If you’re a voice actor or voice talent and you’re in various voice over groups on Facebook, you might have run into posts mentioning Speechelo, a company that offers text-to-speech (i.e. A.I. voices) at a low price. The idea is that you can enter the text you want voiced, and tada! You’ll have a great, human-sounding voiceover you’ll be able to use in your marketing videos, on the spot. Say goodbye to voice actors, expensive recordings, or delivery delays.
This is the company’s elevator pitch (taken from their website): “Instantly Transform Any Text Into A 100%Human-Sounding Voice Over with only 3 clicks! We GUARANTEE no one will tell your voiceover is A.I. generated.”
I was curious to hear what the fuss was all about, and honestly their supposed voice-generated Vimeo demo looked and sounded pretty good. So, I clicked on the link in the latest Facebook post that mentioned the company and bought the software on sale for $37.
Before I give you my review, I should admit that my confidence in the company sank rather quickly. In the barely-over-24-hours since I bought the product, I received seven emails beyond my subscription receipt and login emails. I’m sure there are a few others piling up as I write this blog entry.
Meet the Spammy Company
First, they were selling me upgrades (ok, acceptable). It turns out the version I bought only allows users to create voice overs with scripts of less than 700 words.
Subsequent emails seemed to be promoting completely unrelated services (something to do with making money and an “apartament” -yes, the demo video has that typo on it). Upon closer inspection, it seems the video and emails are selling the idea of creating your own online video marketing agency…presumably using A.I. voices from Speechelo. Ok, that would be somewhat related, but I think you’ll agree their marketing needs some serious (serious) work.
Another email stated that Speechelo was wildly popular because they received 400 support tickets, which, if you ask me, really isn’t a selling point. The email suggests that 400 people couldn’t make the platform work for them in some way. (Or perhaps they wanted their money back?)
Overall, the company feels spammy.
The A.I. Voices
While the site says that the base version of the software has thirty A.I. voices, that includes all the languages available. When it comes down to it, there are only four English US voices in the base software and another four if you buy the Pro version. For the US (which would include Canada), there are two male voices, one female and one male child (though the child is definitely an older female). One thing all the voices have in common is that they all sound pleasant but very fuzzy (forgive the analogy but it’s like they have peach hairs on them).
As a native French Canadian, I also wanted to hear their FR CA options, but it turns out they only have one A.I. voice available and it’s only accessible with the Pro version of the software. I was still able to hear a very short preview of the voice and it was unfortunately extremely choppy (not nearly as good as most of the US voices).
Testing the Platform
Before looking around, I looked at the tutorial video. It turns out that to get the best results you must enter each sentence of your script one at a time (time consuming to say the least). The tutorial then suggests “merging” individual voice-generated sentences together to create one long VO file.
Upon using the platform in this way, I noticed that text changes became incredibly cumbersome. That said, you could prepare your text in advance, and/or download your voice-generated sentences individually. Either way, you can’t number your voice-generated sentences, so figuring out the order (whether on the platform or after downloading) isn’t straightforward.
If you choose the “merge” option and you then want to change your script, you’ll have to create a new voice-generated sentence (which won’t be in the right order before you merge) and delete the old one. You can, however, re-order your individual voice-generated sentence before merging them to create your final VO, but since you can’t number your sentences, it’s easy to make a mistake and put them in the wrong order…So we’re building puzzles.
Previewing A.I. Voices
As I was inputting sentences into the program, I couldn’t listen to full voice-generated previews of my text. Instead, the voice would only play small portions of my sentences. This is a bit pointless, since adding punctuation is apparently instrumental in getting a voice over that sounds natural. Their system forces you to generate the VO, listen back, delete if needed, create a new one by copy/pasting the old text, fix the punctuation, generate again, listen back, and so on.
Let’s hope (for their sake) they come up with a better system.
A.I. Voice Modes
Each A.I. voice could be used in three modes
Aside from not really being able to tell the difference, they seemed impossible to change once the VO was generated, so versatility is an issue.
How Can I Get my A.I. Voice Over?
Once I created my voice-generated sentences and merged them into one longer VO file, I had to wait until a download button appeared. This took a while, during which I had no idea if I’d ever be able to get my voice over off of the platform (I really didn’t want to have to add to their support ticket count). I turned my attention to a few Facebook messages and when I eventually I looked back at the page, I noticed a download button (sigh of relief).
I don’t know about you, but the robotic and monotone A.I. voice makes it difficult to understand the information in the VO. I personally disconnect when I listen. This is precisely why announcer reads are no longer popular; repetitive musicality in speech makes it difficult to retain information. Conversational reads are not only more engaging, they’re just plain easier to understand (and retain).
While I’ll admit the voices are huge step up in the world of synthetic voices and text-to-speech, we’re not quite there yet.
Who Will Use These A.I. Voices?
I personally don’t know what kind of company would find this type of A.I. VO acceptable. Perhaps a foreign one who needs a short text translated? A conspiracy theory YouTube channel? A company that simply doesn’t care about voice quality? As for those, I can’t name that many that are based in North America. But sure, they probably exist.
All I know is that in today’s competitive climate, having a crappy voice over just isn’t the norm. If it were, a lot of people who aren’t able to sound conversational and real would be working a ton.
