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.

Archive for the ‘Tech’ Category

The paperless voiceover

Posted by MikeCooper on September 30, 2009

For some time now I’ve been operating my voiceover business in a largely paperless environment. Sure, I still print out copies of invoices, remittance notes and the like for the benefit of my company accountant (who likes a paper file), but when I upgraded my voiceover booth last year I made a point of installing a flat panel computer monitor at eye height, with the intention of moving away from printing scripts and carrying them with me into the studio.

How does this work in practice? Well, it has its plusses and minuses.

On the plus side, I haven’t had to buy a ream of paper in quite a while, and my outlay for inkjet cartridges is at an all-time low. It’s also a lot quieter to use the scroll wheel on my cordless mouse to advance my way through the script than it is to turn a page, and it saves space as I don’t have to have a script holder propped up on top of my equipment rack.

On the negative side, it’s harder to annotate scripts with inflection marks and so on, though using bold, italics, underlining and highlighting go some way to making up for that. And for a while it wasn’t quite as easy as I’d have liked in terms of getting scripts from the Mac in my office to the PC in my voice booth. The first workaround for this was to give the booth its own email address and forward anything I needed in there to it. Then along came Dropbox, which has been one of my favourite tools of recent times and probably the thing which has changed the way I work most this year.

Dropbox is an online service – and free to use for someone at my level of usage – which allows you to deposit files in folders and then have them “mirrored” on all of your machines. So, I have a folder called “Scripts”, and when one comes in I just save it to that folder on the Mac. By the time I’ve walked through to the booth there’s a message telling me that Dropbox has updated the folder, and the script is good to go. This also means that I can make changes on one machine and then see them on the other before I start work.

Share and share alike

Dropbox also has a facility to share folders with other people. I work as a continuity announcer for Film24 (Sky 157), and I share those duties with two other voiceover artists: one in London and one in the Lake District. On an almost daily basis, cue sheets are emailed out to us for use when writing and recording the links for the channel. For months, we were constantly trying to keep our own individual systems up-to-date using email folders and there was a weekly round of “Has anyone seen a cue sheet for ‘x’?” Not anymore: I now manage a shared folder which allows us to keep a central repository of cue sheets, which has saved everyone a lot of time.

To cap it all, Dropbox now has a free iPhone application available too, which adds some nice features like picture sharing and so on.

But I’m getting off-topic. The fact is that I now print very little, and read from the screen a lot. I just set my audio recording software running, switch to my word processor and begin work, which speeds up the process and does a little bit for the planet in the process.

If you’ve got any stories to share, I’d love to hear them as always!

Posted in Freelancing, Tech, Voiceovers | Tagged: , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Great sounds. Minimal pounds.

Posted by MikeCooper on June 19, 2009

VoiceArchive in Denmark sent out their newsletter this week, including a link to a great article by their Sound Engineer, Jacob Horney, on getting the best sound out of your studio or recording space.

VoiceArchive are still finding that some of their talents’ home studios don’t pass muster, and this in turn creates problems when sending audio on to clients. With that in mind, Jacob has come up with a great piece on how to improve things – without (here’s the important bit) breaking the bank.

You can read Jacob’s piece here, and he’s also included links to some excellent articles from other sources on such things as building a vocal booth and studio design.

Posted in Tech, Voiceovers | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Ode to o2 (an off-topic attempt at some balanced thoughts on the new iPhone)

Posted by MikeCooper on June 9, 2009

Before I say anything else, let me nail my colours firmly to the mast and say I love my iPhone. I’m a convert: a good friend gave me his first-generation model on the day the iPhone 3G came out, and I promptly hacked it to work with my Vodafone SIM card. Within two weeks I was so hooked that I bought myself out of my Vodafone contract and joined the happy 3G throng. This wasn’t a cheap exercise, but I called it a Business Expense and haven’t looked back.

Yesterday, Apple spoke to geeks worldwide and announced the new iPhone 3G S (the “S” presumably standing for “Sexier-than-your-current-iPhone, Suckers!”). Harder, better, faster, stronger, and all that. The new model has an improved camera, more memory options, a faster processor and a couple of other bells and whistles, much like any next-generation mobile phone from any manufacturer would have over any of their preceding models. None of it’s Earth-shattering stuff (a compass and a 3 megapixel camera aren’t exactly going to set the world on fire, let’s face it), but in the less-than-twenty-four hours since the announcement, and since the publication of price plans on the o2 UK website, iPhone users here in Britain have been throwing their hands up in despair at the pricing, the cost of upgrading, the cost of using “tethering” (connecting your phone to your computer for mobile data), and so on. Twitter has been ablaze with incensed posts about how o2 is ripping us off, and I’m not sure that the official o2 Tweeter (@o2) was ready for the onslaught. Already a petition has gone up to demand that o2 be more “reasonable”. There are bits of this that I sympathise with, but a lot that I don’t get, so this post is my attempt at gaining some clarity.

