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Recording the Spoken Word

February 1, 2007
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Read these exclusive online supplements to this article:
Copy That
Once More with Feeling
To Have and Have Not
Talent in the Raw, Continued

Opportunities for voice-over (v/o) production have increased dramatically for project studios, mimicking the DIY paradigm shift that continues to rock the music industry. Increasingly, clients needing v/o talent and related audio services are bypassing bigger studios to hire more cost-efficient producers for everything from commercials to interactive voice response (IVR) systems.

FIG. 1: This photo shows voice-over pro Rick Adamson''s converted closet, which serves as an isolation booth.

There are basic but critical differences between music production and voice-over production. If you learn and implement elements that are unique to v/o clients and talent, however, v/o production can be a good way to augment your existing studio offerings and bring home a bigger piece of the audio-production pie.

Let's Get Physical

Voice-over recording calls for an acoustically neutral space with no reflections. When I walk into a studio, I want to hear an almost oppressive silence. To prepare for v/o work, consider all the reflective areas in your studio. If you don't already have carpeting, try putting a thick rug at the base of your recording area to supplement any other soundproofing. Even the music stand holding the talent's copy should be covered with a carpet remnant, a towel, or perhaps some acoustic foam to eliminate harsh reflections. If you can't achieve such an environment without overhauling your existing space, you might consider investing in a whisper booth (also called a vocal booth or an isolation booth). A booth's cost will vary depending on its size. As an alternative, try converting an existing closet (see Fig. 1). And don't forget that your CPU may be your most significant noise source; be sure to isolate it.

If you can't completely eliminate ambient noise or reflections, invest in noise-reduction software to clean up your files after recording. When necessary, I use the AudioSuite noise-reduction plug-in Digidesign DINR for Pro Tools just before rendering my files to WAV or MP3, but you probably won't need to do that if your space is dead quiet.

FIG. 2: Mouth noise is a common occurrence when talent is nervous or dehydrated. It would be faster to record another take than to edit this recording.

Once you're happy with the sound of your recording environment, set the stage with some commonsense props for your voice talent. Having certain items on hand, such as a stopwatch and drinking water, helps eliminate factors that could add to the time you'll spend editing. A stopwatch is handy for actors to use before recording to practice voicing commercial copy running 30 or 60 seconds. In the booth provide plenty of room-temperature water, which is better for the voice than hot or cold liquids. Adding a few drops of lemon to the water will keep lip-smacking and mouth noises to a minimum. Chewing gum between takes also helps keep the mouth moist. Be aware that some medications as well as excessive salt can contribute to dry mouth.

Whether mouth noises occur between syllables or words or throughout a passage will determine whether you'll want to do another take or try to edit them out (see Fig. 2 and Web Clip 1). To discourage mouth noise, your talent should avoid consuming caffeine and dairy products. Contrary to the popular belief that tea soothes the vocal cords, the tannins in tea actually dry out the voice, and caffeine can contribute to readings that sound rushed or nervous. Dairy products foster the production of phlegm, resulting in throat clearings that must be edited out. Keep water and healthy energy foods such as fruit on hand for longer sessions. Make a list of these tips and keep it handy (see Web Clip 2).

Usually, you'll want your actors to stand because they can achieve better breath support. For long sessions, though, you should have sturdy, quiet stools or chairs available. A set of headphones for each actor is an obvious necessity. Set up headphones so that actors can hear each other as well as you. Use a filter or windscreen halfway between each actor's mouth and mic to minimize pops on the letters b and p and other plosive breath noises (a plosive is a consonant sound produced when airflow is stopped in the vocal tract).

Mic Check

Which mic you choose for a specific actor will depend on the timbre of his or her voice, just as it would with a singer. A particular mic may sound brittle or harsh and be less forgiving of pops with one voice, yet it may emphasize another person's warmth and resonance. Because voice actors are typically closer to the mic than singers (3 to 4 inches rather than 8 or 9) and tend to stay in one place, find a mic that best matches the actor's voice and minimizes audible breathing and pops, but is as transparent as possible to convey the actor's best voice quality. You want the talent's vocal personality to drive mic choice, not the other way around. Many actors know which mics show them off best, so be sure to ask. You should avoid omnidirectional mics, as they pick up too much room sound and can make actors sound off-mic or in the distance.

High-end studios are more likely than personal studios to get requests for expensive mics. If you can afford a Neumann TLM 49, U 87, or U 47, more power to you. Fortunately, cost-conscious project-studio owners can find excellent and affordable alternatives.

For less expensive mics that are still quite effective, Dom Camardella of Santa Barbara Sound Design likes the Audio-Technica AT4033/CL for its crispy, bright sound. Cautioning that the AT4033/CL can sometimes be sibilant and trebly, however, he also suggests the AT4047/SV, which he describes as warm and rich with a strong output that's not overly bright (see Fig. 3). It's more expensive than the AT4033/CL, says Camardella, but its sound resembles that of a Neumann U 47. He says the AT4050 is another good option.

