voice-over studio

How Dangerous Is Your Voice-Over Studio?

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Gear, Studio 27 Comments

Ear painVoice-over people are really weird.

Every day they spend a long time sitting in a small, soundproof room, staring at a screen, and talking to themselves.

If they’re good at what they do, they pretend to communicate with an illusive but unresponsive listener.  

Then they spend an eternity listening to themselves as they edit and sweeten the audio.

After hours and hours of sitting on their behinds, these voice-overs emerge out of the darkness, longing for fresh air and an adult beverage.

The next day they do it all over again, because it’s such a glamorous job!

Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy this sequestered lifestyle tremendously, but it took me a few years before I got comfortable in my studio. In order to truly feel at home, happy, and safe in my claustrophobic recording cave, I had to add some items and make some adjustments to make life a lot healthier.

Tip: as is always the case, the text in blue is a link to an article or a product I recommend (links open in a new tab). And yes, as stated under “Disclosure” on the right-hand side of this blog, product links will take you to an online retailer. 

EYE PROTECTION

Let’s talk about CVS. No, I don’t mean the American chain of pharmacies. I’m talking about Computer Vision Syndrome (sometimes called DES: Digital Eye Strain). It’s the strain on the eyes that happens when you use a computer or digital device for prolonged periods of time. Common symptoms are eye fatigue, headaches, blurred vision, red, dry, or burning eyes, and even neck and shoulder pain. 

According to the Vision Council (the optical trade association) if you spend two or more hours in front of a digital screen, you’re likely to experience one or more symptoms of CVS. The blue light emitted from these screens seems to play a big role. Blue light or high-energy visible light, is a particularly intense light wave emitted in the 380-500nm range.

The question is: What can you do to protect your eyes from CVS?

One: Make sure the lighting in your studio is comfortable on the eyes. One way to do that is by using bias lighting (backlighting of a television or computer monitor). 

I’ve placed a simple Himalayan Rock Salt Lamp behind my computer monitor. Not only does it emit a nice warm glow, some people believe a salt lamp generates negative ions neutralizing (bad) positive ions coming from electronic devices.

Noticing the benefits of bias lighting in my studio, I went ahead and attached a strip of LED lights to the back of our television. Not only did the contrast ratio of the HDTV improve, my eye fatigue was practically nonexistent after a night of Netflix.

Two: Another way to prevent eye strain is to reduce glare. It helps to use indirect or reflective studio lighting. Some people attach a blue light blocking screen protector to their computer monitor. I always wear tinted computer glasses with a special lens coating to reduce glare.

Three: Blink more often, and take frequent breaks. Taking five-minute “mini-breaks” throughout the work day actually makes people more productive. During your computer breaks, stand up, move about and stretch your arms, legs, back, neck and shoulders to reduce tension and muscle fatigue.

PREVENTING RSI

Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) is a potentially disabling illness caused by prolonged repetitive hand movements, such as those involved in computer use. If you’ve just edited your latest audio book, you know what I’m talking about. Symptoms include intermittent shooting pains in the hands, wrists, forearms, and back.

Taking regular breaks is one way to prevent RSI. It helps to sit up straight, and to use a good chair. Don’t be a cheapskate when you buy one. You’ll be using it for many hours a day. For voice-overs it’s important to make sure the chair is quiet. Too many office chairs make squeaky noises that will make a guest appearance on your recordings.

The seat pan of the chair should be adjusted to tilt slightly forward to encourage a good posture when seated. Your forearms should be approximately horizontal when working, with your shoulders and upper arms relaxed. The seat height should be adjusted accordingly. I’ve also added a lumbar support pillow for extra comfort.

Many people develop RSI in their mouse hand. I use a gel wrist pad to keep my right wrist in a better position while using the mouse. I’ve also invested in an elbow rest (here’s another model) which has helped me tremendously.

It does make a difference what kind of mouse you use. I recommend choosing an ergonomic mouse with a track ball. It’s much easier to quickly move the cursor around, and there’s less strain on the hand. Some colleagues have switched to a track pad and are glad they did. 

By the way, did I tell you that I use two mice when editing my audio with Twisted Wave? The left-hand mouse moves the cursor on the screen, and the right-hand mouse highlights areas and makes the cuts. I used to use the Contour ShuttlePro V.2 for my left hand. It’s a neat, mouse-like controller with programmable buttons. However, using two mice and keyboard shortcuts works just as well for me.

