Ever wondered about the technical side of voice over recording?
Discover answers to questions you may have never thought of here in this interview with Robert (Bob) Breen from the Ontario Institute of Audio Recording Technology, Inc.
Earlier this month, David Ciccarelli, CEO of Voices.com, returned to his alma mater OIART as a guest lecturer to the graduating class of 2006-2007. Upon his return, he was excited to share a new trend with me concerning new audio engineering grads purposefully starting up their own businesses out of their homes instead of pursuing work at larger, more established recording facilities. In order to find out more information, I went straight to Bob Breen, Career Development and Industry Relations Chair at OIART and member of the Audio Engineering Society, Toronto Chapter, and asked him some follow up questions to learn of his perspective regarding this new trend.
Stephanie: How many graduates in North America (if you have the stats) and or at OIART specifically have aspirations to start their own recording studios?
Bob: Well, I don’t have specific stats, but anecdotally I would say 40-50% of our graduates. I’ve likely guessed on the low side.
Stephanie: What is at the root of this trend? For instance, is it a lifestyle decision, business decision, etc.?
Bob: I’m not sure that it’s lifestyle necessarily for my students… I think lifestyle is a consideration that becomes more important later in life. I’m not sure it’s a business decision either! I remember being 15 years old – in the 1980’s (gasp!) – and reading that Paul McCartney of the Beatles recorded his first solo album at home in 1970, and Pete Townshend of the Who had a home studio from the mid sixties onwards, where he recorded demos of all the Who hits playing all the instruments himself! From that moment forward it was a purely romantic notion for me.
The difference between now and then is, the technology to outfit even a B-Range professional studio in the 80’s would cost a few hundred thousand dollars. A top notch studio would cost a couple million! Not out of range for a Beatle or a member of the Who, but the rest of us could forget about it. Nowadays, if my teenaged second cousin got the urge, they could buy a decent semi-pro recording package for a minimum of $300 that could run on the family computer. Everyone knows this, but it’s still remarkable.
Statistically, 50% of all homes have at least one amateur musician… so you can see how it would be profitable for any gear company to cater specifically to this market. Much of the gear is pro quality, and even some of the classic high end equipment of yesteryear is available – for the first time ever – from local music stores. You know they’re responding to demand. So to answer your question, I think the root of the trend in aspiring students is mostly that they can.
For working professionals, who perhaps used to hire big studios, the reasons are indeed lifestyle and business. I’ve seen lots of both. Some people prefer to work at home, but I know plenty of composers and musicians who have simply figured out, “wait a minute, I can save money on my studio budget working at home – there’s no time pressure, and I can actually bill the company for studio time and the gear will pay for itself. I’ll save the company money and I’ll make a few extra bucks myself. Wow!”
This financial model has become so prevalent that I’ve even seen people who don’t want to work at home, or record themselves, having to do it to compete. Maybe they just want to play acoustic guitar without knowing how to get a great sound – but they have to learn how to do it anyway. The downside of any home business is you never leave work. The upside is you get to see your kids grow up and hopefully create your ideal environment. For most it’s a dream come true.
Stephanie: How much does an engineer invest financially on average when outfitting their professional recording studio?
Bob: Depends on what you want to do.
A typical “voices.com” client probably has a good computer, one good mic, one good preamp, a set of converters, headphones, speakers, high speed Internet, and hopefully a quiet room! You could go top drawer on all those items for about $15,000. You could allocate the same money differently and record bands decently. If you have a less than ideal recording space, that’s a whole other issue. A couple thousand dollars and a few hours on eBay can get anyone going nowadays.
What frequently develops, however, is “gear lust”. There’s always another piece of equipment that will improve your setup. Your computer is now out of date, time to upgrade…. etc etc… At that point it’s a bottomless pit – albeit an incredibly enjoyable one that likely slows down the aging process and keeps you a teenager at heart!
Stephanie: What are the “must have” pieces of equipment / software? Do engineers usually purchase a variety of microphones to accommodate all instruments and voice types?
Bob: Well, the industry standard audio software is Digidesign Pro Tools. There are other programs like Nuendo, Logic, Performer, Samplitude, etc. but you can get in to Pro Tools on some level for a few hundred dollars. It’s arguably the easiest and friendliest software to operate. The “bang for the buck” in quality is actually far better if you choose your components carefully and use something other than Pro Tools, but nonetheless it’s the industry standard.
They’re the Microsoft of audio.