Artistic Limitations of A.I. Voices
Voice actors are more and more conversational and versatile and it just doesn’t make sense to hire a voice that can only do one thing: be monotone.
If you still fear for your job, the most important element to keep in mind is that these voices can’t be directed. What you hear is what you get. You can change punctuation, add pauses, breaths, etc., but you’ll never truly be able to get a completely different read.
If it’s too good to be true, it usually is. I’m not convinced their initial demo was fully generated by the technology I tested today.
So, as voice actors, I don’t think we’re about to lose our jobs yet. For those who are nervous, keep on top of your acting training as these A.I. voices definitely aren’t going to replace great actors.
When choosing voice over microphones, consider the kinds of voice overs work you’ll be recording, as well as the space you’ll be working in. Ideally, you’ll pick a microphone that’s suited to that type of work and space.
Polar Patterns of Microphones
Microphones capture sounds on different areas. The areas from which they capture sound are emphasized by their shape.
For instance, shotgun microphones (the long and thin ones) have a tiny surface on the front; they’re designed to pick up sound (mostly) from that very small surface.
More traditional looking studio microphones have larger areas to capture sounds from. They can pick up sounds on the sides and on the back as well.
The direction from which a microphone captures sound is called a polar pattern.
Here are the main polar patterns and what they’re typically used for:
Omnidirectional: This type of microphone (like the traditional one pictured directly above) picks up sound all around it. The pick up pattern looks like as a sphere. Omni’s are ideal to record orchestra’s, but less than ideal for recording in home studios where there can be all kinds of ambient noises in every direction (hello fans, refrigerators and AC!) That said, many omni mics offer other polar patterns like Figure 8 and Cardioid;
Bi-directional/Figure 8: This pattern captures sound from the front and rear of the mic (nothing on the sides). This can be used when singers must sing a duet, but only one microphone is available. They’ll face each other and sound amazing.
Unidirectional: This pattern only captures sound from one direction (the front) which is helpful in the context of a home studio where you’re trying to focus only on the voice (rather than all the ambient sounds in the space). Within this general pattern there are two shapes:
Cardioid: The point of capture here is only on the front, but the surface of capture is rather large (in microphone terms). You can typically move your head up and down the surface of the mic and it will capture everything. Commercial voice over studios typically use this pattern for voice over recordings. Most studio microphones I recommend offer this polar pattern;
Supercardioid/Hypercardioid: This is basically an extreme version of the cardioid. This is the polar pattern of shotgun microphones. The point of sound capture is mostly on the front and is small. This can be helpful in spaces where room tone is not ideal (though no microphone will really make up for a noisy space).
The Proximity Effect on your Voice Over Microphone
As you speak closer on cardioids microphones, the bass may get louder. This is why intimate reads in studios have more bass in them. This effect is most pronounced on bi-directional (figure 8) microphones. Omni’s don’t have this effect.
What Kind of Voice Overs Will You Record?
Since microphones pick up sound in specific directions, your movements in front of the microphone should impact the type of mic you’ll get. Typically, announcers who always speak straight on can work with a shotgun mic. Voice actors who record animation and video games, along with those who record many different types of voice overs (most people) or beginners who move around more will need a larger surface to work from. Otherwise part of their performances could end up off mic. This would make their recordings unusable.
Where Will your Voice Over Microphone Be?
As we’ve seen, shotgun mics pick up less sound, so we could say that noisier spaces are more suited to shotgun mics. In truth, they’re no solution for a noisy space, so if you choose a shotgun mic to deal with noise issues, be prepared for the trade off: you won’t be able to move around as much (in exchange for a teensy tiny bit less noise capture).
If you want to be on the safe side, go for an omni that has a cardioid pattern, or a cardioid. Working on making your space quieter is always a good investment anyway.
Learn about starting a Voice Acting career from scratch.
Do your family and friends say you have a great voice? Do you dream of voicing characters in your favorite Anime shows? Do you love creating characters when you read to your children or talk to your pets? Perhaps you’re a singer and have a very intimate connection with your voice and want to cross over into voice acting?
If you’re interested in making a living with your voice and you just don’t know where to start, I’m here to help you turn down the volume on what you don’t need to worry about (it’s a jungle out there), and shine a light on what your next steps should be.
The Voice Acting Trifecta
To keep it simple, I’d like to tell you about the Artist – Technician – Entrepreneur trifecta of voice acting. Think of this like a triangle.
In this triangle, the Artist is the foundation and the Technician and Entrepreneur rest upon it to create the walls. I also call this trifecta the three pillars of voice acting. Once you understand how the pillars work in relation to one another, you’ll be able to go out in the world and start investing in your voice acting passion in a methodical way (and I believe being pragmatic is the most effective to making dreams a reality).
Let’s go over the first pillar, which is also the foundation of voice acting.
Voice acting is ultimately an art and unless you become an actor first, and a voice talent second, your experience in the industry will be incredibly limited. Why? Because the trend these days is to use actors. This is why you hear well known film and TV actors voice commercials, act in video games and animation movies.
These professional actors make voice over scripts sound natural and “conversational”. Their voice overs sound real, like they’re really talking to you.
How do they do it? With acting training. And since these actors are your competition, you better train the way they have if you want to get a piece of the voice acting pie.
