Gear

Open the Floodgates

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Gear, Studio 8 Comments

It happened a few days ago.

After finishing a Skype session with friends in The Netherlands, I noticed something strange in the corner of my eye. 

I was in my studio, ready to write the last lines of a new blog post, when I saw water on the floor. It came from behind the bookshelves. 

My studio is in the basement, and it had rained a lot for the past couple of days. Could the water be seeping through the walls?

I stepped out of my booth, right into a big puddle. Outside the house were no signs of leaks, so the source had to be downstairs. After close inspection, the culprit  turned out to be a leaking hot water heater. It had done its job for the past 18 years, and we knew it had to be replaced some day. Well, today was that day.

There’s no reason to bother you with every little detail of the clean-up operation. Suffice to say that I spent the next few hours down on my knees mopping up the water while the dehumidifier was running at full capacity.

Of course I emptied out my entire voice-over studio which was filled with thousands of dollars of audio equipment. Fortunately, nothing was damp or damaged, thanks to something simple I had put in place when building my booth.

I had covered the concrete floor of my studio with floor mats made of EVA foam that’s often used as padding in sports equipment (EVA stands for Ethylene Vinyl). My mat was made for children’s playrooms, and it provided a soft, smooth, vibration absorbing layer.

Covering my 7′ by 7′ space cost me less than $40. These types of mats are also available for garage floors, and most of them seem to have interlocking tiles. 

Having this rubber layer meant that not only my studio furniture stayed dry, but my carpet as well. Wet carpet is a great place for mould to grow. 

Even though it wasn’t soaked, my studio carpet was quite old and from the moment I put it in, I had wanted to replace it. Because the space was now empty, this was the perfect time to do that.

I decided to go with a material that not only dampens the sound, but that absorbs it as well: cork.

Cork is has millions of air cells per cubic inch of which sixty percent is air. These small cellular compartments act as cushions, absorbing vibrations and direct impacts. Cork is a renewable resource (only the bark is harvested, not the tree) and I think it adds a natural warmth to the room. 

While a specialist installed a new hot water heater, I was busy laying down a cork studio floor. The prefinished planks I had chosen simply snapped together and it was fairly easy to get the job done. 

Forthy-eight hours after I had discovered our leak, all was well again.

Life is unpredictable. Sometimes, pretty good things can come out of very bad things. What started as a home emergency, ended with a nice studio upgrade. Thanks to cork, my recording space never sounded better!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

Would you work pro bono for a non-profit? Next time I will tackle the pros and cons of giving your freelance work away to a good cause.

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The ideal voice-over mic you’ve never heard of

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Gear, Studio 54 Comments

In a way, talking about microphones is like writing about food.

No matter how elegant and eloquent your prose may be, the proof and the pleasure is always in the eating (or in our case, the listening).

Not so long ago, a group of Dutch voice-over pros got together for a shootout. They had been writing about mics for months. Now it was time to let the technology to do the talking. The goal was not so much to pick a winner, but to get a chance to contrast and compare.

For that purpose they threw about thirty mics into the mix, from shotguns to tube condensers. Among the mics they tried were the Brauner Phanthera, an Audio Technica AT4033, the Neumann M147, TLM103 and U87, the Sennheiser MKH-416, a Røde NTG3, a Telefunken U47 and an Electro-Voice RE27.

Then there was this very odd-looking mic from the United States, an E100S designed by Conneaut Audio Devices or CAD. Very few people in the room had even heard of the brand, let alone seen such a microphone. But when the day was over, several voice actors ended up ordering one. By the end of this review you’ll know why.

Its reputation had preceded itself. Prior to the shootout, this rectangular shaped CAD had beaten out the venerable Neumann U87 – regarded by many to be the ultimate voice-over microphone – in a blind test. Not bad for a mic you can buy for less than $400!

ROBUST & RECTANGULAR

The CAD Equitek E100S as it’s officially called, is a side-address, large-diaphragm FET condenser with a nickel-plated 1 inch capsule, an 80 Hz hi-pass filter and a 10 dB pad. It has a fixed supercardioid polar pattern and the lowest self-noise rating of pretty much any mic: 3.7 dBA (measured with the capsule swapped for a fixed capacitor, known as the “capacitor substitution” method).

Coming in at 0.61kg (22 oz) it’s not exactly light. Made in the USA, this microphone is built like a tank and it feels solid but smooth thanks to a rubbery coating. It arrives in a nice cherry wood box, already resting in a specially designed ’stealth’ integral shock mount. You’ll find the XLR output at the back of the microphone.

Strong rubber bands tie the microphone to its snug-fitting shock mount. This mount works well, but it’s a pain in the neck to remove in order to place the mic in my Rycote InVision™ shock mount. Most people would only take the mic from its mount to replace the rubber bands, so it’s no big deal.

In my recent review of the Gefell M930 Ts, I came up with eight criteria for an ideal voice-over microphone:

  • minimal voice coloration
  • tight pick-up pattern (cardioid or supercardioid)
  • excellent rear rejection
  • controlled proximity effect (bass boost)
  • low susceptibility to sibilance (shrill “S”-sounds) and popping
  • low self-noise
  • high-pass filter to cut out lower frequencies
  • rugged design, ready for the road

Now look at the specs for this CAD. Based on my preferences, it comes very close to being perfect – on paper, that is. It is often advertised and reviewed as a versatile, all-purpose mic, so I wondered how well it would work for voice alone.

To find out, I hooked it up to my new Grace Design m101 preamplifier and started talking. After all, that’s what I do for a living.

The following samples were recorded in 24-bit, 41,00 kHz WAV format and converted to MP3.

 

 

 

 

Following is a longer sample, a poem called Memory of Holland by Hendrik Marsman, translation by Paul Vincent.

 

LIKE A LASER

click to enlarge

Because of its tight pickup pattern, this is not a microphone for those who like to wobble and wiggle. If close miking is your thing, this CAD is king. Once you have found the sweet spot and you stay there, the mic will hear you loud and clear.

It zooms in on your voice like a laser beam, with the accuracy and clarity of a shotgun. Although sonically different, this makes the E100S a serious alternative to the popular Sennheiser MKH-416, which costs more than twice as much.

