Now, if you follow my Instagram account (@nethervoice), you probably know that I post a micro blog every single day. One of my most popular entries last week, was a post featuring a gorgeous new stainless steel microphone.
That’s not just a gimmick, but a tool of the trade. Just as photographers need a professional camera to do their job, voice overs need professional sound catchers to make money. As a blogger and occasional gear reviewer, I’ve made it my job to find out how professional these new tools really are.
You know as well as I do that manufacturers feel they have to come out with new models all the time, just to stay relevant, whatever that means. But every once in a while they surprise me with something that’s really innovative and impressive, such as AustrianAudio’sOC18 and 818 microphones.
REVIEWING MY REVIEWS
One of my very first reviews is still my most popular. It’s the one about the CAD E100S microphone. Not to pat myself on the back, but prior to my review, very few in the community had ever heard of Conneaut Audio Devices, let alone of the weird looking E100S.
Today, many of my colleagues own one after reading my review, and it’s hands down the Booth Junkie’s favorite mic. Every other microphone he reviews on his YouTube channel gets tested against the ultra-quiet CAD.
By the way, if you see blue text in bold on this blog, it means it’s a hyperlink taking you to content I’m referring to.
Back in 2012, I was the first voice talent to discover StudioBricks, the Spanish company making game-changing vocal booths that have rapidly become the new standard in our line of work.
Next week I hope to introduce you to two new microphones from Earthworks Audio, a company in Milford, NH.
WHAT’S IN IT FOR ME
As you know, most voice overs love talking about gear, but some people are strangely suspicious of my motives. They seem to think that I’m in it to get free audio equipment. Let me give you four reasons why this is complete and utter hogwash.
1. If I need new gear, I’ll pay for it out of my own pocket. Period.
2. A majority of the gear I review, I actually own. The rest usually goes back to where it came from after my test is concluded.
3. I really don’t need more gear that would only be gathering dust. I guess I could give it away in a raffle as an incentive for people to subscribe to my blog. However, that’s a bribe, and I want people to subscribe for the right reasons. Not because of free stuff. Those subscribers never last.
REVIEWS SELL GEAR
4. My last point needs a longer explanation. I think the reviews I write are pretty thorough, and well-respected in our business. They reach thousands of interested people who trust my opinion.
I know that when I make a recommendation, colleagues listen, and they will make a purchase if and when they’re in the market for something new.
My reviews stay on my blog for many years to come, attracting not only voice over talents, but thousands of other people who are researching audio equipment.
This type of publicity is more valuable than any expensive advertising campaign coming from the manufacturer. Ads are by definition biased and manipulative, making people suspicious.
The makers of the products I review are very much aware of this. They also know that I usually spend several days reviewing and writing about their gear. During those days, I could have been making money recording voice overs.
So, as a sign of their appreciation, manufacturers will sometimes tell me to keep whatever it is I review. This, by the way, never influences my opinion.
I once reviewed the Microphone X by Aphex, and a company rep didn’t like what I had written. He got mad at me, and asked for a retraction which I refused. Unsurprisingly, they wanted their mic back, and I was more than happy to oblige.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Please remember: with every recommendation, I put my professional reputation on the line. If I write enthusiastically about something that’s crap, people will find out soon enough and blame me for misleading them. So far, my track record has been pretty good, and I intend to keep it that way.
I don’t review audio equipment to get free microphones and such. I’m just one of those silly, crazy gearheads who is always looking for the next best thing. And oddly enough, there always is a next best thing!
I also know the readers of this blog, and my gear reviews are among the most popular stories I write. So, I give my audience what it wants, while satisfying my twisted curiosity.
That’s a win-win in my book!
One last thing.
As you can see in the sideline of every blog post, I am a member of Amazon’s Associates Program. What does that mean?
When you click on, for example, a microphone link and you decide to buy it from Amazon, I get a very small percentage of that sale. To be honest, it doesn’t amount to much, but every little thing adds up over time.
Now, if you’ll excuse me… I have another microphone to test!
After Apple killed the 3.5 mm headphone jack in 2016, it started aggressively promoting the wireless AirPods. Even though I’m a huge Apple fan, I never liked these hard plastic pods, not even the original wired version.
It has to do with the shape of the buds, and with the rigid material these pods are made of. For some reason, they never stayed put, and I found these buds uncomfortable because they had no soft silicone tips.
Lastly, I was never blown away by the sound. If sound could be described by a color, these AirPods were definitely a boring dark grey I call “Meh.”
What I did like, was the freedom these wireless earbuds gave me. I could walk around without a long wire hanging out of my ears that was plugged into a device. Exercising in my gym became a lot easier since I didn’t have to worry about wires getting stuck in the equipment.
The biggest bonus of going wireless, however, is the intense feeling of being immersed in sound. That happens when you forget you’re wearing earbuds. With headphones, no matter how comfortable they are, you always know there’s something clamped onto your noggin.
Many types of wireless earbuds are pressed into the ear canal, giving you the feeling the sound is in your head. This makes for great recreational listening, but would these tiny buds also be suitable for audio editing? Can the small driver (the component that converts electrical signals into sound) inside the buds give enough depth and detail? I’ll answer that question at the end of this review.
Now, why did I choose the Melomania 1’s by Cambridge Audio*? Melomania, by the way, means “great enthusiasm for music.” My main reason for picking these buds was the alleged sound quality.
Whenever I make a new investment, I always read and watch as many reviews as I can find. Almost every review of the Melomania 1 mentioned that they sound much better than one would expect based on the price (I wanted to spend less than $100).
Many of these earbuds have a hyped bass which might be great in the gym, but I hate it. Not the Melomania. Cambridge Audio calls them “audio monitors” because the idea was to make them quite neutral sounding.
I have tried Apple’s second generation AirPods, TaoTronics SoundLiberty 79 earbuds, and most recently the Jabra 75t elite active earbuds. Compared to the Melomania 1, Apple’s AirPods sound tinny and flat. The SoundLiberty sounds muffled and dull. The Jabra’s were okay but unexciting, especially at their price point. FYI, I had to return two renewed sets of Jabra’s because of persistent crackling sounds and frequent loss of bluetooth connection.
click to enlarge
Before I talk about the Melomania earbuds themselves, I have to mention the packaging they came in.
As one of very few manufacturers, Cambridge Audio has done an outstanding job to make the attractive packaging biodegradable. It’s mostly corrugated cardboard. Even the plastic that was used was made out of corn starch which can be 100% recycled. Kudos for caring about the environment, and for making the box easy to open! I wish more companies would do that.
Let’s now talk about the earbuds. Cambridge audio is including eight different tips. Most of them are silicone, but two pairs are made of memory foam (my favorite).
While fit depends on the size and shape of your ear canal, I found it very easy to get a good seal thanks to the unique bullet shape of these buds. This allows you to twist and turn the buds into place, something that’s not possible with more conventional looking earbuds that rest inside the outer ear. A good seal is critical in getting this rich, immersive sound I was talking about earlier.
Please note: Third party ear tips may not allow these buds to charge when put into the charging case. Cambridge Audio sells a Pack of 10 Replacement Memory Foam tips on Amazon.
These earbuds don’t have a HearThrough or Transparency mode which lets you hear ambient sounds as you are wearing the buds. Be careful when you take them out for a run. You may not be able to hear surrounding traffic very well.
Comfort is highly subjective, and to me, these earbuds are so lightweight and unobtrusive that I quickly forgot I was wearing them. At no point did they slip out of my ears, even when I was running up and down the stairs. Because of the bullet shape, they do stick out of your ears a bit (see top photo), but it didn’t bother me.
I never use earbuds for making phone calls, so I’m not going to critique the microphones in these buds. I can reveal that most reviewers aren’t crazy about them.
WHAT ABOUT THE SOUND QUALITY?
As a professional voice over who wears high-quality headphones all day long, and as someone with a background in classical music, I am a very critical listener. I don’t need bass heavy headphones, but I do want a balanced and detailed soundscape.
I always test new equipment using music I am very familiar with. If I start hearing things I didn’t hear before, my interest is peaked. In that respect, the Melomania 1 wireless headphones did not disappoint. Once you have a good seal, the outside world is pretty much closed off, and you enter an acoustic bubble filled with a rich, balanced and almost audiophile sound. No active noise canceling needed.
I first listened to the last movement of Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony (the 3rd), where the composer literally pulls out all the stops. Wearing these earbuds took me inside the concert hall, surrounded by the majestic sound of a pipe organ. It felt as if the music was inside of my head, instead of trapped in headphones.
Moving on to a different piece, I especially enjoyed the punchy brass section in Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony (last movement). In typical Bruckner style, it was a wall of sound. Powerful, but never overpowering to the point of overmodulation. These tiny earbuds really surprised me!
