In the Yahoo Voiceover Group this morning, a fellow named Mike posted a question about how to go about using a different sound card with his Mac. As he often does, my friend Ed Helvey posted a thorough answer to the question and dealt with a number of related questions at the same time.
Here are Ed’s comments, quoted entire.
Hi Mike —
ALL equipment is a subjective choice. It’s similar to the views expressed in a very good article in Mix magazine last month. The author, Paul Lehrman, reported on the work of two scientists who examined, what I’ll call, the psycho-acoustics of sound reproduction. They found in studies and research that – the quality of current CD’s as a delivery medium is more then adequate and that most (vast majority) people in the study could not make definitive “technical” listening quality differences between the plain old CD and the SACD’s or DVD-A formats (which use higher sampling and bit rates then the plain old vanilla 44.1, 16 bit CD). True – extremely critical and astute audiophiles, who can and do afford listening systems and environments that may cost well into the tens of thousands and even hundreds of thousand of dollars, may detect the differences. But, the other 99% of the market don’t. In fact, in other articles, by some of the top recording engineers and producers with lots of Grammys and Platinum records, they concluded in their own independent listening “shoot outs” that if the final product is going to be a CD, just record it in 44.1, 16 bit in the first place and eliminate any dithering issues or other conversion artifacts by using 48K, 24 bit or 96K, 24 bit. The fact is, with digital, if the final product is going to be delivered in 44.1, 16 bit – no matter what sampling and bit rate above that that you use, it won’t matter because the actual quality will never be greater then the delivery system. A lot of people are beginning to realize that so much of this is all based on marketing ‘hype.’ Just like the differences between Fords and Chevy’s, Cadillacs and Lincolns, Mercedes and BMW’s, Kleenex and Kirkland (Costco brand) tissues, etc., etc. – it’s all based on personal bias – and maybe a bunch of “status.” Returning to Lehrman’s article – the scientific consensus was that it is the quality of the artists, the performance and the recording techniques – which are determined by the knowledge, experience and TALENT of the engineer/producer and all parties involved in the production of the
product. In other words, a great engineer/producer/talent (and we often wear all three of these hats in our VO businesses) can turn outFANTASTIC products with good, basic, well designed (not necessarily determined by expensive or cheap prices) equipment and systems based on their knowledge, talent and experience. While, at the same time, the most expensive, highest quality, most advanced equipment and delivery media in the world can turn out lackluster products in the hands of people who don’t know how to use it optimally and don’t have the experience, knowledge and, maybe, not the talent to “HEAR” the magic. A great performance will sound great on a plain old CD, an SACD and even an mp3 through a pair of decent quality headphones or earbuds.
Now, to apply that to your question. I would say the same concepts apply. $200? $500? $5,000? I sincerely believe it’s not the number of dollars that someone attaches to a piece of equipment – nor the “brand” or model. It’s first, knowing what the sonic requirements are and how to deliver a great performance product that will sound optimum in the end delivery medium for the audience intended. Since much of our work ends up on AM or FM radio, Internet Web streams, industrial videos, telephone messages on hold, audio books, film trailers and so on, most moderately priced equipment (including microphones) that are designed for professional use will do the job MORE then adequately. That is, IF we, the talents/producers/engineers, know our jobs, learn from and gain experience, are knowledgeable – AND TALENTED enough – then we can deliver the product that will do the job. Neumann or AudioTechnica mics, Presonus, D.W. Fearn or Manley mic preamps, Mac or IBM platform PC’s, OS-X or Windows XP/Vista, ProTools, Garage Band, Sound Forge, Audition software, JKAudio or Comrex hybrids or ISDN codecs, MBox or Edirol, Zoom, M-Audio, Tascam, Sony hand held flash recorders, Monster Cable (major hype) or Belden or Mogami cable, etc. If you read the specs, they will all meet professional standards. If you look at them on a scope and run the same tests through them, they’ll all look similar. Now, it simply gets down to whether you can afford a Ford or Chevy, choose one. Or whether you can afford a Cadillac or Lincoln – choose one. Or whether you can afford a Mercedes or BMW – choose one. They will all do the same job, within the same operating requirements required by the job and standards determined by the industry and “authorities.” So, now it’s all about personal preference. Will you feel better and more professional, more capable and more justified if you invest close to $3,000 in a Neumann U87 or will you feel less capable if you have to “settle for” an AudioTechnica AT4050 at about 1/5 the cost? Will you win in the “audition wars” because you have a U87 or can an excellent talent with a good, clean decent moderately priced system using an AT4050 (or even less) walk away with the “plum?” In other words, once you get beyond the basics – it’s really about status, personal preference and “does it look cool” – like the StarTrek bridge, or a high tech laboratory, or a Vintage Analog Tube studio from days of old? Believe it or not – a LOT of our buying decisions are based on aesthetics (which is why the manufacturers spend a small fortune on the design of what the gear looks like). Will you buy it because someone else has it? Will you buy it because the “Big Guys and Gals” have it? Will you buy it just because you can afford it whether you really need it or not? Will you buy it because you think it will IMPRESS the prospective clients?