Let’s talk about your recording space for a moment. Soundproofing a studio or improvised booth can set you back thousands of dollars. If that’s out of your range, the next best thing is to find a mic that’s not so sensitive to ambient noise. That’s another reason why this CAD makes an excellent voice-over investment.

Off-axis sound spills are kept to a minimum, and yet this mic never sounds one-dimensional. Like a fine Bordeaux, it has a nice open and full body to it.

By engaging the high-pass filter, you can also minimize low-frequency rumble from boilers, pumps, planes, trains and trucks. In other words, under less than ideal recording situations, the E100S can save the day.

Sometimes, outside noise is not the problem. Every microphone produces electrical noise, known as equivalent or intrinsic noise. It can be utterly annoying. As a narrator, I don’t want my softer reads to drown in microphone hiss. Of course noise reduction software can come to the rescue, but with this CAD you’re not going to need it.

This is hands-down the quietest mic I have ever laid ears on.

Most supercardioids suffer from a more pronounced proximity effect, and with a wide open grille, this mic is no exception. You will also need a pop filter to take care of plosives and mouth moisture.

CONCLUSION

Like most reviewers, I do my very best to find fault with the products I’m evaluating. In that respect, this CAD gave me a hard time. There is one thing I struggle to understand, though.

In my opinion, the E100S has all the characteristics to become a voice-over’s secret weapon. Why then, is this microphone a virtual unknown in my line of work? Why do colleagues drool over Sennheisers and Neumanns, calling them “the industry standard,” while ignoring the silent quality of CAD craftsmanship from Ohio?

After reading every review ever written about this CAD and testing it for months, it finally dawned upon me. The E100S has one thing that’s both a strength and a weakness:

This microphone is an everyman’s friend.

It can handle sounds as loud as the engine of an airplane and as soft as a woman’s whisper. It loves strings just as much as percussion. Whether it’s used to record the subtleties of Baroque music or the unrelenting power of Punk Rock, this uncompromising CAD can capture it all.

In terms of marketing, the more universal the product, the harder it is to come up with a unique selling proposition. Not everyone looking for a voice-over mic will find the label “all-purpose microphone” very appealing.

Secondly, because this E100S is relatively affordable, it’s easy to equate low price with low quality. Perhaps my colleagues would take this mic more seriously if CAD would double the price.

Before that happens, I recommend you seriously consider this amazing American microphone.

photo: Willem van den Top

After testing many makes and models, one of Holland’s most respected and experienced voice artists summarized it perfectly:

“The E100S is incredibly versatile. If I could only keep one mic in my locker, this one would be at the top of my list. I would gladly part with microphones costing more than eight thousand Euros in order to keep the CAD.”

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

This article was previously published in recordinghacks.com, the ultimate online microphone database. Click here for a review of the Studiobricks ONE, an innovative, portable isolation booth especially designed for voice talent. Mike Bratton has the first one in the US.

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Reviewing the Microtech Gefell M 930 Ts

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Gear, Studio 2 Comments

The Holy Grail of voice over microphones: is it a mythological object or does it really exist?

If you spend any time on forums for fellow-gearheads, you know that the quest for the best VO-mic can take on Monty Python-esque proportions. People swear by certain brands, makes and models, based on their own (and often vague) criteria.

It is easy to forget that any microphone is part of a recording chain, and when you change one link in that chain, everything changes. Of course the source of the sound is very much part of that chain.

Very few armchair reviewers actually ask the question:

What would make a microphone specifically suitable for voice-over work?

Before the home studio revolution, the answer would have been different. Talent would go into a certified soundproof recording studio and use one of the German workhorses on hand.

Nowadays, lots of VO’s hide in walk-in closets, cover themselves in movers’ blankets or buy a prefab foam-filled box from a boothtique. In other words: the ideal voice-over microphone has to handle less than ideal recording environments.

This is what I am looking and listening for in a VO-mic:

  • minimal voice coloration
  • tight pick-up pattern (cardioid or supercardioid)
  • excellent rear rejection
  • controlled proximity effect (bass boost)
  • low susceptibility to sibilance (shrill “S”-sounds) and popping
  • low self-noise
  • high-pass filter to cut out lower frequencies
  • rugged design, ready for the road

click to enlarge

With this in mind, I had been shopping around for a new voice-over mic when a small miracle happened. I became the winner of Recordinghacks’ December microphone giveaway! My prize was the new Microtech Gefell M 930 Ts studio condenser.

Prior to that, Gefell had never really been on my radar screen, but when I discovered that Georg Neumann had founded the company in 1928, I was intrigued. Gefell itself had been operating under the East-German radar for years, until the Berlin Wall came down. Now, their hand-made microphones are used in the United Nations, the German Parliament and in The Vatican, as well as in the studios of the BBC and other networks (click here to learn more about Gefell’s history).

My prize possession was developed at the request of Gefell customers and is based on their popular M 930 model. “Ts” stands for Travosymetrierten Ausgang, and that’s German for “output transformer.” That’s exactly what has been added to the M 930, together with a newly developed circuit design. This results in a deeper low-frequency extension, negligible distortion and no signal degradation when running long cables.

A BIG SURPRISE

I knew I was expecting a large-diaphragm capsule studio microphone, but when I received a package in the mail the size of a brick, I thought somebody had made a mistake. This couldn’t possibly be my new mic, could it? I was almost disappointed.

I was also wrong.

click to enlarge

Out came a simple wooden case with a satin nickel colored microphone and holder that could easily fit in the palm of my hand. It was by far the smallest large condenser I’d ever seen. Judging by this model, Microtech takes its name seriously!

Strangely, the company logo is laser-engraved on the back of the microphone. The model and pick-up pattern symbol are on the front of this side-addressed design. There are no switches such as a bass rolloff, and the M 930 Ts has just one pickup pattern: cardioid.

This microphone exudes sophisticated simplicity.

Because of the output transformer, the Ts is longer than the M 930 (130 mm vs 118 mm). It’s also a little bit ‘heavier’ (273 g vs 210 g). In comparison, Neumanns like the TLM 103 and U 87 come in at 500 g.

