Join us for a fascinating discussion on voice over tips with Audio Engineer George Whittam.
George Whittam is the engineer behind many of the Voice Over Artists you hear on TV, radio, and movies. Always brimming with great advice on microphones, studio acoustics, and audio transport.
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Announcer: This Week in Radio-Tech, episode 192, is brought to you by the Telos Zephyr Extreme, ISDN codec. After 20 years Zephyr is still the household name in high quality audio transport in real time on the web at telos-systems.com. And now our feature presentation. Twirt. From closets to the backseat of cars, to suburban recording studios, George Whittam serves up great advice for the rest of us engineers. All right. Calm down. He says that to everyone. This calls for immediate discussion. What's up, doc? All your base are belong to us. From his palatial office of important business, or in a choice hotel in a distant land, this is Kirk Harnack. Chris Tobin joins me discussing voiceover studio engineering with George Whittam, VO engineer to the stars. You're dialed in to This Week in Radio Tech.
Kirk: Hey, welcome in. It's This Week in Radio Tech. I'm Kirk Harnack, your host, just delighted to be here. We're doing the show. If you're watching live we're doing the show at a special time. Normally we do This Week in Radio Tech about 8:00 p.m. Eastern time, 7:00 Central, and this week we're moving the time. We're doing it up in the middle of the day. That's right, I'm taking an hour off from regular work. Christ Tobin is too, and guess what? We caught a guy that we've had on before. Very interesting engineer named George Whittam. He's our guest on the show today. So welcome in George Whittam. We'll bring him in in just a minute.
Our show is brought you by Telos, happens to be my employer, makers of the Telos Extreme ISDN codec. This is the device that followed after the Zephyr, the world famous Zephyr. Tens of thousands of Zephyrs and Extremes all over the world. We'll talk about those later. On this show we're going to be talking about home studios, home studio technology, and when I say home studio I'm not talking no amateur stuff. We're talking about real professional voiceover studious usually, not always, but usually done from home. And George is going to give us some updates on that.
But next I want to bring in the, though, the best-dressed engineer in radio. Let's see if he lives up to it today. From Manhattan, New York it's Chris Tobin. Hey, Chris, welcome in.
Chris: Well, thank you, Kirk. Well, today it's a pullover hoodie promoting SAG Harbor New York on the east end of Long Island. It's a nice, balmy 50 degrees here so I have to warm up a bit. No jacket and tie today.
Kirk: All right. And, Chris, you are a consultant to the industry, having served at some big radio stations and with an important company or two along the way. How would you describe what you're doing nowadays so the folk can have some context?
Chris: Sure, well, nowadays I'm still working as an independent contractor with the folks at CCS Musicam with my own company called Creative Content Solutions. What we do is help people make connections and do stuff with producing content. So if you're a radio station looking to do outside broadcasts and need codecs and understanding how to do it, I help you with that. If you want to learn how to use microphones with those codecs I do that too.
If you want to know the technology behind all that stuff, I can help you with that. Before then I was working with CBS radio. I worked with ABC and CBS television as well so I've got the background to help you out with getting things done. If you want to know about the technologies themselves I leave that to the white papers. You don't need me to tell you about that.
Kirk: Okay. And our guest today we're going to bring in last minute, I'm so glad he was available, George Whittam. GeorgeWhittam.com is his website and George is a voiceover consultant and engineer to the stars. George, welcome in. Glad you're here.
George: Thanks, Kirk. It always makes me laugh to hear that said but I have been lucky to work with some pretty top voice actors out there in the business. I work with a couple different companies. That's why I just put George Whittam on the lower third. Well, I'm with VO Studio Tech. That's the company I started a few years ago and I'm now merging that company with another great business based out of Manhattan called Edge Studio, EdgeStudio.com, and they're all about the voiceover business. They do production, they do coaching, and now because of me they do studio tech and design as well. So that's my world, voiceover. I completely 100 percent eat, sleep, breathe this stuff.
Kirk: George, I got to ask you, do you do any voiceover work yourself or are you strictly behind on the other side of the microphone?
George: I'm strictly behind the scenes. I've been asked that question. One of the biggest entrees into the industry for any voice actor is you have a great voice. Did you ever consider voice acting? So I hear all the time. And someday, maybe in my golden years. But, anyway, I don't do voice acting.
Kirk: I pay attention to voices, typically in animated shows. I notice who's saying what. Sometimes I'm right about it. I wouldn't say I'm a hanger on or exactly an aficionado, but I do notice voices and, George, I've always noticed that your voice is very comfortable, always very positive sounding, kind of an every man with a positive lift to it. I think you'd do great doing that. There's got to be some character that you'd be just awesome to portray.
George: I might need to lift that off if I ever want to look for an agent, you know? That's what they're looking for. They're looking for voices that are every man. The big thing now is the non-announcer read. They put it right on the scripts, you know, don't sound like an announcer. Now if there is a commercial with an actual "announcer" announcer it's sort of like a caricature of an announcer.
Kirk: Oh, my gosh. You're right.
George: It's almost even more exaggerated.
Chris: That's true, that's true.
George: Have you seen that commercial?
Chris: A friend of mine is a voice-acting person and he was telling me the same thing.
Kirk: Which commercial, George?
George: Have you seen that commercial with James Earl Jones where they're supposed to be reading tweets.
Kirk: Yes, yes.
George: And then the guy that does the voiceover, it's a client of mine. Bill Ratner, he's the actual announcer on the commercial, and he hams it up even further. But in general if you want to be cool, slick, all that stuff it's like the down read. It's just understated and you throw it away. You're just a guy. That's the way things are going.
Kirk: We'll get to some technical talk here too, but this is just a fascinating thing because this is This Week in Radio-Tech, and as engineers we deal with talent all the time and we deal with people, some of whom are famous and others are just a guy at a radio station in a medium or small market, or maybe the big market. So it's interesting to find out about the talent that is behind the microphone, especially the guys that do it in the big time. Have you found, George, that announcers by and large are flexible enough to accommodate this current style of non- announcing announcing.
