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.
Well the general consensus is that breathing is good for you, so lets keep doing that, but should you hear breaths in a voiceover? That is the question that many editors grapple with, and there are differing opinions.
I have a somewhat fence-sitting policy of removing some, reducing others, and leaving the remainder.
The first thing to consider as a voice artist is how you breath when voicing. There are various techniques for breathing quietly as opposed to taking huge noisy gulps, I won't get into these here as this post is more to do with post production and a philosophical debate on what to do with a breathy recording. Mic technique, placement and windshields/pop filters can also reduce the breath sounds, but will also affect the sound of your recording. As by their very nature they are isolated between words, I would prefer to get a better sound and remove/reduce any overly accentuated breaths further down the road as they are not affecting/crossing over into the copy itself.
I am of the opinion that listening to a voiceover with all the breaths removed is an awkward and tense experience. We are just hardwired to hear and then disregard breath sounds in conversation. However, having a conversation with someone sat opposite you is going to sound very different to hearing a voice close mic'ed with a large diaphragm condenser microphone, and then subsequently compressed.
Most of the time when we talk we breath practically silently, we are calm, not too concerned about diction, intonation and projection, and it's easy. When a voice artist records they have a plethora of things to consider, and being clear, maintaining energy, and reading as opposed to just speaking are just a few of these. All of these things can make for more audible breaths, and the recording and mixing process only enhances these (in particular compression, this brings the relative volume of breaths up).
So my policy is to reduce these breaths down to something that resembles normal conversation, by which I mean, not hearing the majority of breaths. Almost all of the breaths that I do leave in are reduced in intensity which compensates for the recording process. There are also the occasional breaths that are quiet enough that they can be left entirely untouched.
The process of reducing the intensity of the breath in post is the next thing I would like to discuss…
I am a Pro Tools guy, and one tool, 'Clip Gain', has been a really useful feature post PT10 (http://youtu.be/B9VEK3LcDZg). Clip gain allows you to separate the breath into its own clip and reduce the gain of that clip with a fader, this way you are not mousing away or using delicate fader rides with automation, it is quick and very effective.
However my preference is to use fades. All audio editing software programs have fade capabilities so this applies whatever you are using.
Now the crucial element here is which side you fade, by which I mean, do you fade out from the end of the previous word, effectively creating a descending volume drop over the breath, or the opposite, an ascending fade from the start of the breath, increasing the volume leading into the following word? My suggestion is to use the former: to fade out from the end of the previous word. *
If you think about the sound of a natural breath, it is a tapering kind of sound, it's strong at the top of the breath and naturally fades as you finish consuming all that lovely oxygen. And as with all things technical, copying the natural world will yield a more natural end product.
Once I have faded out the breath, I then apply a small fade at the start of the next word to avoid any jarring sound when the audio re-enters at full gain. And that's it! In Pro Tools you can use the smart tool to apply these without having to change any settings or using any fancy keyboard shortcuts.
I would love to know your opinion on the great breath debate, and how you apply your treatment.
Thanks for reading!
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.