That’s what my mother said when I accidentally broke a piece of pottery that had belonged to her mother’s mother. I was five at the time.
It was a sweet thing to say, but I now know that not all things are “just things.” Some objects can never be replaced, and their sentimental value greatly exceeds their monetary value.
In this third installment of my Mind Your Own Business-series, I want to talk about the material aspect of our job. I’ve already addressed the physical and mental aspect. Next week, I’ll talk about the spiritual side of setting up shop.
PRO or PRETENDER
As much as I’d like to tell people that success is not defined by a number in a bank account, the primary purpose of any for-profit business is to make money and grow the bottom line. If that’s not happening, the IRS will happily inform you that you’re a hobbyist.
There are many hobbyists in my line of work: voice-overs. Many of them are posing as pros. How can you tell? They sound insecure or insincere. Proper enunciation is a problem. They work for bargain basement rates, and the quality of their recordings can be captured in one word: Crap.
My philosophy is simple. If you want a professional career, you need professional gear. You need tools that work with you and not against you.
Contrary to what some may want you to believe, a shoestring budget is not going to get you anywhere in this competitive climate. I’m not saying that top-of-the-line equipment will get you gigs, guaranteed. Combined with talent and experience, it will increase the likelihood of you landing jobs.
The knowledge that you own the right tools increases client confidence (and your confidence too). It makes you more marketable because it shows that you are serious.
KEEPING THINGS QUIET
Having a dedicated, soundproofed and acoustically treated recording space is almost a must, these days. Not only will it increase the quality of your audio, it will increase your productivity by leaps and bounds.
If I had a choice between buying an expensive microphone, or a recording booth such as a Studiobricks cabin, I’d choose the latter in a heartbeat. Even the best Neumann mic will make you sound like an amateur if you record in an echo chamber or next to a busy highway. A reasonably priced mic such as the sE Electronics X1, is going to sound much better if used in an appropriate space.
Not having a dedicated recording room, can be disastrous for your career.
One of my colleagues has pipes of gold. When his marriage broke down, he not only lost his home. He lost his home studio. Now he’s renting a small apartment in a busy neighborhood. Kids are crying. Cars are honking. People are yelling. Recording in a walk-in closet doesn’t cut it. Clients demand broadcast quality audio, and he can’t give it to them. He is desperate, and hasn’t booked a decent job in months.
You may remember the story of Patrice Devincentis. Patrice owns and operates Sonic Surgery, an audio production studio in Union Beach, N.J. Here she records, edits, mixes, and masters, working with musicians and voice-over talent. On October 29th, 2012, Hurricane Sandy completely destroyed the studio she had built in her garage. Most of her recording gear and musical instruments were lost.
Thanks to generous donations from readers of this blog, Patrice received some equipment to make a fresh start, but there was one big problem. Her entire home and studio needed to be elevated, and very little could be done until the property was deemed safe. This marked the beginning of a long and exhausting battle with authorities over inspections, permissions, and grants.
Only last month, Patrice was finally taken off the waiting list; all the paperwork was completed and the elevation of her home is one step closer. Two years after the disaster, contractors may eventually come in, and begin their uplifting work. That is, if everything goes according to plan. Somehow, it never does.
ARE YOU PREPARED
Can you imagine being barely able to work for two years, due to some random force of nature, and a whole lot of New Jersey red tape? And don’t think it won’t happen to you. Superstorms don’t care where they hit or whose lives they ruin.
If you believe that lighting won’t strike twice, read Mike Harrison’s story in VoiceOverXtra. He thought his computer and ISDN were safe, until the loudest crash of thunder he’d ever heard almost stopped his heart and his gear. And then it happened again!
I thought I was pretty well protected in my Pennsylvania basement booth, until water came into my studio. After close inspection, the culprit turned out to be a leaking 18-year-old hot water heater. Thankfully, it happened while I was working. Had I not been at home, I might have had serious damage to the tools I need to make a living.
Stories like these illustrate that a positive mindset and good health can only take you so far. All of us are vulnerable. Trouble happens when you least expect it. Hoping for the best is not enough. You have to prepare for the worst. So, let me ask you this:
Is your equipment safe, and sufficiently insured?
Do you have a backup system in case of an emergency?