BE KIND TO YOUR EARS

I absolutely adore my fluffy Beyerdynamic DT 880 studio headphones. They’re so comfortable, I don’t even notice that I’m wearing them… for hours in a row. And that’s not a good thing. When I do precision editing, I tend to turn the volume up to hear all the sonic details, and that can be risky.

Here’s the troubling thing: hearing loss is pretty sneaky. It’s usually something that happens gradually. How do you even notice your hearing isn’t as good as it used to be? Well, we have an app for that. Several to be precise. 

For Apple users there’s UHear and the Mimi Hearing Test. For Android users there’s the Hearing Test or the app Test Your Hearing (among other things). Click here to take an online hearing test. 

How can hearing loss be prevented?

For starters, I began using my Eris E5 studio monitors more and more. They usually provide enough clarity and detail for me to edit my audio. I also turned the smart phone volume down to a safer level (go to your settings and drop the volume limit to about 70%).

When I work out in the gym I prefer wearing earbuds. I have replaced the regular tips with memory foam tips that keep the earphones much better in place. They also block out the noise more effectively. That way I don’t have to turn my podcasts up so much. 

When I go to the movies, concerts, or shows, I always bring my Made in Holland Alpine Hearing Protection Earplugs. They’re on my key chain, so I don’t have to remember to take them with me.

Now, there are more things in your studio that are potentially dangerous. For instance, some people don’t respond well to the gases emitted by acoustic foam. Some get headaches or have trouble breathing. Switching to panels made of natural materials is one obvious solution. I could also have talked about vocal health in this overview of studio hazards. However, I’ve already covered that in my interview with vocal coach Elissa Weinzimmer

Let me leave you with one last thought.

TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF

The issues I described in this post aren’t exactly sexy. In the voice-over community we’d much rather talk about gear, or about declining standards and rates. The thing is: most colleagues don’t even realize they are putting their health at risk when they are entering their home studio and office.

Computer Vision Syndrome, Repetitive Strain Injury, and hearing loss are slow processes that -when ignored- can cause permanent damage. They’re not unique to the voice-over world. Adults spend 8+ hours staring at screens every day. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), RSI affects some 1.8 million workers per year. Hearing loss among teens is about 30 percent higher than in the eighties and nineties.

The good news is that all of these problems can be prevented. So, the next time you’re looking to invest in your studio, perhaps you don’t need that new microphone or preamp. Perhaps you should get yourself a good chair, a nice pair of computer glasses, a salt lamp, and new monitors.

Take my advice and don’t wait until it’s too late. If you’re having any of the symptoms I’ve described, or you’re experiencing other problems, go and see your doctor. After all, this is just a blog and I’m not a medical professional.

If you have any other tips that have made your time in the studio less risky and more comfortable, please share them in the comment section below, and share this blog post with your friends and colleagues.

Thank you!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet.Please retweet!


A Poor Man’s Vocal Booth?

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Studio 13 Comments

Sometimes I come across a certain product and wonder:

It looks promising, but is it any good?

The CAD Audio Acousti-Shield 32 is one of those things.

Designed to “substantially reduce unwanted reflections, echo flutter and environmental unwanted acoustic interference,” does it deliver as promised?

At about $85, could it be the poor man’s vocal booth, or is it a waste of space, and money?

SOUNDPROOFING

Before I tell you what I think, let’s briefly discuss the whole concept of soundproofing and room treatment. As I wrote in my booklet Building a Vocal Booth on a Budget:

“In this noisy world, soundproofing has become big business. I just Googled the word and got almost two million results. Buyer beware, because the same search will take you into the realm of grotesque claims and pseudo-scientific truths:

“These Soundproof windows will totally eliminate your noise problems.”

“This soundproof foam absorbs up to 66% of sound waves.”

“Our soundproof curtains offer the highest STC performance.”

Do the makers of these products assume we’re that stupid? Think about it for a moment. What does “soundproof” really mean? Most dictionaries describe it as:

impervious to, or not penetrable by sound

Going by the aforementioned claims one could argue that the minds of the makers of these products seem impervious to, or not penetrable by logic. Then again, advertising is all about making noise and not about offering sound proof.”

Gluing some acoustic panels to your wall or on to a “shield” will do nothing to block outside noise from coming in. Auralex foam and its many clones will change the characteristic of the sound inside your recording space, diminishing reflection and reverberation. It absorbs the sound but it does not reduce it.

Yet, CAD claims that their shield can substantially reduce “environmental unwanted acoustic interference.” What does that mean? Would this shield be able to diminish ambient noise? Why not find out? For the test, I purposely chose one of the worst acoustic locations in my house: my basement.

