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Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Medium is the Message (Again)

As I keep on saying, “The medium is the message”

NEW YORK — The members of Occupy Wall Street are not allowed to use megaphones, so they’ve adopted a low-tech workaround.
At their twice-daily general meetings in Zuccotti Park in Manhattan’s financial district, whoever has an announcement to make speaks slowly and clearly, with a pause every few seconds, so that everyone within earshot of the speaker can repeat back what he or she just said — amplifying it for the crowd of hundreds to hear. (Huffington Post)

 The medium is the message.

OWS’s “workaround” for the megaphone ban has had a profound – and enormously positive  -- effect on the success of their movement. It is, in effect, a new medium for mass communication. 
Like any medium, it has its advantages and disadvantages.  And, obviously, it does take time for a speaker to get his or her message across.
  
But…. (And this a huge “but”!)

a.)    Speakers must reduce their speeches to core ideas
b.)    To maintain continuity, the messages need logical consistency so one phrase follows naturally from another
c.)    Each phrase needs to be clear so as to to be easily repeated
d.)   Repetition is made easier by chanting
e.)    Listeners have to really listen in order to sync with others in the chant
f.)     In so doing, each individual identifies with the group
g.)    Group identity and repetition of core ideas increase belief in the core ideas being expressed

The medium is the message.

Simply speaking, the audience for one of these speeches cannot be passive – they must act -- and interact .  The crowd is the medium; and amplifies each idea presented to them,  not only for the ears but for the mind. 

For thousands of years, people have chanted.  In the beginning was the word and the word was made flesh.  “I think there I am?”  To say something is to think it.  And when a lot of people say the same thing at the same time?    Religious people, the Marines, and soccer fans all chant for a reason – it gives them power.    Chants are basic to all shared belief systems, in fact to any group that wants to do something.

The medium is the message.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Lee Camp and the Art of Voice

What’s in a voice?

By and large, Japanese clients are inept at choosing voices.  They don’t ask themselves why they think a certain kind of voice goes with, say, a given video or TV commercial.  If they did ask, they would have to admit that theris is just a vague personal prejudice like some men prefer blondes over brunettes or vice versa.  Clearly, different cultures have different preferences for voices – depending on the subject.
By and large, Japanese clients go for the kind of voices that sells shampoo in the US. 

Now, shampoo is…well…soap. It cleans your hair. And the voices, male or female, are clean, clear, and more or less devoid of character.  No whiny kid’s voices here.  No raspy Favorite Uncle voices.  No real emotion. The subject is vapid.  The concept, superficial.

I keep on going back to the “It’s a Sony”  voice so many years ago. Or the Honda Prelude voice that I used to do. Both voices are deep, a little raspy. They’re different.  Arguably older.  They have character. And they were hugely popular.  I know that in the case of Honda, Honda had tried no less than four Shampoo voices first, hoping (irrationally) to get the “It’s a Honda” effect
.
The production company hit on me, more or less by trial and error.  Maybe they misdialed or confused me with someone else.  They still didn’t know what they were doing.  And things would have worked out differently if I hadn’t known what they really needed.

Nowadays, voice casting has not improved. 

You have to think when choosing voices. If only because it is also about the choosing delivery.
Listen to this from comedian, social commentator, Lee Camp…..
video 
Lee Camp’s voice is perfect for what he does. Or – maybe – what he does is perfect for his voice.  His delivery is unique, half rap, half rant, complete with alliteration and rhyme and rhythm – a beat.   So the voice is absolutely right, a little high, hard – as piercing as his observations.  Imagine the Shampoo Voice doing this. Or the Breakfast serial guy.  Or even the Movie Trailer Guy.  Nope. These are stereotypical voices and Lee Camp’s style is all about the unexpected – irony and bathos.

Of course, Lee Camp also writes his own stuff – which makes it exactly right.

Of course, company PR people in Japan are not into creativity or quality – they want something that “fits a mold” , that is unexceptional, that will not generate conversation, much less debate.

Of course, Camp’s genius is that what he says is exception and really makes you think. And his way of saying – both delivery and tone—amplify the effect.

