“A Little Off the Top” – Using Limiters for Voiceover

Sometimes, the best audio engineering job, like the best haircut, it the one that passes unnoticed. The result seems so well-suited and natural that you’re not quite sure if anything has been done at all. In the case of a haircut, this is often the result of asking the hairdresser to simply “take a little off the top (or sides, or back).”

For the Audio Engineer, often, this means setting the Compressor aside and reaching for the Limiter instead.

If the volume on your audio is generally within an acceptable range, but your peaks jump a bit higher than you would like, a Limiter (specifically a Hard Limiter or a Brick Wall Limiter) may be a more appropriate tool than a more generic Compressor.

In our fictitious example, lets assume that during some more exciting parts of your recording, your volume jumped up to about -1.0dB but didn’t actually peak (go above 0). You were asked to deliver a file with peaks no higher than -3.0dB.

You could try to fix this by Normalizing the entire file down to -3.0dB. If you did the entire file would get quieter by 2 decibels, and that is not the goal. The volume in most of the file feels perfect, you just need to control those peaks — “take a little bit off the top” — as it were. This is why you might want to use a Limiter.

By configuring a Limiter with both the Threshold and the Output set to -3.0dB, only the parts of your audio that exceed -3 will be affected at all. Since this leaves the bulk of your audio untouched, the result can be a lot more transparent and natural than other types of compression.

loudmaxIf your audio needs to be made slightly louder and have very specific peaks, you would move the Threshold down until it affects a bit more of your audio, maybe as low as -12.0dB. All of your audio below that line will remain unaffected while the parts above will be “teased up” a bit. Depending upon how agressive the Threshold you could go from adding a bit of body to a flat hairstyle to something that seems more like glam-rock or punk. So, be careful!

eventhorizon

Two of my favorite Limiters are Event Horizon by Stillwell Audio and LoudMax by Thomas Mundt. Both are intuitive and can be incredibly transparent. Try them both out and see which one works better for you. Is there another Limiter that you think I should try, let me know?

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Strictly Analog #Listen2aBook

Since it’s National Tell a Story Day, I thought I could share another great audiobook with you — Strictly Analog by Richard Levesque.

A dystopian, sci-fi, noir that can be best described as what Raymond Chandler might write if he happened to be a Neal Stephenson fan, Strictly Analog follows detective Ted Lomax on a case that could uncover some very dangerous truths about what’s left of California after “the war.”

Richard Levesque is a writer worth exploring. And Strictly Analog, is a great example of his work. Richard brings believability out of classic pulp. And, when he ventures into the realm of Speculative Fiction, the world he paints can feel too real for comfort.

Would you like a free copy of this book? Click here to get this book for free with a 30 Day trial membership at Audible or click here to request a free reviewer copy.

Hallways in the Night #Listen2aBook!

Since it’s National Tell a Story Day, I thought I could share one of my favorite audiobook projects with you — Hallways in the Night by R.C. O’Leary.

A police procedural/courtroom drama in the tradition of Law & Order, Hallways in the Night follows an Atlanta police officer in the wake of the unintentional death of a celebrity crime suspect. We learn that people are not what they seem. Who is actually working to uncover the truth? Who benefits most if the truth never surfaces? The plot twists and turns as the slowly find our own way through the layers of self-interest and cover up.

What makes this story one of my favorites? Aside from it having been a fun read, working on this project is when I first met Johnny Heller.

I scheduled a private lesson with Johnny through Edge Studio. That day, Johnny worked through that opening monologue with me until I felt that I truly owned the material. And, once he heard the final product, the author agreed wholeheartedly.

It was an acting lesson that brought me back to some basic truths of good acting — being in the moment, and having honest reactions to the text and expressing them.

I am a better actor because of that session. And, that of course is the key, since truthful, honest acting, is at the core of the best audiobook narration.

Thank you Johnny! Thank you so very much for your insights and encouragement.

Would you like a free copy of this book? Click here to get this book for free with a 30 Day trial membership at Audible or click here to request a free reviewer copy.

Why I don’t worry about Fiverr Anymore

One of my friends works in advertising at a large New York-based agency. In a recent chat, the conversation eventually turned to sites like Fiverr. What he said next nearly made me do a spit take with my coffee

Fiverr? Yeah, I use them all the time.”

“You do?” I was astonished.

“Yeah, lots of people who will quickly whip up an image or record something on the cheap. Saved my life more than once, believe me.”

I was dumbfounded. “The stuff you make for work–?”

“Oh, sorry about that,” my friend started to explain. “We do use Fiverr, all the time. But people like you — real voice actors and graphic artists and stuff — you have nothing to worry about.”

“But…” I was at a loss. “What do you mean?”

Mad Men - Pitch session“Most people think advertising works like it did back in Mad Men or Bewitched or something. Yes, we still do pitch meetings, but no one shows up with drawings on poster paper. We’d get laughed out of the building.”

“So, Keynote or PowerPoint presentations?” I asked.

“No, that’s outdated too.” My friend continued, “If I show up at a pitch meeting with anything less than a full on video made in iMovie or something, I’d be dead.”

“So, how does Fiverr fit in?” I asked.