TESTING

Let’s say you want to use your laptop for a quick recording and you place your microphone in the same room. Before you know it, the computer fan kicks in and starts making noise. Could CAD’s Acousti-Shield magically neutralize the noise? 

I’ll let you listen to the same script twice. You might want to put your headphones on. First you’ll hear my voice without the shield in place. The second time I read the script, the Acousti-Shield cradles the microphone. Just notice if this device is able to get rid of the noise the laptop fan makes.

 

That’s pretty clear, isn’t it? It confirmed my suspicion. The shield does very little to keep unwanted noise out of the recording. As expected, this thing is no substitute for a properly isolated room. But will it deliver on the second promise? Could it make a room sound more dry? 

Before I play the second soundbite, you should know that I recorded the audio with an AKG C 3000 B microphone, plugged into a Grace Design m101 preamplifier. The 16 bit, 48,000 Hz WAVE recording was converted to MP3 format for this blog.

For the next track I removed the laptop from the room. Once again, you’ll first hear me without the shield. Then I’ll read the same text with the Acousti-Shield 32 in place.

 

Did you hear a significant difference? A difference worth over one hundred dollars? To be honest with you, I was disappointed. The room didn’t sound dry to me at all. How could a company with such a good reputation bring such a poor product to market? It just didn’t make sense.

WRONG APPROACH 

The next day I woke up with an idea. What if the product wasn’t the problem? Perhaps I was not using it properly.

I went on a few online forums to find out what others thought of the Acousti-Shield, and I found my answer. The recordings you just heard were made at 9 inches from the microphone. What would happen if I would come closer? 

Once again you’ll hear me read the script twice. First I’ll read it at 5 inches from the mic. Then I’ll add the shield, and keep the same distance.

 

Now, this is more like it! Distance makes a huge difference.

Thanks to a clever design, you can also move the microphone closer or further away from the 53mm high density micro cell foam. This obviously changes the acoustic result.

The question remains, would I recommend using such a shield for voice-over recordings? Let’s first look at the positives.

PROS and CONS

The Acousti-Shield 32 is well-made and easy to assemble. For its size it is very light, and unless you have a cheap mic stand on which to mount it, it won’t tip over. Compared to a product like Harlan Hogan’s Porta-Booth Plus ($189), it is affordable. As long as you stay close to the mic, it manages to tame unwanted reflections.

Here’s what I like less. CAD’s Acousti-Shield is not a unique product. sE Electronics was one of the first companies to come out with such a solution. They called it the Reflexion Filter X. Although I haven’t tested it, it looks very similar.

Unlike Harlan’s porta-booths, the CAD shield isn’t very compact. It’s meant for the studio, not for the road. Even though the shield accommodates a variety of microphones, a popular voice-over shotgun such as the Sennheiser MKH 416 does not fit.

Here’s the big one: where to put the voice-over script? 

I’m usually reading my copy from the monitor in front of me. The CAD shield would block my field of vision. Even if I were to read it from a tablet or smart phone, there is no place to put them as long as the shield is mounted on a mic stand.

In the end I came up with a simple solution. I put the shield on a flat surface that was resting on an old loudspeaker stand. With the microphone on a table stand, there was room for my Nook or iPhone. 

EXPECTATIONS

So, is this shield a good investment?

In the end it’s all about expectations. If you get the Acousti-Shield 32 because you need a portable studio, you’re not going to be happy. If you need something to keep ambient noise out of your recordings, this is useless. 

However, if you cannot acoustically treat the room you’re in, and you’d like your recordings to sound more dry, this is an affordable solution, as long as you know how to use it. 

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS CAD Audio kindly donated an evaluation model to the author of this blog. Though very much appreciated, this did not influence his opinion.

PS Read more on taming unwanted reflections in “Get the boom out of the room.”


Can CAD’s Cool Colored Cans Cope with VO?

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Gear, Studio 11 Comments

Over the years, people have commented that I have a good head on my shoulders, and they’re right. In fact, I’m rather bigheaded.

I’m also blessed with sizable ears that turn bright red when it’s hot or cold outside. And because they continue to grow as I age, there will come a time that I’ll be all ears. When that happens, I shall probably take up sailing.

My big head never really bothered me until I had to select a pair of headphones for my voice-over work. When I’m recording I prefer not to wear them (it takes me out of the moment), but when I’m doing detailed editing, I use them for hours in a row.

FACTS and OPINIONS

Searching for the perfect cans was quite an education. Just as with microphones, not everybody has the facts, but most people have an opinion:

“You must buy the Beyerdynamic DT770. They’re great.”

