BenBax

Voice-over Recording Studio Tips

 

Acoustics

Think how your voice sounds to you when you're in the bathroom or shower. Lots of reverberation, yes? That's because all the sound waves are bouncing back to you after hitting the bare tiled or glass walls in the room. If you were in a room that, instead of hard bare walls had lots of cushions, duvets or foam, it would sound totally different - there would be no echo or reverb. If you go into your loft, it may sound pretty dead acoustically because there's lots of stuff and aren't any parallell walls. The sound recordist Ty Ford is correct when he says "Don't use a lot of foam on the walls. Go for a balance of diffusion (irregular surfaces) and absorption (foam). Too much foam in a room sounds overly dead and spongy."

I have 9 foam acoustic tiles 40x40cm to deaden the sound in my studio / office where I record because the resonance from the walls was noticable on recordings. On other walls I have shelves with objects on - which aren't deliberately there, but do help diffuse the sound. I try to record in small spaces - i.e. not in the middle of a large room, but in a constructed 'corner' where I can control the surface acoustics more. So I have a large floor standing acoustic screen 1.5m tall by 1m across (pictured left, next to a door to show scale) which I pull towards me in one corner of my studio / office so that it creates a smaller acoustically treated space which gives a more deadened sound than without it. If I had the space, I would have invested in a 'room within a room' acoustically isolated booth which would not only have created a great recording environment in acoustic terms, but would have also isolated any extraneous sounds from outside. I've used them in the past and always found them to be excellent acoustic environments. I also have a desire to go to sleep in one. I'd have loved to had one when I lived next door to noisy neighbours.

Reflexion FilterI purchased an SE Electronics Reflexion Filter after reading a number of reviews praising it. It was okay - maybe I need to play with it more, but you still need some sound absorbtion behind you when recording as I discovered. I was thinking it'd be an instant fix for recording quick voice-over sessions with a condenser mic, but alas, maybe not. Eventually, after a lot of tests and contradictory to the reviews I'd read, I decided I wasn't very impressed by it, so sold it on. I've seen some more recent advancements in this field, with round shaped acoustic 'nests' that your microphone sits in which seem most intriguing (the "Kaotica Eyeball").

Mixer & EQ

Mackie 1202 VLZ ProI use a Mackie 1202 VLZ Pro which I was sold on due to the incredible low noise pre amps (now Behringer make unbelievably cheap mixers with the same low noise levels - amazing!). I had used a green Joe Meek VC3Q which was impractically noisy (lots of hiss) when used with the C414 for voice work. The Mackie has 4 mic pre-amps, so I could practically leave all my favourite voice mics plugged in and correctly EQed all Behringer Composer Pro MDX2200the time.

These USB digital converters that take your microphone signal and put it straight into the computer are ok, but you really need to EQ (equalise) the lows, mids and highs of the mic signal to make it sound as nice as possible before you record your voice. You can take the output signal from your mixer and use a USB digital converter thing to put it into your PC without having a snazzy soundcard in it, but when you play it back you may not hear the full tonal quality (because you've got a basic soundcard still).

To give a more 'commercial' sound to the end-user of my voice tracks, I used a Behringer Composer Pro MDX2200 compresser, limiter, expander, gate, toaster, teasmaid, etc. It worked great - if I'd been more extravagant I would probably have gone for a FocusRite, but for the price it was really amazing. (past tense edited in here - it worked for about 14 years but one channel kept sounding distorted so I bought a replacement updated version - the MDX2600). I cannot stress enough how important the 'gate' function is on this - it's an absolute must if you are recording your voice in a place with extraneous noise (ie a home studio). It automatically mutes the microphone when you are not speaking, so there's no rumble or PC hum when you're pausing between words or sentences. You set the threshold yourself so it doesn't sound clipped. Gates are available on other processors, but I would never buy anything without one now. Now discontinued, the MDX2200's replacement is the Behringer Composer PRO-XL MDX2600 which has even more features including a de-esser, dynamic enhancer and tube emulator.

I'm not into knob twiddling enough to have enjoyed setting up the ADR F756R Vocal Stresser which I had bought from a local FM radio station which they'd used since the late '70s as the main processor for their on-air output, so I sold it on eBay. The station engineer later told me that they were a bit annoyed because upon reflection they said it was the best sound processor they'd had in over 25 years and hadn't found anything that came close to it since - oops! The station has closed now, but I'm certain this didn't have anything to do with it...!