Have you invested enough to take on the competition?
It may only be “stuff,” but without it, all you have is a pipe dream.
East-West Audio Body Shop or EWABS, is a weekly interactive online talk show modeled after NPR’s popular “Car Talk.”
Hosted by Dan Lenard on the East Coast and George Whittam on the West, the duo answers questions about home studios, and they give tech tips on gear, soundproofing, best recording practices, and more.
Every week they also interview guests from celebrity voice actors to agents. During the show the chat room is open where colleagues comment on the topics of the day, and pose questions to the featured experts.
Every Monday evening (6PT/9EST) EWABS goes live, and you can find an archive of 144 previous programs on YouTube.
This Monday I had a chance to sit down with Dan and George, and talk about my new book, my personal background, the state of the voice-over industry, and my voice-over studio. I also read part of my story “The Most Obnoxious Man in Voice-Overs.”
The segment starts at 30:10.
Enjoy the show!
To celebrate the release of my new book, I invite you to enter a picture of yourself reading a copy of “Making Money In Your PJs.” You can use the paperback edition or a digital version, as long as the cover of the book is visible in the picture.
I’ll leave it up to you to make sure your photo stands out, as long as you are using the real book, or your eReader with an upload of the book. Only one entry per person, please.
IMPORTANT: By sending me your picture, I will assume that you give me permission to share it with my social networks, and that it’s okay with you to post it on this blog as well. You will remain the proud owner of the photo.
You have until Wednesday, June 18th at 1:00 PM EST, to enter your photo. The three winners will be revealed on Thursday, June 19th.
The third prize -a signed paperback of the book- will go to someone who already owns the digital version.
If you’re the winner of the second prize, I will interview you for this blog, and your story will reach 11,000+ subscribers, as well as many other readers.
The first prize is a 45-minute Skype session with me, where you can literally ask me anything about voice-overs, freelancing and self-publishing.
In my last post of the year, I always go back in time to highlight some of the articles you may have missed or would like to revisit.
December turned out to be Gear Month at Nethervoice, and in a way we’ve come full circle. My first contribution of 2013 was entitled “Confessions of a Hopeless Gearhead.”
If you’ve ever wondered why evaluating and selecting new gear is so subjective and challenging, you have to read this article.
CLIENTS FROM HELL
No matter in what stage of your career you are, you and I have at least one thing in common: we’re always communicating with customers. How to effectively deal with clients has been a recurring theme on this blog.
In “Rotten Carrots and Cool Clients” I will introduce you to Type A and Type B clients, and I’ll show you how you can tell the difference. Here’s the bottom line: stay away from one of them!
VIOLENT VIDEO GAMES & TIPS FOR BEGINNERS
January was the month I finally decided to open up about something I feel strongly about: violence in video games and the role voice actors play in the production of these games. In “It’s just a Game” I weigh some of the evidence on the links between violent games and violent behavior.
Makers of violent video games may proclaim that all they do is provide innocent entertainment. I’m not buying it. You may not agree with my conclusions, but I hope you’ll take a few minutes to consider what I have to say.
Another recurring theme is the position of newbies in the voice-over industry and ways in which beginners can increase their level of professionalism. In “Learning on the job” I expose one of the persistent myths that it’s totally okay to advertise yourself as a pro and treat your clients to trial-and-error sessions.
Success does not come easy in this profession, and certainly not overnight. My article “Failure is Always an Option” tells the story of a number of colleagues with great intentions who made bad decisions that killed their career. There are lessons to be learned from failure!
LET’S GET PERSONAL
Every now and then I also give you an inside look into my personal life. I don’t do that because I’m a closet-narcissist (you can read about that in “Call me a Narcissist”).
It’s because I want to draw attention to a charity I feel passionate about: the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. In “Overcoming Obstacles and Giving Back” I tell the story of how my wife discovered she has MS and how she is dealing with this confusing and unpredictable disease.
Together, readers of this blog raised over $5000 for the MS Society, making us the number #5 fundraising team out of 58 in my area. I can’t thank you enough for your incredible generosity!
Speaking of my wife, in “The Wind beneath my Wings” I blogged about the importance of having a supportive partner in this field of work. A partner can be a dear friend but also a life partner. I know for a fact that I wouldn’t be able to do what I do, if it weren’t for my better half.