“Get the Sony MDR7506. Everybody in the business is using them.”

“The Sennheiser HD-280 PRO is the industry standard.”

I’m always interested in what others have to say, but I also know that what works for one person, doesn’t necessarily work for me. Part of that has to do with our individual anatomy.

All ears hear differently, and you and I may have different tastes of what sounds good. If you love listening to classical music, you probably want headphones designed for audiophiles. I needed cans that would allow me to accurately pick up breaths, mouth noises and other unwanted sounds. I wasn’t going to use them to listen to the Berliner Philharmoniker or to mix the latest Rap album. I wasn’t even going to listen in stereo!

COMING TO TERMS

When comparing headphones, you’ll find that many brands display a total lack of modesty. They describe their products as “world-class,” “revolutionary” and “exceptionally accurate.” While much of this lingo is just marketing hype, there are a few terms that come back again and again. Let’s take a quick look at them.

Open versus Closed

Open Headphones are designed to allow some outside noise to come in. Closed or sealed headphones isolate your ears from ambient noise. Open headphones tend to be lighter; they put less pressure on the ears, so they’re usually more comfortable. They also produce a more “open” sound, a bit more like your studio monitors. 

Closed headphones produce a more “inside the head” sound, and they’re often used in music production where critical listening is vital and outside noise should stay out of the mix.

If I were to were to use my headphones to listen to music on the train, the bus or in bed, I’d go for closed ones, so as not to bother other people. In my studio, that’s not an issue. Because I work in a very quiet environment, isolation from ambient noise is not so important either. Comfort, on the other hand, is.

My favorite pair of cans share a feature with my mind: they’re semi-open.

Frequency Response

Sound is measured in terms of frequency. Frequency response refers to the range of bass, mids and treble (highs). Let’s say the range of a pair of headphones is 15 to 25,000 Hz. What does that tell you? Well, the first number represents the bass end of the spectrum and the second number the treble end. One of the headphones I was looking at, had a range of 15 to 25 kHz. Is that any good?

Sennheiser HD280 Pro, Beyerdynamic DT770, Sony MDR-7506 & AKG K240 MK II

The audible frequency range for human beings is about 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz. Below 20 Hz, the bass frequencies are more felt than heard, but loudspeakers are much better at delivering that punch. Frequencies over 20 kHz aren’t always audible.

Because of the limitations of the human ear, a wider frequency range doesn’t necessarily lead to better sound quality. So, don’t be fooled by the numbers.

With some headphones and loudspeakers, certain frequencies are exaggerated and others are attenuated (reduced). Because headphones don’t give you the physical oomph that sound waves from a room speaker have, some makers of headphones overcompensate and build in a hyped bass response.

When listening to your voice track on these types of cans, it sounds like you’ve recorded too closely to the microphone (proximity effect). The flatter the audio response, the more accurately it reproduces the sound from the input source. Those headphones are best suitable for voice-overs.

Impedance

The impedance of a headphone (measured in Ohms) refers to the headphones’ ability to resist electricity. Here’s what you should know: The lower the impedance of the headphone, the easier it is to get higher volume. Higher impedance doesn’t necessarily mean higher quality.

The higher the impedance, the more power your headphones will require. If you’d plug a high impedance headphone (e.g. 600 Ohms) into an iPhone or MP3 player, you’d definitely notice a loss in quality because the drivers can’t handle it. That’s why those models usually need an amplifier to drive the speakers inside the headphones.

Some manufacturers make different impedances for the same model (the Beyerdynamic DT880 comes in three ratings: 32 Ohms, 250 Ohms, and 600 Ohms), so be sure to look at the specs before you place your order.

Sensitivity

Another factor influencing the loudness of the headphones is the sensitivity. Impedance determines how much power the headphones will draw, while sensitivity indicates how much of the electrical signal delivered to the headphones is converted into sound. This is measured in decibels of Sound Pressure Level per milliwatt, or dB SPL/mW.

Headphones of a higher sensitivity (and with high impedance) will sound louder than those of lower sensitivity. Be aware that the human ear may experience hearing loss if sound is sustained above 85 dB. So, if your cans are more sensitive than that, be extra careful.

Comfort and Fit

Even the best studio headphones would be pretty useless if they don’t fit right. When it comes to fit, manufacturers use fancy words to describe the two main types of studio cans:

Supra-aural headphones like the Koss porta pro, rest against the outer ear. The ear pieces can be flat pads against the ear, but can also be shallow bowl-shaped, or deeper ear cups that are too small to completely surround the ear.

