"Uh?", I hear you utter in unison. It is though a pretty simple concept and crucial to a clear and un-distorted sound.
Gain staging simply refers to how you control the level at every stage of the sounds journey from mouth to finished article. If there is excessive gain at any stage of the process the audio will distort and fundamentally suffer, and it is not always obvious where this is happening. Phantom distortion can be an infuriating problem, so it is best to try and eliminate it from the outset.
Here is an analogy - I often think of audio processing as similar to water flow. Think of a water company supplying water to a neighborhood: water flows from the reservoir and goes through many series of pipes, if any of these pipes were to leak, or worse somehow contaminate the water, everything below that stage would be effected, and however well maintained and leak free the pipes further down the chain were, the water has already been affected. This is the same for audio, audio distortion and gain staging.
To stop it occurring I will list the potential places where it can happen, and if you do have audio distortion you can then systematically rule out each of these stages in your system, to discover whether gain staging is or isn't the problem for you.
- So to start with, it is important that the microphone itself isn't being overloaded, some microphones can take high SPL's (sound pressure levels), most dynamic microphones won't have this problem, and a lot of condenser, tube and ribbons are designed to withstand levels associated with the human voice. However some have such a sensitivity, that you need to be a certain distance or angle from them, and/or use some kind of pop shield or screen. More fully featured mics will have a pad switch which turns that sensitivity (level) down in multiple db increments. This is your first port of call when checking for distortion. I would take any other hardware out of the chain (compression/gating/EQ) when you check for this. and make sure your pre amp is relatively low, disable any plugins and processing, then turn your playback volume up to listen for any distortion.
- Next is to check your pre amp itself. Again disable any hardware or software dynamics or EQ, turn down the gain on your pre, and slowly increase it to a healthy level, use your meters on the pre and your DAW. Never go above -10db input level. If your pre has a line level or trim output you can also play with that and balance it with with the gain for a non distorted and healthy signal.
- Next is to check any hardware between your pre and the computer, check meters, LED's or however else the device is measuring level. If I personally compress on the way in, I never use more than -5db of compression and ensure a slow attack time to avoid chopping any transients. Check input and output levels of EQ units as this can be something that goes under the radar (remember that EQ itself is the process of increasing or decreasing gain, just at specific frequencies).
- Once your audio is in the system you need to check your input meters within your DAW, they should be WELL under 0db at your peak level on your master bus. Next, it is important to check the input and output of every plugin in your chain, on the channel, any sub buses and on the master bus, and of course the master output level meter.
If you don't hit the red at any of these stages, and you maintain a decent level throughout, you will not have any gain staging issues, and good for you!
I hope this is helpful to you!
I have been recording voiceovers in New York City for 4 years, and in that time I have learnt a great deal about recording voice sessions in pro studios. Like most voice talent, a lot of my projects these days require me to voice from my own studio, but there are still projects that require (particularly in a major hub such as NYC) a pro studio environment.
I want to talk a little about both the process and the approach I have found works best when visiting a pro studio and working with clients, engineers and colleagues face to face.
Often when I'm recording at home I will be able to work at the drop of a hat, sometimes turning projects around within hours, when working in a pro studio you will likely have more time to prepare, as it takes some planning on the part of the producer, agent, client etc… The fact that you have more of a heads up gives you the opportunity to be better prepared for the session.
Preparation begins a few hours before the recording is due to commence. Make sure not to strain your voice, eat anything that will compromise it, or tire it in any way in the hours leading up to the session. Make sure to wear quiet, VO friendly clothing (nothing that makes noise). When I'm travelling to the session If it is a cold day, I may choose a cab over the subway here in NYC, to avoid being in the cold air too long. Basic and sensible precautions to make sure your voice is in tip top shape.
Try to arrive 15 minutes before the designated start time, this is enough time to get prepared if the studio is ready, but not too early that you're hanging around and/or pressuring the studio or the client to hurry. Use this time to calm any nerves, catch your breath, read through the script (if you have one) and get into that professional zone that means you will work to your best ability.
