Bass in Voiceover: The Enemy of Clarity and Definition
To be clear: I'm not talking about a "deep voice", but rather any recorded voiceover that seems to have had an equalizer's bass knob cranked to 11.
"Can you add a little more bass to my voice?" If only I had a dollar for every time a voice talent asked me that.
It's hard to wrap your head around, I understand. Maybe even counterintuitive. But while a thick, bassy voiceover will sound good by itself and when turned up loud, it will have trouble cutting through a dense sound design or music mix, and sound weak in most normal listening situations. In most normal listening environments, at a nominal (low) listening level, a voice with lots of bass will lose crisp definition and necessary intelligibility. Even in audiobook production, you'll find that too much bass in the voice track means having to turn up the audiobook louder when riding in the car, to overcome the road rumble. Not to mention it can cause a loss of perceived energy and emotion by the listener.
In the beginning of my career, I too was enamored with adding plenty of bass to male voices––especially my own voice––but noticed that the final product often seemed unintelligible in the less than ideal acoustic environment of the radio station's men's room's overhead speaker system. The same was true in my car's listening environment. While some voices were crisp, clear and easily understood, others were not, sounding muddy, their message lost.
Upon returning to the production studio, I listened to the "muddy" voiced content I myself had produced. "It sounds great in here, what's the deal?" I wondered aloud. The voiceover had plenty of beautiful bass, and the large 8 inch woofer-equipped studio monitors presented it in all it's glory. The louder I turned up the content, the better it sounded! How could this be? I mean, we had a glorious Neumann U87 condenser mic––the top industry microphone––who's bass-enhancing proximity effect was 95% of its charm!
Tip #1: Hey kid! Turn that crap down!!
If you're a producer, how loud are you listening when you mix? Chances are, you're mixing at a much higher level than your audience is listening. Most audio content, radio or TV, is experienced at a low to moderate level by the audience most of the time. In the case of environmental (passive) listening environments, the music is not blasting at all––it's just "there". If you want to know how the audience hears your content, turn the level down very low while you're are mixing. It will change how you mix. It will make your mixes better, and the voiceover will cut through like a blade. This is a result of: The Equal-Loudness Contour, also known as: The Fletcher-Munson Curve. Simply put: human hearing is most sensitive in the midrange. Bass and high treble are only perceived with equal loudness when the source material is played fairly loud. (85 DBSPL or above) Meaning that in a typical environment (low level audio source) it's only the crisp midrange frequencies that are heard. And if the playback system is a small Bluetooth or phone speaker, forget about anything BUT the midrange. When you combine a bassy male voice with a music bed or any sound design with much bass content, the bassy part of the voiceover simply gets covered up. This not only muddies up the music bed, it makes the voiceover sound dull and unintelligible
Tip #2: Use small monitor speakers for balancing a mix
There are a number of reasons this works. I have 3 sets of monitors: a sub-equipped 2.1 system, 6 inch 2-way near-fields, and a pair of small USB speakers that are similar to what my wife listens to music on at home. I start on the large system, so I can clearly hear subtle tweaks in equalization and the effects of dynamic compression. But for the final balancing, I rely on the small USB speakers, and at low level. What I have learned is that a bassy voiceover results in the voice seeming to be way louder than the sound design I've worked so hard on. Too much bass in the voice means I have to set the voice on top of the mix, which means at normal levels, the sound design isn't appreciated. OTOH, rolling out a little bass in the voice allows me to fit the voiceover inside the mix of music and effects, with perfect intelligibility and clarity. Now both voice and sound design come across as one, unified whole––no matter how big or small the speakers.
Tip #3: Use the bass rolloff switch on your mic or preamp
As I've written before, producing audio with any type of vocal or voiceover should not be just about the voice––It should be a unification of unique, one-of-a-kind sound design and voice over, engineered to create a powerful, memorable image. But if the voice has a ton of bass, this will force the voice to sit on top of the mix, pushing sound design or music beds into the background. In particular, broadcast imaging producers should aspire to have the music/sound design wrap around the voice like a blanket- while preserving the crisp clarity of the voiceover.
Earlier I mentioned the Neumann U87 microphone- a studio standard in both broadcast and Hollywood. While it has a notable bass-exaggerating "proximity effect" when the talent speaks at point blank range, the U87 also has a little switch called the "rolloff". Flip it into action, and an internal equalizer begins rolling off the bass frequencies at 150 hertz on down. This will cut the bass out of a voice to a small but noticeable extent––and seems to be hated by some voice talent. One male talent I used to work with would step up the the U87 and immediately inspect the rolloff switch to be sure it was not engaged, calling it "useless". So did Neumann make a mistake? Is this switch really a useless feature?