Koss porta pro supra-aural headphones

Circumaural headphones like the Sony MDRXB700, have ear pads that completely surround the ear, and ear cups that completely enclose the ear.

Professional audio reviewers recommend wearing headphones for at least fifteen minutes when you test them for comfort. I’m not sure I agree. If they’re not comfortable, I can tell within seconds. Keeping them on for an extra ten minutes is not going to change that.

This is what you should ask yourself: Do the earpads exert too much pressure on the ears? Can the headband be easily adjusted? Remember that headphones that enclose or cover your ears can get uncomfortably hot. To find out, you do have to wear them for a while.

Sony MDRXB700 circumaural headphones

There’s one other thing I pay attention to: the cord. I happen to hate coiled cords. They tend to be heavier and there’s always something that gets caught in them. I also prefer the cord to be detachable from the headset, in case I need to replace it. Every studio engineer I know has messed up some cords by rolling over them with their chair. Cheaper headphones usually don’t come with a detachable cable.

CAD’s CANS

You probably remember that I’m a big fan of the CAD Audio E100S microphone. Voice-over colleagues are finally catching on to this amazing, affordable mic. This American company has a lot more to offer, though. CAD recently came out with the Sessions” MH510 studio headphones, and asked me to give them a try. Would these be just as good as the E100S?

Before I share my impressions with you, you should know that I’ll judge them based on my needs as a (bigheaded) voice-over artist only. Secondly, I’ll compare them to the reasonably priced cans I have used for the past three years: the AKG K240 Studio headphones that are quite popular in my field. You can buy both the CAD and the AKG for around $99.

First off: this CAD offers more than cans. The MH510 headphones are a fashion statement. It comes in few colors: red/white, black/orange, black/chrome and pure black. Each pair of headphones comes with two detachable cables (coiled and straight) and two sets of earpads (leatherette & velveteen), as well as an 1/4″ adapter and a carrying bag.

Compared to the light-framed, self-adjustable AKG K240, the MH501 is rather bulky. There’s a lot of rubberized plastic and the leather headband is thick and cushy. The AKG weighs 8 ¼ ounces (235 g) and the CAD comes in at 11 ¼ oz. (320 g). During longer sessions, the weight of the CAD began to bother me.

AKG K240 Studio & CAD MH510

With the MH510, CAD wanted to make isolating headphones that “virtually eliminated bleed into the playback environment.” In order to do that, the earpads firmly push against the ears. CAD has reached its objective because these headphones isolate really well. However, the price you pay is comfort. My ears did not enjoy the sustained pressure. The K240 Studio headphones, on the other hand, fitted like a glove. The semi-open design offers less isolation, but there’s also much less pressure to keep the earpads in place.

HEAD to HEAD

And what about the sound? Would CAD’s Sessions headphones be suitable for the simple, subtle sound of voice-over?

The AKG has an impedance of 55 Ohms and a sensitivity of 91 dB. The CAD has an impedance of 26 Ohms and a sensitivity of 103 dB. Remembering what I wrote above, this should tell you that the CAD cans are definitely louder. You don’t need to turn the volume up that much, in order to get a solid sound. CAD calls the sound pressure level “rivaling a concert experience.”

If you’d like to relive your experience at a Tiësto dance party, perhaps that’s exactly what you’re looking for in a pair of headphones. As a voice talent, I want detail. Not volume. Besides, volume can be dangerous! It can lead to hearing loss.

In terms of frequency response, the MH510 can be characterized by what CAD calls “extended lows”. One Amazon-reviewer described the bass as “intense”. I wouldn’t go that far, but the low is definitely overemphasized. For certain types of music this might be just what the doctor ordered, but not for voice-over. To me, the extended lows just made my voice recordings sound muddy.

In contrast, the K240 Studio headphones are open, airy, natural and neutral. The spoken word has a realistic, uncolored clarity to it. The best way to illustrate this is by sharing an audio sample with you.

I placed my microphone in between the earpads of both headphones, and I played one of my voice-over tracks. Of course a condenser microphone can never replace the human ear, but this will give you some idea of the difference in sound coming from both headphones. You’ll notice that I alternate between the AKG and the CAD. The K240 Studio headphones are the first ones you’ll hear.

 

CONCLUSION

What I’ve done in this review is unfair and unscientific. Yes, both the CAD MH510 and the AKG K240 are sold as studio headphones, but comparing one to the other is a bit like comparing heavy-duty hiking boots to running shoes. Both are footwear but made for a different purpose. It might have been better to compare the K240 to CAD’s MH310 cans, which look remarkably similar.