So, as far as your question about the sound card. The sound cards that come in most computers, Apple’s included – are . . . adequate. You have to typically deal with less then professional interconnections, less control and perhaps, they don’t have the headroom that would be desirable. But, IF it’s all you have and all you can afford, can you learn to use it to your best possible benefit and deliver a product that will meet the client’s requirements? But, after all, when the dust finally settles, the client really doesn’t give a hang about what you use – what they care about is CAN YOU DO THE JOB AND DELIVER A PRODUCT THAT MEETS THEIR REQUIREMENTS. That is really what determines professionalism – not how much money you have invested in your system. Remember in the early days – you didn’t even have any gear – you just went to a studio where someone else provided all that stuff. The client was paying you for your talent and ability to deliver their message – EFFECTIVELY to their audience. Sound cards for $200 or more or $200 or less? How do you put it into the iMac where there is no provision for it? Well, the first thing is that in this case, the iMac may not have been the right choice of computer for this kind of application. But, in reality, that is a moot point, because, you can buy an excellent external USB or Firewire interface that will do the job and you can find excellent units for more or
less then $200. Just find the one that has the right knobs and switches for you, color coordinates with your studio decor, has the specs you want (they’re all basically the same), is within your budget, if possible – and . . . oh yeah – I almost forgot – SOUNDS GOOD TO YOU! In the end, it’s all about the sound not the price. And as long as the equipment meets the basic professionally accepted standards and you have the EXPERIENCE, KNOWLEDGE and TALENT to g
et the best from it, then the price doesn’t matter.
Sorry this was LONG, but I believe all of us are as susceptible to marketing hype – just as we believe our clients are. “Hire us at AFTRA rates because we’re professionals, have high-end, professional equipment, have attended lots of workshops and get regular coaching and have 350 years of experience and therefore are better for your job then the non-union guy who’ll do it for $50.” All great IF it meets the client’s budget and the $50 guy just happens to have the delivery that meets the client’s requirements. Let’s hope we can continue to get away with that marketing hype for as long as possible – we’ve all invested a LOT to get where we are. But, as the world changes and the economy is impacting budgets more and more – this could change more and more. Change is inevitable – nothing else other then death and taxes are guaranteed.
Oh yeah, and a little PS here – for all of my esteemed colleagues on this forum who have graduated to Neumann’s (or maybe Peluso mics – EXACT replicas of the Neumann mics hand-built in southwestern Virginia and now being used world wide) and Manley tube preamps, ProTools and all kinds of other high end gear – Good on you. I don’t
mean any negative toward you or your choices. I drive a Cadillac automobile – because I LIKE IT – A LOT! But, I started out driving a 1956 Plymouth Savoy – and I’ve had lots of Fords, Chevys, Plymouths and VW’s over my lifetime. It’s been my preference for the last X number of years to drive a car in the Cadillac class. So, again, I
say it’s all about preference and if you can afford the great high end gear – terrific – as long as you didn’t use the food money or the kid’s college funds to get it.
The Virginia Sound Man