Less Is More
One of my first jobs in audio was mixing live sound for bands and shows at a local amusement park. Little did I know it would be a baptism of fire and a life lesson about audio.
Most of the sound jobs at the park were pretty straightforward. Usually just mixing a single microphone with music beds on cart tapes. Some of you old farts may remember carts. For those that never had to work with these infernal things, just be happy they've gone the way of the 8-track.
Generally, as long as you weren't a complete screw-up, you moved up the tech ladder fairly quickly. It wasn't long before I started working one of the more challenging mixing jobs in the department: a 12 piece Motown band that would do five 30 minute sets per day in a pavilion that most park guests would just walk by and ignore. But it was a great experience in both live sound and appreciating Motown music. (to this day, Wilson Picket's "In the Midnight Hour" still gives me a Pavlovian sense of happiness, because it was the last song of the last set of the day.)
Running live sound outdoors in the Summer in California is a quick way to learn about audio frequencies. As the temperatures climbed, things that you thought sounded pretty decent in the morning would start sounding thin by mid-day and you'd suddenly be confronted by microphones feeding back in ways you didn't expect.
To help with the issue, we had a little device in the booth that could isolate specific frequencies and knock them down if they were becoming a problem. As the Summer heated up, this box became both a blessing and a curse. In my efforts to prevent the house from feeding back as much as possible, while still providing the most volume you could pump through the amps, that little piece of gear became a crutch. Is the main singer's mic feeding back around 4 kHz? just dial in that frequency and knock it down. The keyboard vocal's mic is ringing at 1K? knock it down and move on.
By the afternoon, the sound was so loud, yet so horrible that more than one supervisor would walk by the booth and give me the universal symbol hated by audio engineers everywhere: fingers stuck in their ears and a stink-eye look on their face.
It took a while for it to sink in, but I realized I was over-using the frequency killer. By the end of the night, I had crushed most of the frequencies into a pulp of flat, painful sound. I learned that small, subtle changes can make a much bigger difference than big, dramatic ones and adding or taking away things can dramatically alter the quality of the sound.
This knowledge of audio can be applied to voiceover. A lot of people think they have to tart up their sound by adding compression, expansion, limiting, gating, noise cancellation, EQ, or effects to get the sound they want (or the sound they think the producer wants) but in reality, the less you add to the sound, the better off the sound is going to be. Not to mention that every extra piece of gear you add to the mic chain is going to introduce noise that can add up.
When delivering a finished audio to a client, it's important to remember that once it leaves your hot little hands, it may get mixed, remixed and have stuff added to it in the post production process. If you've already added something to the sound, the engineers may not be able to remove it and the final audio may sound entirely not what you were imagining. Or worse, the client may not be happy with the sound and blame your performance.
Or it may not have anything done to it and the submitted audio might just be dropped as-is, directly into the project. It's important to have a conversation with the client beforehand to find out if they want their audio "processed" or "dry."
As a general rule, the cleaner you can deliver the audio - free of extra "stuff" added to it - the better.
When it comes to audio, less is more.
About Rob Marley -
A Los Angeles native, Rob is an accomplished voice talent, coach, producer and writer, now living in the hill country of Austin Texas. For more information, visit his website at MarleyAudio.com