I also wanted to find out how the Melomania’s sounded with a smaller ensemble. Here’s Lea Desandre, one of my favorite mezzos, singing a feisty Handel aria.
I loved the fact that I could distinguish each individual instrument, from the low bassoon to the theorbo (a kind of lute). The recording sounded very transparent and spacial, with the mezzo in the middle of the action. It’s as close as one can get to a live performance!
Speaking about the spoken word, these earbuds are just terrific because they are so neutral. The podcasts and radio programs I listened to, sounded crystal clear. I had a feeling the presenters were speaking to me, personally. This intimate experience continued while I listened to an audio book.
WE HAVE A WINNER
In my subjective experience, the Melomania 1’s blow all the other ear buds I have used out of the water in terms of sound quality, especially at this price point (they’re on sale as I write this review). It’s pretty incredible that these small “bullets” can produce such an amazingly rich sound stage. Again, during the day I wear $350 cans, and I actually prefer listening to these lightweight buds, if only for sheer comfort.
In terms of battery life, my praise goes on. I have used these tiny earbuds for over a week for at least an hour a day (usually more), and there’s still juice in them. By the way, the compact case (one of the smallest in the market) has a very handy battery level indicator.
According to Cambridge Audio, the Melomania 1 can last up to nine hours on one charge, with a further 36 hours within the charging case. This depends on the volume level, of course, but for such small buds this is impressive and convenient.
There are three things I like less. One is the lack of an app, such as the one Jabra is offering. This Jabra app allows the user to refine the sound with presets and an equalizer. Firmware can’t be updated either. Lastly, to charge these buds one needs a micro-USB cable instead of a USB-C cable. That seems a bit outdated.
Other than that, I’ve become a huge fan of these tiny buds. If you’re a lover of acoustic music, audio books, and podcasts, these musical true wireless earbuds offer unparalleled freedom, and tremendous value for money. And no, Cambridge Audio did not pay me to say that.
And finally, here’s the question I promised to answer: would I use these or other wireless earbuds for audio editing purposes? No, I wouldn’t, and the reason why can be summarized in one word: Latency.
Latency is a fancy word for delay. Wireless earbuds connect to any device via bluetooth (a Dutch invention, by the way). In a regular wired connection, the typical audio latency is 5-10 ms. In a wireless connection, Bluetooth latency can go anywhere from 34 ms up to 100-300 ms for true wireless earbuds and headphones. If you’re just listening to music, or to a podcast, you won’t notice it.
If you’ve ever tried to watch a video using wireless headphones, you probably experienced that the sound was slightly out of sync with the picture. As I was attempting to edit a voice over track using my earbuds, the same thing happened.
I noticed a slight discrepancy between the visual sound wave in my DAW, and the actual sound in my ears. The sound was always running a fraction behind. Practically speaking this means that you first see the edit you want to make, let’s say a lip smack, and then you hear it. This may seem no big deal on paper, but in reality this is very annoying.
In January 2021, Cambridge Audio will be releasing the new Melomania Touch True Wireless Headphones with an advertised FIFTY hours of battery life, an app, and a transparency mode, letting outside sounds in. These buds look more like conventional earbuds that resemble hearing aids, so if you don’t like the fit or look of the Melomania 1’s, these might be the ones for you ($149).
Alternatively, you can buy Apple’s new AirPods Max(to be released in the USA on December 15) for the low price of $549. They’re headphones, not buds, but they are wireless. You’ll love the cool, soft Smart Case! Or not.
HEADPHONES AND HEARING LOSS
One final word of warning: noise-induced hearing loss is real! The World Health Organization estimates that “1.1 billion young people worldwide are at risk of hearing loss due to unsafe listening practices,” in part from listening to music via headphones or earbuds. Cheap, low-quality earbuds fail when it comes to blocking outside noise, leading listeners to turn up the volume even more.
Get this: The maximum output of many devices can get up to 115 dB, which can cause permanent hearing damage in as little as 8 to 15 minutes!
If you wish to protect your ears you have two options: buy active noise-canceling headphones/earbuds, or noise-isolating earbuds like the Melomania 1’s.
To prevent permanent hearing loss, listen to your music or voice over tracks for no more than 60 minutes at a time at no more than 60 percent of your device’s maximum volume.
George, a reclusive, world-renowned wildlife photographer, was invited to a posh dinner party at a New York brownstone. His host, a vivacious heiress to a rapidly declining fortune, took him aside and said:
“George dear, I want you to know that I am a huge fan of your work. Your photographs are simply stunning. You must only use the very best cameras.”
Without missing a beat George retorted:
“Thank you for your kind words, Dorothea. Dinner tonight was absolutely divine. You must only use the best pots and pans.”
Dorothea was not amused, but George had made his point. Even the most expensive cameras or pots and pans are of little use in the hands of an amateur. They are tools. Nothing more, and nothing less.
The same is true for microphones. Owning a pricey Neumann U 87 Ai just tells me you can afford one. It doesn’t say anything about your talent or experience.
Even if you happen to be better than Don LaFontaine and Mel Blanc combined, that new Neumann is not going to make a poor performance or a crappy recording environment sound any better. It will probably expose all its flaws. You can’t fault the microphone for that of course, but it goes to show that you cannot fix everything with a more expensive mic.
If you’re in the market for a different microphone, ask yourself this:
Apart from wanting a new toy to impress my colleagues, what problem am I hoping to solve?
Here are a few valid reasons to buy a new mic:
SOUND QUALITY: Your current microphone just doesn’t flatter your voice. It’s too muddy, too dark, it accentuates the highs too much, it doesn’t handle plosives or sibilants very well, there’s way too much self noise.
TRAVEL: You need a sturdy mic for on the road; a microphone that’s built like a tank with excellent side and rear rejection so you can use it in less than ideal recording environments.
SOUND MATCH: Your client wants you to closely match the sound quality of previous recordings done in another studio at another time. E.g You recorded a script using a Sennheiser 416, and you only have a Neuman TLM 103 in your home studio. Time to buy a shotgun.
UPGRADE: You want to move from a cheap USB microphone to a regular XLR condenser mic. Go ahead. Exchange that Snowball for a Worker Bee.
COMMUNITY SERVICE: You are a vlogger or blogger like me who enjoys reviewing audio equipment to inform, entertain, and educate the unwashed masses.
Before you start the search for a new sound catcher, here’s what you should consider.
THE MICROPHONE MISTAKE
I believe there’s something fundamentally wrong with the way we evaluate microphones. We talk about them as if they’re separate entities.
We compare the specs pretending they tell us anything about the way the mic is going to sound as part of the recording chain and acoustics in our personal studio. That just doesn’t make any sense.
Of course you should be familiar with the basic characteristics such as polar patterns, self noise, phantom power and whether or not the mic comes with high and low pass filters. Anything beyond that is just marketing mumbo-jumbo and fluff.
And even when you read the specs, keep in mind that manufacturers measure the characteristics of their microphones in anechoic chambers. In other words, ultra isolated, echo-free rooms covered in sound absorbent materials that come nowhere close to the repurposed clothes closet you call your “professional home studio.”
I’m pretty sure that in your search for the next best mic you’ll spend a few hours, even days, watching a parade of mic testing dudes on YouTube. For some silly reason, only men review microphones. Usually, they’re either videographers with too much time on their hands, or musicians that look like they were kicked out of their bands.
Here’s the one exception, and I think she’s absolutely adorable.
Apart from voices dot com-member and Booth Junkie Mike Delgaudio, and the team at VOBS, there are very few people from the voice over industry weighing in on the tools of their trade. That’s a problem (and an opportunity!).
You don’t need to know how a mic sounds on electric guitar, or on a boom arm, fifteen feet up in the air. All you really need to know is this:
How does my voice sound on this microphone, plugged in to my equipment in my studio?
And that, my friends, you won’t find out by watching adudelikeBandrew on YouTube. You won’t even know what a microphone really sounds like because of the standard compression YouTube applies to every video.
YouTube uses a lossy audio format, meaning that any audio has been compressed using a compression algorithm. Compression leads to loss in sound quality and how aggressive the compression is can be determined by the bit rate of the audio. So, a 128 kbps AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) will sound worse than a 256 kbps AAC. Standard YouTube audio comes in at 128 kbps AAC, and you can only get 256 kbps if you’re a YouTube Premium subscriber. As a comparison, Apple Music is streamed at 256Kbps in AAC.
Are you still with me?
HOW DO YOU LISTEN?
Not only is the sound quality of YouTube videos purposely compromised, the folks reviewing these microphones are probably not going to use the preamp you happen to have in your studio. The same microphone can sound differently plugged into a different preamplifier.
Now get this. What you actually use to listen to the audio samples, also colors what you hear. I listen to my audio in four ways: I use the built-in speakers in my iMac, and I listen to my Presonus Eris 5 monitors. I also put on my BeyerdynamicDT 880 headphones, as well as my AustrianAudio hi-X55 cans.
