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Can The Cans? Pros and Cons
In The Great Headphones Debate
 
Note: The author teaches voice over individually by phone and Skype, and through workshops in major Canadian cities. For details, please click here, or visit: www.micnme.com.
 
By Deb Munro
Voice Actor & Trainer
 
Who would think that headphones (otherwise known as "cans") could be a topic for controversy, but alas ... it seems to be so, and Iíd like to share with you my opinion on this great debate in hopes that it might help you choose what is right for you.
 
First, if youíre a home-based voice talent, headphones are completely your choice.
 
If you like using them, then use them. And if you prefer not to, then donít.
 
Itís really that simple.
 
STUDIOS DROPPING 'EM
 
However, if youíre a MAJOR MARKET talent or a talent who voices primarily in studios such as in Los Angeles, New York City, Vancouver or Toronto, you may have seen a significant change in the use of headphones in the local studios.
 
Many top studios are doing away with headphones for talent.
 
Most quality studios are equipped with talkback, so there is no need for the talent to wear the headphones when the client/director can speak with the talent directly through a speaker without affecting the recording.
 
WHAT'S YOUR EXPERIENCE?
 
If youíre an experienced talent, youíll have grown accustomed to a certain way of recording.
 
Many talent are used to recording from the old broadcast days, when hearing themselves through the headphones was either a necessity for technique or a way for them to hear that great voice of theirs.
 
Letís face it, weíre voice talent, we like to be heard.
 
... OR NOT?
 
Of course there is exception to this stereotype.
 
There are many forms of voice talent, including some who are very introverted and shy ... and perhaps are intimidated or put off by the sound of their own voice.
 
In fact, many people DONĒT like the sound of their voice and find it off-putting to hear their voice playing while they are speaking, or even played back, for that matter.
 
You have to get over that one, because that is EXACTLY how you sound to the rest of the world.
 
OVER ONE EAR
 
A technique that MANY use is to put one side of the headphones over one ear only, and the opposite side placed behind your ear, resting on your head.
 
That doesnít mean, however, that you have to wear the headphones and hear your voice back.
 
PROS AND CONS ...
 
There can be significant benefits to using headphones, just as there can be major drawbacks.
 
As with most things in this industry, it really does come down to personal choice, unless it's required to wear headphones in order to hear playback or direction.
 
Iíve created a list of pros and cons to wearing headphones in hopes that you can apply this to your needs. Let us know (comment below) if you have additions to these lists.
 
CAN THE CANS
 
Letís start with Cons:
  • Hearing yourself back can be distracting. You are apt to direct yourself, instead of letting go with the voice acting.
  • Headphones can get heavy and uncomfortable on longer projects.
  • The headphone cord/cable can get in the way of the script. Always wear the headphones so that the cord doesnít cross over the script stand, blocking your view. Place the cord over your shoulder so it doesnít interfere with your script stand (if you use one).
  • Headphones can affect your hearing over time.
Iím sure there are more, but this is a good start.

ALL IN FAVOR ...

Now for the advantages to wearing headphones:
  • You can hear clicks and pops, allowing you to instantly revoice (talent canít always repeat the same take twice, so you can ruin good takes and not be able to give a consistent pick up when having to re-record).
  • Home-based talent can hear the lawn mower, the fridge, microwave or flushing toilets that the human ear may not pick up ... Ahhhh home recording Ė gotta love it!
  • Receive feedback or direction without it bleeding through the mic.
  • Hear your voice or character choices (you have to be able to not allow it to distract you. Some talent are very capable of doing this Ė but not everyone).
  • Hear editing or speech mistakes (slurred words, bad edit cuts etc.).
  • Make instant corrections or redoís keeping the flow of the delivery
  • Can hear your voice as it sounds to others through a high quality system, allowing you to get used to the sound of your voice.
MY CHOICE IS ...
 
As you can see, there is cause for argument on both sides so it becomes personal choice and studio choice.
 
I have worked with headphones since the beginning of my career in 1989, so Iím more than comfortable working with them. In fact, I prefer to work with headphones.
 
I can work without them, but I do most of my projects from home and I tend to live a very busy workday so I donít have time for unnecessary redos and I find headphones save me a ton of time.
 
FOR EXAMPLE ...

I once sent an audiobook project to a client that both my myself and my engineer edited separately to meet a strict deadline.
 
We both sent in our edited files to the client and the client came back saying he could hear our edit cuts.
For those of you new to the industry, you have to be careful when making edits, as you can clip off the end of words, cut out dead space that is obviously a cut, or perhaps make an edit cut that is over a breath or room tone.
We were taken back by his notes because we both have a great ear and use high quality monitor speakers. Plus, my studio is acoustically correct and fairly sound proof.
 
I decided to listen to the file with headphones (which is how people will be listening to an audiobook and many of the files you voice), and we were able to hear exactly what he was talking about.
 
HEAR FINAL FILE
 
This is a great way to hear how clean your finished product is, so I try to always listen to the final file with headphones on, to assure top quality sound.
 
When Iím in a studio that doesnít allow headphones, itís not a problem to perform without them, because the engineers will hear any unwanted noises and necessary redos. 
 
I encourage you to practice both methods so that you are able to accommodate any needs the studios/clients/directors may have.
 
You must be adaptable - and thatís one thing that isnít debatable!
 
ABOUT DEB ...
 
Deb Munro is a leading voice talent, coach, and owner of Chanti Productions, in the Vancouver, B.C., Canada area. She offers private voice over coaching by phone and Skype, and MIC 'N ME workshops on voice acting, business and demo prep in many Canadian cities.
 
