The Documentary Sound Quandary
In feature films the director is God; in documentary films God is the director.
Should documentary sound be real? Manipulated? Fake? We dig into the controversy.Read More...
Jar Fly Blues
"Again and again, the cicada's untiring cry pierced the sultry summer air like a needle at work on thick cotton cloth."
Recording location audio outside can be challenging at best. The video team wants an exterior shot because architecture or a landscape in the background can add to the image. But alas, there are often unwanted sounds like cars, HVAC blowers, and other manmade annoyances that we must work around. There's one sound though that is nearly impossible to eliminate, fix, mask, hide, or yell-at-to-be-quiet. It is guaranteed to ruin almost any exterior recording in the summer: the mating song of the cicada.
These little bug(ger)s come out of the ground periodically (mostly every 13 or 17 years here in the Ohio Valley) to anchor themselves to a tree and incessantly cry out for all to hear. It's not their little vocal chords that are producing these 120-decibel cries. The jar flies are contorting their torsos to flex in and out, causing two tymbals, or ribbed membranes, to vibrate 300-400 times a second. This produces a noise that's as loud as a jet engine and between 3KHz and 16KHz - right smack in the middle of the human speech range.
Human speech generally falls between 3KHz to 5KHz, like the sound of an old-time phone call. The nuances of intelligibility, such as the consonants S, H, F, and so on, are heard above 5 KHz. That makes removing the background sounds of cicadas difficult because you could also remove subtle sounds of speech. Noise reduction software has become very sophisticated today, but dynamic sounds like cicadas (their cry rises and falls in pitch and loudness instead of being drone-like) poses many challenges. We can painstakingly "paint out" some of the offending sounds, but it's best to leave some of it in so we don't lose key frequencies in the voice. If a dialog track with cicadas is heavily edited, then this can result in having cicadas in one clip and not the next. Or falling in one clip and rising in the next. This is jarring to the listener and is very difficult to fix. We sometimes actually add cicada song back in underneath to mask those continuity-challenged edits.
While recording, we can sometimes position the microphone and talent to reduce the cicada song, but inevitably a critter in another tree fires up his belly to blow the take. There's just no easy solution to this dog day dilemma. The sound is so hated, Japanese television has a Godzilla-like monster called "Cicada Man," probably created by a sound engineer. They're so passionately tired of them in Mexico that Raymundo Pérez y Soto penned the great mariachi song "La Cigarra."
But leave it to the U.S. Navy to find the positives in the piercing cicada death song. The Navy is no stranger to harnessing wildlife to help their efforts. They have a marine mammal program that uses bottlenose dolphins and sea lions for mine detection, ship and harbor protection, and equipment recovery. What on earth could they use a cicada for?
The Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Rhode Island has been studying this tiny creature's anatomy with a CT scan-like technology called microcomputed tomography to try and figure out how it makes its loud chirp. They've found that a cicada's two tymbals act as dual speakers when the insect contracts and releases their ribs. It's a highly efficient way of producing twice the sound with one action. And why would the Navy be interested in sound? Why sonar of course. Doubling sonar's efficiency is like seeing twice as far with radar.
It seems that Raymundo Pérez y Soto was ahead of his time in the 1950s when he wrote La Cigarra. He may have foretold the odd marriage of the cicada and the Navy:
Don’t sing to me anymore, cicada
Let your singsong end
For your song here in my soul
Stabs me like a dagger
Knowing that when you sing
You are announcing that you are going to your death.
Tell me if it is true that you know,
Because I cannot distinguish,
Whether in the depths of the seas
There is another color blacker
Than the color of my sorrows.
How Hollywood Hears History
"The people will waken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,
And the midnight message of Paul Revere."
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
What did Paul Revere's famous midnight ride from Boston to Lexington sound like in April 1775? If you were there, you might recognize the approaching horse as a Narragansett Pacer mare. This once popular breed of horse, now extinct, was known for its ambling gait: a smooth riding four-beat gait that is faster than a walk, but slower than a canter or gallop. You might also notice the calm surroundings interrupted occasionally by crow calls, trees rustling in the wind, or the occasional farm dog barking at the stranger barreling down the rough dirt road. Just someone in a hurry.