And guess what? The same audio sounds different depending on how I listen to it.
Our ears, by the way, aren’t exactly objective either. Hearing is interpreting. A sound engineer will hear things in your audio you aren’t even aware of. And you are probably the least objective person in the world to evaluate your audio.
There are more things people take into account when choosing a microphone:
Before I started writing about theE100 S, very few people in voice overs had ever heard of a small Ohio company called Conneaut Audio Devices (CAD). Yet, they were making one of the best VO mics on the market.
Just because you haven’t heard of a particular brand doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider it. In fact, you will often get more bang for your buck by not buying a well-known brand because you’re not paying for a massive marketing machine.
Now, let’s talk about the price of a voice over microphone. It’s a story about the law of diminishing return. Once you get past the $300 point, the more money you spend on a new microphone, the greater the chance that you’re paying for subtle improvements in sound quality most people won’t even be able to hear.
An affordable microphone isn’t necessarily a bad microphone.
Case in point: I just paid $156 for a brand new Synco D-2 microphone I found on eBay. Yes, that’s the one Minami was giggling about in the video you just watched.
Synco is actually Guangzhou Zhiying Technology Co., Ltd in China. Their D-2 is marketed as a cheaper alternative to the venerable Sennheiser MKH 416 that retails for $999.
Here’s my point. Launched in 1962, the 416 may have the edge, but does it sound $843 better?
I just booked a $1500 job with the Synco, and the client loved the punchy sound. He didn’t ask:
“Can you please record the same script with a Sennheiser? I’d like to hear the difference!”
In the real world, clients don’t say: “I missed a bit of the airiness in the upper register the 416 is known for.” The audio is either acceptable, or it isn’t.
The truth is that so-called experts are more likely to give the Sennheiser higher marks because they know it’s the Sennheiser, just as higher-priced wine will score better on a taste test. It’s called cognitive bias.
Here’s the thing with high-priced mics. They’ve become a status symbol in the VO world. Look what I can afford, people!
Well, good for you.
Feeding my family is more important to me than impressing a peer with new gear.
But Paul, when I buy a German microphone, I know it’s made of high-quality materials. I don’t want a cheap Chinese knockoff.
Fine, but let me ask you this.
Do you know how many of these high-quality German microphones actually use parts that are Made in China? Try living your life for one year without buying anything that contains anything made in China. One of my friends actually did that. He only wanted to Buy American, and found out it was impossible.
That wasn’t his fault. It’s the way big corporations work. Buy cheap materials, pay as little as you can for manufacturing, and sell at a premium. It’s Western-style capitalism, courtesy of the People’s Republic of China.
But I digress. We were still talking about microphones, and I’m about to wrap things up.
What I wanted to say is this:
STOP being such a mic snob. Most of us are recording one track mono. Not a symphony orchestra. When narrowing your search for a microphone down, ignore most of the self-styled experts telling you what to look for in a mic.
You don’t look. You LISTEN.
In your own studio, using your own equipment.
And while you do that, think about the problem you want to solve.
And maybe, just maybe, your microphone is not your problem. Mic placement could be an issue, or a failing preamp.
Maybe you could benefit from some acting and improv classes… or some additional soundproofing. Just a guess.
The thing is…
Owning an expensive camera does not make you an award-winning photographer. Buying the best pans at Williams-Sonoma does not turn you into a Michelin-star chef.
No matter how shiny it may look, a microphone is not a magical silver bullet.
Get this. A couple of weeks ago there was a flash flood in my neck of the woods, and rain water came gushing into our basement. Lots of it. In a matter of minutes the entire floor was covered in a brownish liquid, as the carpet tried to absorb it like a thirsty sponge.
All I could do was use our wet/dry vac to pump up the roaring waters, hoping my basement voice over studio would be spared. Luckily, my heroic efforts paid off (the Dutch know a thing or two about keeping the waters at bay!).
The studio was pretty much spared, but the rest of the basement was one wet, damp mess. It took me a few days to clear the space, and dry it out completely. Later that week I started recording again, and the moment I connected my preamp I knew something wasn’t right.
Gone was the crystal clear signal my Audient iD22 is known for. Instead, I heard an unacceptable, annoying electrical buzz that refused to go away.
This could only mean one thing. The moisture had gotten to it, and once that happens, it is pretty much game over. Mind you, I’ve had this stellar preamp since 2013, so it’s had a good run. I knew it was time to find a worthy replacement.
If you are an audio engineer, you are no doubt very familiar with SSL. You’ll find their mixing consoles in most major recording studios, and more number one hits were recorded with SSL equipment than with any other brand. Their 4000 series is particularly coveted.
Now, what SSL has done is condense everything the brand is known for in a compact, affordable package. I’m talking about solid build quality, pristine analogue microphone preamps, and super clean 24/192 kHz conversion. I’m talking about low-latency monitoring, high-performance headphone preamps, and a special Legacy 4K button.
Each preamp has a 5-segment LED meter for visual level reference. You can plug in microphones that require 48V phantom power, but you can also use ribbon and dynamic microphones like the Shure SM7B without needing a Cloudlifter ($150 in savings right there!). That’s because the preamps have an ultra-low noise floor of -130.5 dbu EIN, and offer a gain range of 62 dB. That’s enough for very detailed and clean recordings.
In the back there are two studio-grade Neutrik mic/line combo jacks, and two 1/4″ outputs for your studio monitors. In addition, the SSL2+ has two 1/4″ headphone outputs as well as MIDI I/Oover 5-pin DIN jacks. You’ll also get two pairs of RCA outputs with the 2+ to attach some outboard gear.
photo credit: SSL
THE MAGIC NUMBER ELEVEN
Most voice overs will be quite happy with the cheaper SSL2. I chose the 2+ because I’ve always wanted an interface I could plug two headphones into. My Beyerdynamic DT880’s, which I use for recreational listening, and my Austrian Audio Hi-X55’s which are my editing cans.
What I also like is that both units are USB-powered (USB C & A). No more ugly power brick. If you have an Apple computer like I do, the unit is plug and play. If you’re a Windows fan, just download the ASIO/WDM Driver and you’re in business.
Esthetically speaking, these interfaces have the familiar SSL look and color scheme with a simple, logical setup for the knobs. I particularly like the big blue monitor level knob which goes to…. eleven!
Speaking of the exterior, what’s this 4K Legacy button all about? SSL puts it this way:
Engaging this switch allows you to add some extra analogue ‘magic’ to your input when you need it. It injects a combination of high-frequency EQ-boost, together with some finely tuned harmonic distortion to help enhance sounds. This enhancement effect is created completely in the analogue domain and is inspired by the kind of extra character the legendary SSL 4000-series console (often referred to as ‘4K’) could add to a recording.
Of course that’s just the company talking, so what do I find of this 4K effect? First off, it’s not a miracle cure for bad audio. I’d call this effect a subtlesound colorizer that’s actually quite pleasing to the ear. It adds some mojo to your mix, especially if you’re using a dark sounding microphone. Mind you, once you’ve recorded in this mode, you cannot undo the effect like you would with a digital plugin.
To hear the difference, here’s a short recording, first without 4K and then with the switch engaged. Lastly, you’ll hear me line by line without, and then with 4K. I’ve used my new and “darkest” sounding microphone, meaning the one that accentuates the lows in my voice.
IT WORKS OUT OF THE BOX
What I like about the SSL2 and 2+ is the fact that these units are pretty much self-explanatory. There’s no need to go into a virtual mixer (as was the case with the iD22) and fiddle around with different settings. Everything just works as advertised. The online user guide is easy to follow -even for beginners- and SSL support is very responsive and eager to help.
I contacted them because I had the crazy idea to plug in my brand new shotgun microphone (review coming up), and my Gefell condenser, and switch between the two as I was recording my auditions. Channel 1 (my shotgun) came through loud and clear, but Channel 2 (the Gefell), didn’t send any signal to my Twisted Wave audio editor. The LCD’s were lighting up, but that was it.
SSL rep Tim Shortle kindly explained that my audio interface was perfectly fine. Twisted Wave just wasn’t developed for multi-channel recording.
It turns out that there’s a workaround in Twisted Wave (thank you Sean Daely!). When opening a new file, choose stereo. One microphone will record in the left channel and the other in the right. When it’s time to edit the tracks, you simply copy and paste them to a new mono file so you hear them in both ears. Problem solved!
By the way, these SSL desktop interfaces also come with free digital audio workstations like Pro Tools First and Ableton Live Lite (plus some other cool stuff for those who are into music production).
PROS AND CONS
Let’s end this review with a list of what I liked and liked less. I’ll start with what I liked less about the SSL2+.