Right then, let’s try and gain some perspective…

Firstly, the iPhone is, in the words of Monty Python, “not the Messiah”. No question, it’s a very, very, cool bit of kit and it’s allowed me to connect to the rest of the world in ways I’ve never been able to do before – certainly not with any of Nokia’s or Sony Ericsson’s models (my N95 8GB, for example, crashed every time I tried to open Gmail). But at the end of the day the iPhone, in any of its incarnations, is no more than a cross between a mobile phone and a low-end laptop computer (yes, I’m dodging lightning bolts as I write).

Secondly, it’s normal here in the UK for any mobile operator to subsidise the cost of a handset, lowering the cost to the customer as a result. If you’re prepared to hold onto the phone for the contract term, you “win”; if you decide you need the latest phone sooner then you “lose” by having to pay a fee to upgrade. This is absolutely normal. Last year o2 did a Very Unusual Thing by allowing owners of the first-generation, 2G iPhone to upgrade without penalty. This set a precedent, and was probably all about addressing the very evident shortcomings of the original model whilst keeping the hype machine rolling, but I don’t see how they could do that every time a new model is announced, and I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect it. You signed a contract saying you’d keep the phone for 18 months, or (foolishly, in my opinion) 2 years when you took out the contract. Don’t sign the contract if you’re not prepared to keep to it. And why should iPhone users get to switch phones whenever they like, while o2’s other contract users with other phones can’t?

Next week sees the release of iPhone software 3.0 (or “iPhone three-oh”, as the Apple geeks insisted on calling it). This will bring most of the functionality of the new phone to the existing iPhone 3G, including the much-lamented ability to send picture messages (for the price of four SMS messages a throw, included in your price plan, no questions, no fanfare). What’s more, iPhone 3.0 is a free upgrade! Who else would do this? Microsoft?!? Sure, it won’t turn the existing camera into a video camera, and it won’t make the processor any faster, but then my digital camera has several megapixels fewer than the current models, and my iMac (now nearly two years old) is a bit slower than the models on sale now. They both more than adequate, and if someone offered to upgrade the software on either free of charge I’d be as happy as a pig in shit (conversely, “Snow Leopard“, the next version of Mac OS X will probably cost me about £25 at release later in the summer). The thing is, if I really wanted, or felt I needed, a better version of any of my existing electronic trinkets, I wouldn’t expect anyone to subsidise my greed for a newer model. So pay up, or shut up.

Thirdly, and this is where I beg to differ with o2’s approach, they’ve decided to charge for “tethering” your iPhone to your computer for data. This, to my mind, seems to go against the spirit of the “use as much data as you like, within reason” philosophy. I’d argue that anyone who wants to use it as their primary modem and who expects to get through massive amounts of data should pay accordingly, but it seems churlish not to include what they’d let you use through your iPhone anyway, whether it’s terminating at the phone or on a tethered machine. When challenged on this, the beleaguered o2 Twitter-Monkey responded by saying “iPhone tethering costs more as it uses a lot more data than traditional browsing on your iPhone itself”. Really? Surely if the processing overhead is that great then there’s something wrong with the code, no? And if that’s the case, does that mean that anyone paying £15 for 3MB will really get 3MB? o2’s costings at launch for iPhone tethering are either £14.68 or £29.36 per month (nice round figures, presumably thanks to the current 15% VAT levels), with a minimum one month term “so you can turn it on and off when you like” (yeah, thanks). But a quick scout around quickly reveals that this doesn’t compare favourably with USB internet dongles for laptops from the other carriers, who I’m sure will seize on the opportunity to undercut that o2 has just handed them.

