Beyond Plug-ins

   By Sarah C   Categories: Audio SoftwareGeneralRecording

“Sure, I believe in rules . . . sure I do. If there weren’t any rules, now could you break them?” Leo Durocher, baseball player and manager; Hall of Fame, 1994 

We all love the convenience and flexibility of those little apps on our workstations, plug-ins. They can be automated and recalled at any time. The plug-ins make available to you a large number of effects, and by combining various processing effects, they can achieve some truly amazing-sounding audio; from the voice of an alien creature to an explosion created from the sound of a pop-top can, plug-ins are incredibly adaptable to a wide range of applications. But what happens if you still need a sound that is unique that you can’t get from your plug-ins, no matter how you try to tweak them? It may be time for a little do-it-yourself processing.

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Picture from Flickr user Jason Huggins

In this article, I’ll be talking about the speaking voice – voiceover, although these ideas can also apply to vocals and instruments. There’s a huge choice of objects that change the tonal characteristic of a voice in unexpected ways that you might experiment with. Have someone speak into one end of a cardboard or PVC tube and place the mic at the other end. Variations on this are almost endless: try tubes of different diameters and lengths; with cardboard, try putting a 45 or 90 degree bend in the tube; place a small microphone (perhaps a lavalier mic) part way into the tube and try moving it closer or further from the actor’s mouth – this can also be done by cutting a narrow slit in the tube and suspending the mic from its cable down inside the tube. Roll up a piece of cardboard into a megaphone. Record while the performer speaks into a bullhorn from a distance across the studio. Try using two mics to record someone speaking while wearing a full-face motorcycle helmet with the face shield closed – a lavalier inside the helmet and another mic outside pointing toward the face shield, then combine the two signals by varying amounts until you get to the sound you’re after.

It may look strange, but have the person talk across the mouth of an empty five-gallon water bottle. Or drop a small mic down inside. Try varying the distance from the mouth to the jug’s opening.

If you have access to a studio with an electric organ (such as a Hammond B3), send the voice signal through its Leslie speaker cabinet. The spinning speaker can work wonders on the voice  – John Lennon and George Martin used this effect on a couple of Beatle’s songs.

Electronic Musician magazine and others occasionally will run articles on strange recording techniques (aimed at the music recording audience, but they work equally well on the spoken word. The internet also has a number of sites devoted to off-the-wall ideas.

Think outside the box and experiment. You can never tell what it is that will give you what you’re hearing in your head. Some other ideas to consider and play with are:

  • Tape a contact mic or PZM to the studio glass
  • Recording under water; use an underwater speaker (a hydrophone) and a water-proofed mic (you can tightly tape a condom around the mic body – just make sure that this is a mic that you don’t mind getting wet if the water-proofing fails)—and don’t use a condenser microphone, as these could produce a lethal electric shock!
  • Experiment with truly terrible sounding mics – visit a vintage toy store or eBay and latch onto a “Mr. Microphone” toy
  • Record the voice coming through a blown speaker
  • Use guitar effects pedals (“stomp boxes”)

These are only a small selection of things that you might want to try out. Your imagination will take you to places that I can’t even imagine, so have fun!

Often we might want an effect on the voice that can’t be duplicated in the mixing stage; the sound of someone walking into a room while speaking or sounding like they’re wrestling with someone or things of that nature. In this case, we can direct the actor to simulate these situations by a variety of means. One thing to keep in mind though, is to keep these effects to a minimum or you risk distracting the audience by having them pay more attention to the effect than the content that they are supposed to be listening to. Most of these techniques were developed in old time radio and have been around seemingly forever, but it’s amazing how so few of them are used these days. For some reason, it’s as if we have forgotten the easy ways to do things as the technology has become more sophisticated. But here are some things that you might want to consider and experiment with.

Let’s say that a character is supposed to be walking into a room as they deliver a line. You could pull down the level in the mix, and then increase it as they get closer but this approach fails to give the full illusion of them walking in. There are two ways of simulating this effect. One is to have the actor simply turn their head 90 degrees as they begin to deliver the line, and then gradually (over the course of the line), turn back to face the mic full-on. Not only will there be a change in volume as they turn into the mic, but the EQ will naturally shift as well, which is what happens when someone is at a distance from you and then gets closer. There is a drop-off in high frequencies at a distance, and this will be replicated as the actor moves from an off-axis position at the microphone to more on-axis. Another way of creating this effect is to have the actor back away from the microphone at the beginning of the line and then gradually move closer to the mic. No more than three or four steps will give a nice “walk-on” effect. With a bit of reverb added for the distance portion of the line, and then decreasing the reverb as the actor gets closer to the microphone, this technique creates a very convincing illusion of space and movement. As with any audio effect, a touch of reverb here goes a long way; no need to overdo it. One thing to be careful of when having the actor do this is the actor getting too far off-mic. The sound of being off-mic is very distracting to the listener and most times is interpreted as a mistake. Audio perspective (distance effects) is a fine line, and your judgment will determine how far to push this technique. Most times, a small amount of change from off-axis to on-axis sells the idea of perspective, and you won’t have to go to extreme lengths. Also, don’t use this for an extended amount of time, as again, this can be heard as a mistake.