Go to his website – you might learn something.
 http://leecamp.net/

Friday, July 22, 2011

You're no better than your Mic

Microphones, microphones...In Tokyo, voice over people make a big thing of bringing their own headphones to the studio.  No doubt it is suppose to suggest that you a.) do a lot of voice over work b.) are really, really careful about listening to yourself.   As I have said before, I think this is an affectation which actually suggests you don't know what you are doing. 

It doesn't  matter what headphones or earphones yo use - -the sound you hear through your headphones is never the same as the recorded sound.  And listening to yourself too much inteferes with naturalness. Go with the flow, bro'.  

Check the voice over forums on the 'net and you will find there is general agreement among UK and American voice over people as to my opinions.

What really distinguishes a professional from an amateur is knowledge of microphones -- and how to  use them.

When I go into a studio I always ask what microphones they have since they usually they have several. And I choose the type that matches my voice and the tone I want for whatever project I am doing.  If they have a mic' I don't know, I ask the tech people about it, what it sounds like, its characteristics and so on. If it sounds good for me, I will give it a try.  That means doing a test read, just 30 seconds or so and playing it back over the big studio speakers (no, NOT listening through headphones).

Of course, there is also an art to using microphones. We'll deal with that in another post. 


Today, we want to look at different types of microphones.  Below is a post from Emmet over at:

http://www.audiomastersforum.net/amforum/index.php/topic,5064.0.html

This guy is really good! Take a look at this forum BTW -- it's great!
 
Emmet: 