The old 2200 below the new 2600. The 2600 has a "tube" and "enhancer" button, as well as a de-esser.

As an aside, I am a great proponent of voice-recognition software, and as I've mentioned on previous pages which mics I use for this, I thought I'd add that I use a Behringer Xenyx 502 mixer to give the mic adequate gain and EQ before going into the PC's soundcard. Alas, this particular mixer model does not have phantom power so I would always suggest you buy one that does so you've always got the ability to use condenser mics if you wish. This was my mistake.

ISDN

Prima LTFull time voice-over artists will have ISDN lines, essentially digital telephone lines which allow you to 'appear' live in a recording studio or production house anywhere in the world in digital clarity. They are by no means cheap to install or keep going. The cost per minute, per ISDN line is 50p, and you need 2 lines - so a 15 minute session (although it's the production company who would dial in to you) would cost around £7.50 in call costs. To convert your gloriously retro analogue audio into digital to be sent down these ISDN lines, you need an ISDN codec. This not only sends your audio signal from your mixer to the production studio, but also allows you to hear them (just like a phone) so that they can direct you and tell you when they're ready to record. A popular codec is the Prima LT, which is nice and easy to use and is very high quality (although the price is over £2,000). There are now pieces of software available that do the same as the hardware but for around half the price, and AudioTX is a popular version. ISDN lines give a VO cudos because they are expensive things to have, show you're serious and allow real-time 'live' directing from the session producer that recording a WAV or MP3 in your own time does not.

minidiscYears ago, I used to have to record the voice sessions onto Minidiscs first then record them from MD to the PC to edit. This was very time consuming - essentially doubling the length of time it took to record a session, but my old PC was just so noisy it was impractical to record a voice track while it was on in the same room, especially before I'd discovered gates. I have since had Fujitsu Siemens and Acer PCs, the latter being very quiet indeed. I've always liked Minidiscs since I purchased the MZ-R3 in 1996. I was a real Minidisc advocate, especially as it was competing with the DCC (effectively digital cassette tapes) at the time in a VHS vs Betamax style battle. My original portable MZR3 doesn't work anymore now. My new portable is the MZ-R37 (pictured right). The LP2 and LP4 recording modes of MD recorders today are incredible - you'd be hard pushed to notice any difference. I've found so many uses for my minidisc recorders that I'm tempted to buy some spares in case they ever stop manufacturing them! I already have hundreds of blank discs from a clearance sale item in Sainsburys (5 for £1). I tend not to record voice tracks onto them now unless the client requests it. I'll be totally honest here, they never have.

Digital Recording Workstations

I bought the Tascam DP-02CF Portastudio, which is a digital multi-track recorder, recording audio onto a removable compact flash memory card. The idea was that I could record voice tracks whilst my PC was switched off, and so have even quieter recordings with the more sensitive mics I have. After a day of playing, I decided it wasn't for me. There's no denying it looks like a very nice piece of kit, but I think a band or musician would have much more use for it that me. My main nag is that when you record a voice track, you then have to 'bounce' it in real time to create a WAV file on the compact flash card to be able to edit on the PC later. Perfect for mixing down songs with multiple tracks, but when it's just recording one track with a mic it doubles the amount of time spent recording, as you're listening to the entire session again. Without this snag, I would have kept it. I still had the mic going through the Mackie mixer and Behringer Composer Pro before the signal going into the Portastudio - I need the gate function on the Behringer - can't live without it now. You can change the frequency range that the high and low EQ pots adjust, which is a nice touch. However, this could only be done in the bounce stage, so you can't hear in real-time what effects any EQ change has on the live recording. If the buttons were soft-touch rubber/silicon instead of the loud 'click' type ones that it had, it would have felt like a higher quality product. I didn't get too much into it after realising the bounce problem, but I can imagine a band or a composer loving this kit. I was going to buy the Tascam DR-07 portable recorder (pictured right), but wasn't sure if it was too flimsy and light with no XLR input or faders so went for the DP-02CF which looks like it meant business more. I sold my Portastudio to a nice musician in Battersea. I'm not sure whether I deleted the audio I'd recorded onto it, which may have included me swearing about the usability of said Portastudio. I'll never know!


