Why Does My Voiceover Sound Like Garbage on Earbuds?
Updated: Oct 31, 2021
Before you start chiming in, I know why and yes, they did sound like garbage over earbuds...or headphones...or even in my car. Its disastrous to even consider that with all our equipment, software and expertise, we can produce voiceover that sounds amaze-balls in the studio over the monitors, but utter garbage when heard over other sources.
The question was asked this week by someone who surprised me with the question "Can you produce voiceover that sounds good over earbuds or in a car? That question took me by storm and I immediately, replied that I have never been asked that very great question! I have never considered the fact that voiceovers might be heard over car speakers, earbuds, or even off some cheap home equipment. That was intriguing to say the least. When we produce voiceover, we VO's tend to do any post (production adjustments) to our specifications and equipment.
Its natural to assume that just because we VOs have 'the bomb' when it comes to our studio setup, that our production is as equally good and by that virtue, should sound amazing on any equipment. Let me introduce you to a saying:
"You can put a tuxedo on a goat, but its still a goat"
That said, you can hear Itzhak Perlman in concert, taking in every nuance that the master can convey in his instrument, augmented by the scientifically crafter acoustics of the hall, turn around, play the same thing on your car stereo and hear utter crap. You immediately hear the loss of the dynamics and range and even missing some key tonal frequencies.
This is all science stuff I know, but if the recording was done off professional equipment and then processed to at least accommodate the lowest denominator, then the outcome would be much more palatable.
I'm no audio expert, but over the years I have picked up on a few clues that really resonate with what I'm discussing (pun intended). Seems back when, recording equipment from the mic to the recording media itself was horrible. Thomas Edison, one of the pioneers of recorded sound used a cylindrical device to record his voice. Horrendous indeed. There's a great mini-documentary from famed recording artist Alan Parsons about the Art & Science of Sound Recording on Youtube. But there were a number of challenges getting the actual sound and recorded sound to be as close as possible. Its kinda like looking at a color photograph and comparing it to a scan of the same photo off your computer monitor (betch'a didn't realize your monitor has a blue tint to it, eh?). Sounds in as much as colors get lost going from live to a media (analog or digital. doesn't matter).
So in the early days or recording, for various reasons I'm not an expert on, audio engineers developed various methods in which to get live sound to record and subsequently reproduce on as many devices as possible.
Now how does this pertain to what we do in voiceover? Simple. The issue is we can and do produce crap voiceover without realizing that our audio skills might not be optimal for reproduction on certain output devices such as headphones or earbuds.
But what can we do about it? Well, lets review the question posed to me about creating voiceover that can be heard well on different output devices. When I went back to the studio and put on phones (cans, headphones, you get the idea) I was shocked at just how...different the sound was from my monitors (studio monitors). I mean, I know that the monitors are there for reference, but I'm so dang lazy, I just take it for granted that the product will be fantastic. Eeeerrrrrr, no so much. Was a bit muddy and tinny. It didn't have much presence and even though with what post processing I did, still sounded horrible.
So, I went back and pulled up some recent work, listened to it, and made some critical adjustments; mainly in the mids where I would not have thought that would be a place to make those changes. Mids can create mud and 'canny' responses. But to my surprise, it boosted the presence of the audio and once lowered the highs (2kHz and above) it became more pleasant and my 'beautiful voice' became more pronounced (rolling my eyes at me description). I even worked on the lows and made sure I had cut the lower and higher frequencies (less than 100Hz and above 10kHz). This way there are no obtrusive booms or rumbles or any squeaky/tinny highs.
Again, I use Reaper as my DAW (Digital Workstation) and it has a built-in plugin that I am fascinated with: ReaXcomp compressor and in addition, I use TDR Nova compressor as well. My FX chain has ReaXcomp first and TDR Nova next. Here are some shots of them in action:
ReaXcomp has the ability to do multiple variable compressions with makeup gain in a very automatic and quite pleasant way. I can really hear a difference in the presence that it brings to the audio. It adds a brightness that brings out the vocal. TDR Nova also has this feature, though its a bit more challenging to get. Here, I'm using it to suppress the mids at the 4.5kHz range. This compression is crucial to removing a lot of the resulting high end response. Also note the High and Low cuts!
The result: much better response off of the earbuds and from the headphones and when I get into a car that will have some better acoustics and speakers, I'll see. I will say that this is something that really has not been discussed in voiceover forums; or at least from what I can see. I might have missed it or I may have skipped that chapter. I don't know. But the lesson here is that you need to make sure that if you do any post processing, it sounds great on multiple output devices.
Cheers and happy recording!