A sound a day 2017

Those of you who follow me on Facebook or Twitter may have noticed me post ‘A sound a day’ since January 1st. I thought I’d write a short blog here to introduce the project more fully and explain the parameters I’ve set myself.
You’ve probably got friends who have done ‘a photo a day’ for a year (or whatever time period they’ve set themselves). I kind of like that idea, but I wanted to adapt it to be more relevant to me and my work, so I’ve taken on recording A Sound A Day for the duration of 2017 and am posting the results to social media. One of my intentions with this project is to highlight the beauty of what we hear around us. I am obviously very much motivated by sound, and I think we often overlook what our ears are telling us. I don’t want to go all John Cage or anything, but there is a rhythm and beauty to everyday sounds and maybe my project will help other people hear it. Listening to ambient noises with the attention to detail we listen to music with can be a fantastic thing, and very calming.

More than that I’m posting all I can to freesound.org to be used as copyright free sound effects (subject to copyrights and third party permissions). Freesound is a site I’ve used myself to download from, so I thought I’d give back to that community by uploading my recordings there. If you want to download any of the sounds I’ve recorded you can just head here and all that have been published are available for download. There is a bit of a queue for publishing though, so you may need to wait a few days between my sounds being on social media and appearing on freesound.
I will record a sound a day, but I may not post every sound on the day it’s recorded. There are some sounds I intend to record that only happen late in the evening, so I won’t be able to post them until the next day. And then there will be those times when I’m away from my computer for a few days…

Head here to hear the collection to date.

Advertisements

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.

Epiphany

It’s been a busy month this month, so I’ve not had opportunity to think about and prepare a blog. So here’s an account of my musical awakening instead.

I grew up in a musically fairly conservative household. My parents owned an average number of records which consisted of my Mum’s Beatles LPs and a lot of folk music. I hated the folk music and the Beatles didn’t do much for me either. When I was old enough to take notice of chart music I remember Gary Glitter on Top Of The Pops and Don Estelle and Windsor Davis’ recording of ‘whispering Grass’. Tony Blackburn used to do a request show on radio 1 which features lots of children’s songs from the 50s. These all informed my musical world-view and to this in 1980 was added Adam & the Ants who were the first band I really liked.

My Grandma and Grandpa lived in a little village called Ebberston which is about 10 miles inland from Scarborough. In 1981 Ebberston hosted 2 community discos. The first of which was to celebrate the wedding of Charles & Di, the second may have been for bonfire night. My family visited my Grandparents on the days these discos were held and so we attended.

I never went to many disco-type things. Still don’t. I watched with some interest and eventually urged (threatened even) by my Mum and fuelled by food colourings gained from too much fizzy pop I went and spasmed awkwardly on the dance floor in what I would have thought to be an acceptable form of dancing. I remember the kind of music usually played at these kind of events. There was ‘One Step Beyond’ and Dexis midnight runner’s ‘Oh Geno’. There may have been ‘March of the Mods’ and various Abba tracks amongst the rest I don’t remember. All standard fare so far and nothing to add anything to my limited knowledge of music and nothing to convince me that music was anything other than background noise. A pleasant evening to be enjoyed by all.

I think it was at the November disco that my epiphany occurred. Probably about half way through the evening the DJ muttered something into the microphone, put on a new single and cleared the dancefloor except for 3 or 4 teenagers who had been sitting around the edges all evening. They jumped up and proceeded to jostle and shove each other around the dancefloor while everyone else cleared out of their way. I don’t remember really what happened because I was transfixed by the noise. Whereas what was played for the rest of the evening was average pop music of its day this was something else – an explosion of sound; vibrant, passionate, aggressive and most of all very very noisy. I loved it. I had no idea what it was or what they were singing about but the proverbial lightbulb had gone on in my head and I realised that music could be so much more than I had previously thought it was. I remember being utterly awestruck, my little mind utterly blown by the the raw-ness of the sound. Suddenly music was mine. I had no idea what I was listening to (years later I figured out it was the Dead Kennedy’s ‘California Uber Alles’) but so began a lifelong mission to find music that spoke to me in that raw way, bypassing conscious thought and speaking directly to my soul. I was awake to the potential power of music and when I left that little village disco I went out into a world that was suddenly much much bigger.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UW8UlY8eXCk

Try not to breathe

Time to write a blog that’s about actual sound production methinks…

I need you to listen to this audio clip before you read further.

Over the course of this year I’ve been reading quite a few blogs written by people involved in the VO industry. Some have been written by voiceovers, and some by producers or agents. There is one topic that comes up quite frequently is the subject of de-breathing.

For those who are unaware of what that means it is simply taking the sounds of inhaling out of a read. Breathing is obviously a part of speech and when we’re in normal conversation with people we don’t notice it, but when we have a pre-recorded piece of speech and we have added EQ and compression to it loud breaths can become obtrusive and taking them out can ‘tidy up’ the sound and give it that extra bit of polish – not to mention make a clip shorter and therefore reduce the file size (if that’s a consideration). Digital technology has made de-breathing audio massively easier and so the debate rages – how much de-breathing do you do? Just breaths at the beginning of sentences or more than that?

