This month I’ll cover the basic “meat and potatoes” of doing voice-over (VO) work in Final Cut Studio, from some hardware advice to the actual software workflow. This is a favorite subject of mine, having spent many of my younger years in recording studios around New Orleans. In fact, I came into video from my audio work for indie filmmakers back in the ’70s and ’80s. I’ll start with some really basic notes about hardware. Then, I’ll cover actual recording in the latest versions of Final Cut Studio and Soundtrack Pro. To begin with, let me touch on the “potatoes” section of this month’s column, the audio studio hardware.
The basics are pretty easy to learn; the tough part is getting a high-quality recording rig and an experienced professional voice. It doesn’t take a lot of work to produce good-quality voice-over work quickly and easily. It’s all about choosing the appropriate tool for your needs and learning the workflow well.
The hardware is not too difficult to deal with, really. Just take it a step at a time. Find a recommended, reputable audio vendor who’ll spend time talking with you about your purchases well before you write a check for this stuff. For example, I went through several vendors who didn’t follow through with immediate, top-notch customer service, until I found one I liked and trusted. We’ve been doing business together for about 8 or 9 years now. I could save a few bucks here and there, but I firmly believe the few extra bucks are worth the quality of support and trust they’ve worked very hard to establish with me.
Most one- to two-workstation studios use a good, solid desktop stand (such as the On-Stage MS7920B), a pop filter (preferably dual-filtered), and either a space that has been properly prepared with audio treatment tiles or by using an sE Electronics Project Studio Reflexion Filter. Also important are professional-grade audio monitors and closed-back headphones. Closed-back headphones are important so that the sound from them doesn’t bleed back into your mic. You will record your voice work with headphones so you don’t get feedback from your monitors into the mic. That is the only time you’ll use your headphones! You will sweeten and mix with your monitors. Never mix with headphones; they’ll lie to you. You’ll also need an audio I/O (input/output) device such as the Apogee One or PreSonus FireStudio, depending on how many simultaneous I/O channels you need. These translate your non-USB mic into a digital signal your computer can recognize. USB devices are good for single or dual channels; FireWire devices are best for four or more simultaneous channels. Be sure you have the latest firmware updates and software drivers for your I/O device. Not all I/O devices are created equal; there’s a whole thing about D/A, amp, and filter quality inside the devices to deal with. Your vendor will have to discuss these issues with you.
And speaking of microphones, there are some really good quality USB mics out now, but the majority of them I wouldn’t touch. Samson, Audio-Technica, and Blue make high-quality USB mics that come very close to being fully professional VO mics. Personally, I’d rather push myself into a fully professional VO mic from someone such as Audio-Technica, Blue, or RØDE. Plan to spend at least $200 or more for something non-USB that is really of acceptable professional quality.
A quick word on treating a space with professional audio tiles versus something you found a roll of at Office Depot: Don’t use egg crate or packing material, ever! First, some foam packing material gives off toxic fumes in air, and there’s no way for you to know this or not. Next, if it’s not professional audio tile, it will only diffuse sound. While helpful, it will not absorb sound, which is the goal. Also, it will be highly flammable. If it sparks, it will literally burst into flames and set the building on fire faster than you can get out.
Professional audio tile will absorb sound completely so that you don’t get reflected sound, called standing waves. Even if you can’t consciously detect them, these waves will interfere with your ability to pinpoint frequencies, directions, amplification levels, and the like. Other commonly found materials folks use (quilts, packing foam, egg crates) will diffuse sound, so it sounds “different” in the room, but the room does not go dead, as needed. You’ll still get inaccurate audio information from your nice professional audio monitors. Also, don’t use too much material; you don’t want a 100% dead room, either! If it’s too dead, you won’t hear any natural fullness in the sound. Then there’s the art of audio engineering, which takes mentoring by a seasoned pro to learn.
For really good info on all this hardware, I highly recommend this online resource: Sweetwater.com. Check out the guides for mics, monitors, audio interfaces, and acoustic treatment.
Now on to our software, the “meat” of this article. Before launching any of these applications to record, the first thing you’ll do is set your audio input and output device in Apple menu > System Preferences. Make sure it’s communicating with your Mac properly. Many of these applications won’t find audio devices after they’ve launched, so set up, turn on your recording rig, and make sure it’s all working properly first.
QuickTime Pro Audio Recording
There are no fancy features for recording audio and video directly inside of QuickTime Pro. It’s simple, fast, and dirty. With all of your hardware set up and working properly, open QuickTime 7 Player (FCS installed QuickTime Pro on your system automatically; otherwise you’ll have to go to Apple’s website and purchase the Pro version of QuickTime). In the QuickTime Player 7 menu, select Preferences > Recording to set up your hardware correctly (Figure 1, below).