The high-end steel body–also available in dark bronze–feels very solid, and it is virtually impossible to take this mic apart without damaging it. Gefell actually seals the housing with glue. The 28mm capsule with its gold-plated polyester membrane is mounted elastically in the compact housing, which has a diameter of 45mm.

According to Gefell, the combination of the optimized impedance conversion circuitry and the output transformer gives the microphone a very high maximum SPL 142 dB, with at most 0.5% total harmonic distortion and extremely low self-noise level of just 7dBA. This gives the M 930 Ts a clean, uncolored sound over a wide dynamic range.

This microphone has a constant frequency response with an accentuation of about 2.5 dB between 6kHz and 12 kHz, aimed at raising the speech and high-frequency presence. In theory, this should make it very suitable for broadcasting applications.

The M 930 Ts is connected by a standard 3-pin XLR-male plug with gold-plated pins, and needs an external 48 V phantom power supply.

SIZE MATTERS

from left to right: the MXL VO-1A, the Avantone CK-6, the Lewitt LCT 640 & the Gefell M 930 Ts

If you subscribe to the “bigger is better” theory, you’re not going to like this mic. However, if you believe that small is beautiful, you will love it. A few years ago, my studio went almost completely paperless, and these days I read my voice-over scripts off the computer monitor in front of me.

For the first time, I now have a microphone that is not disturbing my field of vision. That’s exactly why the M 930 was developed in the first place: to be discreet. I already find it much easier to concentrate on what’s in front of me, because there’s very little in my way.

If you work for a radio station that is also televising its shows, or if you record YouTube tutorials on your webcam, this mini mic makes sure the focus stays on you and not on some bulky blob blocking your face. On stage, a smaller mic means the audience can actually see and respond to the facial expressions of the performer.

There are three more advantages to this clever design.

First of all, this microphone is easy to position. It fits into tight spaces. Because it is light, you don’t have to worry that your stand will tip over when extending the boom. Third: it’s an ideal compact, sturdy companion for the road.

If you’ve been keeping score, you know I’ve already ticked off a few boxes of my ideal voice-over mic. But there’s more to explore.

SOUND CHECK

When my prize arrived, I was already testing a few new microphones in different price ranges. What immediately struck me was that the M 930 Ts is a neutral, natural sounding mic. This is not a microphone that will add a lot of extra “oomph” or a distinct color to your voice, but the sound isn’t exactly thin either.

Just like its older brother the M 930, its sound is quite rich without being fat. It sounds transparent, or “unfooled around with” as they say in the commercial. That’s exactly what most of my clients want. They like my audio to be crisp and clear, and if it needs to be sweetened, they’ll take care of that in their studio.

The other thing that struck me from the start is how low the noise floor of this microphone is. This really is a big plus during more intimate reads. The M 930 Ts is rated at 7dBA self-noise, making it one of the lowest self-noise microphones on the market (for others, click here).

The cardioid pick-up pattern will give you a reasonable area to work with. For more animated narrators, this means they don’t have to pin themselves down to one spot. At the same time, the off-axis and rear rejection is definitely sufficient to keep the microphone focused, and to keep most extraneous noises out of the mix. This is definitively an advantage under less-than-perfect recording conditions.

I do like my voice-over microphones to have a little bass boost when I get closer to the mic (this is known as “proximity effect”), as long as I get coloration instead of distortion. Up close and personal, the M 930 Ts does add some lower end presence without being too much “in your face.” Sibilance wasn’t really a problem during my test, but that’s also a matter of mic technique. While this Gefell picks up of lot of detail, it is not overly sensitive to popping. Nonetheless I prefer to use a pop filter, if only to protect my mic from mouth moisture.

The only complaint I have is that this microphone comes with a “hard mount” rather than a shockmount. Gefell charges a shocking $300 for an elastic suspension, and over $200 for a rubber isolation “donut” mount. 

This mic is quite sensitive, and I do recommend getting something to isolate it. Because it is so small, a universal shock mount won’t hold it securely. Fortunately, I have found a perfect solution at a reasonable price, but more about that next week.

SOUND BITES

Because I am testing the M 930 Ts specifically as a voice-over microphone, I didn’t want to try it out in a full-blown recording studio, but in a typical, rather small sound booth. When it comes to VO equipment, less is often more, and so I hooked my Gefell up to a CEntrance MicPort Pro, a popular portable mic preamp with a built-in 24bit/96kHz A/D converter (for a USB preamp shootout, click here).

The samples were recorded in 24-bit, 48.000 kHz WAV format and converted to MP3.

I thought it would be fun to record one sound bite in Dutch. After all, it is my native language and because the content doesn’t really matter, you’ll be able to focus on the unprocessed sound. What you’ll hear is the short poem “Memory of Holland” by Hendrik Marsman.

Next, I recorded my voice at 5, 7 and 10 inches from the microphone.

 

 

 

CONCLUSION

Based on my criteria, the Gefell M 930 Ts scored 7 out of 8 points, plus a bonus point for size. Apart from lacking a high-pass filter (not a deal breaker) and a shock mount, it has everything a voice talent could hope for. It’s neutral without being boring, and when I listen to my audio samples, I hear myself and not some boutique sound.

 Due to its price tag ($1,695.80), this is certainly no entry-level mic, but let’s remember that Gefell microphones are still made, measured and tested by hand in Germany.

In 2012, the M930 Ts won the Musikmesse International Press Award for best studio microphone. More than 100 magazines from all over the world voted for the best musical instruments and audio equipment of 2011/2012 in more than 40 categories.

Great things do come in small packages, and -just like me- the Gefell M 930 Ts is a winner!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

This article was previously published in recordinghacks.com, the ultimate online microphone database. Next up is a profile of a universal shock mount that uses 21st century technology.

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More Studio Secrets Revealed

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Gear, Studio 25 Comments

You’ve seen the inside of my voice-over booth. Now it’s time to talk about technology.

Don’t worry, I’ll do my very best not to be too technical, if only for my own sake.