George: Well, that's a good question. I have clients who were really, really big time, some of the biggest in the industry 5, 10 years ago and they're on sort of a downswing. it's a little bit of an adapt or die kind of thing. You have to be an old dog that'll learn new tricks, and there's voice coaches out there who specialize in training voice actors that have been doing this for 20, 30 years to expand their skill set and become more flexible.
The guys that are the most successful in the business these days are really flexible. You can hear them in three different spots and think they were three different actors.
George: It's not like they're doing cartoon voices. They have styles that they can... like this one guy, Scott Rummel, man, he's unbelievable. You can hear him on a spot for a food store and then one of the top blockbuster movies like an action film, and then a kids' movie, and a TV promo. You'd never know it's the same guy. Flexibility is super key.
Kirk: Okay. I just noticed something. I see two microphones in your shot right now.
George: I was wondering if you were going to notice that.
Kirk: The little Countryman and then there's the one in front of you. It sounds like you're using the one in front of you but what's going on?
George: Yeah, I am using this oldie but goodie MXL mic that has been just bashed around in my road case of SM58s and stuff, and this thing just keeps on working. Mics don't stay around here very long because they end up ending in somebody's studio eventually, but I've been playing around with the headset mic idea. This is the cheapest headset mic you can actually buy that has an XLR connector or a candy plugged in with XLR. This is made by Pyle. This is literally a 15-dollar microphone and it sounds like it. This is this mic here. It's not awful. It's serviceable but the noise floor goes up. It's more hiss and it's certainly no match for a studio condenser mic like this one over here. So I've been using this one for most of critical stuff and I use this one for just Skyping and consulting with clients so I can kind of do this and relax.
Kirk: Sure, sure. Is it taped to your headphones?
George: Yeah. This is that putty that you use to put posters and stuff up on the wall.
Kirk: Oh, yeah.
George: So I puttied the thing onto the side of my headset.
Kirk: Wow. Well, when you switched to it, actually, I realized I'm listening over two Skype connections and just over a little earbud here which is not a bad earbud but, Chris Tobin, what did you think when he switched to that headset mic?
Chris: It was good. Yeah, you could hear a slight change but enough to offer any nastiness. But I think he's right. On Skype you probably wouldn't notice on any limited bandwidth audio channel because I've been playing with a lot of tram lavaliere microphones doing the same thing with a piece of metal and making a headset mic out of it for just these positions and it works really well. But it's interesting, there is, wow, what a difference between the regular mic and the lav that's not using your chest as a resonator.
George: Yeah, it's true. You're using one right now, right? Is that a tram on your lapel there?
Chris: Actually, this one is a tram. It's made by Sonotrim.
George: Oh, Sonotrim.
Chris: Yeah, it's a Sonotrim. It's based on the tram microphone. It's one of the ones I've been selling for years and recommending to people over the years for audio stuff. I've used it on many broadcasts and it works out really nice.
Chris: It's actually one of the few lavs I found that doesn't seem to get impacted by the environment that it's in or on. It's nice, it's flat, it's just right. I've used it everywhere. As a matter of fact, I used it once for one of our Twit broadcasts when I was sitting in Times Square sitting doing a live Skype from a laptop on a park bench. And everyone's looking at me like I'm talking to myself. Actually, it worked really well. It's got nice rejection and everything else so I was happy.
George: Cool. I love mics that are really versatile and work well on a lot of different people because people are always asking me: what mic should I buy? Oh, boy. That's almost a book, right?
George: I always tell people your first mic should just be a mic that works. It's low noise, and it's easy to use and it's affordable because once you figure out the limitation of that mic, then you can start upgrading and upgrading your chain. But just start with a mic that just is easy to use, has overall a really pleasant sound quality to it, it has no bizarre curve or any emphasis or anything to it, and just learn how to use that mic.
Chris: I agree. That's definitely true.
Kirk: A question comes to mind here. Notwithstanding the mic selection, because as you said, that could be a whole book if not at least a three-hour podcast, describe for me the simplest and most elegant home voiceover setup after the microphone. What's a preamp that works? How do get that into a computer? So is it a preamp that has a USB out? Do you need an audio console? Can you just do this on a laptop? So what's a simple yet elegant way to do this at low cost?
George: Well, I mean, I get referred clients from voice coaches who just finished their training series and they just cut their first commercial demo, and they're all ready to start making money, you know?
George: Printing money. So they want their first Mr. Microphone, you know, and there really is... I mean, it would be embarrassing that you would admit that you were using a USB mic five years or more ago, and some people now still believe that USB mics are not up to snuff, but I have found that there are a couple, one in particular, that I'm really just consistently impressed with its sound quality, and because it's a USB mic, its simplicity.
The Shure PG42 USB, which the PG42 is sort of like their affordable line which is derived from the capsule that's probably in a much more expensive mic. It's plug and play on Mac and Windows. I think it's pretty much plug and play, and it has its own gain control, it's got a headphone volume, it's got a headphone jack for zero latency monitoring so you can hear yourself, it's got a monitor blend so if you're doing Skype and you're being directed or something you can turn them down a little bit, just turn the little dial, and it's a high-pass filter, which I pretty much always use if the mic has one.
I almost always put it on if it's not at a weird frequency if it's like 80 hertz or something, and it's got a pad. So I find that a voice actor that knows what they're doing can use that mic to incredibly good effect and you really don't need much else in regards to equipment that way. It goes right into the computer. The signal to noise ratio is very respectable. The sound quality of the mic is totally pro.
I mean, if you did an A, B between that mic and another studio mic going through a Scarlett 2i2 Focusrite USB interface, which is one of my favorite affordable interfaces, you'd be very hard pressed to tell the difference. I think it would be impossible to tell the difference. So USB mics are starting to become more realistic for that home studio or for just a travel setup where you have to be able to make a job happen when you're on the road.
Kirk: I'm looking at the PG42. It's the dash USB model. There's also one that doesn't have USB, right?
George: Yeah, I recommend the non-USB ones when you have to run a long distance. The USB is not happy over more than, say, 15, 20 feet of cable I find.
Kirk: Oh, yeah.
George: They get really flaky. So if your studio is in one space and your equipment is in another I usually say go with the pro XLR studio kind and then get an external converter. That tends to work better.
Kirk: What's your favorite mic to USB converter. You mentioned a Focusrite a moment ago. Is that what it is?