I tested, A/B’d and compared a bunch of sub-$1000 mics last weekend. All were tested in an acoustically treated studio using a Monster Prolink Standard mic cable (which I ended up purchasing because I really liked it) and the preamp from a small-format Alesis mixing board. I used a set of Audio-Technica ATH-M30 headphones for review, which I also purchased for my wife...Not bad cans, but not my favorite either…Would be a good starter set for VO at about $70. I tested several voices on each mic, as well. I took notes as I tested each mic, from the least expensive to the most expensive. After testing all mics, I re-visited my favorites so I could compare them with the more expensive models.
Anyhow, I thought I would share my results. I only tested large diaphragm studio condensers, with the exception of a couple large dynamics. Some of which I had no intention of buying, but I did want to try for the sake of comparison. I did not test any tube mics (I don’t care for them). I did not test any shotgun mics, though they can sometimes work very well for VO. I did not test any ribbon mics and I did not test any USB mics.
Marshall MXL 990 [$69] I’ve owned one of these for quite some time. In my opinion, this is a good starter mic for someone on a (very) tight budget. It’s not good for speakers with sibilance problems, as it has a strong high-end boost (common among Chinese condensers). It has a “cold” sound, so it won’t perform very well for soft-sell reads. It does work well for younger male voices. The 990 becomes pretty harsh when used on female voices. The construction is solid, and the included shockmount works well, though not as well as others. The self-noise is very high (22dB), though tolerable. This is a huge step forward from a “stage” mic or Radio Shack mic. But this is not a great mic, by any stretch of the imagination.
Nady SCM 900, 920, 950, 1000; Behringer B1, B2; MXL V63M, V57M, V67G, 2001, 2003, 2006; AKG Perception 100, 200; MCA SP-2; CAD GXL2200, 2400 [$39-149] All of these mics sounded essentially the same, with only subtle differences in sonic character. None were very impressive. The MXL and Behringer lines seemed to be of higher build-quality. All of these mics suffer from the exaggerated high-end, which makes them sound especially rough on female voices and speakers with sibilance issues. The MXL 2001 was the best-sounding of the bunch, with a slightly warmer sound. Rumor his it that a 2001 can be modified to sound like a Neumann U87 for about $150 worth of parts, though I cannot confirm that. The AKG’s are a load of crap…They do NOT sound like they belong in the AKG line. My suggestion is to avoid these mics for voiceover, unless you simply want a backup for your main mic.
Audio-Technica AT2020 [$99] This mic is, by far, the best sounding $100 mic on the market. There is no shockmount, which is a definite downside. Overall, this suffers from the same high-end problems as other mics in this price range, but the sonic quality outperforms the competition. On a super-tight budget, this one gets my vote. The self-noise is also lower than other comparably priced mics. Like most “budget” mics, this one will work better on a male voice than female. It may not be a “great” mic, but it seems to be a great buy.
Audio-Technica AT3035 [$199] Not bad at all. This mic was the first to sound reasonably good on a variety of voices without the help of EQ. Self noise is pretty low, as well. The 3035 has a warmer sound than others in this price range, which means it works in most applications. There’s some high-end boosting that, on a frequency plot, looks similar to the Chinese mics, but this does not sound like a Chinese condenser. This is the first mic I tested that actually started to sound like a professional piece of gear. Unfortunately, the shockmount is made of cheap plastic and may break or have problems holding the mic upside down. This mic, in my opinion, is a very solid choice for the price.
R0DE NT1-A [$199] This is the quietest mic I tested all weekend. Does that mean I love it? No. I thought it sounded mediocre on my voice. It sounded pretty good on my wife, but her sibilance was a little harsh…Nothing near as bad as with the Chinese mics, but not great. I think this could be an excellent mic when used on the right voice. The build quality seems very solid as well as the included shockmount. The proximity effect with this mic might work well for some voices, but it just made mine sound dull and muddy. With this mic, I would HIGHLY suggest a test run. I could picture this mic doing amazing things with the right user. And with the self-noise figure of only 5.5dB, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a quieter mic for less than $2000.
Studio Projects C1 [$199] A good choice, period. I have heard people say that this mic sounds like/as good as a Neumann U87. It doesn’t. It’s also less than one tenth of the price, so what do you expect? This mic is very solid and it’s HEAVY. It may be too heavy for less-expensive boom stands. While it doesn’t sound like a $2500+ mic, it could easily sell for more than the $200 street price. I worked well on every voice I tested it on, though it performed especially well on deep-voiced males. Again, this mic follows the pattern of most Chinese condensers…It doesn’t sound great on “thin” female voices or speakers with sibilance issues, but it does handle these speakers much better than other similar mics. Self noise is not very low, but not high enough to be problematic. The shockmount is okay, but nothing to write home about. All in all, this mic is a good choice for many voices, and would likely be a good investment for someone with a budget in the $200 range.
AKG C 3000 B [$299] Awful. This mic was the biggest disappointment of the day. I’ve heard some very good things about this mic, but I didn’t hear anything good from it. I couldn’t make it sound good on ANYONE! Aside from the self-noise spec, I thought most of the “budget” Chinese condensers outperformed this mic, hands down. The mic looks nice and seems to have a solid build. I didn’t care for the design of the shockmount, though there’s nothing really wrong with it. Somehow, this mic manages to sound dull and brittle at the same time, with a scooped sound in the mids. I say, avoid this one, it’s not worth the $300.
