What’s better than DAB? DAB+ of course!

For the last year, I’ve been put in charge of mixing and mastering Digital Radio UK‘s radio commercial campaigns heard across all the UK’s commercial radio stations.

Working with Fresh Air Production, I’d liaise with the Producers by preparing and mocking up the sessions, then mixing in the VO once recorded and delivering the various versions.

The commercials are airing through Summer 2021.

The UK’s first radio soap since Waggoner’s Walk ended in 1980 and the BBC World Service soap Westway which ended in 2005, Greenborne made its debut on 21st March 2021 across the UK via a network of fifty community radio stations.

Supported by the Audio Content Fund, Greenborne is a B7 Media production devised by Colin Brake (Writer) and Andrew Mark Sewell (Director). Helen is the Series Producer.

Greenborne is now available as a podcast via Acast. You can subscribe here.

In February, Helen joined the rest of the production team of Unsinkable on Zoom to discuss the audio movie, (for which she was Dialogue Editor) with Seth Singleton, of the Storytelling With Seth Podcast. The chat discussed development, its stars, (John Malkovich, Thomas Brodie Sangster, Brian Cox and others) what happened to the San Demetrio and her crew and the trials and challenges of recording actors scattered around the world during lockdown.

I spend a lot of time talking to myself and listening to my own voice, so it’s safe to say I’ve got used to how it sounds, but many people HATE hearing their own voice. There’s a reason for that:

https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/jul/12/the-real-reason-the-sound-of-your-own-voice-makes-you-cringe

However, voiceover artists have to like how they sound. Or at the very least be comfortable enough listening to and critiquing their own voice. When people find out what I do, they usually ask for an example – so I switch on “the voice” and announce “cashier number 4 please” or “unexpected item in the bagging area” and they fall about laughing. If only they did that at the supermarket. It would make shopping a lot more fun. And what about that new announcement at a supermarket that shall remain anonymous? “Surprising item in the bagging area.” I daren’t ask.

For the record, I’ve never voiced any checkout self-service machine announcements – yet. But you may well hear my voice on-hold. Unfortunately, I can’t say where!

I don’t really do the Big Sell. My voiceover style is more subtle, understated or knowing. Cool, indifferent car commercials. Sultry high-end jewellery promos or real estate videos.

Different voices suit different tasks. As I say, you’ll hear me a lot on-hold. I’ll often narrate corporate videos or short explainers. I’m friendly, informative, professional… so a lot of elearning comes my way. I’m an excellent “every voice”; inoffensive, easy on the ear, and so appropriate to any number of projects needing narration that’s easy to follow and pleasant to listen to.

That’s why the voices of Home Assistants like Alexa, Google and Siri serve their purposes so well – and despite the rumblings about the subconscious bias towards female voices being subservient, there are plenty of male “every voices” too. Most spaceships have female voices. HAL is an exception. But we know what happened to him…

However, my USP is all of the above; with a twist. Mary Poppins reads Fifty Shades of Grey. Cheeky but classy. Professional – but with a wink. Occasionally dry or even a little bit saucy.

It’s Quigley, but quirky.

One of the perils of reading aloud is that sometimes you don’t know what you’re saying. Literally.

I’ve always been a good sight reader thanks presumably to being a voracious reader growing up. I read a LOT. I was reading books aimed at children older than I was, or young adults. This meant that frequently I came into contact with words I didn’t know. Over time, with enough context, I’d figure out the word’s meaning (or get out a dictionary) but I didn’t always know how to say it. I didn’t learn phonetics until my English A Level, so unless I heard the word spoken by someone else my invented pronunciation became embedded in my memory. Even today, some still emerge in my speech (to confused blinking by whomever I’m speaking to) or in my voiceover recordings.

Shouldn’t I check pronunciations? After all it’s my job to talk and inform – especially when narrating explainers, corporate videos or elearning. Well, yes of course and I do. But what if a word’s pronunciation has become so normal to you, or perhaps you’ve been placing emphasis in the wrong place all this time, you’d never question that it might be wrong? Why would you check it?

One of a voiceover artist’s skills is to sound like they know what they’re talking about. Credibility goes out of the window if you flub a pronunciation, no matter how confidently. So while good friends might not want to cause embarrassment by correcting you, as a VO, it’s pretty vital.

Salvation comes in the form of the internet. YouTube works for company names and brands, ForVO is a godsend for place names and occasionally people’s names and HowJSay saves the day almost every time for anything else. And who is the HowJSay guy? He must have spent WEEKS effectively recording dictionaries a word at a time, including medical dictionaries. Never mind Toast, this man is the ultimate Voiceover.

So while it was only relatively recently that I found out I’d been pronouncing “magnanimous” incorrectly for most of my life, I also still shudder when a script comes in for a British Voiceover which includes the word “aluminum”. US pronunciations are a whole other headache.