Connections on the back of the Portastudio

PCs

It's no longer multi-track tape or DAT - computers, hard disk or even solid state recorders are now the norm for recording audio in studios. Thankfully, in recent years, manufacturers are becoming aware that even domestic PC users don't like the sound of a large cooling fan humming constantly in their studies or living rooms. This is beneficial to voice-over artists or podcasters because it brings very quiet computers into the reach of everyone - they used to cost a fortune! In theory, you can still spend money on having a silent customised PC built, with a fanless power supply and solid state hard drive, doing away with fans and whirring noises altogether. So far, I've gone half-way and installed a fan-less power supply in my PC. To get it out of the way, I do not like Apple Macs. They are too expensive.

A. At best - get a silent PC with no fans and a SSD hard drive.
B. If not, a quiet PC (I've had Fujitsu Siemens and Acers, they are both fairly quiet (not silent) and have heard some Lenovos are as quiet) and use the 'gate/expander' section on your audio processor box (see mixer/EQ section above) to automatically 'mute' the background noise when you are not speaking. Using this when you record, if the PC is under the desk, you shouldn't be able to hear it at all on the recording.
C. If this isn't to your taste, extensions for your mouse, monitor and keyboard so that your PC can be in another room. Be aware that you'll have to extend your audio signal cable which can potentially cause increased noise on the audio signal if it is not shielded.
D. The ultimate solution is an acoustically isolated voice booth with your PC outside, monitor, mouse and keyboard inside.

Do not underestimate the difference a sound card has on your recordings. I recently connected my voice-over recording equipment to a different computer and tried recording with the same software and equipment but it sounded awful. The only difference was that I was using the on-board soundcard that is built-in to the computer. I transfered my sound card over and it was great again.

Personally, I use a Creative Sound Blaster Audigy 2 which was well priced and does all I need. They probably won't be manufactured any more, but a good spec sound card will make the difference. I have tried other slightly cheaper sound cards in other computers since then, and I was rather surprised at the difference in audio quality that I noticed.

Cables & Headphones

I soldered my own 3 pin XLR cables using Neutrik jacks and Van Damme LC-OFC quad microphone low-noise screened cable. I enjoy soldering and find it rewarding. XLR plugs are a bugger to solder because you need a total of 4 hands to do it, so be warned!

I used to use 8 ohm Beyer DT100 headphones, and sometimes Sennheiser HD 480-13 II / 600Rs, although the Sennheisers aren't closed so if I got too close to the mic is sometimes fedback if I'm having a 'deaf day' with the volume up too high. I then used a pair of Audio Technica ATH-M40fs - they really are superb but the foam ear pads have started to perish with age. I now use a pair of Sony MDR-7506 (what a catchy model name!) which are one of the more popular pairs aside from Beyer. If only headphones all came with the velour style pad - too many pairs of headphones with plastic leatherette pads (or whatever it's called) have perished on me simply through use and it's a real pest.

In late 2016 I was at Heathrow Airport and tried on some Bose QuietComfort 25 noise cancelling headphones. I'd first tried Bose noise cancelling headphones when they released their first pair back in about 2000.  The noise cancelling really works and the result is quite striking.  Whilst I was standing in the airport shop, it suddenly dawned on me that perhaps these headphones could be used when recording voice-overs to give a more ‘pure’ sound by cancelling out my voice from being heard as much in my ears, so that theoretically I would hear more of the actual sound signal being recorded and monitored than any sound from my voice in the studio.  So I bought a pair when I got back home.  They were by no means cheap at £230. 