As a reluctant introvert, I tend to keep things inside. “The Emotional Dilemma” is a story about how my feelings are influencing my work for better or for worse, and how I am channeling these emotions as I’m interpreting scripts.
Many people have asked my about my background as a voice actor. “How it all began” will tell you more about the early days of my voice-over career.
Of course no year goes by without me delving into some of the more technical issues that come with our job. In “Get the boom out of the room” I reveal some of my personal secrets to creating a dry recording space.
Last week I reviewed Audient’s iD22, a top-notch audio interface that is my number one pick for best new VO-gear of the year. I also tried out Microphone X from Aphex. It’s a unique USB mic with built-in analog processing.
Getting paid is always a hot topic in voice-over land. A few months ago, I wrote a series of stories on that topic, beginning with “When a client owes you” followed by “Give me my money!” If you’re still waiting for that check that was promised ages ago, and you’re wondering what you can do about it, I’m sure my tips will help you.
For those of you in Europe or with clients in that part of the world, I reported on the efforts of the EU to crack down on late payments. A new EU directive protects people like you and me against clients who demand you deliver your work yesterday and who pay whenever they feel like it.
Of course my blogging year wouldn’t be complete without mentioning two stories that turned out to be immensely popular because they dealt with one popular Pay to Play site in particular.
In “Leaving Voices.com” I told you about my falling out with this Canadian company (be sure to listen to the audio sample!).This article was widely discussed and quoted, and I added a follow-up with “As the Dust Settles.”
One of my New Year’s resolutions is to leave every online casting site that is not working in my best interest and in the best interest of our profession. I’d say that covers about ninety percent of them.
WHAT YOU CAN DO FOR ME
All in all it’s been a pretty productive year.
Many people have asked me how I manage to write a blog each week (plus guest posts), and to have a full-time voice-over career. Just read “Are You Talking To Me” for some answers, as well as tips for those thinking of starting a blog in 2014.
Of course there are many articles from 2013 that I did not mention in this overview, but I’ll leave it to you to explore more and pick your personal favorites.
If you’ve enjoyed my writing in the past twelve months, I’d like to ask you one small favor.
Please keep on sharing my stories with your friends and colleagues and stay in touch.
Your comments, friendship and collegiality continue to inspire me!
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 ATheme.
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.
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.
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.
I love the fact that I can switch between mic 1 and 2 without losing any time plugging and unplugging (although you need the virtual mixer to set that up). 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 m101single 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 I like the idea of having a virtual mixer at my disposal, the software is not intuitive to use. The other day I wanted to add another microphone to the mix, and after it was plugged in, I couldn’t get it to work using that mixer. That’s something that should be a plug-and-play thing. Most of my colleagues aren’t audio engineers, and they don’t want to spend hours experimenting to get simple things done.
For voice over purposes, the iD22 has too many buttons I don’t need, like dim/cut and the three function buttons. What I would like to see is an additional 3.5 mm headphone connection. I have one set of cans for critical listening (the Austrian Audio Hi-X55’s), and I use my Beyerdynamic DT880’s for recreational listening. I keep on having to plug them in an out, and that’s inconvenient because I have to go to the back of the unit to make the switch. Why not put the outputs in the front, like on the much smaller iD4?
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. For out of studio recordings I recommend the USB-powered Audient iD4 which retails for $200. If only it had a high-pass filter, and I would use it exclusively!
At around $500 the iD22 is not the cheapest preamp for your studio. The Motu M2 costs about $170, and the new SSL2 is $230. Both are solid alternatives.
Lastly, my unit developed a nasty electronic buzz after six years of constant use. After a quick repair it’s back in action, but since I treat all my equipment with a velvet glove, I was disappointed it had broken down in the first place. I’m not the only one this has happened to, and from what I have heard, after-warranty repairs aren’t cheap.
SUMMING IT ALL UP
Audient’s iD2 in the Nethervoice over studio
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 forbest voice-over gear of 2013, and it’s staying in my studio.
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
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™ 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:
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.
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.
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.
Do 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.”
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!
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.
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.
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).
Did 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).
When 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.
The 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:
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 analogTRRS 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.
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?
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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