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July 1, 2014 / Randy Coppinger

Headphone Alternatives for Voice Actors

If an actor is self recording an audition, the choice to use headphones is pretty simple: use them or don’t. But if there are other people involved — voice director, client, engineer, etc. — headphones may be useful for hearing those folks. As previously discussed, headphones may be causing some problems, but they might also help an actor hear collaborators. The decision to completely ditch headphones may not be simple. Some additional options would be helpful.

LESS OF ME
If the headphones let one hear the actor’s mic, the director’s talkback mic, and the engineer’s talkback mic, then one simple solution would be to lower or mute the signal from the actor’s mic. Most of the distractions from hearing oneself go away if the signal from the actor’s mic doesn’t feed the actor’s headphones. A professional recording engineer can configure it if you simply ask.

SPEAKER
Sometimes the headphones just need to go away. A speaker in the room with the actor can be used to replace the headphones. BUT — and this is important — the audio from the actor’s mic should NOT feed the speaker or feedback may occur. Again, the recording engineer is responsible to set this up correctly.

SAME ROOM
On some big sound stages I’ve seen a table for the director, script supervisor, and others. The actor doesn’t need headphones to hear these people because they’re all in the same room. The engineer (in another room) may use a talkback speaker and/or headphones may still be helpful, but much of the critical communication over headphones goes away with lots of folks together in the same room. And you don’t need a major film studio budget. You can ditch the actor’s headphones in small scale recording setups if you just put everyone in the same room.

One Ear Off Technique for Voice ActorsONE EAR OFF
Another compromise is to work with one ear off, or use a single eared headphone. This may be enough of a change to minimize the distraction while still being able to hear collaborators. Just taking a side off is a quick fix that a voice actor can make without help from others and without taking time away from the session. Studio singers, musicians, and radio announcers have been doing this effectively for years.

TIPS FOR ONE EAR OFF
When someone takes an ear off from stereo headphones and there is sound coming out, this makes feedback more likely. If the actor “wears” that open headphone speaker on the head behind the ear, it covers it up as if it were being worn on the ear. Placing the open speaker behind the ear helps the actor and engineer by keeping feedback to a minimum.

An engineer may proactively mute the signal to the open ear using a pan, mute, dead patch, etc. No output from the unused headphone means the actor doesn’t have to cover it to help prevent feedback.

June 24, 2014 / Randy Coppinger

Voice Actors and Headphones

Headphones are commonly used in recording situations. When recording voice, what are some effective uses for headphones? What are some pitfalls to avoid?

NOW HEAR THIS!
Headphones for a Voice Actor to Record AuditionsSometimes recording technology can exaggerate the sounds that voice actors make: plosives, sibilance, proximity effect, mouth noise. If it isn’t too distracting, it may be valuable for a voice actor to hear these undesirable sounds. Actors can perform some sounds more softly, change their mic technique, or have a drink of water if they know they are contributing to an issue because they can hear it in their headphones. When actors are recording themselves (for an audition for example) headphones can save time by allowing the actor to adjust during the recording, rather than re-recording because the problem was heard afterward.

SOUND-ALIKE
Veteran voice actor and favorite human Jennifer Hale made the point that headphones are important for actors to monitor their performance when voice matching. If actors can listen to the target voice then hear their own performance in headphones it helps them get closer.

DISTRACTION
But if voice actors are not matching, monitoring their own performance may be more of a distraction than an aid. Jennifer reminded that voice director Kris Zimmerman intentionally asks recording engineers to NOT put out headphones for actors so that they give a better performance. But why? I believe it is because active listening requires brain power. If actors can be free from the burden of listening they have more attention to give their acting.

Likewise, hearing technical problems and worrying about them can be distracting. First and foremost actors need the space and comfort to act. Instead of helping, headphones may work against a great performance by focusing attention on problematic plosives, sibilance, proximity effect, mouth noise, etc. instead of crafting a believable character.

In addition, headphones may provide the illusion that an actor is speaking loudly. Some people find it difficult to project while wearing headphones. Sometimes the engineer can lower the actor’s level to the headphones to encourage the actor to perform more loudly, but projection is typically restored by simply removing the headphones all together.