Plugging them into my amplifier, or home hi-fi gave an incredible earth hum, predominantly in the right ear.  Disappointing.  Bose suggested I buy an earth hum remover, but this had no effect.  Plugging the headphones into my Blackberry mobile phone, laptop or my WiFi radio (which is mains powered) there was no earth hum.  However, after speaking with Bose they explained how amplifiers that are mains powered often give this hum because they are grounded via mains power, and more to the point, these Bose headphones are not designed for use with mains powered audio equipment!  They are specifically for Samsung/Android mobile phones and portable audio equipment (despite various comments on the dealer's website (Amazon) of how people have used them successfully with their home hi-fi).  The headphones have a 4 contact 2.5mm very thin socket into which you plug the cable which has an in-line microphone and volume control on the cable, and the 3.5mm jack on the other end is also 4 point and is what you plug into the audio source.  They are battery-powered, but as with many Bose items, switching the noise cancelling on puts the input audio signal through what can only be described as a Bose equalisation/exciter circuit, which changes the frequency response of the input audio to sound a bit brighter.  It works well with Bose speakers -- I have a few Bose 102C equalisation units myself around the house, and they do improve the sound of Bose speakers.  Sadly, this equalisation only emphasised the earth hum making it even louder.  So alas the experiment failed completely, and I'm now back to using the Sony headphones again. 

 

Amusing Story: I had to do a voice-over once for a clever cloggs audio producer who had 'been there and done that' and let you know about it! As far as he was concerned, he was the bees knees. But he was well and truly knocked back down to earth when he expected me to do a session in a studio he'd set up that day. The microphones (Neumann U87s - plural, because he was obsessed with stereo recording) were pointing downwards towards the seat I was about to sit on, as if they were dynamics rather than side-address condensers! There's only so much you can fix in the mix! I later heard he'd recorded a session with the mics in the more conventional vertical position, but pointing the wrong way round...the mind boggles.

So, cut to the chase - what equipment do I need to do podcasts / voice-overs?

I'm adding this section because I had a quick browse through the web and saw lots of audio supply companies selling 'podcaster packages' of equipment that were TOTAL OVERKILL and quite frankly a waste of your hard-earned money! Kits included mixing desks for 8x microphones - crazy.

Below I list the essential equipment you'll need to record your voice onto your PC so that it sounds nice and professional. Do these new USB mics work? I don't know, I've not tried them, but you don't get much control over the sound tone with them - no EQ, no gate, no limiter, no compressor. Yes, you can do all that in software, but I prefer to hear it LIVE. From the price, I'd assume they won't sound super-fantastic.

MIXERS -- If you are only doing basic voice recording / podcasts, then you only need a small mixer with one to a few XLR mic inputs (if you'll ever have guests). Behringer do a range of these mini-mixers. As a rule of thumb, as soon as the models in the range start using sliding faders, that's about the top-end of all you would ever need in a mixer. My mixer is a Mackie 1202 and just has rotating knobs or 'pots' for levels, as once you're set-up, you rarely touch them. You'll never be 'riding the faders' like DJs in the 1980s on KIIS FM or Z100 or anything like that. It needs to have phantom power so you can use condenser microphones. It will also allow you to EQ your voice before the signal goes either into a processor or your PC.
MICROPHONES
-- Generally, the more expensive the microphone, the more authentic the sound will be, but also the more of the room acoustics it will pick-up. So if you're not in a sound proof booth, you'll probably not want a Neumann that will pick up your dog licking his privates in the next room! You can buy very respectable large diaphragm condenser mics for less than $100 these days. They are at the top-end of the sensitivity range you will likely need. I have an AT2020 and a (probably China-made) Studiospares S1000 and they both, in my opinion, sound more flattering than mics I've owned that cost 8x as much. What do I use? If I'm voicing something for a telephone line, I'll use my SM57 dynamic. If it's for broadcast on the radio, I'll use the S1000 or AT2020 condenser. Simple as that.
PROCESSING
-- If you have air conditioning, live near a busy road, etc. do please seriously consider a gate function in your outbound audio processor that will automatically mute the mic when you are not talking, thereby muting any fan noise, PC noise, pipes clanking, etc. Even if you do live in a quiet place (lucky you!) it's worth getting one so that there's complete silence when you're not speaking. This makes editing easier.
SOUND CARD
-- I never thought it would, but a good sound card really makes a difference. I'm not a person who buys into the 'solid gold audio cables' for your hi-fi systems or anything, but after trying a few soundcards, there is a very real audible difference between the cheap ones and the ones that cost a bit more. So get a good one.