All that said, is tethering really that great an option anyway? You can use it over USB or via Bluetooth, but the latter is likely to drain your iPhone battery even faster than normal, and using your mobile as a data modem with a USB cable is all a bit 2004 for my liking anyway. Plus, calls interrupt data access – or at least they have up to now. Add into the mélange the fact that o2’s 3G coverage is woeful, even in Central London, and it ceases to be that much of a deal-breaker for me. (Don’t get me started on roaming onto BT Openzone hotspots: they’ve never worked properly for me and are the subject of ongoing correspondence with the office of the CEO, Matthew Key.)

Finally, there’s the subject of cost compared to the prices in the US, and on this matter I’m not so conciliatory. In the US, the 32GB iPhone 3G S will cost $299, with the 16GB version at $199. So why are the UK versions £274.23 and £184.98 then? I know times is ‘ard and all that, but did the Pound just take an almighty whack against the Dollar when no one was looking? I think not. I’m tired of getting ripped off in Britain for stuff that’s priced lower elsewhere, and on that point, I really do feel something should be done. o2 aren’t alone in this, but with such a high-profile item, it would have been a perfect time to set a good example.

So, is this really as much of an “#o2fail” as the Twitterers are claiming? I’m not so sure. It’s rare to get something for nothing, and I’m old enough and wise enough to have reached a point where I don’t expect it. For now, I’ll take the “iPhone three-oh” software and congratulate myself on having beaten the system (kind of). At least in the UK we’ll get MMS at launch, included in our iPhone tariffs, which is more than can be said for our friends on AT&T.

Posted in Tech | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

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…

Posted in Freelancing, Tech, Uncategorized, Voiceovers | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

It’s the little things

Posted by MikeCooper on January 9, 2009

Sometimes the smallest things make the biggest difference, don’t they?

I reckon I’ve spent about £4,500 on re-equipping my studio over the last few months, but it was the £30 I spent this week that really made the difference. I know I’ve posted before about upgrading my recording space, putting in ISDN, getting a new microphone and so on, but somehow it didn’t feel quite finished until yesterday afternoon, when two small pieces of the puzzle arrived from the nice-but-ever-so-slightly-overpriced people at Canford Audio.

The first was a bracket to hold my Fostex monitor speaker. The speaker (a 6301B compact, powered monitor of the type you see everywhere in radio and TV) has been sliding around on top of my studio rack for weeks. It just didn’t feel right, and I wanted it on the wall, where it was at the right height, and – just as importantly – where it looked more permanent.

The second thing was even smaller: a G-clamp to hold my microphone’s angle-poise arm. I’ve been using a sturdy (but, naturally, overpriced) free-standing tabletop version since the refit, but it was taking up valuable space where I could have put scripts, or the Bookchair which I use as a script holder.

Strangely, once these two pieces of the jigsaw were in place, the whole area suddenly felt “done” and a bizarre sense of calm and accomplishment overcame me.

Yes, it’s definitely sometimes not the size of the thing that’s important…

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Onwards and Upgrades

Posted by MikeCooper on December 30, 2008

Yesterday, I made a significant investment in upgrading my studio. I decided it was time for a Christmas present for myself – in recognition of a successful year – and time to do the one thing that, on a psychological level, would make me feel like I was “doing it for real”.

I bought a Neumann microphone.

If you don’t have any interest in microphones then that probably won’t mean much, but if you do then it will probably provoke some reaction – possibly an “ooh”, or an “ahh”, even. Pretty much every studio I visit for voiceover work has the same microphone: the Neumann U 87. In the UK, possibly more so than in the US, the Neumann range are often perceived as the mics to use when you want the best (and have the budget to match your aspirations), and the U 87 is the top of the Neumann pile for voiceover work. Unfortunately it also retails at between £1500 and £1800 (plus another £230 or so for a shockmount). Nonetheless I wrestled with buying one for weeks, before deciding that the time wasn’t right: a mixture of predictions of a recession, economic downturn, and the plain, hard truth that I actually don’t have that sort of cash knocking around at the moment.

Instead, I went for the TLM 103. If you believe the marketing, it has most of the U 87 sound, but at about half the price (I paid £799 for mine, including a shockmount). In fact, regardless of how accurate this statement is, I’ve found it quite difficult to tell the U 87 Ai and the TLM 103 apart when listening to A/B comparisons on spoken voice (like here), and the differences I do hear – mostly a slight lift in the top end, providing a touch more clarity, but without it getting nasty – I like. The TLM 103 borrows a lot in the design of its capsule from the U 87, and can be seen – very approximately – as a sort of “sawn-off U 87”, but without the -10dB pad switch or the high pass filter. Mine’s finished in matt black, by the way…

Neumann have been making microphones for eighty years, and they must be doing something right for them to maintain their reputation. When the BBC replaced all of its microphones in the newsreading and main on-air studios at Bush House a year or so ago, they bought Neumann BCM 104s (at a cool £800 a throw). I was told this week that the BBC has started replacing presenter mics in Local Radio with Neumann TLM 103s like the one I’ve just purchased, and in the past, wherever I’ve worked as a television announcer, the mic has been a Neumann of some description. Even Hitler used one… (though his was badged “Telefunken”).

