DAVE’S AUDIOBLOG ENTRY #29: Why I’m A Dork…no, I mean why I’m a dork for caring about borderline-meaningless differences in audio quality. What did you think I meant?

The Neumann U87, generally considered to be the “studio standard” of condenser microphones.

DON’T WANNA READ? THEN LISTEN!:

I know that audio technology isn’t everybody’s thing. To some, it’s nerd material. So, from this point out, all of my audioblog entries that deal with audio technology will have the following sound byte placed in front of them when dorky or nerdy material is approaching: “WARNING, NERD MATERIAL!” So, to that end…”WARNING, NERD MATERIAL!” I’d like you guys to do an experiment for me. Watch the video below starting at the 3:08 mark, and watch until the 3:28. Don’t watch anything else.

DON’T WANNA READ? THEN (CONTINUE) LISTEN(ING)!:

Done? Okay. Well, what you just saw was the comparison of two different microphones…except both of them were the same. Confused? They were two different models of the same condenser mic, the Neumann U87. This mic is considered by many to be the best condenser mic currently being manufactured. However, the first model, the Neumann U87i, was–

–hold on, hold on, stay with me, non-nerds, I’m going somewhere with this!

So yeah, the first model, the Neumann U87i, was released in 1967. Almost 20 years later, in 1986, a new model was released, the Neumann U87ai, with the only difference being a (very) slight modification to the voltages of the mics. This resulted in some minor sound differences that, by the opinion of the professional audio engineers in this video, were so minor that someone could use the mics for stereo recording purposes, or even swap them out during a recording session, and no one would know the difference.

So, you have undoubtedly asked…where am I going with this? Here’s where I’m going with this: none of what I have written so far in this entry matters.

At all.

When you listened to the audio comparison just now, could you tell the difference? If you couldn’t, don’t be ashamed! As VO talent, we are constantly looking for ways to increase the value of our services, and one of the ways we often decide to increase the value of our services is by making investments in our home studio. The compulsion to improve our audio quality is not abnormal by any means–hell, if you’re a voice actor who isn’t at all concerned with audio quality, then chances are you’re not doing very well–but at a certain point, it no longer matters that much. It eventually gets to a point where, no matter how expensive or “high-end” your equipment is, the only people who are going to be able to tell the differences in the audio are audio dorks. For that matter, the differences aren’t even a matter of “good” vs “bad,” it’s just differences in sound that will be better for certain applications. If you look at the entirety of the video, you’ll note that the two Neumanns were used for different applications (namely acoustic guitar, singing, and voice-over), and that the engineers noted a preference for different models depending on the application.

Now, the next question you may ask is, “Dave, if you’re just gonna tell me what happens in the video, why did you have me start and stop watching at a specific point?”

Well, that’s because of an interesting find I found in this video, an audio conference with established audio professionals (as in, click this blue text to view it). In fact, this thing is such a freaking treasure trove of audio info that the discussions to be had about specific points in the video will probably supply me a few more audioblog entries! So I won’t discuss all of the points made at length, but one of the first points made was a very interesting one: if a listener has reason to assume that certain audio samples will be different, they will listen for those differences, and remember the audio samples differently than those who were not listening for differences. To quote presenter James Johnston, “This is not deception, this is just the way your brain works.”

So this audioblog entry was really just an experiment to see if people would notice differences if they weren’t told to listen for them. I’m very curious to know how many of you went back and re-listened to that i vs ai comparison video after I made my intentions more clear. Did you notice differences between the i and the ai models after re-listening? Well, you may not be able to attribute that to actually hearing the differences, so much as you may attribute that to the fact that you were told to listen for differences.

If you’ve managed to swim through that Sea of Nerd just there, there is, once again, a larger point to be made about VO even for non-nerds, and it’s this: audio quality is important, but not to the extreme. Yes, it’s very important, but it’s not as though every audio sample is going to be submitted to Skywalker Ranch for complicated audio analysis. Most of our clients aren’t going to be listening to our audio samples going, “Eh, it could have been less compressed, or perhaps a little more emphasis could have been put on the high-end frequencies.” They’re just listening to our audio and going, “Um…….yeah. Yeah, sounds good.” Or they’re listening to it and going, “Um…….neh, not diggin’ it too much.”

