Thursday, March 3, 2011

Combating the Casual Understanding of a Concept

It looks like I’ve got another bone to pick...

Lately I’ve been reading a number of articles, and discussions on forums, where people are attempting to provide technical assistance and advice on recording. It’s usually done with the best of intentions (though we’ve all seen forums descend into gear pissing matches), but often the advice given is misinterpreted, inaccurate, or plain wrong.

I’ve taken to calling this “The Casual Understanding of a Concept”, and I can almost guarantee that it’s costing you money, and in more ways than you might imagine.

Recently I had to comment on a blog article posted on mic selection, written for one of the more popular web casting services. On first glance the article seemed reasonable enough, and chock full of decent info, but upon closer examination, many complicated ideas were so boiled down, that the intended point was rendered horribly inaccurate. The concepts were so casually simplified they were almost dis-proving the original point, and were in essence spreading information that could lead others looking for help astray.

Concepts like EQ and Frequency Response, Signal to Noise Ratios, even max SPL are mathematical concepts that are best understood while learning just a little bit of physics. You can “get the gist” of it, but you’ll never be able to properly utilize this information if you only have a casual understanding. In fact you’ll more often come to the wrong conclusion than accidentally land on the correct output.

This is why good recording engineers can predict what their output is going to sound like even if they’re in a different environment. They’re not mystic gurus. They understand the science behind why their tools work.

Concepts like mic selection are notoriously over simplified. There are THOUSANDS of mics to choose from, and a lot of them are REALLY good. I firmly believe that there is no one size fits all solution, even for an individual. Having a small collection of mics which each play to the strengths of different types of projects and reads is the surest way to guarantee you’ll be prepared to achieve different sounds. I’ve heard plenty of talent “demos” where the conversational read sounds an awful lot like their hyped promo voice. Mic selection plays a part in this, and will also help inform the read you’re delivering. Mic technique will also influence your sound. If you’re crowding the mic for EVERY read you perform, you’ll always sound the same (but Proximity Effect is another casually misunderstood concept for a different rant).

I certainly see a desire to improve the collective quality of web delivered VO. There are de-facto guilds dedicated to branding talent as approved, certified, voice performers. These certifications tend to deal primarily with the technical quality these voice performers are capable of delivering, but it’s at least an acknowledgement of how far the home recording revolution has reached. Unfortunately, while participating in these forums, you see the same intellectual laziness at play. One specific post I recently read (on mic selection again no less) came from one of these certified performers saying to a newer performer:
“Good enough is always good enough, but perfect is usually a pain in the ass, way more expensive, and not that much better than good enough.”
This coming from someone who had obviously spent a significant amount of time, money, and effort cultivating his own sound.

All the while, we continue to produce blog posts and articles about giving it our all as performers, and not accepting mediocrity, as we dole out certifications. Yet recommend that someone actually spend money on learning how to properly use their gear, getting a professional consult, booking studio time, or even going to a local college to study some sound reinforcement, and watch some forum members bristle.

There seems to be a need to continue “selling” VO as a possible career to people curious about entering this profession, leading them to participate in forums, and to buy inexpensive gear. I honestly can’t tell sometimes if it’s to further a sales goal, increase site hits, established talents making sure they will sound better than their competition (to “gaslight” if you will), or if it’s just one with a casual understanding informing someone else with inaccurate info. We’re stuck playing a perpetual game of telephone as this info gets spread, interpreted, assimilated, and spread again.

It is true that the acquisition and installation of this gear has never been easier than it is right now, and it’s pretty much guaranteed that more professional quality tools will become available to consumers as time passes. However, buying something and plugging it in is NOT the same as using and understanding how that tool works. That can only come from an investment in education and practice over time. If you got a free education in recording from others who also got a free education in recording, you can imagine what I think that education might be worth. You get what you pay for...

I’m not trying to shame people who are genuinely acting with good intentions (I will shame those I feel are acting maliciously), but it is this same casual understanding which plays a hand in the devaluing of our profession.

Roles are extremely important. When I direct, I want my actors to act, and my engineers to record and edit, and when we all work together, I end up with a much better product than if I had performed each of those tasks myself, even if I am fairly proficient at each task individually. Now I don’t want to get into an extended (or overly political) rant on the perceived value of what a voice artist brings to a project, but I do want you to think about one thing.

Any time you produce finished audio, with background elements, of yourself, that you recorded, self directed, and edited, you are doing the jobs of three or more individuals, often for LESS than what an actor used to make just to show up to record.

No one disputes that our industry must grow and adapt to new technologies, but is this really what we want our business to look like? Doing more and more work, for the same or less pay? This doesn’t seem like a good position to be in for long term growth of an industry...


  1. I think you touch on a seriously scary picture that is being painted in the audio and music tech industry. There is a misconception at hand that leads people to believe that if they buy a mic they are automatically an artist, if they buy an interface they are an engineer, or if they buy a workstation keyboard, that they are a producer or composer. People are constantly overlooking the need for an eduction because in our fields, unfortunately, one can actually create something and mass distribute said creation entirely on their own. What other field can you think of that allows that? You can't read a web forum about health, buy a stethoscope and blamo!!! you're a doctor.

    The scary thing in all of this is that someone that has our above mentioned "credentials" is getting onto a web forum to post how his 990 sounds exactly like a U87. Then someone reads it, and tells two friends, who tells two friends, who tells two friends. Now we got 7 people completely disillusioned into thinking that there is some marketing ploy behind purchasing real gear and learning how to use it. Unfortunately, TONS of the "sales people" in the workforce are 18-23 year olds with ZERO experience and working a summer job until their band gets signed. Blind leading the blind out there. Can you really expect to get expert advice from the guy working the electronics counter at Wal-mart? Scary.

  2. Absolutely agree Mike.
    It's tricky. I don't want to be the guy who says "You can't do this", but I really question why and where people go for information.
    Why we value advice like "go with the easiest cheapest widget you can find, and don't bother to fully learn about what it can do", when we're supposedly talking about a business or profession.

    In my own personal experiences, I get a lot of people wanting free advice, and wanting to know what is the LEAST they can spend for "pro" sound. However, ask them to name the budget they're working with (what a shocking business concept, setting a budget), and they act like I'm trying to milk them...