Figure 1. Choosing recording settings in QuickTime Pro
Then go to File > New Audio Recording, or use the keyboard shortcut Ctrl+Opt+Cmd+N. This will open a new audio recording window. Simply set the volume level for your headphones, press the red Record button or press the spacebar to begin recording, and start talking. To stop recording, press the black Stop button or press the spacebar again. When you stop, you’ll have your Audio.mov file open there in QuickTime Player. It will be saved already to the location you specified in the Recording preferences earlier. Using Cmd+I will open the Info window to give you specifics about the file. Just like in FCP, you can use the I and O keys to set In and Out points, use Edit > Trim To Selection to cut it down to the usable part, then hit Cmd+S to save your work. That’s about it. Like I said, quick and easy.
Final Cut Pro Voice-Over Tool
If all you’re doing are 30-second TV and radio spots, your mic is good, your pop filter is in place, and your space is treated, then Final Cut Pro’s voice-over Tool may be all you really need. It’s quick and easy, and it has a multitake feature. To begin, make sure all your input and output hardware is configured properly in FCP by going to the Final Cut Pro menu and then to the Audio/Video Settings option. Make sure the settings are correct in both the Summary and A/V Devices tabs.
Next, you’ll need to set an In point and an Out point in the Timeline to specify what section of it you wish to record in. Then, set the Patch Tab for your audio source. Voice-overs are almost always mono, so detach the a2 patch tab if it’s showing and target your VO track with the a1 patch tab. Due to the multitake recording feature, be sure you’re recoding at the bottom-most black track, and there is no audio on any track below it. If there are no other tracks below it, that’s fine too.
Next, open the VO Tool by looking at the first section of the Tools menu. Or use the keyboard shortcut of Opt+0 (zero). In the Tool Bench window that will contain the voice-over tool at this point, configure your settings as follows (Figure 2, below): Source and Input should be set to the audio device you are recording with (USB, FireWire, built-in). Set Rate to the audio sample rate of your Sequence. The standard rate is 48000Hz (48kHz) for digital video. Setting this to anything other than what your Sequence Settings are will cause you to have to render your audio every time you make a change to it. Offset is –1 by default. Only change this if there is some latency between the actually recorded VO audio clip in the Timeline and the existing video and sound in the Sequence results. But normally, 1 should work. Gain is set to 100% by default. If your audio level is too low or too high, make adjustments in your recording device first before adjusting this slider. Adjust headphone volume to be comfortable, but not too loud. Always record vocal work with headphones to avoid feedback. Always mix with proper monitors, never with headphones.
Figure 2. Configuring settings in the Tool Bench window
Once the VO tool settings are correct, it’s time to prepare for your recording session. FCP has a neat countdown feature. Turning on Sound Cue tells FCP to give you three auditory beeps, one per second, as a warning when recording is about to start (at the In point), and when recording is about to stop (at the Out point). This could help, or it could annoy you, so using Sound Cue is a personal preference. There is still a visual countdown in the VO tool window. Press the Record button when ready, and you’re cooking.
The Recording Process
On to the recording process. The playhead will jump to 5 seconds before the In point in the Timeline window, so you can take a breath before you start to speak. It also gives you a color-coded visual countdown of 5 seconds in the VO tool’s status window. Actual recording starts at the In point, and the status in the VO tool turns red and counts down, showing how many seconds are left until it hits the Out point and stops recording.
When the playhead hits the Out point, recording stops automatically, but the playhead keeps moving. After the playhead moves past the Out point, it’ll run for about 5 more seconds while a yellow Finishing status shows in the VO Tool window. This process is FCP writing the actual digital recording that it did in RAM on to the hard drive. At that point the VO Tool status changes back to Ready To Record, and the playhead jumps back to the In point (Figure 3, below). This all happens automatically.
Figure 3. Ready to record
When you record this way, the actual audio files are written to that specific project’s folder, inside the Capture Scratch folder (specified in System Preferences > Scratch Disks). This is the same place your video files go when using the Log & Capture function.
Doing Multiple Takes
OK, we have one take done! But VO work usually requires more than one take. FCP has that covered. To do additional takes, simply press the Record button again. The new recording automatically goes to the track below the one you just recorded to, and an ascending number will be added to the name of the recorded clip. Thus you may want to add a “–1” to your original take’s Name.
When you’re done recording, edit away as needed by using the Razor Blade tool to cut up each take and move them around left and right. But be careful not to delete anything. There will be parts of takes you don’t want, but you shouldn’t delete them. Simply right-click on the sections you don’t want to use and deselect the Clip Enable check box in the pop-up menu. Clip Enable allows you to “turn off” an audio or video or graphic clip, without affecting the whole track. Clip Enable comes in handy in all sorts of situations such as compositing, voice-over, and so forth.
