voiceover blog

Asking for a Raise

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Freelancing, Money Matters 9 Comments

The project was perfect.

It had my name written all over it.

Better still, I didn’t even have to submit a demo. It was mine!

There was only one problem: the budget. It was a bit low.

I asked myself: “Shall I do it anyway?” It would certainly be nice to add another prestigious brand name to my portfolio. And if they liked me, perhaps they’d hire me at a better rate next time.

Seconds later I knew I wasn’t making any sense. Big brands have big budgets. Even for voice-overs. And every sales person on earth knows that the first offer is never the best. It’s a test.

Assume I’d say yes to what they were offering right now. I’d set a precedent. Why would a client feel inclined to pay me more next time? 

If I really wanted this job, there was only one solution:

Read the rest of this story in my new book. 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

The Most Obnoxious Man in Voice-Overs

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career 18 Comments

Characters.

The voice-over world is filled with them.

On-screen and off-screen.

Most of these characters are very likable, but every now and then you’ll encounter a rotten apple, an arrogant bully or a troll.

A week ago, I ran into one of them at a New York audition. I’d seen him before at some other place. He was an older guy, dressed in a classic three-piece suit. His tan was as fake as the color of his hair. When he spotted me filling out the sign-up sheet, he bellowed:

“Hey, Danish guy, I’m surprised to see you here. Did you finally decide to join the big leagues?”

I tried to ignore him, but he went on:

“Tell me, are you union yet?”

“No, I’m still happily non-union,” I answered. “Now, if you’ll excuse me. I’d like to…

Read the rest of this story in my new book. 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

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

Wanted: Colleagues with Cojones

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing 9 Comments

It's better to be a lion for a day than a sheep for all your lifeColleagues, where is your courage?

Sometimes I feel like I’m dealing with a bunch of wimps.

Wimps who cave in without a fight and who compromise their integrity for money.

Last week I wrote about a recent European Directive to combat late-paying clients. New, stringent rules have changed the game in favor of small and mid-size companies. No longer are we at the mercy of businesses and government institutions that made us wait forever to get our money.

Now, any Europe-based entrepreneur can charge interest if a bill isn’t paid on time (usually within 30 days), and add at least €40 (about 54 USD) to cover the cost of debt collection, should it come to that. There’s no legal obligation to send a late-paying client a reminder. It is expected that an invoice gets paid when it is due.

If this were to happen in the U.S. where I live and work, I would jump for joy. Every year, thousands of businesses go bankrupt. Not because their product or service stinks, but because they’re waiting to get paid. This new Euro-legislation aims to make that a thing of the past. Isn’t that a cause for celebration?

Apparently not.

WORST-CASE SCENARIO

Some colleagues greeted the new rules with fear, disbelief and skepticism. One freelancer wrote to me:

“Those regulations are nice in theory, but I wouldn’t dare go after one of my biggest clients. It usually takes them 100+ days to pay me and I hate that. So, why do I put up with it? Because if I were to get tough on them, they’d hire someone else in a heartbeat.”

I asked him:

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

Europe Cracks Down on Late Payments

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, International, Money Matters 11 Comments

Not getting paid on time.

It’s a global problem.

If you’re working in Europe or you have European clients, stay with me.

What you’re about to learn is important because the rules have changed. Before I tell you about new regulations that are in place to protect you, consider this.

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

Recording Voice Overs on your iPhone

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Gear 22 Comments

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

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

It goes wherever I go.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EXTERNAL MICROPHONES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

USING YOUR OWN MIC

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

CHECKING IN

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

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

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

iRig PRECONCLUSION

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

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

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

No way!

I’ll stick to the Apogee MiC.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet.

Send to Kindle