The Shadow Knows
Shadow: No, Mary. I suspected a trap, so after I opened the door, I walked across the room and stood behind them.
Apple Mary: But your voice.... it came from near the door.
Shadow: Ventriloquism. A simple trick of projecting the voice.
"The Blind Beggar Dies"
Radio broadcast: April 17, 1938
We're fooled by Mother Nature all the time. She uses light to conjure up a mirage on a hot desert day and Aurora Borealis on a cold Alaskan night. She also has a bag of tricks for sound, like flinging noises a hundred miles away. But one of her best is when she makes sound disappear. This slight-of-hand by Mother Nature may have even changed the outcome of several battles in the American Civil War. What are these shenanigans of sound? Magic? Illusions? Sorcery? As the old radio serial hero said, "Only The Shadow knows." They're called acoustic shadows.
The Voice, Part 3
"At one time there were voiceover artists, now there are celebrity voiceover artists. It's unfortunate because these people need the money less than the voiceover artist."
What does it take to perform a voice-over? After talking with several industry veterans, it turns out that it's not as easy as they make it sound - and that's the whole point. In Part 1, we found out how these four voice-over artists got into the profession. In Part 2, we learned about preparation and technique. In this last installment of our series, our nimble-tongued pros have advice to budding narrators and writers.
The Voice, Part 2
"In voice-over work, you have to actually do more work with your facial muscles and your mouth. You have to kind of exaggerate your pronunciation a little bit more, whereas with live action, you can get away with mumbling sometimes."
What does it take to perform a voice-over? After talking with several industry veterans, it turns out that it's not as easy as they make it sound - and that's the whole point. In Part 1, we found out how these four voice-over artists got into the profession. This month, we learn the nitty gritty of preparation and technique.
John Campbell is a voice-over artist and semi-retired advertising and marketing writer and producer in Lexington. His voice has been hired by such clients as Klipsh, The NCAA, Valvoline, Fazoli's, and Brown-Forman. John is also a drummer in a classic rock band and enjoys noodling on the bagpipes. John describes his style as banks and hospitals to car dealers, and everything in between.
Kathie Stamps is a voice-over artist, writer, producer, sports broadcast engineer and is owner of Stamps Communications in Lexington. Her voice has been hired by such clients as Ocean Spray, Sports Illustrated, Grand Victoria Casino, and East Kentucky Power. Her background in music helped prepare her for a career in voice-overs. She describes her style as "smooth."
Tom Martin is a career journalist, reporting and anchoring on such news radio networks as ABC News, AP Radio, and RKO Radio Network, as well as being Paul Harvey's back-up host. Tom is also a lifelong pianist and keyboardist and currently plays with the Patrick McNeese Band. Tom says he inherited his deep smooth voice from his father.
Jim Jones is owner of Cherry Voiceworks in Dayton, Ohio. Jim specializes in commercials, narrations, politicals, broadcast promos, on-hold messages, and audiobooks. His voice has been hired for such clients as Arby’s, GE Jet Engines, Proctor & Gamble, Kroger, and Fasig-Tipton. Jim describes his style as "warm, buttered bread."
Preparation, from tongue warm ups to research, can be key to having success in a voice-over session. But sometimes life experiences unexpectedly work their way into the booth. Years ago, Jim worked a six-month stint in a shoebox factory. He probably wasn't thinking about how that experience would help his voice-over career at the time, but now it helps him while recording industrial narrations. "I learned about presses and machinery," Jim said. When a script might detail a mechanical process referencing movements, controls, and safety procedures, Jim can visualize the actions, "and it would help me with my interpretation."