“Fiverr is where I get my filler. I don’t need it to be good. I just need it to stand in there while I sell the concept. In fact, if the art or the voice is too good, it actually detracts from what I am trying to do.”

It was starting to make sense. “So, you hire these people on the cheap and you throw away their work?”

“Every time.”

“You never hire them for a final job?” I asked.

“No. In fact, we keep a list of people that we’ve come across on sites like that.”

“To hire them again?”

“No. We need to make sure that we never hire anyone with a Fiverr profile for a real job.”

“Why?”

“A client once found a voice talent that we used on Fiverr. We didn’t know that she was on the site. The client felt that it cheapened their brand to be associated with anyone who would ‘whore themselves out that way.’ Their words, not mine.”

“So now you keep a blacklist?”

“Kind of,” my friend explained. “Here’s the point. That throwaway art and audio and stuff is enough for me to pitch the idea. If the agency moves forward with the concept, we look for real talent to do the real work. Why should I waste your time on a concept that may never turn into anything?”

“And this is a standard practice in your industry?”

“I think so. I mean, I know a lot of people who do the same thing all the time. So, don’t worry about sites like Fiverr. It’s filled with hacks, not artisans. We know quality. Our clients know quality. Quality costs a lot more than five bucks.”

I thought for a moment. “Outside advertising, do you think–?”

“Look, if someone believes in an idea, I mean really believes in it, there are so many ways for them to get the word out and raise real cash. The only people getting art and audio off of Fiverr for end products have absolutely no faith in their idea. You don’t want to be associated with ideas like that, do you?”

Again, I thought about it. Then, as I understood, I relaxed. “That makes sense. You’re right. Thank you.”

Thoughts

A quick bit of googling will reveal to you just how much of a hot button topic Fiverr has become in the voiceover community. So, I don’t feel obliged to retread that ground here.

It was interesting for me to hear an opinion from someone who works outside voiceover but has regular interactions with us on a professional level. It was reassuring to hear that people who traffic in ideas understand the value of what we do.

When I encounter someone trying to break into this business who has put up a page on Fiverr, I tend to tell them, “I think your voice is worth way more than that. You’re undervaluing yourself.” Unless they ask for clarification, I often leave it there.

What do you think?

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A Custom OktavaMod Microphone from Michael Joly Engineering Replaces my CAD E100S

Up until very recently, all of my voiceover work was recorded on a CAD E100S. Then, I got a chance to hear one of Michael Joly’s custom microphones, and everything changed…

Let me start by saying, I loved my CAD E100S. Flat response, low self-noise, and tight pick up pattern, what’s not to love? The E100S was very clean and true. The hypercardioid pattern was great for off-axis rejection. I never thought that I would want another mic, until I found out about the ones built by Michael Joly.

Michael Joly runs his business from a small workshop on Cape Cod, here in Massachusetts. In it, he takes common, in-expensive microphones and tricks them out. After his modifications, its nearly impossible to distinguish his mics from ones costing thousands of dollars more.

I first got to hear one of his microphones at a live performance. My ears could swear that they were hearing a high end tube microphone, or maybe an active ribbon mic, but that’s not what my eyes were seeing. What I saw looked like a run-of-the-mill Nady TCM-1050! A few days later, I connected with the performer online and found out that this particular TCM-1050 had been upgraded by Michael Joly.

Choosing & Buying My Microphone

I looked through the microphones on his site, and true to form, I decided to order “off menu”.

I explained that I really liked the sound of his tube mic upgrade and the sound of his VintageVoice’d MJE-250, but I do voiceover from a small StudioBricks booth in my personal studio. And, I knew that he usually recommended his Røde NT1-A upgrade for voice work.

His response — He offered to upgrade the lower self-noise NT1-A with the VintageVoice’d capsule!

Ordering the microphone from his website was easy. I got automated emails telling me the status of my order all the way through to shipping. And, about a week later, I received my microphone.

mje-mic-basket-compareOpening the box, almost everything was stock Røde NT1-A — the shock mount, pop filter, and sleeve all come standard with an NT1-A. The small MJ (Michael Joly) logo affixed to the front of the mic, and the certificate explaining the modifications were the only immediate clues that there was anything different here.

If you compare my microphone to a stock NT1-A side by side, you can see a few other differences. The new single-layered open basket makes the new custom capsule more evident. But, without a direct comparison, you’d be forgiven for not noticing the change.

But, that’s enough about how it looks. It’s a microphone after all, what’s important is how it sounds.

Here are some sample WAV files.
They’re big. They may take a while to load…

MJE-K47 at 7″ from the capsule

 

MJE-K47 at 5″ from the capsule

 

MJE-K47 at 10″ from the capsule

 

MJE-K47 at all 3 distances with the volumes leveled for easier comparison

 

MJE-K47 on a longer narrative read – from Words of Love – the chapter titled Romantic Pain

 

Hestia - Our Pellet StoveNOTE: These samples were recorded in a StudioBricks One Plus booth using a Focusrite Forte as an interface. The highpass filter on the Forte was engaged because without it you would hear rumbles from my pellet stove (Hey, it is winter in New England after all).

