Amateur Hour at the Vocal Booth

Thursday, July 24th, 2008 | by

Ever since high school, I’ve been told I have a good voice for radio. It always seemed like a neat if not immediately valuable asset: ok, so I’ve got that goin’ for me, which is nice. But then I get to wondering if there are any other dead technologies I’m particularly well suited for? Maybe I’d also be really good at carving messages into stone tablets.

With the dream that my voice might lead to an easy and lucrative career, I took a free voiceover class a couple years back. I half-expected the staff to immediately recognize my latent vocal sk1llz and fast-track me to the sound stage at Skywalker Ranch, where I’d soon be voicing most of the lead characters in the next Star Wars movie.

But no, they simply stuck me in a booth — with the entire class as a control-room audience — and told me through the talkback mic, “Now sound sad.”

Sound sad? WTF? How about, “Sound pissed off, because they haven’t given a single **&!@&# line of instruction yet?”

The copy I was reading was for a fictional pizza parlor, but I pretended it was for a funeral home and actually pulled it off — apparently I can sound sad on command. Fortunately they didn’t ask me to sound happy; the only way I could have done that is if they’d told me I could take home the microphone. (An SM-7, if I recall correctly.)

But the class turned out to be nothing more than a sales pitch for a long and expensive course in voice acting, and it was quickly apparent that this would fail my two stated criteria (“easy, lucrative”). This marked the demise of my nascent voiceover career, and with it, any chance that I would someday be referred to as “the talent.”

Homemade vocal boothNonetheless, last night I set up a makeshift vocal booth at home.

Did I finally get the gig at the local pizza and funeral parlor? Good guess, but no.

I have discovered that audio books are an extremely effective entertainment mechanism for my hyper-verbal 3.5-year-old son, who would not take candy from a stranger, but would without hesitation curl up next to one for a story.

I found a cache of professionally-read children’s book recordings recently, and they have already saved me on four occasions — Raphael really loves hearing them. I got to thinking how great it would be to have a couple more such stories. This led me to think I could read them myself! After all, how hard could it be to read a book into a microphone?

(Such thoughts are typically followed by what I can only later describe as “learning experiences.” In the moment I describe them altogether differently, using words I can’t repeat here.)

So, I set up some acoustic foam in a low-rent attempt to create a somewhat-acoustically-dead space. I hung three mics, all large-diaphragm condensers, with the notion that I’d record three tracks at once and pick later which mic was best suited to each story or character.

MK-219That was my first mistake — crowding 3x too many mics and stands into too small a space. I didn’t need three mics, just one good mic. I kept the one that was the least sibilant, an Oktavamod MK-219, a cardioid LDC with a nice midrange and relatively soft top end.

I read a couple stories, working the mic real close. I was going for a “voice of God” sound, using the mic’s proximity effect to boost the low-end presence of my voice.

This was my second mistake. I think God sits a little further back from His microphone.

The problem was mouth sounds. In addition to the story, I heard a chorus of lips and tongues. I could hear my tonsils. I could hear my dinner moving around.

And way, way back in the distance, owing to the extreme sensitivity of condenser mics, I swear could hear Bob Heil laughing at me.

(Yes, I was wishing for one of Heil’s large-diaphragm dynamics, which I bet would have made quick work of this VO task.)

So, that first playback was sort of gross. Was I reading a story, or eating a salad?

Next I made the rookie mistake of believing I could clean up the audio mess via editing. This is known as “fixing it in the mix,” and sometimes also as “sucking.” Therefore I learned a lot about editing digital voice recordings in a short time… and then applied it again and again and again for a really long time. Don’t do this. Your 3.5-year-old is used to the mouth sounds.

I reconsidered my collection of dynamic mics. There’s an SM-57, of course, which I dislike on almost everything. I have the Audix D1, D2, and D4 mics, any of which would probably work well. I have an E-V 635a that I dismissed for being beat to hell and omnidirectional too.

M380And then I remembered my Beyerdynamic M-380, a dynamic mic made out of a headphone driver. It exudes vintage charm, not to mention low end response. It has a Figure-of-8 pattern, which is not ideal considering my space, but I tried it out and it sounded great. It’s not as intimate as the condenser, but the recorded sound is much cleaner — i.e., the Beyerdynamic doesn’t sound like it’s being licked. So I now have a go-to VO mic.

I’ll post some samples and setup tips soon.

By the way, if all this seems like too much trouble, you can definitely find children’s audiobooks online if you dig around. E.g., here’s Horton Hatches the Egg. The reader definitely used the wrong microphone though; it sounds like she’s speaking Russian!

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Posted in Microphones | 3 Comments »

3 Responses to “Amateur Hour at the Vocal Booth”

  1. Brad Avenson

    November 5th, 2008 at 7:44 am

    Don’t discount omni directional microphones for voice over work. The lack of proximity is a big benefit in this application. It allows you to get closer to mic for better signal to background ratios.

  2. matthew mcglynn

    November 5th, 2008 at 7:52 am

    Brad, you’re right! And I’m guilty; I didn’t even try my 635a. But I will absolutely put one up up, and one of my STO-2’s too, for my next VO session! Thanks for the reminder.

    Also I picked up a tip from an old Tape Op interview with Andy Hong: hang the mic at forehead height, aimed at the bridge of the nose, and skip the pop filter. I’m looking forward to trying this as well.

  3. Devin

    November 17th, 2009 at 1:39 pm

    Love the reference to Caddyshack!

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