It is well known in music recording that great records have a unique signature sound. Engineers acquire a variety of classic audio gear and select the right combination to create a unique sounding recording. But any audio recording can have a signature sound — from simple voiceovers, news reports, podcasts to documentaries. This is a look at how to achieve that sound.
Getting a signature sound means the listener recognizes you by your unique sound. Les Paul once told me that he invented sound-on-sound recording because his own mother mistaked him for another artist on the radio. She said: “Son, you have to do something to make your sound unique.” He did, and changed recording forever.
The sound of any recording comes down to the chain used to make the recording combined with the skills of the engineer in using that technology. It is in this process where creativity is found and the sound is shaped. It begins with the room, choice of microphones and mic placement, and then extends to the mic preamp, EQ, compression and other processing and then to the final mix and mastering.
The voiceover is a good place to start. First choose the right microphone. A classic large diaphragm dynamic is desirable for many voices in less than perfect acoustic environments. It’s lack of extreme sensitivity rejects room ambience. In better rooms, condensers can bring out more detail in the human voice. Ribbon mics can offer that big “voice of God” sound when proximity effect is used properly. No microphone is ideal for every voice. Each person should learn and embrace the best microphone for their voice. It’s a bit like using an artist’s paint brush to shape the sound. To find out the best microphone for a voice, try different models with the help of an engineer. Many dealers have mic showrooms where microphones can be tried.
Then choose a preamp/computer interface with plugins. There are hundreds to choose from at all prices. The best computer interfaces include a package of name brand plugins that can perfectly shape the audio. Plugins, as opposed to far pricier vintage hardware components, offer what most consider indistinguishable performance. Plugins have improved dramatically in recent years. Coupled with increased computing power, the unique sound capabilities of classic gear can now be emulated. Virtually every popular piece of audio processing gear from most manufacturers is now found in plugins.
The best news is plugins don’t have to be expensive. It is a matter of defining the type of recording being done and achieving the sonic results desired. Many computer interfaces come with a package of free plug-ins. Many are quite good and based on classic vintage, analog hardware. Most of us need help deciding which gear is best for the individual. That’s where a good creative engineer with golden ears comes in. Once that sound is determined for many kinds of productions, it can be sustained from project to project.
In other types of non-music recording, sound recording often comes down to the operator's technique and choice of gear. The way news reports or documentaries are recorded often limit the uniqueness of the sound. For example, a good boom operator with the proper microphones can get closer and more natural sound than a sloppy operator holding a cheap shotgun too far away. A good wireless system can do the same. Getting good original sound is rarer than you might think at the local broadcast station level.
Mixing sound in editing is also important. Using a small name brand $1500 desktop mixer can make a huge difference over the lowest-cost club mixer. Choose a product with a known sonic signature with excellent mic pres, analog processing, single-knob compressors, two-band EQ and balanced insert points. This can make a huge difference in the sonic quality of the audio.
Software can also make a huge difference as well. iZotrope’s RX 7 is an audio repair tool used on movies and TV shows to restore damaged, noisy audio to pristine condition. Such software allows users to get full control over any audio, whether it’s isolating vocals, rebalancing mix elements or changing the inflection of spoken dialog. There is also software using machine learning for better vocal production and mastering.
Plugins have even made it into live recording. Racks of computing power with a range of plugin can be used on any live, broadcast and theater productions with a range of audio mixers. Automatic gain riding can improve the sound of panels and larger numbers of individuals simultaneously on microphones. Equalizers, compressors, reverbs and delays to metering, stereo imaging and surround tools are available as plugin software.
Because most of us are not so brilliant or talented to be able to select our own signature sound, it should be said again that we often need the help of a creative engineer. Once that signature sound is determined, buy only the gear needed to shape the right sound for the project. Then learn to use it...and listen. Sadly, it is said that about 90 percent of signature sounds are copied from others, while only 10 percent is truly original. To reach the top of the audio profession, be one of the 10 percent.
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