Why You Must Wear Headphones When Recording

Hey there!

There aren’t many absolutes when it comes to creating art, including creating audio performances.

But…one thing I insist on is wearing headphones of some sort when recording. Some other VO coaches disagree, one going so far as to call it “aural masturbation.” The pros and cons are constantly debated, but I struggle to have a great deal of sympathy for people who don’t get comfortable and proficient at doing this, and simply refuse to do so. They are setting themselves up for failure, and a lot of extra work, otherwise.

(If you’ve worked in radio, you know exactly why you need to listen to yourself as you speak, don’t you? Yes, you do.)

Here’s a case in point. Warning: sadness ahead.

Worried about the final sound of her current project, my lovely client Mirai sent me this posting:

[My] RH noticed a few chapters had more “breath sounds and issues” than others. It almost sounds like I’m too close, or maybe that my mic input was at the wrong level. I had to do these chapters on a different computer. Plosives are especially bad.

Some of it is in sections where the character is struggling with fighting for her life or running, which I think makes sense, but in other parts, I can see that it’s too much (like when I have to be a barn owl – whooo whoo!)

Is there a way to fix this without re-recording?

There is also the computer fan that I missed coming on at one point. I don’t know how to fix that either. Thoughts?

Here’s what I wrote back:

There are separate issues here. But my advice is the same for all of them – you’ll have to re-record.

Plosives should be noticed and fixed with a pickup right when you’re recording – the moment you hear one, using my Stairstep Method for editing in Audacity, pick up from just before the pop (you can do the same if you’re doing punch-and-roll with some other software than Audacity).

And remember: the only way you’ll hear yourself pop or hit hard vowels is if you’re wearing earbuds or headphones as you record.

I’m assuming that because you don’t have any issues with the chapters recorded in the main room you do your work in, that you did wear headphones of some sort when you recorded there, but most likely didn’t wear them with the chapters you’re asking about.

If you don’t wear them while recording, this is a perfect example of the kind of extra work you’re setting yourself up for: there’s no way to know whether you’re overdriving the mic in any way, because you’re not hearing what the mic hears in real time – you’re hearing sound from a good foot away (the roundabout distance from your mouth to your ears), where the mic is picking up that same sound source mere inches away. Popping on the mic isn’t audible to your ear if you’re not wearing headphones or earbuds.

If you do wear them, you have to train yourself to not just “let it go,” but to recognize it when it happens, and fix it.

Because we have you balance your AT2020 USB Plus so that your recording volume is the same as your playback volume, any pop or overdriving of the mic should be audible to you the moment it happens, exactly the same way as they are audible when you play them back.

In terms of the book being recorded in two different environments, in general, the rule is “one system/room per book.” You won’t be able to match sound recorded by a different computer in a different room with your normal environment. If you want the best results, you want to record all work for each individual book with the same setup in the same space: same computer, same mic, same attack, same environment, same mastering technique.

For the fan noise, you’ll need to isolate when the fan comes on and goes off, and gently use noise reduction for that entire chapter. Sample from a quiet moment in the section where the fan is on, but apply the noise reduction to the entire chapter – that way it will be applied where needed, with the same result across the entire track. Fan noise, too, is something you’re much more apt to notice if you are wearing headphones/earbuds when recording.

(Of course, if you use the exact computer that I use and recommend, you’ll never have an issue with fan noise again.)

Again, I think re-recording is in order, in both cases.

After I’d replied to her, she wrote to let me know that, thankfully, she was wearing earbuds, but that she had to rush through the material done on the separate computer, and wasn’t paying the kind of attention she normally does when she was recording.

Care to discuss wearing or not wearing “cans?” Any tips for how you got over any weirdness when you were first hearing yourself while recording? Use the comments below. I’ll try to be gentle with the naysayers.

Hope this helps.


10 Responses to Why You Must Wear Headphones When Recording

  1. Mike Harrison November 21, 2017 at 1:22 pm #

    Hi David. I’m sorry, but I must respectfully disagree with the suggestion to wear headphones while recording voice-over, EXCEPT if being directed by someone in a control room or remote location. As a matter of fact, in some studios, talkback from the control room is accomplished via a loudspeaker in the booth. This is even true in the home studios of some VOs who prefer being directed via loudspeaker rather than headphones.

    Those in radio broadcasting wear headphones NOT simply to hear themselves; they can hear themselves without headphones. Broadcasters wear headphones so that they can hear others speaking to them and so that they can properly mix their voice with the music they may be speaking over. Prior to when the first radio disc jockeys began playing records themselves on turntables in their studio, the early radio announcers did not wear headphones; they stood at the mic with their script in hand and were cued by an engineer in the control room.

    Some may remember the late, great Gary Owens who, as the announcer on TV’s “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In,” would cup a hand over one ear while reading his script. That was a common practice by announcers on programs of radio’s Golden Age, which were performed with orchestras and/or in front of live audiences. Cupping the hand over the ear was the only way the announcer could hear himself over the music and applause.

    Getting back to voice-over, I’ll agree that wearing headphones allows one to hear if they’ve popped a P or over-driven the mic. But with the right environment and knowledge, it’s absolutely possible to establish a standard proximity with the mic so that the risk of plosives is greatly reduced (or prevented completely) and that settings be adjusted so that the mic is never over-driven.

