Sidestep the Snake Oil

“There’s a sucker born every minute.” — David Hannum (not P. T. Barnum)

Make no mistake, the confluence of advancements in recording technology and an increased demand for new media creation in many formats has indeed created a boom in the voiceover industry. Many of the new formats and technologies have been disruptive. And when things get disruptive, the establishment gets scared. Change breeds uncertainty. Uncertainty, especially for self-employed people, is a scary thing. And, when people act from a place of fear, they are rarely at their best.

Snake_oil_ink_stampWe, who make our living in the industry, know that we must “adapt or perish.” It’s a truth that we live with, that we discuss among ourselves, that we post about on social media platforms, and that we share with just about anyone who will listen.
When you combine disruptive change with explosive growth, you create opportunity.

Unfortunately, opportunity is not only created for new talent. Opportunity is created for the less scrupulous as well.

Not every person who puts themselves forward as a teacher has their students’ best interests at heart. And sometimes, it can be hard to spot the ones to avoid.

  1. If they say that they have a simple to follow system that they personally have used to secure a six-figure-income, you should start getting suspicious.
  2. If they say that they usually sell their system for a much higher price but if you act right now, you can get it at a deep discount, you should get even more suspicious.
  3. If they say that industry professionals hate them for sharing these secrets with you, your suspicion level should rise even more.

These three indicators hold true regardless of the product in question. They are signs that the seller is trying to manipulate the potential buyer instead of selling their wares based upon their own merit.

People investigating a career change are, by their nature, dreamers — and that’s good. A well-developed imagination is an asset in this business.

Unfortunately, the scammers know this too. They use that open imaginative nature as a way of accessing a potential mark’s aspirations and fears.

  1. People always want to be in on an exclusive secret. It makes them feel unique, valued, and special.
  2. People always want to conserve limited resources. Creating an artificial discount if a person will just act now, is a way of getting a fence sitter to take a risk.
  3. People starting something new can harbor resentment toward the establishment, who seem to have everything already. They will side with a perceived underdog without actually checking the facts.

Let’s be honest. There are no quick and easy ways to start a new career. Regardless of industry, it takes a lot of hard work and dedication.

A good coach, or school, in any discipline, will always be willing to talk with you about the realities, about the hard facts of the day-to-day. They may even choose to refer you to a different coach who would seem to be a better fit. Or, after talking with you, they may even explain why this new career choice might not look like the best fit to them. They will be able to provide numerous references that are easy to check and cross-check.

So, sidestep the snake oil salesmen (and women). Genuinely achieving your dreams is worth the effort.

Free, Native Punch Recording – Mac, Windows, & Linux!

Ocenaudio Punch Record SettingsNo fancy script. No hacks. Just simple, straight forward, Punch & Roll recording. For free on all Macs, Windows, and Linux computers.

OcenAudio comes through with a feature that I mentioned to them back when I interviewed them in May of 2014. Isn’t it great to find a developer that really listens to the needs of the users?

The configuration is as simple as enabling 3 Checkboxes in the preference window:

  • Move cursor to record stop position
  • Destructive Recording
  • Preroll (set to desired number of seconds)

With these three settings enabled, OcenAudio does natively what my scripts for TwistedWave, Audacity, and Adobe Audition attempt to bolt on from the outside.

Like the programs that I scripted, OcenAudio doesn’t have true non-destructive editing (for that you’d need Reaper, ProTools, Logic Pro, etc). So, if you forget to turn on the second checkbox you will find the program inserting your new audio before your flub instead of writing over the mistake that you wish to replace.

With this new native feature OcenAudio sets itself apart from other simple editors and earns a spot closer to that of a traditional DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). It seems to manage memory better than Audacity. It runs on more platforms than TwistedWave. It doesn’t require a subscription like Adobe Audition. What’s not to like?

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Taking Care of Business: Part 3 – Trello as an Audiobook Research Tool

Doing proper research before recording an audiobook can be crucial to the success of the project. If you’re like me, the research happens in fits and starts. Sometimes, making notes while reviewing the text, and sometimes having moments of insight only after allowing the text to sit for a while. Having a reliable way of collecting and organizing these bits of information can simplify the process.

trello-gtdOnce again, I am talking about a Trusted System. In Parts 1 & 2 of this series, I focused on tasks and setting priorities. You may remember that in Part 1, I said that if you had important information that was not immediately actionable, you should file it. Preparing to record an audiobook is a great example of uncovering high value information that fits the bill.

This is one of the times that I turn to Trello.

Trello is a free-form organizational tool. The metaphor it uses is a simple one: Lists and Cards. You put information onto cards, and you put those cards onto lists. Once you start playing with Trello, you start to understand how the flexibility can be quite empowering.

Here is a link to an example of how I use Trello for audiobook research: Audiobook Preparation

Four lists: Characters, Locations, Chapters, Pronunciations

I make new cards as I move along, I make new lists if needed. The cards have text, images, video, audio, and links. I can access Trello from anywhere, because it is web-based. It has an intuitive app for both iOS and Android. I can invite other people to share the board, like a proofer or editor. And, leveraging Trello’s calendar and email functions, you can easily connect it to your inbox.

And, as you can see, I can make a board public so people like you can see how I use the tool. All of these features are part of their free service. No catch. They built the tool originally as an in-house tool they used among themselves while working on other things. They found it useful and decided to share.

