Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Adventures in Voice Work

I am a highly qualified Dungeon Master.

That's where I developed most of my voice work talents, running role playing games and doing different characters, from mayors to monsters. I also practice impersonations in the car on the way to work, just in case my employer wants to hear a celebrity voice reading the company mission statement.

You never know.

So I decided to record my own audio book, partly because I thought it would be fun, and partly because Patrick Stewart is so damned expensive. I've already blogged about Recording an Audio Book so I won't go over the same ground again, but I will share some of the things I've learned and tips that I think are helpful if you want to try it yourself.

Tip 1: Get a good microphone.
Using one of those headset mics is a bad idea. It may be fine for raiding with your guild (gamer reference) but not for doing quality work. I learned this when trying to redo some spots in the original recordings. Sound is a fickle thing, and working with a cheap mic is like starting a road trip under the wheels of your car. I use a Blue Snowball USB condenser microphone, a good low cost alternative for non-professionals.

Tip 2: Find a quiet spot.
This is one of the most important tips I can give. If you don't have a professional studio with soundproofing, you will have to put up with background noises. My sound guy Todd did a great job of soundproofing the space we used, but it was done over time so the first several chapters went from bad to better. Traffic was a real problem because of the location, and we had no control over people coming and going.
My solution to this was to redo the first few chapters at home, making a little sound studio of my own. While it is not as dampened as the original site, my house is off the main streets a bit and traffic noise is minimal by comparison (as I type this a firetruck is going by... *sigh*). I record on weekends around 1am after most of the world has gone to bed. The house is quiet, the kitties are sleeping and only the air conditioning makes noise as the vents pop. This is mitigated by my other precautions...

Tip 3: Dampen the sound in your studio.
Seems obvious, but the amount of work you must put into it depends entirely on what you have to work with in the first place. My desk is in a room next to a window (facing the street), I have wood floors and blinds instead of drapes. Not ideal, but at least I don't raise chickens.
To combat these problems, I've done some modifications that work to my satisfaction. The first thing I did was buy some sound foam from the local Guitar Center music store. That helped me to muffle the sounds of the already-quiet computer in my desk. I also got some foam board and made a sound dampening filter to house the mic.

You can see the round white mic in the little booth. The wire goes out a hole in the back and into the computer under the monitor; also shielded with sound foam over top and in the back. This isolates the hum of the cooling fans and most of the noise bouncing off the walls and coming from the window. Not perfect but it works for me.
The next thing I did was to sink a bit more money into blocking off the rest of the room. About $200 bought a nice six-sectioned woven room screen, which I then draped with thick blankets to act as a sound shield behind me. It also adds an extra layer of privacy when looking at porn. Not that I do that, but just FYI.
Yes, those are tiger patterns. I have tigers watching me on the other side.

Dropping towels on the floor might compensate for the wood flooring a bit, but I don't go crazy with it.

Tip 4: Hydrate and keep your mouth moist.
Neophytes will completely overlook this. Talking really dries out your mouth and vocal chords, and drinking water is very important. Bottled or filtered water is best, and avoid drinks with excess acid or sugar. Also, avoid eating foods that can cause congestion, like dairy. There are other sites that go into this stuff in more detail, but the best tip I learned was to have an atomizer full of filtered water handy.

Why? It's called Pop/Click, and it's the bane of sound editing. When your mouth dries out and loses saliva to lubricate it, you get these popping, clicking noises all over your vocals. This is especially bad with audio books where you don't have music or loud singing to mask it. Some of my early recordings were so bad I thought I had one of those aliens from the movie Signs behind me, talking in their clicky insect language.
Some people recommend having green apple slices handy, not to eat but to bite and suck on because the tartness encourages saliva. Well, this involves having apples around. Pshh. Yeah right.
An atomizer will mist your mouth and coat your inner cheeks, teeth and tongue with additional moisture, instead of washing all the saliva away like a drink of water will do. Priceless. Because I'm recording a minute of dialogue and listening to it immediately after, it gives me a chance to redo things on the spot if they get too clicky. This is a lifesaver when editing for timing and content later on.

Remember, you can't polish a turd.

Well, you can, but all you wind up with is a polished turd. Try for the best recording quality first, don't rely on "fixing it in post."

Here endeth the lesson.

Fantasy Book Cover in 2,843 Easy Steps

I have a really nice paint program that I barely know how to use.

