Best mic for voiceover? Perhaps the question’s wrong.

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A great deal of magazine and Internet real estate is devoted to one hardy perennial voiceover question: “which mic will make my voice sound great?”

But perhaps this is actually the wrong question. A more useful question might be, “what environment will make my voice sound great?”

The harsh truth behind purchasing a microphone is that, although it is generally true to say that the more you spend, the better the mic, it is also true that the margin to which it will improve the reproduction of your voice gets less the higher the cost of the microphone. I’ll venture further; if you’ve already spent a couple of hundred pounds on a decent large diaphragm cardioid condenser mic, then you already have a microphone that will produce a wonderful sound – assuming, that is, that the source also sounds wonderful to begin with.

Don’t get me wrong, mic selection can still be important. Using a Neumann U87 can add that sheen that a cheaper mic may not give you (indeed It’s my own mic of choice), but the biggest difference you will ever hear is when comparing the sound from a £50 and a £200 mic.

And, of course, even a U87 will sound bad if the space you’re recording in is bad. Plus in voiceover the stakes are raised even further, certainly more than in music production, as the voice is usually the ‘main event’, the thing the listener is focussing on. For this reason it is really important that you get it right, so it’s worth investing a good part of your budget in your recording environment.

Your environment is, of course, wherever you set up your mic. This could be the space that you normally record in or it could be a hotel room if you’re travelling, but wherever it is there are a couple of points you’ll want to consider.

  • QUIET! It sounds obvious, but you certainly don’t want noises bleeding into you precious recording, so make sure you have a quiet area to record in. And remember, even though it may not seem loud, low frequency rumble from traffic or road works can easily be picked up by a sensitive mic. A good mic suspension can reduce this very effectively.
  • Another big thing to consider is the noise of the room itself. Unless you have a dedicated vocal booth, an untreated space will generally impart a hollow, boxiness to the recorded sound. This can be cured also, but it requires a little creativity and engineering.
  • A good starting point is to understand how your particular microphone works and from where your mic is picking up the most sound.

    I’m assuming you’re using a large diaphragm condenser microphone although in the world of voiceover, microphone types are almost as diverse as the voice talent. It is generally accepted, however, despite the long lasting popularity of dynamic mics like the Shure SM7B and the Electro-voice RE20 (both of which are frequently used in broadcasting), that the condenser mic has a good balance of sensitivity and frequency response which makes it ideal for bringing out all the vocal nuances of the spoken word. This sensitivity also makes it easy to overload the diaphragm with plosives too so, despite a thousand music videos showing otherwise, a pop shield should always be used.

    Most large diaphragm condenser mics have switchable response patterns, also known as polar patterns, normally switchable between cardioid, figure-of-eight and omni. For a single performer who is directly addressing the microphone, the cardioid pattern is desirable. Look for a vaguely heart-shaped symbol like this:
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    This little symbol is actually a graphical representation of the sensitivity pattern of the microphones diaphragm. Let’s take a closer look:

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    The top of the diagram shows the live side of this side-address mic. As you can see, the mic will reject sounds coming from the opposite side and partially reject sounds coming from the side. This will help in terms of it picking up your voice as the primary source, but it will do nothing to stop the boxiness of the room.

    However, now we know the polar pattern, we can do something about that. The boxiness is actually created by lots of reverberations bouncing around the room in an uncontrolled manner. Two ways to reduce these are:

  • reduce the amount of signal that travels beyond the microphone i.e. Before it gets a chance to hit a wall and bounce back, and
  • ‘mop up’ whatever sound has escaped already, before it gets back into the sensitive part of the microphone

    As you can see from the diagram below, there is a huge potential to build up massively complex reverberations in an untreated room. Although most of the power will have been taken out of these reverberations by the time they hit the mic, it will lead to an undesirable ‘boxiness’ that should be tamed in order to give a clean recording.

    20130923-101023.jpg There are several products on the market including the excellent Reflexion Filter from SE Electronics that allow you to place an absorbent screen behind the mic, effectively stopping most of the sound waves from leaving the mic position. For those that do get through, you will need to place some type of absorbent material, either foam or even a duvet or similar behind you to the left and right. This will reduce audio reflections on their journey back to your mic.

    20130923-104714.jpg Already with this rather simple set up you should be able to produce ‘dry’ recordings with little room coloration or boxiness. And by getting closer to the mic and making use of the Proximity Effect (where the signal to noise ratio is tipped massively in favour of the signal), you can get that intimate, up close, ‘voice-in-my-head’ effect much loved by producers.

    When travelling it is even possible to construct a makeshift treated space within a hotel room by imaginative use of soft furnishings. Many a time I have found myself utilising pillows and cushions to build a wall behind the mic while making use of heavy curtains and/or the duvet to mop up the room reflections. This works very well and can get you out of a tight spot when the inevitable big job comes in just as you set foot from the plane (as defined by Murphy’s Law).

    In summary then:

  • set up you microphone in the corner of your room, close to the apex. Never place your mic in the middle of a room.
  • place a barrier behind your mic to stop (as much as possible) sound reaching the walls of your room.
  • very importantly, have some absorbent material behind you in the apex of the corner as this will mop up any sound reflections that will have undoubtedly got through your defenses.
  • And ‘voila!‘, lovely dry-sounding voiceovers are possible in virtually any room.