Why You Must Wear Headphones When Recording

There aren’t many absolutes when it comes to creating art, including creating audio performances. But…one thing I insist on is wearing headphones of some sort when recording. 

Some other VO coaches disagree, one going so far as to call it “aural masturbation.” The pros and cons are constantly debated, but I struggle to have a great deal of sympathy for people who don’t get comfortable and proficient at doing this, and simply refuse to do so. They are setting themselves up for failure, and a lot of extra work, otherwise.

(If you’ve worked in radio, you know exactly why you need to listen to yourself as you speak, don’t you? Yes, you do.)

Here’s a case in point. Warning: sadness ahead.

Worried about the final sound of her current project, my lovely client Mirai sent me this posting:

[My] RH noticed a few chapters had more “breath sounds and issues” than others. It almost sounds like I’m too close, or maybe that my mic input was at the wrong level. I had to do these chapters on a different computer. Plosives are especially bad. Some of it is in sections where the character is struggling with fighting for her life or running, which I think makes sense, but in other parts, I can see that it’s too much (like when I have to be a barn owl – whooo whoo!) Is there a way to fix this without re-recording? There is also the computer fan that I missed coming on at one point. I don’t know how to fix that either. Thoughts?

Here’s what I wrote back:

There are separate issues here. But my advice is the same for all of them – you’ll have to re-record.

Plosives should be noticed and fixed with a pickup right when you’re recording – the moment you hear one, using my Stairstep Method for editing in Audacity, pick up from just before the pop (you can do the same if you’re doing punch-and-roll with some other software than Audacity).

And remember: the only way you’ll hear yourself pop or hit hard vowels is if you’re wearing earbuds or headphones as you record.

I’m assuming that because you don’t have any issues with the chapters recorded in the main room you do your work in, that you did wear headphones of some sort when you recorded there, but most likely didn’t wear them with the chapters you’re asking about.

If you don’t wear them while recording, this is a perfect example of the kind of extra work you’re setting yourself up for: there’s no way to know whether you’re overdriving the mic in any way, because you’re not hearing what the mic hears in real time – you’re hearing sound from a good foot away (the roundabout distance from your mouth to your ears), where the mic is picking up that same sound source mere inches away. Popping on the mic isn’t audible to your ear if you’re not wearing headphones or earbuds.

If you do wear them, you have to train yourself to not just “let it go,” but to recognize it when it happens, and fix it.

Because we have you balance your AT2020 USB Plus so that your recording volume is the same as your playback volume, any pop or overdriving of the mic should be audible to you the moment it happens, exactly the same way as they are audible when you play them back.

In terms of the book being recorded in two different environments, in general, the rule is “one system/room per book.” You won’t be able to match sound recorded by a different computer in a different room with your normal environment. If you want the best results, you want to record all work for each individual book with the same setup in the same space: same computer, same mic, same attack, same environment, same mastering technique.

For the fan noise, you’ll need to isolate when the fan comes on and goes off, and gently use noise reduction for that entire chapter. Sample from a quiet moment in the section where the fan is on, but apply the noise reduction to the entire chapter – that way it will be applied where needed, with the same result across the entire track. Fan noise, too, is something you’re much more apt to notice if you are wearing headphones/earbuds when recording.

(Of course, if you use the exact computer that I use and recommend, you’ll never have an issue with fan noise again.)

Again, I think re-recording is in order, in both cases.

After I’d replied to her, she wrote to let me know that, thankfully, she was wearing earbuds, but that she had to rush through the material done on the separate computer, and wasn’t paying the kind of attention she normally does when she was recording.

Care to discuss wearing or not wearing “cans?” Any tips for how you got over any weirdness when you were first hearing yourself while recording? Use the comments below. I’ll try to be gentle with the naysayers.

Hope this helps.



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