George: Yeah, Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 has become one of our favorites. We try all these different things and it's not that it's always the best tool for the job but eventually you land on something that just seems to be consistently pleasing among as many different people as possible, and I consult so many people, probably 10 to 15 different people a week. When you're trying to support people on Windows XP and Windows 7, and 8, and Mac going back to Tiger, or Snow, or Lion or something, you want something that you can pretty well universally recommend and almost guarantee it's going to work and that is one of those pieces of equipment.
It just works well on a lot of different computers of different eras, different OSes, and it's sound quality is very respectable. The functions that it has are really great, and I think the first guy that turned me onto it was Beau Weaver who's an awesome guy who was really a radio guy going way back and is now a really successful promo guy.
Kirk: Yeah, I've talked about Weaver. I talked to Weaver about ISDN and IP code, actually. He called me up one day.
George: Oh, he can wax geeky about this stuff like the best of us. He is amazing. He's a voiceover geek's geek, man. He really is.
Kirk: Do you have any clients who use those half drum things behind the microphone if they can't help but be in a noisy house? Is something like that the least bit effective? Does it work?
George: Yeah, they were first designed by, I think, SE Electronics and it was called their flexion filter and so now they invented it and of course everybody's knocked them off. What those things are really good for is if you have a studio environment already, it's already pretty quiet, you've already got some acoustical treatment, and now you just want to deaden it down and control it a little bit more for a little bit more of a dry sound, that's what those things are good for. For almost any other use I think they're just mostly useless because they don't keep a lot of background noise out at all. Very, very little if at all.
George: You know, what's unique about voiceover as opposed to, say, radio or singing is you're always reading a script and so where do you put the script when you have this freaking thing in front of your face? So I like have the mic to the side like I have it now, maybe hanging down is more common, and then having the script underneath it or just to the side of it because you can move these mics around a lot and still get a very much on- microphone sound. If I do it right you can barely tell I'm moving the mic, right?
Kirk: Yeah, yeah.
George: There's a pretty big sweet spot and once you get it right, you can have the script right in front of you and have a very clear view of the script and not have the mic obstruct you. So I think that's one of the most important things to getting a home studio right. So those backdrop Reflexion things are kind of the antithesis of being able to do that.
Kirk: Interesting. All right. On one of our This Week in Radio-Tech shows a few weeks ago, we had some interesting stories from Tom Ray and from Chris Tobin particularly about doing work in people's homes. Bill O' Reilly, for example, is one of the people that Chris Tobin ended up doing some work with, and Tom Ray equally worked with a number of people. In fact, Chris Tobin told us about his run-in with Dan Rather's handler. That was interesting.
George: Oh. We know it is the nicer the actor, the meaner the handler.
Kirk: Oh, my gosh. That seems to be true.
Chris: That's so true.
George: Or the celebrity. I met David Bowie. Super-sweet guy, and the handler was like let's go. Move. Yeah, that's how it is.
Kirk: I wonder if you might be able to, either with or without naming names, regale us with some interesting story about working with a voiceover actor or actress. We've heard to the Don LaFontaine stories on a previous episode, but if there's anything you'd like to repeat or tell us about... really, I'm looking for what's a good teachable moment out of working with some of these high-paid celebrities?
George: Well, I rarely at this stage have worked with a lot of household name celebrities. I've worked with a handful of guys that are definitely working actors where you'd see them and go, oh, I know that guy. I'm about to work with Patrick Warburton who's been on many shows and stuff. The thing about most of my clients that are really the work a day voice actors who don't do much screen work is they are just super easy to work with people with egos mostly very much in check. Because they work behind the camera or behind the scenes they are not under the pressure, the exposure of a screen actor or a celebrity, and a lot of them that do this will tell you every time that it's the best kept secret in acting because they just don't have to deal with that and, still, you can make a very healthy living doing this kind of work.
But let's say, one thing that's bizarre about this industry is because of the technology now these actors have to be available on really short notice, almost comically so. I'll bring up Beau Weaver again. He for the longest time had a place here in LA and then he has a place out in Ojai. They're about an hour-and-30, hour-and-40 minute drive.
Literally, he'll have to pull off the side of road because he's between the two studios maybe a half-hour from one or the other. That isn't enough time. They need it, like now, and these guys get in the backseat of the car. They pull off to quiet area of they can find one in LA in the valley or something and find somewhere quiet, they pull off the side of road, get in the backseat because that's where the most dampening is around, and they pull out their shotgun mic. The 416 is really, really common, plug it in to their mic port pro into their MacBook Air or whatever, and in some cases they're logging in with SourceConnect, they're getting out their LTE modem and they're doing ISDN sessions through an ISDN bridge from the backseat of their cars.
Kirk: Oh, my gosh.
George: Yeah, Joe Cipriano is another guy and also from a radio background that is famous for doing this. He's like, "Listen to this spot I did, George. The tags were all recorded in the back of my car and the rest was recorded at home." It's nuts but that's the kind of pressure the voice actors are under and those that are doing promo, and topical, and I guess affiliate work, that kind of thing. The pressure is intense.
Kirk: [inaudible 22:45] TV announce booth but that was when the guy was there at the station.
George: Yeah, these guys are doing the announce booth stuff that normally would've done with a voice actor in-house and now they're doing it from their own house and so they need that same kind of we need you right now kind of thing even though they're in another city or whatever, and so it's very intense.
George: If their equipment fails that can be the loss of a client, a client that's paying them 20, 30, 50, 80,000 dollars a year. So the pressure is really on and because I'm kind of like the on- call technician for a lot of these guys the pressure's on me to make sure the equipment stays up and running so I'm really, really big about simplicity and equipment that is reliable and having backups on hand. It's really crucial.
Kirk: Speaking of reliable and simplicity, for a couple of decades we've had ISDN lines and they've been reliable. Once you get them working, typically, they can be very reliable, especially in the sense that the phone company who's legally required to make sure they work at your demarcation point, at the entrance to your building, or your house, or wherever. It had to work there, and they were as reliable as the rest of the public switch telephone network. In many places, of course, you can still get ISDN lines but in many places now you can't or you can't get new installations.
