In the first part of this topic in Getting Started in Voice Over Part IV: Choosing Equipment, we talked about your computer and recording/mastering software (DAW). In the second installment of the post, we talked all about the microphone. In this final installment of Getting Started in Voice Over Part IV (3), we’ll talk about the audio interface and a few other miscellaneous items to finish of this part of the series.
- Sitting and talking to yourself in a small enclosed space all day – Check.
- Choosing yourself a coach and starting to work with them – Check
- Fashioned, built or bought a suitable booth for recording – Check.
- Have, or have gotten, a computer powerful enough to run your DAW – Check
- Downloaded, installed and learned to use your recording and mastering software – Check
- Researched and found the perfect mic for your voice, in the price range you can afford – Check
Great and congratulations!
Getting the audio from your mic to your DAW
As we discussed in the last installment, your microphone is a transducer that senses the air pressure changes from your voice, and recreates them as an electrical signal of varying frequency and amplitude. This electrical signal is an analog signal that is of little use to your digital audio workstation (DAW). Before the audio you are recording can be saved in the digital environment, it must first be converted from and analog signal to a digital signal. This is accomplished through the use of an Analog to Digital converter (ADC). EVERY DAW requires this conversion in order to be able to reproduce the analog signal digitally for use in your computer and DAW. Every ADC does essentially the same thing, but some are better than others. In order to play back the digital audio, you employ a Digital to Analog converter (DAC) to return the signal to an analog state (which is what speakers and headphones…AND your EARS need to reproduce sound).
How do A/D and D/A converters work?
In simple terms, an A/D converter “samples” an analog waveform sequence where the signal is broken down into a series of digital signals that depend on the sampling rate of the ADC. Since an analog signal is a continuous change in frequency and amplitude and a digital signal is represented by ones (on) and zeros (off), the digital signal cannot be a smooth, continuous wave like the analog signal.
For each time period sampled, the device creates a digital representation, and it does this repeatedly thousands of times per second. The number of times the ADC samples the analog waveform, the sample rate, determines the “fidelity” of the digital signal, or how faithfully the analog waveform is captured. The easiest way for you to understand is with an image:
The ADC captures both the frequency AND amplitude of the analog signal. As you can see by the image, the more often the analog signal is sampled and captured, the more “truly” the digital audio signal will represent the analog waveform. This is definitely an oversimplified explanation, but definitely adequate for understanding that the “sample rate” of your ADC is important to voice actors who are recording their voices in a DAW.
The DAC does the same thing, but in reverse, sampling the digital signal and creating an analog representation of that signal to output to whatever speakers will be used to listen to the audio. Important, to be sure, but for the voice over artist not as important as the ADC, since the artist has no control over what device a listener will use to listen to their audio. Suffice it to say that, as in an ADC, the sampling rate of the DAC drives the fidelity of the sound.
But, I thought this was about audio interfaces?
Yes, it is…but all of that was necessary. Here’s why: Your audio interface, whichever one you choose, will employ an ADC to convert the “audio” from your microphone and “interface” it with your computer and whatever DAW you’ve chosen. As with DAWs and microphones, there are MANY, MANY audio interfaces to choose from, with a LOT of different features, and when selecting yours one VERY important aspect to consider is the sample rate of the ADC in your interface. That will determine how closely your interface represents the analog signal from your mic.
A note about USB microphones
If you decide to use a USB microphone when you are getting started (I don’t recommend it), then you will not need an interface. A USB mic has a built in interface with an ADC and gets its power from the USB port on your computer (thus it does not require phantom power). It also does not give you the flexibility an XLR mic with an interface gives you, for example you get limited (or no) gain control at the mic, no headphone jack (you’ll need to use another port on your computer) and it is its own (and only) channel, so no way to ever add a second mic if you needed it without using another I/O port on your computer. As you know, those ports are finite and are taken up by things like external hard drives, mice, headphones and other peripherals you use that may or may not be related to audio.
OK, so now let’s talk about the interface itself
Setting aside fidelity for a moment (but not to forget about it!) some things to consider when choosing your interface are: Phantom Power, number of inputs/outputs (channels), interface type between the device and your computer, and gain adjustment. If you do some research on interfaces, over at Sweetwater for example, you’ll notice that other features are available such as installed effects plug-ins, talkback switches, padding and others. These are important only for your specific application and are going to be chosen based on personal preferences. NONE of those features are “needed” necessarily, but some can be pretty cool if you want them.
Most microphones today require power to operate. Recall from the microphone installment (Getting Started in Voice Over Part IV: Choosing equipment (PT2) – Microphones) that professional microphones use an electrical signal with moving plates or ribbons to capture the sound waves (air pressure) and convert them to an electrical representation of the analog sound. This is usually 48V AC power to drive the capsule. Whatever microphone you choose may, or may not, require this phantom power, but some day you’ll either need to replace your mic, or upgrade it once you start making the big bucks and if you don’t want to have to buy a new interface when you do that: Choose an interface with phantom power.