FIG. 3: Audio-Technica''s AT4047/SV is a versatile multipurpose studio mic that works quite effectively for recording voice-overs.

Camardella asserts that Australian manufacturer Røde Microphones has better quality control than many of its competitors and makes some superb mics with a great deal of consistency. If you want a dynamic mic that performs like older mics, he suggests the Heil PR 40 for its silky top end, openness, presence, and high gain. Blue Microphones has a stable of reasonably priced mics that he recommends. Camardella describes them as silky, with good signal-to-noise ratio. The top of Blue's line is the Blue Bottle with a changeable capsule.

Providing another perspective, v/o talent Rick Adamson gets fantastic results from his Shure KSM32. He likes it because he doesn't want anything with too much coloration, especially because he uses it for straight-ahead corporate work and not pumped-up promos. He says it offers an extended frequency response for an open, natural-sounding reproduction of the original sound source.

As a female, I like the Shure SM7B dynamic mic for its good signal-to-noise ratio and simply because it really complements my voice. It has a large diaphragm, bass rolloff, and presence-boost controls and comes with two different windscreen options. Because the input tends to be a bit on the low side, however, I need to boost the gain.

Placement and Positioning

The number of mics and their placement will depend on the actors and the space available. Although singers need more flexibility to move around and use a mic for dynamic and varied output, actors require fewer fluctuations in volume. Adjust the recording levels to the actor's volume, rather than having him or her move farther from the mic.

FIG. 4: The most effective miking technique for recording voice-overs is to place the mic between 3 and 4 inches from the voice actor''s mouth, with the mic capsule aligned with the actor''s upper lip and a windscreen positioned halfway between.

Mic distance for voice-overs — roughly 3 to 4 inches — may vary with an actor's natural projection and resonance. Whether an actor is speaking straight ahead into the mic or off to one side, you should place the mic capsule at approximately the height of the speaker's upper lip. Placing the mic 20 to 30 degrees off to one side minimizes pops and gives the actor an unobstructed view of the copy (see Fig. 4).

If you're recording two or more actors in an acoustically treated studio, it's usually preferable to have them standing in the same room and seated only for very long sessions. Because actors are more comfortable working off each other, that arrangement makes for a better performance. The best situation is to have one mic for each actor, but even directional mics can still pick up off-axis sounds. To avoid bleeding or spillover when you're recording actors on two different mics simultaneously, try to position the mics according to their polar pattern to achieve maximum off-axis rejection. Fortunately, actors' lines are rarely spoken simultaneously, which means that if one actor's voice spills into another actor's mic, you can use the mute button or correct the problem with editing.

If two actors must share a single mic, you're better off with a bidirectional figure-8 pattern. As an engineer, you'll need to be forgiving of people with less sophisticated mic technique. You may still have problems if one actor has a booming voice and the other has a soft voice. If you have to, place the mic a little bit above and angled down a bit toward the boomy actor so that plosives will come out under the mic. More >>>



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Recording and Editing

Voice-over recording is generally less labor intensive than recording a singer. A clean signal path, a good condenser mic (or a dynamic mic with a good preamp that has very little color), and only slight (if any) compression during recording are the three most important factors.

FIG. 5: The proximity effect is a low-frequency boost that occurs when someone sings or speaks close to a directional microphone. Voice actors can add fullness to their sound by taking advantage of this effect.

The best strategy is to get a clean sound up front by capturing the voice's natural warmth at a sufficient level. Just let the mic, the actor, and the proximity effect — a directional mic's tendency to boost low frequencies at close range — do the work for you (see Fig. 5). Dom Camardella calls the proximity effect “the voice of God” or “the Isaac Hayes effect.” Dynamic mics are often better for achieving the effect. Voice actors take advantage of proximity to add fullness to their vocal sound. However, working close to the mic can emphasize undesirable sounds such as breathing and plosives that can lead to editing headaches (see Web Clip 3).

You can edit out distracting or unnecessary catch breaths (quick inhalations) to tighten up a recording if necessary, but experienced v/o talent will mark breathing points in the script in advance so that breathing sounds natural and doesn't draw attention to itself or add length to carefully timed copy. As a rule, you don't want any reverb or EQ going in, though for certain actors with sibilance issues you may want to incorporate a de-esser or a tiny bit of frequency-dependent compression after the fact.

You might be surprised at how often clients want to edit the raw vocal files themselves. They may add EQ or compression to your recorded files to match other spots they've created — so remember, clean is king. Know your client's expectations up front and use EQ sparingly, if at all. You'll understand the inherent challenges if you're the one editing prerecorded files with a lot of compression or EQ on them. I know an editor who had to improvise and replace every single f sound in a long file, because it arrived completely compressed or gated to the point at which that consonant was lost. Because the recording involved a celebrity talent who would have been expensive (and embarrassing) to call back to the studio, it became a tedious project that fell on the editor.