George: I have an email sitting here right now from a client who's in Venice. She's right down the road from me in Venice, California in the city and they're telling her she can't get ISDN. Yeah, it's crazy.
Kirk: So I know there are solutions. I'm sorry, what was the name of the one that you just mentioned with Joe Cipriano.
George: Oh, Source-Connect is one of them.
Kirk: Source-Connect, yes. So Source-Connect is a way for an artist to connect to a central point where it's then translated to an ISDN call because that's probably what the studio has that he's talking to, right--ISDN?
George: Yeah, Source-Connect is obviously designed to work with other Source-Connect users but there's so many studios in Hollywood who are really slow to adapt to new technology. They just don't want to do new stuff and they've already got ISDN and it works, so if you're stuck on Source-Connect or any other IP thing you then have to hire out a bridge which is connecting the IP world to the ISDN world. We're literally talking about a computer here and a codec here, a couple of patch cables.
George: It's real basic but they rely on those things to make that connection so eventually they'll be open standards and we'll all be talking the same IP audio languages but we're a ways away from that so there's a lot of competing technology.
Kirk: So, thinking about the IP technology, there are plenty of software solutions and there's hardware solutions, certainly Telos makes some hardware solutions, Music Cam makes hardware solutions, and Comrex and other people do. Then there's a number of software solutions and these are solutions that I'm not very familiar with. So you mention Source-Connect. What else is out there for something that you run on a Mac or PC that gives you IP, almost real time back and forth, with another studio?
George: Well, I start with Source-Connect because it's been at it, maybe not the longest, but they've worked the hardest at getting the voiceover people onboard, getting the productions onboard and studios onboard. So they're probably the leader right now, I would say, in that regard. It runs on Mac or Windows and it will work as a plugin in pro tools or another DAW, or it runs as a standalone application. It's very flexible that way.
Yeah, there's latency. The latency is not as low as ISDN. There's a little more delay so when you're trying to have conversation over Source-Connect it can be a little challenging. You step on each other from time to time. But the sound quality is up to like 128 kilobit per second, AAC, mono or something, which is really high fidelity. So there's that. Then there's all these other companies that are out there that are percolating and coming out of the woodwork and trying to get their shot at it. Connection Open is one of them and I haven't got a real world demo of that yet but it looks like it could be pretty promising. Audio TX Communicator. It's been around probably even longer than Source-Connect but it's Windows only so he kind of built in a little obsolescence there because so much of the pro audio industry is Mac.
Kirk: Oh, yeah.
George: I can talk Mac, Windows all day long but the radio world is definitely Windows and the music and production world is Mac for the most part, so he's kind of alienated a huge amount of the base. Then there's another one that's really intriguing that I'm starting to test with called Luci Live or Luci.eu, and what makes it really interesting is that it's the first one I've seen come out that will run on Mac, Windows, and also Android, iOS, and a Blackberry even.
Kirk: What? They have a Blackberry version?
George: They have a Blackberry version.
Chris: Yeah, they got a Blackberry version and Linux too. You can do Linux.
George: And Linux, yeah.
Kirk: I know that Chris Tobin's familiar with this too. Here you go. Just take that shot, Andrew. There's Luci running on an Android, and then I've got it on a tablet too. In fact, some broadcast hardware manufacturers are making sure their codec work with Luci.
George: Exactly. Yeah, it's very promising because of its cross platform capability and the fact that it works on mobile devices. The dream for voice actors and broadcaster alike... and the broadcasters are a little bit ahead of us when it comes to being mobile in the field, but to plug a quality mic directly into your phone and that's your rig and all you got to do is find somewhere quiet with no echo and shove your head in a coat closet or throw a towel of your head and get something close to broadcast or professional studio quality, you know, is the dream for the voice actor, for sure.
Kirk: Are most VO sessions relatively short in duration? Five minutes to an hour?
George: It absolutely depends. They can be as short as five minutes. I've even seen some be as short as one minute. Let's just pick up that one line. They dial up on the set for the read. All right. We go it, thanks.
George: That's a way to make a living.
Chris: That's true.
George: And some of them can be an hour or more. It depends on the type of the script, the size of the budget, who's directing it, the length of the script, so many factors. Now with the audiobook industry getting bigger and bigger all the time, talk about long form. I mean, these folks are reading on average four to six hours a day so they are just in constant state of recording and they have to have really consistent acoustics and really low noise floor. What's the craziest thing of all is it's probably the lowest-paying voiceover work per hour that there is. Yet it's one of the more difficult ones to record because it's an exposed voice totally solo and dry with no bed or music or anything, and you can't tolerate a helicopter or a passing vehicle or anything.
It's difficult to do it well, and a lot of them are in closets, in a house with not ventilation, and they're using acoustical foam or something on the wall which sometimes sounds pretty hollow and so I find myself doing a lot of acoustical treatment for people in closet and trying to find products that work really well for that. Like, there's one that my buddy, Dan, makes called VO Studio Suit and it's this repurposed product that he got at a warehouse that was used for insulating Quonset huts. It's military surplus, but he repackages it, he cuts it down to sizes that are manageable and he sells these. You can just hang these up in a closet and it tones down and reduces the low and mid-range reflection. It makes the room useable, where normally it would be difficult to make a small closet sound good.
So long form is really hard. I have a lot of clients that fortunately have a good business doing short form work that hopefully, you know, they're like, I hope I never have to do a long form job. If I have to ever do this for more than an hour at a time I think I'd go crazy.
Kirk: I'm sorry, a silly question just popped in my head. I think I know the answer but, hey, George, my shower sounds great. I mean, when I sing in the shower it just sounds fantastic. Why can't I record my next audiobook in the shower?
George: Anything that's just a solo voice, unless it's a radio play or something where you're trying to create an illusion of being in a certain space, you generally don't want to have a anything that would distract the listener from your direct voice, your dry voice, with nothing else coloring the sound. That's why that dry, dead sound is so desirable.
Now, from a voice actor's standpoint it's all about neutral, dry sound. Let the producer handle the rest. So if they want to lay something on there, some effect or whatever, go for it. But that's definitely not desirable. Think of listening to an audiobook. It's at night. Maybe you're laying bed listening on your ear buds and you just want it to be just you and that voice. Imagine if there was a bathroom echo around that voice the whole time. You would be so distracted, so you can't have that echo.
