So, you’re an actor (or announcer), there’s a pandemic and your agent is telling you about voice acting opportunities you’re missing out on because you don’t have a voice over booth.
You’ve got a quiet space (or you’re hoping it’s quiet enough) and you’re ready to try out this voice over thing. Now you’re wondering about voice acting kits, voice over equipment and voice acting microphones.
I’ve been at this for almost twenty five years and tried a bunch of gear. I’m here to tell you something that may surprise you: don’t overspend on gear. No voice acting microphone, audio interface, or stand alone preamp will make up for a noisy space. Instead, focus on finding a quiet space (or making it quiet), and improving acoustics.
Professional studios want to work with reliable spaces, so if your space isn’t quiet enough, you may have to build a structure to isolate yourself from sources of sound (this is called soundproofing). Either way, you’ll need to improve the acoustics (the way sound travels) in your space. To do that, get some blankets, clothes, carpet and/or acoustic panels and throw them on the walls (carpet goes on the floor, though you can try it on the walls too) if necessary.
To learn about the intricacies of working with sound, and to create a good voice over booth, check out my e-book about recording and editing voice overs. At this point, you may also have heard about a technology called Source-Connect, so I’ve written an article about that to explain what it’s for and help you think about whether you should get it.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s go over some voice over equipment I’ve recently tested that I find both professional and affordable.
The Sound Of Silence: Sound Interfaces
In order to record your voice at a professional level, you’ll not only need a good voice acting microphone, but you’ll also need an audio interface (also known as a sound interface or sound card). This is a piece of equipment that connects your voice acting microphone to your computer.
The main thing to understand is that every audio interface and voice over microphone (even stand alone preamps) will highlight certain features (the highs, mids or lows) in your voice. The idea is to find one that will complement your voice. Since we’re all different, what sounds amazing on me won’t necessarily sound as stellar on you (and vice versa).
To stay out of trouble, we want something that reproduces our voice as faithfully as possible. We also want a sound card that will have enough juice to power a good microphone in the event we ever want to upgrade it. Besides that, we want something that’s easy to use. Lucky for you, gear has gotten so much easier to use and handle than when I started recording voice overs.
Disclaimer: The devices listed here mostly connect to via XLR cables (three-pronged cables) or TRS cables (1/4-inch cables) as I’m not a fan of USB microphones (more about this later).
Here are some inexpensive but great sounding sound cards I’ve tried:
I like this for its price point, but it won’t take you very far since it doesn’t have the juice to power a high-quality microphone or stand alone preamp. The headphone volume is also limited. Overall, I’d recommend you spend an extra $76 to get a device that won’t hold you back if you ever want to upgrade other parts of your audio chain. Lastly, this sound interface tends to highlight the highs in voices. This isn’t a problem if it complements your voice, but this may be slightly better for women than men.
This is a tiny step up from the Scarlett, but I had similar problems with it (not enough volume in my headphones and I couldn’t make it work with my stand alone preamp). Here again, I’d rather you spend an extra $66 and get something that will enable you to upgrade your gear if you ever want to. This sound card also tends to highlight the highs in voices (though not quite as much as the Scarlett does) so it may be slightly better for women.
This here is a little Porsche. It sounds practically identical to the higher end Apogee Duet. It’s easy enough to use (plug and play) and sounds excellent (very faithful to voices and doesn’t add too many highs or lows). Your voice can easily shine with a great voice acting microphone and you can upgrade your audio chain as much as you want along the way. That said, I don’t think it’s as well designed as it could be, and (depending on the mic you go for) you may be able to save a few bucks without sacrificing sound.
I had high hopes for this–this is a great company–but I couldn’t make this work on both sides of my headphones. This makes sense: audio signals from microphones are mono (only on the left), but that means you’re either hearing yourself in one ear only or spending days online and with customer service trying to figure out how to hear yourself normally (and testing out different recording software to make the signal play in both ears). Life is too short. Spend a few more bucks to work with a device that gives you the option of hearing yourself normally from the get-go.
I have a huge soft spot for this interface. Right now I don’t even need a sound device, but I’m tempted to keep the one I ordered to run tests. It looks slick, it’s user friendly and intuitive, and most importantly it sounds fantastic (especially with certain mics: more about this below). You can easily take this sound card to the next level with a stand alone preamp and a good microphone. No one will ever know you paid less than $200 for this bad boy. Oh, and you just have to hit MON (short for mono) right on the front of the device to hear yourself and to record yourself in mono. Love it. The one drawback is that caresses the highs in voices, so it may be slightly better for women. Personally, and this depended on the microphone I tried it with–it made me sound a bit nasally (I do have a twinge of a nasal sound in my voice on some days).
The Sound Interface I use:
Apogee Duet 2 $650
This is durable, sounds great, and is 100% professional. It doesn’t add too many highs or lows so it will reproduce your voice quite faithfully. If you want something more affordable (as an entry card), the Audient is a much better deal and sounds practically the same.
Check One Two…Voice Acting Microphones
When it comes to voice acting microphones, you’re looking for the same qualities you are in a sound interface: you want it to complement your voice and, if budget permits, you want something the industry has approved of (a standard).
XLR (Analog) Microphone vs USB (Digital) Microphones
Even though USB mics are handy and plug directly into computers, and that their built-in preamps may have the exact same components as in the built-in preamps in the audio interfaces listed above, you won’t find any USB mics in this list. I’ve tried a couple (including one by a company I’m a huge fan of: Rode), but I wasn’t sold on any for recording professional voice over jobs. While I’m not arguing that they sound great (they absolutely do) I’ve personally found that they can sometimes add some measure of noise, like a distant static to my room tone. This may have to do with the fact that cables inside of them aren’t balanced but since static makes me squeamish, I like sticking to good old XLR microphones which connect via a three-pronged end.