Shure KSM 27 [$299] Another disappointment, though not as drastic. This mic sounded very good on female voices, but lifeless and dull on males. The shockmount seems very nice, though not very flattering to the mics appearance. I would recommend this mic to female speakers, but not male…Especially not deep-voiced males. I imagine this mic would provide years of use, as it bears the Shure name. It’s worth a listen, but not very impressive.
Audio-Technica AT4040 [$299] Wow…Just wow. This was the first mic to really get my heart pumping. Did I mention, “Wow!”? The sound is simply amazing. Absolutely worlds ahead of anything before. I liked this mic so much, I bought one as my main studio mic. I also revisited this mic to test next to the $1,000 models. I almost prefer some of the sonic characteristics of this mic to the Neumann TLM103 and AKG C414…Almost. I didn’t find a single voice that sounded bad on this mic, though some sounded better than others. While this mic sounds great on females, it sounds outstanding on males. The construction of the mic itself is second to none. The shockmount does a good job, though it’s not easy to remove and replace this mic from the shockmount. But considering the shockmount design was the biggest flaw in the AT4040, I think I can deal with that. This is also the first mic I tested that I could set the EQ to completely flat and be 100% satisfied with the results. If you don’t have $1,000 to spend on a mic, this is the next-best thing. Skip everything between $300-$900 and go with this or the Neumann TLM103, depending on which end of the spectrum you’re going for. 
R0DE NT1000 [$299] Blah. This mic probably didn’t get a completely fair shake, since it followed the AT4040 and paled in comparison. There was nothing terrible about this mic, but nothing great either. Very neutral sounding. Might be a good choice for commercials, but not exciting enough for imaging. In fact, I like the NT1-A better for $100 less.
Sennheiser MD421 [$349] If you’re in the market for a dynamic mic, this one sounds pretty decent. Not too boomy or muddy. I wouldn’t suggest using this mic for VO, but I do think it’s a good choice for serious podcasters or voicetrackers. Rugged build quality and decent sound.
R0DE Broadcaster [$399] This mic seems to be nothing more than a cheap gimmick to entice radio professionals. The build quality is absolutely horrendous and the sound isn’t much better. The design would work well in a broadcast setting, but for the cheap build quality. Junk. R0DE, you should be ashamed to put your brand on this.
ElectroVoice RE20 [$399] Ugh, two bad ones in a row. If I were rich, I would use this mic as an expensive hammer or doorstop, but never as a VO mic. The good news is that this mic will stand up to years of abuse and continue to work. The sound is muddy, boomy and lifeless. But, for a podcaster, voice-tracker or anyone who abuses their equipment, this mic will handle it.
R0DE NT2-A [$399] Now were talkin’! I liked this mic a lot. Not as much as the AT4040, but close. Here’s another one that can compete with the big boys. This mic has a lot of features which would really allow someone to “dial in” the perfect setting for their voice. Nice, smooth response and worked well on all voices tested. If I had time to test all of the different features, I might spring for this one. I can safely recommend a test drive of this mic, though I don’t think it’s as good at the AT4040 and it’s $100 more.
ElectroVoice RE27N/D [$449] This mic sounds better than the other two dynamics I tested. It sounds more like a condenser. I still don’t care for it, but if, for some reason, you’re in the market for a dynamic mic, this one sounds best. It’s also made with the same build quality of the RE20. It should be noted that the shockmount for both the RE20 and RE27N/D runs about $150.
Audio-Technica AT4047S/V [$549] Another diamond, albeit for a hefty price. This mic is much warmer than any of the previous mics and it really does sound good. I don’t think it sounds $250 better than the AT4040 and I do think the Neumann TLM103 is worth the extra $400. However, in some cases, this mic might actually sound better than the Neumann. It sounds great, don’t get me wrong. Test it for yourself, though. 
AKG C414B-XLS [$799] A classic VO mic. Personally, I wasn’t blown away. It sounds great, but at $800, it should. It’s almost too natural for my taste. My vision of the perfect “radio sound” is not the most natural. This mic is very flat and very natural. It has VERY low self-noise. I would prefer a little more colored sound. The sound is so silky and smooth that it works well on any voice, but works best with mature voices.
NOTE:  Since I wrote these notes, I've learned that there are two versons of the C414.  It turns out, the C414B-XLII is the one I should have been testing, as it's designed for voice and the XLS is designed for instruments.  It's entirely possible that I would have like the XLII better...
Neumann TLM103 [$999] The best. If you look around, you can find one of these babies for under $800. The sound is simply amazing. The TLM103 uses the same capsule as a U87, but it doesn’t sound like a U87 at all. It’s more colored and spoken voice cuts through without sounding exaggerated. I genuinely prefer the sonics of the TLM103 to those of the U87, at least for my own voice. Self noise is as low as any other mic. The shockmount is the best of all those tested, as well. If you’re prepared to spend $500+, save a little longer and buy this mic. It handled everything I threw at it, with ease. It sounds just as warm when speaking from a foot away, as it does an inch away. I’ve been using one of these at work for a few years and I’ve always liked it. Now, hearing it in context with other mics, I like it even more!
Don’t buy a mic based on my reviews and experiences. Test for yourself. Test as many as you can. As a general rule, the more you spend, the better the mic will perform. But remember to save money for a quality preamp and soundcard or your new $1000 mic will sound like garbage.
How about some more opinions…What have you tried that you loved? What about those that were just a waste of time?

