Studio

The EWABS Interview

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Book, Career, Freelancing, Gear, Internet, Journalism & Media, Promotion, Social Media, Studio 2 Comments

Paul Strikwerda, author of "Making Money In Your PJs."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!

CONTEST

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.

You can either post your picture on the Making Money In Your PJs-Facebook page (www.facebook.com/moneyinyourpjs), or you can tweet it to @MoneyInYourPJs. If you really feel inspired, post it on both platforms.

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.

PRIZES

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.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

Be Sweet. Please retweet!

Send to Kindle

Looking Back

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Gear, International, Internet, Journalism & Media, Money Matters, Pay-to-Play, Promotion, Social Media, Studio 3 Comments
Nethervoice blog author Paul Strikwerda

blog author Paul Strikwerda

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.

If you believe the customer is always right, you’re wrong and I’ll tell you why in a story about lengthy translations, short videos and managing expectations. “Bring in the Natives” looks at the many reasons why ignorant clients and careless online casting sites don’t bother with quality control any more.

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.

I even went as far as to share my entire voice-over working agreement with you, so you wouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel.

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.

TECH TALK

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.

Factory Demos and Fatal First Impressions” deals with sure ways to kill any chance of winning an audition and what you can do about it.

2013 was in many ways a testing year.

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.

My new Presonus Eris 5 studio monitors inspired me to write an article about gear selection, and I tried out several gadgets designed to turn a smart phone into a voice-over recording device.

I also reviewed CAD’s Acousti-Shield 32 and their Sessions MH510 studio headphones.

MONEY, MONEY, MONEY

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!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

Be Sweet. Please retweet!

Send to Kindle

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.

Send to Kindle

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.

Send to Kindle

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

Be Sweet. Please retweet!

photo credit: Nesster via photopin cc

Send to Kindle

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

Send to Kindle

Voice-Over Dandy

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Studio 13 Comments


Actors are a weird bunch, voice actors included.

We all have our silly little routines and rituals on stage and in the studio.

A Dutch actor I once interviewed had to sweep the entire stage before the show. He said he wanted to get to know every square inch. His colleague always wore the same pair of striped socks for a premiere; socks his mother had given him some twenty years ago.

A famous actress wouldn’t start a performance without a waft of her favorite Eau de Toilette: “Je Reviens.” One night she lost the bottle and her assistant had to go on a wild-goose chase to find a new one. The Diva kept the whole theater waiting for over an hour until the fragrance was found.

STRANGE BEHAVIOR

These silly, idiosyncratic rituals don’t make any sense to you and me. To those who are displaying these behaviors they make all the difference. What they have in common is this. It’s outward behavior that’s meant to change someone’s inner state.

For some it’s a way to get centered and calm the nerves. For others it comes close to superstition.

I’m pretty sure that, as you’re reading this, you might ask yourself: “What is it that I do before I step up to the mic?” I bet you anything that you’re not even aware of what you’re doing because it’s become second nature.

My personal rituals are very practical and they start before I’ve even set a step into my studio. Pretty much all of them have to do with self-care. I suppose I could leave a couple of them out, but somehow I wouldn’t feel the same. To me it would feel like leaving the house half-dressed.

So here’s what needs to happen in my world.

PERSONAL ROUTINE

I won’t start recording until I have brushed my teeth. Guaranteed. I want this fresh feeling in my mouth before I taste the words I’m about to speak. This is not optional. It must happen. Of course this doesn’t qualify as eccentric behavior. We all brush our teeth after breakfast, right? But hang in there. Here’s where it gets odd.

When I have finished one project and I’m about to move to another, I go back and brush my teeth again. It is as if I need to rinse my mouth of the previous experience before I can move on. On any given day, I can repeat this a number of times. This makes my dentist very happy (as long as I brush gently with a soft brush). It also gives me a very clean sound.

I will often use a tongue scraper too. It’s a cleaner meant to clear the surface of the tongue of bacterial build-up, food debris and dead cells. I’ve discovered that after using this device, my mouth noises are drastically reduced. You should give it a try.

Warning: if you’re using the scraper for the first time, you’ll be surprised how much gunk has been living on your tongue for all these years. It’s kind of gross. This thing does have nice side-effects. Using a tongue scraper gives you better breath and you’ll taste flavors more intensely.

