Why and how we do what we do.
Sierra: Reaper is one of our most valued tools, but to unlock its potential, you first need to understand this concept of a DAW. Passing the mic to our resident sound engineer: What is a DAW and why do you need one if you are an audiobook narrator and/or all-around voice artist?
Serafim: Okay, so let me put my white coat and glasses on—DAW stands for a digital audio workstation. It’s a piece of software that marries all of your audio tools and enables you to edit your recorded material very conveniently on a timeline. It’s like Microsoft Word: there are simpler programs for typing, but Word is going to give you all these tools to organize text very neatly into sections and paragraphs. That’s the equivalent of a DAW but for audio.
Sierra: There’s an update practically every day, which could get a little much until we put it in the calendar for a once-per-week download. But over time those are improvements that we want.
Let’s get a little more specific. The features we’ll be discussing are mostly not exclusive to Reaper, but we like how they work in Reaper. That’s why it’s our DAW of choice. If you’re considering Reaper or already working with it, we want to share some tips. For starters, there are two modes of recording, which we use all the time: Tape mode and Create New Take mode. [Note: terms in purple, though not links, will connect you via Reaper’s Help menu to the tool in question.]
Serafim: Tape mode is well-named: imagine you have a tape running, you make a mistake or you want to do it differently, so you rewind, press record, and it records over the previous take. And Create New Take mode (also known across DAWs as ‘comping’) enables you to record several versions of the same take, neatly stacked and represented with different color waveforms; you can go back later and choose your favorite take and then ‘glue‘ it into the track, with a handy short-cut like ‘g’, which you can also set up in Reaper.
Sierra: We generally live in Tape mode and visit its counterpart, because, when I do make an error, we want to stop and take a second to reset [a luxury of the home studio]. This is going to be more time efficient than just leaving all these errors in, which would make it difficult for us to tap into the flow of what we’ve recorded. When editing doesn’t keep pace with recording, say, each new chapter, thanks to this technique, we end up with more continuity of sound and storytelling as we move through a longer project.
Serafim: A few more favorite Reaper features: Via Layouts [in the Options Menu], you can customize (video) the visual interface. For instance, you can make the meters on the channel as big as you want. If you’re recording alone, let’s say, and you’re keeping your laptop outside your booth [as recommended], you can make your meters as big as the entire screen, so you won’t need binoculars to see your levels.
Sierra: And you won’t compromise your larynx by jutting your head forward continuously as you strain to see better.
Within Reaper, via Preferences, you can also set up Audition as an External Editor, which means that with the click of another shortcut [we chose ‘a’], you can shift a time selection over to Audition, clean it up as desired, then save and click back to Reaper. If it can’t be fixed via Audition, then we know to re-record it in the moment.
Serafim: A lot of programs allow you to make markers but Reaper takes it to the next level with its differentiation of markers by type [markers vs. regions], color, number, and name. It also features a tool called Region/Marker Manager, a little window that floats on your screen and enables you to jump easily from one marker to another, by color, say, across instances of a character’s voice in different scenes or repeat appearance of a word or name, say you want to check the pronunciation later. It’s the best implementation of this particular feature that I’ve ever seen in a DAW.
Sierra: We sometimes like to edit away from the laptop, both because the listener probably won’t have the engineer’s headphones and because it’s nice to get away from the screen for a while. So we’ll process the time selection in question, a chapter, say, and upload it to a file sharing service (Overcast, in our case). I’ll pop in my AirPods Pro and then listen and jot notes on a post-it: Noisy breath, 3 minutes. Missing word, 5 minutes 17 seconds. When I go back to Reaper, I can put my cursor at the start of the track (as opposed to the overall project file), go to Project Settings and reset that start time so 0:00 appears where I need it. So no matter where I am in the overall project file, I can follow the ruler above and zip through my edits.