I don’t think CAD had voice-over applications in mind when they designed the MH510. That’s where the AKG shines.

The CAD is more geared toward tracking, mixing and mastering of pop music in a recording studio. If you don’t want to have a scratch-track/click bleed through, the closed CAD is the better choice.

Secondly, reading reviews can tell you a lot about the personal preferences of the author, preferences which you don’t necessarily have to share.

And then there’s the size of my head. We must take that into account. 

It’s only fitting…

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS CAD Audio kindly sent me a pair of MH510’s for evaluation purposes.

PPS Interested in headphone reviews? Here are a few websites I researched as I was writing this article:

http://www.head-fi.org

http://www.headphone.com/index.php

http://www.headfonia.com/category/headphones/

http://www.innerfidelity.com/headphonereviews

http://www.goldenears.net


Get the boom out of the room

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Studio 21 Comments

When I decided to become a full-time voice-over artist, I made myself a promise.

I would never lose an audition because of poor audio quality.

They might not like my voice. They might not like my read, but I would not let them ditch me because I wasn’t able to deliver broadcast-ready audio. In order to get there, I needed two things:

1. A dedicated, isolated and treated recording space

2. Quality equipment 

I purposely put them in that order. You can place the best equipment in a poorly isolated and barely treated room, and you’re still going to sound like an amateur at the kitchen table. I’d rather take an affordable microphone and preamp into a (semi)-professional booth, because the end result will be much better.

So, if you’re wondering where to spend your money, buy a Studiobricks cabin, or build your own space like I did. Then we’ll talk about getting that coveted Neumann U87 Ai, okay?

I still remember the day my 7′ by 7′ recording space was finally ready. The floating studio walls consisted of multiple layers. Auralex® Mineral Fiber and Green Glue were sandwiched between several sheets of 5/8″ drywall. All the seams were caulked with SilenSeal.

Outside noise was kept at bay, but inside, the space sounded like this:

 

CHAMBER OF HORRORS

Unknowingly, I had created an echo chamber! It was an ugly beast, waiting to be tamed. Especially in small spaces with parallel walls like mine, flutter echoes can be a big problem.

The best way to kill those echoes, is to put foam or other absorbing materials on the side walls. As a rule of thumb, the smaller the space, the more acoustical treatment you’ll need. Thankfully, I had a whole bunch of Auralex® Studiofoam Wedgies left over from my previous space.

I covered parts of the wall with SoundTrax™ from NextAcoustics™ and I added four CornerBlox™ bass traps, also from NextAcoustics™. The SoundTrax™ took care of the mid- and high frequency reflections. The bass traps absorbed the lower frequencies.

If you’ve ever seen pictures of my studio, you probably know that it’s also my office. My Mac Mini, Grace Design preamp and A/D converter sit right next to me in a small cabinet. Behind me are two bookcases, and I’ve lined the backs of those cases with Sonex Mini acoustical Panels.

A DIY REFLECTION SCREEN

In spite of those panels, I felt I was still getting too much reflection from the back. I tried to remedy that by taking a room divider and placing it behind my chair. I then took an old duvet cover, a few blankets and a sleeping bag, and hung them over the divider for absorption, creating a rear reflection screen. It wasn’t pretty, but it did the trick. The boom was out of the room!

Unfortunately, my improvised contraption was heavy and unstable. It also had a life of its own. I can’t tell you how many times it decided to fall down on me, usually in the middle of a recording. Two months ago, I had had it with this thing and I started looking for a replacement.

My search lead me to GIK Acoustics, a company that is selling in the U.S. as well as in Europe. They make a wide range of high-quality acoustic panels, bass traps and diffusors.

I especially like the fact that GIK uses ECOSE® Technology in their products, a formaldehyde-free binder, based on renewable materials instead of petroleum-based chemicals. It’s used in wood based panels and glass, rock and mineral wool.

GIK makes a versatile screen panel (32″W x 72″H x 3″ thick) that seemed ideal for my booth. Audio engineers would call it a Gobo. That’s slang for a portable acoustic isolation panel. Some people believe the word “Gobo” comes from “go between.”

Being the gearhead I am, I enjoy watching these types of videos. But when I watch something that’s put together by a manufacturer, the skeptic in me always wonders: does the product actually live up to the hype? I’ll let you be the judge, because I ordered a Gobo!

First, let’s listen to something I recorded in my booth without the GIK screen panel. You might want to use your headphones for this. 