Here are the basics that you'll need to be in control of recording your voice onto a PC:

Microphone A Shure SM57 (dynamic mic) should be fine for most voice work.
Want to sound more crisp / broadcast quality? Then an AT2020 or similar fair priced condenser mic will be perfect. You may need a bit more acoustic treatment if you're recording in an empty room.
Mixer Allows you to increase the level of your mic, and change tonal quality (EQ) so it sounds nice before it gets recorded by your PC. It will also provide the phantom power for your condenser mic if you get one. You'll be able to play audio e.g. music, from other sources (eg CDs, MP3 player) and talk over them if you like. Just like being on the radio! Heeyy!
Processing Allows you to process the output of the mixer so you sound more 'full' and the levels are kept within set boundaries (limited / compressed). Also may come with a gate function (highly recommended!), which will mute your mic when you aren't talking so that any PC noise, etc. is silenced.
Soundcard Get a good one and you'll certainly hear the difference. There are lots out there with new models being released frequently. Mine's probably considered realtive antique now.
PC I can almost guarantee that you are using one right now to read this website! No particular suggestions here, but modern PCs tend to be quieter in terms of internal cooling and power supply fan whirring. Remember, unless you put it in another room and use lots of extension cables for the monitor, keyboard, mouse, soundcard, etc.) the PC will be switched on and whirring whilst you are making recordings! You'll also need some sound recording software. Lots out there, Adobe Audition is popular but pricey. There are others that are cheaper (or even free to download!).
Headphones Get 'closed' type, not 'open' type, then the mic won't pick up what you're hearing. There are lots of good headphones out there from all the major audio brands. I find 'over the ear' ones more comfortable, although they do make your ears warm after a while, like wearing ear muffs.
Acoustic treatment If you are in a sparcely furnished room with bare walls, you'll sound echoey on recordings. Simple things such as heavy blankets, duvets or matresses absorb the sound and stop it bouncing back and into the mic. Foam acoustic tiles are more aesthetically pleasing, fairly cheap and could be used on surfaces around the mic to deaden things. At a basic level, I have recorded with a duvet over my head and the microphone (you must keep quite still for this to work).

Here's my studio chain:

My Current Equipment List

Microphones: (letter in brackets, see photo above)
Micron TX203 hand held radio mics x 3 - 174.1 (omni), 174.8 (card), 208.6 VHF (A, B, C)
Micron TX503 hand held radio mic 184.5 (D)
Sennheiser SKM5000 (E)
Shure omnidirectional reporter mic (like an RE50) (F)
EV RE50 (G)
EV ND767a (H)
Beyerdynamic M201 (I)
Sennheiser Blackfire 531 (similar to the MD431 below) (J)
Sennheiser MD431 II (K)
Audio Technica ATR25 Stereo (L)
Audio Technica ATM31a (M)
Shure SM57 (N)
MXL 991 (O)
Sennheiser MD441-U (P)
Audio Technica AT2020 (Q)
MXL 990 (R)
Studiospares S1000 (S)
Shure 55SH II (T)
DAP VM-60 (U)
DM-065 'Nostalgic' vocal mic (V)
MXL CR77 (not pictured)

Vivanco & Realistic lavalier mics
DAP Audio PL07 (an SM57 rip off, not very good)

Mackie 1202VLZ Pro Mixer
Behringer Composer Pro MDX 2200 processor
Beyerdynamic DT100s x 2 headphones
Sennheiser HD 480 II headphones
ATH-M40fs headphones
Cambridge Audio amplifier
Studiospares SN10 Monitor Speakers
Bose 101s (6), 151s (6), 502A Panaray (4) speakers
Sony MZR3 portable Minidisc recorder
Sony MZR37 portable Minidisc recorder
Sony MDS-JE480 Minidisc recorder

Acousticheck 30 Acoustic tiles
Soundcheck Freestanding Acoustic Screen
Rode anglepoise desk clamp stand
Floor mic stands x 2
Table stands x 2

I have previously owned, used and sold:

AKG D202
AKG C414 B-ULS
Electrovoice RE20
Sennheiser MD421 II U4
Shure SM7B
Shure SM81
Shure SM58
Shure Beta 57A
Shure Beta 87A
Oktava MK319
SE Electronics Reflexion Filter
Tascam DP-02CF Portastudio
Symetrix 528E Voice Processor

Watch (and hear) the late great Don LaFontaine talk about doing movie trailer voice-overs

Updated - Thu, 2/03/17

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