Emmett

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Voice Samples -- the Skinny


     Voice samples are always a thorny problem for narrators in Japan.
    
     The primary issue is that the people who do the choosing for a TV commercial or PR video or web video are Japanese – usually mid level managers at companies.  They hear with Japanese ears, thinking of an audience just like themselves – other Japanese salary men.  So, they may choose a female voice when a male voice would be more effective. Or, they may go for British English when they should choose American.  They tend to dislike “natural “intonation -- preferring the kind of diction they get with English language practice materials.  “Deep” female voices are “out”.  And the rougher, more raspy male voices so beloved of American and British audiences somehow bother them.
  
     Listen to any TV commercial in Japan, done in English, and you will almost always hear a voice that is mid range, “pure”, “neutral” and rather low impact.
   
    There are exceptions of course. The old “It’s a Sony” is one.  And the “Honda Prelude” is another. But these are rare cases.
  
     Obviously, mid-level managers are going to go for “safe” choices”.
     
     So, what to do when making a voice sample?
  
     In the US, voice samples, are often 10 second clips stitched together to show a variety of styles and characters.  This is great for TV commercial stuff. But here in Japan most of the work is going to be corporate communications vehicles such as PR videos. Such longer examples of  narration that mimics standard PR video scripts is better.  Focus on clear diction and enunciation.
  
     English practice materials redux.
  
     Your  audience are the kind of guys you teach at the school you teach at to make up for times when there just isn’t narration.     These are often the only people who  are really going to listen  to your work anyway.
  
  Yes, there are exceptions.

   But most PR videos end up in showrooms, rarely played.  Or played to foreign guests as a kind of ordeal they must endure before dinner and drinks. 

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Subtitles


I f you are a narrator in Japan,  you will inevitably find yourself doing narration for a video with subtitles.
You will probably notice English subtitles in Japanese productions:
1)       Are  too long
2)      They extend from the left margin of the screen right as on a printed page
3)      The characters are often too small to read easily
4)      They include grammatical or usage errors
However, in  English subtitles are supposed to be:
1)       Short
2)      Centered
3)      Use characters large enough to read easily
4)      Grammatical and error free (except when reproducing the vernacular)
The reason for legibility should be obvious – after all, why have subtitles at all if you can’t read them?

Every medium enforces a set of perceptual habits.  Look at a video screen and the brain automatically selects a set of muscular rules.  Centering?  Repeat after me! --video screens are not print pages . The eye is conditioned to focus on the central 35 % -- not the left margin.  

So, with video and left margin subtitles, the eyes are continually trying to focus on the center of the screen – while at the same time forced by the line of type in a different direction -- which is tiring and distracting. 
In addition, left margin subtitle done by Japaneses often result in a single of type right across the screen --from edge to edge -- with tiny characters that are hard to see, much less read. This usually because Japanese characters are so much more economical of space – but directors don’t get that with English and lot more characters, the layout ils going to have to change. 

Simply put, many Japanese directors – and of course their foreign translators – regard “versioning” a Japanese language video as just a matter of translating words mechanically.  They are not thinking of how their audiences will react.  And they don’t understand that different media imply  different perceptual  dynamics and also different parameters and rules. 

Since the client knows even less about this -- doesn’t know what constitutes quality in a foreign language –and rarely gets any feedback about whether a given PR vehicle actually does what it is supposed to,  the bar gets lower and lower.

Curiously directors and  clients will obsess endlessly about the most meaningless details.
And they are very demanding about quality in the case of their Japanese language productions.

So, what do you do?

Narrators – at least the few  who actually know what they are doing -- will understand how a given  medium works-– whether it is  a PR video or a movie trailer of a TV CM or a radio commercial  or web page. 
Now if you are in the studio and the Client is there and you criticize the subtitles, you may cause the director to lose face. Not good if you want another job from him..  In addition, correcting the titles takes time and extra work, which means some extra expense.  The production company isn’t going to thank you.  

Consider also that the director has probably turned out the same shit time after time with nary a “claim”.  After all, promotion videos don’t get reviewed on IMDB or Rotten Tomatoes. By and large, they are things shown to captive audiences before they can get at the canapĂ©s and the drinks.  A sort of ritual like religious floggings to show your faith.

So, no,  don’t volunteer gratuitious advice.

But (there is always a “but”), if the client asks you to comment on the subtitles – or anything else that might improve the video—that is a different matter.