 

As you can hear, compared to the first sample, room treatment makes a huge difference. However, for me the sound wasn’t quite dry enough. You can hear a bit of reverb at the end of each sentence.  

Once the GIK panel came in, I made two modifications. I added wheels so I could easily roll the panel into position, and I added handles. That way, I wouldn’t have to touch the coffee-colored fabric while moving the panel.

Here’s me reading the same lines from my booklet “Building a Vocal Booth on a Budget,” which is available in my store. This time, the Gobo is in place. By the way, both samples were recorded in WAV-format and converted to MP3.

 

Having used the screen panel for a few weeks now, I can confirm that it absolutely delivers as promised. It’s well-made, easy to position and it comes in many colors.

REVERB ON THE ROAD 

Even though this screen panel is portable, it’s great for a studio but too big for road trips. So, what do you do when you’re fighting flutter echoes in a hotel room? Well, there’s a solution that fits into your computer. It’s a De-Verb plug-in made by SPL, which stands for Sound Performance Lab. It’s a German company.

Originally developed to shorten the sustain period for drums and guitars, I’ve found that it also works well in the vocal booth, as long as you use it wisely. Once you’ve recorded your audio, you simply select the De-Verb plug-in from the effects list. This what you’ll see:

Screen Shot 2013-04-24 at 8.22.34 PM

The left button controls the level of reverb reduction and the right one the output gain. Both can be operated with the mouse wheel. When diminishing the reverb, you also diminish the output a little bit, and that’s why it’s good to turn up the gain slightly.

Now, don’t expect this plug-in to “fix” the first bit of audio you listened to (that’s the sample I recorded before I added any treatment to my booth). It’s by no means a substitute for acoustic panels or foam. However, if you’re recording in a less than ideal setting or you like your audio “extra dry,” this will definitely add the finishing touch.

Here’s the sample I recorded without the screen panel in my studio. This time, I added a bit of De-Verb. Once again, I recommend you listen with your headphones on. You might want to start by listening to the first sample, followed by this one. That will give you a nice contrast. 

 

Perhaps you find the difference quite subtle. To me, it’s just one of those small changes that, when you add it all up, can set you apart and take your product to the next level.

But how do you know that these changes really matter? Couldn’t it just be between the ears?  

Well, in our profession everything is pretty much between the ears, isn’t it?

You’ll know you’re on the right track when nobody comments on your audio improvements, because they could not be picked up.

It comes down to this.

Bad audio is an obvious earsore.

Quality audio is blissfully inconspicuous.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice


Open the Floodgates

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Gear, Studio 8 Comments

This is just a picture of a dripping faucet. It's not in my basement.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.


My Studio Secrets Revealed

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Studio 11 Comments

Almost every week colleagues and clients ask me about my voice-over studio. I’m proud of it and I am always happy to answer questions such as:

  • Did you buy prefab or did you build it yourself?
  • What’s your audio chain?
  • Why did you pick this particular preamp?
  • What audio editing software do you use?

You should know that I don’t consider myself to be an expert on booth-building or gear selection, but years of hands-on experience and the advice from friends like Dan Lenard, George Whittam, Dan Friedman and Mel Allen has given me a pretty good idea of how to spend my dollars wisely.

When it comes to investing in my business, I am guided by a few, simple principles:

  • A professional career requires professional gear.
  • Keep costs down and bring revenue up.
  • If you don’t invest, you can’t grow.
  • Every investment is a calculated risk that should pay for itself many times over.
  • The growth of your business determines and justifies the amount you invest.
  • Every investment must have long-term benefits.
  • Smart spending = smart saving.
  • Learn from the best and don’t reinvent the wheel.

Today I’ll take you on a tour of my studio and I’ll tell you what choices I have made and why. Please keep in mind that what works for me might not work in your situation, but you never know.

When reading the info below as well as the next story about my professional gear, remember this: my voice is for hire but my opinion is not for sale. I did not receive or solicit compensation for featuring the products I am using.

With that out of the way, why not start with the space I spend most of my time in:

The Nethervoice-over Booth

If you take your profession seriously, you need a quiet, dedicated recording space. Period.

Noise pollution is everywhere and it is on the rise! I was sick of having to interrupt my sessions just because my neighbors decided to try out their new leaf blowers and weed wackers.

The most expensive equipment sounds terrible in an untreated, non-isolated room. More and more clients are rightfully demanding recordings free of rumble, hiss and reverberations.

After a year of comparison shopping and studying soundproofing principles, I was ready to create my own recording area. I designed a seven-by-seven foot isolated room in my basement for under $2000, which I helped build with my two bare left hands.