Serafim: Reaper doesn’t have an incredibly sophisticated metering system, but it does have this plug-in called JS: Audio Statistics [located via FX Browser], which enables you to track your RMS levels and your noise level. We find Audition to be a better tool when it comes to meeting Loudness (ACX) standards, but the Audio Statistics plug-in will help you find and correct for dead silence. A recording is more often too noisy, but it can also be too quiet, sounding unnatural. ACX Check will ding your recording if you have even a second or two of dead silence, but it won’t tell you where those seconds are. That’s where Audio Statistics comes in—let’s say you left a little gap between two splices then glued the section, you’ll be able to see that by playing the file and watching the Audio Statistics window [RMS Window Min L showing a figure less than -90, e.g. -105]. At that point, you’ll also be able to see the flatline in the waveform.
Sierra: To wrap up, Reaper is attractive first because it’s inexpensive and easy to install. You can try it free for 60 days before paying $60 [as of May 2022] for a discounted use license, appropriate for most small businesses.
Serafim: And if you decide not to go with Reaper, you can still look for the tools that we’ve described, and their presence or absence in a different DAW might help you in your choice. If you are going forward with Reaper, I’ve found Kenny Goia’s YouTube channel to be one of the most comprehensive tutorial resources. There’s also the Reaper Blog and Booth Junkie.
Sierra: If you have any questions or comments, please write us!
Why Neumann TLM 103
Serafim: We started our microphone search, informed both by your studying at Edge Studio and Gravy for the Brain and your experience in radio [as a freelance foreign correspondent in Beirut], as well as my years of experience with audio engineering, recording music primarily. If you happen to be in New York City, B&H has a small room with multiple microphones all connected, so you can speak (or sing) into them. [You can also order from them and try gear out in your own actual space :-)]
Sierra: Because of you, I walked into this room already knowing quite a bit about the kind of mic we needed—to start, a condenser mic with a cardioid polar pattern, right?
Serafim: Yes, cardioid means it has a heart shape—the bottom of the heart is pointing forward toward the speaker and the top of the heart blocks the sound that comes from behind the microphone—versus an omni-directional microphone that’s very good for recording when, let’s say, you want to capture the sound of a music hall. We ended up testing two microphones from AKG and two from Neumann, the 102 and 103.
Sierra: We went in knowing that the TLM 103 is the industry standard [in our price range, as opposed to the U87]. I had heard that from people in the voice over industry, and you were familiar with it because it is a multi-industry standard mic.
But I do remember you telling me that the mic operates in concert with you the speaker. You, in essence, dance with it, so it’s really a question of who is going to be your best dance partner, not the universal industry-standard dance partner. That said, in our case, we did end up with the 103, because we liked the sound of it with my voice when we tested it against other comparable mics.
Serafim: Exactly. We liked it so much because it sounded the most like you. That said, you can spend an enormous amount of time chasing the microphone that sounds exactly like you. And once you have your mic and your booth, you’ll still need an FX chain: EQ, compression, saturation, and so on. The process of working all of that out took us a couple of years, during which we experimented with how to position both the speaker and the mic, right?
Sierra: Like many people, I think, I initially assumed that the mic should go right in front of your mouth and had to learn that you’re more likely to want about six inches distance in between. And it will probably serve you best if it’s off center, even slightly above you [if hung upside down like ours].
Sierra: That particular pop filter really curves around the mic so it takes up very little additional space. You can have a larger booth than ours and you’re still going to want to think about how you’re orienting yourself in that space right in front of the mic. Our set-up enables me to feel relaxed and confident, which is a huge part of anyone’s sound and perhaps an unsung part of the microphone experience. Also the FX chain, which is your domain.
Serafim: We use EQ to boost certain frequencies and reduce others, then we use a saturation plug-in, which adds a little analog filter to make the sound less brittle and digital sounding. And then we have a compressor that reduces the loudest sounds and then boosts everything; rather than getting a lot of dynamic range you’re arriving at something more consistent, easier on the ear.