In a perfect world, voice-over artists get a script beforehand so they can prepare. The reality is that copy is often being written and re-written right up until session time. But, as John points out, you'd better be able to correctly pronounce the name of the product. As he was preparing for a recording session for the spirit and wine giant Brown-Forman, he did some research on the scotch whiskey he would be selling. "Very few Americans,' John said, "even scotch aficionados, know how to pronounce Glenmorangie. So I made it part of my business to know how to pronounce the name of the product."
Physical preparation for a session is different for everybody. One actor I used to work with did push ups in the voice booth. Another sings scales. Others "purposefully hit the highest note they could possibly hit, then the mid-range, then the lowest note they could possibly hit," Tom chuckles. "If people only knew what what was going on in our cars as we were driving to the speaking gig, they probably would laugh." Jim chews bubblegum about 15 minutes before a session because "it loosens my jaws." Kathie brushes her teeth beforehand because she doesn't want to make excessive mouth sounds. John will do mouth exercises he learned in his Speaking for the Stage class.
Perhaps the hardest thing to learn and deftly apply to a voice-over is technique. Someone can have a lovely voice, but if no one can understand what's being said, it's a major fail. "My father always told me over-and-over," Tom remembers, "to always e-nun-ci-ate. And he would say it that way so that he got every syllable of the word in. That was his point, words have syllables for a reason."
I was a trombone major in college, and although I don't do voice-overs, I see many parallels between performing music and performing a voice-over. Two similarities are breathing and phrasing. Playing a wind instrument or singing correctly teaches you all about breath control. You learn to take in a quick, deep, and nearly silent breath. As you play or sing, controlling the flow of air from your diaphragm results in even tones and predictable air reserves. Phrasing is carefully planning your breaths around a group of notes while retaining musicality.
Reading a script is exactly the same way if done right. Kathie's music training allows her to see the parallels as well. "I think it's all very related," she says. "Music and voice-overs, singing and talking, writing and expressing. I just picked up that singing and talking were very related in the expression, the breath work, and putting the meaning across."
Sight reading, that is playing a piece of sheet music with little or no preparation, is another fundamental part of music training that can be applied to voice-over work. It helps Kathie to "give it the feel it deserves." When Tom was in live broadcasting, being handed cold copy was a common occurrence during a breaking event. "One of the tricks of the trade, especially in network news," he spells out, "you have to learn to read a couple of lines ahead of where you are. You're looking for punctuation marks and that sort of thing while you're reading along." Sometimes a script doesn't have natural places to breath or phrase, especially with long sentences. John notes that he looks for "places to breath, places to pause, and words you're going to emphasize."
And John adds, "What words you emphasize often makes the read." Much like playing music. You can have all the technique in the world, but if you can't get the meaning across, it another major fail. John scans a script with the questions, "What are the key words, what is the key thought, what are we trying to sell, and how are we trying to persuade an audience?" Kathie says she needs "the tiniest bit of 'who's your audience? Who am I?' I don't have that many styles, but if it's hyper-over-the-top salesy, or regular-medium-authoritative instructional, I just need a little bit of direction."
And that brings us to one of next month's topics: taking direction. Plus, our super-professionals offer advice to budding voice-over artists, and tips for writing narration scripts.
- "Nine tips to improve your speaking abilities" over on Voicebunny.com
- Very good guide to voice acting and narration at Backstage.com
- Voice-over guide on Gravyforthebrain.com
- Beginner's Guide to Voice Acting at Voices.com
- We partner with Voice Coaches to help aspiring voice-over professionals learn, practice, and market themselves.
The Voice, Part 1
"One of the things that I love about voiceover is that it's a situation where - because you're not encumbered by being seen - it's liberating. You're able to make broad choices that you would never make if you were on camera."
What does it take to perform a voice-over? After talking with several industry veterans, it turns out that it's not as easy as they make it sound - and that's the whole point. We find out that each of these voice professionals have their own approach to achieving the nearly impossible task of a voice-over artist: making it sound sincere. Plus, find out what's been happening at Dynamix lately.
