Engineer Paul Fegan writes exclusively for Voice Over Herald, offering tips and advice, along with do’s and dont’s that apply to studio etiquette.
I hated history in school. I just didn’t see the point of it as a subject. The events it speaks of have happened, I thought. They’ve passed. What’s the benefit of revisiting them? Years later, possibly through a combination of watching television documentaries and (often inaccurate) movies, I experienced a change of heart. A complete U-turn. Now I loved history.
So why the sudden interest? Did I just reach an age where I was mature enough to listen with an open mind to the stories of our past? Maybe that was part of it, but I don’t believe it was all of it.
One evening, I was watching a documentary on British television which followed a 1950s-style school in England where troublesome teenagers were sent to see if the schooling methods of that era might make better people of them. During the course of this programme, they covered how classes were conducted on a daily basis. On one occasion, a teacher was giving a history lesson and it suddenly dawned on me why I hated history in school. I finally recognised what the issue was all along. History teaching in school, even in the 1980s, hinged upon learning a lot of dates. I even remember today the bullet points in my history book that I was expected to learn. On this date, such and such did this. On another date, some other person did that. It was through these rather dull lenses that I had been expected to embrace the stories of our ancestors. And I was bored rigid.
Yet, in later years, thanks to history documentaries and movies, I would be intrigued.
This was quite a revelation for me. After all, I’d been second-worst at history in our class.
The important point here is that I suddenly realised it wasn’t so much history that I disliked, but rather, the way in which it was taught.
So whether you’re a voiceover artist or a director, think about that: the way in which we teach a subject has a great effect on how engaged our students are.
eLearning covers many subjects, the majority of which can be very technical, legal, or complicated in some other way. But we must remember: someone else on the other side of the computer screen will one day have to sit this training and learn from it. They may well love the subject in question, but how much they’ll learn from any given course is determined by the quality of its content, be it the text, the graphics, or indeed, the audio.
When you voice eLearning, you have to become the teacher. You can’t do anything about the script you’re given, but what you can do something about is the way in which it is delivered. The best chance we have of engaging courseware users is by telling a story. Stories don’t lend themselves to monotone reads. They need plenty of colour.
I’ve been recording and directing voiceover artists for many years now and in the next few blogs, I will cover some points that I believe you will find useful in your own recording sessions. We start here with your environment and setting yourself up for the read. Is there much to cover? I didn’t think so, until I started writing it all down, so I hope there’s something useful in here for everyone.
Make yourself comfortable. This sounds obvious enough, but remember that what makes you comfortable for 500 words might not keep you comfortable for 5,000 words.
Firstly, choose a nice chair for your sound booth. You don’t want something in which you’re going to fall asleep, but you don’t want something that’s going to have you sitting upright in a punishing posture, either. Try to find an orthopaedic chair. These are designed with your posture in mind and should put off those aches and pains for a while longer. In my experience, swivel chairs are best avoided. Yes, they might be great for getting in and out of your booth, or accessing the table that holds your glass of water or addtional scripts. But they tend to have a lot of mechanisms that enable you to adjust various parts of the seat and as a result, they make too much noise. The last thing you want to discover when you’re listening back to your recorded audio is that there’s an intermittent chair squeak or rattle in the background. Sitting still is an option, but this is very difficult if you like to use your arms for expression. I recommend that you get yourself a decent, four-legged, rigid chair. Test it out before you buy it. Sit down and move about a bit. See if it creaks. Old, domestic wooden chairs might also be appropriate, if comfortable, but check all of the joints — resetting and gluing if necessary — and tighten screws. Also, choose a chair with fabric upholstery, rather than vinyl or leather. The latter are more prone to squeaks and other (sometimes embarrassing) noises. Armrests are fine, but if yours doesn’t have any, just rest your hands on your lap when you’re not moving them about.