Still, here you must tread carefully because, by and large, narrators are paid by the production company – and not by the client.  In other words, the “client” is not your client.  So, before you shoot off your mouth, ask the director first how to respond.  Just look the Client in the eye – and deflect – as in , “Let me just talk to the director for a moment”.  Then talk to him privately. Whisper in his ear if necessary.  Make  him choose.
Some directors know what they are doing.  They actually see here an opportunity to impress the client – especially if it was the client who did the translation and otherwise interfered in the production process. They may give you free rein.  Of course, this may take time – and you should be clear that time is not free! 
In any case, always be professional.

The King's Speech


 
Recently I watched the King’s Speech. One of the more interesting part is right at the beginning where Logue asks “Bertie”, the King-to-be, to read Hamlet’s famous speech.  Impossible says the king, can’t do it.  Yes you can says Logue Put on these headphones.  So the King reads Hamlet while the headphones blare out music so he can’t hear his own voice.  He reads beautifully without a hint of a stammer.There is a lesson in this for all would be voice over artists. Don’t rely on the “cans” headphone or earphone feedback when you read.   The brain doesn’t like doing too many things at the same time.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Logic and American Commercials

   Back in high school literature class, you were probably taught to write compositions this way: 

a)      First,  a theme – an proposition that you must prove   Say, “This poem is about how  love never works out”.   
b)      Then – the “argument” – the proof.   A few  examples from the text of the poem, that make your point.
c)       Then you the conclusion  “ See,  the poet shows us why we shouldn’t expect anything but sorrow from love”.    

This form of “inductive-deductive” logic – while basic-- is often not taught much in the Japanese school system –perhaps reflecting an implicit bias against  discursive or critical thinking.   The Japanese like harmony and hierarchy – and argument tends to subvert such values since it is – among other things –often an adversarial  tool.
 Our www.cars.com  CM assumes a more critical audience – and in terms of logic takes us back to high school—well, American high school. 

The proposition is presented in the first few seconds .

if you want to survive,  learn from other’s experiences.  Then we get reasons -- three dramatic  illustrations – each against the backdrop of an implied “backstory”, which is a more than familiar dramatic clichĂ©.  There is the Tudor king who, despite the raucous party, remembers to use his Food Taster . The Food Taster dies, the king lives. Ah yes, we all know about poison and Renaissance nastiness.   .  Then, there is the SciFi situation where researchers are trying to perform teleportation, resulting in catastrophic transformation of their subject. In SciFi, scientists are almost always mad and the results eve madder. .   Finally,  there are the cowboys, looking out for Indians. The hero asks his sidekick to stand up and look to see if it’s clear.  The sidekick gets 3 arrows in the chest.  Whoops.     

 The final scene has a logical conclusion.  Go to www. cars.com and you can learn from others experience (ie mistakes) and you not only survive – but achieve a successful buy. It’s smart.  That’s the punchline.
So, we have an emotively compelling logical template in place.

People don’t usually things because it’s rational in any rigorously philosophical sense.  If so,, George W Bush would never have been elected – certainly not for the second time .  Nor would the Tea Party be dominating Republican politics. Nor would the Japanese have built nuclear reactors on their shaky little islands   Such idiocies could only be justified in terms of certain contexts.   Context defines the rules.

What I just referred to as  a logical “template” is also a context – an  aesthetic frame for a set of emotional and emotive modalities. 

As we’ve seen, this CM is hilarious.  What is a smile but an inverted grimace?  Humor has tremendous power because it often attaches to unpleasant realities – in this case death.  In a matter of seconds, three people die – and we laugh?   Oh, it’s not real you say. Hmmmm…..Food tasters did die – as do research subjects and, course, cowboys.  Yes, the coward’s way – letting someone else go first – often does give us a better chance of survival.  Like pain, fear is protective.   We are just loath to admit it.  And satire gives us distance. 
Cognitive dissonance?   No really --  emotive dissonance here that engages the lower brain – the animal brain – the seat of our deepest feelings.  

So, when we get to the conclusion. – visit www. cars.com we are primed.  Yes, we will go there.
“Low attention” media like TV CMs work indirectly.  The nature of such a medium demands subtlety.  But that does not make it any less effective.