This is not to say that you can’t do well if you just become a “professional reader” like an announcer. But unless you’re incredibly fortunate and can get work in the TV promo sector, you’ll be relegated to these few voice over sectors:
Voicemail (and yes, this can be very lucrative if you’re bilingual and work in a territory that requires bilingual messaging);
You may also be able to record some commercials now and then, and some audio books in the non-fiction category, but it may not be often.
While these voice over sectors can provide steady work, you’ll likely be on your own trying to find that work because you’ll have difficultly getting an agent. As a result, you’ll have a hard time moving up the voice over food chain.
Be a Trained Actor
If you’re a trained actor, you’ll likely be able to work in more sectors of the industry, and have access to higher paying gigs, especially in the commercial sector. As an actor, you’ll also be in a position to get an agent so you can book animation, and video game job. You’ll also be able to work in the audio book sector in the fiction category.
To become an actor, you’ll need pure acting training first, then VO centric training. For the best training strategy, read my book Becoming An Artist. In it, you’ll learn and about being an artist on a personal and professional level.
Get a Detailed Overview of the Acting Industry
Whether you’re a trained actor or not, getting this ebook will be valuable because you’ll also get a detailed overview of the entire voice acting industry as it operates today. It even breaks down thetypes of VO jobs you can book, and what you need to book them.
If you don’t have VO centric training, you’ll want to know all this before training.
Once you have a basic understanding of the industry and you’re able to create amazing performances, you’ll then have to focus on recording those performances.This is where the second pillar of the trifecta comes in…
Once you’re creating great performances, you’ll have to become a savvy audio technician because you’ll have to be able to record and edit professional voice over jobs at home. This is true in every sector of the industry, especially during the pandemic. Some jobs, like animation and video games may require you to go to a professional studio, but as we’re seeing in the pandemic, being able to record from home puts actors who have professional recording abilities at a huge advantage (those who were equipped when the pandemic hit were able to keep getting hired).
If you’re a live event announcer, you may not think you need a home voice over studio, but having one to record certain types of announcements that can be pre-recorded (Take your seats, etc) will provide added value to clients. And who knows, you could get work online as well.
Be a Reliable Voice Actor
You’ll also have to become knowledgable about recording and editing voice overs from home because clients will expect you to be in control of your audio space. In other words, you should know how to record and edit your voice overs, and how your equipment works, so that if something isn’t working, you can troubleshoot issues. That’s not to say that you won’t be clueless sometimes. Audio is tricky: we all get confused by it and need help to fix issues once in a while (and especially at the beginning), but you should understand the basics. If not, continuous problems will prevent you from getting hired often enough to make a living.
To learn more about working with sound and about from home read my book Recording and Editing Voice Overs. This explains absolutely everything from creating a space, to recording, to delivering audio to clients in the format and specs they need.
Once you can create great performances, and record them, you’ll have to wrap them in a beautiful package so that you can make money with them.That’s brings me to the third pillar of the trifecta….
In this part of your career, you’ll be preoccupied with doing things that keep you in business, like:
having a good reputation so you can inspire clients to trust you (and hire you); and
sharing your wonderful talent and artistic offerings to the world.
Get Voice Acting Experience
To gain experience, you’ll have to audition regularly (probably on pay to play sites). The goal at this point is to test your instrument, see what kind of jobs are on the market, get hired, and see how the market reacts to you. In time, this process will tell you where to put your energy so that you can get a better return on your investment.
Have a Good Reputation
To have a good reputation, you’ll want to have an effective workflow and be professional on voice acting jobs. That means running your recording sessions efficiently so that clients feel like they’re in capable hands once they’ve hired you. If you’re non-union, this also means having a good rate sheet.
Market your Voice Acting Services
As far sharing your talents with the world, you’ll want to have effective marketing strategies. To get a good voice acting agent you’ll need excellent demos (produced by audio producers) and solid auditions skills (and for this you’ll need practice). To find clients, you may need to be on pay to play sites, be on top of your social media, create good outbound strategies, and learn everything you can about the internet so you can make it work for you.
To learn about all this, read my book Running Your Voice Acting Business. Together, my three books are really a super affordable modern-day voice acting bible that will give you a solid understanding of the voice acting industry as a whole, tell you how to navigate it, and how to find your place in it.
Voice Acting Training Never Stops
In today’s VO world, even top talents who are represented by the best over agents need to continuously strengthen these three pillars of the voice acting trifecta. Most working voice actors:
continuously brush up on their acting skills;
make sure their audio space is professional and make upgrades when they can;
find new ways to market themselves so they can get more clients.
These strategies all contribute to strengthening their brand which makes them more appealing to clients.
Put Chances on your Side
If you want to make a living with your voice, focus on the three pillars of the voice acting trifecta. Each must be as strong as the other.
Being a great technician or entrepreneur will do nothing for you unless you’re a great actor.
Being a great actor but not being able to record and edit your work will make you difficult to hire.
If you’re a great actor who can record and edit great work but no one knows you exist, you won’t get very far.
So, unless the three pillars are strong, the house falls down. How do you know the house has fallen or needs some strengthening? Your voice acting income is either not coming in, or stagnating.
