Reading Aloud 5: Working with microphones

This entry is part 5 of 17 in the series Reading Aloud

First of all, know that not all microphones are created equal. There is a huge, I mean, huge range in what they are designed to do. There are some basic things that you can do to enhance performance in a recording though.

Sibilant and plosives.

An “s” is a sibilant sound. Plosives are any sound, like a “p” which involves a puff of air. Both of these can turn up in a recording. You’ve heard it before, I’m sure, and it’s annoying because it betrays the artifice of the recording. We want to listen to it without being reminded that the speaker is not in the room.

A professional studio will have a windscreen in front of the mike to help control this. A windscreen typically looks like an embroidery hoop with black pantyhose stretched over it. (In fact, I think that’s what they are…) But even with a windscreen you can still have overly pronounced sibilant and plosives. Fortunately they are easy to avoid.

The easiest way to describe it is this. Face the microphone, then hold your index finger in front of it. Blow gently as if blowing out a birthday candle. Now turn your head just far enough that you can’t feel your breath on your finger. Your voice is still going to be captured by the microphone, but your breath will pass by it.

Volume

The tricky thing about a recording is that you want different dynamic levels, but you don’t want different dynamic levels. Huh? It’s simpler than it sounds. When you are listening to someone if everything is at the same dynamic level, no matter how interesting the subject matter is, you will tune them out. It’s the way we are wired. I mean, people are still basically animals so we’re still wired to listen for predators. Which means that once we’ve identified a noise, we push it to the background so we can continue to listen for predators.

So to maintain an audiences interest, you have to vary your sound and yes, your dynamic levels. BUT a sudden change in volume will cause two problems. You will make your listener constantly adjust the volume of the recording as the listen, because let’s face it, almost no one listens in a quiet room anymore. But the more immediate problem is in the studio when you over power the microphone.

The microphone is like a very sensative ear. If you shout suddenly, you will hurt it. So, depending on the volume leap you can rock back on your heels or turn your head. Pretending to shout is not nearly as effective as just backing up and shouting. Yes, an audio technician can correct your sound levels, but it is different.

Handling the script

This isn’t a high-faluting acting lesson, this is just about what to do with the pieces of paper. Don’t hold them in your hand unless you really like the sound of rustling paper. If you are in a studio, there will be a music stand in front of you. Position it so that you can see it easily, preferably in that sweet spot where you won’t breath on the mike. Fan the pages out like cards, so you can just lift them across to show the next one, without having to turn them. And here’s really trick from Sam A. Mowry: When you turn the page, do it in the pause between sentences. This way, if the page does make a noise, it’s easy to edit out.

Mistakes

It happens. If you are being broadcast live, just keep going and don’t look back. But, if you are in a studio, stop. Pause. Go back to the beginning of the line and begin again. With that pause it will be very easy to cut the offending section out in editing. It is harder if you start mid-sentence because chances are that your read will not match the way you started the sentence.

Headphones

You know in the movies where the actor only has the headphone over one ear? There’s a reason for that. You need to know how things are coming up on tape, but you are more used to judging your own voice in the air. So, it’s a matter of personal preference whether you wear them over one ear or both, but for heavens sake, use them.

Questions? I’m sure I’m leaving out lots and lots.

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3 Responses

  1. Josh English

    I didn’t have a stand when I did a reading, so I had to freehand the pages. My advice: Don’t paperclip them (while you’re reading) or staple them. Remove the paperclip and lift the top page from the stack and move it to the back. It’s easy to do this without rustling pages.

    I’m enjoying this series. Thanks!

  2. Susan Johnson

    You have used the word “syllabant,” which doesn’t exist in any dictionary I can find. I think the word you want is “sibilant,” which means “having the sound of s or sh.”

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