One of the questions I hear all the time is, “Why do you have so much expensive gear? Do I have to spend that much money to get started, too?”
Voiceover artists can get started with nothing more than an inexpensive USB microphone and a computer.
In fact, some voiceover artists work full time with very basic and elementary equipment. However, it’s rare that they make a living, let alone a good living.
It’s true that equipment doesn’t make up for a lack of natural or developed talent, but it’s also true that your studio and equipment have to be as good or better than your competition’s if you have equal talent and you want to get the job. A great voice on great gear will always beat a great voice on mediocre gear.
A quality signal chain is a basic part of client service.
Sure, it’s a lot of fun to celebrate “New Gear Day” when a brand new $4,600 channel strip or a vintage $3,500 microphone arrives on your doorstep. However, this is a business and every single purchase must have a business need. How, then, do voiceover artists justify stocking a microphone locker with enough sound candy to purchase a nice house? What is the business case for a rack full of seemingly redundant channel strips, pre-amps, and compressors?
The fact is, voiceover artists are paid to sound good. And not generally good, but specifically good for whatever job their current client is paying. There are, indeed, some VO talents who can record through a single signal chain with minimal processing and lay down tracks that make your knees weak and rainbows appear. For mere mortals, though, a bit more help might be required.
The more types of work you do and the more genres you cross, the more unique sounds you may need to deliver for those specific markets. If a certain market becomes a key part of your income stream, investing in the equipment that reliably and repeatedly delivers the sound you need suddenly makes sense.
Find a core signal chain that matches your style and get to know it. Well.
That isn’t to say you should run out and buy specialized gear for everything you do. In fact, quite the opposite. Start with one, core signal chain that is a good fit for your voice and primary markets. For most pros, that will mean a nice microphone, a good pre-amp, possibly a channel strip or separate EQ and compressor, an analog-to-digital (AD) converter, and a DAW.
Use that chain until you know it cold. Learn to push the limits of sound and processing to expand your vocal coverage of different genres and styles. Push it hard and learn how to make every element of the signal chain, including your voice, work together to achieve wildly diverse end results.
Remember that light digital post-production can make a great recording sound even better, but nothing will save a bad recording. Do as little digital processing in your DAW as possible, focusing on getting the sound you want directly from your chain, dry.
It might be frustrating. It might be difficult. But you will learn a lot about recording, producing, and, most importantly, what your next signal chains need to do to fill the gaps.
Add equipment that addresses gaps in your chain.
Now, the fun part. You’re usually an explainer video VO talent. You have that friendly, warm, engaging sound down and your current signal chain is perfect for it. But, now, you want to expand into gritty, dark comedy audio books and need some gravel, vocal body, and a touch of presence. Unfortunately, your current chain just doesn’t deliver and you’re missing out on jobs because of it.
Congratulations! You’ve earned a “New Gear Day”! Buy the piece of gear that will fit into your signal chain and fill the gap. Eventually, if you do a lot of genres and work with a number of client types, you might have 4 or 5 different chains that you use in different situations and for different productions.
That’s a wrap!
The takeaway from all of this? Simple. Get a good signal chain, get to know it, develop as a VO talent with it, and start adding equipment as you find your market segments and begin to specialize. Don’t skimp on your core signal chain, but don’t mortgage your house, either.
Remember, being a professional means that you make a living at this and treat it like a business. Every purchase has to pay for itself before it starts earning money for you!
What’s in my studio?
I have a number of possible signal chains for exactly the reasons listed above. What is my core, workhorse system? In 80% of my work, I run a Manley Reference Cardioid or Mojave MA-200 tube mic into a Manley VoxBoxchannel strip, run that through a Steinberg AD converter, and deliver it to Apple Logic Pro X or Avid Pro Tools(depending on the client’s file and project requirements).
The VoxBox has a wonderfully flexible and effective pre-amp, compressor, EQ, and de-esser/limiter, and there are very few sounds I can’t produce straight from the chain with some sound engineering work.
That said, many studios and producers I work with expect to hear a “standard” sound from the common Neumann TLM-103 to Neve 1073 clone to compressor combo, so I also have a TLM-103, a Vintech X73i, and an Empirical Labs Distressor EL8x Compressor in my studio. This combo gets about 5% of my work run through it, mainly when a client specifically requests it.
Finally, I also have some sounds that I can most easily and reliably produce with the Manley Reference Cardioid mic and the immensely flexible Millennia STT-1 Origin channel strip, with it’s Twin Topology tube and solid state signal paths and incredibly versatile, surgical EQ. This combination wins the remaining 15% of my work. Honestly, though I prefer the Manley VoxBox slightly for most of my VO, the STT-1 would be the last piece of equipment I would part with, thanks to it’s amazing versatility and ability to cover ground that (in my opinion) no other single unit can even come close to.