 Evaluating the Microphone

Paul Strikwerda posted wonderfully detailed reviews of the CAD E100S and the Gefell M930 where he came up with 8 criteria to look for when rating a microphone for voiceover work:

  1. Minimal voice coloration
  2. Tight pick-up pattern (cardioid or supercardioid)
  3. Excellent rear rejection
  4. Controlled proximity effect (bass boost)
  5. Low susceptibility to sibilance (shrill “S”-sounds) and popping
  6. Low self-noise
  7. High-pass filter to cut out lower frequencies
  8. Rugged design, ready for the road

Let’s go through these one at a time…

Minimal Voice Coloration

Both the E100S and the MJE-K47 tie on this point. Neither add unwanted flavors to the audio. They both seem to accurately represent what they hear.

That said, you might remember, in a previous post, where I mentioned that a good thing to ask other people would be, “Does it sound like me?” To get the E100S to a point where people would universally respond “yes,” I needed a small EQ bump at about 220Hz and a slight drop near 8000Hz. The bump added a bit of presence and the drop shaved off a touch of sibilance (more on that later).

Asking that same question of the raw audio from the MJE-K47, I was greeted with a universal, “It’s perfect just the way it is. Don’t change a thing.”

In analysing exactly what the differences were in the 2 mics, I am starting to believe that the E100S was hearing more of the booth than the MJE-K47. I think I detected a bit of destructive interference around 220Hz caused by reflection from the flat surface on the door to my booth. And, I think a reflection from the computer screen that I read copy from was over-emphasizing my sound at around 8000Hz adding a bit of sibilance.

So, though, in a lab, the 2 mics might be equal, in my real world application, the MJE-K47 did a better job of letting me sound like me.

Tight Pick-Up Pattern

The E100S has a tighter pick-up pattern than the MJE-K47. The E100S’s pattern is tight enough that many of the tricks that one learns when working a Sennheiser MKH416 shotgun mic actually do help on an E100S. The pattern on the E100S is so tight that you do need to work to maintain a constant position. Even small changes in how you stand or sit will affect the sound.

The MJE-K47 is much more forgiving. It allows me the freedom to act with my body as well as my voice. The pattern is more of a traditional cardioid one which, as I have said, seems to work better in small spaces like my booth.

Excellent Rear Rejection

Surprisingly, the MJE-K47 beats the E100S here though it may seem counter-intuitive at first. If you look at a good diagram of both Cardioid and Hypercardioid patterns, you will see that the bump behind the mic is bigger for the E100S. And, inside my booth, behind the mic is where you can find the powered air vent.

My layout options are limited inside the StudioBricks One Plus. The vent can either be behind the microphone or just beyond my left elbow. Either way, it hears the vent. Check out this video for more details about Cardioid vs Hypercardioid patterns…

Controlled Proximity Effect

This one is a draw. Both mics get a workable bit of proximity effect starting at about 5 inches.

By the way, the E100S also can get warm resonance in the same way that a Sennheiser MKH416 can, point it at your upper chest instead of your mouth. If you’ve considered an MKH416 but really need a Large Diaphragm condenser microphone, you should really consider an E100S, in my opinion, it’s as close as you are going to get with an LDC.

Low Susceptibility to Sibilance

The MJE-K47 wins hands down. A sibilance-free top end is part of what Michael Joly advertises, and he’s not kidding. Check out the Sibilance Torture Test Shootout on his site.

I am convinced that the E100S is not a sibilant mic in and of itself. It seems to become one when used within my booth. This is a case of the environment affecting the sound quality, not the microphone.

Low Self-Noise

The E100S technically wins on this one (3.7 compared to 5.0 dBA), but the difference is so minimal that I can’t hear the difference. I am pretty sure that you won’t either.

High Pass Filter

The E100S has one and the other mic does not. I prefer to record the entire signal whenever possible (I’ll be turning off the High Pass in my interface once heating season in New England ends). So this one isn’t a big deal for me either. The built-in High Pass on the E100S seems to actually raise the noise floor of the mic. At first I thought that I had a defective unit, but I have checked with other people and it seems to be true across the board.

Rugged Design

The E100S  wins on this point. Not only is it built like a tank but it also comes in a solid wood box. I don’t plan on traveling with this mic. So, as long as it feels solid and works well in my vocal booth, I am happy. The MJE-K47 is a featherweight compared to the E100S, but it is not actually that delicate. Michael Joly only upgrades microphones that have proven themselves to be solid. I trust his judgement in choosing the NT1-A body.

 Concluding Thoughts

In the end, I decided that Michael Joly’s MJE-K47 was the better microphone for me. It effortlessly handles the quirks of both my delivery and of the booth in which I work. I think that it is an amazing microphone for the price. If you’re looking for a new microphone, you should definitely peruse his website and consider dropping him an email.

The CAD E100S is a great microphone, but it’s just not for me. If you’ve been considering a Sennheiser MKH416 for voice work, but know that you need the distinctive nuance that you can get from a Large Diaphragm Condenser, you should definitely check out the E100S.

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Setting your own Recording Levels: A step-by-step guide for Audiobook Narrators & Voiceover Artists

Something has changed. You bought a new mic? A new pre-amp? You added some new sound treatment? Or, your set-up is the same, but the room its in is different? Any variation in your recording space means that you really should go through all of your settings again. Don’t be afraid. There is no reason to be overwhelmed.

