I get a lot of complaints about my VO being so harsh sounding, especially from Program Directors at new client stations. I have to admit, when listening to my voice tracks without benefit of music, it does sound pretty nasty. Bright to the extreme and the compression is crazy! Well, there is method to my madness.
I learned a cool thing about the frequencies of music several years ago. Most of the accompaniment of any song, regardless of what the solo or featured instrument is, pretty much stay out of the way of the frequencies that instrument uses. This is true whether it features a solo horn, guitar or even human voice. The bass is generally below E (below middle C), the rhythm instruments like drums, piano or side guitar are either completely above E (above middle C) or only get into those middle frequencies very sparingly. This leaves a nice, big fat hole in the middle of the spectrum for the featured instrument. So, when you take out the lead to add a voice over, that voice becomes the lead instrument. It’s just the natural way music is constructed.
Working mainly with pop, rock or dance tracks most of the time, I also noticed that once you take away the original lead instrument, the bass line becomes the driving force behind the music. This is not universally true, but it’s true a lot more often than not, so, as an experiment, I tried putting a high pass filter on my voice to keep it from fighting with the bass line. I played around a bit with the frequency, but finally settled on 400Hz. (Just under A below middle C.) As I was doing the subsequent mix, I noticed a bit of magic happening. I didn’t have to duck the music levels as much, sometimes, not at all! The overall mix sounded louder without an unholy amount of compression and the overall impression of the production was much more energetic.
To quote Muhammad Ali, I “float like a butterfly (over the music) and sting like a bee (with the delivery).” Since that fateful day, I stopped almost all compression on any music and effects, other than a some limiting I use to control those pesky spiky peaks, which expands the overall musical sound with a much broader stereo image. All of a sudden, my production was truly sounding larger than life.
Now, people listening to my VO with music, will still notice its brightness, but it doesn’t sound nearly as harsh. It’s just not fighting with the bass line for dominance in the production. And, as is often the case, the human ear starts to make adjustments of its own. Within just a couple of seconds, the VO starts to sound more or less normal. I have to laugh a little at the PDs who stubbornly tell me to give them the flat response read and then want to know why their production doesn’t cut the way production at Z100 does.
For fun, I thought I’d bring you up to date a little with what we’re doing at Z100 these days, sound-wise. So, here for your listening and dancing pleasure a few of my latest pieces.
And one piece I did for WRDW/Philadelphia: The Hangover 2