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.

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