Gear

Audient’s iD22 Audio Interface: The Backbone of Your Voice-Over Studio

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Gear, Studio 12 Comments
Audient iD22 ad/DA interface and monitoring system

the Audient iD22 – click to enlarge

Every day, new audio gear is developed, manufactured and heavily hyped.

Most of what I see falls into two categories: MOTS and VOAT.

More Of The Same and Variations On A Theme.

Brochures of these new products never fail to praise technological breakthroughs and stunning design features. But let’s be honest. Most microphones still look like grey grille-topped pipes. Studio monitors are built like boring black bricks and painted plastic is overused in the pro audio world. 

Rarely do I spot a glimmer of inspiration, innovation or craftsmanship. But when I first saw Audient’s iD22 desktop audio interface and monitoring system, I knew intelligent design was still alive and kicking!

Based in Hampshire, England, Audient was founded in 1997 by David Dearden and Gareth Davies. Major studios worldwide, such as Abbey Road Studios, Pete Townshend’s Eel Pie Studios and House of Blues, USA, use Audient’s mixing consoles, preamplifiers and monitor controllers.

With the iD22, Audient has condensed these three elements and paired them with digital converters offering up to 96kHz resolution and USB 2.0 connectivity. It comes in an all-metal compact package (about 7” by 9”) that looks as good as it sounds. It’s almost everything a voice-over professional can wish for, and a lot more.

PREAMPLIFIERS

A fine preamplifier can make a mediocre microphone sound like a million bucks. The iD22 has not one but two top-notch class-A preamps that are identical to the ones found in Audient’s consoles and standalone preamps. Each channel provides 60dB gain.

Does a voice-over really need two preamps? Not really, but many colleagues use a shotgun mic like Sennheiser’s MKH 416 for promos and commercials, and another, less muscular mic, for things like audio books and e-Learning.

As I was testing the iD22, I loved the fact that I could easily switch between mic 1 and 2 without losing any time plugging and unplugging. If you’re using the iD22 in a recording studio setting, the second pre can be used to plug in a talkback mic.

The preamps themselves are pretty much silent and stand out in transparent clarity and uncolored detail. They are designed to sound large and to produce a clean low-end and a nicely defined hi-end.

Trust me, these pre’s alone are worth the price tag. Listen to a comparison between my Grace Design m101 single mic preamplifier and the Audient. Without telling you which is which, can you pick a clear winner?*

The iD22’s top panel (see picture above) has metal preamp switches for phantom power, a -10dB pad, a polarity flip (phase invert) and a high-pass filter (set at 100 Hz with a 12 dB/octave slope).

If you own a mic pre you like very much (or need to keep for sound matching purposes), you can patch it into the insert return jack. This bypasses the Audient mic amp and gives you a pure signal path.

CONVERTERS

Let’s talk about the 24-bit/96kHz AD/DA converters. Why are they such a big deal?

Every time you record your voice on a computer, the analog signal has to be turned into digital information that can be stored, manipulated and sent to the client. The better the conversion, the better the quality of the recording.

When listening to digitally stored audio, the opposite conversion happens. A Digital to Analog Converter (DAC) turns the bits and bites back to analog so you can listen to it on your speakers or headphones.

Cheaper converters can sound metallic, unmusical and thin. The converters on the iD22 are flawless and produce a realistic, crystal clear sound in all frequencies. During a one-month test period, there were no glitches or computer crashes (something that was happening more and more with my old FireWire converter).

The headphone amplifier (fed by an independent DAC) has plenty of gain and produces a full, rich sound. Before getting the iD22, I was seriously thinking of buying an audiophile headphone amp in the $300 price range. After listening to the one on the iD22, I took that off my wish list. It’s that good!

MONITOR CONTROLLER & CONNECTIVITY

Another item that is often bought separately but that’s an integral part of the iD22, is a monitor controller. You can connect two sets of speakers via TRS jacks to the iD22. The big silver knob in the center of the console sets the monitor volume digitally. Beneath the knob are switches that dim (up to -30dB) and mute the signal.

Having tested the interface for weeks, it was a pleasure to have the monitor control as well as all the other functions at my fingertips. The layout of the front panel is intuitive and also includes three programmable function buttons which can be used to activate alternate speakers, the talkback function or switch to mono. You’ll also find four LED’s for the output VU-meters.

iD22 rear view – click to enlarge

The iD22’s rear panel has two fully balanced insert points allowing you to connect outboard gear like a compressor and an equalizer to the unit. The whole system can also be expanded via optical outputs and inputs supporting both ADAT and S/PDIF. You’ll also find two combi jack inputs for your microphones plus a discrete JFET DI input to plug in any electric instrument such as a guitar or a drum machine. When in use, it replaces the second mic input.

VIRTUAL MIXER

All these inputs are listed in the mixer app (see picture below) that can be accessed once the software has been installed.

That’s right! On top of the above features, you also get a mixer console on your desktop. Some of the inputs can be hidden to make the interface even easier to read without scrolling. The monitor section of the app controls the buttons on the interface with simple clicks. All the way to the right there’s a routing matrix allowing you to assign any source to any analog or digital outputs.

this virtual mixer can be expanded – click to enlarge

If all you’ll ever use is a quality USB mic and recording software, a mixer is overkill. Bear in mind that the iD22 wasn’t specifically designed for voice-over purposes, but rather to record music (Watch this video. The audio was recorded with an iD22!).

But think of it this way. Having a mixer will give you the option to add music or sound effects to your audio. A number of colleagues have gained new clients who are happy to pay good money for fully produced spots. You also need a mixer if you want to set up an ISDN chain or a “mix minus.”

What’s a mix minus? It’s a set up on your mixer console for when you’re using a phone patch or Skype. The person on the other line will hear everything that’s playing, including you, but the caller does not hear his or her own voice. That way there’s no echo or feedback howling into your recording. Using mix-minus, a caller can direct your voice-over session without being recorded.

CUSTOMER-CENTERED

The last thing I want to mention is something that doesn’t come in the iD22 box and that can’t be found on your computer screen. It’s Audient’s documentation and customer service. When a lot of functionality is squeezed into a relatively small system, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the options, especially if you have little or no audio engineering experience.

