It goes without saying that a lot of the voiceovers we record utilise music in their finished forms. And as voiceovers are expected to self-produce more and more themselves, the need to be able to quickly and easily merge the various elements of a project is of paramount importance. So here are my tips for working with music because I like making life easy for people.
Let’s start with the obvious
I want to deal with this early because it’s not what the blog is about! With every multi-track software platform comes a slightly different method of mixing, so that’s a large part of why this isn’t a ‘how to mix’ blog (I might do one of those one day if the demand is there).
I started recording music on my little 4-track portastudio when I was in my late teens. I didn’t go to college to learn how to do it properly until was in my late twenties. College solidified for me what I was already doing. The approach I took was to listen to the song I was mixing and I’d think to myself, ‘If this was on an album I’d bought, how would it sound different?’ and then make adjustments accordingly within the very limited technology I had at my disposal.
Using pre-mixed music as we do in VO Land makes this a bit easier. The question we need to be asking ourselves is ‘Can I hear the voice clearly?’. And here’s a clue to create a mix that sings – compression is most definitely your friend. Without it, you run a much higher risk of making your voice recording over power and get buried by your chosen backing track.
Mix to the medium you’re mixing for.
If it’s for radio, TV or a decent PA then your headphones/monitors are a good representation of how the project will sound in the world, but if you’re mixing something that will be played over a phone system or an 8-bit or similarly low quality medium it’s really important to listen back to your mix on as close to such a system as you can. You’ll be surprised how much lower in the mix the music needs to be to not overpower the voiceover.
Right, so if we’re not dealing with mixing, what are we dealing with?
Choice of music
D’Oh! Of course we need to consider this.
This is your one-line mention that you need to know whether you need to use royalty-free music or not before you choose a piece. Nothing worse than having to go back to a client and tell them they can’t use the music you’ve been sending as draft mixes that they love.
Here are 2 things to consider when you’re choosing music – style and tempo.
In terms of style, I don’t think I really need to say that certain styles of music suit different projects better. I can’t imagine free-form jazz would make a very good backing to an ad for incontinence knickers, and Pachelbel’s Canon wouldn’t suit a hard-sell All Products Must Go End Of Season Sale overwritten radio ad. Choosing the right piece of music is about capturing the right mood, and the style is a big part of that. A certain company may have brand specifics for the type of music they wish to use, so in that case you need to temper the read to the music (more of that later) but hopefully the copywriter will have also been made aware of that and written accordingly.
Tempo is also an important factor. Within the music style thing above, various tempo limitations are imposed, but after that tempo can enhance the read or mess things up entirely. Contained within tempo there is also business – ie how much space there is within the music track. Think of the difference between a 120BPM (beats per minute) track with the drummer playing the hi-hat every beat and the kick/snare alternating every other beat, and another120BPM track where the drummer is playing semi-quavers on the hi-hat, the kick every beat and the snare off-beat. Even if every other element of the tracks are the same, the second one will sound much busier than the first. This will have an effect on how it sits with the voice recording.
Different tempos of music can make a read sound faster or slower, so if you have an overwritten radio script you need to find a piece that makes the read sound slower. So do you go for a fast or slow piece, a busy or spacious piece? There is no real rule. You just need to find a piece that has the effect on the read that you’re after. So this is the point in the blog where I should provide examples to demonstrate what I mean. But I’m not going to. Not just because I’m writing this in
the pub a coffee shop, but also because I want you to experiment for yourselves and see what I mean. Easy to do if you use a multitrack DAW for your VO work, but if you use an editor you can still experiment a bit. Just play your voiceover through your editor and your choice of music though Explorer/Finder/YouTube/Apple Music/Music library website – I actually use this method quite a bit when I’m auditioning tracks to use in projects.
If you’re REALLY lucky your client will supply you with the music with all copyright provisions put in place. Maybe even cut to the right length for the project (yeah, right!). But because that’s not going to happen you need to know where to get music from.
And here I offer you your one line mention about copyright again. That’s 2 times I’ve given you it now, it must be important.
Copyright is a big topic and I’m not dealing with it here. But I have previously written about it, and you can read that blog ‘Copyright – nothing is ever free – a voice artists guide’..
There are lots of places to pick music from simply googling ‘Royalty Free Music’ or ‘Library Music’ if you’re not limited to royalty free stuff will yield you a lot of results. You can purchase individual tracks or some sites will let you buy an album at a cheaper price than the tracks would be if you bought them one by one. Each site has different licensing terms (there’s that copyright thing again) so make sure you read the small print before you purchase. Most sites allow you to download either a low-quality or watermarked preview so you can get client approval before you part with cash.
Sites to source music for audio production
In my long and varied history of audio production, I’ve used music from (in no particular order):
Your DAW/editor may also offer you access to some library/royalty free music, so don’t forget to check those options out.
Using music during a session
A big skill with using music is finding a piece of music that suits the read, but occasionally you know the music you’ll be using before the voice is recorded. This can make the job for you as a voice – and me as a producer – easier. If you hear the tempo and style of the track you can match your read to make it sit well. That makes my job of editing and producing easier too. Just watch that your headphones aren’t too loud or you may bleed the music back into the mic, which runs the risk of interfering with the edit and limiting how well you can use the vocal recording (no, we’re not talking about cleaning it up with RX or similar – I’m teaching you best practice here).
Another tip I learned is that it’s often best to not voice to the exact edit you’ll be using for the job. Imagine the scene – I’m producing a 30” radio ad and I’m playing a 30” cut of the music to the voiceover as I record. The script is a little long and their read overruns. From experience I’ve learned that even the most experienced voice over artists have a tendency to speed up after the music has finished. So what I took to doing was playing the voice over the edit I’d be using, then let them voice to a longer cut so the pace of the read stayed consistent. After the read I’d tell them how much it needed speeding up by – bearing in mind that by de-breathing a read etc. I can cut some time anyway – and I’d worry about making it fit after the session (this depends on how much over the script is, or course. Some jobs you just have to do what you can with!).
The voiceover is the most important part
No one buys a new carpet just because they’ve listened to a piece of music – but music can make or break a message. Learning how to voice helps you develop a ‘musical ear’ and matching music and sound effects to a read is the next step of the process. It’s a great skill to learn, and can make what a lot of voice artists consider ‘the boring bit’ a lot more fun as it becomes a part of the creative process – more than just cutting out mouth clicks is.
This brief overview isn’t enough to teach you how to fully produce audio with music, but if you want start on that road, give me a shout and I can help.