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How Much Money Do You Really
Need To Spend On VO Equipment?
 
By Ed Helvey
Voice Actor, Producer & Audio Engineer
 
A very competent and experienced voice-over colleague recently wondered if he should add a sound card to his iMac computer, and also, what price point determines the quality of sound produced?
 
Well, the purchase of ALL equipment involves a subjective choice.
 
RECENT STUDY
 
For starters, let's examine a very good article in Mix magazine, The Emperorís New Sampling Rate, April 2008. The author, Paul Lehrman, reported on the work of two scientists, David Moran and Brad Meyer, who published a study in the September 2007 Journal of the Audio Engineering Society, which examined what I'll call the psycho-acoustics of sound reproduction.
 
They found in studies and research that:
  • the quality of current CDs as a delivery medium is more then adequate, and that
  • most people in the study could not make definitive "technical" listening quality differences between the plain old CD and the SACD or DVD-A formats (which use higher sampling and bit rates then the plain old vanilla 44.1, 16 bit CD).
True - extremely critical and astute audiophiles, who can and do afford listening systems and environments that may cost well into the tens of thousands - and even hundreds of thousand of dollars - may detect the differences.
 
But the other 99% of the market does not.
 
SAMPLING & BIT RATES
 
In fact, in other articles, top recording engineers and producers who have lots of Grammies and Platinum records basically conclude in their own independent listening "shoot outs" that if the final product is going to be a CD, it should be recorded in 44.1 KHz, 16 bit in the first place.
 
This will eliminate any dithering issues or other conversion artifacts that might occur during conversion from recording at 48K, 24 bit or 96K, 24 bit.
 
The fact is, with digital, if the final product is going to be delivered in 44.1, 16 bit, recording at a higher sampling and bit rate won't matter because the actual quality will never be greater than the delivery system.
 
People are beginning to realize that much of this is based on marketing hype.
 
Just like the differences between Fords and Chevys, Cadillacs and Lincolns, Mercedeses and BMWs, the purchase is based on personal bias - and maybe a bunch of perceived status.
 
EXPERIENCE & TALENT
 
In Lehrman's article, the scientific consensus is that the most important factor in the quality of the end product is the knowledge, experience and TALENT of the engineer/producer/talent and all parties involved in the production.
 
In other words, a great engineer/producer/talent (and we often wear all three of these hats in our VO businesses) can turn out FANTASTIC products with good, basic, well-designed equipment and systems based on their knowledge, talent and experience.
 
Put another way, the world's most expensive, advanced and highest quality equipment and delivery media can turn out lackluster products in the hands of people who don't know how to use it optimally.
 
Also, a great performance will sound great on a plain old CD, an SACD and even an MP3 through a pair of decent quality headphones or earbuds.
 
BACK TO QUESTION ...

Now, let's apply that to the original question on the price point. 
 
I would say the same concepts apply. It's not the number of dollars that someone attaches to a piece of equipment - nor the "brand" or model. Instead, it's knowing:
  • the sonic requirements, and 
  • how to deliver a great performance product that will sound optimum in the end delivery medium for the audience intended.
Since much of our work ends up on AM or FM radio, Internet web streams, industrial videos, telephone messages on hold, audiobooks, film trailers and so on, most moderately-priced equipment (including microphones) that are designed for professional use will do the job MORE than adequately.
 
That is, if we - the talents/producers/engineers - know our jobs, learn from and gain experience, and are knowledgeable and talented enough, then we can deliver the product that will do the job.
 
PERSONAL PREFERENCE
 
When you read equipment specs, you find that they all meet professional standards. If you look at them on a scope and run the same tests through them, they'll all seem similar.
 
So it simply gets down to whether you can afford a Ford or Chevy. Choose one. Or whether you can afford a Mercedes or BMW. Choose one. They will all do the same job within the same operating requirements required by the job and standards determined by the industry and "authorities."
 
So it's all about personal preference.
 
Will you feel better and more professional, more capable and more justified, if you invest close to $3,000 in a Neumann U87? Or will you feel less capable if you have to "settle for" an AudioTechnica AT4050 at about 1/5 the cost?
 
Will you win in the "audition wars" because you have a U87? Or can an excellent talent with a good, clean, decent, moderately-priced system using an AT4050 (or even less) walk away with the "plum"?
 
In other words, once you get beyond the basics it's really about status, personal preference and "does it look cool" - like the Star Trek bridge, or a high tech laboratory, or a vintage analog tube studio from days of old?
 
WHAT MOTIVATES YOU?
 
A lot of our buying decisions are based on aesthetics, which is why the manufacturers spend a small fortune on the design of what the gear looks like.
 
Ergonomics and feng shui (for those who are into that) may also play a part, too.
 
Will you buy it because someone else has it? Will you buy it because the "Big Guys and Gals" have it? Will you buy it just because you can afford it - whether you need it or not? Will you buy it because you think it will IMPRESS the prospective clients?
 
SOUND CARD ANSWER
 
Back to the sound card question. 
 
The sound cards that come in most computers - Apple's included - are usually adequate. Typically, you have to  deal with less-than-professional interconnections and less control. And perhaps they don't have the headroom that would be desirable.
 
But when the dust finally settles, the client really doesn't give a hang about what you use - what they care about is:
 
CAN YOU DO THE JOB AND DELIVER A PRODUCT THAT MEETS THEIR REQUIREMENTS?
 
That is really what determines professionalism - not how much money you have invested in your system.
 
Ed Helvey, The Virginia Sound Man, calls Winchester, VA home. He has 45 years of professional experience in all facets of audio production, sound design, studio design, duplication and voice-overs. His current focuses include podcasting, audiobook narration and production, and various other projects. He can be contacted at: ed.helvey@gmail.com or (702) 997-5154, ext 105.
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