Sierra: Now you’ve got me wondering: How does a microphone fit into a digital vs. analog system?
Serafim: So the mic is an analog component but in order for it to communicate with the computer, it needs to go through a digital converter i.e. audio interface [RME Fireface UFX II, in our case]. When you’re recording in a vocal booth, where you don’t have the natural reverberation of an ordinary room—what saturation does, and it’s gonna sound crazy, but it adds imperfections.
Sierra: So you have to add back in some of what you’ve taken out?
Serafim: Yes! That’s why vinyl records can sound more vibrant than digital, because vinyl has these imperfections. And we as humans tend to gravitate toward liking those imperfections. So we need saturation—and we call it saturation because it colors the sound. If you use saturation in Photoshop you’re adding extra depth to the color. We also talk about color in recording because otherwise it can be hard to verbally distinguish between different kinds of sound. With the right kind and amount of saturation, the recording stops being very pure and starts to sound more alive.
Serafim: The sound was good, it’s an excellent mic, but we realized fairly quickly that the recording wouldn’t meet ACX standards for background noise [-60db].
Sierra: We started out with this idea of, ‘Okay, we’re going to go to the experts.’ And the experts tended to say: ‘Eliminate as much noise as possible at the source. Really think about your studio build: You might need to open your studio walls, put insulation in.’ But we couldn’t just rip open the walls of our fifth-floor walkup so…
Serafim: Johnny Heller [Sierra’s coach via Edge Studio] has a WhisperRoom. We looked into it, then we bought our own right at the beginning of the pandemic. WhisperRoom is very transparent in calling their booths “sound isolation enclosures,” in other words, they reduce but do not eliminate noise [as typical of living room booths].
Serafim: Of course, just knowing we weren’t passing didn’t tell us how to pass. We needed to figure out how to use the software in a way that lowered our noise floor without degrading voice quality. We spent about a year experimenting before landing on our current set-up.
You spend a lot more time in the booth, since I only do intros/outros. How comfortable do you find it?
Sierra: In the winter, the WhisperRoom is wonderfully cozy; in the summer, it’s hot. Since air conditioners are just too noisy for audiobook production, I know some voice actors swear by wet towels. Via an Audio Publisher’s Association webinar, we did hear about Polar Products, which sells vests fortified with special ice packs. We also added a thermometer to the booth and decided to stop working once it exceeded a certain temperature and/or reached a certain level of discomfort. Recording in the early morning helped.
Serafim: So to wrap up, some pros and cons: Overall, we’re happy with our booth! It’s very well made and helps us get a great sound. We feel confident saying that after nearly two years of use. It also looks good.
Sierra: Everyone asks about it! It’s a conversation starter.
Serafim: Do you think it’s affordable in comparison to other options?
Sierra: That’s tough to say. At more than $6,000 it’s not inexpensive in relative terms. But there aren’t that many options and it’s definitely cheaper than building your own custom booth. It’s more expensive than the perfect closet.
Serafim: But that perfect closet wouldn’t have windows, whereas our booth has two, so you can look out and see me smiling at you.
Sierra: Most important pro!
Serafim: We sometimes wish we had bought the optional rollers, which would have meant we could move the WhisperRoom (without taking it apart first). Once we hired a mounting expert, we had more success keeping our microphone and iPad on the wall [via Triad Orbit]. I was a little concerned that screws and holes would compromise the integrity of the booth, but that doesn’t seem to have happened.
Sierra: As far as set-up goes, it’s worth mentioning that you can call WhisperRoom and a live, friendly human being will help you on the phone, which is amazing.
I do want to say something about the ventilation silencing system—like the booth itself, it reduces noise but doesn’t eliminate it, so it hasn’t worked for our purposes. The booth is modular so you can decide what pieces are essential to you.
Serafim: For the reasons we’ve described above, we recommend WhisperRoom to fellow voice actors and authors planning frequent recordings. Feel free to write us with any specific questions.