If a character is supposed to sound out of breath when speaking a line, try having the talent run in place for a short period of time before you drop into record. There is no way to fake being out of breath and have it sound convincing and this technique is very effective. Just make sure that the actor doesn’t go overboard and unduly tire themselves. If there is supposed to be a struggle going on in the script, have the actor move about a bit as they read the lines. The quick on-and-off-axis sound that you get is quite natural sounding, and the actor’s breathing also becomes faster, which is also natural sounding in a real struggle. These methods of achieving a “real-world” sounding effect are very effective if done at the right time and in moderation, and are time tested over the years. There’s no rule that says that a voice actor has to stand perfectly still in front of the microphone at all times, and if the script calls for movement of some sort, experiment with having the talent actually move. Along these lines, I’ve occasionally resorted to location audio recording techniques in the studio. If called for, I’ll grab a shotgun microphone on a boom pole and follow the actor around the studio as they move about and act things out physically. Just be careful of overhead lights when using a boom pole indoors! By doing this, the actor has the freedom to move as much as they need to give the right performance; the downside is that editing a number of takes together can become problematic because of differing mic perspective on the talent, as will the sound of footsteps if they become audible.

If one side of a conversation takes place on a telephone, you could filter the recording while mixing. But I once worked at a studio where the chief technical engineer took a real telephone, inserted a transformer inside the phone, and then wired the output of the phone mouthpiece to an XLR cable that could be plugged into the recording console. Presto – a convincing sounding telephone that also gives the actor the feel of really talking on a telephone. The downside of this method is that the sound that you get is the sound that you get – it doesn’t vary if you need a different sounding telephone, but if that’s the case, you can always revert to filtering the voice after the fact, having recorded the lines flat. By recording the actor with a conventionally-placed microphone at the same time, it was possible to adjust the amount of telephone sound versus “natural” sound and this worked out very well in a number of situations.

What do you do if a script has to be read in a limited amount of time; for instance, when recording a thirty-second commercial, but the talent is having a problem fitting all of the words into the allotted time? In most instances, the talent is going to feel rushed and begin pushing harder and harder to get the words in, often raising their voice in the process. Have actor relax and give a softer reading. Surprisingly, many times this will result in being able to fit more words into the time window. The more we strain and the louder we speak, the slower our speech becomes. So before starting to cut words, try pulling back on the delivery.

If the script calls for a dialogue between two or more characters, try and have all of the actors in the studio at the same time. They can play off of each other instead of having to imagine the other half of the conversation, and the resulting performance will be much better. Also, if both actors are reading at the same time, it drastically cuts down on the amount of editing that you’ll have to do to put everything in the proper order. But the most important reason by far is the performance that will be given. This is especially true for comedy scripts, but dramatic content also benefits from having the talent actually act together as a team. After all, they’re actors and this is what actors do.

When recording a long-form script, if the actor makes a mistake and has to re-read a line or start a paragraph over again, suggest that they begin a sentence or two back in the script and take a “running start” at the edit point. This will result in a much smoother edit because the read will be in rhythm and won’t jump nearly as much in volume compared with the line immediately preceding it. This “read-in” technique is also useful for dialogue scripts; have actor number one deliver their previous line so that actor number two has something to react to instead of delivering the line cold. It just sounds much more natural. Be sure to mark your script accordingly to avoid including repeated words in the completed edit.

There are many, many more of these types of tricks and techniques in use, and every engineer has their own favorites. Learn as much as you can by observing, listening and talking to other engineers. The more ways we know about to get that great performance the better and more creative our work will become.

Excerpt from Recording Voiceover by Tom Blakemore © 2015 Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.

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About the Author

Tom Blakemore has been an active audio engineer for over thirty years, working in film, television, commercial, and corporate communications as a supervising sound editor and mixer. His film work includes Emmy Award winning documentaries, Academy Award nominees, Directors Guild of America Best Documentary winners, and Audience Award winners at the Toronto, Chicago and Amsterdam Film Festivals. Tom lives in Chicago, where he is an adjunct professor at Tribeca Flashpoint Media Arts Academy teaching film sound, and is a member of the Motion Picture Sound Editors (MPSE) and the Audio Engineering Society (AES).

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