The accompanying PDF manual is well-written and detailed. On Audient’s website you’ll find a number of excellent video tutorials to help you set the system up and configure it to your needs.

Get this.

When I had specific questions, Audient’s managing director Steve Flower personally answered my emails within 24 hours, even on weekends. That’s not something he did because he knew I was writing a review. I’ve heard the same from other users who have contacted Audient. A responsive company clearly cares about its clients.

WEAKNESSES

click to enlarge

At this point you might be wondering whether you’re reading an advertorial for the iD22 or a serious review. Even though the pros greatly outweigh the cons, this interface isn’t perfect. 

Strangely enough, the iD22 doesn’t come with an on/off switch. I’m all for conserving energy, and I don’t want my gear to be on all the time. The power cord that comes with plugs for every continent, is rather short (5 feet/1.5 meters). Since it’s sold as a desktop unit, you better be close to an outlet.

Even though the iD22 is compact, it’s not ideal for recording on the road. Yes, it’s sturdy, but because it’s not USB-powered and can’t run on batteries, it needs to be plugged into an outlet.

A competitive product like the RME Babyface is much more portable (it fits in your hand) and it’s bus powered. According to Audient, the iD22 requires a solid supply of energy to provide enough current for the preamps and converters to be at their best.

The Babyface is compatible with Mac OS 10.5 and above, Windows XP SP2, Vista and 7. The iD22 is compatible with Mac. I tested it with OS 10.9.0 (Mavericks) and it functioned flawlessly. Windows drivers became available at the end of March, 2014. 

SUMMING IT ALL UP

the Audient iD22 audio interface and monitor controller in the Nethervoice voice-over studio

the iD22 in the Nethervoice studio – click to enlarge

With the iD22, Audient is moving out of the professional studio and into the self-recording market without compromising anything. The build quality of this interface and monitoring system is equal to the quality of the sound. It’s fabulous! The design is as pleasing to the eyes as it is functional.

If you’re a voice-over pro, you can simply plug in your microphone(s), your headphones and your monitors and connect the unit to the computer. Once you’ve uploaded the software and adjusted the settings in the mixer app, you’re good to go. From that moment on, no client will ever reject your auditions because of poor audio quality. I predict the opposite will happen. Customers will seek you out because of your sound.

Even if you do not use all the functionality that’s built into the iD22, this is still a lot of bang for your buck. Try buying two world-class preamps, pristine AD/DA converters, an audiophile headphone amp, a monitor controller and a mixer for six hundred dollars. That’s a tall order. My current single microphone preamplifier alone costs almost seven hundred dollars, and I prefer the pre’s on the iD22.

With this compact, sturdy interface, there’s no need to stack up and connect different boxes from different brands, hoping they will work together. All the elements of the iD22 are designed to make you sound your best and built to help you focus on your craft, instead of having to worry about technology.

To me that may be the best benefit the iD22 has to offer!

It’s my top pick for best voice-over gear of 2013, and it’s staying in my studio.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Many thanks to colleague Scott McDonald in Finland who was the first VO to choose an iD22 (read his blog here), and to Audient for the evaluation model. 

PPS Be sweet. Please retweet.

*Number one is the Grace Design m101 and number two is the Audient pre.

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Reviewing Microphone X

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Gear, Studio 13 Comments
Microphone X™ USB microphone with analog processing

Microphone X™ by Aphex

It’s no secret.

Most audio engineers are not a fan of USB microphones.

Many of them are not convinced that one affordable plug-and-play device can really be as good as a separate preamp, A/D converter and a studio condenser. They say convenience never trumps quality.

Besides, a small adapter like the CEntrance MicPort Pro can turn any XLR mic into a USB microphone, so why buy a separate mic?

Yet, thanks to the popularity of tablets and the growth of home studios, the market for USB microphones is getting crowded.

Audio Technica sells a USB version of the best-selling AT2020. Shure’s got the PG42 USB. MXL released the Studio 24 and USB-77 classic style microphone. The folks at Blue are offering the Snowball, the Yeti, Yeti Pro, Spark Digital and the Nessie. AKG has a USB version of the Perception 120.

Over at sE Electronics you can find the USB2200a, while Studio Projects designed the Little Square Microphone that’s both XLR and USB. In my own voice-over community, the compact Apogee MiC has become a favorite travel companion.

If any manufacturer wants a piece of this pie, he better come up with something truly special.

A NEW CONCEPT

Enter Aphex, LLC, which is owned by DWV Entertainment. This small Burbank company has made a name for itself making widely used products for the broadcasting and music industry such as preamps, processors and converters. Early 2013, Aphex introduced its very first microphone at NAMM, called the Microphone X™ and it’s definitely different.

While many USB mics lack controls and offer only 16-bit/44.1 kHz conversion, this new mic has quite a few buttons and it comes with 24-bit/96kHz conversion. Let’s take a closer look.

The black and silver X stands about 7 inches (17.78 cm) tall with the Aphex name in big green letters printed on the side. It weighs 15.16 ounces (430 g) which gives it a solid feel. This electret condenser has a 16 mm capsule with a low-mass diaphragm and a cardioid pattern.

In the box you’ll find a mini tripod plus mount, a 6 feet 9 inch cord, a user’s manual and a leatherette carrying pouch. The mic also comes with free Reaper DAW software and the Harrison Mixbus DAW.

This microphone will work with Mac OSX 10.5 and higher, Windows XP SP3 (32-bit and Windows Vista SP2 and Windows 7 SP1 (32/64 bit). The Windows drivers can be installed from a CD or from the Aphex website. For Mac it doesn’t need special drivers. The computer recognizes the X automatically. According the manufacturer, a fully charged iPad can power this microphone for approximately five hours before the iPad’s battery is completely drained.

Now, here’s where things get interesting.

SCULPTING THE SOUND

Microphone X™ rear view

Microphone X™ rear view

On the back of the mic the first tiny button you’ll find, activates an optical, analog compressor which limits the dynamic range of the input signal. In other words: it prevents clipping. This eliminates the need to correct audio overload in post production. Microphone X™ can withstand a moderate maximum SPL of 120 dB (compare: LSM 132 dB, AT2020 USB 144 dB, Shure PG42 USB 145 dB, AKG Perception 120 USB 150 dB).

