Gobs on Sticks

Thoughts mostly (but not always) about the voice-over business, from London Voiceover Artist, Mike Cooper

  • About the author

    My name is Mike Cooper. I'm a full time Voiceover Artist living and working in London, and this is my blog. Find out more about me on my main website (there's a link further down this column), or if you'd like to hear some of my work, check out the files below.

If you build it, they will come…

Posted by MikeCooper on March 17, 2009

So, you still want to get into voiceovers, eh? Assuming that you’re following this series; that you’ve given some thought to the kind of work you want to do; and that you’ve been working on getting your voicey skills up to snuff, you’re going to have to take the plunge and buy some recording gear. Yes, it’s time to build your first studio!

A few years ago this would have cost you around £15,000 (about $20,000 at the current conversion), and a few years before that it would have been unthinkable: not just because of the prohibitive cost, but because voiceover artists roamed the land (or at the very least, Soho) auditioning and recording in professional recording studios.

So what changed? Several things in fact, in a short space of time. Technology has a habit of getting cheaper, year-on-year, and the area of professional audio is no exception. By the mid-1990s it was possible, with the kind of sums I mentioned above, to kit yourself out with a microphone, a studio-grade tape machine, a mixer and so on and to record at home. But what really made it a viable option for voice talents and producers was that ISDN lines became available. In the UK, this changed the landscape virtually overnight. In parts of the US too, but not perhaps to the same widespread degree it did here. Suddenly the days of the travelling, jobbing voiceover, doing sessions in different parts of the country on different days of the week, were over. Voiceovers moved increasingly into the world of the home worker.

ISDN for Dummies – a quick primer…

ISDN lines are basically digital phone lines – they’re the same copper pairs between you and the exchange (or “switch”), but without all the DTMF signalling gubbins and A/D converters that you need to handle speech and connect an analogue phone. ISDN gives 2 data circuits, each carrying 64Kbps of data. These can be used in various configurations, and in the days pre-broadband, this was as fast as the information superhighway got – for those who could afford it.

Anyway, that’s all besides the point (yes, there is a point): bonding your two 64K “bearers” together means you get 128Kbps, and by using a variant of the MPEG audio codec – usually Layer 2 – 128Kbps mono is just about enough for carrying broadcast-quality speech, thank you very much and goodnight.

But we’re a long way off installing an ISDN line – assuming you ever need one at all. So, file everything you’ve just learned under “Useful Trivia” and rejoin the group, Grasshopper…

While all of this was going on, the PC on your desktop, each time you upgraded, was growing in power exponentially. Suddenly the tape machine was a museum piece: with a decent sound card and a suitably large and fast hard drive, the desktop PC could do all that tape could do, and oh so much more besides. Editing used to mean cutting blocks, chinagraph pencils and single-sided razor blades. Then along came the fledgling versions of what would later become programs like Pro Tools and Adobe Audition. In their infancy they were basic and clunky, but in next to no time Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) were replacing 1/4″ tape editing forever.

Fast-forward to today, and the home studio consists of just a few basic building blocks:

  • a microphone
  • a mic amplifier (also called a “preamp” or “mic pre”)
  • an analogue to digital converter (which could be a sound card or an external USB/Firewire device)
  • a computer with recording software
  • a suitable space to record in
  • a way of monitoring what you’ve recorded

…plus the stands, cables and so on to connect them all together. Let’s take all that bit by bit. You may require a packed lunch, but stick with me and I promise it’ll all be worthwhile in the end.

Where’s the mixer, Dad?

Purists will be throwing their hands in the air at this point and demanding to know why I’m not suggesting you buy a mixing desk. Simple: you don’t need one. You might never need one (I still don’t have one…)

You’re in the business, at this stage, of recording voice, and voice alone. At this stage commercial production or mixing soundtracks are not, I’m assuming, your main priority. And even if they are, you’d be surprised how many people now perfect their mix in software, rather than by what I lovingly refer to as “fader-waggling”. Even Apple’s complimentary copy of Garageband will do more than you think.