Anatomy of an Audio Book, Part 3
"Someone needs to buy a radio station, then play nothing but audio books, with a different genre of book played at set times. That way we can always have something new to read, no matter where we are."
We're wrapping up our series on the audiobook this month. In Part 1, we began our conversation with veteran actor and audiobook narrator Brad Wills. He talked technical details about finding the right studio, performance, editing, and quality. In Part 2, Brad shared his methods of character development and preparation, plus he had some tips for budding narrators. In this issue, we're looking at how an audiobook is actually produced, from recording and editing, to mastering and delivery.Read More...
Anatomy of an Audio Book, Part 2
“When you read a book, the story definitely happens inside your head. When you listen, it seems to happen in a little cloud all around it, like a fuzzy knit cap pulled down over your eyes.”
Robin Sloan, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore
We're continuing our series on the audiobook, an older idea that has been reborn from new technology. In this issue we're talking with Brad about character development, preparation, and tips for budding narrators.
Anatomy of an Audio Book, Part 1
“I love audio books, and when I paint I’m always listening to a book. I find that my imagination really takes flight in the painting process when I’m listening to audio books.”
There was a panic in 2009 during the recession, and it wasn't about housing. Or at least traditional houses. Publishing houses were facing the pinch as sales were cut in half. When it came to audiobooks, sales were down 20 percent mid-year. One of the reasons was obvious – lack of disposable income. Millions of workers were laid off and even more were holding on to their precious cash reserves. But a few other reasons were staring the publishers in the face. One was the sky-high price of audiobooks. The other was the changing pace of life. Between carting kids around, going to work, and running errands, a book is a commitment of precious time.
Despite the wrecked economy, smartphones and tablets started to infiltrate our daily lives. These little on-the-go media centers were a gift to publishers. Downloading and listening to audiobooks became convenient - and cheaper. Traditionally, publishers could sink upwards of $50,000 in production costs per title, with much of that towards CD packaging, production, and distribution. Companies like Audible (a subsidiary of Amazon) could produce titles for much less, thanks to downloading.
As a result, the number of audiobook titles have surged from 7,000 in 2011, to 35,000 in 2013. And that number is growing. Scribd subscribers logged 270,000 listening hours in two months when 30,000 audiobooks were added to their library in 2014. Faster internet speeds, better digital audio software, and more narrators jumping onto the bandwagon are helping to fuel the renaissance of audiobooks.
One of these narrators, Brad Wills, has been narrating audiobooks since 2013. Brad has recorded more than thirty books, a baker's dozen of those with Dynamix since 2014. He mostly reads in the historical romance genre, but also in historical adventure, gothic horror, and fantasy. Brad also has more than 25 years of professional acting experience, from Broadway to nationally acclaimed musical tours. I recently sat down with Brad and talked with him about his thoughts and experiences as an audiobook narrator and producer. Surprisingly, his three decades of professional acting did little to prepare him for his new role.
"I’ve never felt like I benefitted from any kind of training or acting," Brad told me. "Everything I do is instinctual. It’s stuff I’ve done my entire life. I’ve always imitated people, I’ve always had crazy voices ever since I can remember."
But being an audiobook narrator can be tough at first, even to the most seasoned stage actor. "I remember my very first session with my very first book," Brad lamented. "I thought 'this guy’s going to throw me out of the studio, and I’m never going to do this again.' It took me about a year before I was able to read with any consistency and not make any mistakes."
Now, Brad is not only a narrator, but a producer. When asked what this expanded role is, Brad replied, "To give technically the best performance and the best quality production that you can give. It’s a matter of clean editing, clean recording, rhythm, tempo. And I think what is also really beneficial is to have an engineer that you can really trust, offer good input." In this dual role as producer/narrator, Brad emphasizes that he must make sure that "you as the narrator deliver the intent of the piece - not to lose track of it, keep it clear for the listener, not lose track of the story, not lose track of the line, or where a paragraph happens to be going at any time."
