I spend a lot of my time producing voiceovers, consulting VOs on their studio set-ups & upgrades, and training VOs in production techniques. I am, these days, what you’d call a veteran of the industry and have produced thousands of radio ads, telephone on hold & IVR messages, television content, railway station announcements, corporate VOs, e-learning projects, audiobooks and probably lots of other things that I’ve forgotten about.
You’d expect over that time that I’ve listened to a fair amount of audio, and you’d be right. And I’m sure you’d expect that not only am I listening to the message the audio is trying to deliver, I’m also listening to the production to assess the competition and maybe learn some new tricks. I have to say that there is some great work being done, and I can only hope that the work I produce stands alongside the best of what I hear. But, to be frank, there is also a lot of dross that somehow makes it past quality control and insults my ears with its cack-handed audio treatment.
So in this post I want to raise a simple call to action to producers. Keep on learning. Keep stretching yourselves and trying new techniques. Keep listening to what other people are doing and then do it better.
But let’s take a step back and think about the kind of things I’m thinking about. The first thing to note is that audio production isn’t accountancy – very often there’s no right or wrong way to go about things. There’s very little you can hear and not think “… Hmmm, I wouldn’t have done it like that,” but there is still good and bad production. Things that are badly mixed are easy to spot and criticise, but there are worse subtler sins.
A fairly obvious one would be sibilance and plosives. With the number of tools at our disposal now, not polishing the audio we produce is fairly inexcusable, and yet I still hear audio with these problems evident. I once went to a studio and was played a song produced by the resident engineer. What struck me more than anything was the really unusual placing of the kick drum – it made no sense. It mesmerised me so much that it took until the actual drums kicked in to realise that it had been extremely bassy plosives I‘d been listening to. The plosives continued throughout the song and muddied up the bottom end of the mix something horrible. I was utterly baffled by how the engineer couldn’t hear the problem – solving it would have been incredibly easy.
My next bugbear is phasing issues. In days of 5.1 sound and 7.1 sound, why do we still need to check our mixes work in mono I heard you ask. Well, I reply, I know of a music library marketed specifically towards on hold production which has been produced with a really wide stereo image. Ok, you tell me. I get that it’s pretty pointless producing stereo music for a mono medium, but it’s not such a big issue is it? I stroke my beard as I respond. Not necessarily. But with this particular library, if you play the music back in mono the phasing is so bad that half the instruments disappear. That’s not good by any criteria, but for something being marketed specifically to a mono medium it’s unforgivably shoddy.
Thirdly and finally is mismatching of production styles. We’ve already considered why it’s pointless producing stereo audio for telephony projects, but there are plenty of other examples. Probably the most prevalent is using what I would call radio-style production for anything and everything.
Radio is a very fast medium and it needs to grab people’s attention to prevent it becoming background noise, so lots of tricks are used.
We can use clever echo effects, pan the audio wildly, edit promos and stings, double track the voice, pitch shift and varispeed or any combination of the above and beyond. I’ve never heard these techniques used in a corporate read, but I have heard radio-level use of compression and EQ. Compression and EQ are great tools and are there to enhance the audio we produce, but just because we have these tools we don’t need to use them to excess. Most jobs we produce will require a subtler handling of audio, a transparent compression and only slight corrective EQ – after all, if we (or the VO) has spent good money on mic and pre-amp they’re already professional quality, so they don’t need overcooked compression and EQ to sound good. Corporate, e-learning, telephony and other types of projects don’t need to grab the attention like radio does and it’s not helpful to beat the listener around the head with noise whilst informing them of the correct on-site safety procedures, or explain some GCSE syllabus, or explain the various merits of staying on the line (your call is important to us).
These are some of the problems I see in production at the moment. But what’s the cause? It’s technology. The digital revolution has made it possible for anyone and everyone to download audio editing software and stumble their way into learning how to edit and produce, and it’s cheaper than ever to buy the kit and set up a home studio. But having the money and aptitude to learn how to use software doesn’t teach you the basics of sound engineering, and it doesn’t train your ear. If you’ve chanced upon the recipe for a ‘workable’ audio product it doesn’t equip you to make changes to the recipe as necessary. You may know what to do, but do you know why, and how to do it differently? Technology has allowed people to bypass the basics of sound and sound production. The knowledge of which can and will make all the difference between high-quality audio production and ham-fisted aural assaults.
So I repeat my call to action to everyone involved in audio production. Keep on learning. Keep stretching yourselves. Keep trying new techniques. Keep listening to what other people are doing and then do it better. And keep going back to basics. Don’t settle for second best. No-one else can keep production standards high, it’s up to us to do it.