    One of the biggest challenges facing voice-over talent who come from a radio broadcasting career is losing the dreaded “radio” or “announcer” sound. That sound develops after listening to our own voice in the headphones while on the air, when the audio has gone through EQ and dynamic processing. We also tend to unknowingly project our voices more than we need to. When we do that for several years or more, we don’t even realize we’re doing it.

    Exaggerated breath sounds are usually caused by two things: being unnecessarily close to the mic and/or the mis/overuse of dynamic compression (extremely common in radio). A microphone should be treated as if it’s another person’s ear: unless whispering intimately, there is no reason to be right up on the mic. The possibility also exists that breaths are being vocalized by restricting the flow of air in and out of the lungs, forcing the air to slightly vibrate the vocal cords.

    After working in radio for roughly 40 years before moving to voice-over, I can tell you that losing the “announcer” sound is not easy to do. But I can also tell you that learning to record without the headphones is the thing that will be the greatest help in reaching that goal. With the headphones, we tend to concentrate on the sound of our voices. Without the headphones, we learn to instead concentrate on giving the right read.

    My advice: first do whatever’s possible to set up the mic so that there is never a plosive problem (that largely depends on the acoustical quality of the recording space). Then, make sure audio settings are such that the mic is never over-driven (it’s better to err on the side of caution by recording at a lower signal level). Once those two things are taken care of, practice recording without the headphones… by conversing WITH the listener instead of talking AT them.

    • David H. Lawrence XVII November 21, 2017 at 1:29 pm #

      As I said, some vehemently (or respectfully) disagree.

      Are you the Mike Harrison from the old TALKERS Magazine?

      • Mike Harrison November 22, 2017 at 5:20 am #

        No, that’s not me. And if, by “vehemently” you mean “passionately” then, absolutely, yes.

        Especially for newcomers to voice-over, I feel it is far more important to develop good delivery styles and work on losing bad speaking habits. When someone is sub-consciously taken by the sound of their own voice in their headphones, it is more difficult to ignore that and focus on the proper read style for the given script.

        And, just as standing only three feet from a roaring fire will increase the risk of getting burned rather than standing much further away, speaking right up, nearly against the microphone, without a doubt, greatly increases the risk of plosives. That’s fact; not opinion.

        If a mic is in danger of being over-driven, the gain is set too high for the type of delivery being used. That’s why engineers first set a correct recording level by asking the talent to speak part of the script in the style they plan on using. Another fact.

        Instead of wearing headphones to become alerted to issues when they happen, why not work on how to prevent those issues from occurring in the first place? Especially when wearing the headphones greatly contributes to the “announcer” sound that today’s clients do not want.

        Passionate about this professional craft, I absolutely am. ;-)

        • David H. Lawrence XVII November 22, 2017 at 9:46 am #

          I don’t believe the two processes are mutually exclusive. Certainly you need to become more skilled at quality and error-free voice work. But if you can’t hear it when it happens, and are then able to do pickups immediately, you’re doomed to send me notes like this. And I don’t think that people develop that DJ affection and fall in love with their voice because they wear headphones, nor do I think the cure for that affectation is to not wear headphones.

          • Mike Harrison November 22, 2017 at 7:57 pm #

            Well, in addition to the positive change I was able to make for myself, some other VOs who have both come from radio and who offer coaching will also disagree with you. But, if you want to continue recommending to your readers that cans be worn, that’s certainly your business.

    • Tansy Alexander November 21, 2017 at 3:16 pm #

      Thanks for all the detailed information to help us further tweak our set up and delivery. You and David would make a great team!!

  2. Trenton Bennett November 22, 2017 at 5:23 pm #

    Great article! Maybe it’s my OCD, but being able to hear what the mic is hearing has been one of the greatest things I’ve learned.

  3. Dan Friedman November 24, 2017 at 11:38 am #

    Hi David, I’m going to have to respectfully disagree, as they really (IMO) are not “a must”. Though if you are new, you may find them beneficial as you get more comfortable with your voice, delivery and different mic positions. Headphones are certainly not “a must” for pros. Also, the type of headphones will make a difference. If your headphones have special features such as enhanced bass response you may not be hearing yourself quite as accurately as you should be. Enhanced bass response, can fool you into thinking you are hearing a plosive where none really exists. With the exception of being good at what you do and being someone who other people want and like to work with, there are very few absolutes in this business. Try reads with and without headphones and do what works for you. Sometimes you may like wearing headphones, other times you may not. YMMV.

  4. David H. Lawrence XVII November 24, 2017 at 11:48 am #

    I feel as though most people would consider me to be a pro, and wearing headphones is an absolute must for me, for the reasons stated here: to monitor and immediately fix self recording errors in long form audiobook narration, not to hear your voice with added bass or any other colorant (or quality).

    To not do so is at your own peril, and an instant doubling of your time (at least) as you have to listen through all your work at least once to be sure you catch each error. And that time savings is not just for beginners; it is more valuable to pros with heavier work loads.

    As I said in my article, some people insist on the opposite. Your opposition is duly noted. :-)

  5. Kat November 28, 2017 at 1:34 am #

    David, I totally agree. Now that I am listening to myself AS I record, it is SO helpful. I am catching subtle mistakes as they happen, and I have a more accurate sound of my character/tone/volume while I record. Thank you so much for this!

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