For any of these distractions the simple solution may be: take off the headphones. If headphones are uncomfortable (don’t fit well, are too hot, cause listening fatigue) then removing them may be appropriate. Don’t let anyone tell you that you should wear headphones. Use them if they are helpful, make a change if they are not helpful.

Of course there are situations where headphones seem like a problem, but there are also good reasons to wear them. Are there any good options? Next: Headphone Alternatives for Voice Actors.

Additional topics: dealing with headphone cables, headphone sizing, clicky/rattling headphones, and more.

—–
On Facebook, Sean Hebert brought Balanced Armature technology to my attention. It’s fascinating stuff you can read about, along with other useful information about how headphones work, on this Wikipedia entry.

April 29, 2014 / Randy Coppinger

Headphone Comparison: Audio Technica ATH-M50x vs. Shure SRH 840

A friend of mine received a pair of Audio Technica ATH-M50x headphones and asked me to evaluate them. My Shure SRH 840 headphones were handy, so I used them as a comparison to the AT headphones.

Review of Audio Technica ATH-M50x headphones with comparisons to Shure SRH 840 headphonesThe first thing I noticed were smaller ear pieces. They were just big enough to be circumaural – pads resting against my head and completely covering the outer ear. From the inside of the ear piece my pinna touched the pads top and bottom; not as roomy inside as my SRH 840s.

Listening back and forth I found the ATH-M50x headphones a bit brighter. They seemed like they could be harsh and fatiguing over time, though I did not listen to them for an extended period to confirm this.

The Shure headphones had a fairly even bass extension. Nothing amazing, but balanced and fairly true. By comparison the Audio Technica headphones were thin with deep bass, and seemed to be compensating with a noticeably louder upper bass. On spoken word most voices had a honk, sounding chesty or nasal. The ATs exaggerated mild room resonances making them seem like a bigger problem than they really were on the Shure headphones or on speakers.

I noticed outside noises were easier to hear wearing the ATH-M50xes than the SRH 840s. I prefer the isolation of the Shure headphones, which was much better than this Audio Technica model.

Audio Technica does a good job with build quality in their products, from their cheapest to their highest quality models. The ATH-M50x headphones looked sturdy. The detachable cable would make it fairly easy to replace for those who put a lot of wear and tear on wires.

At nearly $50 less the Audio Technica ATH-M50x headphones made some noticeable compromises to reach the price point. They are certainly usable and – like most transducers – one could learn how to listen reliably on them with enough time and experience.

See also: Shure SRH 840 vs. Sony MDR-7506, and
18 Headphone Brands Ranked from Worst to First

April 22, 2014 / Randy Coppinger

Hollywood Bowl – Behind the Scenes

UPDATE April 23
At the request of people associated with The Bowl, I was kindly asked to remove the pictures that were posted here. I removed them as soon as I was made aware of the situation out of respect to the venue and all of the professionals who work there.

Thank you.

April 8, 2014 / Randy Coppinger

Rob Bridgett on Sound for Pre-School Games

Veteran game audio director Rob Bridget inspired me with his post-mortem on Zorbit’s Math Adventure for iOS and Android. These were my eight take aways…

1. Even among the few quality developers making compelling experiences for young ones, there are significant opportunities to improve the quality of the audio. More importantly, “the overall integration of sound and design seemed like huge missed opportunities in this genre.” Audio should be integral — not an afterthought — because sound plays a key role for a younger audience, especially dialog for pre-readers.

2. Rob suggests we owe pre-schoolers an especially safe loudness landscape in mobile games so as not to damage their hearing. From early concepting through audio implementation, sonic loudness was carefully managed. They even implemented an audio reduction (pad) scheme when headphones were inserted to help protect young ears.

3. Thinking about loudness early in production helped the team work more effectively toward that goal, but also helped simplify audio production in general.

4. Instead of simply ducking music anytime dialog plays, they decided to map the experience in two zones: player listens, player interacts. The music becomes more subdued (while keeping the same basic song structure) whenever dialog plays. This not only makes it easier to understand the dialog, it guides the player through the zones with an audible prompt. The subtle music tells the youngster it’s time to stop and listen. The return to the more active version of the music is the prompt to interact again. It’s an elegant audio design for user experience.