Kirk: Yeah, good point. Good point. That wasn't serious, you know that. But I had to ask.
George: No, I know. But, yeah, singing you can get away with a lot for recording a singing voice. You can really get away with a lot more liveness, echo, and depending on the needs, you know, noise floor can be higher because usually there's music going. You can't get away with that with a voiceover. It's a whole different studio design. I get clients that say, yeah, I'm being told I need a combination of diffusion and reflection and I don't want it to be too dead or it's just not going to sound very good. I'm like, yeah, you know what?
In most cases in a really small home studio, or a booth, or a closet there's no amount of reflection that's in any way useful because all it's going to do is color the sound of your voice, create these comb filters, standing waves where the sound bounces and creates this phasing sound and it's never a good thing.
Kirk: Your voice is sounding very good. Are you not getting any reflections off your desk? I can't see your desk in the shot. Is it just a flat, hard desk?
George: Oh, yeah. I'll show you my desk a little bit more.
Kirk: Oh, well, there's a lot of rough surfaces there.
George: Well, the mic is probably at least six inches away from the desk. It's overhanging my desk.
Kirk: Oh, okay. Gotcha.
George: So if you look there, it's pretty far from the desk.
Kirk: Okay. So it's not getting a reflection, nothing really audible from the desk.
George: No. It's a weird room. I got really lucky with this house. It's got a vaulted ceiling.
Kirk: Oh, yeah.
George: It's got bookshelves all around so that all acts as natural diffusion so that breaks up reverberation, and then I've got this nifty folding vocal booth. I think it's called the voice cabinet made by ATC Acoustics. It's a pretty nifty product. It can be hung on the wall and it can be folded shut and opened up. It looks like one of those dartboard or a gun rack or something you can close and open it.
George: That's just sitting on the shelf behind me. It just adds a little bit more deadening to my room but I have no other purpose- made acoustical treatment in this room whatsoever. The only thing you see behind me is that. The rest is just the natural acoustics of this room.
Kirk: I got a bunch of these hanging around the room in the corner.
George: Leonard bass traps, yeah.
Kirk: Is that what that is? A Leonard bass trap.
Kirk: This one actually the blue let go which is why it's sitting handy. I just bought some more adhesive to put it back up.
George: That's the only thing I hate about foam. Foam's getting better. I know Orolux is working hard at Improving how foam is made using more soy and stuff so there's less toxins and off gassing and smell and all that stuff, but foam can be hard to attach permanently in such a way that it doesn't fall off, and then when you attach it well enough so it never falls off, then it ruins the wall because the glue is so nasty.
So I'm not a really big fan of the foam because of that. I like these panels that are manufactured wrapped with fabric and stuff that you can hang around your space. Acoustically they're amazing. Two-by-four feet of these panels that are about two inches thick is far more effective than the same amount of area of just foam. They do a much better job of absorbing the full spectrum of the voice range.
Kirk: I guess especially at the lower frequencies. They do a much better job.
George: Yes, especially. From the mid to top, almost anything will work. A moving blanket, drapes, carpet, whatever. It's that critical 1,000 hertz to 100 hertz kind of range that two-inch foam and all the thinner products can't really deal with and that's the most critical because the heart of your voice, the meat of your voice, is in that range and that's the stuff that really can color the sound of your voice.
Kirk: So what is meant by the device called a bass trap? I see those. I see a column of tube or something in corners of studios. Is that used in voice studios, and what does it really do?
George: Yeah, that foam wedge you held up, that Leonard bass trap, that is a form of a bass trap. A bass trap is sort of a term to describe any acoustical absorbing device or damping device that will absorb lower frequency sound, let's say under 200 hertz or so, is considered a bass trap. They're usually designed to go in corners because bass tends to kind of follow... bass has really long waves and they kind of propagate and build up in corners.
George: That's why if you have a subwoofer, they sometimes say if it's not loud enough shove it in a corner and all of a sudden it amplifies your subwoofer tremendously.
George: So it's the same thing in reverse with controlling acoustics, but I still find them to be quite necessary in a voiceover studio, even if there's not much constant in your voice below, say, 80 hertz, there's still a lot in that critical 80 to 120 range that a bass trap will deal with really effectively. It can be made of foam. There are bass traps that are tubes or they call them a tube trap, and depending on how they are made, oftentimes they are literally tuned to the frequency that you need to control in your room. So some of the really pro studios, they'll have an acoustician go in and bring in an RTA scope and play tones and all this stuff, and they'll say, oh, there's a note here at 83 hertz and they'll make these tube traps.
But for a home studio the Leonard bass traps in the corners help tremendously, or you can use a three or four-inch thick panel like these, and you can straddle the corners. So it kind of makes a triangular shape, and so the sound will pass through the panel, bounce around in the corner and on the way back out it passes through the panel again and it'll control much lower frequencies usually an octave or more lower that. But I find them absolutely necessary, and the smaller the room the more important it is because smaller rooms resonate at higher frequencies.
Kirk: Oh, okay. True.
George: Yeah, think of it like blowing in a Coke bottle, right? If it has more water in it the pitch is higher, the volume is smaller, so with rooms it's the same thing. The bigger the room, the natural resonate frequency of the room is lower so the frequency that might resonate in that room maybe is below your voice range, and maybe it can just be high pass filtered out with an EQ or something really, really easily. But in a small room, that natural resident frequency can be at 110, 120, 130, 140 hertz and that really colors the sound. So bass traps are really important for that reason.
Kirk: Interesting. Hey, you're watching This Week in Radio-Tech. It's episode number 192. I'm Kirk Harnack along with Chris Tobin in Manhattan, and George Whittam. George, I didn't ask where you're coming to us from. Where are you?
George: Oh, I'm working out of my house here in Santa Monica, California.
Kirk: Lovely Santa Monica. I'll be your weather's nice.
George: A rainy day. First rain we've had in a couple of months, yeah.
