"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.
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!
I thought I would write a brief outline of the process when hiring a voice talent. I get a real mixture of clients, ones who have been hiring voice talent for many years, pre and post internet, for large and small companies and some who have never hired a VO, and are unsure of the process. I will do my best to outline the process as accurately as possible. I should add that I am writing this from my individual perspective and this will not necessarily apply if you hire other voice talent.
So the first hurdle is finding a voice for your project. There are three main options out there for you:
1. Google. Type in “voiceover” and the style/gender/age range and go from there. Most talent these days have an online presence and they take great care to accurately tag their voice. However this is a somewhat hit or miss approach to finding your voice, new talent are entering the business all the time, and have the full range (or not) of experience in business, voicing, and the technical nature of recording and editing. But it's free to give to it a go so why not see what you find!
2. Agencies. If you have a medium to large project you would like voiced you could approach a talent agency with your requirements. It is something of a mystery to me how and why agencies will choose to take on certain new clients, budgets are probably the main criteria. They will not of course spend time contacting talent on their books and then casting for 10% of $100 being paid to the talent. This is a very personalized service, and a time consuming one for a number of people, so really consider if your project is appropriate for a talent agency.
3. Online Marketplaces. This is the most common for small to medium sized projects, and an increasing number of large projects are being cast this way too. Different Marketplaces have different ways of working, but you will often be able to sign up in minutes and submit a casting to their roster of talent. Adding key words will narrow down the submissions, so you will receive appropriate proposals from talent that fit your description. You also have the added benefit of seeing their feedback, and work history. Sites such as Voices.com ,Voice123.com and Bodalgo.com are a good place to start. Of course once you find a talent and develop a working relationship any future projects will not necessarily need to be completed through these marketplaces.
Unless you use a company with a step by step process (such as Voices.com) your next step is to choose the talent appropriate for your project from the submissions (or your own curated list) and then contact them to finalize the terms and conditions.
Below are a series of things to consider when finalizing terms, working with the talent and paying them once you are happy with your files.
1. Timeframe. Establish when you need the final file/s by. Final is the key word here, as the first delivery of your script may need some tweaks here and there, and you may be working with a talent that is in a different timezone, which can sometimes mean a slight delay in response. This process is not an exact science so try to incorporate some wiggle room into the deadline, this way no-one is waiting for the VO further down the pipeline while you iron out the details.
2. Final Cost. Establish with the talent whether the price quoted includes any and/or all edits once the initial script has been delivered. Most reputable talent will include one or two rounds of edits included in the cost. However, all edits are not created equally, if you decide you want to re-write the script once the talent has delivered the original script as desired you may be required to negotiate a slightly higher rate. This is not of course set in stone, a few word changes here and there may not result in the talent having to re-read the entire script again, and they will often be flexible in making changes as part of the initial quote. If however the talent has made a mistake in the reading or pronunciation of the text, or there are technical errors, it is very much the talents responsibility to fix these within the initial quote.
Another thing to consider regarding the cost is the length of term of the voiceover. Some projects will require a recurring payment (such as advertising) on an annual basis. Most projects though are what's called a “full buyout” which means the client can use the recording in whatever capacity, and for as long as they like. It is best to confirm this from the outset.
3. Delivery format. Audio can be delivered in many formats, and audio/video editors may have a preference as to which they prefer. Most would like an uncompressed format like WAV or AIFF, but they may prefer a smaller file size like a high quality MP3. Certain phone systems may require very specific file formats with sample rate and bitrate requirements that are not common. It is best to establish these technical specifications before sending the final script to the talent. This could be written on the script or a separate “Tech Specs” document.
4. Script. The script should of course not contain any glaring mistakes in the wording, and ideally spelling. It is an unwritten rule amongst voice talent that you read what is on the page EXACTLY as written, but when it is obvious that it is a small typo or spelling mistake most talent will make the appropriate changes.
Try and think of your script from the talents perspective. It doesn't have to be written as a stage/movie script, but it should be clearly defined. What does that mean I hear you ask?!?! Well if you imagine the script flowing in sections, define that in the script. Use paragraphs to define the pauses and delineations in the spoken version of the script.
Any direction (“add emphasis” or “say softly” or “light hearted” etc...) should be clearly defined as direction, in bold, underlined, highlighted etc... This can be explained at the top of the script. Make it clear where the direction ends and the script starts and stops!
If you have awkward words try using a phonetic way to describe the pronunciation. For example: “Delineation” could be “Dee-lyn-ee-A-shun”. Define how you would like acronyms pronounced For example “B.I.M” could be pronounced “Bee, Eye, Emm” or “Bim”. Common examples of this are email and website addresses.
5. Examples. A talent will often find examples useful in gauging the feel and tone of a piece. YouTube links, audio files recorded by yourself on your phone, anything that can help explain the tone you are going for will help the talent nail the feel!
6. When is payment due? You should define at what point the talent gets paid. Some talent require payment before sending the high quality, finished file, others require payment within 30 days of the dated invoice, which could have been sent before or after the files were delivered. To avoid confusion or frustration it is best to define this before commencing with the project.
7. The Invoice. If you have information that your billing department require such as project ID, or your business address, make sure the talent is aware of this before they send you the invoice. Also you should be clear what currency you will be working in as this is a global industry, and it is very common to be working across continents! The payment method should be established when negotiating the terms before the recording has taken place. Most talent accept a wide range of payment options.
This may seem like a lot to consider, but is actually straightforward once you get started. As with any business transaction as long as mutual consideration is given, the process will be a rewarding, fun and hopefully lucrative one!
If you have any questions or points you would like to make please leave a comment or send me a message, I would live to know what you think.
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!
OK so this is a new venture for me, so here goes...
Thanks for checking this out. I am going to be writing about my life as a voice talent here in NYC. I am British and I have been in New York for three years now!
I started in voiceover nearly 4 years ago as an experiment. I had been in music and more specifically the recording studio world for a number of years, and I had amassed a lot of recording equipment and experience recording instruments and more importantly voices!
I had (like many voice talents) been told that I had a good voice from an early age, and never really thought anything of it. It clicked one day that this is a career that I was somewhat born to participate in. :)
Immediately I had interest and my first project was for a company in Canada, which was very exciting as I was living in the South of England at the time and it felt very fancy to be working Trans-Atlantically!
That job went really well and, as the cliche goes, one thing lead to another and here I am, working as a full time voice artist in my favourite city in the world - NYC!
I live with my American wife in Manhattan and most of my projects are recorded in my home studio, complete with pro vocal booth and all manner of tech and studio wizardry. :)
I am privileged to work in an industry that is welcoming and ethical, and I do my very best to carry that into every project that I am a part of.
Thanks for taking the time to read, and if you have any questions about me please shoot me a message or leave a comment.
British voiceover artist privileged to be working in New York City.