That said, like in any career, there are no guarantees that you’ll succeed, even if you follow this recipe to the T. But you if you look at your career through the Artist/Technician/Entrepreneur lens, you’ll be putting all the chances on your side and that’s the most effective way of making your dreams a reality. You’ll also be able to say that you really tried.
If you’re recording voice acting auditions these days, whether through agents or pay to play sites, you’ve heard the term. The technology allows the transmission, in real time, of very high-quality audio from one location to another via a high-speed internet connection. As such, it allows a commercial studio to receive and record the microphone feed of another studio in a different location. This is typically used when a voice actor can’t come to the commercial studio in person.
Before so many voice talents had professional home studios, if you booked a job that was meant to record in New York, but you were in Houston, the client might have gotten you to go to a studio in Houston so that the studio in New York could connect to it (via the SC app that both studios had). This way, the client in New York could record you as if you were in their studio, in person. The technology is quite amazing: you talk into a microphone in Houston, the high-quality audio signal gets transmitted via the internet, and the New York studio receives and records the performance as if you were talking into one of their microphones. The studio in New York has full control of your microphone feed. In the voice over industry, we call this “recording remotely”.
When was Source-Connect created?
SC was created in 2005 as an alternative to its predecessor, ISDN. This technology was created in 1986 (initially for the army, then for broadcast TV and radio). ISDN still exists today and works via phone lines (land lines). Though it transmits excellent audio, it’s extremely expensive and difficult to set up. In fact, phone companies are phasing this technology out. Source-Connect is much more affordable and much more flexible. To use it, two parties can simply connect via a wired internet connection (and the SC app of course).
To make SC work, you’ll need high-speed internet (at least 3MB upload speed) and to connect a traditional RJ 45 internet wire between your modem and your computer (wireless connections don’t work). Note that if you aren’t paying for high speed internet, you probably won’t have enough bandwidth. Unless you have exceptionally good Internet in your neighborhood, paying for higher speed internet is often required for studio-to-studio sessions.
Why Clients Use Source-Connect
If you have your own home voice acting studio, you may be thinking: “I have a voice over booth I record from, why is there another studio in the mix? I can record the audio and send it to the client.” Or: “Clients can just call me while I record, and I’ll send them the audio file right after.”
While you may have a great voice over studio space and great voice over recording equipment, when clients hire a commercial studio to connect to yours it’s generally because that studio is in charge of all the audio on the production (whether it’s a commercial, narration, animation, video game, etc.) For instance:
The audio engineers at the commercial studio may be composing music or sound effects for the client;
Engineers may want to put effects (via high end preamps and compressors) on your voice to make you sound as amazing as humanely (or technologically) possible;
Clients may also want to hear you as if you were right there in the studio with them when you’re performing. Since the audio from an SC connection is high-quality, clients get a better idea of what you’ll actually sound like in the finished product.
A commercial studio will also be able to mix your audio with the client’s video (if available) in real time, allowing the client to make last minute changes to your script or performance.
All of this gives clients full control of the production. The higher end the production, the nit-pickier clients are, and that’s often when a technology like SC comes in (others exist, like iPDTL, which works equally well, but is more common in Europe where it was created).
What About Skype or a Cell Phone?
Keep in mind that when clients call into your studio with Skype or a cell phone, they miss many nuances in your performance because some of the audio is not being transmitted (listen to the audio quality of a voicemail; it’s sub-par). Also, when clients aren’t using SC, they have to wait until you email them the audio files and until someone mixes it into the production to really get a sense of how it all works together. This process may not suit a client who is hired to make a production sound flawless in one session. In fact, poor sound quality and an inability to mix audio and video in real-time is the reason sessions conducted over the phone can trigger so many revisions (text and performance). Clients aren’t spending the time or money to get it right the first time.
Look into getting a high-speed internet connection (how long does it take to get the service if you needed it right away?);
Get the RJ 45 internet wire out of your old wire bin (or order it) and make sure you can plug it into your computer (if not, get an adaptor);
If the computer you’re using to record audio has a fan that can turn on intermittently, be sure it sits outside of your recording space);
Look into Source Connect Now (free version).
If you have everything ready, you’ll be in a position to pull the trigger when you book a job. Keep in mind that you’ll most definitely need help from customer service before being able to use SC and their department may be backed up, so plan for that.
What Kind of Client likes Source-Connect?
As far as which clients use it most and what connection they prefer, during the pandemic, some union clients have been working with actors who have the free version (SC Now), but the paid version (SC Standard) is always preferred. Either way, SC sessions are much more common in the union sector than in the non-union sector, though the technology is also used there (the free version doesn’t seem popular).
If you’re like me, you’ve been waiting to find out when the film and TV industry is going to start again and how they’ll go about it. The SAG-AFTRA guidelines for filming have finally been decided and put in place by unions, producers, studios and networks in the US. In Canada, BC is resuming filming, but ACTRA Toronto and the Quebec union (UDA) are still discussing safety protocols for actors.
What Will Acting in Film and TV Be Like?
The short answer is that it will be complicated and that it will take some getting used to. While the prospect of working again is exciting, it’s also a bit terrifying. As actors we’re on the frontlines and being on set will no doubt be more stressful than it already was. Everywhere in North America, social distancing, access to handwashing stations and sanitizer, along with the use of PPE equipment in all filming locations aside from the actual set, are policy. Be prepared to be reminded often of where you can go, what you should do, and when.