MOISTURIZATION

Another thing I must do before I go down to my studio, is moisturize my face. Not only is it soothing, it loosens up the skin, helping my facial muscles relax and bend into different shapes as I enunciate the words I’m recording. For that reason I also have to apply and reapply generous quantities of lip balm.

Dry lips and a dry mouth are a major source of those annoying mouth noises. If my mouth feels particularly dry, I’ll use some moisturizing mouth spray which contains the same protein-enzymes found in saliva. I also make sure to breathe through my nose. Mouth breathing may even cause something called laryngitis sicca, where the tissues of the larynx become very dry.

Frequent hydration is also part of my studio ritual. I like to add a slice of lime to my filtered water, which I always drink at room temperature. Cold water can shock the vocal cords. Not a good idea.

ANNOYING ALLERGIES

I live in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, one of the worst areas of the United States when it comes to allergies. Reluctantly, taking care of sniffles, sneezes and congested nasal passages has become part of my routine too.

I’ll often take an over-the-counter medication such as fexofenadine in the morning. Throughout the day I’ll use a gentle saline spray or a Neti Pot to relieve sinus problems. Lately, I’ve added a homeopathic inhaler with a hint of menthol.

Allergies can also affect the vocal folds. There’s even such a thing as allergic laryngitis. Symptoms include hoarseness, itchy throat, excess phlegm or mucous in the throat, a feeling of dry throat, coughing and sneezing.

Again, hydration is essential in the treatment of allergic laryngitis. The water lubricates the vocal folds and it thins the mucous.

A DUTCH TREAT 

If my throat simply hurts after a recording session, I’ll often turn to one of my favorite home remedies: Dutch licorice or licorice syrup. Dutch black licorice comes in many shapes, flavors and sizes and it’s definitely an acquired taste. If you’re up for it, get the real thing (not the licorice-flavored candy) and make sure you eat it in moderation.

If licorice is not your thing, try a cup of organic tea, such as the Throat Coat blend. It contains licorice as well as slippery elm .  

Less eccentric than eating black and often salty licorice, is a habit that’s more preventative. It’s part of my preparation for voice-over work, and that’s why I want to mention it.

Over the years I have learned to avoid places with loud music and loud crowds; places that would force me to shout if I wanted to have a “normal” conversation. That type of vocal abuse can -if repeated frequently- result in scar tissue formation within the vocal folds, thickening of the vocal folds and vocal fold lesions.

THE DUTCH DANDY

So, if you were to walk into my studio today, you would notice a whole lineup of self-care products, sprays and black candy, fit for a Dandy. Taking good care of my face, throat and voice has become quite the routine. Some may think I’m overly protective, but to me there is no such thing. My voice is my bread and butter and I’ll do everything to treat it with love and respect.

I’m still not sure how this whole brushing my teeth-thing started, because there’s obviously more to it than dental hygiene. Having to go up to do it gives me a welcome break. Instead of sitting down staring at a screen all day long, I’m forced to climb the stairs and clear my mind. It may be weird, but it works for me. And that’s what all these eccentric behaviors have in common.

They’re weird and at the same time wonderful.

Now, if you’ll excuse me… it’s time for my facial, followed by a nice manicure.

I wonder which one of my silk bow ties I will wear today.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet.

photo credit: zilverbat. via photopin cc

Send to Kindle

A Poor Man’s Vocal Booth?

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Studio 13 Comments

Sometimes I come across a certain product and wonder:

It looks promising, but is it any good?

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

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

Could it be the poor man’s vocal booth, or is it a waste of space, and money?

SOUNDPROOFING

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

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

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

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

“Our soundproof curtains offer the highest STC performance.”

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

impervious to, or not penetrable by sound

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

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

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

TESTING

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

WRONG APPROACH 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

PROS and CONS

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

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

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

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

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

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

EXPECTATIONS

So, is this shield a good investment?

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

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

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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

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

Send to Kindle

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

Send to Kindle

Factory Demos: Fatal First Impressions

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Promotion, Studio 15 Comments

You know what they say about first impressions and second chances.

As a voice-over, a demo is often your only chance to make that first impression. It’s your business card, resume, portfolio and audition all compressed into one 60-90 second package.

A great demo is the result of the combined expertise of those behind the mic and behind the glass. If done right, it condenses years of experience into a minute or more of magic.