Copy That

While it may seem obvious, it's critical to ensure that you have final, approved copy. Ask about any timing constraints (for TV or radio spots) so that clients don't waste your time and their money rewriting copy during or after a session. Time the copy yourself before the session. Advise the client if it's likely to run too long, and make editing suggestions if you have a good working relationship. Determine in advance if you will charge extra for that guidance.

Editing copy is the client's job, but as a project studio producer, it often becomes your problem. You don't want to rely on fixing it in the mix for v/o work any more than you do for music. It's amazing how many times the wrong “approved” copy comes into the studio, is recorded, and then must be edited or rerecorded (for more on copy preparation, see Web Clip 4).

Under most circumstances, capturing the spoken word is not as demanding as capturing a singer's performance. When you are recording dialog, consider recording multiple tracks, which simplifies tweaking for vastly different voice qualities. Number each take and mark the preferred ones in the script as you record, while slating each new take with an audible marker of where you are in the script. For example, record the slate “Oxford University Press, Lesson 4, take 3,” followed by a visual cue for your actor to begin speaking. Number all takes in your hard copy as you go, and circle the best ones; that will speed up your editing later (see Web Clip 5). Another task that may come later is recording pickups. Pickups are retakes recorded out of sequence that you or the client decide should be redone, usually at the end of a session (sometimes days later).

As a project studio producer, your clients may come from other cities, states, or countries. To gain a client's trust, voice-over pro Rick Adamson suggests taking clients through a dry-run phone rehearsal for style and pacing. After the recording session, he often delivers two full takes of everything, keeping the file clean for the client's engineer to compress or EQ as they see fit (for more on dealing with off-site clients, see Web Clip 6).

Talent in the Raw

From time to time, clients may suggest using new, unproven talent because they want “regular-sounding” people. Be aware that raw talent tends to “pop” and go off-mic more often, because their technique will also be raw. Keep in mind that pro voice actors employ the same techniques as other actors. Help your talent find ways to relate to the copy, use timing and phrasing, make the read sound spontaneous, or get into character. As in music, a good sense of cadence and an ear for natural inflection both go a long way (see Web Clip 7).

Jon Van Horn, former engineer for Full House Productions in New York and now a project studio producer, stresses the importance of a good working relationship with clients and talent. “I always try to make them laugh and be casual, and above all, to make people really, really comfortable to get the best results, whether they're new talent or old pros. Half of the work is how you relate with the voice-over person you're working with. Be supportive and professional with everyone. You always get better results and repeat business if you're encouraging and positive — so keep the peace, and use diplomacy.”

File Delivery

Know what final file format is required by your client before you begin your session. That will be determined in part by how the audio will be used. For example, many of my clients are authors who want short excerpts of their books recorded for use on their Web sites. They may look to you for guidance because they won't care about bit resolution or sampling-rate terminology.

A session recorded using 16-bit resolution and a sampling rate of 44.1 kHz and then rendered to MP3 with a compression rate of 128 Kbps or higher will produce a file that is of decent quality without bogging down a Web site. Because of their small size, finished MP3 files can often be emailed to the client for approval. Other clients, including those who put voice to picture for commercials or other video, will likely require uncompressed WAV files or even 24-bit, 48 kHz recordings. If you're rendering higher-quality (and thus larger) files, you'll need to deliver them by FTP or put them on a CD to send to your client.

O Clients, Where Art Thou?

It's easy to start locally and offer to do public service announcements (PSAs) for nonprofits or commercials for local businesses on the cheap. Use your imagination and contact companies you think could benefit from using audio as a marketing tool. Avoid high-maintenance, one-off clients if you can; as the saying goes, “Some money costs too much.” Look for clients who respect your time and who pay promptly by PayPal or other secure system.

You might also take a look at producing audiobooks. The drawbacks are the labor-intensive nature of the recording process and the need for access to a wide range of vocal talent. Paul Ruben in New York is a widely recognized audiobook producer. Rather than trying to compete, I work with emerging authors creating short promo clips (see Web Clip 8). If you want to explore audiobook production, you'll need to cozy up to the big publishing houses.

Good Night, and Good Luck

The voice-over industry is a service industry. Ultimately, you will need to please your clients. You will need to put aside your own ego, even if your client or talent is difficult to work with. Never be dishonest, but if someone makes a mistake, take responsibility as the engineer rather than making the client or actor feel inadequate, and you'll get a better product. Use the best equipment you can afford, and keep trying new methods to improve efficiency. Learn from your mistakes, but not at your clients' expense. With a bit of imagination for wooing off-the-radar clients, voice-over production can be a good opportunity for a music producer-engineer with the right studio environment to expand his or her client base and bring in extra cash.


Perry Anne Norton is the founder of PanRight Productions (www.panright.com) and works with clients in the corporate, nonprofit, government, and education fields. Special thanks to Phil Lee/Full House Productions, Jon Van Horn, Rick Adamson, John Billingsley/SuchaVoice.com, Jim Salvito, Francis Sullivan, Dom Camardella/Santa Barbara Sound Design, and Felicia Sullivan.

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