So while audio quality is definitely important, eventually it gets to a point where only nerds–nerds who are actively listening for the sake of incredibly specific analysis–will be able to discern any differences. If you really want to stand out, then it’s your acting skills and ability to interpret your clients’ copy that will truly be the deal-breaker!

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4 thoughts on “DAVE’S AUDIOBLOG ENTRY #29: Why I’m A Dork…no, I mean why I’m a dork for caring about borderline-meaningless differences in audio quality. What did you think I meant?

  1. Great post Dave! I totally agree with everything you said. I’m a total audio nerd and had already seen that recordinghacks video so I knew what I was in for :). I actually write reviews on microphones, for voice over usually, for recordinghacks.com. Ok, all that aside. YES, there is a line where the increase in audio quality can become useless or a waste of money when it pertains to voice over from your home studio. I may own about 7-8 microphones but that’s not what’s booking my gigs. It’s my ACCEPTABLE audio quality (probably higher than most since I’m an audio freak) but, more importantly, my actual VO performance. Audio quality, as you said, is very important but it’s not the larger piece of the pie when it pertains to the “Important ingredients to VO” pie. Sounds, good doesn’t it?

    Thanks Dave :).

    • Hi Jordan!

      You write reviews on microphones, Jordan? Please do me a favor and reply to this comment with a link to one of your reviews. I’d like to read your reviews myself, and I’m sure anybody who stumbles across this particular audioblog entry (fellow audio dorks, in all likelihood) would be interested in that kind of stuff as well!

      Having said all that, I’m very glad that you, a self-confessed audio dork (like me), are agreeing with me that there is a line over which an increase in audio quality won’t mean that much. I mean, when it comes to engineers…well, I don’t mean to paint all engineers in the same light, but some are a tad on the perfectionist side. “It HAS to be a Neumann U87, which HAS to be run through an Avalon 737, which HAS to be sampled at 192 khz, to run into Pro Tools, otherwise the audio quality will be unacceptable!” On the one hand, I give kudos to engineers for handling all of the technical aspects during a recording session so I can concentrate solely on performing, and some of them are very flexible on a creative level (I work with one such engineer in Columbus on a semi-regular basis). Sometimes training yourself to listen to the smallest details of audio is more of a curse than a gift. It’s more difficult to say, “Enough is enough!”

      PS: If you’re interested, my ninth audioblog entry was about the “origin story” of the Sennheiser 416, probably one of my favorite stories to tell about VO: https://davewallacevoblog.wordpress.com/2012/02/12/daves-audioblog-entry-9-why-i-submittedno-i-mean-why-i-submitted-to-trends-rather-than-trying-to-change-the-course-of-established-trends-what-did-you-think-i-meant/

      • Hehe. I’ve actually already read your 416 post sometime in the past. That was a great read! That was also fun to discuss with other audio/VO peeps at the VOICE 2012 conference – especially because Sennheiser representatives were there :).

        It’s nice to find engineers who also have a creative side too. I mean, it’s kind of required because a good engineer imagines what he wants the final product to sound like and thus has to apply that to mic selection, mic positioning, gain staging, post-processing, , blah blah.

        I’m personally kind of an advocate against recommending 1-2 mics to someone. I get the question all the time: “What mic should I get to start my VO career?” After discussing their budget, inquiring about the acoustics in their recording environment, hearing what their voice sounds like, etc etc – I recommend that they buy and TRY at least 3-5 microphones (depending on how serious they are) in THEIR STUDIO. With THEIR mic cables, THEIR audio interface, in THEIR acoustic space. Because your voice, on that mic, is going to sound totally different running through a $3,000 preamp, a $5,000 A/D converter, and back into those random AKG headphones you’re wearing at Guitar Center. There is never going to be just that 1 mic that works for EVERYONE in every situation 100% of the time. Ok, I’m off my soapbox. 🙂

        Since you asked, here is my most recent microphone review. The Lewitt LCT 640. My new first born child: http://recordinghacks.com/2012/07/20/lewitt-lct640-review/.

        …And here is a list of my other reviews on recordinghacks: http://recordinghacks.com/author/jreynolds/

        Adios for now!

      • To any onlookers reading Jason’s comment here–HE’S SO RIGHT. Test your equipment in YOUR environment with YOUR everything. That’s the only way to test properly!

        And thank you for all those reviews, Jordan. Looks like I got some reading material to peruse through!

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