Web: www.micnme.com 
 
 
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Comments (10)
Cat Smith
12/4/2011 at 3:37 AM
Thank you for this article. When I bought my first home studio mic, it was USB and when using headphones had a delay that I couldn't get rid of. My roommate, who is a musician who records, couldn't understand what the big deal was. "Just do it without the headphones."

I know inside why I use the headphones for every recording and for editing, but just could not verbalize my reasoning. Thank you for giving me solid reasons, understandable (!) reasons I can give to him.
Lance Blair
10/9/2010 at 4:04 PM
Wonderful, thorough and concise look at all the variables at play. Different talents need to find what works for them. I generally prefer to work with them (one or both can on) unless I'm doing lots of movement in character, or doing a hard-sell/heavy projection read. Everyone has to find what works best for them.

What should also be taken into consideration is the headphone themselves.

Sony 7506s are hyped in the high and low end. Many AKGs leak like crazy. Beyerdynamics might make you sound warmer than you are. I use Sennheiser HD280s, which are uncomfortable until you break them in for a week, then they're great. Amazing isolation, so you don't have to crank the gain. Audio Technica and Shure have new models of headphones that I would also recommend over the standard Sony and AKG models.

Whatever you have, enjoy what you've got!
Ken Rosenlund
10/5/2010 at 7:17 PM
Deb Munro,

Thank you for your very informative article. This reinforces my feeling that I need to listen to the work both on speakers and headphones before submission. I often use Bose q15 headphones so I can get down to real honest sound, though I also record without often.

I feel the best take-away, though, is the need to listen to your work on monitor and headphone.

Well writen.
Deb Munro
10/5/2010 at 6:08 PM
Such great points - now I know what the freakin ringing in my ears is - I too, must have a mild case of tinnitis - while at the same time (as most of you can relate) I can hear ANY AND ALL SOUNDS - drives someone nuts after awhile - but it's great for recording.

I too, use the same Sony headphones ... except my ear cushions don't always stay on - pain in the arse .....

I think what we hear commonly is that those of us from JOCK ROCK days - taking off the Cans will help to offer a more natural read - we can also learn that wearing them too much is actually damaging to your ears. I too suffer slightly, but liveable ... so be careful everyone.

So glad you are enjoying the article - I know there are many forms of thought and really all of them are correct. So let the great debate continue - while we all do whatever the heck we want anyway LOL - until told otherwise

All my best
Deb
John Florian
10/5/2010 at 5:48 PM
Larry's mention (below) of tinnitus makes me remember what I experience daily - so often, in fact, that I DON'T think of it. That's using headphones while wearing two powerful behind-the-ear hearing aids.

The headphones' ear cups must go over the hearing aid speakers, at the top of the ear, rather than over the ear canal opening.

And this can create a feedback squeal and other strange sounds or electronic distortions as the hearing aid reacts to the cup and whatever is in the headphones.

During playback: Yikes! Is that weird noise in the recording - or in my head?

For many years, in studios, I'd remove the hearing aids and ask the engineers to crank up the headphone volume to the max, so that I could communicate with the director.

Today, luckily, my new digital aids (by Phonak) don't squeal! But a couple months ago, the left aid suddenly developed a hum with the headphone. What gives? I dunno. But at least it's not in the recordings!
Larry Farina
10/5/2010 at 2:54 PM
I am old school in relation to years in the biz - on-air jock, production / creative director for radio cluster and moonlighting voice actor.

I have been through 3 phases of the cans or no cans debate. In the beginning, cans (of course to monitor on-air and as a young "announcer" it was self-indulging). Then, some years ago, I went naked with no cans with an understanding I could achieve a more natural delivery. Of late, I am back to cans for the simple reason explained above (pops, clicks, slurring).

But most importantly for "working" the mic. Close, far, etc. Also, using headphones, I have a much better shot at duplicating a sound if I need to re-cut. Very good article. Enjoyed the read.

Larry Wayne
10/5/2010 at 1:10 PM
Being in radio for decades, having fones on is pretty much a way of life on live radio. I DO wear them when looking for the "sweet spot" on a mic (no popped "p"'s) ... but once I know where that spot is, the fones are off. But here is why I DON'T wear them anymore when I do vo work in my home studio(except on ISDN sessions so I can converse with producer/client, etc).

1. I have tinnitus. No doubt from wearing headfones too much at too high of a volume! The longer I keep the cans on, the more I am assured the ringing in my ears will get louder hours later.
2. My biggest challenge is to NOT sound like a radio guy! And that's what cans do for me!
3. I, too, playback on quality speakers and can usually hear room noise, bad edits, mouth clicks, etc., through speakers.

But Deb is correct. There is no right or wrong answer. If you feel they help rather than hinder you ... use 'em! By the way, the fones of choice for me for years has been the Sony MDR-7506.
Paul J. Warwick
10/5/2010 at 8:41 AM
Excellent post Deb!
Not only whether to use cans ... I prefer not to. When I do, I become "Boss Jock" and there isn't much call for that read anymore. But I do believe in wearing cans while editing. Many a sloppy edit was repaired that way.
Earl M
10/5/2010 at 3:52 AM
Without a doubt, USE your common sense and USE CANS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Pearl Hewitt
10/5/2010 at 12:20 AM
Hi Deb,

I prefer to record with headphones on, but I do have a tiny head and even with the headphones set at their smallest size, they are still a tad big for me, which means they get a little uncomfortable after a while. However, by the time the discomfort starts to set in, it's usually time to take a break anyway, so it often works out well.

I have recorded without headphones a few times, but I ALWAYS play back through them whilst listening to the finished product. I agree, you definitely can't hear the edits half as much through speakers and that's important to create a quality finished file.
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