The housing seems sturdy, but it’s part plastic, part metal. Audient (their main competitor) makes all-metal units, but they are more expensive (the iD14 model is about $300 with fewer features).
There’s no on/off button. What’s up with that? My Audient iD22 didn’t have one either. It’s less of a problem with the SSL2+ because it’s bus-powered, so it turns off when you shut your computer down.
The cord connecting the unit to the computer is too short. My preamp sits to the right of my iMac, and I needed a longer connection. I just don’t like it when you’re excited to try out a brand new piece of gear, and you can’t because of a short stupid cord.
The LED’s don’t show enough dynamic range. It’s a five-step ladder LED meter going from -40 to 0, and I’d like to see a few more intermediate steps. It’s not a deal breaker though, because most of us will set the gain looking at our DAW.
The headphone sockets are on the back. I prefer to have more direct front access. That way, the cords don’t get entangled in a mess of wires.
The 48V phantom power buttons are black and small and they don’t light up when engaged. In poorly lit surroundings it’s not always easy to see if these buttons are pressed down.
SSL2+, Audient iD22 & iD4
Unlike my iD22, the SSL2 and 2+ units don’t have a high-pass filter which I think is a useful feature if you want to cut down on low rumble in your recordings (and your microphone doesn’t have that switch). I’ve attached a Shure A15HP – In-Line Hi-Pass Filter to my unit and it does the job, but you can also filter your audio with a plugin in post.
I’ve read reviews that don’t recommend using low-impedance headphones with these units. Nonsense! My Austrian Audio Hi-X55 cans have a low impedance of 25 ohms, and sound magnificently detailed through the SSL headphone amps.
And then there’s the Legacy 4K effect. Some reviewers love it and won’t record anything without it. Others think it’s just a gimmick.
Now for the pros.
By building these interfaces in China, SSL was able to put them on the market at an insanely low and very competitive price. The SSL2 is a little over two hundred dollars, and the 2+ comes in under three hundred. This includes the production pack software package.
These may be entry level units, but they definitely bring superb Solid State Logicsound quality to your home studio. The overall no-frills design is intuitive and just makes sense. I like the sloped shape, and the controls are smooth and sturdy. This plug and play audio interface is easy to use. You don’t need an external power supply, and yet it has enough oomph to go to 11, and feed a dynamic/ribbon microphone!
In short, the SSL2 and SSL2+ offer outstanding value for money. Don’t let the audio snobs talk you into buying expensive boutique preamplifiers. Spending more cash doesn’t automatically mean your sound quality will get exponentially better.
In fact, the more money you spend, the smaller the audible improvements will be. Who are you trying to impress? Your Facebook friends or your Insta-buddies?
Give me a break!
For a little over two hundred bucks you can get all you need to power your voice over studio with pizzazz!
What’s more, you’ll feel very good about having saved some hard-earned money.
Instead of telling you a story, or giving you some kind of Top Ten, I will answer three seemingly simple questions I get asked a lot.
I’ll start off with some career advice, then I’ll talk about gear, and I will finish with my most embarrassing moment in this business.
Why not save the best for last?
As a voice over coach, I work with experienced people and absolute beginners. This is what many want to know:
How do I become a top-earning voice talent?
This is actually easy to answer:
By NOT becoming a full-time voice actor.
Just look at the evidence. I’m sure you’ve seen a few lists of the best paid voice overs. Trey Parker and Matt Stone are usually on those lists. They are the creators of South Park, and they wrote The Book of Mormon musical. Matt and Trey are screenwriters, producers. directors…. and they do voices for the cartoons they created.
Seth MacFarlane, Harry Shearer, and Hank Azaria are also on that list. All three are multi-talented multimillionaires. Hank is a stage actor, director and comedian. Seth created Family Guy and co-created American Dad. He’s a writer, a producer, actor, and singer. Shearer hosts his own weekly radio show, and stars in many movies.
In 2015, the movie Minions hit American theaters. The voices of these cute yellow fellows didn’t come from a professional voice actor, but from French animator Pierre-Louis Padang Coffi. In the Despicable Me movies, fellow director Chris Renaud voiced a few minions too.
One last exhibit.
Have you seen the list of Primetime Emmy’s Nominees For Outstanding VO Character Performance & Outstanding Narrator that just came out? On that list are people like Maya Rudolph, Leslie Odom Jr., Wanda Sykes, Angela Basset, Lupita Nyong’o, and Sir David Attenborough. Now tell me: how many of them are actual voice actors as opposed to screen actors doing VO as a side hustle?
So, if your goal is to make a ton of money doing voice overs, the sure-fire road to making a fortune does not lead to the VO studio, but to a film set, a Broadway stage, or to a comedy club. Unless your name is David Attenborough. There are exceptions, but the people for whom voice acting is just something they do on the side (among many other things), tend to be the highest earners.
My advice: get famous doing something in the entertainment industry first. Once you’re a household name, the voice over offers will start pouring in.
What equipment do you recommend for the voice over studio?
First off, even the best gear sounds crappy in a bad environment. I strongly urge you to spend most of your money on creating a semi-soundproof and acoustically treated recording space before you blow it all on a Neumann mic.
When it comes to selecting equipment, I find that a lot of people go for familiar brand names without looking any further, and they spend way too much money.
Now, it takes a good preamp to make a microphone shine. Audient might not be the first brand you think of when it comes to voice-over gear. Yet, this British company is known throughout the recording industry for their pristine preamps. If you’re looking for a pre with top-of-the-line AD/DA converters, a monitor controller, and lots of connectivity, the iD22 is an excellent choice.
The iD22 has a little brother: the iD4. It’s a compact, robust, portable plug and play solution. At two hundred bucks, this stylish all-metal powerhouse is hard to beat in the studio and on the road.
What was the most embarrassing moment of your voice over career?
Let me preframe my answer by saying that I firmly believe that people make decisions based on the information that is available at the deciding moment. This information is always insufficient, and it is colored by many factors such as our emotions. Looking back, some of the decisions you and I have made may seem silly or stupid now, but had we known better, we would have made better choices.
Here’s one decision I came to deeply regret.
Back in 2009 I was launching my voice-over career in the United States, and I signed up for voices.com. That turned out to be a pretty good move, because straight away I started booking a handful of lucrative jobs.
A few months later, Voices held a contest called “The Ultimate Success Story,” asking their members to write a few words about how well they did using the online voice casting service. The grand prize was a $500 gift certificate to pro audio retailer Sweetwater.
I think you can guess what happened next: my glowing testimonial turned out to be the top pick. Last time I checked, it is still used for promotional purposes.
Why was winning the grand prize so embarrassing?
Well, right after claiming my reward, my luck on Voices ran out, and after a few years I started to dislike the whole Pay-to-Play model. As I wrote in my book Making Money In Your PJs:
“In 2013 I had a five-star rating, 5445 listens on voices.com (more than any other Dutch talent), and I landed a total of… (are you ready?) TEN jobs, earning me a whopping $2,740.89. God only knows how many auditions I have had to submit before being selected.
This can only mean one of two things. Either, I stink at playing the Pay-to-Play game, or I’m a talentless, misguided soul who should be doing something useful with his life.”
That year I left voices.com, and I never looked back. I no longer believe that a site like Voices benefits my career or my community. As I wrote in my article Leaving Voices.com:
“Today, I’d rather work for agents who have an incentive to send me quality leads with decent rates. There are no upfront fees. When I get paid, they get paid. When they negotiate a better deal, they make more money too. That’s only fair. I only pay when I actually get to play.”
Every now and then I still run into people who have read my prize-winning VDC endorsement. They also know of my overall disenchantment with online casting mills. And when they bring up my old testimonial, I get very uncomfortable.
It is the unfortunate price I pay for my Sweetwater shopping spree!
But don’t feel sorry for me.
I may not make as much as Trey, Matt, Hank or Harry, but I’m doing quite alright.
Most of Hollywood is closed for business. Studios are struggling to survive. Word has it that insurers are unlikely to cover productions for COVID-19 cases when business resumes.
Research by the Society of London Theatre indicates that 70% of UK theaters will run out of money by the end of the year. As you probably know, Broadway has been shut down until the end of January 2021.
Thanks to the Corona virus, thousands of on-camera and stage actors are twiddling their thumbs in desperation. One of them is Mykle McCoslin. She’s also an acting coach, writer, and president of the Houston-Austin SAG AFTRA local. She knows she won’t be returning to the stage or set any day soon. So, what can she do? Mykle says her agents might have the answer:
“Voice over is something that my agents have been emailing me about, saying: You’ve got to do this! Now is the time to learn how to build your own studio and be a professional voice over actor.”
But Mykle was in no way prepared to jump on the VO bandwagon:
“I’ve auditioned from my phone, but I am in no way proficient with the equipment. When my agents contacted me about an ethernet connection and Source Connect, I was freaking out.”