Kirk: As I said, this is This Week in Radio-Tech. Our show is brought to you by the folks who happen to employ me, and I appreciate that very much, but they also sponsor This Week in Radio-Tech, it's the Telos Alliance. I want to tell you about from Telos the ubiquitous ISDN codec that, oh, my goodness, they're everywhere. It's the Telos Zephyr Extreme. The Extreme is the ISDN codec in use in voiceover studios, in pro studios, in radio stations, ball fields, and stadiums all over the world. There's even a few of these at Grand Old Opry House and at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.
As you might expect, it connect to an ISDN line. If you don't have an ISDN line or your needs are slightly different, guess what? It connects to things like X.21 or V.35. These are standards for kind of medium speed data transmission over fixed circuits. It can also do IP audio. Now, it's not real sophisticated like other Telos products are, like the Zip One, but if you need some IP streaming it can stream, it can receive a stream of IP audio in either MP3 or AAC.
In fact, if you're a Facebook friend you might check out... there was a story just recently about an engineer needing a quick STL from studio to transmitter and he had a T1 but he didn't have enough cards to go into his Introplex frame so he brought out a stream of IP data and plugged in a Zephyr Extreme on each end of it and, voila, he had another coded... I think it was running 256 kilobits per second of AAC. Plenty good enough to run into his audio processor and be on the air with another stream, just as a temporary thing until they got their studios moved. So there's all kind of uses: voiceover, orchestras.
I don't know if they still do it, but for years if you would ever listen to the Boston Pops live from Tanglewood they were coming to you over a Telos Zephyr and in later years the Zephyr Extreme. In fact, just a couple of nights ago my wife and I went out for dinner at the local O'Charley's restaurant in Brentwood, Tennessee. We walk inside and I notice that there was a radio station vehicle outside from The Zone sports station here in Nashville. It's one of the Cumulus stations, and we go inside and realize they're doing a sports talk show. I'm not a big sports fan but they were having a regular Tuesday Night Titans talk show there. There was a couple of football players there and one of the Titans cheerleaders was there giving away calendars. My wife wouldn't let me have one.
And then they were doing the broadcast over an ISDN line with a good old Telos Zephyr, the original black face Zephyr. I talked to the engineer there for a while and he said, "Yep, do it very Tuesday night during Titans football season, and it's just great. We get great response. It sounds fantastic. It's low latency and of course it's just as reliable as the ISDN line is, which is still very, very good. You know you're going to get the bandwidth."
So check it out on the web if you need an ISDN codec and, hey, we're still shipping dozens of these every month from Telos. There's worldwide demand for them still even after they've been on the market. I guess the original Zephyr came in, what? About 1993, or '94? So it's been quite a while. That ISDN codec has been around about 20 years. Check it out on the web at Telos- Systems.com and, George, I shouldn't have yapped the whole time. Should I give you a chance to say something nice about a Telos Zephyr Extreme? Your clients use them, don't they?
George: Sorry, I had my mic down because I'm typing on my clackity, clackity keyboard. It's the worst keyboard in the world for being on the air. But I just can't get over my natural keyboard. It's 15 years old and I still use it.
Kirk: Really? You like that thing, huh?
George: Yeah, it works for me the way it's splayed out. No, I was first introduced to the Extreme when I was doing radio broadcast for 94 YSP in Philadelphia. We were covering the Eagles games and I used to come down to Dallas and we were in enemy territory and I'd climb up the steps into the booth down there at the old stadium and haul a lot of equipment, and we'd always bring an Extreme with us, actually the Express first and then we went to the Extreme.
That was the one piece of gear I would hand carry on the plane and keep it with me in the hotel. I mean, that thing was like gold. Yeah, I carried it everywhere. That's when I become familiar with it, and then when I went in the voiceover industry I was like, wow, I already know what this thing is that everybody's using. It was amazing.
I've used a lot of other codecs made by Music Cam. I've used a lot of others, and the Zephyr just seems to be the one that clicks in my brain whenever I have to use it. It requires the least amount of hurdle jumps program it and set it up. It's more likely the only that's going to be used in the studio if you're a voice talent and you connect to another studio using ISDN. The likelihood of them being on them being on a Zephyr is higher than probably anything else, so if you get stuck or have problems chances are the engineer on the other end at least is somewhat familiar with it and can help you. So for those reasons I still am a proponent of using the Telos Zephyr.
I wanted to ask you, Kirk. You were walking about it's had the IP streaming ability for a while and we have the Zip now. So do you know enough about the two to explain really quickly the differences about how the two handle IP streaming and why the Zip is better suited than the Extreme for that?
Kirk: Yeah, sure. Actually, this is a good opportunity for a tutorial, and this doesn't apply only to Telos gear, although we'll use that as an example, but it applies to almost any kind of IP streaming gear.
George: Like the Road Warriors, yeah.
Kirk: Yeah, Road Warriors, or even you can compare this tech to, say, something from Barracks, which is a under-1,000 dollar kind of a codec. One of the interesting things about IP streaming, and I give a talk about this. I think I've actually presented this as one of those shows here on This Week in Radio-Tech one week when I was all about myself. I just did this presentation. Things like voiceover IP telephony, you know, pick up the phone, talk over a VOiP circuit, or things like a Barracks box, or things like the European started but international standard called NASAP for connecting codecs together over usually the Internet but it could be a private landline.
These things basically assume that the IP connection between you and the other end is perfect, that it's not going to drop any packets or lose any packets. It assumes that every packet is going to get there on time. So I kind of refer to this as dumb IP streaming. We're going to send a stream and hope they get there, and if the network's good enough, they will. They'll absolutely all get there. So Telos, for example, in the Extreme it does dumb IP streaming.
In fact, it doesn't have any automatic features at all. If you want to stream to another one you have to open up ports in the router at the other end to allow the stream to come in and hit the decoder and let the decoder start decoding. So there's some manual set up and if your connection is good, if it's a private connection, if it's a fiber between buildings, or across town, or across the country, as long as the connection is good it's going to work, and this is what even voice over IP phones are based on. They assume they're not going to lose any or many packets.
By the way, you can use a codec like AAC which has a certain amount of error concealment built into it. So even if you drop a packet or two here or there, the error concealment isn't perfect but if it's on the order of one, two, three, four, five percent packet loss you're not likely to hear it. I'm not sure I'd do a movie trailer that's going to run tens of thousands of times across the country with a dropped packet but, you know, for a sports broadcast--perfectly fine.