This is an interesting thing, as the Neumanns may not technically be the “best” mics out there. It’s often said that they’re not the most accurate, or “transparent” microphones, and that they add a character of their own to the sound. But the truth is, that “character” often flatters the spoken voice in a way that producers and voiceover artists appreciate. There’s also something comforting, as a performer, when you walk into somewhere you’ve never worked before and see a familiar microphone. This is, of course, more psychological than anything else: the way the preamp and processing are set up by the engineer will have a huge bearing on how the voice sounds on the track, but psychology is psychology – and shouldn’t be underestimated. The truth is that when I walk into a booth and see the familiar, cigar-shaped body of the U 87, I – like many of my peers – breathe an internal sigh of relief. The U 87 creates an even playing field, too, for voiceover artists working remotely and patching into studios where the engineer has no control over the equipment the artist is using. They probably breathe a sigh of relief too when you can say “It’s a Neumann” – it takes one more thing out of the equation.

In the last few years I’ve noticed more and more voiceovers listing either the U 87 or the TLM 103 on their spec sheets, and I’m happy to join them. My Audio Technica AT 4040 has served me very well as my “starter mic”, and at £230 or so it’s a lot of mic for the money, putting some much more expensive mics to shame. But doing that same A/B test yesterday with my new TLM 103 brought to mind words like “glassy”, “papery” and “harsh” for the 4040, whereas the Neumann oozed “warm” and “smooth” on the same script – not that warm or smooth are always right for the material, of course. But in my case, I’ve sometimes had people say that my recordings have been prone to sibilance, and I’ve had to admit they were right. With the new mic acquitting itself admirably on “The successful Syrian soccer side scored a stunning sixty-seven”, I’m very pleased to report that that won’t be a problem in the future.

Mike is a happy boy.

PS – If you’re interested in hearing about the development of Hitler’s “Bottle” mic, read this article at NPR.org. Halfway down the page there’s a link to an excellent interview with Klaus Heyne of German Masterworks, which may have you rethink some of your preconceptions about new being better!

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So this is Christmas

Posted by MikeCooper on December 23, 2008

Well, almost. Two days to go, and things in Voiceover World are very quiet, as one might expect. I had an enquiry yesterday about some work for the new year, but that aside not much has happened, except a quick look at my bank account reveals that most of my clients have been good boys and girls and cleared their invoices ahead of the holidays. There’s one notable exception, but tough love can start in January (and it will…)

As it’s been quiet, I’ve been trawling the internet looking for deals on kit. I’m in the market for upgrading my microphone in the next few weeks, and I have to say I’m unsure of the best course of action. The other day I heard worrying reports from a fellow Voice, writing in a private forum, that prices are likely to rise in the coming year due to the poor exchange rate between the Pound and virtually every other currency. He cited Focusrite and Digidesign as two companies who expect to be increasing their prices by 25%-30% from January.

On the other hand, a friend of mine whose opinions I generally put some faith in believes that the slow economy (even though we’re not yet officially in a recession here in the UK) might mean good deals in the new year, when sales of kit are traditionally slow. Her viewpoint is that, regardless of the threats, the vendors will have no option but to discount.

What’s a boy to do? My track record with this sort of thing tells me that whichever decision I make will be the wrong one, and I’ll lose cash whatever I do, so perhaps I should just stop worrying.

Thanks for reading my embryonic blog over the last few months. I seem to be managing to write at least semi-regularly, and I’m enjoying it! So, with that, a Merry Christmas to all our readers, and I hope to see you in 2009. Have a good one!

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D-Day (or “Has anyone seen my installer?”)

Posted by MikeCooper on November 28, 2008

As I sit here writing this on Friday morning, I still can’t quite believe it’s happened. I now have an installed and working ISDN line in my home studio. A small thing, you may think, unless you’ve been reading this blog. I’d love to be able to say that Thursday (installation day) passed without incident, but actually it went something like this…

7am – Raise self from slumber. Shower and dress. I have been promised that my job is first on installer’s list at 8.