The next button activates two analog processors that were developed by Aphex: the Aural Exciter® and the Big Bottom®. Both are meant to enhance the sound before it is broadcast or recorded. This is also known as psychoacoustic processing.

Introduced in 1975, the Aural Exciter® was developed to enhance brightness and sparkle on instruments and vocal tracks. In studios, the Aural Exciter® is used to bring lead vocals right to the front of a mix. While it can add some extra harmonic sizzle, too much Excitement can increase sibilance, that striking hissing sound that occurs when speaking sentences with the letter ’s’ such as this one.

Here’s a quick demo where I start in “neutral” and I gradually increase the exciter level and take it to the max:

The Big Bottom® processor enhances the low-frequency spectrum. It adds low-end presence and punch. This allows studios to pack more bass into their mixes without overloading amps and recorders or blowing up speakers. Here’s what it sounds like on Microphone X™ as I gradually add more bottom:

The amount of Big Bottom® and Aural Exciter® can be controlled by two knobs below the on/off switch.

Microphone X™ front view

Microphone X™ front view

Microphone X™ has two front controls: an input level control and a headphone volume control connected to a high-output headphone amp. The output jack is a 3.5 mm (1/8) headphone output. It will only work if you change the output to the microphone in the settings of your computer.

ONE OF A KIND

Aphex has created a microphone that is unique and daring, and I have to give them credit for packing something into a product that’s never been done before. For the first time, it’s possible to change the tonal characteristics of a USB microphone at the source. (The one other microphone with onboard processing I’m aware of, is the Blue Nessie, but that’s a different beast. Nessie adapts automatically and it has three recording modes)

However, being the skeptic I am, the X reminded me of the many all-in-one stereo systems that are on the market. They conveniently take up less shelf space, but you just know that one or two elements are not as well-built to make it affordable. Could the Microphone X™ have such a weak link?

Secondly, is it really new to equip a mic with a compressor/limiter? Some USB microphones such as the PG42, the AKG Perception 120 and the Studio Projects model come with a -10 or -20 dB pad, allowing them to handle loud sources like electric guitars and drum kits. The Apogee MiC warns you with a red light that your input is too loud.

Then there’s the issue of up front analog processing, the greatest unique selling point of Microphone X™. How useful and necessary is it really, especially for a voice-over pro? After all, that’s the (narrow) perspective I’m using as I’m evaluating this mic. 

ADDING EFFECTS: PRE or POST?

Psychoacoustics are a matter of personal preference. I often compare them to kitchen spices. You just don’t use them all the time no matter what’s on the menu. Spices can add some good flavor to an otherwise dull dish, as long as it’s done tastefully. Once they’re in, you can’t take them out. Overusing effects like the Aural Exciter® and Big Bottom® may lead to ear fatigue. I’m sure the folks at Aphex would agree. 

Without exception, my voice-over clients want me to deliver clean, ‘unfooled-around-with’ audio, giving their own engineers an opportunity to sweeten the sound should that be necessary. No one has ever asked me to add some Big Bottom™ to my narration. 

Here are a few other points to consider.

If you really feel your voice could benefit from some bass boost, why not use the proximity effect of the mic you already own? And if you’d like to bring out the highs and increase brightness, why not play around with the EQ?

Those who are enamored with Aphex effects could buy them as digital plug-ins or add them to their racks as a channel strip. It’s not the cheapest option, but those processors can be refined with more finesse and precision. The effects on the Microphone X™ are very bare bones Big Bottom® and Aural Exciter® solutions.

FINDING THE SWEET SPOT

So far I’ve talked about the bells and whistles, but let’s get to the heart of the matter. Is this latest Aphex product actually a solid condenser microphone? You can color the sound all you want, but if the input signal is sub par, it renders the rest irrelevant.

Let’s first talk about the sensitivity of this mic.

For most condenser microphones the sweet spot is generally about 6 to 8 inches away from the diaphragm. Putting two fists on top of each other should give you the right distance between mouth and mic. With the input level set at 12 o’clock and my mouth seven inches away, I started talking into the Microphone X™. Much to my surprise, the signal I got was a rather low -22 dB.

At first I thought there was something wrong with my demo model. I checked all settings and connections and couldn’t find anything. Then I contacted Aphex. They told me the ideal mouth-to-mic distance for the X was 3 inches, with the input control at 3 o’clock. It worked, but I had to be much closer to the mic than I’m comfortable with as a voice-over. That probably tells you more about me than about the mic.

Roaming reporters and radio jocks might be used to “eating the mic,” but I like my studio condenser at a distance and slightly off-axis to prevent popping. And the X did pop when I got close, in spite of a thin layer of foam behind the grill. After attaching a PopGard 2000 by WindTech, things were much better.

We should also keep in mind that many audio engineers prefer to record at lower peak levels, say, -10 dB to -12 dB, as this leaves more headroom and thus lowers the risk of clipping. Because Microphone X™ has a 24-bit converter, the noise floor is still very low (Aphex couldn’t give me the self-noise level)

Without the effects activated and with the input gain way up, the Microphone X™ produces a clean and clear sound. It doesn’t have a distinct personality and I like that. I believe the voice should put the personality into the mic and not the other way around.

What I also noticed was this. Turning up the analog effects did increase the input signal considerably.

How does the X stack up to another popular (and very portable) USB mic? Well, here’s a comparison between Microphone X without effects, and the “Little Square Mic” by Studio Projects, which did quite well in a recordinghacks.com shootout:

CONCLUSION

So, what’s the verdict?

It’s neither easy nor fair to compare the X to the other USB models mentioned at the beginning of this review. That would be comparing apples to oranges because the added bass booster and treble enhancer make Microphone X™ one of a kind.

If we take the effects out of the equation, Microphone X™ is a neutral-sounding USB mic that’s pretty hard to drive into the red. Budding recording artists, podcasters and audio engineers will appreciate that. In my experience, an external pop filter is a must for this mic. 