Now, that's kind of dumb IP streaming, again, it assumes you've got a perfect connection. The other kind of IP streaming is something that Telos and others have come up with ways to mitigate when you have a lot of dropped packets, or you don't know the IP address at the other end, or you don't know that the ports have been opened up at the other end, and that's where different companies have some different schemes. Telos has a scheme that we use a rendezvous server called the Zip server. And basically a Zip One or another intelligent codec like that will register with a server, kind of like Sip does with a telephone.
So it'll register with a server, it'll keep that line of communication open. Every couple of times a minute it'll say, hey, I'm still here. Here's my IP address. This is my name. And the server makes a note of where everybody is and then you can call to another box by calling to it and the server says: let me open a connection to that other box for you, and then the server will attempt to do, and usually it's successful, attempt to hand that off so that once the handoff is made, the two smart codecs are talking to each other peer to peer and the server's no longer involved in the connection. Just like Sip works.
And then the other thing about an intelligent codec is you might have some automatic means to adjust the amount of buffering going on, so if you're dropping packets or they're arriving out of order or late we might increase the buffering in order to get a higher number of them coming in a timely enough fashion. Or if it's really bad we might tell the other end, hey, slow down your bitrate, dude. This connection is not handling what you're sending. So the codecs can adjust automatically, and different companies have different amounts of that kind of automatic stuff but that's the whole idea there.
George: Yeah, I was asked to explain that to somebody recently and I didn't have the best answer for them. I just kind of said that the Extreme expects there to be a really solid Internet connection with absolutely no issues, whereas the others can deal with a public Internet connection, so I guess that kind of is right.
Kirk: Yeah. One day I was playing with the Zip One that's right here in the rack behind me and I placed a call. Normally of course we used coded audio, right, AAC, there's AAC ELD at 64 kilobits. Pretty low bitrate. Sounds pretty good but, again, I'm not sure I'd so a symphony concert with it. There's HEAAC, there's regular AAC, we have app text now as an option, but the bitrate on that is pretty high, and one day I called up to our tech support with my Zip One and I'm listening to the music. I'm just boogying along there playing some oldies and I realized, you know, I kind of know what coded audio sounds like at least at sub-256 bitrates. What's he sending me? It's sounds really good, and I went and looked. He was sending me linear audio at 2.3 megabits per second over the public Internet.
Kirk: You know what? We watch Netflix on two or three TVs at the same time here at your house. In Cleveland they've got a nice Internet connection. It just worked. It just worked.
George: I know. What we need is a good pipe, right? I got FIOS at my house, fiber. Man, it's just awesome, just awesome.
Kirk: So I wanted to move to another connection about personalities, or at least about how the business works a bit. This guy whose voice you now hear everywhere is Mike Rowe, the Dirty Jobs guys.
George: Yeah, he's doing real well.
Kirk: Man, you hear his voice everywhere, on all kinds of commercials, of course you see him on some, but he narrates so many things. It's just amazing. I don't know if you've dealt with Mike or not. Do you have any idea what his studio set up is or if he goes into pro studios to record everything?
George: I think the majority of those actors that are really busy screen actors, you know, celebrity status, the majority of them probably don't have a home studio at all. Almost everything they do is done at a commercial studio, and it's mainly because they aren't working in the world of promo and trailer and that kind of thing where it's so highly on demand. So those guys, their sessions can be booked in a day, a day in advance, or a week in advance, and the schedules aren't nearly as crazy. The sessions are usually longer when you're doing major national ad campaigns. The clients, the product, whoever the client is, they're usually... a few of them are there at the studio. It's a much bigger budget and it's all about impression the client and all this stuff.
It is a different world, so most of those guys I believe are working in the studio. The studios I've put together for a couple of screen actors, Patrick Warburton is one of them, all he needs to do from home is get a good sounding audition so he doesn't have to drive into his agent. That's all they really do at home. Everything else they're going to be doing in commercial studios for the most part.
Kirk: Oh, Patrick Warburton. I know who this guy is now. Sometimes he plays the guy you love to hate.
George: Oh, yeah. He's played The Tick in The Tick cartoon series.
Kirk: That was his voice?
George: Not only did he play The Tick voice but he was The Tick in person when they had a live action version of the show.
George: And he was also Elaine's boyfriend on Seinfeld for a few... I don't know. He's one of those faces. You see him and you recognize. A lot of the industry are those kind of work a day actors who never really get that household name but they work, and work, and work. You go to IMDB and their credits just go, and go, and go because they're just always working.
Kirk: I just started scrolling down IMDB. Sure enough, oh, my gosh. He was on one of those Apple commercials that had the Mac and PC guy.
George: Yeah, that's right. The thing is, though, the legit voiceover actors that are not A-list, B-list actors, you know, they despise this influx of screen actors and celebrities coming into the voiceover world. It's like, aren't they making enough money already? Why are you coming in here and taking our jobs? I mean, some of them get really upset about it.
George: I don't know. It's like they all came in about 15 years ago and started doing animation for Pixar and all that and they started booking celebrity actors on all the voiceover work.
Kirk: Tom Hanks did all types of voiceover work.
George: Yes, the world has changed. When I saw Jackson, what's his name, on the credit card commercials... yeah, Sam Jackson. Samuel L. Jackson doing commercials for a credit card company, that's when I knew it's all over. It's all over now. We got major, major actors shilling products on national TV. It's over.
Kirk: Chris Tobin, I'm sorry. The last half-hour has been yakety-yak with Kirk Harnack.
George: Sorry, Chris.
Kirk: What's going on in your mind, Chris Tobin?
Chris: I was just thinking, George is right. I saw that Samuel L. Jackson commercial a couple of weeks ago and I sort of sat back and went, wow, have times have changed. Because I have friends who are voice actors and we always get together and talk, and it's interesting the stories. George, a lot of the stories you're conveying I've heard from that same side I've friends. It's interesting. Some of them, I worked with a couple of guys at a recording studio. He was the voice for the Discovery Channel. Bill... I can't remember his last name but he was a hoot, and boy the stuff he would talk about.
