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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Never trust a skinny chef

So you’ve decided that you want to be a sound engineer – and why wouldn’t you? In those social occasions when you’re having one of those Top-Trumps-‘What-do-you-do-for-a -living?’ conversations with people you’ve never met before you’ll trump teachers & nurses and wipe the floor with accountants and traffic wardens in the glamour stakes. All conversation will turn to you and begin with ‘WOW!’ You will probably get to meet more than your fair share of celebrities and never have to wear a tie to work again.

 

This month I’ve written a blog for totaljobs about what it takes to be a sound engineer. This is a field that has expanded greatly over the last few years, with an ever-increasing number of television and radio stations as well as the expansion in the gaming industry and multi-media capabilities of faster internet. Couple that with the falling prices on digital technology making building your own studio ever cheaper, it means there are many more opportunities to make a living out of audio.

 

You want to get into sound engineering? My first piece of advice is… don’t. I say this with a degree of self interest as there are already too many engineers for me to compete against. I say don’t unless you’re serious about it. The market is over-saturated with hugely under qualified people who have computers and the right software, but who don’t know their nyquist frequency from their Doppler effect, and the last thing the audio industry needs is more people de-valuing the skills pool and under-selling the importance of top quality audio production. Get good or get a different career.

 

My second piece of advice is… don’t if you don’t like a high degree of geekiness. Listen to a couple of sound engineers talking to each other and you’ll know exactly what I mean. We can talk for hours about the merits of using one particular microphone over another one for any number of applications. To do this job well you will have to put aside all thoughts of technophobia and be prepared to master every piece of hardware and software you’re presented with. And believe you me, there are an awful lot of them! It is a very technical job and can be very technically demanding.

 

Thirdly… don’t if you don’t like people. Mastering the technology isn’t enough to be a sound engineer. You will have to work with people and it is an absolute necessity to be able to coax the best performance out of whoever you’re recording. Whether it’s the next-big-pop-star recording their breakthrough single, or a checkout girl saying, ‘Unexpected item in the bagging area,’ reading people and creating the best working environment for them to shine is your responsibility.

 

And again… don’t. If you’ve never before considered becoming a sound engineer then I’d say it’s too late already. I would say that being a sound engineer is a vocation not a job. Sound has to be a passion. Your hearing has to be more than a passive sense. It’s not necessary to play an instrument to be a good sound engineer, but developing ‘musician’s ears’ from an early age is a definite advantage – hearing audio with the level of analysis that a musician can apply is vital. As is a commitment to audio – many people who have carved themselves a career in audio spent their teenage years hanging round recording studios or live venues for no money and sometimes with no actual job or role, just soaking up the atmosphere and watching what happens and why. Many colleges and universities now run music technology courses, and although these are a very good way to learn, prove your commitment and possibly fast track your way into the industry, it’s your portfolio of work that will get you a job rather than a paper qualification. You need to take every opportunity that’s presented to you and soak up knowledge and experience. I don’t believe you can do that unless audio is your calling.

 

Finally… don’t if you’ve been put off by what I’ve written. Sound engineering is no easy option. It’s fiercely competitive and difficult to get into. I’ve taken a deliberately (tongue in cheek) negative approach to writing this article because I think it better serves the mountains you will have to climb to become a successful sound engineer. I have mentored a few teens who have become professional sound engineers and I’ll add one more piece of advice that I’ve given to them. Have a plan B. Work towards your goal of getting a job in sound, but have a plan B in case it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t for the majority of people who try.

But if you succeed you will find an industry like no other. You will meet some fantastic people and you will be able to be proud of what you have produced. You can be instrumental in the success or failure of products or advertising campaigns. You can entertain or keep people safe. You’ll find an industry that’s personable and expanding. Get good at what you do and you can be a superhero to your clients. You can’t get any better than that.

 

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.

2016-08-192013-26-43_zpscm8rpxrv

Which one’s the high pass filter again?

I 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.

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.

Birthday announcement

So today is Bee Productive’s first Birthday, and I promised you an announcement. We’ll come to that bit later.

CakeThe year has been a good one. The work that I’ve secured has been enjoyable and varied, and has kept me busy and challenged. I’ve undertaken quite a range of tasks and had to learn new skills – both to do with audio and running a business – and so far I seem to have been up to the challenge. So from me a big thank you to all those people who have given me words of support over this first year, as well as those who have given me work. All those smiles and pats on the back and words of advice mean a lot to me.

And so to the announcement. During this first year Bee Productive has been a sideline to my full time employment and as such has been limited in what time I have been able to spend on it. Things have gone very well during this first year, well enough for me to be able to step it up and make Bee Productive my full time occupation. As of today I have left that full time job and am devoting my time fully to making Bee Productive work. This means not only that I will have more time to fulfill the types of work I have been doing this year, but I will have time to expand what I’m doing into other areas – keep an eye out for changes to the website to reflect the changing workload. I am very excited about this, not only because of the potential new areas of work I can become involved in, but also because I will be able to offer much better customer service to those people who are already using my services.

So please join me in raising a glass (metaphorical or literal – I don’t mind) to all my customers of the last year, and to the possibilities that the future holds. Cheers!

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

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.