Within the first hours of the webinar, Mykle had over 1K views, 31 shares, and 160 comments. Less than two weeks later we are at 2.2K views and counting. Bear in mind that most actors who tuned in had most likely never heard of Whittam or Shepherd. They were just interested in the topic. What does this tell us?
It confirms what I hear from my agents, students, and on-camera colleagues. Thanks to COVID-19, many more people are thinking of a voice over career than ever before. Who can blame them? But, this does beg the question:
Should we be worried or excited?
Before I answer that, let me tell you that if you are currently a professional voice over (emphasis on professional), the webinar didn’t cover anything you wouldn’t already know. It addressed basic questions like:
What equipment do you need?
How can you create a home studio on a budget?
What types of voice over work are there?
Where do you find VO jobs?
How do you audition?
Do you need a demo, and if so, who can help?
Based on the questions that came in, one thing became abundantly clear:
Drama school does not prepare stage and on-camera actors for the demanding and uncertain world of voice overs.
Most actors are unaware of and intimidated by the technology required. If I were an employee at Guitar Center and one of these stage actors came in, hoping to start a VO career, I could literally sell him the cheapest or most expensive USB mic and get away with it. No questions asked.
I’m not saying that to put anyone down. Most voice actors would be totally out of their comfort zone in a television studio or on a film set. It’s understandable that their on-camera colleagues are not very familiar with the ins and outs of VO.
WHAT NON-VOICE ACTORS DON’T KNOW
Before you’re getting alarmed that thousands of out of work on-camera and stage actors are all coming for our jobs, please keep this in mind:
– Most of them have no setup enabling them to work from home, and if they do, it’s probably insufficient (just think of the Broadway actor in her tiny New York apartment without any soundproofing) – Most of them don’t even know what equipment they should buy; they may not even have the funds – They’ve never heard of DAW’s, noise floor, presets, self-noise, Neumann, polar patterns, MKH 416’s, high-pass filters, et cetera – They only have acting reels but no VO demos – They may have VO credits, but have no idea how to properly record and edit audio, or how to set up a session for remote direction – They have no long-time relationships in the VO world, nor do they have an established network of VO clients – Some of their agents have no idea where to find VO-jobs – Many of them will struggle with the lack of physicality in voice over work, the claustrophobic working conditions, and the anti-social aspect of the job – SAG-AFTRA members will go after union jobs, and most of the VO work is non-union – The lower VO rates, status, and lack of exposure may not seem attractive to on-camera, on-stage talent – Like most people, on-camera and stage actors underestimate what it takes to have a successful and sustainable career in VO
Tom Hanks once said:
“There are times when my diaphragm is sore at the end of a four- or five-hour recording session, just because the challenge is to wring out every possible option for every piece of dialogue. It’s every incarnation of outrage and surprise and disappointment and heartache and panic and being plussed and nonplussed.”
He said this about his third Toy Story sequel:
“It’s an imaginary stretch. To the point of exhaustion. Because you’re only using your voice, you can’t go off mic, you cannot use any of your physicality. You have to imagine that physicality. In a lot of ways that’s the antithesis of what you do as an actor.”
What I like about these quotes is that they show respect for the challenging work we do as voice actors. You and I know that what we do is not as easy as it sounds, but I think many of us feel undervalued and not as appreciated as the people who walk the red carpet and get all the goodie bags. Not because we stink at what we do, but because we’re the invisibles of the industry. Some have noted that even SAG-AFTRA seems to take our profession more seriously these days (but that’s another blog post).
THE ADVANTAGE OF BEING A TRAINED STAGE ACTOR
So, what do on-camera and stage actors have going for them when it comes to voice overs?
First and foremost: acting chops.
I happen to believe that the majority of people advertising themselves as “voice actors” are in fact “voice overs.” Voice overs can read a script with a certain authority and clarity, but that doesn’t mean they possess any dramatic acting skills. They are pretty good at reading a script, but not at embodying the text or the character they are paid to portray. It’s out of their comfort zone.
In a way, many voice overs are one-trick ponies like news readers, school teachers, or former radio jocks. You can tell within the first few seconds where they got their start. There’s no emotional range, depth, or color, whereas an on-stage actor is a chameleon, a shape-shifter who is able to act out different characters with subtle but essential changes in the placement of the body and the intonation of the voice.
To use a musical metaphor: most voice overs are like a piano. The sound they produce is adequate, consistent, and rather one-dimensional. An on-camera or stage actor can sound like many different instruments, performing a huge repertoire.
On-camera and stage actors have another advantage: their physicality. Whereas many voice overs are pinned down to their chairs inside a small space, their more dramatic colleagues are not afraid to get into character, twisting their bodies and faces into pretzels to become the person they pretend to be.
Because they are used to learning scripts, they can memorize their lines and sound like they’re spontaneously speaking instead of reading off a piece of paper. It’s the critical distinction between sounding natural and unnatural.
Once again, I’m not saying this to put anyone down. You can’t judge a mime for his inability to carry a tune because he was never trained to be a singer (unless that mime purposefully advertises his singing skills).
Speaking of vocal skills, while many voice overs are struggling to maintain vocal health and stamina, their on-stage counterparts are used to performing up to eight shows a week. From the onset, they already have the chops to record an audio book for five to six hours a day without damaging their vocal folds.
In what other areas can an on-camera/stage actor edge out a voice actor? It greatly depends on someone’s status and reputation. The problem is, voice actors are invisible. Stage actors are anything but, and can use that notoriety to their advantage.
A-listers can make a killing recording commercials by leveraging their celebrity status, and because of the crisis we’re in, even celebs are becoming more affordable. Having said that, no job is ever guaranteed.
Daniel Stern is known for his roles in films like “Hannah and her Sisters,” “City Slickers,” and the first two “Home Alone” films. He is also the narrator for the “The Wonder Years” and he’s the voice of Dilbert in the animated TV series.
One day, Daniel got a script for a voice-over audition, and his mouth practically dropped to the floor when he read the specs:
“Must sound like Daniel Stern”
He’s thinking: “Piece of cake. This one’s in the bag!”
So, Stern goes to his booth; records a demo; sends it in…
…and doesn’t get the part!
Another thing invisible actors can learn from their visible counterparts is building a professional presence. On-camera actors have no problem putting themselves out there. I’m painting with broad strokes here, but it is my observation that voice overs tend to be more introverted, and on-camera/stage actors tend to be more extroverted.
We live in a time where branding is more important that ever. You’ve got to be visible in order to be noticed. A strong social media presence is required if you wish to play the game at the highest level. And if you want people to hire you, they need to be able to find you. Otherwise you’re a dime a dozen.
Back to my original question:
On-camera and stage actors getting into voice overs. Am I worried or excited? Should I feel threatened or honored?
I personally welcome my on-stage and on-camera colleagues to the voice over business, in part because their professionalism forces me to up my game. I know that most of them will outperform me in the acting department, but without a quiet home studio (that doesn’t’ sound like one), their auditions won’t be competitive yet.
And while they’re gaining experience recording and editing audio, I can take online improv classes, redo my website and demos, and increase my social media presence.
In these uncertain times there’s one thing I know for sure.
You can learn a lot in a short amount of time, but you cannot fake the number of years you’ve been in business. Experience, expertise, and integrity are valuable commodities that can’t be bought or rushed, no matter how famous or unknown you are.
I firmly believe that there’s an abundance of jobs waiting for anyone with talent, who is willing to work hard and play fair.
And together we’ll eventually get past this crisis because it makes us so much stronger.
I’m not the only blogger who fell in love with this new microphone. Do a quick online search, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find one bad review. No matter what you throw at it, the OC18 performs extraordinarily well. I think it offers exceptional value for money, especially for vocal applications.
Inspired by my review, A Dutch colleague decided to take the plunge and order one. A week or so ago, he got in touch with me to say that he was disappointed in the OC18. He said he’d expected “a more beefy sound.”
He sent some sound samples of his new mic to two audio engineers in Amsterdam. One of them really liked what he heard and said that the OC18 made it easier to edit the recording in post. The other disagreed, and said that he had to add more bells and whistles to make it sound good, compared to the old microphone the talent was using, made by SE Electronics.
Same microphone recorded in the same home studio. Two professional opinions. Who is right and who is wrong? Or is there even such a thing as right and wrong?
THE ROOT OF THE PROBLEM
It was time for me to dig deeper. I asked my colleague to send me some raw OC18 audio from his studio. The sample sounded fine, but there was something strange going on. His OC18 had more lows than my OC18, yet he noted that his new mic “lacked the punch” he had been hoping for.
I firmly believe that you can never evaluate a microphone in isolation, or by looking at the spec sheet alone. After all, a cake recipe in a cookbook doesn’t tell you anything about how the cake is going to taste, and whether or not you will like it. It doesn’t even take into account how good you are at baking a cake.