When it comes to the tools of the trade, I subscribe to the “less is more” philosophy. Life is complicated as is, and in my studio I’d like to keep things as simple as possible. 

Without exception, my clients ask for audio that’s “unfooled around with”. Most of them are much better equipped to do post-production sweetening in their studios, if that’s what they want.

I have no inclination to compete with all the high-end bells and whistles their engineers have at their disposal. As long as I can give them clean and clear audio, they’re happy and I’m happy.

Computing Power: the hardware

At the heart of my studio is a Mac Mini with a dual-core 2.3 GHz Intel i5 processor running OS X Lion. It came with 2GB of memory, but thanks to a removable bottom, it is very easy to add more memory to your mini. If you let Apple do it for you, 8 GB will cost you $400. It took me ten minutes to do it myself for less than $45. At the time I even got a $10 rebate and free shipping!

Sorry, but I’m not going to get into the Apple versus PC discussion. I’ve used both and I have found Apple to be more reliable and user-friendly. I do want to tell you what prompted me to get a Mac Mini.

Reason number one: it barely makes any noise. When it does, it produces a whisper that’s almost inaudible.

Some colleagues have a studio with two separate areas: a sound booth and a control room. The computer is usually outside the booth. I combined both spaces, which means that my desktop sits next to me in my studio. The Mac Mini uses very little energy and it rarely ever gets warm. That makes it amazingly quiet.

Secondly, this computer stays in my studio. It doesn’t have to go on the road with me. Otherwise I would have bought the Macbook Air (no moving parts and also nearly silent).

Third: I already had peripherals such as a flat-screen monitor and an ergonomic mouse. I just added a wireless keyboard. Tip: if you want to connect a standard analog computer monitor or LCD to your Mac Mini, you need a Mini DisplayPort to VGA Adapter.

What the Mac Mini doesn’t have is an optical drive to play and burn CD’s or DVD’s. For that purpose I bought the Macbook Air SuperDrive which can be plugged into one of the four Mac Mini USB 2.0 ports.

The actual move from PC to Mac was very easy. It took me about a week to get used to my new computer and the operating system. It’s all rather intuitive. A few weeks ago we did add a MacBook Air to our household. This is no ordinary laptop. It is a work of art!

Backup, please!

We’ve all heard horror stories of friends who lost months if not years worth of irreplaceable data when their system decided to take a permanent break. Backing up is something all of us should do, but we often don’t. We forget. We tell ourselves that we’ll do it tomorrow or the day after. It’s just one more thing to think about, and that’s why I wanted a backup system that would do the thinking for me.

I now have an Apple Time Capsule with a 2 TB hard drive, designed to work with my operating system (although it works with PC’s too). After an initial backup which lasted several hours, it now backs up both computers in our home quickly, wirelessly and automatically. Installing it was a piece of cake. The Time Machine feature in the OS detected the Time Capsule and within minutes it was up and running.

Tip: as the Time Capsule is backing up, it may interfere with your recording. In my case, I noticed a soft but annoying buzzing sound on the audio file, which disappears when the automatic back-up is switched off.

Look at me!

Next on my list was a webcam which I use for coaching sessions, webinars and Skype. I picked the Logitech HD Pro Webcam C910. The Carl Zeiss optics lens has a wide angle and the video quality is remarkably crisp and clear.

Reviewers also praise the quality of the stereo microphones. That’s not so important to me because my sound comes directly from my studio condenser.

Mac users: don’t get all gaga over all the advanced features listed on the box and in the manual (zoom, face tracking, exposure adjustments). Even though Apple sells this camera in their stores, most of the Logitech functionally works on a PC and not on a Mac. The C910 is also not supported as an iMovie camera, but that’s Apple’s fault.

In summary, this camera gets an A for image quality, but a C- for limited Apple functionality.

Software

There are many different types of DAW’s (Digital Audio Workstations) available for audio production on a Mac. Colleagues with a background in audio engineering like to use Pro Tools. A lot of my voice-overs friends rave about Adobe Audition CS5.5 and Twisted Wave. Until I made the switch, I was a happy Sound Forge™ Pro user.

I won’t be going over the pros and cons of each program. You can try most of them out for free and I’d certainly take advantage of that.

I ended up choosing Twisted Wave because it’s very stable, easy to use and at $79.90 it’s also budget-friendly. Thanks to a great interface, zooming in and out of a waveform is very fast, even when the file is quite long. I particularly like the fact that I can zoom in at great detail for precision editing.

Different clients prefer different audio formats and TW can import, export and convert most of them. It has a time-saving batch processing feature which is especially useful when you’re working on a lengthy e-Learning project with lots of short files that need to be separated out and individually named.

TW doesn’t come with a whole lot of special effects, but new and existing plugins are imported seamlessly. With TW, effects no longer have to be applied one by one, but it’s possible to load any number in an effect stack and still adjust them separately.

Some of you might prefer Adobe Audition CS5.5 because it’s loaded with features such as Noise Reduction, a DeClicker, a DeHummer etcetera. I had already invested in Izotope’s RX2 audio repair toolkit and it’s now an integral part of my Twisted Wave Effects line-up.

I do have two items on my Twisted Wave wish list. I’d love to have a feature similar to Adobe Audition’s Auto Heal function for brushing away audio glitches. It’s like having Photoshop® for your audio! I also like to have my Sound Forge WaveHammer tool back. It applies a tad of compression and normalization to the sound files to give the audio just a bit more oomph.

Controlling the Wave

To streamline my job in the editing room I’m using a ShuttlePROv2 controller. It has 15 programmable buttons, a jog knob and a spring loaded wheel with which I can control the main editing functions in Twisted Wave.

It’s preprogrammed for things like Garageband, iPhoto and iTunes, but it was really easy to program the TW keyboard shortcuts into the Shuttle. With my mouse in one hand and my ShuttlePRO in the other, I can scroll, zoom, cut, copy and paste much faster than with a keyboard.

The ShuttlePROv2 connects to your computer via a USB port and it comes with custom labels for the top 9 buttons. It can be used on either MAC or PC computers and it retails for about $80.