For the last five months I’ve been working as Line Producer for an epic ten hour docudrama for Audible called The Space Race released yesterday in time for the 50th Anniversary of the Moon landings on 20th July. My contribution is minuscule compared to the hours the rest of the team have put into this, but it’s been a major group effort.

We made trips to the US and Russia for interviews, spent long days in the studio recording drama sequences and I spent nearly nine hours in Charleston, USA a few weeks ago directing Star Trek Voyager’s Captain Janeway, Kate Mulgrew, through our narration scripts, where her combination of wry humour and gravitas proved to be a perfect fit for the story.

There have been many headaches (literally and figuratively), very late nights, very long hours and terrifying deadlines.

I’m hugely proud of what we’ve produced and my involvement in it – I’ve never spent a day directing one voiceover artist before, not least one as experienced as Kate and it was both challenging and fun. I also managed the agreements for nearly forty actors during our days recording the drama sequences. Oh, the paperwork. Help.

The Space Race is available on Audible now as an Audible Original, produced by B7 Media and Space Boffins, (who also do a really cool space podcast) so if you want to hear a definitive history of how humans made it to the Moon (and yes we bloody did  – having learned what I have making this, faked it my arse) then this epic story is for you.

Rates – What should you charge?

What you charge is not about how long it takes or how easy it is to do. It’s about what it’s worth to the client and what you consider you yourself are worth.

And don’t forget, the job might take 10 minutes to record and edit, but what about the electricity you’re using to power your computer? The software you’re recording on? Your microphone? These things cost YOU money. How are you going to pay for them when they need replacing or updating if you’re not charging a respectable rate for your voiceover services?

By all means, offer a lower rate or work for free while building up your demos. But make sure the person/company you’re working for KNOWS this is an exception, you’ve balanced the value of the experience you’ll gain against what you’re willing to do it for and that one day – you’ll be asking to be paid standard rates.

Resources

Equity members have access to a ratecard for commercials and other documents. There are also a number of other resources online. The aforementioned directory sites have help sections which include guides to average rates. Gravy For The Brain has an excellent ratecard to use as a guide.

It’s a minefield and only with time and practice will you learn to balance what the job is worth, what YOU are worth and how to measure it against what your competitors are charging. Don’t lowball. Be honest. If you asked for several quotes from a professional, would you REALLY go with the cheapest? Why are they so cheap? Are they that desperate for the work? If so, why?

And finally...

Don’t forget – If you’re choosing to make this a career, time is money. It’s a business. Here’s the plumber analogy again – You wouldn’t ask him/her a few questions about washers and boilers then tell people you’re a professional installer, would you? When you call out a plumber, you’re paying for their time, skills and specialist equipment – Skills and equipment that will have taken them years and significant financial investment to acquire. This is no different.

Don’t get me wrong. You can do this solely part-time or even casually to make a bit of extra money. But do it properly. Invest as much time and money as you can afford. Practice. Experiment. Listen to the good, and the bad. Record yourself. Be critical. Don’t be one of the bad examples.

If you don’t, you’re devaluing not just yourself and the skills you’ve acquired, but everyone else’s too.

Got the kit, let’s record!

You’re ready to go now right? Got recording kit, got microphone, got headphones… Oh no, Grasshopper, you are still not ready….

Record some silence (at the same levels you would use if you were recording yourself) in your recording space and play it back. This is your “noise floor” and is the background level while you’re recording your voice. Look at your levels. How much noise does your room “silence” make? Assuming you haven’t done any work on this space yet, chances are you’ve got a LOT of noise. Is there humming, rumbling, hissing, a clock ticking, cars, tweety birds?

Recording levels

It should be at least -50dB, or ideally, lower. A medium sized, quiet living room will have a noise floor of about -30db. That doesn’t make it a suitable recording space however. This is where the difference between soundproof and acoustically treated comes in.

A soundproof room does not let any outside noise in, or any inside noise out, whether that’s birds or traffic outside, or a teenager with a drumkit on the inside.

My own current space is not soundproof. It IS acoustically treated however, and the smaller the space, the easier it is to treat.

So, now you need to work on treating that space and reducing any background noise. Ideally, purchasing or building a soundbooth is the best option, but not cheap.

Treating the space

A few spare duvets can work very well and acoustic tiles can be bought individually from eBay. Don’t forget this is a massive learning curve. I’m still on it myself. Fiddle, adjust and rearrange as much as possible. You’ll probably never be 100% happy, but constantly tinkering with your setup is one of the joys of this job. Echo is your worst enemy, but kill the “space” completely and the recording will sound dead. No two pro studios will sound alike, but they will ALL have low noise floors and little or no echo.

Let’s now assume you’ve driven yourself to distraction deadening and reducing noise in your recording space. I’ve spent literally HOURS doing this, mainly on my hands and knees following wires and vibrations around the house in order to pinpoint a persistent hum.) Now you can start recording yourself. Each person’s approach and style varies, so this is best done one to one and I won’t go into it here.