If you wanted to, you could delete all the audio clips from your recording session that you don’t want, once you’re ready to lock it down permanently. Then, move all the VO audio clips to one track. Next, go to the very bottom of the Sequence menu, and choose Delete Tracks. Deselect Video Tracks. In Audio Tracks, make sure All Empty Tracks is selected, then click OK. All audio tracks with nothing on them will be deleted. If you didn’t know about the Insert Tracks and Delete Tracks functions at the bottom of the Sequence menu, they can be very helpful. They’re pretty self-explanatory too.
Soundtrack Pro Multitake Clips
Soundtrack Pro (STP) has a really nice multitake feature that’s very simple to use. Once you have all of your hardware configured in the OS and in STP, go to the Recording tab in the top right pane. You’ll probably want to set the Input to mono, channel 1 (Figure 4, below). Then, click the R in your VO track’s controls on the left. This arms the track for recording. You may want to name the track for organizational purposes. Speak into the mic and make sure your recording level is good: about 0dB in STP’s recoding meter.
Figure 4. Choosing Input settings in the Recording pane of STP
Next, press the red Record button in the transport bar at the bottom of the screen, or press Cmd+R. Some VO artists like to use the old news reporter trick of just speaking, then 3-2-1 (take a breath), and start talking. If you’re recording video along with your audio, you can watch the video playback in the Video tab in the right pane. STP does not have the countdown like FCP does. To stop recording, press the spacebar.
Once you have your master take recorded, highlight the resulting audio clip, go to the Multitake Editor tab in the bottom center pane, and click the Make Multitake Clip button. The clip will be converted into a Multitake clip and opened into the Multitake Editor. You will see the Comp track at the top. This is a representation of the fully composited output of the final Multitake edit. Below that you’ll find each of the individual tracks for each individual take. Press Return to place the playhead at the very beginning of the timeline. Click the red R in the Comp tracks controls to its left. Again, press the red Record button, or press Cmd+R to start recording.
By default, the Loop mode should be enabled. Look for the looping arrows button in the transport bar at the bottom of the screen. Dark gray is on; light gray is off. When turned on (by default) in the Multitake Editor, In and Out points are automatically set according to the duration of the master take you recorded. When you start recording in Loop mode, the playhead hits the outpoint, jumps back to the beginning of the timeline, and begins a new recording on the next lower track, all automatically, until you hit the spacebar to stop it. This way, you can do several takes, one right after the other, without stopping. It’s a very good VO recording technique to use too.
When all your takes are recorded, use the B key to select the Razor Blade tool. Cutting will cut through all tracks at once. Dice up your takes into the sections you need to work with. Each cut leaves vertical “transition” lines and arrowheads in the timecode ruler (Figure 5, below). Grabbing one of these vertical lines down in the tracks allows you to move the cut left or right. Grabbing the arrowheads in the ruler allow you to spread them apart, creating a cross-fade transition. Double-clicking inside of a transition section will open the Transition Editor.
Figure 5. Working with the Razor tool in the STP Multitake Editor
Now, for the serious editing. You have several tracks, cut up into several sections. When you click on a section inside a specific track, it becomes the active clip for that edit section. It will show up in the Comp track. This is how you quickly decide what sections of what tracks to “composite” into your final output.
If you actually try this, you’ll find that not all of the vocal sections you cut up will line up perfectly within each cut-up edit section. Thus, you’ll need to “slip” (just like the Slip tool in FCP) some of them left and right. To slip a section on a track left or right by itself, hold down the Opt+Cmd keys while dragging it with your mouse cursor. This will slip the audio clip inside of its own isolated section left and right.
As for output, switch back to the Mixer tab in the lower center pane, locate the first master clip you recoded in the main Timeline window, and highlight that track in the Timeline. In the lower-left pane, go to the Effects tab, and apply the effects you need to sweeten it up, if necessary. When you’re satisfied with your final recording and mix, go to File > Export, or press Cmd+E (Figure 6, below). Then set your export as follows: for Exported Items, choose Master Mix; for File Type, choose AIFF File; for Bit Depth, choose 16-bit; and for Sample Rate, choose 48kHz. This will give you a standard DV compatible audio file. You’ll probably also want to save the Project (File > Save, or File > Save As) so that you can come back and re-edit your work later, if desired.
Figure 6. Choosing Export settings in STP
To move beyond the basics of STP’s Multitake function, go to Help > Soundtrack Pro Help > User Manual and do a search for “Multiclip.” Everything you need to know (and more) about this workflow is there.
Logic Pro Multitake Recording
This is going to be really brief, just to give you an idea of how this whole process can become much more complex and detailed. I won’t cover the basics of how to use Logic, but just want to give those with basic Logic experience a quickie.