The entire process is documented in a 46-page booklet called “Building a Vocal Booth on a Budget,” and over a hundred colleagues have used my plan or parts of it with great success.

You can buy this guide for $6.99 in my webshop, and I’ve just released a version in ePUB and Mobi format, which means it’s ready for your eBook reader or tablet.

Foam Alone

Once my vocal booth was built, the sounds of the outside world were kept pretty much at bay. However, the acoustics were worse than in my bathroom because the space was not yet treated with dampening materials.

Many companies sell so-called “soundproofing foam” and that’s just ludicrous. Foam does not soundproof a room. It absorbs and diffuses sound waves, which reduces slap and flutter echos.

To tame these echos, I spent $118 on a Small Studio Starter Kit made by Next Acoustics. It contains twelve 2 inch SoundTrax™ panels and 4 CornerBlox™ bass traps. It didn’t only look cool, it immediately absorbed most of the sound waves bouncing up and down the walls and ceiling. But I had more up my sleeve.

Freecycle.org

Freecycle is a worldwide network of people who are giving and getting things for free in their towns. Not junk, but good stuff that would otherwise end up in landfills. I found 10 Sonox acoustic miniPanels on Freecycle, as well as a rug and two bookcases. I also added four huge floor pillows from my attic to reduce even more reverb.

Last but not least, I added some leftover Auralex foam from my old recording space and put it on opposite walls and the ceiling. Yes, it’s a bit of a mishmash, but I think my clients care more about the way my studio sounds than about the way it looks. Listen to the difference:


Remember that the hard surface of a desk or music stand can cause unwanted reflections too. That was certainly the case with my desk which is in part made of glass. Luckily, I found a fleece dog bed that just happened to be a perfect fit.

What about ergonomics?

Ergonomics is the study of designing equipment and devices that fit the human body, its movements, and its cognitive abilities. Because I spend many hours a day in my studio, I wanted to create a healthy set-up for the mind and for the body.

The following question always pops up on various voice-over forums:

“Do you record standing up or sitting down?”

I can honestly answer that question with a resounding “Yes”! You can’t really see it, but I’m sitting on an adjustable kneeling chair. These types of chairs were first developed in the seventies in my neck of the woods: Northern Europe.

The kneeling chair promotes a healthier body posture, allowing your back to straighten. This relieves compression of the spine as well as tension in the lower back and leg muscles.

It also allows the diaphragm to move freely, and this promotes better breathing and blood circulation.

Most people need some time to adapt to this new kneeling position because they’ve been sitting like a sack of potatoes for years. The body has to build up the core muscles in the lower back, but once you have that strength going, you will never want to go back to a regular office chair. It helped me get rid of the pain in my lower back.

Should you decide to invest in a kneeling chair, you’ll discover that there are many poorly made products on the market that barely have any padding. As in voice-overs, you get what you pay for. My kneeling chair came all the way from New Zealand. It arrived within a week and I paid about $450 including shipping.

Preventing RSI

After one particularly long editing session, my right hand, arm and shoulder were protesting loudly and painfully. My neck wasn’t too happy either and my eyes were burning after staring at the monitor for so long. It lasted for a couple of days and it felt like the beginnings of repetitive strain injury.

One of the best ways to prevent that from happening is to move regularly. More and more research is coming out, pointing to the fact that a sedentary lifestyle is dangerous.

I also bought five things that have made my studio life a lot easier.

  • An adjustable, ergonomic arm rest. (available for about $60)
  • A computer monitor arm (about $70) putting the screen at eye level.
  • Anti-glare computer glasses to reduce eyestrain ($25). I’m wearing them in the pictures.
  • An ergonomic mouse and mouse pad

Here’s the disclaimer: if life at the editing desk is getting uncomfortable, it may be wise to talk to your doctor. There might be things going on that go beyond quick fixes and fancy chairs.

See the light

Lighting can affect someone’s mood (that’s why there’s heliotherapy). Personally, I prefer a warmly lit workplace and I’m not a big fan of those bright halogen lamps. They often buzz and that’s a no-no in a studio. Some energy-saving bulbs produce a high-pitched screech.

The one lamp I knew I had to have is a Himalayan salt lamp. Not only does it emit a very soothing light, some people believe that when heated up, the salt crystals actually purify and ionize the air, especially around electronic equipment. True or not, I just love the warm, comforting glow in my studio.

What about gear?

Next time I will show you what type of audio equipment I use to record and monitor my voice-overs with.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice