Over the last few years, I have produced a number of video reviews and tutorials for The Pro Tools Expert Community. The Production Expert team generally produce video content by means of screen capture - Capturing what we see on our computer display (such as Pro Tools) along with our live commentary voice overs being recorded.
Over the years, my screen capture voice over recording and mixing chains have not changed much. In this article, I list the studio gear and plug-ins I use to record and mix my voice overs for Pro Tools Expert videos.
Microphone - Shure SM7B
The Shure SM7B is my Desert Island microphone. It is a robust dynamic microphone popular with broadcasters and podcasters. I use the SM7B predominantly in my voice over workflows as it captures nice round spoken word tones. I occasionally use it to also record melodic vocal performances... as you can hear in the live recording of "Somebody Else's Story" written and performed by my wife Georige.
The SM7B can also produce nice and dry sounds when used in acoustically challenging spaces. The SM7B was famously used to record Micheal Jackson's vocals for Thriller - praise doesn't get much higher than that.
I vouch for the build quality of this mic as I regularly use it and abuse it, I can't tell you how many times I've dropped this mic thinking I've broken it to discover it still works. To this day, my SM7B has not missed a beat or let me down in mission critical sessions. The SM7B pretty much sounds the same regardless of where it is set up in a room whereas condenser microphones can sound different depending on placement in a room. When I'm not using the SM7B for voice over recordings I often place it on electric guitar cabinets as it captures better detail compared to the SM57 and it also has an extended lower end which is great for getting fat sounding rock electric guitars.
Mic Activator - Cloudlifter CL-1
The SM7B is a good microphone - The Cloudlifer CL-1 makes the SM7B a great microphone. The Cloudlifter CL-1 mic activator is a "must have" for dynamic microphones. The Cloudlifter CL-1 is a small single channel inline box with XLR connectors on either side, setup in seconds. All you need to do is make sure phantom power is being sent to it from the pre and that's it… this is when the magic happens.
Dynamic microphones often produce very low signal outputs - this is why dynamic microphones are favorable for loud source recordings such as snare drums and electric guitar cabs. For average level voice over recordings, SM7B microphones alone require quite a lot of gain at the pre amp end to get usable levels in the mix but this can cause pre amp hiss. The CL-1 boosts the level from the mic to the preamp meaning the gain pot doesn't need to be set to maximum.
Preamp / Interface Requirements
When I record the stereo computer output (Pro Tools) and voice over I require a minimum of three inputs:
- One phantom powered mic input for my voice (Shure SM7B with Cloudlifter)
- Two line inputs for Left & Right outputs from Pro Tools
When I'm presenting a review or tutorial video I am 99% of the time in Pro Tools using my HDX rig as the audio playback system. Using Pro Tools HDX to present video content means I can't use Pro Tools to record a stereo output feed and voice over stem at the same time so we use a second audio interface and DAW to capture these audio feeds.
Previous Preamp / Interface - Behringer U-Phoria 404
When I started producing video content for The Pro Tools Expert Community I used the Behringer U-Phoria UMC404 interface. It is an extremely affordable USB bus powered interface that features 4 mic/line inputs - all the I/O I need.
The quality of the preamps are very good for screen capture/voice over applications but sadly my unit stopped working. I sent this back to the dealer for repair under warranty, this took several weeks so I needed an alternative interface fast. Just as luck had it I had a Focusrite Second Gen Scarlette 6i6 in for the review... which quickly retired the Behringer from my setup.
Current Preamp / Interface - Focusrite Scarlette 6i6
On the face of it, the Focusrite Scarlett Second Generation 6i6 doesn't really compare well against the Behringer. The 6i6 isn't bus powered, it only features two gain controllable preamps and costs twice as much, however, this is what I use now for my video production voice over recordings. I use Mic Input 1 phantom powered for my voice (SM7B and Cloudlifter) and Line Inputs 3&4 on the back (no gain controls) for the computer audio output feed. This works better as the Behringer Inputs 3&4 had gain controls meaning on occasion I got the balance of the stereo image slightly wrong on the front end. Using Inputs 3&4 on the 6i6 for the computer output means I don't have to worry about the balance of the left or right being slightly higher or lower in volume. In terms of reliability, this hasn't let me down and I don't expect to either.
DAW - Waves Tracks Live
In my requirements stated above, I briefly spoke about using a second DAW for recording the audio feeds. My second DAW of choice is free - Waves Tracks Live. This is a very good application for tracking audio as this is what it was designed specifically for. There are no features for plug-ins, no MIDI, no surround... nothing but the essential tools for multitrack audio recording.
In screen cap recordings I have had Pro Tools crash on me, plug-ins fail, system errors... you name it but Tracks Live, to this day, has not crashed on me or recorded anything badly. Track Live being used as the second DAW in VO recordings means it has to be hidden behind the Pro Tools window when I record screen captures - I have no way of seeing the application in record mode but as I said, this has never crashed or let me down so I've learned to trust it totally as a flawless multitrack audio recorder.
An Export Stems facility in Tracks Live also makes it very easy for me to get the three mono audio files from Tracks Live via a Mac folder into a Pro Tools session for mixing.
Download Waves Tracks Live Free from the Waves website.
Plug-in Insert A - Acon Digital DeNoise
Even though the the Cloudlifter does a fantastic job of providing extra clean gain at the front end of recording the SM7B microphone still produces a hint of hiss. This hiss is pronounced when compression is applied later in the plug-in chain so I attenuate the hiss using the DeNoise plug-in by Acon Digital (Part of Acon Digital's Restoration Suite)
This is a very affordable noise reduction plug-in that makes it very easy for me to eliminate hiss without my voice sounding underwater. There is often a ten-second recorded silence before I say anything into the microphone, I use this "air recording" as the noise capture profile by looping the selection in Pro Tools, selecting Learn From Noise Only in DeNoise > Freeze Noise Profile then setting the Reduction slider to taste. I absolutely adore DeNoise as it just works, it's fast and as far as I can tell it's not a CPU resource hog either.
Plug-in Insert B - FabFilter Pro-Q2
The FabFilter Pro-Q2 is my "go to" EQ plug-in for static EQ applications. I filter out the lows of my voice where plosive occur. I also slightly attenuate the low mid rumble so that my voice doesn't sound boomy and the highs to ensure my voice isn't razer sharp sibilant. I can use any EQ plug-in for this but I prefer FabFilter Pro-Q2 as I know it well and I'm fast using it.
Plug-in Insert C - Waves DeEsser
So Dan, you use FabFilter Pro-Q2, why do you not use FabFilter Pro DS? - The FabFilter Pro DS produces very transparent sibilant attenuation, great for singers but the Waves DeEsser delivers a more overcooked DeEsser result that I prefer for voice overs. I like to overbake DeEssing in my mix of voice overs as I believe sibilance detracts from the overall presentation.
Plug-in Insert D - Waves MV2 Compressor
Last but no means least is a compressor plug-in - The Waves MV2. The MV2 plug-in is a very simple plug-in to use featuring two compressor fader controls and one output level control. The two main compressor faders provide two different types of compression:
- High-Level Compression: Performs like a standard compressor when signal passes the threshold
- Low-Level Compression: Performs in an opposite way - signal below the threshold is compressed adding more gain to low-level audio. This is a great way to compress a voice over in a transparent way
I like the way that the MV2 squeezes the dynamic range of my voice with these two compression types. I find it more natural than using a brick wall limiter.