When you meet everyone in the room who are working with you on the session, greet them with a smile and a handshake, state your name and do your best to remember theirs! There is usually an opportunity for some un VO related chat and then some discussion about the project. You may watch any video footage, or examples of the style the producer is going for. I like to use this opportunity to establish a professional but relaxed atmosphere, take part in any jokes that may be thrown around, and just generally try to put everyone at ease. If you are nervous, use your acting ability to hide it (even from yourself), a nervous disposition doesn't help your performance, and to be completely honest, it doesn't engender confidence in you. Time and experience reduce nervousness. You can also use this time to clarify any pronunciation questions you may have, which you may have previously identified if you had the script in advance (not always the case).
Follow the direction of the engineer, when he/she says they are ready for you, go into the booth with your script, pens/pencils, drink, anything else you may need, and stand or sit in the recording position. The engineer will now adjust the mic, music stand and lighting to the optimum position. Make sure you are comfortable, both in position and temperature and prepare to begin.
The engineer will likely ask you for a sample to get a level. This is probably the first time anyone else in the room will hear your take on the script, so you can use this opportunity to gauge how close you are to their vision. Make sure you can hear talkback from the engineer and the client/producer. You can also decide how much of yourself you want to hear in your headphones, this can be adjusted by yourself in the booth (often via a control that the engineer will point out) or by the engineer in the control room. Bear in mind that if you adjust the level in the booth that may affect the talkback level, so asking the engineer to turn you down may be a better option. If you don't want to interrupt the engineer you could slip off one ear of the headphones, and/or move them forward or back on your head to reduce the level, this will also affect the talkback if routed to your headphones. If wearing headphones is uncomfortable for you, some studios will have a speaker set up in the booth for talkback, and you won't have to wear them unless you need playback.
Establish with the production team how you and they would like to record, for example; in chunks, page by page, or line by line. Then when everyone is happy you are ready to begin!
This is the time when your entire focus is on delivering the script to your best ability, lose any inhibitions, nerves or awkwardness. But above all, embrace the process and enjoy it!
If you make a mistake, pause and continue from a suitable point. Everyone makes mistakes, do not let it phase you!
Interpret and apply any feedback. Do whatever is asked of you, if the producer wants three variations of each line, give them that. Every third word yelled? Do it! At the same time, if you need to rest your voice and take a drink for 30 seconds, ask for it! It is very unlikely you will be turned down. When receiving feedback from the client, do your best to mark any notes on the script in whatever way makes most sense to you. If the client wants an accent on a certain word, I will put a (^) above that word, or if they want a word less emphasised I will put a (v) under it. If a section needs to be broken up more, I will use (/), use highlighters or any other technique that you can read on the script easily, try not to leave anything to memory. Sometimes I write general comments at the top of the page if I get repeated notes. "Maintain quick pace" or "State company name strongly" or (one I received yesterday) "Less GROWL".
Once the client and/or producer is happy with your work, collect your things and leave the booth for the control room. This is usually a positive time, and any stress from the recording process has usually dissipated by this point. Do your best to keep the atmosphere professional but light hearted. You may have to sign documents for your agent, releases, W9's, NDA's etc… Make sure you have everything, everyone is happy and has everything they need, shake everyones hand and thank them, and you can leave, satisfied after another job well done.
I would say that the vast majority of my sessions pan out this way, but of course occasionally there will be times where problems occur, general stress, time limitations, technical problems can all disrupt a session, but there is no reason why you can't maintain your professional cool, and overcome any obstacles that may present themselves.
So last time I spent some time discussing microphones, their pickup patterns and how you can use them to get the best possible sound for your project. In this post I am going to spend a little time talking about Pre Amps.
What is a Pre Amp?
We use a pre amp to boost the signal of a source to line level, line level being a healthy signal into your recording device. Microphones have a very low output, whichever microphone you use (condensers/tube mic's have a slightly higher output than dynamics) that needs to be boosted to a point that is usable within your DAW. Line level is the goal (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Line_level).
