Once upon a time... All professional voice recording was done with great big "Magical-Sounding" microphones: Those old-fashioned ribbon mics or vacuum tube condenser mics, which are still the preferred instruments for music recording in studios all over the world. Fabulous "presence" and rich "character" were imparted to every actor's and announcer's vocal stylings. The individual "flavors" of the Human Voice, and the sonic characteristics of microphones used to record them, is a subject that I have developed a great deal of expertise with through decades of experience and conscientious research; and the following "rant" has been simmering for a long time now, as I become more and more frustrated over the current trend in microphones used for recording "voice overs".

The Sennheiser 416 Microphone is a marvel of modern engineering: A slender aluminum shaft, vented along its' length with a multitude of narrow slots. It is brilliantly designed to 'spotlight' a single voice or sound source when aimed like a 'shotgun' at its' target - from several feet or even yards away, regardless of background noise or room acoustics. These unwanted elements are almost completely filtered out by not only the laser-focus of the hollow shaft, but by carefully tuning the electronic "eardrum" (called the 'capsule') to specifically eliminate most of the bothersome harmonic frequencies which interfere with the intelligibility of speech in noisy or highly reverberant (echoey) environments - as well as to highlight the percussive and sibilant sounds we use in the articulation of consonants. Originally designed for news gathering and outdoor 'location sound' recording, it has a bright, hard, somewhat 'metallic' sound, that blasts right through even the thickest of sound mixes. So what could be wrong with that? Plenty - if you intend to use this sonic equivalent of a crude telephoto lens in a typical small recording studio, directly in front of someone's face.

First, from a purely physical perspective, the extremely tight area of focus makes the slightest change in facial position critically important; so to avoid sounding "off mic", a performer's head must be held in a virtual vise. The unforgiving nature of this intrusive "finger" being rudely pointed right in your face is not only an annoying distraction, but forces the actor to confine their entire range of expression to a space of no more than two square inches. Since the design cancels out everything beyond its' tiny "hot spot", it will invariably ignore the rich vibrations which resonate from the chest and sinus cavities, while over-emphasizing mouth noises, lip-smacking, and phlegm on the vocal chords. So why not just back away a few feet to avoid these artifacts? Well, it can help, providing the studio has enough space to allow for that; but then you've lost that intimate "close up" presence which gives a voice-over recording its' "bigger than life" quality. And then, there are those "bothersome" harmonic frequencies I mentioned: When those subtleties of sound are lost, some of the components which make up the distinctive qualities of individual voices (along with various overtones that highlight the differences between character voices) are "thrown out with the bath-water". Because all that is left is a stark, non-musical, 'flavorless' sound, this limits the voice actor's "toolbox" to the mere articulation and timing of words and as the only effective means of defining and expressing individual character traits.

My own personal taste aside, I have witnessed disastrous effects on the work of other voice actors at recording sessions with the 416: I've seen a fine actress reduced to tears once - when performing a 'lovely' classic Disney Princess voice for a commercial, she was accused of sounding "shrill" and "off-character". The engineer merely scoffed at my suggestion that the mic was to blame, even though both she and I knew that she was delivering the exact same 'warm' tone that had been previously heard at several successful sessions. Then there was another session, when a voice actor I'd worked closely with for years was doing his excellent impressions of two different famous voices, and was labeled as 'incompetent' because we couldn't hear any difference in the tonality of those personalities through the monitor speakers. When the engineer finally agreed to "humor" me by switching mics, the difference in voices was clearly evident. "He's just doing it better now." was the engineer's defensive explanation of the apparent improvement. But my friend and I knew it was indeed the fault of that tone-deaf microphone, as he hadn't changed any aspect of his well-practiced impressions when the switch was made.

Much to my horror, despite the abundance of character enhancing, wonderful sounding microphones available these days, the Sennheiser 416 'shotgun' is currently dominating the sound of commercial voice overs in Los Angeles, making me feel like "a voice in the wilderness" on this subject. Production engineers love it, because it makes a voice slice right through even dense soundscapes of music and effects, saving them the 'chore' of using equalization and compression to highlight it in the mix. Most announcers are likewise impressed by the strident quality that they feel 'amplifies' their presence on a promo or commercial, without realizing that their individual musical "timbre" has been lost: The rich bass "signature" tones become strangulated through the 416; transformed into a faceless, raspy growl. (That "same promo voice" you hear these days is actually the work of several different announcers). If I raise any objections, many engineers express irritation at my audacity to even have an opinion about the choice of microphone. "We use this mic on EVERYONE," they patronize me, "and it sounds GREAT... really 'clean', which is what you WANT for a (stupid) voice over. It 'cuts' through everything!". ...Sure: just like a hammer striking an anvil... you can hear it above everything else, but I wouldn't necessarily consider that a 'good' quality to impart to the human voice - would you? Then I ask them if they would use that same mic on ANY SINGER or Musical Instrument. Of course they'd never do that. The reply is generally something like "...but that's different! This isn't a music session: you're just talking! ...and you sound fine to me." - clearly revealing the lack of any real interest or respect given to what we do, by those whose job would seem to demand a more critical 'ear' than the average laborer. Unaware of how the 416 is "cleaning up" the less-than-obvious harmonics of the voice, I've had producers declare, "You're not doing the same voice I heard on your audition!", when I know damn well I'm giving the identical performance. ...Only this time, the complex chord structure of vocal tone has been reduced to only a few basic notes, as all but the most prominent colorations are filtered out through the cold, stark sonic profile of the Sennheiser. The work I love becomes an aggravating, stressful experience, as my best tonal characteristics been stripped away, and my joy of performing is extinguished while forced to maintain the stiff posture required by that over-rated, overpriced, and (to my ear) offensive-sounding microphone. In a word: it SUCKS.

It has become increasingly infuriating in attempting to accomplish high quality voice work, when those involved in the recording process insist that this worst of all possible choices is "just fine" for the job - and that my polite requests for a more suitable microphone are entirely unreasonable. (How could some silly voice actor know anything about sound recording equipment?) Now it can be argued that acting skills are what really matters in delivering a good performance, and I'd be hard pressed to disagree with that point. But without selecting the finest, most vocally flattering equipment to present that performance to the public, you might as well shoot a romantic "Love Scene" without skin-flattering makeup, under the harsh fluorescent lighting of a supermarket or dentist's office: The performance is still there, right? Everything is "bright" and "clean", so the unadorned actors are clearly visible (never mind how every wrinkle, 'zit' and freckle are over-emphasized). ...But we all know how much more pleasing and artistically expressive the screen image of those characters will be when the most "flattering" instruments of cinematography and lighting are used to compliment the look of the performance to begin with.

My point is, that by 'settling for' this tasteless character-crippling microphone as the Industry Standard for commercial voice overs, announcers and voice actors are being treated in a way that seems to say, "Why should it matter if we use this 'utility' mic on you? Just read the words, and we'll make you sound better than you deserve to when we 'fix it in the mix', you conceited jerk!". ...So maybe you wouldn't mind your wedding pictures being taken with the driver's license cameras at the DMV...

Just for accuracy's sake: while watching NBC tonight I heard a good-sounding promo, and realized that the three main networks are not currently using Sennheiser 416s on their promos.

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