencies that a HPF works on are below the frequencies that naturally occur in the human voice so the program material that your client wants will be untouched by cleaning up the audio with a HPF.

 

Good in theory, but what about actually in practice ? Glad you asked. Here we go -

Here is me reading a bit of Gullivers Travels. It’s not a very good read because I was trying to accentuate the above issues. It’s unedited and unprocessed. You’ll here some ‘silence’ (actually me stomping around a floor below my studio) and then the read. There is an undercurrent of bottom end which makes the read sound ‘scruffy’

 

 

so now for exactly the same piece of badly read audio with the addition of simply a high pass filter.

 

Before you even play the audio you can see on Soundcloud’s crudely rendered wave form the ‘silence’ is quieter than on the non-HPF version. Can you hear how much cleaner the reading sounds?

 

Time for you to find out where your HPF is.

 

 

If you need more information about any of this please get in touch.

not a blog

So last month, with the best intentions in the world I was too busy to write a new blog. Sorry about that (well, sort of sorry. I was earning an income so I can’t be too sorry!). This month I  knew the same would be the case, but I didn’t want to miss 2 months in a row so I’ve collected a few links that hopefully you’ll like. Some are funny, some aren’t – you decide which is which cos, frankly, I find your sense of humour totally unpredictable.

 

Some great tips in here – honest!

Article about the evolution of language – and it’s not as dull as I’ve just made it sound.

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/mar/11/pronunciation-errors-english-language


Proof that as brilliant as the internet is, it’s given us all opportunities to make even bigger tits of ourselves than previously (sorry it’s from the daily mail).

I think it’s probably illegal to have a post like this without some cute animal video on, so here goes -

You’ve probably seen these before, but it’s worth a second look – 

the story at #9 is from my home town – but the paper isn’t. How dull is the town that the paper’s based in?! -

NSFW – creative swearing.

And finally, one that some of you may actually find useful -
Hope you enjoy!

My one piece of advice

I like to think that I’m a helpful person – it’s just that my areas of expertise is very specialised and I don’t get to be helpful as often as a lot of people. But over the years I have been asked my opinion by a number of friends about their audio set-ups or problems. This last year I’ve been able to help more people on a more formal level through my work as Bee Productive. It’s a part of the job that I really love, and when I’ve had to do it at a distance and troubleshoot a studio without being there in person or seeing exactly how the set-up is set up it has added an extra edge to the challenge.

So if the hypothetical person came to me and asked, “Rob, with your years of experience of helping people with their home studios what is the one piece of advice you would give people?” I would stroke my beard thoughtfully for a couple of minutes and say, “Hmmm…” a bit. Then I would give the following answer.

If you are putting together or upgrading your own studio you would do very well to be getting advice from people operating a similar set up to what you’re looking to get for yourself. But my advice is ‘Don’t ask too many people for advice.’

Here I have to claim a vested interest in that advice. It’s a part of my business model to offer advice and help with studio upgrades, but whether you are using my services or not I would stick with that piece of advice. Here’s why.

Whatever you’re doing with audio there is always multiple ways to do it. There are many pieces of hardware and software on the market for every conceivable task and everyone has their favourites. Not only that, but there are always multiple ways to plug things in, keyboard short cuts or software processes. And that’s before you get into the ‘geek politics’ of audio – the arguments like digital vs analogue, wav vs mp3 and the like which can lead people into all sorts of arguments about methodology and cause them to decry each other’s abilities. In short the number of people you ask is the number of different answers you will get. Everyone will recommend their way of doing things and possibly rubbish other people’s suggestions as not as good as their own, which can lead to the solutions becoming more confusing than they were before. I’ve seen it happen and I’ve had to untangle the bewilderment of ideas.

I would advise finding 2 or maybe 3 people at most who’s opinions you can trust and sticking with them. Discuss and cross reference between people as much as you need to to get things clear in your head. But don’t ask too many people.

(Sales pitch bit) I would always try to recommend a solution that matches a client’s skill level and what they’ll be using their studio for, with an element of future-proofing if possible.

Here endeth today’s lesson.

production tips for VOs

I’ve said it before and I’ll no doubt say it again, but the way people engage the services of voiceover artists is changing. Once upon a time a VO would always be employed for a job in conjunction with a production studio, so all the VO would have to do is the actual voicing bit. More and more now the production studio or producer is sidelined and the client approaches the VO direct and expects them to record their audio at their home studio and do all the editing and processing themselves. This is obviously a whole new set of skills that voiceovers need to learn and master if they want their business to be a success.

Over the time that Bee Productive has been in business we’ve offered training to VOs to help them get on top of the new skill-sets and a few common themes have come to light. So this month I want to take a quick look at some audio pointers that are particularly pertinent to jobbing VO artists. Needless to say if you want further clarification or to have some one-to-one training on producing your voiceovers then get in touch.