The output directly out of your microphone is called "Mic Level", and out of an instrument such as a guitar jack is called "Instrument Level". Although instrument level is a much higher output than mic level, it still needs boosting to line level.
Why do I care about Pre Amps?
Well they are the next step (after the mic) along the signal path for your voice before it hits your AD converter and then into your DAW of choice. This stage influences the sound of the signal as well as the level, and so it cannot be ignored. Mic pre's come in many forms and you can disappear down all manner of rabbit holes trying to find the "best" one. The truth is, there is no "best" mic pre, only the one that sounds best to you, compliments the source/mic, is affordable to you and reliable.
If you have some kind of outboard interface such as an M-Box that has a pre-amp built into it, you can plug your mic into it, it boosts that signal to line level, converts it to digital information and sends it down a firewire/USB/Thunderbolt cable to your computer. These days the mic pre's on these consumer devices are very good, and are certainly usable in most applications. However, if you have started to lust after an expensive microphone you may also want to think about improving your whole signal chain, which includes your mic pre. Your sound is only as good as the weakest part of your signal chain, so don't waste your money on a $3000 mic and plugging it into an M-Box. That's like buying a Ferrari and fitting it with shopping cart wheels.
You could choose a tube or solid state pre, a channel strip, a 500 series, or a vintage re-issue: just make sure it gives you the sound you are looking for, to enhance whatever it is you are recording. If your main mic is a dynamic mic, it will more significantly effect the sound of your pre amp and how it performs, so take that into consideration when choosing.
So you have an M-Box (for example) and you want a new mic pre, do you have to replace the M-Box and get a new AD (analog to digital converter) box too? Nope! If you are happy with the audio to digital conversion of your M-box, you can simply bypass the pre on that and use your new pre while using the M-Box solely as an AD converter.
Let's say you buy an API 512 pre (nice!), you plug your mic into that, make sure it is set to mic input, then turn up the gain as you see fit. The API will be outputting a line level signal, simply plug that line level signal into your M-Box, making sure that the input is set to Line Level. It then knows that it doesn't have to apply it's pre and as long as the input knob is down to zero it will not provide any of it's onboard gain boosting from its pre. You are then only using its AD conversion technology.
After you have saved up your pennies you may consider buying a dedicated AD conversion box and replace your M-Box altogether, which may well improve your sound a little more.
It should be said that replacing a pre or converter may or may not improve your sound, but it will certainly change it. If you have a somewhat muddy, warm sounding voice, adding a Neve 1073 (for example) will only serve to enhance that, and exaggerate any problems associated with your voice, so it is best to research and then test out any pre's you are thinking of purchasing.
I am a strong proponent of as good a signal chain as you can afford, but as stated earlier you should be aware that mixing pro quality and consumer quality components will result in a consumer quality sound. If that is the only way you can afford to complete your pro chain (let's face it, how many of us can drop $5-10k on 3 components), by all means play the long game, knowing that you will ultimately end up with a great sound.
As a final point I would like to say that there are a lot of sources on the internet "debunking" the idea that you can't get a pro sound from consumer products. Well you can get close, but that final 10% of quality costs, and in the professional environment the difference is noticeable. People who can't hear the difference tend not to have real world experience of either using pro equipment, or working in a professional environment.
This is a short and very unspecific blog post aimed at microphone use in the VO world, and how you can use placement and mic choice to affect the sound of the recording.
There is a plethora of information about microphones and their use on the internet, as well as how and when to use different types, and I won't just repeat everything here. However I will give a brief synopsis, and direct you to some good resources.
As this is a voiceover blog I will focus this toward that application, but most if not all that I am going to talk about applies to all other microphone use.
First things first I am going to commit the ultimate sin of asking you to leave this page and read a very long document. But before you go please pay particular attention to the different types of microphone (dynamic, condenser, tube,ribbon) and the general characteristics and applications of these. Also take the time to really study the polar patterns.