8.30 – Call BT in moment of paranoia to check that the job is actually booked and hasn’t been cancelled. Am told it’s booked, but that no one should have said it was first on the list, because they can’t guarantee that. It is suggested that I call back in an hour, when they’ll be happy to call Openreach to check where my installer is.

09.55 – Call again. Nice lady contacts Openreach installer, who was never allocated me as his first job and is somewhere else in London on another. No worries though: he’ll be with me within the next hour-and-a-half, and definitely by 11.30.

12.00 – Installer arrives (only four hours later than promised). Spends a stroky-beard half hour walking around trying to ascertain where the main BT junction box is for our row of houses. Finds said box, repleat with spaghetti wiring arrangement, on back of house. We gain access through neighbour’s garage. I ask if cable can be brought around the outside of the house, rather than through it, as my booth is in the diametrically opposite corner of the premises. This is grudgingly agreed. Fifteen minutes is now spent convincing him that if he drills the hole out through the wall from my booth where I want him to, he’ll come out on the other side of the wall where I say he will. More beard-stroking ensues, but we have a deal. I go back to work while he begins his.

13.30 – I stop work, briefly, and notice there’s no sign of the installer anywhere in the vicinity. Not only that, but his van’s gone too. Has he gone forever? Probably not, as he’s left his toolbox and a reel of Cat 5 cable in the bedroom. Would it have been nice to know he was going? Yes – especially as I’m working downstairs and he’s left all the doors to the road outside hanging open on the latch (this is the middle of London, after all…)

15.00 – There’s a knock at the (now locked) door. He’s back, with a big reel of weatherproof cable (ah, so that’s where he went!) Much hammering as cable is run around the outside of the house.

16.00 – A hole is drilled through the wall with the longest drill bit I have ever seen in my life (about a metre, I’d say) and – to everyone’s surprise, including mine (though of course I don’t say so) – it comes out exactly where I’d said it would.

16.30 – The socket is attached, a green light comes on and – to my utter astonishment – the ISDN card reports that the line is working normally.

Considering I placed my enquiry with BT on 15th October (which they then ignored), then placed my order on 27th October (which then wasn’t placed with the suppliers until I chased it up on 10th November), this has taken 44 days to get installed. That’s a month-and-a-half, for a business service that’s supposed to be supplied in 2-3 weeks.

If this is the kind of service from suppliers, is it any wonder that small businesses so often go to the wall in their first year? Luckily, for me, ISDN is an adjunct to my existing services and a way to grow my business, rather than something I needed to function at all. But I wonder how many jobs I might have lost over the last month that I might have got if it had been in if the timeline had been as promised.

Of course, I’ll never know, and there’s no point in dwelling on the bad experience (though a letter to the CEO’s office is on my to-do list). What remains to do now is to begin the proper marketing of myself to clients – existing and new – as an ISDN voiceover. I’ve bitten the bullet, joined the ranks and the rest is, largely, down to me.

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One down, two to go

Posted by MikeCooper on November 22, 2008

I am suddenly feeling warm and fuzzy. You know the feeling I mean – it’s the one you get when something that works perfectly for other people but has never worked for you, suddenly starts working and everything falls magically into place.

So it has been for me with AudioTX Communicator. I’ve blogged about it previously, but since it arrived two weeks ago I’ve been unable to get it to work as a VOIP codec. Because I primarily bought it to run as an ISDN codec (the line finally goes in this Thursday, BT willing) I haven’t lost too much sleep over its lack of cooperation on the IP side, but because I feel that VOIP is the way we’ll all go eventually, it was nagging me that, sooner or later, I’d have to get it working properly.

The problem I was having was that, although I could make outward connections to other AudioTX users, I couldn’t accept incoming connections. I knew, on a basic level, that this would be to do with my routers not knowing where to send the incoming data, or blocking it before it got chance to go anywhere at all.

In basic terms, your network presents its shop window to the outside world using your Public IP address (if it presents a shop window at all, that is – ideally you have a firewall that keeps the shutters firmly down most of the time). Your Public IP address is like your telephone number, that anyone in the world can call (if they know it… best to stay ex-directory and just give it to friends for security reasons).