Do you use Trello? Something else? Let me know in the comments below.

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iZotope vs Acon: A DIY audio repair shootout

iZotope must be feeling the heat! RX has some solid competition in the audio repair space coming from the talented coders at Acon Digital. Acon having set the price of their Resoration Suite at $99,  may have been responsible for iZotope’s recent promotion of a new version of RX on sale at $99 (regular price $129).

rxvs aconThe RX Plug-in Pack has essentially the same feature set as Acon’s Restoration Suite. So these two products are perfect for a direct shootout. But, what would you really learn if I did the shootout? Not much. After all, I’m not recording in your space, with your mic, facing the issues that you face everyday.

So, here’s how to do a shootout on your own…

Fortunately, both products offer free demo versions. The RX Plugin-Pack is fully functional for 10 days. And, The Restoration Suite’s demo adds a short period of silence at irregular intervals. Keep this in mind when comparing the results.

Now, here’s the fun part. You know how you go out of your way to make sure there are no interruptions when you record a session? Don’t do that.

Grab some copy, preferably something with a few plosives and some sibilant sounds. If you can’t find anything, try the theme song to Gilligan’s Island.

Before you record, you might want to forget to close the door all the way. Or turn on the dishwasher, or the air conditioner, or the — you get where I am going here.

You want a good read in a sloppy environment. Got it? Good.

Record it a second time, but get right up on your microphone and be a bit too loud — on purpose. This will make sense later.

Wait, you aren’t done recording yet. Go find a small fan, a hair dryer, a blender…

You’re looking for things in your environment that make droning noises when they are used. Set these things up so they can be heard inside your usual recording environment. Have a friend turn each thing on/off one at a time while you do another take.

If it’s trash day in your neighborhood or there is construction going on nearby, open the windows and record another take with those sounds as well.

Each of these interruptions has its own sonic signature. And, since no two recording setups are truly alike (believe me, even two identical professionally built booths in two different geographic locations will sound different), your studio will be unique in which frequencies it handles well and which ones seem to pass right through and wind up on the recording.

Now, save WAV files of these recordings being sure to name them so you know what they are:

  • gilligan-dishwasher.wav
  • gilligan-hairdryer.wav
  • gilligan-garbage-pickup.wav
  • gilligan-really-loud.wav

You get the idea…

Now, install both demos into the audio editor of your choice. No, really, right now, install them, I’ll wait…

Stop. This is the first test. And, it has nothing to do with the audio you recorded.

  • How did the installation go?
  • Was it easy?
  • Was it straight forward?
  • Was the documentation easy to find?
  • Was it easy to understand?

Don’t skip this step. It’s more important than you think. If you’re having issues later on, this test is usually a pretty good indicator of how helpful the parent company will be when solving your issue.

Now, open each of the components in your audio editor of choice. Yes, right now, seriously, you know the drill…

  • Did all of the components open without issue?

Some plugins expect certain features to be present, but some audio editors don’t implement all of these expected functions. If the components don’t work, it is more likely the fault of your chosen audio editor than the plugin. But, that’s another issue.

Now it’s time to get down to business. Open two copies of a single sound and play with one de-clicker, de-noiser, de-hummer, and de-clipper where you think they are needed.

Before you compare the results, I have a question for you.

  • How easy was each component to use?
  • Did you immediately understand everything or did it take a bit of poking around before the settings made sense?

Again, a well designed tool is usually a well supported tool. Assess both the interface and your experience using the tool.

Now, sit back and compare the results. And, get a friend to listen to the files as well and give you their opinion too. The more feedback, the better.

Wait, you aren’t done yet. Think of a simple question to ask both iZotope and Acon Digital. And, pose those questions via twitter. Links to their accounts are below:

By now, you know why I’m suggesting that you do this. A responsive company is usually a company that stands behind its products.

What were your thoughts? Results? Share them in the comments below.

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Get a 2nd Opinion before sending off that audiobook!

So, you’ve recorded, edited, proofed, and finally mastered your audio. It’s ready to head off to ACX or off to a publisher. Well… you THINK it’s ready… you HOPE it’s… You get the idea.

You know that you’ve put in oodles of work getting this audiobook done, but if only there were a way to double check some of the basics, that would make you feel so much better. I felt that way too. That’s why I wrote 2ndOpinion.

It works on both Mac OSX (tested on 10.10 & 10.11) and Windows (tested on both 7 & 10).

Click here to download

2ndOpinion is an audiobook checkup tool that is designed to be used once you feel that your audio is finished. It checks your audio to see if it meets some common specifications:

  • That it peaks at or below -3dB
  • That it has an average RMS between -18dB and -23dB
  • That the head of the file is between 1/2 and 3/4 of a second in length
  • That the tail of the file is between 3 and 5 seconds in length
  • That the noise floor is at or below -60dB
  • That the file was recorded at a sample frequency of 44.1 kHz
  • That all the files are mono (or stereo)

Many of the points listed above have simple fixes that can be handled automatically. If 2ndOpinion finds any of these issues, it fixes them. If it finds more complex issues, it lets you know. Take that information, fix the issues, and run the software again. Or take it to a reputable audio engineer and they will fix it for you.

And, 2ndOpinon is free to use on any projects you like. If you’d like to support future development, you can always buy me a coffee…

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“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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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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