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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:,5064.0.html

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

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?


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.