I mean there's like 25% of the total features that I am familiar with, and most of what I do is through trial and error. I can do the basics and learned to play with some of the features, but I'm self-taught and never read a manual. The internet helped me with some important features like Layers, but I used that for my comic book covers and promptly forgot everything years later. Also, Paint Shop Pro X is not the industry standard, so all those Dummies Guides in the bookstore are kind of hit-and-miss. It was easier to find parts for my Mitsubishi than to find a book on PSP.
Anyway, this is about my first fantasy book cover. I wanted it to be dramatic but simple, the kind of thing you could describe in a sentence. This was not only a marketing decision but I wanted something I could learn on without making too much of a mess; kind of like George Lucas putting that big lizard in the background of Star Wars. Nothing too crazy or ambitious. Just learning the basics so I can really screw it up later.
It started with a rough pencil sketch. I had two ideas: one being a sweeping vista with the city in the background and the two romantically involved characters in front; the other was the main character with a young boy she saves, fending off a monster with a knife. I was informed by an author friend that I needed a glowy magic knife for it to be a real fantasy cover, whether there was one in the story or not. Luckily, there was.
Looks good!

So that was the beginning. later I gave it a bit more detail...

Very comic-booky. I wasn't too concerned about the details because I was only going to use this as a guide. I scanned it in at 600 dps so I'd have lots of pixels to play with. With my old comic book covers, I'd scanned ink drawings and used a layer to color behind the artwork, resulting in a "stay-within-the-lines" look. This would be different as I needed to paint "over" the pencil work. I began with a process called flatting, which is laying down flat base colors to work up from.

This was done on a layer under the pencil work. From there I was able to start painting the details of Cindra's face. I should mention that I use a Wacom tablet and stylus, which is a huge advantage over drawing with a mouse. Who knew?

The pencil layer is removed and the face work begins. I figured if I couldn't pull off a good looking face, there was no point in doing the rest of it in digital art. Modeling (getting the light and contours right) was done using a Paintbrush tool with an opacity of about 25%, allowing me to build up the colors like a real oil painting.

It's rough at this stage, but I'm starting to be encouraged. I have no photo references so I can't really go for photo-realism without them, but this ain't too bad. It's already lost the cartoony look. After more modeling and playing around with Smudge and Push tools, I decide she looks good enough to go on to the boy Nixy.

For him I'm lucky enough to find stock photos online of terrified children. It helps to get the eyes and mouth right. One of the tricks with painting/drawing young kids is to pull back on the detail. Artists like me tend to get too much into the things we know are there, like lines around the eyes and mouth, but this makes the subject 'read' as older. Young kids are smooth faced, even when pulling an exaggerated expression. I also found a picture of a female fashion model to base his hairstyle and texture on.
Here's another advantage of digital media: resizing. Eyes too small? Resize. Mouth too small? Resize. Hands too small and feet too big? Resize. By making subtle changes to the proportions or details you can enhance the image in a way that is impossible in traditional media without a whole lot of work. Cheating at its best.

Next came the fabric. While I have a grasp of the basics of drapery on the human figure, there's always room for improvement. I did a lot of hunting online for photo references of dresses like hers. Needless to say it's not in current fashion so I ended up on a lot of Medieval Garb sites. While the results may not be perfect for the fabric it's supposed to represent, I think it is more dynamic and interesting to look at without being too crazy. After all, authenticity isn't everything.
The ultra-green background was for the matting process; since I planned to do the foreground separate from the rest of the picture, I wanted to pick a color that I would not be using in the painting, telling the program to make that green transparent when needed. This did not entirely work as planned. There was a thin line of green around the figures after placing them on the background and I have to paint over it. Not sure if it was such a bright idea.

Next came the background, a cracked wall at night with an evil shadow on it. The color choice was the biggest issue and I tried a few variations. Falling back on my art training, I went with complimentary colors. Purple and yellow worked out best, so I played around with that, using separate layers for the base colors, the wall and ground details, tinting, and shadows. Being able to manage them all separately is a real life saver. I'll have to remember that for next time.

The final step was adding the text and giving it a golden metallic sheen. Once again, I used a layer for it so I could make any changes I wanted to the typesetting without disturbing the artwork.

And it only took six months.

I'm counting this as a big learning experience and now that I have the basics down, the next one should go a lot more smoothly...

Unless I go all "Lucas" on it.