Keeping Actors Safe
In the US, the main strategy to keep actors safe is testing for Covid-19 (the fun nasopharyngeal kind) multiple times a week (thrice). In Quebec, you may be requested to do your own make-up and to use your own wardrobe. In Canada, travelling from other countries requires a 14-day quarantine before being able to work, effectively eliminating the possibility of being a local hire on short notice. The Canadian government isn’t allowing productions to shoot abroad either. In the US, aggressive testing negates the need for quarantining when coming from outside of California, but some states are requiring travelers to quarantine upon arrival on their grounds, so again, being a local hire in other states won’t necessarily be straightforward. In BC, testing will depend on the production company, and producers are asked outright to minimize the number of day players and background performers. Because more people means more danger, we can expect sets everywhere to be smaller. As you can imagine, incomes will dry up for many, even as sets resume activities.
Lastly, in all locations, unions are encouraging productions to conduct remote auditions, so to keep acting, you’ll need a reliable self-tape set up.
Voice Acting to Make Ends Meet
In this Return to Work pandemic environment, actors are being put to the test and for those without a “name” getting acting jobs may be more challenging than ever. This is where voice acting comes in. Note that in Quebec, recording Wallas (sound atmospheres for film and TV), which requires groups of voice actors to record and improvise together (loop groups) aren’t permitted. While this isn’t good for loop group actors, producers may decide to follow other part of the voice acting industry and resort to recording wallas from actor’s home studios. Nothing is impossible at this point.
The Pandemic: Bad for Most, Great for Voice Actors
Most parts of the voice acting industry have been quite busy during the pandemic and producers have been hiring voice actors with their own home VO studios. And it doesn’t look to slow down. Unions, especially in Canada, are encouraging producers to continue hiring voice actors from their home studios. In Quebec, if that’s impossible, ACTRA encourages voice actors to use their own headphones. But smartphone earbuds won’t do the trick. Since VO headphones should be professional-grade, why not equip yourself to record voice overs from home altogether?
While the Return To Work protocols may differ on different coasts and countries, once thing is for sure: making a living with your voice is one way to keep acting and earning a living safely, in the comfort of your own home. For one, the industry is still mostly working remotely, and since it was heading that way for some years, it’s quite likely that recording from home will simply be the norm for hereon.
How Can I Become a Voice Actor?
If you’d like what it takes to become a voice actor and stay in business, read my series of books about Voice Acting & Announcing. You’ll learn everything you need to know like what training you need, what kind of budget you should have, the important decisions you may need to make, recording and editing voice overs, building a VO studio, audio file formats and specifications, creating an effective recording workflow, best voice over business practices, and VO marketing.
So, you’re an actor (or announcer), there’s a pandemic and your agent is telling you about voice acting opportunities you’re missing out on because you don’t have a voice over booth.
You’ve got a quiet space (or you’re hoping it’s quiet enough) and you’re ready to try out this voice over thing. Now you’re wondering about voice acting kits, voice over equipment and voice acting microphones.
I’ve been at this for almost twenty five years and tried a bunch of gear. I’m here to tell you something that may surprise you: don’t overspend on gear. No voice acting microphone, audio interface, or stand alone preamp will make up for a noisy space. Instead, focus on finding a quiet space (or making it quiet), and improving acoustics.
Professional studios want to work with reliable spaces, so if your space isn’t quiet enough, you may have to build a structure to isolate yourself from sources of sound (this is called soundproofing). Either way, you’ll need to improve the acoustics (the way sound travels) in your space. To do that, get some blankets, clothes, carpet and/or acoustic panels and throw them on the walls (carpet goes on the floor, though you can try it on the walls too) if necessary.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s go over some voice over equipment I’ve recently tested that I find both professional and affordable.
The Sound Of Silence: Sound Interfaces
In order to record your voice at a professional level, you’ll not only need a good voice acting microphone, but you’ll also need an audio interface (also known as a sound interface or sound card). This is a piece of equipment that connects your voice acting microphone to your computer.
The main thing to understand is that every audio interface and voice over microphone (even stand alone preamps) will highlight certain features (the highs, mids or lows) in your voice. The idea is to find one that will complement your voice. Since we’re all different, what sounds amazing on me won’t necessarily sound as stellar on you (and vice versa).
To stay out of trouble, we want something that reproduces our voice as faithfully as possible. We also want a sound card that will have enough juice to power a good microphone in the event we ever want to upgrade it. Besides that, we want something that’s easy to use. Lucky for you, gear has gotten so much easier to use and handle than when I started recording voice overs.
Disclaimer: The devices listed here mostly connect to via XLR cables (three-pronged cables) or TRS cables (1/4-inch cables) as I’m not a fan of USB microphones (more about this later).
Here are some inexpensive but great sounding sound cards I’ve tried:
I like this for its price point, but it won’t take you very far since it doesn’t have the juice to power a high-quality microphone or stand alone preamp. The headphone volume is also limited. Overall, I’d recommend you spend an extra $76 to get a device that won’t hold you back if you ever want to upgrade other parts of your audio chain. Lastly, this sound interface tends to highlight the highs in voices. This isn’t a problem if it complements your voice, but this may be slightly better for women than men.