I also think that the small black controls on the black microphone body were not so easy to read, especially in a dimly lit studio. I couldn’t really tell whether the dial was at 12 o’clock or at 3 o’clock. A white arrow on the knob could be helpful. 

What might help Aphex in sales, would be to turn this mic into a hybrid like the Yeti Pro and Studio Projects LSM. They are both USB and XLR microphones.

The best use I see for Microphone X™ is in live podcasting and other recording sessions that don’t require post-production. In these situations it’s nice to have an all-in-one tool that can give your sound more definition and character. But let’s remember this.

Although it’s fun to play with all the buttons and hear your sound change, this microphone won’t turn you into a smooth talking bass-baritone of a radio jock. That greatly depends on talent, and a sophisticated and unique instrument we were all born with.

Our voice.

Let’s end with one last taste test. You’ll hear Microphone X™ “au naturel” without processing; then with both effects at 1 o’clock and 2 o’clock. 

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Many thanks to Matthew McGlynn of recordinghacks.com for his invaluable feedback and suggestions. I gave Aphex a few weeks to respond to my review and to point out possible factual inaccuracies. Aphex has yet to take me up on that offer.

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The Truth About Studio Monitors

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Gear, Studio 25 Comments

vintage picture of man with loudspeakerDo you want to know something ironic about home studios?

What you listen to most, is not supposed to sound good.

You’ve heard me.

Your preamp has to be pristine. Your microphone needs to flatter your voice. But what about your studio monitors?

They’re not designed to please the discerning audiophile.

There’s a reason why experts advise against using “ordinary” Hi-Fi loudspeakers for monitoring your audio. These speakers are built to fill a living room and should be listened to at a distance. They come in fancy shapes and exotic wood finishes and are hyped for that full and rich musical sound. Hi-Fi speakers are meant to look and sound pretty.

In contrast, nearfield studio monitors are designed to be placed within a few feet of you in a small room that is close to dead, acoustically speaking. Instead of complementing the source, studio monitors need to be detailed, neutral and reveal problems to the critical listener. If something sounds off, they should let you know.

The difference between a Hi-Fi speaker and a studio monitor is like the difference between a fan and a friend. A fan will flatter you. A friend will tell you the unvarnished truth. That’s probably why most monitors look as sexy as a black brick.

Pro Audio stores will happily sell you a bunch of those bricks, but here’s the question: do you really need them in a simple voice-over setting? Most of us aren’t multi-tracking, music mixing, audio engineering, record producing geniuses.

If you’re like me, you’ll use a bare bones DAW like Twisted Wave and only record your own voice in mono. Does it really make sense to spend good money on a pair of premium-priced Genelecs from Finland, or will some decent headphones suffice?

IN THE EDITING ROOM

Closed or semi-closed cans cut out external noise and will reveal plenty of detail. That’s because you’re experiencing the sound from inside your head without room acoustics messing with it.

I precision-edit all my audio using Beyerdynamic DT 880 headphones. If you’re on a tight budget, start there. Here’s a word of caution, though. It’s very easy to damage your hearing by turning them up too much. Secondly, tight-fitting closed headphones can become uncomfortable after a while. Nobody likes sweaty ears.

I always check my work on active nearfield monitors. They don’t sound too clinical, yet they are like the Spanish Inquisition: very unforgiving.

Studio monitors supplement headphones because they reveal more of the recording spectrum. They also give you another method of tracking your audio in a way that’s close to how some listeners will perceive it.

ARE YOU IN THE MARKET

Now, if you’re shopping for monitors there are a few things you should absolutely ignore:

1. Advertising materials

Every maker will call their latest model “the new standard” or “the next generation” and say that it’s “defining a new reference point in unrivaled performance.” They will tell you their black box will “reveal things you’ve never heard before with amazing clarity, accuracy and detail.” When describing smaller home studio style monitors, all manufacturers proudly proclaim they sound surprisingly similar to larger systems while carrying a smaller price tag.

2. YouTube videos

Type in the name of any model monitor, and watch how many results pop up. It’s astonishing. You’ll discover a strange universe of silly people dedicated to the new art of unboxing boxy things in front of a camera. How informative! Then there are folks who have taken videos of their new speakers playing their favorite tracks while breaking the sound barrier. What is that supposed to prove?

First off, the footage was recorded on a cheap smart phone; the sound and images are heavily compressed and it reaches you through the crappy speakers you’re hoping to replace. How could that ever give you an accurate idea of what speaker X actually sounds like?

3. Online forums populated by pompous Gearheads

You’ll discover that there are a lot of self-styled gurus suffering from gear envy. They swear by two hundred-dollar six-foot speaker cables made out of very precious metals. Anyone who isn’t willing to make that investment simply doesn’t know what he is talking about. Headphones under $1000 are utterly useless. Should you be listening to the latest Sting album on cheap $500 loudspeakers, you’re an idiot who deserves to be spanked with an electric fly swatter.

Now, if you want to have some fun with this bizarre crowd, I dare you to start a discussion about the benefits of coaxial transducers. Within the hour you’ll make weird friends you wouldn’t want to be seen with in public, and even stranger enemies.

4. Reviews in magazines geared toward audio engineers and audiophiles

Unless you’re interested in the advantages of Clas-D biamplification, DSP-based internal processing with high quality ADC, or a time-aligned waveguide that allows for a wide listening area with minimum diffraction, you better skip these articles.

These reviews are mostly written by seasoned mixologists who will assess a studio monitor in their own acoustic environment assuming you’re about to produce the next big hip-hop album. Just listen to their language:

“There’s a nice soft dip in the upper mid-range and slightly forward bass (which makes the monitors more exciting to use), with a pleasing tonality that doesn’t fatigue.”

“The affordable monitor X has a top end that’s open and clear, and there’s plenty of transient snap.”

“Hexacone woofer-cone construction has been used in previous models, and comprises a Nomex honeycomb sandwiched between layers of Kevlar.”

Now, if that doesn’t turn you on, I wonder what will?

BUYING THE BEST

So, get this. Last Cyber Monday I got myself an early Christmas present: a nice pair of studio monitors.

How did I pick them?