If you take it step-by-step, it’s really not that difficult to do.

For our example, let’s assume that your next project is an audiobook that you are working on via the Audiobook Creation eXchange (ACX). ACX has very specific guidelines for file submission:

  • Peak at or below -3dB
  • Have an Average RMS between -23dB and -18dB
  • Have a noise floor at or below -60dB

And, for today’s text, let’s choose something with lots of sibilant and popping sounds…
How about the theme to Gilligan’s Island? It’s a great practice text since it has most of the offending sounds (S, P, T, etc), and it’s kind of fun to say.

1. Find the “sweet spot”

What we are really looking for is The Goldilocks Zone — not too hot, not too cold, not too hard not too soft. You want it to be “just right!” Unfortunately, “just right” is a subjective thing. So, let me give you a good starting point.

Think of your head as a globe. With your nose as longitude 0°, latitude 0°, move your mic to 45° north (up) and 45° east or west (right or left).

A good starting point for microphone placement

Set it 7 inches away from you and point it at your mouth (or slightly down toward your chest for a bit more resonance – but be careful with that).

Using that as a starting point, shift the mic slightly north, south, east, and west until you feel that you have found the truest sound. Currently, my microphone is about 37° to the right of my nose and about 40° up from the level of my nose.

Place your hand in front of your mouth and start reciting “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers,” over-and-over again. As you do this, move your hand away from your mouth. Odds are, you will stop feeling the rush of air at about 7 inches. And, the point of offsetting your microphone like this is not only to eliminate plosives, but other stray noises as well.

Even with good mic placement, it is still a good idea to use a pop filter. After all, no one’s perfect. People will pop from time to time. Good mic placement reduces the amount of work that you are expecting the filter to handle. When you add the pop filter, be sure to leave space between the filter and the capsule of your microphone. And, do not make it parallel with the capsule of the mic either. Parallel surfaces of any kind increase the possible sources of noise.

Make a quick recording of yourself and ask someone else, “Does this sound like me?” (Do not ask, “Does this sound good/deep/cool/etc?”)

2. Find your level

Focusrite Forte Volume ControlStarting at 50% gain, adjust your volume while watching a meter. You want to find a volume that allows you to really act. You don’t want to be set so loud that any kind of intensity sends your levels too high. Since, in this example, we are delivering an audiobook file to ACX, the highest level that we would want ever see on that meter is -3dB. Odds are, you will wind up with peaks quite a bit lower than that, at -9dB or -12dB.

Now reduce any ambient noise in your recording space before measuring your noise floor. Our goal is to get a noise floor at or below -60dB. If you can’t achieve that, do your best to get a number as low as possible.

Remember, we are dealing with negative numbers here. So -60 is actually lower than -40.

Between -59dB and -50dB is pretty good, between -51dB and -45dB is okay, and between -44dB and -40dB is acceptable. The higher the number at this point (the closer it is to zero), the more work you will need to do in post-production to fix your audio.

3. Consider an Input Limiter

Event Horizon by Stillwell AudioIf the software that you record in has this feature, consider adding a Limiter to your Input FX Chain. Input FX exist between your microphone and the recorded track. They are applied before the recording is saved. Once they are applied, they cannot be undone. The goal of the Limiter in this case it to catch an accidental spikes in your volume.

If, after setting your levels, you are finding that the bulk of your dialog is hovering around -9dB, try that Input Limiter set with both a Ceiling and a Threshold of -6dB. This still allows you a 3 decibel change for excitement but keeps the potential range of volume in check.

4. High and Low Pass Filters

High/Low Pass Filter by Stillwell AudioSet a High Pass Filter to 80 Hz and a Low Pass Filter to 16000 Hz. When ACX processes your audiobook, they strip out these frequencies anyway, so you don’t need them. Listen to a segment of room noise through this filter. Odds are you’ve dropped a few decibels. Lots of machines in your home emit very low rumbles below 80 Hz (your furnace, AC, refrigerator, washer, dryer, etc).

If your noise floor is below -60dB now, you may be able to skip steps 5.

5. Consider an Expander

AutoExpand by Stillwell AudioAn Expander makes quiet things get quieter. So, make note of your original noise floor before step 4. Set the Expander’s threshold a just a bit above that number. And set its ratio to 2.1:1 as a good starting point.

If you don’t have an Expander, avoid using a Gate if possible. Gates are not as gentle as Expanders and are much easier to detect in spoken word recordings where there is no background music to help hide the edit.

6. Do you still need to remove noises?

If room noise is still an issue for you at this point, you need to consider changes to your space. Sound treating materials or even a vocal booth may be the real long term solution.

Take a look at my series of articles on solving that exact problem.

Acon Digital Restoration Suite DeNoiseThis is the point in the process for Noise Removal Tools and DeClick/DeCracklers if you need them. You have removed all of the extraneous noises from your audio. So, a Noise Removal Tool can focus on just the true problem sounds. That way, you can use it with to the lowest possible settings. This will have the lowest possibility of introducing sonic artifacts (odd/unnatural sounding spaces in the audio). The same holds true for tools that attenuate mouth noises.