Gefell M 930 Ts & Rycote's InVision™ Studio KitMicrophone and shock mount

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that I consider myself to be a very lucky man. In December 2011, I won a Microtech Gefell M 930 Ts large diaphragm condenser microphone in a recordinghacks.com giveaway. This microphone happens to be ideal for voice-over work. To find out why, you should read my review by clicking here.

Because the Gefell did not come with a shock mount, I had to find a suspension system that would hold this small microphone. Rycote, a company based in the UK, makes the InVision™ Studio Kit you see in the picture ($149.99). It’s a combination of a unique, universal shock mount and a very light and effective pop filter. If you click here, you’ll find out what I think of this kit.

I’m using an Ultimate Support® mic stand and their telescoping Ulti-Boom. WindTech cable clips keep the mic cable separate from the stand.

Preamplifier

A good preamplifier strengthens the low level signal coming from your microphone to a level suitable for recording, without degrading the signal to noise ratio (S/N). A preamp with a high S/N has very little background noise.

Some boutique preamplifiers can really color your sound and that wasn’t something I was particularly interested in. My ideal preamp needed to be dead quiet, transparent, detailed and clear in all frequencies.

As I researched preamps within my budget range, I kept coming back to one model: the Grace Design m101.

Built in Colorado, the sound quality is often described as “natural” and “pristine”. I couldn’t agree more. This is a phenomenal preamplifier!

Looking at the front panel, you’ll see a 48V phantom power button, a ‘ribbon button’ which, when engaged, bypasses the phantom power circuit, and a high-pass filter button to reduce low-end rumble and curb the proximity effect of a microphone.

In my review for pro audio dealer Sweetwater, I called this preamp an “Amazing Grace” because it makes my microphone shine.

Audio Interface

In a nutshell, an audio interface connects your microphone and other sound sources to your computer. For audio to be usable by a computer it needs to be digital, and an interface converts your analog signal to bits and bytes. You’ll often find external audio interfaces that include a mic preamp, but since I already had a pre, I opted for the pocket-sized Echo AudioFire2 (discontinued, but still available for around $200).

Echo AudioFire2This device is connected to and powered by the computer via a FireWire bus. I purposely didn’t want to get a USB-interface. The Mac Mini only has four USB slots that fill up pretty quickly and USB devices cannot draw power from the computer. With the AudioFire 2 you can record 24-bit 96 kHz audio with near-zero latency (delay) monitoring.

Because the AudioFire2 has a 400 Mbps FireWire port and the Mac Mini has an 800 Mbps port, you need an adaptor to be able to connect it to the computer. The AudioFire could also use a simple step-by-step  set-up guide. Perhaps it’s my lack of technical insight, but it took me a while to make the right connections (literally and figuratively).

Overall, this sturdy, small metal box performs just fine. It’s more of a necessity than anything else.

Monitoring

Like so many of you, I evaluate my audio in two ways: I use headphones and studio monitors. Gear-guru’s often recommend buying closed headphones to prevent sound leaks from feeding back through the microphone. That’s why I got the Sennheiser HD 280 Pro.

These headphones stay put alright, and they shut outside sounds out (not that ambient noise is a problem in an isolated studio). Over time I found them to be quite uncomfortable. I happen to have a rather large head (thanks Dad!), and I didn’t like the tight grip the Sennheiser had on my ears.

The AKG K 240 semi-open Studio headphones I am using now (also $99), are very comfy and they provide plenty of acoustic isolation. My ears can breathe! After a year and a half, the cups started showing some wear and tear, and I will replace them soon with velvet ear pads.

The AKG has a regular, straight cable which I also prefer. Somehow, things always get caught in a coiled cable, such as the one that comes with the Sennheiser.

Both headphones are excellent for detailed monitoring.

When it came to picking out a pair of speakers a few years ago, my budget was limited and so was my space. At that time I was recording in a cold corner of the attic. For $99 I bought a pair of Alesis M1Active 320USB monitors.

At first I was quite skeptical and I didn’t really expect much from these bookshelf speakers. Once I plugged them in, I was blown away by the fact that so much sound could come out of such a small package. That has not changed.

I’m sure they are no match for a pair of Genelec studio monitors, but for under 100 bucks these Alesis speakers continue to impress me. As you can see, I have placed them on stands at ear hight. It really makes a difference.

Enough already

Alright… I think I’m done shopping for a while, don’t you?

Selecting audio equipment can be a daunting task and it can be a learning experience. Just as a musician has to know his instruments, a voice-over pro has to have a basic knowledge of the tools he or she is using. There’s so much good stuff available these days, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed.

Whatever you do, don’t be intimidated by gear-snobs and audiophiles. Talk to people you trust and whenever possible, try things out for yourself.

Don’t blindly buy something just because some guy at your local Guitar Center told you he loves it, or because Paul Strikwerda wrote about it in his blog.

After all, that’s just a bunch of Double Dutch!

Paul Strikwerda ©2012

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My Prized Possession

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Gear, Studio 34 Comments

What do the Vatican, the United Nations, the German Parliament, the BBC and my company Nethervoice have in common?

We all use top of the line microphones from a family owned business in the small German town of Gefell.

If you’ve never heard of Gefell and you enjoy European history, let’s travel back in time for a moment.

In 1943, Georg Neumann‘s main microphone laboratory in Berlin was hit by bombs and caught fire. To avoid more damage, Neumann and his technical director Erich Kühnast moved the entire company to Gefell where they continued their work in an old textile mill.

After Germany’s surrender, Gefell was occupied by the Americans and then handed over to the Soviet Union. In 1946 a number of Gefell employees returned to Berlin to establish a small workshop. This workshop eventually became Georg Neumann GmbH, the second Neumann company.

Kühnast and most of the original staff stayed in Gefell and continued to develop and build microphones. Neumann made Kühnast manager of the limited partnership Georg Neumann & Co. which was later nationalized by the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Despite the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961, the management of the two companies stayed in touch with one another.

In 1972, the GDR prohibited use of the Neumann trademark, and the East-German company was renamed VEB Mikrofontechnik Gefell.