Chris: Is it Bill Radner? Is his last name Radner? Maybe it was.
George: Just curious.
Chris: I just knew him by name Bill, that was it.
Chris: You're coming through the studio, I'd set him up, make sure everything's in order, we'd chat and just laugh. And some of the things he would talk about and the reasons why things are done the way they are, I sat there going, wow, if you have that skill set that's what makes the difference. Just like you pointed out, he was talking about how the industry is going to go in the direction where they're going to want people with a plain voice. They don't want it to be too recognizable anymore. I see that coming. When you're talking to a voice actor who's got a certain distinctive sound to their voice and he's saying he has to be less distinctive you're, like, boy, you're going to have a tough time with that one.
But, you're right, some of these guys have managed to do it very well. I remember working when I worked at radio stations years and years ago locally, Jim Kerr who was a morning show host here in New York City for many years, he still is, he's also been the voice of many commercials, many products, and we had a mutual friend. We would go to dinner and talk and he would just simply say, "You know what? If I could do two or three commercials a year I'm happy. That's it. That's all I need because I can't take the pressure." This was back in 1987, '88. I'm thinking to myself, wow, two or three commercials a year? That's enough for you to be happy and it's so much pressure?
Fast forward to today and I'm working with half a dozen different people in the voice world I'm going, holy mackerel these guys are juggling like crazy. And then you have the actors coming into the same field and you're going, wow, talk about competition. But it's a fascinating. You get to do it every day and some of the folks I've worked with and just had the chance to sit and listen to, it's genius some of the things they can do.
George: Oh, man, if you want to see something cool, my own show is called East West Audio Body Shop and it's this little corner of the web.
Chris: Yeah, I was going to ask about your podcast.
George: Yeah, where we just talk about voiceover, and it's a lot of tech but we also have these awesome guests on. we had Maurice Lamarche, who is the brain in picking the brain, you know, just these awesome actors. But we had on our buddy Joe Cipriano on a show two Mondays ago, or, no, it was last Monday. And Joe was, like, well, actually right now I have to do a spot. Do you want to come with me into the booth, and he had his laptop and he carried it from outside the booth into the boot, sat it down, and we all sat down there, our whole audience, all 60 people or whatever, and we all sat there watching it live while he did a promo gig for The Queen Latifah Show or something that he had just started doing.
So if anybody wants to see a voice actor doing a promo in real time and hear both sides of the conversation and see how just it all works, it is gold. I mean, that is so rare to get to see that and I take it for grand because I have been in so many booths at home studios watching these guys do this but our audience... you know, it was getting kind of long. We'd been watching him for about 20 minutes. I was, like, yeah, let's break away and the chat room was like, "No, no, no don't. This is amazing."
So it's a cool place to go see something being done in real time and Joe just being the really smart savvy guy he was he would pot up the sound of the station or studio's playback up on the speaker whenever he had a second to do it so we could hear what was coming back, as normally you wouldn't hear anything. So it's really cool. If you want to check it out it's on YouTube, and our show's abbreviation is EWABS, EWABS.COM, and that show with Joe is gold. It's really cool. You have to check it out.
Chris: I will look for that. In fact, if folks want to... you said EWABS.com is where they can find out more about your podcast, right?
George: Yeah, it's a show very similar to this. In fact, our buddies at Twit, you know, Lea Lapport [SP], that was kind of my inspiration for how we do the show so if you guys like this show, our show will be very familiar to you. You'll probably like it.
Chris: It's a great show. I've watched it.
George: Oh, thanks, man.
Chris: It's great.
Kirk: All right. Guys, we're going to have to bring it to a close here. George Whittam from...
George: Geez, really?
Kirk: Yeah, an hour's gone by already.
George: Holy cow.
Kirk: Yes, I know. George Whittam can be found at GeorgeWhittam.com, as it says in his lower third, if we'll take his shot again and see that right there. Take note of it. GeorgeWhittam.com. And the other website for George, another one of many, is EWABS.com. You can find his podcast on YouTube and I'm sure at EWABS.com as well.
George: And my whole world of voiceover technology is at VOStudioTech.com so don't get lost.
Kirk: Okay. All right. I hope there's links all from GeorgeWhittam.com.
George: Absolutely. That's why I send everybody there first.
Kirk: Good deal, good deal. Hey, Chris Tobin, thank you for joining us from New York City, Manhattan. Appreciate you being here.
Chris: Oh, you're welcome. Anytime. I had a great time. It's good stuff to share and I look forward to more of them.
Kirk: All right. Good. Folks, we're going to take next week off as we break for Thanksgiving on This Week in Radio Tech. We'll be back right after that though. Some of our upcoming guests: we have Greg Oganowski [SP]. he's been on before, to talk more about audio coding and what the world of streaming and cellphones and audio processing is all about.
Also, Scott Fybush is going to be with us talking about his tower calendar for next year and the happenings in the northeast radio watch. What's going on in the northeast with radio broadcasting? It's always a pleasure to have Scott Fybush on, and more guests too. We've got them schedules and upcoming on This Week in Radio Tech. Thanks to Telos systems and the Telos Zephyr Extreme for sponsoring this week's show. Thanks to Andrew Zarian [SP] back in Queens, New York at the GFQ Network. Guys for Queens, appreciate him very much and all the other podcasts on GFQ. Check them out at GFQNetwork.com. We'll see you next week on This Week in Radio-Tech. Bye-bye, everybody.
Announcer: That's all the bandwidth we could pilfer this week. Another Twirt has propagated and all the transmitters and audio equipment live happily ever after thanks to the handsome engineer and his kind benevolent care. We'll be back next week. Lord willing and the creek don't rise. This Week in Radio Tech. Subscribe to iTunes and you'll never miss a show. Search for This Week in Radio Tech in the iTunes store. Soliciting is strictly encouraged.
If you like today's show, tell a friend. If you didn't like it, we were never here. Kirk Harnack's wardrobe provided by The Salvation Army and The Red Cross disaster relief services. Hair and makeup provided by Penny Lupe Garcia Hernandez Weinberg [SP]. It's unique, wouldn't you say? I just want to get it over with. This ends this transmission. Tango, whiskey, India, Romeo, tango. Signing off. Okay.