So… don’t muddy the water. Don’t spend more than you need to. You can always add a mixer to the, er, mix, later.

The Microphone

For our purposes, there are two basic types of microphone: condensers and dynamics (there are also “ribbon mics”, but we’ll ignore them for the purposes of this seminar). Dynamics power themselves, tend to be somewhat cheaper and are usually “noisier” when you listen to them on their own, but the better ones compete well and are used in a lot of radio stations (the Beyer M201 is a good example, and was the standard BBC Radio 4 mic for many years). Simply speaking, a dynamic microphone has a very sensitive membrane, or “diaphragm”, which vibrates between a couple of magnets when sound hits it. This generates a tiny electric current, which then gets amplified on its way through the preamp.

Condensers, meanwhile, require “phantom power” (you’ll sometimes see this referred to as a 48-volt supply). Phantom power is just a way of getting the power the mic needs down a microphone cable without upsetting anything else. This is most safely achieved using “XLR” connectors, rather than “TRS” connectors, and the provision of XLR jacks on equipment is one sign that you’re dealing in the pro or semi-pro realm.

Condenser microphones range from the fairly cheap (£100-ish) up to many thousands of pounds. They’re sensitive, both to noise and to unwanted noise, but will generally give better results than a dynamic mic if used properly. They’ll bring out more of the nuances of your voice, but the better ones will also show up the shortcomings of your recording room…

The Preamp and Interface

Both types of mics need a pre-amplifier to bring the tiny voltage coming out of the mic up to “line level” for other equipment to process, and something to turn the analogue audio coming out into digits that the computer can process.

Preamps range from the cheap and cheerful to the esoteric and shockingly expensive, but a USB or Firewire interface will have one built in which will do the job just fine for you at this stage. Look for kit which allows “balanced connections“. I won’t go into why in this post (Media College has a really good tutorial here), but suffice to say that balanced connections will serve you well in the long run.

Alternatively, if you’re on a budget, there are some half-decent USB mics that will plug straight into your PC or Mac, though how good they are in comparison is a matter of hot debate. You can seek advice on this in the various online forums if you want a second opinion. Good examples of USB mics are made by Audio Technica, SE Electronics, Samson and Røde, among others, and some of them get good press. On the other hand, the purists will always insist that a USB mic with its own preamp built in just can’t compete with a separate preamp and condenser combo under ideal conditions.

In terms of your interface, you broadly have two options for getting sound into your computer:

  1. You can plug your microphone directly into an external USB/Firewire interface (something like an Mbox 2 Mini), which then plugs into a USB or Firewire port on your machine.
  2. You can buy a mic preamp (which will probably be better quality and will have more bells and whistles) and plug the output of the preamp into a professional-grade sound card on your computer. Check out, for starters, something like the “dbx 286” or the “Focusrite Platinum Voicemaster Pro”. Either of these, or something like them, will serve you well if your budget allows.

Once you’ve got your sound card (or USB/Firewire interface) you’ve now sorted out the tedious business of turning analogue audio into digits for the computer’s benefit.

The Computer and Software

Your next step needs to be to work out whether your existing computer is up to the task. Is it quiet? If you can hear it working, your microphone will too. If you’ve got the cash, investing in a silent or near-silent machine from a company that specialises in building them is a good investment – especially if it’s going to have to live in the same room as you’re planning to record in. Otherwise, consider putting the computer outside the room and running longer cables for the keyboard, mouse and monitor. Ideally, you’ll want two hard drives: one for programs and one for recording (this can help avoid “glitches” in your recordings). And at the very least, your faithful machine is probably going to need an upgrade to its sound card. Domestic sound cards are noisy and aren’t designed for the nuances of professional audio that we’re going to be working with, and the the 3.5mm jacks which are built in just aren’t up to the job. So, either an entry-level professional-grade sound card (M Audio do some nice ones which will also allow you to run Pro Tools M-Powered later if you need to) or some form of USB or Firewire interface will be the order of the day (again, you won’t go too far wrong with an M Box 2 Mini – which actually comes bundled with Pro Tools LE).