Audio interface devices come in all shapes and sizes, from single channel to HUGE boards used in professional studios with 32 or more channels. Each channel allows you to interface a device to your DAW. In a studio setting, the engineer will need to mic multiple instruments and vocalists. A drum kit ALONE is going to require 8-10 mics to capture the sound from the symbols and each of the drums. And a piano is going to need at least 4 mics all by itself. As you can see, having an interface (built into the mixer board, or simply “board”) that allows many inputs and outputs (studio monitors, headphones for the talent etc) is an absolute must. But you, sitting alone on your closet or booth can get by with a single input (for your mic) and a single output (for your headphones or “cans”). As a voice over artist, you will rarely if ever be recording multiple inputs. Having said that, as you grow it may become necessary to add a second mic/headphone combination, for example if you decide to branch out into podcasting. My suggestion is to select an interface with at least 2 channels. If you are also a musician, then 4 channels may be better for you.
Computer interface type
This one is kind of a no brainer, but when selecting your interface make SURE that the I/O cable type on the interface is compatible with the I/O interface you plan to use on your computer. Choose the highest speed, highest fidelity I/O port on your computer that is available to make sure audio quality stays high and transfer speed will not “bog down” your processor. I can’t give you specific advice, because I have NO IDEA what computer you’ve selected, just make sure not to get a Thunderbolt interface for a Windows PC, or you’ll be playing around with adapters, and losing quality while you’re at it.
Again, a bit of a no brainer, but you definitely need the ability to adjust the gain of your microphone going INTO the interface, which helps with noise floor and making sure the input to your DAW is both adequate and also does not overdrive (clip) your audio. There are ways to deal with this digitally in your DAW and whatever program you use to edit/master your audio, but the simplest, cleanest, way to deal with it is by adjusting the input gain at the interface BEFORE the audio is digitized. And if you are in a closet and have some external noise (from your fridge, HVAC or a noisy neighbor) to deal with…being able to adjust gain periodically can help minimize those sounds.
Next to your microphone, the interface you choose is the second most important piece of equipment you’ll own that affects the quality of your audio. At the end of the day, make sure you choose an interface with a high sample rate (at least 48Khz, but for more flexibility I suggest one that samples at 96Khz), phantom power, at least two I/O channels, the correct computer interface for your setup and a variable gain adjustment. Anything else your interface offers is gravy.
All the other cats and dogs
We’ve covered all the major equipment you’ll need in your home studio, but there are a couple more things, WAY less technical, that will make your life a lot easier in the booth.
You’ll need a way to hold your microphone, so definitely look at a mic stand. Depending on your booth and how it is set up you can go with a desktop stand or something permanently mounted to the desk, wall or ceiling. I highly suggest you get yourself an adjustable stand, since sometimes you will be standing, sometimes sitting, sometimes whispering, sometimes “yelling” and everything in between. You’ll want to adjust the mic for the given copy and have it stay there. You DEFINITELY don’t want to touch or hold the mic as it will introduce funky background noise.
You need a monitor (assuming your computer, and it’s noisy fan, are outside the booth – seriously, do everything you can to reduce noise sources inside your booth) so you can control your DAW while recording for convenient punch and roll etc. I use a remote monitor and a second wireless mouse/keyboard in the booth for this.
Since you’ll be reading, you’ll need a way to hold your copy. Don’t make editing and mastering more difficult by holding (and shuffling) papers or a mobile device with the copy you are reading on it. Minimize EVERYTHING that might make any noise inside your booth! Invest in a stand to hold copy, whether it be a music stand for paper, or some kind of stand for a phone or tablet. I have a large monitor where I display both the DAW and copy while I’m recording, but I also have a tablet stand for the long form narration where I don’t want to be wheeling around with the mouse (and making noise).
If you plan to sit, you’ll need a QUIET chair or stool. Nothing worse than a pop, squeak or squeal from your chair in the middle of a perfect take that needs to be re-recorded. Either find yourself a comfortable quiet seat, or stand for recording.
You might consider high quality studio monitors to listen back in a “live” environment (not in your headphones) to catch any stray noises you don’t want. This is not a necessity, but it can be useful. While most listeners are using low to medium fidelity speakers to listen to you (like a phone, computer or television) the better the quality of your audio at the start, the better it sounds no matter what it is being played back on by the end user. These are a “nice to have” option, and totally not really needed when starting out. I have a pair of high-quality studio monitors in the booth, and I use them only rarely.
Lighting and ventilation
And finally, lighting and ventilation are important. Make sure you have adequate lighting so you can read the copy and see everything you need to see while recording. As far as ventilation, sitting in the booth for 4-6 hours a day, closed up and surrounded by sound dampening items and with electronics running can get HOT. If possible, consider a QUIET way to move air in and out of your recording space. You can get fans designed for recording booths that have baffles and reduce the noise floor of the fan. Just know you will eventually want to ventilate your booth so you can stay in it earning big money longer.
If you’ve been reading along with all three parts of the Getting Started in Voice Over Equipment series, you should now have, or at least know enough to get, yourself a SWEET setup so you can produce professional quality audio and start earning cash and winning awards! Well, maybe not QUITE yet…remember that “Becoming an overnight success takes YEARS of hard work” (Original author unknown – well, to me at least). So now that you are all set up, what’s next?
Next week we’ll talk about training/coaching and possibly producing professional demo reels. Stay tuned, till next week!
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