If your noise removal tool allows you to submit a sample of the room noise, record a good 30 seconds to a minute of how your room sounds without you speaking. Save it as a noise profile. Remember, the goal here is to reduce the ambient sound of your room to below -60dB, not to remove it entirely. So, adjust your settings accordingly.

Mouth noises are best addressed with non-technical solutions in your mouth, not on the recorded audio file. The interesting thing is that most of the “folk remedies” (green apples, water with lemon, black tea, neti pots, saline nasal sprays, etc) do seem to actually work. In addition to the lubricating qualities of these remedies, they also serve to make you more conscious of the problem. That consciousness is key in developing the skill to eliminate the problem on your own.

Most tools that we use to reduce mouth noises were not actually designed for use on the human voice. For the most part, they were designed to remove clicks, crackles, and pops from old vinyl phonograph recordings. Keeping that in mind may help you understand how the tools affect your recordings.

Again, the goal is to reduce, not eliminate, sounds. Silence rooms are unnatural. Human beings breathe, and breathing is a sloppy business. Natural recordings are easier to listen to for long periods of time. And, an audiobook is a long form interaction with your audience. You want to be as natural as possible.

7. Maybe add a bit of Compression

Major Tom by Stillwell AudioFind a transparent compressor set at 2.1:1 at most. In this context, transparent means that it doesn’t add any of its own flavor to the audio. Set the threshold a few dB under your peak. This will tighten up your audio without giving it that BIG RADIO sound.

8. Get Equalized?

Niveau by Elysia - a Tilt EQMost people get a bit too heavy handed when given an equalizer. For most voiceover, you want to keep it as natural as possible. I recommend using an EQ with fewer controls (like a tilt EQ). This will help you learn to use a light touch (since small changes will impact the whole spectrum).

9. De-Ess (but only if you really need to)

LiteOn De-EsserIf you feel that you are just too sibilant, this is the point in your chain when you should run a De-Esser. Essentially, a De-Esser is a compressor designed to squish S-like sounds. Over doing it can make you sound like you are lisping. So, once you think it sounds good, its best for you to run it by someone else before permanently saving the settings.

Q: But wait! Since the De-Esser is a kind of Compressor, shouldn’t it go right after the regular Compressor? Or maybe before the Compressor to squish those S’s beforehand?

A: Those are all good thoughts. And, on your particular voice (with your particular software) you may be right. Try it at this point in the chain first. Because this is the place that you will really hear those S’s pop if they are actually a problem. Once you have a setting that you like, move it around in the chain of things. Find what sounds best to you.

If you do add a De-Esser to your chain, I strongly suggest that you find a vocal coach to help you address the problem at its source.

10. Add another Limiter

Event Horizon by Stillwell AudioConfigure a hard limiter with a Ceiling of -3dB and bring down your threshold so it is near the output level from your equalizer. You are not trying to force all of the peaks up to -3dB. You are just trying to guarantee that the peaks will never exceed -3dB. What you really care about is being as close to -20dB for your Average RMS. The further you bring down that threshold, the louder the final recording will seem. Since RMS measures perceived loudness, a file with peaks of -3dB with an average RMS of -23dB will seem quieter than a file that peaks at -5dB with an average RMS of -20dB.

Q: But isn’t a Hard Limiter a kind of Compressor? Do I really need up to 4 Compressors to get the job done?

A: Yes, a Hard Limiter is a kind of Compressor. We are using each of the 4 Compressors differently: the first one keeps you from spiking your input level, the second tightens up your mix, the third reduces sibilance, and this one makes your sound louder without changing its shape or texture. You could turn off all of the other compressors and just keep this one if all you need to do is bring up your volume. Compare how your audio sounds with each compressor turned on and off. Decide for yourself what sounds best.

11. Save Everything

command-sNo, seriously. Stop right here and save everything! Go into each plugin, effect, and app and make sure that you save all of your presets. Use a unique name like “Audiobook Settings – 29 January 2015“. Please consider adding dates to your settings files. It is very helpful if you are ever asked to match the sound you had on a previous project.

12. Measure and tape your space

Use tape to mark locations of your equipmentGrab a ruler and some masking tape. Use them to measure and mark the distance between your desk, chair, mic stand, and anything else that is in the booth. If you are using a boom arm, use tape to mark how extended you have each section. You’ve just done a lot of work that is dependent upon you maintaining a consistent distance between all of your components. You should never put yourself in a position where you don’t know if something moved. Save yourself worry later, take the measurements now.

 Some Quick Notes

For my example, I used plugins with very simple interfaces. I did that so you could easily see what each plugin is doing. Many of the plugins I chose were simplified versions of plugins that can be found at Stillwell Audio. They make some wonderful plugins at a fair price. You should really check them out.

The Stillwell plugins used in this example include Event Horizon (Limiter) and Major Tom (Compressor). While you’re there check out 1973 (EQ). I think you’re going to like that one too.

The Noise Removal tool above is part of Acon Digital’s Restoration Suite. The suite includes a DeNoise, DeClick, DeHum, and a DeClip tool. (See my article detailing it here.)

