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C.C. Hogan

You shouldn't use compression to solve your bad voice presentation

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For the sound engineer, there is one stand out difference between an amateur voice-over and a professional. The professional doesn't need so much compression when processing the recording.

Voice training is much more than simply pronunciation, annunciation, and good emphasis. Primarily, it teaches voice control. 

In my studio days, I recorded thousands of voices, both amateur and professional. The amateurs were mostly interviewees for programmes, though on the rare occasions they were narrating something. But generally speaking, narration of any sort was performed by professionals.

They came from a good mix of backgrounds and were not always trained actors. Many came from a radio presentation background or standup comedy. One who was very good was a busker originally.

But they all had one thing in common; they were very good at projecting their voices in an even, controlled, and predictable way into a microphone. The piece may have been something corporate and boring, it may have been an emotionally charged audiobook, or even a radio drama or ADR for film, but despite the wide range of styles, still, their evenness and control won through.

From an engineer's perspective, this was a joy.  I needed to ride the fader less, I used far less compression on the mic, and I was able to find the perfect equalisation because their mic technic was predictable. (Bad technique can mean the tone changes hugely, but not always in a useful way.)

We often thought that this kind of control was instinctive.  Just because the voice-over was a trained actor, didn't mean they had good voice control on a microphone. Indeed, many theatre actors found this difficult to learn. (Drama schools now are better at this than they used to be and some teach mic technique).

The group who probably had the best control (though often lacked the acting ability) were the DJs.  They spent most of their lives in front of a mic with headphones, and learned how to get the best from this incredible tool to connect to their listeners on a personal level. This was also partly because of the equipment used. 

Radio stations tend to use the best mics and the best headphones, even if the rest of their gear is cut-priced. Listening to yourself through a good mic and headphones is a very quick way of finding your weaknesses. Even if you do not understand the technicalities of what you are doing wrong, you will soon learn how to make it sound nice simply through doing it lots. Sounding nice in your own ears might be narcissistic, but it is fun!

To a certain extent, some of this wonderful eveness is built-in with some people. This is why some voices are simply nicer to listen to than others. People like Stephen Fry, Martin Jarvis, Sally Grace, Anthony Hyde, (to pick a few from my past), seem to have been born with a wonderful tone, and made the move from acting to mic presentation seamlessly.

Take a Breath

A huge part of this is about breathing and is why marking up a script is so important.

Two things will improve your control; having enough breath, and controlling how quickly you use it.

If you start a sentence with insufficient breath, you will weaken by the end.  Those last words will not just be quieter, they will be less well annunciated.  That is obvious, and everyone knows this whether they are a voice over or not.

What is not so obvious is how controlling the breath can help. By that, I mean how quickly you release the breath. If you release it too fast, which is the most common problem, then you will have all the power on the first few words, and nothing on the rest.

If you release too slowly in an attempt to make it through the sentence, then the entire recording will be weak, and the weaker it is, the less controlled it will be.

Finding the perfect balance between the two doesn't have to be difficult.

The first thing is to learn how to release a breath.  Years back, when I had pretensions to be a singer (yeah, me, before I smoked too much and wrecked my voice), a baritone opera singer taught me a brilliant lesson. Baritones go through a lot of air, he pointed out, so learning how to control it is vital to not passing out. (He could be very dramatic at times). 

He told me to take a huge breath and then to imagine I had a baked potato in my throat that was stopping the air coming out. The result of this was that I basically forced my lungs to stop deflating.  Then, rather than letting it all out in one go, lift the potato just a little and let out the breath slowly.

And not JUST slowly, but at a regular rate.  He made me "ah" a note, and then poked me if the intensity of the note changed.  The challenge was to keep it as even as I could for as long as I could. (I should point out we did this in a pub and looked right idiots.)

Once he was happy I was doing that, he then told me to find my "stop" point.  This was the point when I was no longer able to keep up the perfect intensity.  As soon as I felt myself reaching that point, I should stop. This taught me how long I could go before I should be taking a breath, and with practice, how big a breath I should take in the first place.

This daft, playful lesson has stuck with me. And I have translated it into the way I use my spoken voice.

Marking Up

Of course, with music notation, you know how long the notes must be and how long the pauses should be. The notation gives you that information in detail.

With a script, aside from commas and full stops, much is left to interpretation and guesswork.  But guesswork is no way to record a script.

Now, I know many will say that they are brilliant at sight-reading and really do not need to mark up their script.  I am sorry, you are wrong. 

In my career, I worked with some of the best sight-readers in the business, voices who earned hundreds of thousands of pounds every year. And ALL of them sounded better when they had had a chance to mark up the script. If they hadn't, and that occasionally happened, their presentation wasn't as good and they weren't as happy. This was why they always expected to receive the script in advance.

How much marking they did varied from person to person and on the kind of job. Commercials tended to get marked up the most, corporates a little less, audiobooks would depend on how much acting was going into it, and drama scripts were almost unrecognisable by the time they had finished.

But they all marked up both emphasis and where to breath. And they often took breaths far more often and longer than you might expect. But they were happier in the booth, and the final result was not just better, it was easier to record and easier to master or use in the final production. A win all round.

So, what is the lesson here?

If you are using compression and limiting to give your voice more presence and to sound more even, then you are doing the wrong thing.

These tools are aids to fine-tuning the recording - they are not get-out-of-jail cards.

A good recording starts with good mic technique and good voice technique - using your lungs, the position of your neck, your mouth, and everything else that make up you to produce a lovely sound that is a joy to listen to and easy to record.

And if you get that right, then the final mastering will not be repairing you, it will make you sing!

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