Preamps, specifically microphone amplifiers which bring the tiny signal from a microphone up to a level that is recordable, have a huge effect on the sound quality and you can’t get by without them. Favourites include Neve, API, Presonus, Focusrite, Mackie, Behringer… those are all over the quality range. Neves are my preference on that list – but they’re also outrageously expensive! Some computer interfaces, like the Digidesign M-Box, have preamps built right in and they’re perfectly adequate.
Engineers do indeed select mics to complement instruments and voices. They usually like large “condenser” mics for low frequency instruments and voices, and small “condenser” mics for percussion and acoustic instruments. A condenser is a very detailed and sensitive powered microphone. They will use “dynamic” mics for loud instruments in particular, like electric guitars, tom toms and snare drums. “Ribbon” microphones, which are a very old design, are nice for brassy instruments. They’re very smooth sounding.
Most “voices.com” clients probably already own a large condenser. Quality, tone and price vary of course. The subtleties are numerous – some mics work better on women than men and vice versa – but I never met a mic I didn’t like.
I suppose I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention here I have a nice little home business selling and servicing studio condenser and ribbon mics; ” www.canadianaudiodistributors.com“. Indeed, much of my current knowledge of home studios and the people who work in them comes from talking to my customers!
Stephanie: Are recording engineers who decide to strike out on their own aware of the opportunity to record voice over talent specifically? Is this an appealing area of audio production for them?
Bob: They are. I find, as our students progress, they discover a lot of audio jobs they hadn’t imagined when they walked in the door. They think about the gear and technicalities at first, but not the people so much – and voice over people can be some amazing and memorable personalities! They discover that a quality voice recording isn’t as simple as throwing up a mic in front of someone’s face. How do you deal with sibilance? Low end pops and thumps? Dynamic consistency? Acoustic issues? The appeal grows as a full picture develops.
As a result, we have graduates recording voice overs for commercials, television shows, films, video games, and audio books – not to mention setting studios up for voice over talent to record themselves!
Stephanie: David mentioned that there were a number of engineers who were interested in exploring their own voice as voice talents in addition to pursuing careers as professional audio engineers. How many people would you say fall into this camp?
Bob: Probably a dozen or so… but we all know at least one person who would like to do it, for whom voices.com is a bit of a revelation. In my case, it’s my wife! She’s wanted to do voice overs since she was a little girl acting in TV commercials. Once I finish building my home studio, of course she’ll have a voices.com account! You’ll notice I used “my home studio”, “building”, and “voices.com” in the same sentence. One could take it as further evidence of the trends described earlier!!!
Stephanie: How much coverage or emphasis does the OIART curriculum place on voice over and spoken word recordings?
Bob: A considerable amount. There are several classes on the subject, and numerous assignments including a radio play and a 30 second commercial which is adjudicated by one of the advertising production staff at A-Channel.
Stephanie: Do you bring in professionals or aspiring talent to be recorded by your students?
Bob: We do, the students are also free to bring in their own in the last semester.
Stephanie: How do you differentiate singers from voice over talent? Do engineers treat them any differently?
Bob: They do. When you record a singer you are concerned with performance and dynamics as well as getting the vocal to blend in properly with a mix. In voice overs, intelligibility and a clean recording are absolutely key. As a secondary consideration, the engineer has tremendous flexibility to showcase the texture and tone of the voice.
Stephanie: What is the single most important thing you teach about a recording engineers relationship with voice over talent?
Bob: It’s a customer service industry! All the gear in the world doesn’t make you a great companion on a long session, or enhance your ability to get the very best out of your talent. This is an important skill to develop. Engineering chops are important, but they are a prerequisite. Interpersonal skills win and keep jobs, and ultimately ensure a long, successful career.
Stephanie: I’d also be curious to know what your thoughts are on file delivery methods such as ISDN in the wake of new products, particularly the software Source-Connect. Is ISDN going the way of the dinosaur and yielding to more cost-effective, environmentally friendly methods of file delivery?
Bob: Not my area of expertise – I don’t know Source-Connect – but basically yep. ISDN isn’t dead yet, but it’s expensive and worked mostly because it was the only way to do an international session in real time. I know of a major Canadian TV network who has a satellite uplink with their flagship voice talent, who now has a little booth at home in cottage country. He simply logs in, and sessions run as if he was in the next room – not hundreds of miles away!
If you would like to contact Bob Breen or OIART for more information about their program, you will find the complete OIART contact details below:
Ontario Institute of Audio Recording Technology Inc.
500 Newbold Street
London, Canada N6E 1K6
ph 519-686-5010 ext 21