A professional demo does not come cheap, but not having one could be an expensive mistake.

There’s one thing it should not be:

Mediocre.

If that’s a given, then why are so many demos completely underwhelming and unmemorable?

Audio and production professional Cliff Zellman thinks he knows the answer. He has been hiring talent for over 35 years, and receives between 12 to 15 demos a week. He’s heard everything. From the best of the best to the worst of the worst.

As the Voice-Over industry began to change, Cliff noticed what he calls a detrimental shift in the way VO demos are created. A shift, he says, that does not play well for the VO Artist.

DISTURBING TRENDS

Emmy Award Winner Zellman, who has a degree in Audio Engineering, is referring to a few things. 

First of all, he receives demos that have been slammed together after a “talent” has taken some entry-level voice-over class. You’ve probably seen the ads for those trainings. They always end with the words “demo included.” These demos are usually stitched together from old scripts and they’re overproduced to mask someone’s level of incompetence and inexperience. 

Then there are demos that will tell you more about the single-mindedness of the director, than about the versatility of the voice talent. Zellman told me he often wonders:

“Whose demo is this really, the VO artist’s or the director’s? There’s no variety. The copy is uninspired and the music is outdated.”

Demos from a third category may sound terrific, but Zellman says:

“I have been disappointed more times than I care to remember because the talent could not reproduce the level of competency I heard or that I require. And they give me no indication of what their audio will actually sound like.”  

In other words, each line of the demo was spoon-fed by the director and recorded and sweetened in a million-dollar studio. It’s false advertising, because the talent can not deliver the same quality in a home studio setting.

Cliff has a name for all these demos. He calls them “Store-Bought,” and warns they are a big risk to buyers.

Cliff Zellman

A NEW CONCEPT

Having listened to way too many of them, Zellman started asking questions:

“When a talent leaves the booth after three or four grueling hours of a store-bought demo session, did they do their best? Were they relaxed? Were they intimidated? Is one session really ample time to allow the talent to shine?

And when they leave the studio, what do they have, really? An audio file. No real world education, no new knowledge of microphone selections, what works best for them in their environment with their voice. They are not receiving the collective years of experience and success of multiple directors… Just one person’s ability or inability.”

And out of his frustration, an idea was born:

• What if he could get the best directors and voice-over coaches in the nation under one umbrella?

• What if one voice talent could pick six of these coaches and work with them via Skype for six one-hour sessions in his or her home studio, using six different microphones?

• What if the result of these sessions would be professionally edited and mixed by an award-winning master digital music editor to create one outstanding 60-second demo?

This is precisely the concept behind Zellman’s latest endeavor: Done By Six Productions. (click on the name to visit the website) 

He calls it “The Industry’s first Online, Menu-based Voice Over Demo Production Company.” 

EXCLUSIVITY

I have to warn you. It will take more than a dream and a credit card to get access to Zellman’s roster of experts. He explains:

“There is a vetting committee of four or five industry professionals. If someone is NOT ready, we will be happy to suggest a coach that can help with their gaps.  When the coach says they are ready, we re-evaluate. We are a team created to actually HELP the voice talent succeed… not a factory.

This is also why Done By Six REQUIRES a talent to have a professional website, an approved home studio, knowledge of delivery methods and previous VO experience. We exist to elevate, not to hold hands.”

CONFUSION

At this time, talent can choose from a list of 39 seasoned professionals who cover all areas of the voice-over industry. People like Marc Cashman, Roy Yokelson, M.J. Lallo, Peter O’Connell, Dan Friedman, Randye Kaye, Doug Turkel, Amy Snively, and even the writer of this blog.

When I first heard about the concept, I thought:

Six directors for a 60-second demo. Isn’t that overkill? Aren’t six different coaches going to give conflicting advice, thus confusing the talent? Zellman:

“ABSOLUTELY NOT. It is a “real world” experience. When one goes to college, they don’t have the same professor for four years. Six directors will produce 60 seconds each. Each 60 seconds can be used as a full spot demo as well. 360 seconds will pretty much ensure that there is quality sections within each read.

Remember, we are NOT working with newbies. A talent is already used to working with different directors. Otherwise, why would someone attend a seminar with Pat Fraley, then Marc Cashman, then Myself, then Peter O’Connell et cetera. Conflicting advice opens doors! If everyone would bet on the same horse, the race would be boring.”