Of course I should have taken my favorite audio track to a listening room at a pro audio dealer where I could compare dozens of monitors on a rainy afternoon.

But what did I do instead?

I read as many brochures as I could get my hands on. Once I had narrowed my choice down, I watched every video on YouTube, and I visited the main gearhead forums. Then I studied every online review meticulously. And when Paul White of the British Sound-On-Sound magazine wrote the following, I knew I had found a winner:

“Everything came over smoothly yet with plenty of detail; vocals sounded absolutely pristine, and though the bass lacked the depth of a larger monitor it still managed to sound tight and solid. (…) I’ve heard speakers costing twice as much that don’t deliver such ‘adult’ results.”

Presonus Eris 5 studio monitorHe was referring to the Presonus Eris 5.

Then I unboxed my treasures without a camera in sight, and put them on the monitor stands in my studio.

And what do they sound like, you may ask…

Well, how shall I put it?

“They reveal things you’ve never heard before with amazing clarity, accuracy and detail. They sound surprisingly similar to larger systems while carrying a smaller price tag. Presonus is definitely defining a new reference point in unrivaled performance…”

Okay, you may spank me with an electric fly swatter!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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photo credit: Nesster via photopin cc

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Overdoing and Underachieving

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Gear, Promotion, Social Media, Studio 13 Comments

Vegas stripAh, the American Dream.

If you work hard enough….

If you always put your best foot forward….

Then there’s a path from rags to riches for everybody.

Isn’t that the core of the message?

When I moved from Europe to the States, I noticed what pursuing this illusive dream can lead to.

An obsession with work!

Look around you. Fewer people are doing more and more work. Productivity is up in this “work hard – play hard” society. That’s what makes economists optimistic. Unfortunately, in the U.S. it seems to be all work and hardly any play.

In this no-vacation nation that claims to be big on family values, many kids are now raised by their grandparents because Mom and Dad need full-time jobs to stay afloat. And what if you don’t have any grandparents who live around the corner, or they need to be taken care of themselves?

A friend of mine has one child in day care and the other goes to early and late stay because his wife works as well. He did the math and discovered that most of his wife’s salary goes to childcare.

“Does that make any sense?“ he asked. “We want to spend more time with our children. Instead, we work more and see them less. And for what? Just to pay the babysitter, the daycare center and the elementary school? Is having the extra income really worth it?”

He just ran into the Law of Diminishing Returns which asserts that after a certain point, further investment or effort does not increase the expected return. In fact, it can even lower it.

Does this seem counterintuitive to you?

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

Making Money In Your PJs cover

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Recording Voice Overs on your iPhone

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Gear 22 Comments

Name the number one electronic gadget you can’t live without.

To me this is a no-brainer. It’s my iPhone 5.

It goes wherever I go.

Thanks to audio editor Twisted Wave (one of MacLife’s 29 Web Apps We Can’t Live Without), it’s also my portable recording studio.

The iPhone 5 comes with three microphones. One in the front, one on the back around the camera area, and one on the bottom. Having three mics improves the sound quality of phone calls, Skype sessions, and FaceTime. However, using those microphones for voice-over recordings is not such a good idea. Here’s why.

1. The iOS has automatic gain control, regulating your input signal. To make sure the audio from the built-in microphones doesn’t distort, the gain for the mic preamp is set very low. As a VO-pro, you want to be able to control the gain yourself for the best signal-to-noise ratio.

2. Apple automatically applies a High Pass audio filter that only lets frequencies over a certain threshold get by. The frequency of the data in your voice is compressed around the mid-range and it lacks bass. This ensures that your plosives won’t pop during a call, and it makes calls more intelligible. It also means your voice will sound thinner and not as rich.

3. As each of the three microphones picks up the sound coming from its respective direction, an internal processor analyzes the sound data, loaded with the location and type algorithm of the mics, and processes the sound, in part to eliminate background noises. Again: all this processing is great for making phone calls, but it’s not ideal for recording unsweetened voice-overs.

Here’s a quick tip from Thomas Thiriez, the developer of Twisted Wave: 

By default, Twisted Wave does not bypass the iOS processing, but if you go to the preferences in TW (tap the button in the lower right hand corner of the document list), you will have the option to disable it.

EXTERNAL MICROPHONES

Of course there are a number of external microphones on the market that can be plugged into an iPhone, such as the RØDE iXY and the TASCAM iM2X. Both are for stereo recording and are made for the old 30-pin dock connector that was replaced by the Lightning connector. In order to use these mics on the iPhone 5, you’d need a Lightning to 30-pin adapter.

The original Apogee MiC (introduced in 2011) also needs such an adapter if you own an iPhone 5, and it can also be connected to a Mac device via USB. The MiC is a compact condenser featuring 24-bit analog-to-digital conversion at 44.1/48kHz. It resembles a studio microphone and comes with adjustable gain control. Reviewing the Apogee MiC for Macworld, Christopher Breen said:

Where I found MiC lacking was with voice—specifically a speaking voice. It produces very clean results, but it lacks bottom end. Try as I might, I just couldn’t get a baritone-FM-DJ timbre out of this microphone. When I moved within a few inches of the mic’s capsule the mic rumbled, even with the gain turned down, and plosives because a problem. 

When I backed off and turned up the gain, the mic’s sound was bright, but didn’t pick up my voice’s more sonorous tones. If you’re accustomed to “working” a mic by changing the distance between it and your mouth you’ll find it difficult to do with this microphone.

I don’t agree with Breen. I have enthusiastically adopted the MiC as my favorite iOS voice-over travel solution

At the beginning of 2013, Apogee came out with the MiC 96k. It is optimized for the latest Apple iOS devices, including the ability to record in pristine fidelity – up to 24-bit/96kHz. It has a direct connection with Lightning or 30-pin iOS devices such as the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad, as well as a USB connection to Mac.

This year, Zoom came out with the iQ5, a stereo microphone with a Lightning connector that works in conjunction with iOS applications. The iQ5 (currently unavailable) captures uncompressed 16-bit 44.1 kHz audio (the RØDE iXY offers up to 24-bit/96kHz resolution).

the MicW iShotgunDid you know that there’s even a shotgun mic for smartphones, tablets and DSLR camera’s? It’s the MicW iShotgun microphone and it comes with a windscreen, a shoe mount and a mini boom pole. Reviewers agree that it works quite well, but that this sensitive mic is rather susceptible to handling noise.