This is a tiny step up from the Scarlett, but I had similar problems with it (not enough volume in my headphones and I couldn’t make it work with my stand alone preamp). Here again, I’d rather you spend an extra $66 and get something that will enable you to upgrade your gear if you ever want to. This sound card also tends to highlight the highs in voices (though not quite as much as the Scarlett does) so it may be slightly better for women.
This here is a little Porsche. It sounds practically identical to the higher end Apogee Duet. It’s easy enough to use (plug and play) and sounds excellent (very faithful to voices and doesn’t add too many highs or lows). Your voice can easily shine with a great voice acting microphone and you can upgrade your audio chain as much as you want along the way. That said, I don’t think it’s as well designed as it could be, and (depending on the mic you go for) you may be able to save a few bucks without sacrificing sound.
I had high hopes for this–this is a great company–but I couldn’t make this work on both sides of my headphones. This makes sense: audio signals from microphones are mono (only on the left), but that means you’re either hearing yourself in one ear only or spending days online and with customer service trying to figure out how to hear yourself normally (and testing out different recording software to make the signal play in both ears). Life is too short. Spend a few more bucks to work with a device that gives you the option of hearing yourself normally from the get-go.
I have a huge soft spot for this interface. Right now I don’t even need a sound device, but I’m tempted to keep the one I ordered to run tests. It looks slick, it’s user friendly and intuitive, and most importantly it sounds fantastic (especially with certain mics: more about this below). You can easily take this sound card to the next level with a stand alone preamp and a good microphone. No one will ever know you paid less than $200 for this bad boy. Oh, and you just have to hit MON (short for mono) right on the front of the device to hear yourself and to record yourself in mono. Love it. The one drawback is that caresses the highs in voices, so it may be slightly better for women. Personally, and this depended on the microphone I tried it with–it made me sound a bit nasally (I do have a twinge of a nasal sound in my voice on some days).
This is durable, sounds great, and is 100% professional. It doesn’t add too many highs or lows so it will reproduce your voice quite faithfully. If you want something more affordable (as an entry card), the Audient is a much better deal and sounds practically the same.
Check One Two…Voice Acting Microphones
When it comes to voice acting microphones, you’re looking for the same qualities you are in a sound interface: you want it to complement your voice and, if budget permits, you want something the industry has approved of (a standard).
XLR (Analog) Microphone vs USB (Digital) Microphones
Even though USB mics are handy and plug directly into computers, and that their built-in preamps may have the exact same components as in the built-in preamps in the audio interfaces listed above, you won’t find any USB mics in this list. I’ve tried a couple (including one by a company I’m a huge fan of: Rode), but I wasn’t sold on any for recording professional voice over jobs. While I’m not arguing that they sound great (they absolutely do) I’ve personally found that they can sometimes add some measure of noise, like a distant static to my room tone. This may have to do with the fact that cables inside of them aren’t balanced but since static makes me squeamish, I like sticking to good old XLR microphones which connect via a three-pronged end.
Old Habits Die Hard
Another reason I don’t recommend them is that commercial studios don’t use USB mics, which means they’re less familiar and comfortable with them (even though some may truly rival some traditional microphones in the lower price ranges). So if it comes down to two talents, and one of them has what’s considered “standard voice over equipment” (XLR microphone + audio interface) they might hire that talent just because they know what to expect gear-wise.
Part of that is an “old habits die hard” mentality but since moving up the voice acting food chain will necessarily involve connecting your voice over booth to a commercial studio remotely via Source Connect to record jobs, you may need to switch that USB mic down the line. Why not get it right the first time? XLR microphones don’t seem to be going away anytime soon and some have similar price points to USB mics. Also, if you sing or play other musical instruments, you’ll have more flexibility with a traditional XLR mic.
Condenser Microphones vs Dynamic Microphones
Beyond this, and unless you’re a singer, you’ll probably want to stick to a condenser microphone, especially if you don’t use a stand alone preamp. Condenser mics are more sensitive, pick more subtleties and nuances, and need less of an electricity boost than dynamic microphones do, so they usually work well even if you’re only using a sound interface. Not to say that dynamic microphones are off limits, but you’ll generally have to plug them into a stand-alone preamp to get enough volume out of them, and that means spending more money. That’s because dynamic mics are designed for singing (to belt into) so they aren’t spectacular for speaking or acting (voice over work). That said, these things are very personal. For instance, one of my favorite microphones was a beat up hand-me-down from my mentor (Sennheiser 421 for $380) which was a dynamic microphone. To this day no other voice acting microphone has ever garnered me as many compliments as that one did. It’s difficult to know what microphone will flatter your voice without trying them, but given their prices, trying many of them doesn’t really make sense, which is why most people end up sticking to standards. That said, you can always rent microphones which is a great way to test them.
Polar Patterns of Microphones
Microphone capture sound in different directions called polar patterns. In essence, microphones pick up sound in specific areas, so your movements behind the microphone will impact the type of mic you’ll get. Typically, announcers who always speak straight on can work with shotgun mics. Voice actors who record animation and video games, along with those who record many different types of voice overs (most people) or beginners who move around more will need a larger surface to work from. Otherwise part of their performances could end up off mic. This would make their recordings unusable.