But when you’ve got several machines, printers, hard drives and so on connected to your router, they each need their own Internal IP addresses too – a bit like extensions on a switchboard. The router also needs to know where to direct traffic within your network based on what kind of traffic it is – a bit like a switchboard operator putting you through to sales because you want to make a purchase, rather than the complaints department because it didn’t turn up. All of this is handled by setting up port forwarding and Network Address Translation. The problem was that I didn’t know how to do any of that, till now…

The situation in my home network setup is complicated by the fact that I have two routers: one is an AppleTime Capsule, which includes an Airport Extreme (802.11 n) base station; the other is a Thomson Speedtouch, supplied by my broadband provider. The Speedtouch doesn’t do the superfast wifi thing (it’s 802.11 b/g only), and the Time Capsule doesn’t have a modem in it, so I use the Time Capsule as my wireless router, and the Speedtouch as my connection to the outside world. 

The situation has been further complicated thus far by the fact that the ins and outs of networking have always brought me out in a cold sweat. I’ve always been happy digging around in OS X – and before that in the various flavours of Windows – and my friends often come to me to fix things when they’re broken. I wouldn’t pass anyone’s certification process for tech support, but I’m pretty “computer-savvy”, if I say so myself. But all those boxes, subnet mask settings and the like in networking dialogue boxes have generally made me want to put it all away again and wish I’d never started.

I realised that this wasn’t going to be an option this time around though, so I decided to educate myself. Surprisingly, there was less to it than I’d imagined. It turned out that I’d made a schoolboy error in setting up the way the two routers were connected: whilst I’d disabled wireless on the Speedtouch, I’d not switched the Time Capsule into “Bridge Mode”, so it was doing its own Network Address Translation on top of the NAT already being done by the Speedtouch.

Once I worked this out, it turned out to be easy to set up port forwarding ranges on the Speedtouch so that incoming traffic could get through, and – once I’d established a static Internal IP address for the PC in my booth – to direct that traffic directly to that machine. Hey presto! I now feel slightly less daunted by the networking thing, which will doubtless come in useful in the future.

So, one down, two to go… my ISDN line should be in by lunchtime on Thursday, at which point I can try testing that and make myself available for ISDN sessions (which was always the main thrust anyway). But I also invested in Source Connect, and I’ve yet to get my head around setting up Pro Tools to get that working too. With a bit of luck, by the end of the week I’ll have three ways of providing high quality audio to the outside world in real time. Fingers crossed!

We live in interesting times. Nerdy, but interesting.

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Progress!

Posted by MikeCooper on November 1, 2008

It’s been quite a week, and much has happened in the world of Mike Cooper, Voiceover Artist. On Monday I finally managed to get someone to place an order with BT for ISDN (three weeks for installation, though) and thus the push to get my studio ready for its arrival began in earnest.

I decided a while back that I would run ISDN via AudioTX (see my previous post), and AudioTX only runs on a PC, so my Mac laptop will be rejoining me as a laptop and will be replaced in the booth by a PC that’s as close to silent as it can be. This should arrive on Monday, fingers crossed, but the specific nature of what I wanted means I’ve somehow managed to end up sourcing all the bits separately – with computer, monitor, mounting arm for monitor, rack-mount keyboard and so on all coming from a variety of suppliers (the ISDN card is even coming from the Netherlands…) To top it all, I spent Thursday afternoon building a nice 6U 19″ rack to put it all in, which now has pride of place in the middle of the bedroom floor until the rest of the kit arrives. I’m praying to the God of Couriers and camping out at home all day Monday in the hopes that most of it turns up then.

And I’m not the only one getting kitted out for the winter: my good friend Trish Bertram (Grand Dame of LWT and ITV promos for most of the last quarter-century) has finally dipped her own toe in the water so that she too can begin to reap the rewards of working from home as a VO. Granted, it’s taken a year or so to coax her to this point – and it’s taken a fair amount of stroking and making of encouraging noises on my part – but I finally spent Friday afternoon connecting her brand new mic up to her shiny new preamp and mixer and playing with a fantastic bit of kit called The Mic Thing, which aims to make any reasonably quiet room into a half-decent recording space. I can report good things so far with regards to its sonic properties.

And Trish? Well, there was a certain amount of wailing and gnashing of teeth, mostly due to some of the stuff on the order form not being the stuff that actually turned up, but now the dust’s settled she seems happy enough. According to the last email I got from her she spent the evening recording duets with Barry Manilow. I think that’s a good thing, but can’t be too sure.

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