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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