As you no doubt know, a microphone is part of an entire recording chain with many variables. Every element within that chain can color the sound. On top of that, the recording space and the way we reproduce and analyze the sound, makes a huge difference to our perception.
I once attended a recording session at the famous Abbey Road studios, and the vintage Neumann U 87’s sounded majestic. Taken into a cramped voice over booth, that same, venerable microphone just didn’t do it for me. To my ears, the sound was a tad too muddy.
Well, I discovered that my Dutch colleague had his OC18 plugged into an Apogee Duet 2 preamp that’s been described as “clean, quiet, and detailed.” I have an Audient iD22 in my studio that I would describe as clean, quiet, and detailed. As it turns out, even notoriously neutral preamps add some character to the mix. Perhaps that’s why my OC18 sounded brighter.
Just to be sure he hadn’t bought a lemon, my colleague talked to Austrian Audio and had them listen to a sample. Their senior acoustic engineer Christoph Frank confirmed there was nothing wrong with the microphone. He suggested that my Dutch colleague was probably so used to the sound of his old microphone that the OC18 didn’t meet his expectations.
I have to concur. Our perception is constantly colored by our senses, our memories, and our expectations.
You see, in order to function as a human being we are continuously comparing and adjusting. It’s an unconscious process. In order to determine whether or not we’re getting closer to our goal, we have to compare where we’ve been and where we are, to where we want to go. It’s a feedback loop.
Sometimes the place we want to arrive at is very concrete and explicit. For instance, if I want to go to the Easton Farmers’ Market, I have to know where it’s located and what to look for so I will recognize it once we get there. Then I get into my car, and as I am driving I am comparing where I am to where I want to be. Every comparison is a measurement. A judgment. The better the instruments are that I’m measuring with, the more precisely I can determine my progress.
But quite often, the goals we’re trying to reach are vague. So many people simply say: “I want to be better at….blank.” The question is “What do you mean by better? Compared to what?” That’s where the trouble begins.
I see so many colleagues on social media saying: “I want to buy a better microphone. Which one do you recommend?” This is immediately followed by a whole string of suggestions. The cure has already been offered without a proper diagnosis, and without knowing what someone’s criteria for a better microphone are, let alone the available budget.
In this case my Dutch colleague wanted a microphone with “more oomph,” but what the heck is oomph anyway? “More oomph” means different things to different people, and is it even fair to expect more oomph from something that might not even be capable of delivering it?
As Einstein said:
“If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
The other question we’d have to ask ourselves is this: Are there other ways to give a microphone more punch, for instance by using some compression? Perhaps the mic is not the problem.
What I’m ultimately trying to get across is that your expectations are telling a lot more about you, than about the object of your anticipation. Expectations are mostly built on your past experience, your subjective taste, and your personal preference.
Part of our expectations also comes from social proof, such as the reviews we read and the videos we watch. I mean, if Mister Booth Junkie (whom I love) says this $250 Synco shotgun sounds exactly like a $1000 MKH 416, it must be true!
Let’s face it. We can’t help being biased, and the tragedy is that so many people are not consciously aware of it. And here’s the kicker: I can make you biased if I want to!
For instance, if I would tell you that you’re about to listen to a recording that was made using a pricey Neumann microphone, chances are that you would give it higher marks than if I had told you it was done on some cheap Chinese brand you’ve never even heard of.
That, by the way, is the same reason why people are convinced more expensive wine tastes better. It’s an example of the confirmation bias where we favor ideas that confirm our existing beliefs and what we think we know.
For most people, it’s hard to have an open mind, especially if you haven’t been taught to think critically, and you’re more of a follower than a leader. Just turn on the news, and see for yourself how confirmation bias colors people’s perceptions and actions. Our political affiliations do not matter. We’re all guilty.
Luckily, my colleague was aware of his limitations, and asked for outside help. After our conversation he invited a trusted audio engineer over to his home studio to test the microphone at the location where it would be used. In about two hours, the engineer carefully tweaked the settings of the Apogee Duet, and installed a few updates. He also adjusted the input levels which had been way too low.
In musical terms I guess one could say that he tuned the entire recording chain like a grand piano.
Once he was done, the Austrian Audio mic began to sing with a full dynamic spectrum. The clarity that had been missing was back, and the microphone now produces a rich and bright sound that totally flatters my colleague’s voice. He’s not going to send it back to Austria. That’s for sure!
The moral of the story?
Be aware of your limitations, your biases, and your expectations.
I dare you to send them a sample of that audition you were so proud of, and they’ll kindly tell you what you don’t want to hear:
– your gain is too high
– your gain is too low
– there’s a persistent low rumble in the background
– your booth isn’t well-isolated and outside noises are coming in
– your recording space sounds too hollow because it lacks proper acoustical treatment
– your audio sample is filled with mouth clicks, lip smacks, popping plosives, and loud breaths
– your cheap microphone has too much self-noise
– you’ve over compressed your audio, distorting the sound
Reading all this, you say to yourself:
“How can this be? I’ve listened to my audition over and over again, and I had no idea this was going on! What did I miss, and how did I miss it?”
THE UNTRAINED EAR
Before you start blaming yourself, just realize that as a beginner, you don’t know what you don’t know. Folks like Roy, Don, Dan, and George also have a gift. Just like Simone Biles was born to be a gymnast, these guys came into this world with extraordinary ears. Ears which benefitted from many years of training and listening experience.
If you enjoy watching cooking shows like I do, here’s an analogy that will appeal to your senses.
What happens when you give a professional chef a dish s/he’s never tasted before? Within seconds their brain will begin to analyze aromas, smells, and textures. After the second bite they’ll be able to tell you all the ingredients and all the ways the dish was prepared. On top of that they also know what went wrong during preparation, and what needs to be done to make it better.
Think of their palate as an exquisite instrument. It’s almost like a microscope. The more refined and precise it is, the better results you get. That, by the way, is reason number two why beginning voice talent is unable to hear their own flaws. Not only are their ears untrained, they also lack the sophisticated equipment to identify and measure the quality of their audio.
There’s also the bias factor. It is impossible for us to listen to our ourselves with clinical objectivity. Most of the time we see what we want to see and we hear what we want to hear. We’ve become so used to the low humming sound of that fridge not far away from our studio, that our brain filters it out as unimportant information.
Our biology limits us in more ways. Some of my older and even younger coaching students are experiencing hearing loss. Thirty nine percent of adults ages 60 to 69 have trouble hearing speech clearly. The first thing to disappear is the ability to clearly hear high-pitched sounds.
While we cannot reverse hearing loss or make up for years of ear training, what we can do is invest in equipment that is better at revealing the weak spots in our recordings. Some people like to use spectral sound analyzers such as the one in Adobe Audition (click here for a quick demo).
I do all my editing in Twisted Wave, and I rely heavily on my headphones to tell me what’s wrong with my audio. If you’re new to voice overs, I strongly suggest you invest in headphones designed for audio engineering purposes since you are in fact an audio engineer. I highly recommend you buy good quality cans before purchasing studio monitors.
In my workflow I first do the precision editing using headphones, and once that’s done I’ll often listen to the audio on my computer speakers because that’s how many people will hear the end result. In the beginning, I relied on AKG’s classic K240 semi-open over ear headphones (55-ohm version). They’re light-weight, very reasonably priced, and reasonably reliable.
Since AKG was taken over by Harman, and Harman was taken over by Samsung, AKG is focusing more on the consumer market than on the professional market. That’s why I hesitate to recommend AKG products for the voice over studio. For audio monitoring I now rely on the Beyerdynamic DDT 880 PRO headphones, the 250 Ohm version, to be precise.
ENTER AUSTRIAN AUDIO
Austrian Audio Hi-X55
Last year, I discovered a brand new brand: Austrian Audio. The team behind Austrian Audio was responsible for the development of most of the AKG products in the past twenty years. When their Vienna offices closed, they made a deal with Harman to buy as much AKG equipment as they could, from office furniture to machinery. Austrian Audio is focused on developing best-in-class, professional audio equipment. Last year I reviewed their stellar OC18 microphone, which is based on the famous C12 capsule.
More recently, Austrian Audio came out with two headphones. One on-the-ear model, and one for over the ears. They were kind enough to send me the over-the-ear model for review, the Hi-X55 which retails for $329. Unlike my DT 880’s which are marketed as “semi-open” (but are really “open”), the Hi-X55 cans are closed. This means no sound is supposed to leak in or out of the headphones.
Whereas the DT 880’s use moderate to low spring pressure, the Hi-X55 feels firmer but not in an unpleasant way. Coming from the gentle Beyerdynamic cans, I did have to get used to the increased pressure on my ears, but there was a payoff. The outside world did not leak into the sound very much, allowing me to focus entirely on my recording. Especially if you plan on monitoring in an environment that’s not as quiet as you’d like it to be, closed back is definitely the way to go.