Also as a producer, Brad must find the right studio and engineer. Having worked with two other studios besides Dynamix, his primary goal in finding someplace to record has always been to "look for an engineer that’s been in the business a long time. I look for somebody who has a more than adequate setup. I look for some place that's pretty much state of the art." A studio and engineer with audiobook experience is crucial. "It’s very, very different from doing a radio spot, because there’s no music, no sound effects," Brad explains. "It has to be clean, no noise, no background noise. Editing - someone who will take the time to finesse it down to the most minuscule control management points."
With hundreds of thousands of audiobooks out there now, it's not surprising that there is a huge range in technical quality. "I’ve read reviews by people who have listened to books that have been poorly edited and produced," he said. "They’ll mention it in their notes and reviews: 'It’s really bad,' 'a line is repeated here,' 'I could hear dogs barking in the background,' and 'It sounds like the person recorded this sitting at their kitchen table.' So people know."
No matter the budget, Brad cares "about the product that goes out there. It has my name on it, and it will have the engineer’s stamp on it as well."
In the next installment, we'll dig down deep into character development, preparation, and tips for budding audiobook narrators.
The Secret World of Foley
Broadcast and the Hearing Impaired
"I hope I inspire people who hear. Hearing people have the ability to remove barriers that prevent deaf people from achieving their dreams."
Did you know that more than 37 million Americans aged 18 or older have some kind of hearing loss? And 30 million Americans aged 12 or older have hearing loss in both ears? With a media-rich society, that makes listening to narration, dialog, and speech in general difficult for them. Before 1972, anyone hard of hearing had to watch television with the volume turned up.
BOOM Go the Fireworks!
Independence Day reminds me about fireworks. Which reminds me of explosions. Which remind me of sound effects. I'm not necessarily thinking of sound effects when I'm watching fireworks, because I'm usually in the moment. But we've all experienced that anticipation of waiting for the next explosion when we see a faint streak of light climb up to the heavens and hear a little bit of the sizzle from the propulsion. A momentary silence...and then BOOM! Ooooh! Aaaah! Laughter, applause. Read More...
Recreating the Sounds of the Civil War
Being in the "Horse Capital of the World," we surely have enough experience to know that a horse sounds much like it did 150 years ago. However, back then a horse's role was very different than today. In a new documentary, "Unsung Hero: The Horse in the Civil War," produced by Witnessing History, LLC for HRTV (Horse Racing TV Network), the role of the horse in the American Civil War is explored in-depth with rarely-seen photographs, documents and artwork. To a sound designer's delight, there are simulated battle scenes, troop movements, and other war action.
How Things Work
Inside an Engineer's Mind
- Thomas Edison
- Alan Parson
- Am radio
- Am Radio
- Amateur radio
- Amy Winehouse
- Angels on Stage
- Artificial intelligence
- ATR Magnetics
- Audio engineer
- Bela Lugosi
- Bell Labs
- Big Bang
- Book on tape
- Brown noise
- Carrier pigeon
- CB Radio
- Civil War
- Dies irae
- dorian mode
- Dynamix Productions
- ear training
- Film Sound
- Fleetwood Mac
- Fritz Lang
- George Clooney
- Guinness World Record
- Hearing aid
- Jack White
- John Mellancamp
- John Williams
- Ken Burns
- Led Belly
- Led Zepelin
- Lenny Kravitz
- Les Paul
- Mary Ford
- Morse code
- mykola Leontovych
- Noise Pollution
- Noise reduction
- Oculus Rift
- Peter J. Wilhousky
- Pink noise
- Ray Bradbury
- Recording arts
- Recording school
- Reel to reel
- Richard Wagner
- Rudy Van Gelder
- Rupp Arena
- Secret messages
- Silent film
- Sir Isaac Newton
- Smokey and the Bandit
- sony walkman
- sound effects
- sound level
- sound pressure level
- sound wave
- Star Wars
- surround sound
- Taylor Swift
- The Beatles
- Thomas Edison
- Time travel
- US Navy
- virtual reality
- Wax cylinder
- White noise