Recording

  • Microphone technique: This something that comes with practice and knowing your mic, so difficult to cover here, however, some basics:
  • Your mouth should be a least a handspan from the mic. Do not talk directly into it; you should be offset about 45 degrees.
  • If you are getting “popping”, hold a pencil an inch or two in front of your lips. This breaks the flow of air and minimises the pop.
  • Stand still! Drifting side to side or back to front will result in inconsistent levels.
  • Pay attention to your breaths. They should be clean, and allow a small pause before you start to speak. This makes editing much easier, whether you self-edit or an engineer does the work.

Share your recordings for feedback wherever you can get it. Listen to them on different devices. If you think your recordings and your performance are up to scratch then maybe it’s time to take a look at some of the online listings directories. There are thousands of people on these sites and unless, just for starters, your sound is as pro as you can get it, you’ll get lost in the dross (and there’s a LOT of dross.) For that reason a newbie sticks out a mile regardless of how good their voice is, especially if their audio quality isn’t great. Sign up for a free profile to get started. Make sure your sound is as top-notch as you can get it before you start forking out for their expensive subscription packages. Use the free listing to practice writing up the best possible profile you can at this point. Bodalgo is a good place to start. Voices.com used to be popular but has fallen out of favour with voice professionals after making a change to their business practices. Voiceovers.com is a new platform and currently invitation only.

Equipment list and Recording Space

Before you’ve even opened your mouth you have a lot of preparation work to do. You need recording software; the audio editing program Twisted Wave is excellent for about $80. Audacity is free, but has a few quirks will probably cause you more issues that that’s worth. Despite having used audio monsters Pro Tools and Adobe Audition, it still does a good job for basic recording. A pair of reasonable headphones for monitoring wouldn’t go amiss either. Beyer Dynamic and Sennheiser headphones are well thought of.

Your microphone

Really, we could be here for hours. Don’t ever get more than two voiceovers in a room and ask them about mics – you’ll never leave and when you do, you’ll be thoroughly confused and will have probably bashed heads together.

Obviously the best thing to do is to test them, but as you’re new, how do you know what you’re listening for? Do some reading. Find a good all round, well-reviewed condenser. Other microphone types are available, including USB powered mics, but if you want to a) sound professional and b) be taken seriously it’s the condenser microphone that is most suitable and most commonly used for voice recording. Nothing flags up a newbie who hasn’t done their research like a USB microphone. They’re fine for podcasting, but for quality voiceovers: just don’t.

My first microphone, a Rode NT1A is still a great starter mic (in fact, any of the Rode condensers are worth a look.) Don’t tell my Neumann TLM193, but for some jobs it can sound better. At the time, £140 was a lot of money for me to spend speculatively on a mic, but it was the right thing to do and despite having upgraded since, I still use it. (BTW, Studiospares.com is an excellent site for your studio equipment.) You will also need XLR cables to connect your microphone to your computer/soundcard, but don’t just buy any old XLR cable. You need balanced cables.

Get a pop shield if you don’t have one already. You can buy them online or from music stores or you can make your own with a pair of tights and a wire coathanger. I bought mine, as I’m rubbish at Blue Peter make and do. One thing that really flags up a poor recording is “popping” on P and B sounds.

Your Audio Interface

Your average PC or laptop’s on-board soundcard will not be good enough for recording professional voiceovers. They’re situated too close to the fan and/or other circuits. For regular audio use (games, TV, playing CDs), this is absolutely fine. But with professional monitoring, you’ll soon notice interference.

Regular PC/Mac soundcards are also useless with condenser microphones such as the Neumann and Rode which need phantom power; they need an extra electrical 48v “kick” to work correctly. Without it, you can speak into it, but nothing will be picked up by the software. This power is not available with off-the-shelf computers and laptops. This is best achieved with a powered external audio interface which replaces your computer’s soundcard. (You make the changes in the computer’s settings.) This replaces your onboard soundcard and supplies phantom power to your mic.  Focusrite’s Scarlett 2i2  is an excellent piece of kit and a perfect first purchase if you’re starting out.  The mic plugs into the interface, which then plugs into your computer via USB.

Editing skills

This is far too in depth an area to cover here, but knowing basic editing a must – as is the ability to LISTEN. Every breath, pop, click will be recorded. A good microphone that suits your voice will work wonders and help you make your fortune, but it can also be your worst enemy. It will record EVERYTHING. Some clients will demand a finished recording, so it will also need to be processed, normalised and/or compressed and there are thousands of ways to do this. Get it right, and your recording will be greatly enhanced. Get it wrong, and you will have a very unhappy client.

So you’ve got your shiny new kit. It looks lovely. Next you need to know how to use it…