Food and drink
It’s not recommended that you take food into the booth. You could take some hard sweets, however, if you want something to soothe your throat. As regards drinks, take water or herbal tea. Normal tea and coffee aren’t recommended because of how they affect the consistency of your saliva, although I have heard voiceover artists do quite excellent reads just after consuming these. If you find that the consistency of your saliva is causing a lot of clicks in your speech, try eating an apple before resuming the session. Apples can be very effective at regulating the saliva in your mouth in such a way that eradicates these erroneous noises. It may not work for everyone, but I suggest that you give it a go and if it doesn’t work, experiment with other foods. Again, however, try not to eat during a session as your voice will sound different. Even after you’ve swallowed your food, you’ll purse your lips and position your tongue differently and it will be evident in your voice that you have just eaten. Similarly, if you take a drink during a session, don’t leave your mouth too wet. If it is, you will automatically change the way you shape your words in order to avoid spitting on your plosive ‘P’ and ‘B’ sounds. This, again, will be evident in your voice.
Try not to record when you’re hungry because during this period, your stomach will rumble. A lot. I always find that if I’m recording close to the main mealtimes and the VO hasn’t eaten, this becomes a problem. Microphones are very sensitive and not only will they register every nuance in your voice, but they’ll also record all of your noisy bodily functions as well! It’s nothing to be embarrassed about, though. Just because your stomach sounds like thunder in your headphones doesn’t mean it sounds like that to the ‘naked ear’. And chances are, us engineers’ stomachs are also churning, too. It’s just that ours aren’t mic’d up so you can’t hear them. You have two options when you’re rumbly in your tumbly. You can plough on, but you’ll have to retake a line every 20 seconds or so, depending on the level of gut activity. This can be very frustrating as you’ll deliver some great takes that have to be binned because they were accompanied by the digestive chorus at some point. The second option you have is to stop and eat, but don’t sit in the booth, take a proper break. I have found this to be very effective at quieting those erroneous noises. However, there is one caveat: after about half an hour, you might hear more noises as your stomach digests what you’ve eaten. This usually isn’t as prolongued, but it’s worth bearing in mind.
Make sure you’re neither freezing cold nor roasting. If you’re not comfortable, try to improve the temperature of the booth. When you’re too warm, you might find yourself sleepy or even lacking in tolerance with yourself when you misread. If you’re too cold, all you’ll be thinking about is getting warm and you won’t be able to give the read your full concentration. If you’re booth gets stuffy after a while, take regular, short breaks so that you can open the door and let some air in. This will also increase the oxygen supply to your brain and help you think more clearly. Try to take these breaks at logical points in the script so as not to lose your flow. If you’re usually too cold, invest in a heater. Halogen heaters are cheap to buy and will heat your audio booth in minutes such that you can even switch them off again when you’re nice and warm. Mind you, sometimes the heater’s metal grille will tick as the metal contracts again. If this happens, wait a minute until the heater has cooled sufficiently, or remove it from the booth altogether. Whatever you do, the few minutes you spend making yourself comfortable will be worth the better read that results.
Whether you’re reading off a computer screen or from a hard-copy on a music stand, ensure you’re lighting is just right and this will minimise eye-strain and maximise the amount of time you can spend reading. If you use a computer screen, make sure the wall behind it isn’t too dark or the contrast between the two might give you eye-strain. Softly backlight the wall with a lamp to alleviate this. If you’re using a music stand, ensure it’s well lit, but try not to have your light source too close to the paper or the intense brightness might also strain your eyes. Soft, but adequate, lighting is probably best.
It’s very important that you can clearly see the text you’re reading. If someone hands you a script in a 10pt font, this is not going to be easy to see and will give rise to a lot of misreads, not to mention frustration. I recommend Arial (or some other sans-serif font) with a point-size of about 14. If you’re reading the script from a computer screen, zoom in until the text area fills your screen. If the text is still too small at this stage, you won’t be able to zoom in any further without losing some text off the side of the screen, so select all of the script’s content and increase the font size until it’s legible. Bear in mind that this will cause an increase in your page count, so don’t be horrified if what was a 20 page script has now shot up to 35. The wordcount hasn’t changed.
Director or assistant
It’s great to have a director in the studio, but if you’re very experienced and know the read inside out, you might feel that you don’t need one. However, if possible, try to have a second person listening in as a monitor. This monitor can follow the script as you read to ensure you don’t miss a word or skip a line by accident. It’s also nice to have a second-opinion if you have any pronunciation issues and it’s handy to have someone outside the booth who can look up solutions on the Internet, if required.
In the next blog, I’ll talk about some of the issues you might encounter surrounding the actual read itself. In the meantime, happy recordings.
Paul Fegan is the owner and sound engineer at www.bitsixteen.com