OWNERSHIP

When talking to Zellman, I mentioned that one of my colleagues had recorded a demo he wasn’t happy with. The pacing was off and the music was dreadful. He asked the producer for the dry audio so he could go somewhere else for a remix. Even though he had paid for his demo, the producer refused to give him the building blocks. And so I wondered: if a demo is produced by Done By Six Productions, who owns the audio? Cliff Zellman:

“The talent owns it! All dry files are already in the possession of the talent on their computer. I think any demo producer that doesn’t “gladly” give all dry audio to the talent is a paranoid fool and a charlatan. I am not looking to “lock-in” someone. I WANT them to spread their wings! Let them grow. Let them edit… let them punch-in!

I especially do not want the responsibility of being the ONLY one to help a talent. That’s ridiculous and I know demo coaches that feel very differently. I totally disagree. This is THEIR future, not mine. I am here to help, not control.

As far as music, I sublicensee it to the talent for this specific project. If a director has music in mind, cool. If not, all music used will be mixed into the production. If a talent wants to get creative in a few months, change up things on their own, I say YES!  They are one step closer to mastering this profession. Again, we are to HELP, not control.”

PS What happens if the voice talent isn’t happy with the end-result?

CZ “As long as they are in possession of the mics, every director I have spoken with agrees to an additional session of up to 15 minutes (or within reason).  Some may stick to 15 minutes sharp, others may be more liberal. If things get out of hand, I will step in, take responsibility and make sure the talent gets what they need. If I receive multiple complaints/concerns with a director, I remove them from the roster. Simple as that.”

Speaking of microphones, each talent receives a flight case with six of the industry’s most popular microphones: the Neumann TLM 103, the Sennheiser MKH-416, the AKG Perception 220, the CAD E100S, the Audio Technica T2020 and the Harlan Hogan MXL VO: 1-A.

This is the perfect opportunity to test these microphones in your own studio. It also ensures that each segment of your demo will sound differently. Shipping and insurance is part of the price of the package.

VOICEZAM

But there’s more. Included in the demo-package is a free 2-month subscription with VoiceZam.

VoiceZam is a new way of showcasing voice-over demos that gives clients and agents an opportunity to skip through the individual tracks of each demo. The user can also track who’s been listening to their demos. Cliff Zellman:

“I LOVE VoiceZam. My time is VERY valuable. I appreciate the speed, playback quality and ease of operation. I have had lengthy conversations with Bob Merkel (the man being VoiceZam), even to the point of offering him ideas and strategies at no consultation fee.

VoiceZam shows a professional attitude and a certain amount of savvy. I know if I go to a talent’s site and I see a VoiceZam player, there is a very good chance I am dealing with a solid pro.”

By the way, the VoiceZam image is just a picture. If you want to get a feel for how VoiceZam works, go to Bob Souer’s site and try it out. 

PS Why just focus on demos? You have a great line-up of coaches. Why don’t you offer more coaching services?

CZ “In time. Many new start-ups fail by trying to do too much too soon. Every Done By Six director is a potential coach. I know each of them personally and professionally. I know their strengths and weaknesses. Between the members of the vetting committee, we can steer the talent in the right direction. One of the benefits of being a Done By Six Director is the possibility of being selected as a coach. Once a coach is suggested by Done By Six, it is between the coach and the talent… for now.”

TASTE TEST

Go to any supermarket and you’ll find shelves filled with factory-baked breads. They may be packaged a bit differently, but you know that most of them are low on nutrition and they all taste the same.

I usually buy my bread at the local Farmers’ Market from an artisanal bakery. They have a huge variety made from different grains, nuts and herbs. The ingredients are high-quality and the bread is baked with love. I can taste the artistry and dedication that went into the making of the bread. It’s a taste that lingers on.

If voice-overs are your bread and butter, what type of taste test are you serving your clients?

Are you feeding them stale, factory-baked bland bread with margarine, or fresh, wholesome, hand-made bread, topped with real butter?

If you only had one chance to make a first impression, what would you rather serve?

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS: Be sweet. Please retweet!

photo credit: Barbara.K via photopin cc, photo credit: Phil and Pam via photopin cc

Send to Kindle