Voice Acting Microphone Recommendations
Here are some voice over microphones I’ve owned and tried. Many are industry standards:
This is a great entry point into the world of microphones (and shotgun microphones). It highlights the mids in voices, and it’s durable (often used on film sets). When I’m looking for a great quality/price ratio, especially for women, this is my pick. Note that the whole line of NTG microphones are extremely similar to the Sennheiser MKH 416, especially the NTG4, so no use spending lots of money for a great shotgun microphone.
This is a high end shotgun microphone that’s widely used in the voice over industry by voice talents who record TV promos. It’s so unidirectional that TV promo talents even record promos in their car with it (it’s also widely used on set). It’s durable and sounds stellar. Do you need it? No. I would grab a Rode NTG instead. If you book a huge gig and this voice over thing works out for you, knock yourself out.
Neumann U87 (Condenser Omni, Cardioid, Figure 8) Between $3000 and $3500. You can find deals on eBay.
This is a perfect voice acting microphone. It’s an industry standard in advertising, and in broadcast television and radio, so many commercial studios use them. It will make you sound like a million bucks and if you’re booking commercial work on a consistent basis, this will pay for itself. Many studios feel comfortable with this microphone because it’s clean, it’s flattering on any voice, and it lasts forever.
Here’s another industry standard for a lot less that’s its cousin, the U87. You won’t be shunned by any studio if you opt for this microphone, as most professional studios have one in a booth or two. If you’re booking work regularly and can afford it, you won’t regret this purchase. It’s a classic voice acting microphone, and you won’t ever have a reason to change it. If you’d like an entry level Neumann, try the TLM 102 for $699. I haven’t tried it, but you’re in good hands with Neumann.
This is another perfect voice acting microphone and industry standard. It’s beloved by booming voices for how it caresses the lows in men’s voices. While I personally found it too harsh and surgical in the way it reproduces my voice, it does have a velvety feel that can be quite enticing.
As far as a good budget voice over microphone, this sounds great and it’s hard to beat price-wise. Here’s a more in depth review for you, along with some audio tests. This is a more classic voice acting microphone, so microphone technique will be more straightforward than on a shotgun mic.
This microphone’s claim to fame is that Michael Jackson used its predecessor on his Thriller Album. This is a great microphone, I enjoyed it when I had it, but it’s a dynamic mic, so you’ll definitely need a stand alone preamp because your audio interface card won’t be powerful enough to give you enough volume. So, think twice. If you’re a singer though, this could play double duty for you (if you use a preamp when recording voice overs).
I’m personally not a fan of this company for my own voice and for my ears (I don’t like listening through their headphones), but it’s hard to argue with this price, especially when listening to the audio tests at the bottom of this page. Great entry level voice acting microphone.
Listen to Yourself: Voice Over Headphones
Headphones are important, and if you’re wondering, earbuds won’t do (whether you’re recording on your own or if you’re connected to a commercial studio). They’re not designed for professional use (they don’t reproduce sound well enough) and since you’re becoming a pro, leave them plugged to your phone. When you’re voice acting, you want to be able to hear exactly what you’re recording. Noise cancellation headphones also won’t cut it since they’re designed to eliminate sounds you should know about.
For all the sound cards and microphones I’ve tried, I’ve always been very loyal to my voice acting headphones. Here are my two favorite brands:
These were my go-to for years. They’re extremely bright though (they highlight the highs), so while they will help you catch all the little mouth noises in your edit, sensitive ears might find these harsh. The earmuffs tend to fall apart after many years of use.
Audio engineer George Whittam recommend these to me some years ago. These are more subdued (they’re more focused on lows) so it took me some getting used to, but they’re still clear. I like how comfortable they are (so plush) though I tend to turn up the volume on them because they aren’t as clear as the Sonys. The downside is that I’ve had to send them for repair (under warranty through the company) twice (for two pairs). For some reason, I always lose hearing on one side so there’s definitely a manufacturing problem. Otherwise, they’re great.
Pump Up The Volume: Stand-Alone Preamps
The word preamp is short for preamplifier and that’s precisely what it does: it amplifies the electrical signal it receives (in this case, the sound you make when you’re speaking into the microphone that’s connected to it) by giving it some extra power. Truth is, microphones need the extra power provided by preamplifiers, otherwise you’d have to amplify your voice digitally (in your recording program) and it could end up sounding distorted. You want a sound to be amplified enough naturally (analog, via a preamp) so that you can manipulate it in various ways (digitally) without incurring losses in quality.
All audio interfaces now have built-in preamps, but you’ll generally use a stand-alone preamp (in addition to an audio interface) with more expensive microphones (like a Neumann or an AKG) because they’ll sound the best with the extra power boost. These mics are also more sensitive and will pick up noises that come from audio interfaces that have built-in preamps. But stand-alone preamps are like microphones and audio interfaces: they can highlight some of your vocal attributes, so again, you won’t really know how a device sounds until you try it with your audio chain (mic, audio interface, wires, etc.)