The Beyerdynamic headphones are known for their soft, velvet ear pads which offer unrivaled comfort. They’re like a teddy bear hugging your ears. The Hi-X55 has leatherette earpads with additional room and slow-retention memory foam to increase comfort and reduce fatigue. They fit my rather large ears and head very well, but the fake leather did cause my ears to sweat a bit after prolonged listening. And listening I did, from the early hours of the morning until late at night
To be honest, I couldn’t put them down and here’s why.
The amount of detail the Hi-X55 headphones reveal is -pardon the pun- uncanny. Don’t expect a rich and warm audiophile sound. That’s not what they are meant to reproduce. I’d call the soundstage direct and very accurate. To me that means uncolored with no hyped frequencies and especially no beef in the bass department.
Listening back to some of my previous recordings using the Hi-X55’s, I heard mouth noises and breaths I should have edited out. While I wasn’t happy about that, it’s precisely what I want and need in a good pair of studio headphones. They have to be as unforgiving as the Spanish Inquisition. When you’re performing sonic surgery, your headphones better sound close to clinical.
But I went a step further in my test, realizing that not everyone is going to use these Austrian Audio headphones to edit simple voice over tracks. In order to recommend them, they have to perform well in different soundscapes. Click here for one test I always do when I take headphones for a spin. The Hi-X55’s passed with flying colors.
Audio engineer Darin Fong has developed virtual speaker software for headphones that replicates the experience of listening to high-end speakers using only headphones. He says itallows the listener to experience their music or movie as if they were actually sitting in the room with the speakers that were measured – but without having to actually be there. Think of it as audio “virtual reality.” Anyway, hearing is believing, and every time I test new cans I have to play this Darin Fong demo:
Lately, I’ve really gotten into a thing called “binaural audio.” Binaural literally means “having two ears.” Binaural sound is stereo audio that is recorded through a dual microphone setup mimicking human ears. The goal of recording binaural sound is to create a 3D audio effect that simulates sound as if it is being heard live. Binaural sound can only be experienced through headphones. Here’s a stunning demo that takes you to the streets of New York:
On YouTube you’ll find lots of binaural recordings ranging from classical music to pop. If you have trouble sleeping, check out the binaural tracks that supposedly bring you into a state of deep relaxation. It worked for me! For something more upbeat, here’s Pink Floyd like you’ve never heard before:
I am giving you these examples because they really gave me an opportunity to test the Austrian Audio Headphones in terms of realistic reproduction of sound. I have to admit that I often forgot that I was wearing headphones as I was taking a virtual tour of the streets of New York. It was such an immersive experience, and to me that speaks to the quality of the Hi-X55’s.
What surprised me most about these cans was the low impedance of 25 ohms. Headphones with low impedance require little power to deliver high audio levels. This means you can easily plug them into mobile recording solutions such as your laptop or tablet, and even your smart phone.
Normally, professional, high-end studio headphones favor high impedance. They demand more power from a headphone pre to deliver high audio levels. But for the low-impedance Hi-X55’s, the secret is in the High Excursion (Hi-X) drivers that were designed in-house, generating a higher sound pressure level.
Monica and Sabine, of the production team in the reorganized production rooms in Vienna, assemble Hi-X headphones.
So, what’s my final verdict?
From the classy design, innovative technology, and high-end materials, it’s obvious that these Hi-X55 headphones are built to last. They are as much at home in the professional studio as they are suitable for recording on the road. Austrian Audio has once again raised the bar in terms of uncompromising sound and build quality, a quality that is often lost in an era of mass production.The Hi-X55 are my new go-to cans for voice over audio editing.
Don’t just take my word for it. The MusicTech Magazine recently awarded these headphones their prestigious MusicTech Choice award. Click here to read their review. Here’s a quote:
“Austrian Audio has created a superb set of headphones in the Hi-X55s. Their sound-for-pound cannot be faulted and, in many respects, especially with regard to the capacious soundstage, they outperform some more costly designs.”
If $329 headphones are not in your budget right now, but you would like to get a second opinion on the sound coming from your home studio, I have good news.
Uncle Roy Yokelson has kindly offered to analyze and annotate your studio audio FOR FREE, if you send him an unprocessed 30-second sample (be sure to include room tone) and the same sample using your normal audio processing.
Please label the unprocessed sample with your name and RAW (e.g. paulstrikwerda_RAW.wav), and the processed sample with your name and FINAL. Roy’s email address is email@example.com.
PS Many thanks to Austrian Audio for sending me not only the Hi-X55 headphones for testing, but also for the photos you see on this page. As always, my opinion is independent and not influenced by any manufacturer.
Sick of building unstable pillow forts in your hotel room?
Done doing auditions under duvet covers?
When (voice) actor Rick Wasserman needed to record on the road, he wanted a portable booth that would travel on a plane without incurring overweight fees.
Such a booth didn’t exist, so he designed one himself. He ordered PVC piping and moving blankets from eBay, and with a bit of DIY, the prototype for the Tri Booth was born. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a start.
Wasserman had no intention of ever selling his contraption to colleagues, until a well-know voice talent saw his booth and made him a surprise offer.
“Perhaps I’m on to something,” said Rick, realizing that his design would need some serious fine-tuning before it was a marketable product. To that end, he teamed up with master audio engineer George Whittam, and together they obsessed over every detail (their words, not mine).
A few weeks ago, Rick and George launched their perfected product, and I got to try it out.
BUILDING A BOOTH
In essence, the Tri Booth consists of a triangular PVC frame that’s covered by moving blankets. It’s super easy to set up because the plastic poles arrive already connected like tent poles. All you need to do is fit the color coded pieces together, hang up the blankets, and add the optional accessories. Here’s how the Tri Booth arrives:
Inside you’ll find a rolling suitcase with everything you need (click on each photo to enlarge). The premium version weighs 45 pounds (about 20 kilograms), and you won’t incur any overage penalties at the airport check-in.
Here are some of the accessories: an LCD light, a small table, a copy holder, and an extension cord (Premium version only).
It took me less than ten minutes to put the frame together. Click here for a demonstration. Note that the connected straps give the structure strength and increased stability.
Next up: the moving blankets. There are three of them. Two “walls” and a “ceiling.” Candlelight recording sessions are out of the question.
The moving blankets are in place. You’re looking at the booth with the “door” open, so you can see the interior. Note that the cloth does not reach the floor. At the level of your microphone, the moving blankets are folded in half to double the thickness.
Here’s my recording set up. Note that the main pole has a microphone boom arm that will accommodate shotgun mics as well as large diaphragm condensers.
By now you must be eager to know what it’s like to record in the Tri Booth. Let me take you inside.
After I recorded this video, the Tri Booth team decided to take the Standard model off the market and just sell the Premium version as THE Tri Booth.
Until now I already had a recording solution for the road, the perfectly portable Harlan Hogan Porta Booth Plus. It’s basically a foldable box, lined with Auralex® foam. How would this travel booth stack up to the Tri Booth?
Here’s a quick and dirty recording to demonstrate the difference. It was made with an iPhone and a Shure MV88+ microphone. First, you’ll hear my voice as recorded in the basement. Then I talk into Harlan’s Booth, and finally I step into the Tri Booth.
As you can tell, the recording in the Porta Booth sounds very muffled, and I wouldn’t be happy sending it to a client. The Tri Booth, on the other hand, sounds surprisingly good. The enclosure manages to tame the reverberations and flutter echoes to leave you with audio as dry as a top-notch Martini.
Keep in mind that booths like these only dampen the sound. They offer little or no isolation, so you’ll still hear leaf blowers blowing, twelve mad dogs barking, and a partridge in a pear tree. The Tri Booth wasn’t designed to be soundproof, but created to be used in a space that already is relatively quiet (like a hotel room).
Now, when I first saw the Tri Booth, it reminded me of another product, the VocalBoothToGo. It also consists of a frame and tailored moving blankets. From the outside the designs look quite similar, although the Tri Booth has three walls and the VocalBoothToGo has a larger footprint with four.
The VocalBoothToGo company offers many options, including double-walled booths they claim can offer up to 45dB of noise reduction. I say “claim,” because I didn’t see any substantiating data from an accredited lab. That noise reduction comes at a hefty price and considerable weight. These double-walled booths are too heavy to comfortably take on a plane.
Their single-walled Mobile Acoustic Vocal booths have a lower price tag, and it would be lovely to be able to do a side-by-side comparison with the Tri Booth. Instead of a PVC frame, the VocalBoothsToGo have an expandable metal frame that for the AVB66 model weighs 23 pounds (a little over 10 kilograms, just for the tubing). Even the smaller version, the AVB4, comes in over 50 pounds or 22 kilograms. For transportation, the company recommends buying their $160 rolling duffle bag.