Resolution-     The first thing to consider is the format that we record to. Most DAWs (Digital Audio Workstation – the software environment that we use to capture/edit/process the audio) will record to either a wav or aiff file. We should always make sure that we are recording to the highest resolution that we can reasonably manage. Wav and aiff files can very massively in quality depending on what resolution they are. There is a huge difference between an 8KHz 8-bit wav and a 48KHz 24-bit one. Here I pause to explain some more terms.

Bit depth and sample rate-   These are terms that we should be paying close attention to. They totally dictate the quality of the audio that we produce. But what are they? In short they are the X and Y axis of a graph. The X axis is time and this is measured in hertz or kilohertz. In terms of physics this is a number of cycles per second and is used in music to denote pitch (concert A is 440Hz). In digital audio it states how many times a sound wave is measured per second. So as we progress along the X axis (pass through time) a reading is taken of where the sound wave is on the Y axis. The Y axis measurement is a binary reading and is known as the bit rate of the audio. A 16-bit reading has 16 digits, a 24-bit reading has 24. The higher the bit rate, the bigger the dynamic range (the space between the loudest and quietest bits the system can manage). The combination of these 2 qualities gives a higher or lower resolution of sound as the wave is plotted out on the ‘graph’. In lower resolution sound the wave is drawn with lots of square corners rather than the smooth line that would be the analogue wave and therefore is a less accurate replication of the original. The difference between low resolution and high resolution audio is the equivalent of the difference between Disney/Pixar animation and teletext pictures.

Back to thinking about resolution -

My first point was that we should make sure that we’re always recording to the highest resolution we can manage. Hopefully now you will see that better resolution will produce better audio, but the flip side to that is that it takes more processing power from our computers. So as a default position I’d say it’s always best to record in the highest possible resolution that we’re likely to be asked for. To convert audio to a lower resolution is perfectly fine, but if you convert up you will not – I repeat, you will not – improve the quality of the audio, you’ll just make it compatible with whatever system it’s going to be used on. I would recommend that you when you open a new file you set it to 48KHz and 24 bit (or 32 bit float if you can – I won’t go into that here as it’s quite complicated). Once you’ve voiced and processed it depending on your client you can either just save it at whatever resolution and format they have requested from you or – if you think you may need to re-use the audio or visit it again for whatever reason – save it at that full resolution then ‘save as’ whatever format your client requires. that way you can easily re-work the original recording if you need to without compromising quality.

voiceover trainingLevels-   In the olden days of analogue when everything was recorded to tape it was important to push the levels as much as possible to maximise the dynamic range of the tape and hide the tape hiss behind audio you wanted. This is still widely done with digital audio, but there really in no need to. A good reel of 2″ tape has a dynamic range of 50 – 60 dB. this means that between the tape hiss that constitutes the noise floor and the point where the tape if overloaded and distorts there is 50 – 60 dB of room for the program material you want. With 16-bit audio you get 96dB and with 24-bit you get 145dB. Seeing that the dynamic range of the human ear is somewhere around 136dB I think you can see that there is plenty of room in a 24-bit system to not have to push the levels to the max to get the best out of the audio. In fact the thing you really have to avoid is digital clipping – when the level of the signal gets too loud. The loudest level of any digital system is 0dB and all signals are measured in minus numbers, so I would advise that you want to record your voiceovers so that the highest level is between -12dB and -6dB. This is plenty high enough and it still gives you lots of headroom for further processing as every process will change the waveform and may increase the levels.

One final thing -

Phantom Power -   As a professional VO you will use a condenser mic that has to have the phantom power activated or it doesn’t work, but I’ve spoken to quite a few VOs who don’t know what it is or why they need it. Phantom power is activated on your desk, audio interface or preamp by a switch that will either say ‘phantom power’ or ‘+48v’ and by switching it on you will be putting a current of 48v down your mic lead to your condenser mic (or if you’re using a mixing desk with one universal switch to everything plugged into the XLR inputs on your desk). Condenser mics are also known as capacitor mics, and that gives a small clue as to why phantom power is necessary. A capacitor is an electrical component that stores a small amount of electricity, the capsule of your mic acts as such a component. The capsule consists of the diaphragm and a backplate. The diaphragm of your mic carries a charge across it and as you speak the diaphragm vibrates and the gap between it and the backplate changes. This has the effect of altering the amount of charge the ‘capacitor’ can hold and as it fluctuates an electric current is generated which passes through the mic and sends the signal created by your voice vibrations into the rest of your set-up. Simples!

The thing you need to remember about phantom power is that it can create a bit of a surge through your system, so you should take care when switching it on and off that your speakers and headphones are all muted or switched off. You also need to take care that all your mics are plugged in before switching it on or off as you can put a permanent charge across the diaphragm of any mic regardless of whether it’s a condenser or not by plugging things in or out badly. And once your mic’s got a permanently charged diaphragm it’s a write-off.

That’ll do for today. If you’ve found this useful let me know and I’ll do some more tips at a later date.