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Poppin' The Phattie

I guess the number one question I get from production newbies is how to get the voice track to pop without going through a lot of arduous ducking and dodging. The number two question is how to “fatten” the VO to make it sound huge, without obliterating the music and effects. Well, the two are more closely linked than you might think. Getting the voice to pop first is key to making it “phat.” This gets into the nuts and bolts of voiceover processing. Let’s make your vocals pop first. By far, the easiest thing is to use EQ. Assuming that all your levels have been ”normalized,” pumping up the high end of the vocal will make it pop almost immediately, without ducking the music. I use a setting on my EQ that I call “Vocal - Add Presence.” It’s a nice bump of 3 to 4db at about 3500Hz with a fairly wide Q-factor. See if your favorite EQ plug-in doesn’t have a similar setting and then tweak it a bit to suit your taste. The reason might not seem so obvious. Most folks think that the bass in a man’s voice is low frequencies. Many have made the mistake of boosting the bottom end to make it sound bigger or more masculine, resulting in a very muddy sounding track. Some of the male voice lives in the frequencies below 400Hz, but not very much. When you talk to someone on the phone, you’re not hearing any bass at all. Way back when telephones were still a novelty, the engineers at Bell Labs purposely eliminated frequencies below 400Hz and above 3kHz to narrow the bandwidth needed to transmit the human voice. Although modern cell phones are much more capable of transmitting the full spectrum, very often your signal has to go through older wires on the network. When all the carriers are 100% digital, I suspect that will improve…a lot. (Hopefully soon! That would solve so many headaches for engineers working on remote broadcasts.) The thing is, you almost always know whether it’s a man or woman who’s speaking on the phone. The key to differentiating a male voice from female is mostly in the “glottal fry.” If you listen closely to a deep male voice, you will notice that you can actually hear the vocal chords slapping against each other. That’s glottal fry. The frequencies of glottal fry are up in the 600Hz range. When you hear a voice with glottal fry, your brain makes the connection immediately - “That’s a man speaking.” (Psychoacoustics; a big topic for a future blog, I’m sure.) Going back to the phone, sometimes you’re wrong about the caller’s gender. If it’s a woman who has smoked heavily for years, she’ll have a ton of glottal fry, and you just won’t be sure. There used to be a woman Air Traffic Controller at my home airport in Caldwell, New Jersey and more than once, I heard pilots mistakenly say, “Yes sir!” Having said all that, how does it help you? Cut OFF everything below 400Hz on the VO. Pro Tools users, open the 1 band EQ module in your Audio Suite folder and click on the left-most button. That’s the high-pass button. (Everything above your designated frequency passes through.) If you’re not a Pro Tools user, every EQ module I’ve seen has a similar setting. Set the frequency to 400Hz and test a couple of voice tracks. They’ll sound thin, but that’s normal. We’ll take care of the thin-ness next. The glottal fry is still there, especially in a man’s voice. (By the way, I do this to ALL of my voiceovers, but give producers a second 'flat' track.) Step two is compression. Narrow the dynamics to 6db or so (the difference between the softest and loudest parts) with any comp-limiter, and make it as loud as you can. Done deal. This voice track will print over just about anything. In fact, you may have to lower the gain on the VO to make it blend better. Too much is always better than too little. You should also play with the input gain settings to make sure you don’t splatter the VO. OK then, let’s phatten up the sound. There is a method I sometimes use and one I always use. The one I always use is to run all the VO tracks through a sub-master with a delay module on it. (See my blog on bussing from earlier this month.) Left channel is delayed 20 milliseconds and the right channel is 40 milliseconds. This “Stereo Masking,” as I call it, puts the voice track out-of-phase all the time. You need to reduce the MIX on the delay module to something like 20%. In other words, 80% of the signal is the original signal, 20% is the delay. You might find an even smaller MIX setting sounds better for you. When I need to really make it sound big, I do a mechanical fix, with no plug-ins involved. Start with a mono VO channel. Duplicate the VO to another mono channel and offset it 20 milliseconds earlier than the original track. Duplicate the original track again to a third mono track. Offset this one 20 milliseconds later than the original. Grab BOTH of the new VO tracks and move them to a single stereo track. Reduce the gain on the stereo track by -6db. Hit play. All of a sudden, you have the voice of GOD speaking. It’s truly PHAT! You MUST reduce the gain on the offset tracks or your station’s engineer will scream, especially if you have an old-fashioned ‘phase-chaser' in the chain. It’ll totally go berserk because it won’t have a solid “center” channel to lock onto and that would sound bad. Besides, if the stereo mask is louder than the original VO, it will be unintelligible. Not good. There you have it; my promo VO processing in a nutshell. Once you’re set up, it’s unbelievably easy. You can make an even mediocre voice sound really PHAT, without having to spend a lot of time ducking and dodging the other tracks. You’ll still have to do some fine-tuning, but in most cases, you won’t even worry about it. Your VO will pop almost by itself. It’s almost like turbo-charging your production. And finally, your production music should then blend better with your VO. Most production tracks have no vocal and few if any lead instruments. (They usually hog up those VO frequencies.) This will make your mix much more harmonious and flowing, making the overall mix sound VERY together, helping the message really pop. One last note…if you compress the music/effects, you’ll defeat all of this…so don’t. Those tracks really don’t need it because the studio where that music was created already found the sweet spot.

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