After the Wall came down in 1989, Georg Neumann’s heirs reclaimed their share in the company and a new period of cooperation began. Here’s what’s remarkable. When the Neumann engineers took a closer look at the Gefell products that had been developed behind the Iron Curtain, they discovered microphone technology that was more sophisticated than some of that in the West.

After Sennheiser took over Neumann in 1991, Microtech Gefell -as it is now called- became an independent, privately owned company, known for hand-made, high-end microphones. (this overview is in part based on an article in Sound on Sound and on information on the Gefell website).

MY NEW BABY

Fast forward to Tuesday, January 17th, 2012, the day I became the first person in America to own a Gefell M 930 Ts studio condenser microphone.

Out of thousands of microphones on the market, why did I pick this particular make and model?

I have to be honest with you: I didn’t pick this mic. It picked me. Or rather: I got lucky. Very, very lucky!

In my radio days I never paid any attention to the equipment I was using, but since I became master and commander of my own studio, things have changed. As a professional, I think it’s important to get to know the tools of the trade. 

Before I’m ready to make any type of investment in my business, I spend months doing research, reading reviews and talking to colleagues in the know. They make sure I don’t fall for the latest fad, and that when I finally decide on a new purchase, I invest in quality that will last for many years to come.

Any professional chef, musician or mechanic can tell you that well-made, reliable tools make the job a lot easier because they work with you instead of against you. Good tools can’t make an artist more creative, but they can inspire. Without them, he’s less able to realize his dreams. A great set of tools can take you to that proverbial next level.

It’s a cliché, but quality never goes out of style. It is remembered long after the price is forgotten.

RISING FROM THE PACK

As home studios are becoming the norm and more people are having a go at voice-overs, it’s increasingly important to distinguish oneself. It all starts with the way the voice is captured.

The quality of your sound is your signature.

Clients are sick and tired of having to put up with hiss, rumble, interference and echoes coming from inferior equipment recorded in so-called ‘professional’ booths set up in someone’s boudoir. By the sound of it, these spaces aren’t studios. They sound more like shacks. Radio shacks.

If you can’t provide clean, crystal clear audio, you should start a website where amateur VO’s can go forth, multiply and make a lot of noise. Why not call it VoiceRabbit (after the rabid growth I predict it will undergo)?

Alternatively, you could consult men like Dan Lenard, Dan Friedman, George Whittam or Mel Allen. They will set you up with the right gear and help you fine-tune your sound in less time than it will take you to learn the ropes through trial and error.

Although it never paints a complete picture, quality equipment does make a statement. When a client or agent sees you are using professional grade gear, they know you mean business and they have one less thing to worry about.

Imagine going to a wedding photographer to find out if he’s going to be a good fit for your big day, and the man pulls out a cheap point-and-shoot camera. Would you hire him? I don’t think so. Now, owning a Hasselblad 503CW does not make one a brilliant photographer, but that’s a different story.

RECORDINGHACKS

In my quest for the best equipment, I spent many hours on Matt Mcglyn’s creation: www.recordinghacks.com. It’s an online magazine as well as the world’s most extensive database of a 1000+ microphones.

If you happen to be looking for a good podcasting mic for $200, recordinghacks has put them to the test. If you need the specs of the Manley Reference Gold tube condenser, look no further. Interested in a $60,000 ribbon mic shootout? You know where to go!

In 2011, recordinghacks gave away a new mic every month: a Cascade Fathead II, a Blue Yeti Pro, a Lauten Horizon et cetera. December’s prize topped it all: a brand new Microtech Gefell 930 Ts. This small, large diaphragm condenser was made with broadcasting and voice-over applications in mind.

AND THE WINNER IS…

In the first week of January, Matt Mcglyn said he had some good news for me: I was the lucky winner of the giveaway! It was unbelievable. What a start to the new year!

I want to thank Microtech Gefell GmbH for such a generous gift, and for their ongoing, uncompromising dedication to quality.

Matt Mcglyn deserves a big ‘thank you’ for creating such an excellent database and magazine, and for magically pulling my name out of his recordinghacks-hat.

As for the rest of you, I’m sure you’d like to know how my new mic sounds, and how it stacks up against other voice-over microphones. Well, it just so happens that I have written a review for recordinghacks, and you’ll find out for yourself why the Vatican has given its blessing to a small German company.

If there ever was one brand that has earned the right to capture the voice of G-d, it has to be Microtech Gefell!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice 

Next week I’ll tell you about one of the worst customer service experiences I’ve ever had, and what lessons we can draw from that for our own business.

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Give Me a Break!

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Gear 22 Comments

After much use, even the sharpest knives get dull. Paul Strikwerda

 

Can a voice-over pro ever take time off?

Do you have to be available 24/7?

Is it okay to shut down your business for a few weeks of Rest and Relaxation?

Will your Facebook fans unfriend you?

Will your Twitter followers desert you?

Will your voice-overworked agent ever talk to you again?

Let me answer these questions with a question:

What won’t happen if you don’t do it?

BALANCING ACT

I am a big believer in a balanced lifestyle. As a European living in the States (the number 1 “no vacation nation”), I see a lot of people around me who are absolutely addicted to their jobs. Modern technology has made it easier than ever to stay connected and become a burned-out, boss-pleasing slave laborer.

Have we forgotten our history?

On January 31st, 1865, The U.S. House of Representatives passed the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, abolishing slavery in the United States. It read:

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude… shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

I guess the keyword is involuntary servitude.

We are free people, living in a free country who have earned the right to free themselves of any free time. Instead, we have chosen “voluntary servitude.”

Now, that’s what I call progress in a society built upon the principles of “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness!”

But let’s put the cynicism and sarcasm aside for a moment. If you’re pursuing happiness as a full-time freelancer, you are in charge of your own destiny. You set your own hours. You determine your own rates. You’re the only one who can call it a day and shout from the roof tops:

Give me a break!

You’re self-employed. You embody your service. Literally. If you don’t take care of yourself, no one else will. If you don’t guard your boundaries carefully, good people with the best of intentions will step on them and leave you depleted.

