This is going to be a bit of a controversial piece for a lot of people in the audiobook community since many working narrators with home studios are successfully using the Focusrite Scarlett Solo and the Scarlett 2i2 to record audiobooks. However, this post will discuss a major issue with the Focusrite Scarlett units that hurt narrators using these popular interfaces, especially those who are breaking into the industry.
Now let's be clear, Focusrite has some of THE BEST sounding preamps in the industry. Their products are studio staples for engineers around the world. When you use a Focusrite preamp, you can count on a clean, clear, and transparent sound. This is why at $100 for the Solo and $150 for the 2i2, their units are highly sought after.
Audiobooks vs Voiceover
Okay, so I won't go too deep into the differences between these two fields in this article because, frankly, this conversation requires is own detailed post. Or even a class, maybe...🤔. That being said, there is one glaring difference in the way actors record voiceovers versus the way actors narrate, especially for fiction: their dynamic performances.
When an actor is recording a voiceover, for the most part, actors stay in the same range. They're either quiet, loud, or right in the groove. But usually, actors start where they finish and stay consistent throughout the read. This makes the Focusrite preamps mentioned, perfect for their recording needs. At the beginning of each project, they can "set it and forget it."
When an actor is narrating anything other than non-fiction, though, the story can require transitions from hushed to booming to modulated voicings, within a single paragraph. This variation can cause a TON of leveling and clipping issues because you need enough gain to keep the quiet sections separated from the noise floor while keeping enough headroom for your louder voicings.
What to Do?
To handle these wild variations in reads, you have a few options:
Limit Your Performance
This is a viable option. You can keep your head, stay focused, and make sure that you aren't going nuts narrating your stage whispers, or your alien growls "with meaning." In fact, you should do this as listeners don't want something unpleasant to listen to on either spectrum. But what if you are managing your extremes and your leveling still isn't consistent?
Change The Gain
This is probably the worst option. It's nearly impossible to change the gain as you're narrating. What's more, you will be very inconsistent with your levels when it comes to doing pickups. So what the heck do you do?
This is by far your best option. Now I know what you're thinking, "Don't the publishers, rightsholders, and the like ask for raw, unprocessed audio?" Yes, they do. However, any professional studio with quality engineers will have a compressor in their signal chain when recording your vocals. Hell, they'll probably even use a, wait for it...noise gate 😱. These are normal processors used when creating "raw" audio.
You see, a clean, transparent compressor is worth its weight in gold – or bitcoin if you're all digital. A compressor boosts your quieter vocals and attenuates (reduces) your louder vocals. This translates into more freedom with your performance while narrating. You still have to be mindful of your dynamics, but you are able to act more naturally without the fear of having your audio rejected for clipping, distortion, or levels too close to the noise floor. Compressors give your voice a full presence that you just can't get when recording into a preamp alone.
Back to the Focusrite
This is why the Scarlett units are actually a bad investment for audiobook narrators, in my opinion. They don't come with a compressor, which we've established is a necessary part of your signal flow. You can certainly add a compressor to your signal chain, but you're probably already recording in a tight space without good ventilation with gear that you only sort of understand. Why on earth would you want to add more confusing, heat-generating hardware to the mix?
Because cost, duh! In truth, the cost of a clean, transparent compressor to go along with your Scarlett unit ($400-$2000) is comparable to buying an all-in-one unit. Something like, my personal favorite, Universal Audio's Apollo Twin Mk II ($700-$1200). You can also find them used for closer to $600 along with their first series units for $500 or less. A unit like the Apollo comes with Universal's outstanding, industry-leading preamps, a high-pass filter to help your noise floor, and free plugins that emulate some of the best outboard gear in the world. Specifically for application to this post, the Legacy LA-2A. You can also try their digital outboard gear for free, without the hassle of shipping and returning gear that you're guessing about.
We all know that it's hard enough winning auditions and schmoozing...uh, I mean networking, with casting directors without having the added stress of delivering subpar audio. If someone's voice is the right fit, they're going to get the gig. But what if there are three right fit voices all asking for the same union rate? When all things are equal, your sound and the translation of your narration to "tape" is what is going to set you apart.
Recently, two amazing actresses that work with me and TYDEF regularly, Caitlin Kelly (@CaitlinKellyVO) and Vivienne Leheny (@VLeheny), have made the switch and they are thrilled with the results of having quality compression in their vocal chains. Follow them on Twitter and ask them about it.
Where It Ends
Maybe you're just exploring the possibilities of narration or maybe you've already taken the leap and purchased one of those sub $300 "recording packages" marketed to narrators. Either way, if you're looking to stand out and avoid critical audio issues with your narration, you are going to want to find a clean compression solution for your vocal chain. This is going to benefit your sound and your career immensely.