The Tilt EQ I used in this example is the Niveau Filter by Elysia. While not formally labelled as an Equalizer, as you can see in the video below, it does affect audio in a similar way. It is a free download and should work with just about every program that can use plugins.

Also, please note that I avoided discussing things that would apply only to a particular DAW or recording program. The only feature that may not exist in the program that you are using is Input FX. While incredibly helpful, Input FX are not absolutely necessary to get the job done.

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A ridiculous amount of caffeine was consumed while researching all of this stuff.
Add some fuel if you would like to help keep me going!
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Before you buy iZotope RX consider Acon Digital Restoration Suite

Whether we’re trying to deal with mouth noises, a persistent rumble from a furnace, a truck driving by, or the neighbor’s snow blower, there are times that we’d all like to remove an unintended noise from an otherwise perfect take. In short form work, the best thing that can be done is re-record. But, in long form narration or audiobook work, there are times when fixing the file becomes the preferred course of action.

For a long time, the gold standard in audio repair is iZotope’s RX (currently at version 4). It can do amazing things. But, being the “gold standard,” it doesn’t come cheap. The Basic version currently costs $349 and the Advanced version currently costs $1199.

Most voiceover professionals will never use more than 20% of the features of the Basic version. And, the tools that they will use won’t be used with the level of precision intended by the developers of iZotope RX. Though RX’s tools can be run on whole files and in batch processes, they are intended to be applied to miniscule sections of an audio file. It’s like trying to carve a turkey with a scalpel.

Since some of the most useful tools for voiceover are only in the Advanced version (Adaptive Denoise, Leveler, Loudness, EQ Match, Ambience Match), many will think they need to spend nearly 4 times as much for the Advanced version — $1200. If your audio needs this kind of work, your money is much better spent hiring someone like George Whittam to analyse your studio and input chain.

Speaking of George, I have to thank him for turning me onto a cost effective alternative to iZotope RX — Acon Digital’s Restoration Suite.

George’s demo is a great tour of the basics. After seeing this, I downloaded the demo and started trying to figure it out.

First, I made my space as noisy as possible. I left the door to my booth open, turned on the dryer and the dishwasher, turned up the air vent for my booth to full power, and did everything that I could think of to worsen mouth noises.

The DeNoise module worked best for me by recording 15 seconds of just the room’s noise, telling the module that it should “Learn from room noise only,” then choosing “Freeze noise profile.” The adaptive settings worked amazingly well considering the all the noise I was throwing at it. And, it would probably work well in most situations. The noise profile method allows DeNoise to focus on removing the noise instead of spending half of its time trying to find the noise. That way, it uses less processor power to get the job done.

The settings that George uses in the video for DeClick were a great starting point. Again, for my exaggerated example, I had to tweak the click length a little longer and the sensitivity up a bit higher. Most people should get pretty good results somewhere near George’s settings.

Since I had gone through the trouble of creating rumbles from my dishwasher and dryer, I thought that I should check out the DeHum tool. Placing it after the DeNoise tool in the chain, it couldn’t find any kind of hum left to remove. But, placing it before DeClick in the chain, it did easily identify that drone-like hum caused by both appliances. And, again, George is right. The demo of DeHum on youtube is fantastic. So, I am including it here.

The DeClip example at the end of that video is also quite incredible. For my own test, I crowded the mic and forced myself to cause clipping. Again, the results were amazing. When I listened back to 2 lines that I had recorded (1 at normal volumes and 1 fixed by the DeClip tool), I had a hard time finding any artifacts introduced by DeClip.

Another amazing thing about the Acon Digital Restoration Suite is that it uses very little memory to get the job done. If you have ever tried using iZotope tools in a DAW (like ProTools, Reaper, Logic, etc) as live FX on a track, instead of at the Master stage, you will know just how memory intensive they can be. Acon’s tools are light enough to be used as live FX, if needed.

At $99, Acon Digital’s Restoration Suite seems like a much better buy for most voiceover needs. Before spending over $300 or up to $1200 on iZotope RX, you should definitely consider this tool from Acon Digital.

You could even download the demos of both programs and do your own side-by-side comparison. If you do, let me know your thoughts…

BetterTouchTool – If you edit media on a Mac, you need this tool!

Shortcuts — love them or hate them, once you start working with a DAW (like ProTools, Reaper, Audition, or Logic), you start memorizing arcane key commands to get things done. After a while, you start adding your own commands that fit your unique workflow.

Then, you start thinking about efficiency. You imagine how much faster things would be if you didn’t need to do all of that finger ballet across the keyboard and you consider buying a Contour Shuttle Pro or maybe a Shuttle Express. You would be able to assign your most commonly used shortcuts to the buttons. Wouldn’t that be great?

I don’t know about you, but desk space in my booth is at a premium. And, moving my hand from my trackpad to yet another device doesn’t seem like the best idea.

What if I could teach my trackpad (or mouse) to handle all of my shortcuts for me?
My trackpad? With gestures that are silent (no clicks)? Yes! That’s exactly what I’m looking for!