TRAPPED & TIRED

A few weeks ago, I was asked to do a presentation in front of hundreds of people. Prior to that, there was a reception and -of course- you can’t have a reception without background music. It’s a known fact that most musicians aren’t capable of staying in the background. No matter the crowd, they have to be LOUD.

I knew that if I were to schmooze prior to my presentation, I would have no voice left, even though my vocal cords are well-trained.

As they say: “If you schmooze, you lose.”

Besides, the next day I was going to New York for a recording session and my voice had to be in top-shape in order to sell well.

So, I was left with a choice. Either slip something into the drinks of the band that would have them running to the restroom in a matter of minutes… or hide myself from the crowd until it was time to go on stage.

The first option was obviously more entertaining, but I ended up hiding in the basement. Unfortunately, an overzealous janitor came down, turned off the lights and kicked the door shut, leaving me trapped.

This is where cell phones can save the day. I called the organizer of the event:

“Hi, it’s Paul.”

“Paul, where are you? We’ve looked all over for you!”

“I am trapped in the basement. It is dark in here. Rats are nibbling on my feet. Please rescue me!”

That day, instead of being a voice-over, I became a voice-under.

I think you get my point.

In order to give your all, you sometimes have to get away from it all. But avoid being locked up.

GO AWAY

Now, in an ideal world you would just pack your bags and go where no one can reach you. But what to do when you’re waiting for that all-important callback or that once-in-a-lifetime chance to audition for something you can’t afford to refuse?

In that case, you need to take some gear on the road and improvise. Rather than spending a few hours going over all the options, I suggest you read Harlan Hogan and Jeffrey Fischer’s classic Voice Actor’s Guide to Recording at Home and on the Road. It’s jam-packed with practical information and I highly recommend it to anyone remotely interested in a voice-over career.

Here’s what I take along on my travels:

  • a laptop
  • a microphone
  • a CEntrance MicPort Pro
  • earplug-sized headphones

A MicPort Pro is a nifty mini audio interface/preamplifier that plugs directly into your microphone. On the other side there’s a USB cable that plugs into your computer. In other words: this device can turn any microphone into a USB mic. It has phantom power, a headphone jack and two knobs for setting the record level and the headphone volume.

So… after all that subtle product placement, let’s get back to the original question:

Can you take off for a period of time without ruining your career?

Here’s an experiment you should do at home:

Fill up your watering can to the brim and start watering your plants. Keep on watering and watering and watering… until there’s no more water left.

I don’t have to tell you that -in order for those plants to grow- you need to water them regularly. An empty watering can is useless. The moral of the story:

You can’t give what you don’t have.

Now, why is that so easy to understand when it comes to our plants, and why are we surprised that “We the People,” are so stressed, so drained and left without an ounce of creativity?

Take my advice and get lost! Recharge your batteries. Discover that you have significant others in your life who’d love to get to know you. It can’t be all work and no play… Your job is just a means to an end.

TAKING TIME OFF

Be sure to let your voice casting sites and agents know that you’ll be gone for a particular period of time. If you must, bring your gear, but promise yourself that you will only do what is absolutely essential. Otherwise, you’ll get sucked into obsessive email checking, incessant instant messaging and frantic Facebooking.

Only use your cell phone when you’re stuck in a basement and someone’s thrown away the key.

When you come back from your well-deserved vacation, notice how refreshed, alert and full of energy you are.

People can see it in your face. They hear it in your voice.

Now you’re ready to wow the world again!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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Building a Booth on a Budget – the booklet

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Gear, Money Matters, Studio 28 Comments

Your clients demand and deserve quality audio, but even a top of the line microphone sounds miserable in an unprofessional recording space.

Are you thinking of buying or building a voice-over booth?

Before you spend thousands of dollars, find out what your options are and why building your own studio is easier and cheaper than you may think.

I spent countless hours researching the options, materials and plans to create an affordable vocal booth that keeps the noisy neighbors out of my voice-over projects.

This 46-page booklet documents my search for silence, and it describes the science and art of soundproofing in non-technical language and with plenty of pictures.

Even though it is not intended to be the ultimate guide to home studio construction, it is packed with practical tips, ideas and resources.

This information is also useful if you want to create a quiet space for:

  • Music
  • Movies
  • Multi-media
  • Meditation

My goal was to build a solid, soundproof booth for no more than $2000. Did I make it?

There’s only one way to find out!

Download your copy today.

Once your payment clears, you will receive an email which contains the details of your purchase and the product download link.

Thanks!

Wishing you tranquil times,

Paul Strikwerda

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Renowned German Scientist Apologizes

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Gear 19 Comments


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The Mic Warmer: launching a true innovation

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Gear 29 Comments

“Paul, I think you’re on to something,” said Heinz Gruenewald.

Heinz works for the world-renowned Westdeutscher Rundfunklabor in Germany, and he’s one of the top sound wave specialists. He has several patents in nanomaterials, acoustic devices, transducers and sensors in his name.

AN UNUSUAL TALENT

Just like some wine connoisseurs are born with an extraordinary palette, Heinz is blessed with extraordinary hearing. As you know, you can let an oenophile taste a glass of wine, and he’ll tell you what country it’s from, what region and even from what year. Heinz has that same uncanny ability but with microphones.

He says that it’s both a blessing and a curse: “Whenever I hear audio, my mind immediately tries to figure out what microphone was used to record it. It usually takes me a few seconds to analyze the sound spectrum. Call me arrogant, but 9 out of 10 ten times I’m dead on.” Heinz has even been on the German version of 20/20 to show his talent off.”

Right now, he is working on a portable version of the digital microphone interface, which is expected to come out next year. The rapid advance of high-def television is associated with increasing requirements in terms of audio technology, which can only be met with the aid of digital microphones. That’s where Heinz comes in.

SURPRISE DISCOVERY

Heinz and I actually started an “online relationship” when I found him on the Internet as I was looking for an expert who could confirm or deny what only can be labeled as a surprise discovery. Here’s how it started.

At the end of 2008, I was listening to some old demos of mine, to determine which ones to keep and which ones to delete. Since I’ve been listening to myself for my entire life, it’s fair to say that I know my sound top to bottom, inside out. For some reason I listened back to back to a demo recorded at the end of January and one from the middle of August. The difference between the two couldn’t have been greater. It was almost as if another person had taken over my vocal chords. I couldn’t believe it.