And it is at this point where I am now putting forward my two-penneth. Some of the blogs I’ve read claim that fully de-breathing a read is impossible, most of the others say that breathing forms a natural part of speech and creates pauses and punctuates the spoken word in the same way that commas and full stops punctuate the written word. I agree that that punctuation is needed, but here I will disagree that you need to leave the breaths in place to do that. The blogs I’ve read say that to take out every single breath regardless of its size and volume ruins the rhythm of the read and you need to leave some breaths in place to maintain the integrity of the performance. If the reading in question is a piece of drama I get the point – although I would still say that it is possible to totally de-breath and not lose anything – but if it’s terms and conditions of an insurance policy or a script written by engineers demonstrating the latest innovation in pipe welding then that argument is somewhat lessened.

The audio at the top of the page is a totally de-breathed reading. Did you miss the breaths? Below is the same reading almost unedited (I’ve taken out the fluffs to make you you all think I can read). Compare the two, I think the rhythm of the read is improved in the first one as I didn’t read it very well and the ‘lumpiness’ can be taken out (to an extent) in the edit. And here’s another consideration – the edited read is 8” shorter than the unedited. If you work in comprod (commercial production) or other broadcast areas you will know very well the pressures of making sure the audio you supply fits into whatever time slot is allowed. De-breathing can make all the difference for you. Your 32” read can squeeze much easier into the allowed 30” if you remove every breath, half breath and imperfection and it will sound so much tighter if you’ve done it properly. A shorter file means a smaller file size and for some web or telecoms applications that is also a consideration.

Some of the blogs I’ve read recommend using the automation on the DAW you’re using for editing to simply reduce the volume of the breaths rather than remove them; but I say if you’re going to that much effort why not just get rid of them altogether? What really jars me is just one or two small breaths left in a long piece of audio, so after about a minute and a half you suddenly get the VO taking a breath. That sounds unnatural as there is no way that anyone can speak for that long with inhaling, so be consistent; either leave the small breaths in or take them all out.

So do you de-breath or not? It depends. It depends on the type of read, and it depends on what your client asks you to do. It also depends on their budget as the more editing you need to do the longer the job takes and the more it will cost. As a producer you need to balance these considerations and decide how much editing and de-breathing you will do. Just don’t tell me it’s impossible to totally de-breath a read.

Sound thinking

Picture the scene. My band are booked to play at an event which is a multi media conference (rather than a multimedia conference). We have a brief soundcheck and then wander off for a bit. When we re-enter the venue before we play the venue manager greets us and says that they’re having real problems with the PA and they can’t stop it feeding back. There is only one spokesperson on stage who is having difficulty giving their presentation because the mic is ringing every time they try to speak. We have our soundman with us who is a young apprentice that I’m training. I turn to him and say, “Just go and take about 2dB off the mic at 1½K.” He scurries off and does just that and the feedback problem is instantly solved. For 10 minutes I am a god.

I thought this month I’d share a few thoughts about being a sound engineer.

One of the problems with being a live sound engineer is that kind of thing above doesn’t happen very often. You are an invisible partner in events and very often the only time you’re noticed is when something goes wrong. If I do sound at an event and no-one thanks me then either I’ve been working for very rude clients, or I’ve done my job well. I obviously presume it’s the latter. In the studio it’s a completely different picture. There, your client is very definitely coming in to your territory and they usually cannot function without you being there. I think you get treated with more awe and wonder and your share in the outcome is more readily recognised. And yet the live engineer has as much control over things as the studio counterpart. Bands I have played in have suffered the consequences of a poor soundman and reaped the benefits of a good one. I’ve even been the victim of a deliberate sabotage of the sound by an engineer who took exception to a roadie we were using. If the live engineer has a bad day, everyone has a bad day. Remember that, musicians. Invisibility is a good thing, but not as good as a Thank You.

One of the most important pieces of equipment you need as a sound engineer is a decent pair of ears. we like to buy toys and we lust after the latest pieces of equipment and if we can justify buying more stuff then we will do: we need to understand how the equipment we own works and use it to the best of it’s function to create beautiful sound. We need to know how sound works and predict what will happen when we press that button before we press it, but all that is useless without a good pair of ears. I’ve worked with sound engineers in the past whose technical knowledge has far outpassed mine and who have years and years more experience than me, but then I’ve heard the mixes they have put together and my respect for them has diminished. The aural sculpture we produce is the sharp end of what we do; if all you have is technical knowledge or a keen eye for the latest equipment then go and work in a shop. A good ear is learned over time and often goes hand in hand with a familiarity with the equipment you’re using, but I think there is more to it than that. It’s an innate skill, it’s like the difference between knowing where the notes are on a musical instrument and actually being able to play it. For me at least, I was born to be a sound engineer – it just took me a while to realise it.

And on a related matter, know the equipment you have. Learn it, understand it and get everything you can out of it. Don’t buy new toys unless you need them. It is far better to have total familiarity with a small amount of gear and be able to work miracles with it than to have a state of the art studio you barely know how to switch on. The only people we impress with lots of gear are other geeks. Clients generally only really care about the end result, not how we got there.

And here we come to a final thought: and that is the curse of being a sound engineer – being unable to turn your ears off. It is very difficult to go to a gig or listen to an album or the radio without critiquing what you’re listening to (which kind of links back to my other points). Being able to hear the ‘flaws’ in a mix can sometimes really spoil a piece of music. even when listening to a live orchestra I can sometimes find myself thinking how the second trombonist is being lost behind the cor anglais and could do with a bit more upper-midrange to help it cut through more. Then I remember that it’s all unamplified acoustic and I’m glad that I didn’t point it out to anyone. As much as love what I do for a living it’s necessary to train yourself to switch that bit of your brain off to prevent it spoiling a night out. And if something goes wrong at a gig I’m attending that becomes impossible.