Colleagues who have assembled both booths say that the Tri-Booth is much easier to put together. The AVB4 has a metal tube frame that feels like you’re assembling a canvas Army tent from the 60’s. It also doesn’t include all the accessories the Premium Tri Booth offers. That’s why it’s also cheaper.
The Tri Booth comes with a service no competitor is offering: having the audio processing for your booth and microphone be fine-tuned by George Whittam. When you buy the Tri Booth, George will take a sample from your existing studio, and he’ll have you record on the fly in the Tri Booth. He will then create a processing preset for the software you’re using to match that sound as closely as possible. It’s like a magical filter.
Rick Wasserman says that when his producers listened to the promos he taped in the Tri Booth, they couldn’t believe they were recorded on the road.
To round up this review, here’s the ultimate question:
Should you put this booth on your Christmas wish list?
As I said in my video, I see two markets for the Tri Booth. Number one: the road warriors. If your life as an international voice over star takes you from hotel room to hotel room, and your clients can’t live a day without you, spending $1500 on PVC pipes, moving blankets, and some accessories is a no-brainer. You’ll probably make your money back in one session.
The second group that could benefit from this booth consists of beginners who need a dry recording space but don’t want to spend thousands of dollars on a WhisperRoom. The Tri Booth is a more affordable solution that delivers as promised.
DO IT YOURSELF?
At this point you might be wondering: “Couldn’t I just go to Home Depot and build my own PVC booth?” You absolutely can, but you should realize that Rick and George have agonized over every detail of the Tri Booth, and it definitely shows. Why reinvent the wheel?
$1500 (excluding tax and shipping) may seem a hefty price tag, but as with all products, you’re paying for the concept, the design, the materials, and the convenience. And don’t forget George’s preset! What you’re also getting is lightning fast, hands-on customer service from the inventor himself. I just emailed Rick a few questions, and literally three minutes later I had my answers! Two minutes later, George chimed in!
So, think about it. How long would it take you to create a portable, lightweight booth that is easy to set up, break down, and transport in a suitcase? If you know your way around the tool shed, it might take you anywhere between six to ten hours to come up with something that might resemble a Tri Booth. If your average hourly voice over rate is around $400, you could make between $2400 and $4000 in the time you’d be piecing together your own booth. I’d say: spare yourself the grief and make some real money!
One last question: Would I buy a Tri Booth?
The honest answer: Not in a million years, but that has nothing to do with the product. The Tri Booth is a solution to a problem I don’t have. My clients do not need me every day, and I’m not a frequent flyer either. When I travel, it’s usually for pleasure.
Yes, I’m one of those silly Europeans who believes that vacation equals preventative healthcare. I don’t want to be always available. It’s stressful and unhealthy. My friends and family need me more than my clients do.
If, however, you’re an average American workaholic living life in the fast lane, by all means, get a Premium Tri Booth and knock yourself out! It’s got my seal of approval.
At this very moment, the retail powers that be, are working you left and right.
They’re preying on you, like a lion lures a lamb.
Unlike the lion (who will do his best to stay undetected until he makes his deadly move), retailers come at you in plain sight. They have no desire to rip you to pieces. They want you alive, so they can bleed you year after year.
Retailers won’t jump you either. Instead, they play a game of not so subtle seduction, with one or two pieces of masterful bait, the first one being (drum roll):
Yes, Black Friday and Cyber Monday are around the corner, and credit card companies are already drooling over your looming debt increase.
We may all believe that we’re independent thinkers that cannot be manipulated, but psychologists know better. They know that one of the strongest human fears is the fear of missing out.
That’s why the time ticker at QVC and the Home Shopping Network is such an effective sales tool. It tells you how much time is left to get this incredible gadget you suddenly cannot live without. That’s why they throw in all these “but wait, there’s more” extras to sweeten the deal, but only if you BUY NOW.
Limited time offers and low prices are classic incentives to get weak and impressionable people to buy stuff. Black Friday and Cyber Monday are the ultimate examples of these incentives, because they only come once a year, and some of the deals are truly incredible.
You and I know that those heavily discounted doorbusters are meant to give you a shopping high, so you’ll buy more once you’re in the door. Besides, these deals will often come back in slower seasons.
If you’re still tempted to empty your wallet around Thanksgiving, I can’t stop you. But allow me to give you a few pointers, if I may.
1. Distinguish between a WANT and a NEED
Every time you’re tempted to make a major purchase, ask yourself:
“Do I really need it right now, or is it just something I want?” “Is it a necessity, or a luxury?”
If you wish to experience sustained success as a for-profit freelancer, there’s one simple formula you must stick to:
Keep your revenue stream high, and your expenses low.
So, if you really, really want to buy this nice, new, shiny piece of equipment, ask yourself:
– Will it make me more professional, productive, and profitable?
– Will my clients experience an undeniable difference as a result of this purchase?
– Will this investment pay for itself within a reasonable period of time?
For instance, a few of my voice-over colleagues are already salivating over a new microphone this season. But a recording will only sound as good as the space it’s recorded in. So, rather than spending cash on a new mic, it’s often much wiser to invest in creating a better acoustic environment.
Most clients won’t hear the difference between a $300 microphone and a $1000 mic. They will hire you because you’re able to deliver clean and crisp audio, without the sound of the neighbor’s leaf blower in the background.
2. Choose High Quality over Low Price
If you must make an investment, do your research before you make that impulse buy. This means you have to overcome one of humanity’s eternal weaknesses: the need for immediate gratification when buying something that’s on sale.
As a freelancer, competing on price is a losing strategy. You want people to pick you because of your added value, and that value is worth something. If you truly subscribe to this idea, you can’t just apply it to your own business. You have to “live it” in all areas of your life. So, stop buying things just because they’re cheap.
Only yesterday, I threw out all the heavy catalogues of the major pro audio retailers without even looking at them. Apart from being a waste of tropical rain forest, I have everything I need to run my business. I’ve carefully collected my equipment over time. I gave myself an opportunity to save up, to gather info, and to invest some of my profits in quality gear that will last for many years.
I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: Buying cheap can be expensive. Buying quality saves you money in the long run, and a whole lot more.
3. Choose the Planet over Price
I already mentioned the catalogues I had to throw away. But that’s not the only thing that concerns me.
In the past few decades, there’s a growing tendency among manufacturers to make things that only last a few years, and cannot be fixed. As a result, we end up with landfills of trash, gradually leaking toxins into the environment. Nature’s resources are depleted, and people in low-wage countries are exploited as they make the shiny trinkets we end up throwing away.
This process will go on for two reasons. One: because the environmental and societal impact of a product is hardly ever a part of the price. Two: because people like you and me keep buying them.
I’m a strong believer in creating change through spending. If I want local businesses to grow; local farmers to go organic, and make a decent living, that’s where I’ll have to spend my money. If I want manufacturers to create products that are environmentally-friendly, that last, and can be repaired, I have to show them there’s a market for those products.
Now, if you believe that you alone can’t make a difference, talk to Tara Button. Tara is Founder and CEO of BuyMeOnce.com. She was so frustrated with our throw-away culture, that she went on a global quest to find things that are built to last, and that are made in an ethical, green way. Her website features kitchenware, furniture, clothes, shoes, beauty products, and other things. Yes, you’ll pay more upfront, but you’ll save money over time.
4. Don’t spend all your money on objects
If you’re still itching to spend (or borrow) Black Friday money, do you really have to spend it on “stuff”? How fulfilling is that, ultimately? Once the rush of owning something shiny is over, there’ll be a new void, waiting to be filled. And what void are you filling anyway, and for what reason? Do you want to impress your colleagues?
To borrow a phrase from a weight-loss coach:
“Until you know what you’re truly hungry for, you’ll never be satisfied.”
We’ve been shoving waste under the carpet for decades. Is that a legacy you can be proud of? You don’t have to agree with me, but I think mother earth would be better off if we’d shift from an economy of “more and more,” to an economy of “enough is enough.”
As we’re celebratingThanksgiving, can we just stop for a moment, and be grateful for what we already have? Can we also spend some time giving, instead of getting? For so many charities, your (tax-deductible) donation is not a want, but a need.
If you insist on giving yourself a gift, why not buy a gym membership (and actually use it)? Why not enroll in a cooking class that teaches you to make healthy meals?
Treat your family to a trip abroad, allowing everyone to broaden their horizons, and to recharge those batteries that have been going non-stop.
Gift yourself to your community by volunteering! Science has proven that it is better to give than to receive. So, be selfish, and share your time and talent with those who need it. It will truly transform your life!
I’ll tell you one thing:
It will beat leaving Thanksgiving dinner early, so you can stand in a stupid line for Best Buy.
And if Black Friday shopping is a cherished family tradition you want to break with, you know there’s only one way to do it:
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