If you use a high-end voice acting microphone with a stand-alone preamplifier, you might notice that lower frequencies, like background noises, are a bit dimmer. This is a side effect from using a device that’s adding very little noise to your mix. It’s not like you can cover up a noisy room by using a stand-alone preamp, but it can drown out a room tone that’s just slightly too present while still giving your voice a beautiful boost.
In the old days, audio interfaces offered no amplification at all, so having a stand-alone preamp to use a microphone was a necessity. That just isn’t the case anymore as audio interfaces now all have pretty decent built-in preamps. In the same blog I’ve already pointed to, I discuss a series of tests I did to help you compare:
A microphone connected to a sound card (with its built-in preamp);
A microphone connected to a sound card (with its built-in preamp), plus, a stand-alone preamp.
In my test, I used the stand-alone preamp I own, which is the Grace Model 101. If you can’t really tell the difference or aren’t madly in love with the difference you do hear, then you’ll know that you don’t need one. If you love how a stand-alone preamp sounds on a certain mic and can afford one, give it a try.
The important thing to understand when using a preamp is that you’ll want to bypass the sound card’s amplification process. To do so, plug your microphone into the preamp (MIC in), and plug the preamp into the sound interface (MIC in). But be sure to turn the gain (volume/level of the Mic input) on your sound card all the way down, and to turn up (or adjust) the gain on the preamp.
If you want to dive deeper into the topic of preamps and how devices add their own noise to a mix, read this article about preamps and listen to some sound tests. It might read like a lot of gibberish, but why not start getting familiar with this kind of language? You’ll have to become somewhat of a technician if you want to be able to make money with your voice, especially in the new world the pandemic has landed us (all VO actors must have a studio).
Keep in mind that most preamps were designed for use with multiple channels (instruments or microphones) so many of them are exceedingly complex to use (and overkill) for a voice trying to make a buck from home. One the best alternatives on the market is this portable single channel device. I wouldn’t shy away from buying this used as these are quite expensive new, and rarely moved around (while they’re portable, they’re not the kind of thing you’d move around a lot). Another reason to buy it used: it’s quite durable (I’ve had mine well over 12 years and never had any issues).
This device is gaining traction from gearheads on the market, but I think it’s overkill for home use. Also, it’s not a stand-alone preamp, so you’ll be dealing with a built-in preamp. I’d say save your hard-earned dollars and go for the Audient or the MOTU and if you ever hear a commercial studio complaining about your home studio (they probably won’t), you can think about upgrading or adding a Grace 101 to your chain.
You can also look for tube channel strips by Avalon, API and Manley, but again, these high end preamps are overkill for a beginner. Since built-in preamps in portable audio interfaces all sound great these days, these channel strips just aren’t not necessary.
The Brands I Hate Vs The Brands I Love
People often ask me for recommendations, and although there are many great companies out there, you’ll never see me using Audio-Technica. I find they make everything sound like a tin can; whether you speak in a mic or listen to audio with headphones. But as I’ve mentioned before, these things are highly personal (A-T are probably just too heavy on the highs or mids for my voice and ears).
Listening to Voice Over Audio Equipment Tests
Here are some audio tests for you to listen to. Note that the Rode sounds muffled (bad mic placement and technique on my end, which is why mic technique is so important). To hear them in all their glory, download them on your computer, and listen with professional headphones (as I’ve said earbuds just don’t reproduce sound well enough).
Pairings: Voice Acting Kits
Entry level pairing
Pair the Sterling ST155 with the MOTU M2, the Scarlett or the Audient. I wouldn’t add a preamp to this chain, it’s just not necessary. You could do plenty of narration, commercials, animation and video games.
Pair the Audio-Technica AT2020 with the MOTU M2, the Scarlett or the Audient. I wouldn’t add a preamp to this chain, it’s just not necessary. You could do plenty of narration, commercials, animation and video games.
If you promise not to move your head too much and speak straight on, you could do narrations and commercials with this pairing:
Pair the RodeNTG2 with the MOTU M2, the Scarlett or the Audient. I wouldn’t add a preamp to this chain, it’s just not necessary.
Mid to high-end pairing
The Sennheiser is a piece of high quality gear, but I love that you really don’t need a preamp with it, which is why I’m calling this pairing a midway level pairing. But again, you’ll have to promise not to move your head too much, so you’ll still be limited to recording narrations and commercials (TV and radio promos included):
Pair the Sennheiser 416 with the MOTU M2, Audient, or the Apogee Duet. You can also use those two sound cards with the Grace preamp, but it’s not necessary, they all sound great without it. You could do plenty of TV promo work and commercials with this.
High end pairing
Some top-of-the line voice acting pairings would be:
Pair the AKG 414 with the Apogee Duet, the Audient, or the MOTU M2. You could also pair it with the Grace Preamp and the Apogee Duet or the Audient. You could do plenty of animation, video game work, commercials and narrations.
Pair the Neumann U-87 or TLM 103 with the Apogee Duet or the Audient. If you use the Grace preamp, you could also the Apogee Duet, the Audient and even the MOTU M2. You could do plenty of animation, video game work, commercials and narrations.
Now that we’ve gone over voice over equipment, I’ll write an article about the best recording/editing software for voice overs next. In the meantime, I hope this sets you on your path to becoming more comfortable recording from home.