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Voice-overs enjoy a ubiquitous presence in the broadcast and entertainment industries. Invisible actors populate the voice tracks of cartoons on Nickelodeon, wildlife documentaries from the plains of the Serengeti, automobile commercials during football games, podcasts and instructional videos, and countless animated feature films.
In response to numerous requests from our readers, we're introducing articles pertaining to voice-over recording and production from the perspective of both the engineer and the talent, discussing techniques and approaches that should allow home and project studio owners, podcasters, filmmakers and videographers to further diversify.
The following is an interview with B&H's own John Pace, a veteran Grammy Award-winning audio engineer and former professional voice-over artist. We can't think of anyone better qualified to offer insight and advice on voice-over production, as culled from many years of experience on both sides of the glass.
Q: Do you prefer condenser or dynamic mics for use in voice-over recording applications?
A: Personally, I prefer condenser mics. With a high-end condenser microphone, the sensitivity and frequency response picks up more of the subtleties and nuances of the human voice than you would be able to obtain from a dynamic microphone.
Q: Are large-diaphragm microphones used exclusively for recording voice-overs, or are other types of mics such as shotguns also commonly used?
A: Oddly enough, large-diaphragm used to dominate the VO world but recently we are finding more shotguns being used, like the Sennheiser 416. Due to their pick-up pattern, shotguns tend to be more forgiving in an off-axis situation.
Q: Is the talent usually in an isolation booth, or out in the live room?
A: Normally for VO work they would be in an iso booth.
Q: Is the signal path approach the same for voice-over recording as it is for singers?
A: The signal path would be similar from a technical point of view. That is, voice to microphone, microphone to mic pre, then through-signal processing and then to a storage medium. The technique employed in working with the talent would be very different though.
Q: Are compression and EQ used more heavily when recording voice-over talent than it is when recording a singer?
A: No, VO talent is fairly consistent from a performance standpoint. As a result, less signal processing is needed. With a singer you are dealing with a greater dynamic and tonal range, so signal processing can be fairly severe at times, not to mention you may want to employ a certain type of effect for artistic purposes.
Q: Do you record with compression, de-essing and EQ, or apply it later?
A: There are two schools of thought on this: some engineers are reticent to use processing on the recording side for fear of doing something they can't undo. Personally, I record everything the way I want to hear it using processing and process the signal again during the mix.
Q: How long is a typical voice-over session for a 60-second spot?
A: That really depends on how experienced the talent is. It could take as little as 15 minutes or as long as an hour or more.
Q: Do have any favorite headphones you'd like to recommend for voice-over work?
A: Not really, I think the microphone is much more important.
Q: Does the talent often bring his or her headphones?
A: No. They are always provided by the studio.
Q: Should the engineer have a copy of the script and rehearse with the talent before recording, or is that somebody else's job?
A: Normally the engineer and producer will have a copy of the script and there is no rehearsal, you just fix it as you go.
Q: Is talent generally standing or seated?
A: Both, it depends on the individual; some talent can be fairly animated so they usually will stand. Others prefer to sit.
Q: Is it a good idea to have a music stand available at the studio, or does talent generally hold the script?
A: There is always a stand or desk of some sort so the talent can have a place for their script, glasses etc.
Q: From all of the sessions you've done, would you say there was one specific model of microphone that got used more than any other?
Q: Is there anything you do to prepare your voice/throat for better performance: drink a specific tea, vocal exercises, etc.?
A: Nothing more than some warm tea. Stay away from honey, contrary to popular belief honey tends to coat the throat, which is not optimal for performance.
Q: People might automatically assume that being a professional VO artist is an easy job. Is it easy?
A: Not really.
Q: What is the most difficult thing?
A: Finding enough work. It is a very competitive field and if your voice is only suitable for trailers or promos you won't be auditioning for many commercials or cartoons. It really depends on the tone and versatility of the individual's voice.
Q: Is doing VO work a skill that you can improve upon and evolve into a professional career, or do you need natural talent—like a super-husky voice to even consider going pro?
A: Not at all, there is VO work for all types of voices. The key is to study with a good coach and find the niche most suitable for your voice. Promos, trailers, cartoons, commercials, documentaries and so on all require a certain type of voice. The next step is to get with a good agency and hope for the best.
Q: What tips would you give an aspiring VO artist, especially those whose current skill level needs a great deal more work?
A: Find a reputable VO coach and study, study, study.
Q: In music recording it's all about the quality of the song and the musician's performance that makes a great recording. If fancy equipment and a good producer were involved it's just an added plus. Is it the same VO?
A: I don't think that a great song and performance constitute a great recording. Great recordings are made by great engineers. But you don't have to have a great recording to have a great song or performance. In other words, songs make hits—not great recordings. But yes, if you have professional talent you will have a great end result. Poor talent cannot be improved by great equipment.
For more information on creating voice-overs, check out the B&H Voice-Over Buying Guide. It explains how to set up your studio properly for voice-over sessions, the specifics of microphone choice, acoustic treatment, and must-have signal-processing gear.
Thanks for checking out this article. If you have any more questions about doing voice-overs, or need any help with audio, we encourage you to contact us on the phone at 1-800-606-6969, in person at our SuperStore in New York City, or you can join us for a live chat.