Download and install BetterTouchTool. Please, stop what you’re doing and download it now… I’ll wait…

BetterTouchTool - swipeWith BTT installed, you can assign custom multi-finger swipes and clicks to all of your most used commands. And BTT can handle application specific gestures. That means that the same gesture can be assigned to different functions in different programs. Punch and Roll, scrub, edit, revert, bounce, render! Do it all on a device that you already own, click free!

BTT is a free app, so what are you waiting for? If you’d like to control BTT from an iOS device (like an iPhone or iPad), there’s an app for that too (It’s not free, but for a tool as useful as this one, I think the developer is undercharging).

How do I use BTT? I build Custom Actions in Reaper and assign shortcuts to them. Then I assign those shortcuts to gestures in BTT.

BetterTouchTool - Reaper

Have you tried BTT? What shortcuts do you use?

From AudioBook Reviewer: Narrator Interview – Steven Jay Cohen

Tell us a little about yourself.

I was born and raised in Brooklyn, and began my professional life on New York’s Theatre Row. In addition to acting, i have also written, produced, designed, and directed both staged plays and internet radio dramas. I’ve studied acting and writing with people including F. Murray Abraham, Alan Ginsberg, and Frank McCourt. After spending time as an accent coach, and a few years as a more traditional educator, i left the city for western Massachusetts. While raising a family here, I have continued to teach everything from British Literature to Physics, as well as write, produce, perform, and even develop an occasional bit of geeky software when I can find the time.

How on earth did you get into narrating audiobooks?

I came to audiobooks from radio drama (both for broadcast and online) and before that, the stage. Over the years I have written, produced, and performed in many productions. I was doing it as a creative sideline — in short, it balanced out my day job. Friends in the business kept asking me the same question time and again, “Why aren’t you recording audiobooks?” Eventually, I decided to take the leap.

What do you do when you are not narrating?

In addition to narrating, I write, produce, and act in audio dramas from time to time. Beyond the booth, my wife (a painter) and I are raising a family here in western Massachusetts. In addition to audio endeavors I teach, write software, and design web sites. We share our home with 2 teenagers, 5 cats, and a dog.

Many audiobook narrators do other voice over work, where else could we hear your work? Do you find there to any big hurdles to jump when going from audiobooks to something else or vise versa?

If you dug deeply enough into the Symphony Space archives, you could hear me as part of their annual Bloomsday on Broadway event. More recently, my dramatic work can be found on a variety of Audio Drama sites. I have links on my website. Most of my commercial and narration work has been local or regional and is not available online.

Audiobook narration is closer to directing an audio drama than to acting in one. The director needs to have a solid concept of voice/tone for all characters and an idea of what other FX might be used to set the stage.In an audiobook, the reader is all of the characters, the narrator, and the sound effects as well. An audiobook is akin to a 1 man show on a bare stage — it’s all about the acting.

An audio drama is about being part of an ensemble, and working together to produce something where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Do you have the luxury of picking and choosing the projects that you work on or do you take as many as you have time for?

I pick and choose. Each project needs to push a boundary somehow. Am I going to grow as an actor? Am I going to learn something new? Am I going to expose myself to a new audience? Am I going to help a writer extend their reach?

For those of us that are unfamiliar with your work. How would you describe your narration style and voice? What would the one audiobook you would suggest for people to listen to your best work?

I have always had a hard time answering this question for myself. Others tend to say that I establish character well. This goes beyond accents. It includes subtle intonation that help differentiate not only character voices, but include depicting the various intentions that multiple characters may have in a single conversation.

Recently, I recorded the Civil War classic The Red Badge of Courage. And, by all measures so far, its doing well. While I was working on it, I was listening to Bryan Cranston’s reading of The Things They Carried, which is about the Vietnam War. Having that awareness while working on The Red Badge of Courage helped me to bring a stronger emotional presence to the fore.

I have been in contact with a few teachers looking to bring my reading of the novel into their classroom to enhance the curriculum and reach more students by leveraging a different learning modality with the audiobook. Being a former educator, that means a lot to me.

As a narrator, do you get compensated in a set amount or do you also receive royalties from the individual sales? Do you like one more than the other?

I do both Per Finished Hour and Royalty Share titles. I try only to take Royalty Share titles if the rights holder seems like they are going to invest serious time and energy into promotion. I have also turned down Royalty Shares where the writing seemed weak.

I don’t think I prefer one to the other, what I prefer is to get paid. And, there are times that gambling on a Royalty Share can pay off. But, I always go into it think of it as a gamble.

What do you see as your greatest achievement as an audiobook narrator? What has been your most difficult moment?

My favorite moment was connected to my first classic title — Rappaccini’s Daughter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. In years passed, I used to teach that story to High School students. While I was editing the recording, my wife stood at her easel — painting. When I was finished with my edits, she showed me her canvas. That painting is the cover art for the audiobook.

My most difficult moment was connected to cancelling a project. Each project presents a learning moment, and sometimes what I learn is that not every project is meant for me, even if I have been offered the job. I have gotten better about reviewing scripts, assessing how involved the rights holder plans to be, and setting expectations.

Do you have a list of your own favorite narrators, who inspires you? Do you have a list of favorite audiobook that you have listened to?