Go to the Settings button to the left of the tool bar at the top of the screen, then to to Recording. In the General tab, for When Beginning, Count In, set it for 1 or 2 bars (Figure 7, below). Like we saw in FCP, when you begin recording, the playhead will jump backwards in time this far, and you’ll get an audio click counting up to your In point, where the actual recording begins.
Figure 7. Working in the Logic Pro General tab
If needed, click the New Track button in the Arrange window (top left). In the New Track setup window: for track, specify 1; for Type, choose Audio; for Format, choose mono; and set Input as necessary (depends on how your hardware is set up). Also check off Input Monitoring and Record Enabled (see configuration recommendations in Figure 8 below). Click Create and poof, new track almost ready to record. We have to specify first the region we want to record in.
Figure 8. Setting parameters in the Logic Pro New Track setup window
To do this, click in the upper half of the timecode ruler at the top of the Arrange window. You’ll see the green Region light up. Drag the arrowheads on its left and right to specify the area of your track you want to record in. This not only sets where recording starts and stops, just like in FCP, but will also loop your multitake recording just like in STP.
Of course, once you hit the Record button, or simply use the R key, and start recording, the playhead jumps backwards in time, you get your click track, and you see the playhead moving toward your In point. Start speaking when the playhead hits the In point. When the playhead hits the Out point, it will jump back to the In point and start recording a new Multitake track. This will continue over and over until you hit the spacebar to stop it.
When done you’ll have your Multitake right there on the track, similar to what you had in STP. To edit it is very easy. With your Multitake open in the Arrange window, you'll notice that all of your Multitake tracks are a light gray. Now you can simply place your pointer over one of the takes. It automatically turns into a little vertical bar icon. Then place the pointer at the beginning of a section you want to use on one of the tracks, and drag over the section you want to use. This section will turn blue. Next, click drag over other sections on other tracks, turning the used parts blue, while the gray parts remain silent (Figure 9, below).
Figure 9. The Logic Pro Arrange window
Once a section is blue, you can grab the beginning and end of it and drag to shorten or lengthen it, just like we do in FCP with video clips in the Timeline window. You can also place your cursor over the middle of a blue section, and the cursor turns into a double arrow icon. When you click on a section, it becomes active, and a dark gray bar appears along its top. Now you can slide this blue section on this track left and right, to cover a different area of the waveform. Don’t forget to click the red R in the main track’s controls to turn off the Record Enable, so you don’t accidentally start recording additional takes! Fortunately, Logic won’t let you record “over” anything.
For output, click the Bounce button at the far right of the toolbar. In this window, you have many choices to export into several formats at once. For DV work, we’d set it up as follows: Destination is PCM, File Format is AIFF, Resolution is 16-bit, Sample Rate is 48kHz, File Type is Interleaved, Dithering is None. Dithering would be set to POW-r #2 if we recorded at a higher sample rate or larger bit rate than what we’re exporting. Normalization can be set to Off, or Overload Protection Only, depending on the quality of what you recored. Specify a location on your hard drive and a name, click Bounce, and you’re done!
The advantage to using Logic is the more advanced recording option, professional and extensive library of effects and filters, etc. Logic is the quickest and easiest DAW (digital audio workstation) package to learn, but it is geared towards professional recording studio work.
Again, there are much more advanced and complex workflows for doing simple multitake recordings in Logic Pro, but I’m just covering the very basics here for Logic users.
So there you have it: single-take voice-over recording in QuickTime Pro and multitake recording in Final Cut Pro and Soundtrack Pro. Which tool you use depends on how far you need to go with your recordings for your clients. There are no multiple takes or filters in QuickTime Player. FCP offers basic multitake capability, yet editing those takes is a tad bulky if you’re doing extensive work of long durations. Its audio filters are of good quality, but they are limited in quantity and nonintuitive to use. STP’s Multitake editor is more advanced, and it has easier-to-use filters. Meanwhile, with some extra investment, Logic Pro will give you the full power of a true professional recording studio with many more filters of absolute professional recording studio quality, and it is still pretty easy to use. As easy and fast as Logic is to learn, it will require more time to grasp all the little controls that make it work, and more in-depth setup for your hardware, MIDI clicks, and the like is involved. Think about what your realistic needs are, choose the tool you think will work best for you, and then take the time to learn it well. You’ll be flying through good quality voice-over work in no time at all. Before signing off, I’d like to acknowledge Jason Koons at Sweetwater for proofing all my hardware information for this article. Until the next edition of Cut Lines, rock those edits!
Ben Balser (benb at bbalser.com) is an Apple Certified Master Trainer and Support Professional based in Louisiana. He produces media, consults for studios, and teaches media production nationally.