You’ll be needing some cheap (or, better still, free) sound recording software. Audacity is free and many people swear by it; on the other hand you’d have to pry my copy of Sound Studio 3 ($79, Mac only) out of my cold, dead hands. It’s all a matter of preference. I’ve already mentioned Pro Tools. This program is the Swiss Army knife of audio production, especially for radio and television. Sound engineers love it, and some voice talents use it and love it too, but for our initial purposes of recording a voice track it’s overkill, and a sledgehammer to crack a nut (IMHO).

The Room

Think very carefully about where you’re going to record. If you already have identified a quiet (and I do mean quiet) space in your house, then revisit it now before you spend anything. What can you hear? Seriously… The brain does a great job of filtering out stuff we don’t “need” to hear. Once you start listening for it, you may notice road noise, the tube, aircraft, lift machinery, dogs, neighbours, kids, stairwell noise and so on, depending on where you’re living. You’ll probably also hear your computer fan – laptops can get noisy as their little fans race to move the hot air. Some of these issues you may be able to work around if you’re recording on your own time; others you may not. If your space is less quiet than you thought, then any decent bit of kit (and that’s what you’re going to need, after all) is going to record that extraneous noise for the world to hear. This will be the second thing a producer or potential client notices, after your voice itself. Or possibly the first, if it’s that distracting.

Assuming that you’ve got not too much in the way of noise coming in from outside, your next step is to look at how to mop up the noise bouncing around inside your studio. Professional studios are “dead-sounding” for a reason: all of the reflected sound off the walls in a room will eventually find its way back into the microphone and onto your recording. That’s why we don’t record in the bathroom. If you’ve got a nice airing cupboard, walk-in wardrobe or similar, you can probably save yourself some money here. Otherwise you’re going to need to look at some sort of acoustic treatment, whether that’s in the form of tiles which you can stick in strategic places to absorb the sound, or in the form of something rather more handy, like “The Mic Thing”. This creation is a heavy duty mic stand with wrap-around padding, and it works surprisingly well for its £190 price tag (Some Audio Guy wrote a great review of it on his blog here, complete with an audio file).

The Monitoring

“Monitoring” is just techno-speak for a means of listening back. You’re going to need headphones and speakers. There are many, many options for both of these, but my advice would be to go for “closed back” headphones, which won’t allow too much sound to “bleed” back into the microphone. (So no, you can’t use the ones that came with your iPod. Sorry.)

You may squeeze through, for now, with your existing computer speakers, if you’re just recording voice. But be aware that computer speakers generally fall into two categories: the crap ones (pardon my French) that come with the average desktop, and the room-shaking sort that send the dog running off with its tail between its legs. Neither is what you want when you’re trying to get a neutral handle on what you’ve just recorded. Look out for speakers that are sold as “studio monitors” or “reference monitors”: they’re designed to be “flat” in terms of their frequency response, and not to emphasise either the bass or the high end, so  you know what your recording actually sounds like, and not what it would sound like if it were part of the soundtrack to “World of Warcraft”.

Both your headphones and your first set of speakers can be had for under £200/$250 all-in. Again, seek advice from the forums to see what’s popular – and available – in your own part of the world.

The End

It’s a little bit of a minefield, I’ll grant you, and once you’ve got all this stuff you’re going to have to make your way up the learning curve of how to use it to good effect. But the good news is that, spent wisely, £500-£700 ($750-$1000) will give you a decent starting point which you can upgrade in stages when things take off. And if you do it properly, you’ll have a better-sounding setup than would have cost you £15,000 a few years back. Now that’s progress…


One Response to “If you build it, they will come…”

  1. Admin said

    really helpful post, hope you keep posting more articles like this.thank you very much for the post

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