Back in January, my sound was thin, shallow and cold. In August I sounded rich, resonant and warm. Mind you: I was certain that I had used the same microphone, the same preamplifier and they were all at the same setting I always use to create a consistent sound. For days I kept wondering what could account for the tremendous difference in the way my voice came across. It was night and day. It was too weird for words. What on earth could be the difference that had made the difference?

EUREKA MOMENT

Then I got an unexpected breakthrough. One December morning, I went into my studio to record an audition. It was early and I was freezing. Nevertheless I gave it my all. But when I heard myself back, I could hear the cold of the morning in my voice. This wasn’t working. I decided to switch on the thermal heater and come back when the temperature would be up.

Fast forward sixty minutes. I recorded the same lines with the same gear, and out of curiosity I played the two recordings I had made one after the other. My mouth fell open. A week and many experiments later, I contacted Heinz.

“Let me get this right,” he said with his soft German accent. “Are you saying that the temperature in the recording booth actually influences the way you sound?”

“Based on my experiments, I’m prepared to go even one step further,” I said. “At this point I am convinced that the temperature of the microphone greatly affects the tonal qualities of the sound it is picking up. It boils down to this:

When the mic is cold, I sound cold. When the mic is warm, I sound much warmer.

SCIENCE IN ACTION

Being a scientist and a sound wave specialist, Heinz didn’t take my word for it. Not even when I sent him the audio files. But I could tell he was intrigued and determined to repeat my experiment in a laboratory setting. It was easy enough to replicate.

At 3:00 AM the next morning my phone rang. An excited Heinz had forgotten that he was on German time.

“Paul, I think you’re on to something,” he said. “I have never heard anything like it. I only had a cheap microphone in my office, but I decided to put it to the test anyway. Stone cold it sounded like…. the piece of junk that it was. But when I left it on the radiator and it had warmed up significantly, it was a totally different animal. I swear to you, it almost had tube-like characteristics. It’s amazing. I don’t know how it works, but it definitely does.”

FURTHER TESTING

In the months that followed, Heinz and his team made sure that this hadn’t been a random event. Test groups were brought in to evaluate identical sound bites that were recorded with cold mics and mics that were warmed up. Without exception, the people surveyed not only noticed the difference; they all preferred the warmer sound of the warm microphone.

In February 2009, I traveled to Germany to go over the findings of the Rundfunklabor in person. Heinz and I had been speculating about how we could put my discovery to practical use. We had agreed that it would be a shame to leave the results of the research in some stuffy drawer.

When we sat around the table at the lab, Heinz had a big smile on his face when he handed me a cable with some sort of extension that reminded me a bit of a MicPort Pro. He said: “It looks like an ordinary USB cable, right?” “More or less,” I replied. “What is this black thing that’s attached to it, and why are you showing me this?” Heinz said: “You are looking at a prototype, my friend. And I have a feeling that this is going to create a small revolution.”

TRIAL PRODUCT

He continued: “This device is powered from the USB port and needs no batteries. The other end plugs directly into a condenser microphone. Now, do you see this control knob? Notice that the scale is in centigrades?

When you turn it up, it draws energy from the computer and transfers it into heat. This heat is actually warming up the microphone. And because you can adjust the temperature, you can adjust the tonal quality of whatever the mic is recording. That means that you can use a lower temperature for microphones that already have a warmer sound. Isn’t it ingenious?”

I was floored. In a few months time and without telling me, Heinz had turned my little discovery into the beginnings of a product. “Do you think people would actually buy this?” I asked.

“Paul, listen to me,” said Heinz. “I took the cheapest condenser microphone I could find and plugged it into this mic warmer. When it had reached the right temperature, I asked a professional narrator to read a few paragraphs into this mic. Then we asked him to read the same passage and we recorded it with a Neumann U87 large diaphragm microphone. I think it sells for about $3400.00 in the US.

My assistants had me listen to both samples, and I am telling you right now that I could not hear the difference. And you know me. My ears never lie. This is going to be big!”

“We have to make sure that this thing is safe,” I said. “I don’t want to be sued by some engineer because my device set his studio on fire.” Heinz agreed that there still was a lot of work to be done, but he was confident that we could put this thing on the market within one to two years.

NEW DEVELOPMENTS

With the backing of an innovation grant from the European Union, things moved fast. Patents were secured. The technology was thoroughly tested. Designers were brought in to make the mic warmer look sleek and futuristic. Because we were using European money, the device had to be manufactured in Europe. That’s where my Dutch connections came in. I managed to find a small company in the North of Holland that was able to start a modest production line. And I am proud to tell you that in the next month or so, the very first mic warmer will be ready to go to market!

It will be officially launched at the biggest annual audio show in Munich, but one of America’s top pro-audio providers has already placed a substantial advance order after hearing the test results. Geoff Deary, the head engineer, said that he had been very skeptical at first, but that he was “absolutely blown away by this small device.”

CONTEST

So… there you have it.  As faithful readers of my blog, I wanted you to be the first ones to know. But this story does not end here. I need your help. My product needs a name. For some reason ‘mic warmer’ doesn’t sound good. That’s where you come in. I’m asking you to come up with a better name. Please leave your suggestions in the comment section at the bottom of this article.

In two weeks, Heinz Gruenewald and I will pick a winner. And if we choose your name, you will be the first person to receive the finished product! The winner will be announced in this blog, so stay tuned.

Thank you so much for your help!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS please take a few moments to read a personal letter from Prof. Dr. Heinz Gruenewald.

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10 ways to spot a voice-over amateur

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Gear 54 Comments

“Dad,” said my almost eight year old daughter…

“What does baklava taste like?”

“It’s like a slice of heaven,” I answered.

“In that case… I don’t want it,” she replied.

“Why not?” I asked. “It’s sooo good!”

My daughter answered:

“I don’t want to…

Read the rest of this story in my new book. Click on the cover to access the website and get a sneak peek. Use the buttons to buy the book.

Making Money In Your PJs cover

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