Here it is: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microphone
OK so now I expect (if you have come back) you are somewhat sick of microphone talk, so I will stick to the big headlines and how it applies to the world of VO.
Often in voiceover you will be using a large diaphragm condenser mic, this has a broad frequency response, by which I mean it hears way down low, and way up high (and everything in-between). You may occasionally come across dynamic mic's such as the SM7b or RE20 (often used in radio), they have a specific frequency range that compliments certain voices, but they are somewhat specific and have their limitations.
As you have studied the Wikipedia page you are now aware that different mics have different polar patterns, and depending on what you are recording you will choose one polar pattern over another. Some mic's have one pattern, some give you the option of a few.
A cardioid mic picks up sound in a mushroom shape around the front of the grill, so if you are speaking within this mushroom your voice will be within the mic's ideal range for sound pickup. Undesirable noises such as computer fans can be less intrusive if placed well outside of this region. We call this off axis rejection and it can be used to great effect. Another example is a mic with a Figure 8 pattern which has a very pronounced deaf region between the two pickup regions. Have a look at the polar patterns diagram on the Wikipedia page and you will see the range of options available, and how these can be used to your advantage.
Sticking with a cardioid mic we also have to take into consideration the proximity effect. It is very simple, the closer you get to the mic, the more the mic will emphasize the lower frequencies in your voice. Radio DJ's will often get so close to the mic they give themselves lip burn on the grill in an effort to get a bass resonance to their voice. You can use this to your advantage if you don't have much bass in your voice, moving closer will exaggerate what you have. Conversely if your voice is boomy and muddy, moving back a few inches will reduce this bass buildup.
However mics set to the omni pickup pattern do not have proximity effect. The benefit to this is that you can get up very close without a change in tone, you do not get any off axis rejection but as you are now right on the grill of the mic, the signal to noise ratio is very high (in favor of the signal!). The mic in omni mode is also much less likely to pop.
Your mic may have a high pass filter switch. This simply removes ultra low frequencies (typically 100 cycles and below) from the mic signal before it hits your pre amp. This can help to avoid a muddy sound and possibly remove hum, or accidents like knocking the mic stand, or the rumble of a truck driving by outside.
So there it is, a very brief outline of the microphone as used in the world of VO. The microphone is just one part of a chain of equipment and processes that go toward the finished product, but it is the first piece of equipment that your voice encounters and it has a huge impact on your finished product.
If you have any questions or comments please feel free to reply here or shoot me a message.
Until next time…
Without going into the finer details of acoustic treatment (I couldn't if I wanted to as it is a science that is way over my head!) I would like to explain a concept that has helped me to tune my vocal booth for the optimum sound for my voice.
The first thing to consider is your voice, and what characteristics you would like to enhance, or remove. For example, if you have a voice that is highly sibilant you do not want surfaces that exaggerate that. Or if you have a voice that tends not to cut through in a mix, you do not want a large amount of soft treatment that soaks all the high frequency sound in your voice and leaves just the lower (muddier) sounds.
I installed a new computer monitor in my vocal booth recently and I was expecting that I would need to compensate for the flat shiny screen with some kind of trapping or diffusion. In actual fact the screen served to brighten the sound of my voice just the right amount to help my voice cut through music and SFX just that little bit more. It was a happy accident, but proved to me how important it is to get the acoustics right before you commit audio to your hard drive.
It is an old adage in the music world that you get things right at source, usually cited sarcastically with the much maligned expression " we will fix it in the mix". It is the same in the voice and post world, and is sometimes more important as there are often times when a dry voice is the only thing that is heard, and everything that can be done to make that as clear and audible (and pleasant!) as possible is a vital investment of both time and money.
So before you reach for that EQ, or think about your next expensive microphone or pre amp purchase, you might be able to achieve a better result by tweaking the acoustics of your recording environment.
Have you experienced a change in the sound of your recordings as a result of acoustic treatment? Or do you disagree with me? I would love to know what you think.
Thanks for reading!
British voiceover artist privileged to be working in New York City.