Scott Brick and Johnny Heller are both incredibly talented at using subtle vocal variations to establish character. And, they both have an amazing capacity to get you to care about a story.

Jim Dale is anything but subtle in his characterizations, but he is amazingly fun to listen to. And, for someone like me, with a background in accent acquisition/reduction, he can be especially fun. When I want to curl up under a blanket and hear anything from Peter Pan to Winnie the Pooh to Harry Potter, Jim Dale is who I turn to.

My favorite audiobook of all time, a performance of which I am still in awe, is Primary Colors performed by the amazing Peter Francis James. He nails all of the voices. He makes you care about every decision. He brings the world of that book to life.

Do you ever get specific notes or ideas from the writer about how something should be read? What is a helpful note, and what is, shall we say, less helpful?

Because of my vocal flexibility I tend to get notes about what famous actors an author hears for a character. If an author is amenable to using this as a jumping off point for me to build a character, it works. If they are looking for a slavish copy of a sound, it doesn’t work nearly as well.

Do you have an initial process or routine by which you get to know the book you’re going to be reading? Do you mark them up, for example?

I read the book, I look for reactions/reviews to the printed book online, I record short examples of character voices during my first read. I notate what words I will need to research. Then, after my first read, I follow up on all of those notes. I check whether my initial thoughts on character voices still work now that I know the ending. Sometimes, I will color code dialogue in a scene to help me keep track of who is speaking.

How do you flesh out how a specific character will sound?

I record my initial thoughts on a character during my initial read. I play those back after reading the whole book. I adjust for details that I found out later in the text. I check whether my regionalisms fit the socio-economic situation of the character. And, I check to make sure that any characters that have scenes together have at least some notable differences in speech.

Is your studio in your home? What are the advantages and disadvantages of this? Do you have something that you would consider unique in your setup? What is it?

I have a StudioBricks booth in my home studio. Being a residential neighborhood, it is pretty quiet during the day. But, living with 2 teenagers, 5 cats, and a dog, we generate a fair bit of noise all on our own. Luckily, the booth can handle it.That said, when I take breaks from recording, it’s nice to get some laundry done or walk the dog to clear my head. And, the commute can’t be beat!

What is the atmosphere like in your studio when you record. What’s it like, and are things very serious or not very serious?
The atmosphere reflects the text. Since I am my own engineer, I am alone in the studio. So, the story dominates the mood. That’s why I am picky about material. It’s got to be something that I can live with 😉

How long do you record at a time, on average? What is it about a book that will shorten or lengthen this?

I leave the studio between chapters and tend to record for a couple of hours at a time. An emotionally difficult subject will shorten it, and a compelling concept might lengthen it.

What is your favorite genre to narrate? Why?

I love a good mystery. And, I love a good period piece. So, my love of noir should be no great surprise. Even newer cyberpunk noir tends to allow for older, disappearing New York, Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia accents. And, as writers like Clifford Odets and John Patrick Shanley could attest, these accents have a music that few modern writers tend to explore.

What has been your favorite character? What character has given you the most grief?

Characters that give me grief tend to be my favorite characters. Anything that needs me to stretch as an actor takes more work, causes more frustration, and in the end results in a more satisfying performance.

How do you stop yourself from laughing or crying at some of the things authors write?

I never stop myself. I take the time to have an honest emotional reaction. Then, I put that into my read. Hopefully, it comes through so the listener can experience that as well.

Do you have a philosophy of how to create the perfect audiobook experience?

I’m not sure there is a perfect audiobook experience. When people sit in a theater, you have control over their environs. When people watch a show on a screen, you can also make some assumptions about your viewer. By its nature, audio can only assume that you have someone’s ear — nothing else.

Do you have a preference for reading fiction or nonfiction for pleasure? And is what you read for pleasure what you’d prefer to read for audiobooks?

I always read for pleasure. Reading is a commitment, and I take it seriously. I’ll read anything that feels like it will feed my imagination — be it a book on String Theory or a Spy Novel.

If something I read makes me want to share it with others, that’s a title that I’d love to record.

Do you have any advice for other aspiring narrators?

Read the works of Sanford Meisner and Robert Edmond Jones. Meisner’s views on acting seem to fit well with what I hear from many VO coaches out there today. And, Jones’ views on set design seem to fit well with creating the sound stage of an audiobook.

What has been your favorite project and why?

I don’t have a favorite project. Whatever I am working on in the moment tends to dominate my outlook on things. I try not to put any of my previous work on a pedestal. That would make it harder to determine what I need to improve in the moment.

Do you believe that listening to an audiobook should be considered reading? Why or why not?

I prefer being read to than reading something to myself. That said, I prefer reading aloud to reading silently. If I read a book aloud, is that still considered reading? I get more out of a book if my ears are involved when digesting its content.

Listening is a different learning modality than reading. It activates different parts of the brain. The information is stored differently. We should respect the learning differences that exist and realize that for a story to reach its full audience some will consume with their eyes and some with their ears. Some will even consume the book in braille and have a tactile experience of the words.

Are you working on any special projects?

I am working on a Walt Whitman project that will probably take a year or two to finish. I wish that I could say more about it, but until a few more details are ironed out, that’s really all that I can say.