USING YOUR OWN MIC

What if you could simply connect your own studio condenser or dynamic microphone to your iPhone and use your favorite recording software to capture the audio? That’s the idea behind the MicConnect made by Griffin Technology. It’s a small, portable microphone interface that uses a 1/8 inch (3.5 mm) jack to plug into your phone’s headphone jack (or iPad).

Griffin MicConnectWhen needed, two AA batteries will supply +48V phantom power. On the side of the MicConnect you’ll find a gain adjustment wheel and there’s also a headphone output for monitoring. Griffin was kind enough to send me a MicConnect for review. Before I let you listen to a sample recorded with this device, here’s what I sound like using only the iPhone 5 internal microphones:

 

It’s probably best if you listen to these recordings on your headphones. Now, let’s compare what we just heard to the recording I made with the Griffin MicConnect. The WAV 16 bits, 48,000 Hz audio was converted to MP3. 

 

iRig PREThe iRig PRE is very similar to the MicConnect. Both devices allow you to plug any type of XLR microphone into an iPhone or an iPad using the headphone jack. There are differences.

The MicConnect is only compatible with Apple devices. The iRig PRE interface also works with many Android devices. iRig PRE owners can download a free audio recorder & editor, as well as VocaLive Free, a live vocal effects processor.

And now it’s time to listen to the iRig PRE. 

 

I don’t know about you, but I think we have a clear winner. Let’s do a short recap so you can really hear the difference:

 

CHECKING IN

After testing the Griffin MicConnect, I contacted their technical department and asked them about the high level of noise. The microphone I’m using for these recordings has a self-noise level of only 7dB(A) so it couldn’t be the cause. Had they perhaps shipped me a defective device, or was this normal? Griffin told me they were inclined to think that the unit itself was not defective and that the noise I experienced was “to be expected.” Griffin’s Public Relations Director wrote:

The collective feedback that I heard from our engineers was that while they strove to make a high quality interface connection, the $39.99 price point just doesn’t match up with some of the $1K and more microphones. The expected usage scenarios were more in line with recording a garage band, practicing at home, or capturing ideas on the road. We’ve also heard from podcasters that found it quite useful for recording podcast audio.

Speaking of audio quality, it’s important to remember that both the MicConnect and the iRig PRE use an old-fashioned analog TRRS connection to connect to the iPhone and/or Android. It would be unfair to expect too much from these affordable devices. The 30-pin dock connector and the 8-pin Lightning connector carry digital signals. 

iRig PRECONCLUSION

It speaks for itself that a soundproof studio with high-end equipment is the best place to record pristine audio. But on the road, the best solution is the one that you carry with you. 

Although the MicConnect and the iRig PRE have similar features, the iRig PRE clearly beats the MicConnect in terms of audio quality. It  comes with a Velcro strip to secure the device, as well as two free apps. Best of all, it can be used for Apple and Android devices.

Would I use it for anything other than a quick audition?

No way!

I’ll stick to the Apogee MiC.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet.

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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.

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

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Get the boom out of the room

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Gear, 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.” 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

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Recording on the Road

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Gear, Studio 28 Comments

Sometimes, the best opportunities present themselves at unexpected times and in the strangest places.

Last year, I was attending a New Year’s Eve concert when one of my agents called. She apologized profusely for her timing, but a long time client really needed to know my availability. It only took a few minutes to go over my schedule. Twenty-four hours later, the job was booked; the first one of 2013.

A few days ago, I took a trip to Atlanta. I’d barely settled into my hotel room when a Polish producer contacted me. He wanted to know if I was interested in playing a part in a new video game. He sent along an audition script, and said his team would love to listen to my voice within the hour.

I enjoy creating all kinds of characters, but for some reason I haven’t broken into the wonderful world of gaming yet. This was a chance I couldn’t afford to miss.

Fortunately, I had come prepared. In less than ten minutes, I transformed my room at the Westin into a mini-recording studio.

HARLAN HOGAN’S PORTA-BOOTH®

Years ago, VO veteran Harlan Hogan had an ingenious idea. What if he were to line a collapsible Whitmor Cube with acoustic foam and place a microphone inside? Would that be enough to tame the unruly reflections of a hollow-sounding hotel room?

Even though this foam-filled contraption cannot keep unwanted noise out, placing the microphone inside a small treated space can indeed make a recording sound less boomy. In a moment I’ll share some sound samples with you.

Over the years, the Porta-Booth® has had a few incarnations, and it has found its way to roaming reporters, television commentators and traveling voice actors.

Porta-Booth Pro unfoldedI own the Porta-Booth® Plus. It only weighs four and a half pounds and it comes with a free lightweight storage bag with plenty of room for a microphone, shock mount, preamp and a desk stand. The Auralex® foam lining the walls, keeps everything that’s sandwiched inside safe from the rough hands of airport handlers.

The Porta-Booth® Plus is made out of strong rip stop nylon, and has two parts: four supporting walls which are connected, and a separate back wall which can be attached with a zipper. Trust me: you won’t need instructions to put one and two together. Once you open the added two-way rear zipper, you can easily stick a shotgun mic through the slot, or a microphone cable.

Here’s another thing I like about this booth. When you’re not on the road, you can hang the strip of four connected Auralex® squares on one of the walls in your home studio for additional acoustic treatment. You can even rest these squares on your monitors to create a reflection screen.

CHALLENGES

So, is the Porta-Booth® Plus as easy to use as it is to set up? Yes and no. As with many new things in life, it takes getting used to. Let’s talk about travel first.

Harlan’s website Voiceover Essentials claims that the Porta-Booth® Plus “fits in most carry-on luggage”. Well, it definitely does not fit in a standard Samsonite carry-on upright that many people are using these days (see photos below). So, I carried the Porta-Booth® Plus separately.

I had planned on putting it in the overhead compartment, but because we were flying on a relatively small airplane, it didn’t fit and it had to be stored with other luggage. Thankfully, nothing was damaged when I got the Porta-Booth® back in Atlanta, but on the flight home, both straps of the carrying bag were ripped off, leaving four holes.