5. Some mobile users are going to wear headphones. Others are not. The audio presentation must work in mono on a tiny speaker. And on headphones.

6. Media made for kids should actually consider two audiences:
(1) The experience the child has, and
(2) The direct experience the parent may have, or indirect experience while the child interacts.
So the content — including audio — should engage the child, but also feel safe and fun for a parent.

7. “Consistent dialogue levels, clarity and performance were especially important for our design in terms of communicating the educational and instructional aspects of the experience so audibility and intelligibility at all times were critical.” But without sacrificing the fun! Balancing learning with entertainment rings true with my experiences in all educational media for kids. Sesame Street is so much better than a character shouting curriculum at the fourth wall.

8. In iterative build reviews they subtracted any dialog that was neither educational nor fun. This helped remove audio clutter, for a more focused user experience.

Throughout the post-mortem, Rob’s focus on possibility and opportunity — rather than limitations and problems — was the single most inspiring aspect of the entire article. Moving quickly from adversity to opportunity is more than just a positive way to view a situation. It’s a recipe for adding value to almost any situation, individually and as a team. So here’s to better audio as we anticipate opportunities to use these lessons from Rob.

Be inspired for yourself. Read the entire article.

February 19, 2014 / Randy Coppinger

Nasty ProTools Errors

It’s interesting to know what limits and problems other people are having with the same tools I use. Here’s a collection of responses from Twitter and Facebook when folks were asked what ProTools errors they found especially troubling:

“Pro Tools did not shut down properly. You must restart your computer.” – @grhufnagl
“ProTools has quit unexpectedly…” – Preston Shepard
“that would probably be this one pic.twitter.com/9DNvsBVbG6” – @insomaniac
ProTools error dialog box with no text
ProTools 11 is “a vast improvement in many ways (not video!).” – @JamieMusicNYC
“For no reason PT sometimes just come up with def prefs. Even daily.” – @tamasdragon
“Check this crash bud….It didnt come with an error number….lol… twitpic.com/7t3byf ” – @lobbyshifter
ProTools error with code superimposed on left side of screen

A few weeks ago my colleague @SwiftyMorgan told me about this one: Neo Assertion in [volume name], line 164

An error that has haunted me for years: ProTools Sync: The Short Video Problem

See also- ProTools and H.264 Video, ProTools + H.264 video = Problem, ProTools: Bounce to Quicktime Movie with Full Options, Conflict: ProTools and Spotlight Indexing

February 17, 2014 / Randy Coppinger

ProTools Sync: The Short Video Problem

I mistakenly assumed this issue was fixed several versions ago, but I’ve seen it again recently in ProTools 10. It could be caused by code deep in the video playback core of the software. It could even be caused by some quirk with Quicktime, which ProTools uses for the video decode heavy lifting. I’m documenting it here in case anyone else encounters it — it can be difficult to diagnose and sometimes isn’t simple to solve.

THE CAUSE
This error occurs when the video file is shorter than the audio. In other words, audio extends past the end of the video. Then audio is highlighted in the Edit window and a Bounce to Quicktime command is issued. For whatever reason, sometimes the video is stretched — frames are added or lengthened — so that the length of the video and audio are the same.

Video clip shorter than audio causes error

This is a huge problem for several reasons:
The audio and video drift out of sync getting worse toward the end.
The video may look strange, or in extreme cases, terrible.
There is no error message or indication during the Bounce. You have to review the video outside of ProTools to find the problem.

WHY IT MAY SEEM LIKE A DIFFERENT PROBLEM
Video sync can tricky, both in terms of the mistakes we can make because we’re human, and because ProTools is an audio-centric tool that also allows video. The plethora of video codecs makes testing every permutation a challenge for software developers too. Given the number of other things that can go wrong, the short video problem feels especially insidious.

SOME SOLUTIONS
1. Don’t combine the video and audio using ProTools; don’t bounce to Quicktime.
2. Pad the video at the end.
3. Cut the audio to end as soon or sooner than the video.

See also- ProTools + H.264 video = Problem, ProTools: Bounce to Quicktime Movie with Full Options, Conflict: ProTools and Spotlight Indexing

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