Neumann knew what they were doing. Hell, they invented the microphones that have defined the sound of Radio, TV and Hollywood movie trailers. But even if you aren't using a Neumann U87, many, if not most microphones intended for voice feature a bass rolloff switch. And of course, there's always the handy equalizer, used in post production, in the event the voice over was recorded on a mic lacking a rolloff switch. (I usually prefer to roll bass back at the post production stage, because it gives me complete control.) A little bass rolloff on the voice, however it is achieved, will allow the voice over to be tucked snuggly in the music bed or sound design elements, and not only be heard clearly, but heard more clearly than without bass rolloff!
Try bass rolloff before you try a treble boost. Always. It will seem like you added treble! Sure, I often add treble also, but it totally depends on the voice, and the microphone. Some mics, like the Pearlman TM-1 (my top choice) naturally have a boost peaking around 4khz, so I never need to add any treble.
Once the voice is seated in the sound design, you'll find that background tracks with deep bass can actually be experienced by the audience in a very impactful way. This will make your radio imaging, TV promo or original song more musical and engaging, without sacrificing the message the voice over is delivering.
Nearly any pop song from the past 40 years will be a great example of how a voice can fit crisply in a bed of music and sound design. EDM is especially useful as a listening experiment to understand why a big, bassy voice is the enemy of vocal clarity and the backing track.
Tip 4: Where to tweak eq to make a voice over stand out
There's nothing much useful below 100 hertz in a voice. Start by adjusting the voice track using a shelf filter set to 100 hertz, and turning it down by only 2 db. You will notice two things immediately. Firstly, the voiceover no longer seems "muddy". Secondly, it seems you can hear the backing track or sound design with more clarity. In fact, it will even seem as if the voiceover has gained more energy and presence, without covering up the background track. Experiment with adjusting the overall level of the voice as you tweak the eq settings. Experiment with the cut frequency of the voice track: Anywhere from 50 hz up to 150. Experiment with both shelf filters and notch filters (the shape of the eq curve) and see what works best. Experiment with the amount of cut, but trust me, just a small cut will make a big difference.
NOW try adding a touch of boost (around 2 db) between 3.5 and 4 khz. This may be an unnecessary step, but try it. Depending on the microphone used, this may be overkill, or it could add a sheen of sizzle, excitement and urgency to the voice. You decide.
Now: turn the entire mix down in the studio monitors––until you can just comfortably hear and understand the voiceover.
You should notice the the music "wraps around" the voice like a blanket, without the voice over interfering with the music. The music or effects will sound clearer, as if you've added some eq boost––even though you only eq'd the voice. That's because the voice isn't covering up the music by sitting on top of the mix. And the voice? It should cut like a bright silver blade––even though the volume of the whole production is low. Now, turn the mix up loud and enjoy spine-tingling excitement!
This... is the sound of audio content that will get noticed, stand out, and generate emotion. It will cut through the road rumble in an automobile, be clear on a Bluetooth pod-style speaker. It will sound good in the men's room at Target. Crank the mix up, let it rattle your sub, and the voiceover will send an electric current up your spine while the music sub bass rattles your pants. Gone is that "1970s announcer sound". Dead is that dusty "Bing Crosby White Christmas from the 1940s" sound. Replaced by nothing more than your knowledge and skill.
If you routinely record outside voice talent, do as I do: leave the microphone flat, then eq to taste once the talent is gone. That way, you won't make the voice talent feel uncertain if they don't hear all that glorious bass in their headphones while they're reading. Because, as a voice talent myself, I need to feel confident while I'm doing my thing.
Dealing with bass-infatuated egos
I've noticed a trend in broadcasting over the years: Affiliate TV stations are much less concerned about how "bassy and deep" my voiceover is than are radio programmers. I'm guessing this is because most radio programmers started out as on-air talent, and learned how to "eat" the microphone, leaning in close to hear their own voice magically get more bassy and "powerful". And considering that's actually how I started out, I totally understand the power of bass when hearing it in my own headphones while recording. TV programmers, OTOH, seem to judge voiceover from a more neutral and objective distance. What to a radio programmer might sound "thin" is perceived as "crisp" to a TV programmer when it comes to voice over.
Full disclosure: When I audition by sending a "cold voiceover" (just the voice track) I will keep the bass on the voice, since it's delivered dry and will be judged that way: without competing sound design underneath. I often admire the bass in my voice at that point, letting my ego bask in a high-volume, sub-ratteling playback. "Damn my voice is bass-sexy!" But once the gig is secured, tailoring the bass response down in the voice track is crucial. Sure, my ego cries in pain at that point, but my ego gets over it when the check arrives.