Tuesday, June 17, 2008

A Post on Partner Reads, Proximity, and Pet Peeves...

OK voice actors. I've got a bone to pick.
This is going to be a longer post (rant), but please read through, gimme your thoughts, maybe we'll all learn something.

I regularly run into actors who don't know what they're doing in front of the microphone. Actually, to be fair, they often know what it is they're doing, but they rarely know why they do it. A prime example of this is the proximity effect.

Loosely put, the Proximity Effect states that the closer you get to a directional microphone the more pronounced low frequency sound will become. This is a good thing for a VO person to know. Need to enrich the voice a little, well, move a little closer. Neat! Now we can all sound like James Earl Jones! Woot!

Yeah, but no...

I find this little "trick" is almost always misused, over used, or done incorrectly. I'll be in the middle of a casting session, mics set up for the talent, pop screen appropriately placed for a good sound, and what's the first thing the talent will invariably do? Smash the screen right up on the grill of the microphone. The idea being that if they are lipping my mic, they'll sound big and rich and full.

While true to a point, the human voice really isn't deep enough to warrant being that close to a mic. After a certain distance, you're not making your voice any rich-er or full-er. You know what you are doing though? You're rendering the pop screen almost completely ineffective, opening your recording up for all kinds of plosives, and possibly damaging the diaphragm of the microphone.

See, pop screens work by diffusing, redirecting, and reflecting puffs of air. By moving the screen right on top of the mic, air passing through the screen doesn't have a chance to be redirected, and will end up hitting the mic's diaphragm. Hello 'P' pop!

We've been down this road before too. In the late 60's, Neumann was getting a lot of microphones sent back for failure. Click on the picture for the service bulletin they put out regarding the increased failure rate. When working at distances of millimeters, those little puffs of air can create substantial pressure and concussive force on the microphone. Add in a greater likelihood of moisture (from breath and spit), and the possibility of contaminants (like the build up from a smokers lung), and it's incredible these mics last as long as they do. Give it a read (pic courtesy of micshop.com).

This brings up another quick point. If I'm running a busy casting session, how often do you think I'm able to clean that screen? How many people do you think will be recording off of it? I was already a germ-a-phobe before doing so much booth work, now... [shrug]

Also I'm not sure the "proximity read" is really helping people accomplish what they want, like booking more jobs. What's often the first thing we see on audition copy? "We're looking for a real person", "non-announcery", "no DJ voices". By reading so close to the mic, you're creating the technical version of the sound producers say they don't want, namely a big fat voice that feels like someone is talking at you, right between you're eyes. There's nothing natural about this sound. There's no sense of space, of this character you're creating being a real person in a room talking to the audience.

This has become more and more of a problem with the partner reads I need to audition. Lately it's become a race to see who can swallow their mic the fastest. After calling the group in, there's an instant flurry of activity as the actors position themselves on their mics, so there's no possible way they could ever really relate to each other and, you know, act. The result is often a very sterile "I'll wait for the other guy to stop speaking so I can say my line" audition. That doesn't book. People who sound natural and can riff book. The proximity read in a partner setting makes you sound unnatural at best, and at worst selfish, especially if you have a partner that isn't joining you in lipping the mic.

Just to make that pairing competitive, I now have to create conflict by asking the actors not to do what they're doing. I've yet to find a one size fits all solution to asking an actor to act instead of swallow my mic. I tend to get attitude, or a response that might seem to indicate that they think I don't know what I'm doing. Why wouldn't they want their voices to sound big and fat?

Sigh ... Right lesson, wrong time...

At the end of the day, the proximity effect is just that, something you do for effect, not all the time.

When you proximity read, make sure you're doing it right:
*Mashing the screen on the mic increases the likelihood of plosive (and damage). At the closest there should still be about a "thumb's" distance between screen and grill. You better have a good reason to be in that close!
*When you're that close, a little off axis work (turning the mic at an angle) will still sound great, and help tame those puffs of air. No reason to face in flat on the mic.
*Low volume reads only! Trailer style reads are actually some of the quietest reads there are.
*Absolute no-no for partner work!

Still need more convincing than a booth director working in the trenches every day?
Well how about the biggest proximity readers there are!
This is a clip I recorded off the Today show a YEAR ago featuring Don LaFontaine, Joe Cipriano, Mark Elliot, and George Delhoyo.

I've added annotations to the video, so you should see boxes pop up highlighting the actors on mic (keep your mouse cursor on the video to see the annotations). George comes closest, but NONE of them lip the mic.

Sorry to lay it on so thick, but I've been fighting this one a lot lately.
Leave me comments guys and gals. Whaddaya think?


  1. Juan,

    I don't think you've laid it on too thick at all. There's a time and a place for working really close to the mic, but it's not anywhere close to all the time. And when you do, working off axis is the only way to go.

    My dos centavos.

    Be well,

  2. Thanks Bob (as always).
    This has been driving me crazy lately.

    I was beginning to feel like I had maybe missed a day of voice over school or something...

  3. Thanks for a terrific and highly informative article! Since more talent are self-directing in home studios, you have provided a great service in providing the explanation and many pictures. I also enjoyed seeing the clip from the Today show.

    Karen Commins

  4. Well said. Lots of good info, especially when it comes to a group setting.
    It seems like a lot of people want their voice to be what it just isn't.
    I freelance as an A/V tech for live corporate events. You can only imagine the fun with people who have never been on mic before in front of a large crowd.
    Moving the mic away because it blocks their notes, scratching their neck with a lav on etc. :)
    I might have to write about it!

    Keep up the good work, love the blog.

  5. Hey Thanks Karen and James.

    I read this post back again this morning (corrected a typo I hope no one noticed LOL), and was actually a little worried I might have been too antagonistic. I guess this really was bothering me LOL.

    I think what burns me even more James, is having worked with total newbies (who do things because they don't know any better), I'm now working with some of LA's voice over elite who SHOULD know better.

    I guess my frustration is exacerbated as the whole point of what I do is making sure talent record the most competitive auditions they can.

    Thanks for the comments guys!

  6. Juan:
    Thanks so much for your post! You're not ranting; you're being honest. I bet many talent (myself included) learned a lot about mic control just by reading your post.
    The bottom line is...every voice is unique, or should be; and each voice brings a certain tone or timbre to the script, and ultimately to the studio. Our job is to know our voice, and then be open minded enought to listen to a booth director show us how to deliver the goods. Everyone's in a race to see who's better who's best. Sometime we just have to step back (literally) and listen to directions.
    Love your blog Juan. It's honest.

  7. Thanks Donna. There's a big difference between being honest and being a jerk, so I just wanted to make sure...

    I think it does everyone some good (even directors) to take a second every now and then to stop and listen.

  8. If things get too stressed out in the booth, everyone can always hold hands and sing Kumbaya.
    That seems to work.

  9. This was helpful to read from an actor's perspective. As much as we try not to seem over eager in an audition, we are all eager to please and stand out. I personally like getting feedback in an audition and some direction as it ultimately helps me further my craft. I had no idea of the intricate workings of a mic before reading this. Now hopefully I won't look like an idiot in my voiceover auditions!

  10. Hey,
    Thanks for the comment Somer. I'm glad it helped.
    As a producer, I'm always glad to see an actor enthusiastic and ready to work. Adding a little knowledge of the medium they're working in makes an actor even more formidable imo.

  11. Lots of things I didn't know for a good work and for my mic !!preservation!!! I am so happy I found you. Thank you again.