I should have read the disclaimer on Harlan’s website:

“It is not intended to be used as a travel bag and is not covered under your warranty. A heavy-duty traveling bag is under development and will be available soon!”

Without this heavy-duty traveling bag, I don’t think the Porta-Booth® Pro is ready for air travel, unless you store it in a sturdy suitcase.

INSIDE THE BOX

When I got my very first model, I thought I had to stick my head inside the Porta-Booth® to talk into the microphone. Considering the size of my head, that would have been very quite uncomfortable.

Fortunately, that’s not necessary. As long as you turn your mouth toward the grille of the mic and you stay fairly close to the booth, you should be fine.

One of the problems I did experience had to do with script placement. A paper script can block the opening of the Porta-Booth® if you hold it in your hand. Since the assembled space is quite small (16 inches high x 15 inches wide and 16 inches deep) it’s not easy to put the script inside either. Unless you bring a reading light, it’s also hard to see your lines.

The best way around this is to read your script from a Smart phone or a tablet placed inside the Porta-Booth®.

By now you’re probably wondering what Harlan’s portable recording booth sounds like. Does it deliver as promised? Allow me to first introduce the other elements in my portable recording chain.  

MICROPHONE

In my home studio I use a Microtech Gefell M903 Ts condenser microphone. It retails for $1,784.72. I don’t know about you, but I’m not comfortable taking such an expensive mic on the road. That’s why I wanted to find a sturdy replacement that wouldn’t break the bank. 

Because low-frequency rumble is a common problem in less than ideal acoustic situations, my travel mic had to have a high-pass filter. Such a filter also curbs the bass-boosting proximity effect, which can easily occur when you’re getting close to the microphone. After a two-week search, I found my mic. 

Let’s listen to my two microphones. You’ll notice that they have different personalities. Which one do you like better: A or B? Can you tell which one is the Gefell?*

 

Without telling you which is which, I can reveal that my travel mic is a previously loved AKG C 3000 B. I bought it online from Guitar Center for under ine hundred dollars. This thing is built like a tank, it looked like it was never used and it came with a shock mount. Listen to the sample again, and tell me if the difference in sound quality is worth $1700,72. 

PREAMPLIFIER

In order to bring a condenser microphone signal up to line level, you need a preamp. My favorite travel gadget is the MicPort Pro made by CEntrance. It’s a portable preamp with a built-in 24bit/96kHz, A/D converter. It gives your mic 48V phantom power and it has a headphone amp for zero latency monitoring. It is powered from the USB port. 

It took me a while before I finally found a portable pop filter. Most of these things take up too much space and the ones with a big clamp can be heavy. On the road I use the Pop Guard made by WindTech ($29.95). It weighs almost nothing and it slides neatly over most side address microphones. 

I’m also happy with the On-Stage folding desk stand. My AKG mic isn’t exactly light, so I had to get a reliable metal tripod stand. The die-cast clutch adjusts in height from 4.25″ – 6.75″. For the mic itself I bought a padded microphone bag.  

FATAL MISTAKES

Three big blunders almost ruined the recording day for me. Number one: for monitoring my audio, I relied on the small earbuds that came with my iPhone 4. Back home I immediately replaced them with the very comfortable Sennheiser PX 100-II headphones that can be folded up. 

Secondly, even though I had asked for a quiet hotel room away from the elevator, we ended up in a gorgeous corner unit with windows on two sides. The 14th floor view was spectacular, but so was the traffic noise that never seemed to stop. Next time, I’ll make sure to inspect the room first, before unpacking. 

To get away from the noise, I wanted to move my booth and computer as far from the windows as possible, but the quietest spot in the room had no electrical outlets that were within reach. I should have brought an extension cord, but because I hadn’t, I ended up placing everything on the desk by the window. Have a listen: 

The question is: did placing my microphone inside the Porta-Booth® Plus make a huge difference? 

The Porta-Booth® Plus definitely tamed some of the reflections, but I would be embarrassed to send this audio clip to prospective clients. With the help of some clever plug-ins and other tricks, I was able to turn the audio into this: 

Am I happy with the end result? Not really. Most of the background noise is gone, but it sounds strangely distorted. Audio engineering is part art, part science and boy, do I have a lot to learn!

SHOWING WHAT YOU’VE GOT

Every audition is an audio business card. It’s proof of the level of professionalism a client can expect from you.

You either show it, or you blow it.

Remember: most clients won’t give you a second chance to make a first impression. Not even a producer in Poland.

So, what was I to do? His animation studio was expecting my demo within the hour. 

Well, I ended up recording his audition script that day, and I used some artificial sweeteners to make it sound okay. But I told him in my email that this was recorded in a hotel room, and I sent him a demo I had recorded in my studio, so he could hear what I was capable of.

A day later, and in spite of my best efforts to come up with a decent recording on the road, I was hired.

Life can be a mysterious road trip.

Some say that it’s the destination that really matters.

How you get there, is not always important.

Live and learn, my friends. 

Live and learn. 

Paul Strikwerda ©Nethervoice

* The first microphone was the Gefell. Number two was the AKG.

PS The Porta-Booth® Plus Carry-On bag has arrived! It’s strong. It’s sturdy, and it has two side pockets for your microphone, desk stand and cables. With this addition, the Porta-Booth® Plus is now ready for the road and I can give it my unofficial seal of approval.

Porta-Booth® Plus Carry-On bag

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Confessions of a Hopeless Gearhead

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Gear, Studio 13 Comments

Guilty as charged.

In the past few years I’ve become more and more of a gearhead. I like to look at new audio equipment; I like to read about it and I like listening to sound samples.

On any given day, I have to spend at least a few minutes studying reviews, gazing at pictures and drooling over obscure objects with buttons, switches, cables and meters.

Dear Abby: Is this weird and should I be worried?

I mean, my equipment is fine. There’s nothing wrong with my microphone and I don’t need another preamp. For a voice-over like myself, a simple studio setup will suffice, so why am I staring at all this stuff?

I know I’m not alone.

