A Sound A Day – February.

Another month, another collection of sounds recorded.

The challenges of getting recordings that are good enough quality continue.When it gets to 7pm and I still haven’t recorded anything things can get dicey!

This month I’ve been surprised by what’s been downloaded from Freesound the most. The most downloaded recording of February has been from February 7th –

This is a short edit of the full sound, but on Freesound it’s the full 17 minute of the spin cycle, and it’s been downloaded 44 times at the time of writing this blog.

The most fun I had was on Feb 5th. Listen to this one with headphones. I found myself with a bag of suet treats surrounded by ducks so I set my recorder up on the floor and threw a few treats to my left, then a few to my right (you can hear my getting more treats out of the bag mid-recording).

March has started with some very interesting recordings and I’m having to diversify my approach to the recordings I’m making. But I’m still enjoying the project and I’m getting some very encouraging comments about it via social media and when I meet people who’ve discovered it.

 

Have another sound, just cos I quite like this one too.

 

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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. 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 hear 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.

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.

Mic choice for VOs

This month I thought I’d have a brief look at microphones. These are obviously a massively important part of the recording chain and a huge topic to write about, so this time I want to skip the basics (I could well return to those at a later date) and consider microphone choice for voiceovers. So to those readers who are microphone novices – sorry! But drop me a line to encourage me to write a mics-for-beginners blog if it’s something you’d be interested in.

Neumann U87

Walk into virtually any recording studio in the country and you will probably see a Neumann u87, and there is very good reason for this. This large diaphragm side-address condenser mic is an extremely versatile high quality mic. It has options on it’s configuration and so although the u87 isn’t a cheap mic, it’s cheaper than buying the number of mics you would need to buy to replace it.

Walk into a voiceover production studio and again you could well see a U87. In the run up to writing this blog I did a quick and very unscientific survey amongst UK voiceovers and by far the most popular mic in their home studios was…. the U87. There’s nothing wrong with that, as I’ve said the u87 is an excellent mic, but I question whether it’s the best choice for the VO working from their own studio.

It’s price tag is partly due to it’s versatility, but if all you’re using it for is to record your voice do you really need all the options the U87 gives you? You need a good quality sound without a doubt, but you don’t need the options. So why not get one of Neumann’s TLM range? These mics are U87s with the bits you don’t use taken out and cost half the price of a U87 and cheaper. You do lose out on the flexibility of the mic, but you’re not using it anyway! And what’s wrong with looking beyond Neumann? There are many manufacturers of good quality mics in the marketplace and every mic has it’s own sound. With a bit of research you may find a mic that compliments your voice much better than a Neumann, and you could have saved yourself quite a bit of cash. A Neumann is definitely a safe mic to buy and certainly not a mistake, but next time you buy a mic try out a few different options, you may be surprised.

Vintage ribbon mic

And here’s another consideration. If the UK VO industry is weighted towards the U87, then it’s wedded to it’s use of large diaphragm condensers. But look at the US and you’ll see VOs using a much wider range of mics to support their industry. Ribbon mics get more of a look in there than they do here, as well as shotgun mics (highly directional) and top quality dynamics like the EV RE20. Each mic and/or mic type is going to bring to the table different qualities and different tonal inferences and would suit different kinds of jobs and reads better than others would. Surely it’s to the UK VO industries detriment to stick almost dogmatically to it’s narrow choice of mics? And for me a good quality mic must have professional connectors – that means USB mics are a big no-no. They may be great for your podcast, but please not for serious voiceover work.

One last thought. There is a huge range of price tags on condenser mics. At one end modern manufacuring methods mean you can easily find a condenser for under £100, at the other we can buy vintage valve mics costing £4000 and above. But how much difference do they make to the job in hand? Probably the majority of jobs we do these days will end up with severe signal degredation &/or data compression – whether it’s low bitrate internet streamed radio or telephone IVR messages, how much difference do those extra noughts make to the end product? Below is a sound file to help you find out! It’s a comparison of 3 mics, and no I won’t tell you which is which. They are a Neumann TLM 193 (which would retail somewhere on the underside of £1000), a XXL XC87C condenser which if you managed to find one in this country would probably cost you around £70, and – just for a giggle – a shure SM58 dynamic mic (very good for live sound, but totally unsuitable for serious VO work). They’ve all been recorded in the same studio on the same ProTools rig and once they’ve been edited all I’ve done is add some compression using the default setting on the dynamics 3 plug in in ProTools. The file has then been converted to an 8KHz a-law wav – a common file for telephone IVR platforms but by no means the lowest quality file commonly used. Try and guess which mic is which.

Geek Porn

The point of this isn’t to make you all go out and buy cheap mics (unless you’re going to donate your old mics to me!), but to encourage people to look beyond Neumann and the price tags attached to mics. Without a doubt you need a good quality mic for voicework, but the options are now wider than ever and should be explored.

Oh go on then. Here’s the above sound file at full bandwidth to make the guesswork a bit easier.