My photographer friends are always looking for the latest cameras, the best lenses or software that will revolutionize the industry. Musicians wonder what they would sound like on a new instrument. Professional chefs can’t wait to get their hands on a new set of sharp-looking knives. Even quilters go gaga over new gadgets. Why is that?

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

Making Money In Your PJs cover

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Spending a year with me

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Gear, Internet, Journalism & Media, Money Matters, Promotion, Social Media, Studio 15 Comments

2012 is a year I will remember for many reasons, but the main reason is this: 

Your generosity.

Did you know that readers of this blog donated $2,500 to the National MS Society this year? Thanks to your contributions, our Walk MS team raised a total of $6,504!

When I told you that my friend Patrice Devincentis had lost her Sonic Surgery recording studio in Hurricane Sandy, you stepped up to the plate big time.

Donations to Sonic Surgery

Donations to Sonic Surgery

Right now, part of my basement is taken over by audio equipment that was donated to Patrice, mostly by friends in the voice-over community.

Just when she thought her career was over, your help gave her hope and a chance to start rebuilding a studio and a career. 

As soon as her recording space is ready, I will deliver all the gear on your behalf, but that’s not all.

When you go to the Sonic Surgery GoFundMe page, you’ll see that together we’ve raised over $2,600 for Patrice. We still have a long way to go before we’ll reach our $10,000 goal, but it’s a great start.

SPREADING THE NEWS 

As readers, you’ve also been generous with your blog comments (all 2,658 of them), retweets, Facebook “likes” and all the other ways in which you helped my stories reach a wider audience. Thank you so much for that! It works and here’s the proof.

A story like the introduction of Studiobricks (a new type of vocal booth), has reached almost two thousand readers. Mike Bratton’s interview and review of the Studiobricks ONE cabin, has been seen over fifteen hundred times. But there were more reviews this year. 

In collaboration with recordinghacks.com, I put the Microtech Gefell M 930 Ts microphone to the test; the amazingly affordable and brilliant CAD E100S mic, as well as a shock mount for the 21st century, the Rycote InVision™ system.

I presented seven reasons to hate home studios, and most recently, I had a chance to review Jonathan Tilley’s new eBook “Voice Over Garden.” 

THE NEW NETHERVOICE

Let’s remember that 2012 was also the year my website got a major facelift. It gave me a chance to write about why your website stinks, how analyzing web traffic can help you craft content, and how you can use social media to spread your message (as long as you don’t step into the filter bubble). 

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you know that I love writing about the business of being in business. Having a great voice doesn’t mean that you’ll automatically have a great voice-over career. You have to be a savvy entrepreneur as well. 

When you open up shop, you’re all of a sudden the head of the advertising, marketing, sales and the customer service department. Are you sure you can handle that? Some customers can be a royal pain in the tuches, but you have to attract them first.

Over time you’ll notice that there are at least 10 things clients don’t care about, and that there are many things your clients won’t tell you that you absolutely need to know before you hit the record button. This year, I finally revealed my personal marketing strategy and the four keys to winning clients over.

Now, all these ideas didn’t appear to me in a dream. It has taken me quite a few years of running a freelance business to come up with certain vital concepts. Trial and error are the slowest teachers, and I had to learn many of my lessons the hard way. I still remember the day I almost made a $10,000 mistake.

Nethervoice studio

Nethervoice studio

STUDIO STORIES

On an average day I spend at least eight hours in my vocal booth/office, and of course I blogged about life behind the mic. I gave you the grand tour of my studio in two installments. 

First you got to see how I have outfitted my voice-over booth, followed by a review of the equipment I use to make my clients happy.

I also wrote about certain aspects of (voice) acting. In “Are You a Cliché” I dealt with the downside of doing impersonations. “Why you suck and what to do about it” is all about breathing and how to get rid of those nasty clicks and other mouth noises that can ruin a recording. “Are you playing by the rules” tells you what it takes to maintain a good relationship with your agent. 

MONEY MATTERS

In 2011, 44% of independent workers had trouble getting paid for their work. 3 out of 4 freelancers are paid late or not at all at least once in their careers. That’s why the New York-based Freelancers Union ran a campaign called “Get Paid, not played.”

I tend to write a lot about value and remuneration. Just click on the “Money Matters” category over on the right hand side of this blog and you’ll see what I mean. When my website got a make-over, I decided to publicly post my voice-over rates. Not everyone believed this was a wise move, so I wrote a story exploring the pros and cons of being open about fees. 

One relatively new way to fund your business, is to use crowdsourcing. I asked audio book publisher Karen Wolfer to share her experience with Kickstarter. Another money-related topic that came up this year was this: Should you work for free for charity? On paper “giving back” sounds like the right thing to do, but is it always the case? As with any of the stories mentioned above, click on the blue link to read the full article. 

TAKING CARE OF YOURSELF

Let’s move from wealth to health. I shall remember 2012 for one other reason. Never before have I written so much about fitness and well-being. In “Be kind. Unwind” I wrote about the importance of taking a break, being in the moment and leading a balanced life.  

After meeting the globetrotting host of The Amazing Race Phil Keoghan, I discovered four principles to live in the spirit of NOW (No Opportunity Wasted). In August it was time for me personally to cut the crap and rid myself of excuses that had me trapped in an unhealthy, sedentary lifestyle.

MAKE A DIFFERENCE 

All in all, 2012 has been a great year. We’ve had to weather some powerful storms, but the year was also packed with positive change. 

It always amazes me how relatively small changes can have a huge impact. Imagine someone throwing a pebble into a pond. See how the ripple effect moves through the water in ever-widening circles. That’s the effect one individual act of generosity can have.

It happens when people who care, share what they have to give without expecting anything in return. It can be time, it can be money or -as in Patrice’s case- even audio equipment. 

I am grateful and appreciative that you have chosen to take a few minutes out of your day, to see what I have to say. Many of you came back, week after week. Hopefully, you’ve found my stories and ideas helpful and worth sharing. If that’s been the case, I have news for you: 

I’m not done yet!

In fact, I’m ready to push more envelopes, stir more pots and be more outspoken in 2013. 

Do you think you can handle that? 

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet.

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