Old Habits Die Hard
Another reason I don’t recommend them is that commercial studios don’t use USB mics, which means they’re less familiar and comfortable with them (even though some may truly rival some traditional microphones in the lower price ranges). So if it comes down to two talents, and one of them has what’s considered “standard voice over equipment” (XLR microphone + audio interface) they might hire that talent just because they know what to expect gear-wise.
Part of that is an “old habits die hard” mentality but since moving up the voice acting food chain will necessarily involve connecting your voice over booth to a commercial studio remotely via Source Connect to record jobs, you may need to switch that USB mic down the line. Why not get it right the first time? XLR microphones don’t seem to be going away anytime soon and some have similar price points to USB mics. Also, if you sing or play other musical instruments, you’ll have more flexibility with a traditional XLR mic.
Condenser Microphones vs Dynamic Microphones
Beyond this, and unless you’re a singer, you’ll probably want to stick to a condenser microphone, especially if you don’t use a stand alone preamp. Condenser mics are more sensitive, pick more subtleties and nuances, and need less of an electricity boost than dynamic microphones do, so they usually work well even if you’re only using a sound interface. Not to say that dynamic microphones are off limits, but you’ll generally have to plug them into a stand-alone preamp to get enough volume out of them, and that means spending more money. That’s because dynamic mics are designed for singing (to belt into) so they aren’t spectacular for speaking or acting (voice over work). That said, these things are very personal. For instance, one of my favorite microphones was a beat up hand-me-down from my mentor (Sennheiser 421 for $380) which was a dynamic microphone. To this day no other voice acting microphone has ever garnered me as many compliments as that one did. It’s difficult to know what microphone will flatter your voice without trying them, but given their prices, trying many of them doesn’t really make sense, which is why most people end up sticking to standards. That said, you can always rent microphones which is a great way to test them.
Polar Patterns of Microphones
Microphone capture sound in different directions called polar patterns. In essence, microphones pick up sound in specific areas, so your movements behind the microphone will impact the type of mic you’ll get. Typically, announcers who always speak straight on can work with shotgun mics. Voice actors who record animation and video games, along with those who record many different types of voice overs (most people) or beginners who move around more will need a larger surface to work from. Otherwise part of their performances could end up off mic. This would make their recordings unusable.
Voice Acting Microphone Recommendations
Here are some voice over microphones I’ve owned and tried. Many are industry standards:
Rode NTG 2 (Condenser, Shotgun) $269
This is a great entry point into the world of microphones (and shotgun microphones). It highlights the mids in voices, and it’s durable (often used on film sets). When I’m looking for a great quality/price ratio, especially for women, this is my pick. Note that the whole line of NTG microphones are extremely similar to the Sennheiser MKH 416, especially the NTG4, so no use spending lots of money for a great shotgun microphone.
Sennheiser MKH 416 (Condenser, Shotgun) $999
This is a high end shotgun microphone that’s widely used in the voice over industry by voice talents who record TV promos. It’s so unidirectional that TV promo talents even record promos in their car with it (it’s also widely used on set). It’s durable and sounds stellar. Do you need it? No. I would grab a Rode NTG instead. If you book a huge gig and this voice over thing works out for you, knock yourself out.
Neumann U87 (Condenser Omni, Cardioid, Figure 8) Between $3000 and $3500. You can find deals on eBay.
This is a perfect voice acting microphone. It’s an industry standard in advertising, and in broadcast television and radio, so many commercial studios use them. It will make you sound like a million bucks and if you’re booking commercial work on a consistent basis, this will pay for itself. Many studios feel comfortable with this microphone because it’s clean, it’s flattering on any voice, and it lasts forever.
Neumann TLM 103 (Condenser Cardioid) $1300
Here’s another industry standard for a lot less that’s its cousin, the U87. You won’t be shunned by any studio if you opt for this microphone, as most professional studios have one in a booth or two. If you’re booking work regularly and can afford it, you won’t regret this purchase. It’s a classic voice acting microphone, and you won’t ever have a reason to change it. If you’d like an entry level Neumann, try the TLM 102 for $699. I haven’t tried it, but you’re in good hands with Neumann.
AKG 414 XLS (Condenser Omni, Cardioid, Figure 8) $900
This is another perfect voice acting microphone and industry standard. It’s beloved by booming voices for how it caresses the lows in men’s voices. While I personally found it too harsh and surgical in the way it reproduces my voice, it does have a velvety feel that can be quite enticing.
Sterling ST155 (Condenser Omni, Cardioid, Figure 8) $199
As far as a good budget voice over microphone, this sounds great and it’s hard to beat price-wise. Here’s a more in depth review for you, along with some audio tests. This is a more classic voice acting microphone, so microphone technique will be more straightforward than on a shotgun mic.
Shure SM7B (Dynamic Cardioid) $400
This microphone’s claim to fame is that Michael Jackson used its predecessor on his Thriller Album. This is a great microphone, I enjoyed it when I had it, but it’s a dynamic mic, so you’ll definitely need a stand alone preamp because your audio interface card won’t be powerful enough to give you enough volume. So, think twice. If you’re a singer though, this could play double duty for you (if you use a preamp when recording voice overs).
Audio-Technica AT2020 (Condenser Cardioid) $99
I’m personally not a fan of this company for my own voice and for my ears (I don’t like listening through their headphones), but it’s hard to argue with this price, especially when listening to the audio tests at the bottom of this page. Great entry level voice acting microphone.
Listen to Yourself: Voice Over Headphones
Headphones are important, and if you’re wondering, earbuds won’t do (whether you’re recording on your own or if you’re connected to a commercial studio). They’re not designed for professional use (they don’t reproduce sound well enough) and since you’re becoming a pro, leave them plugged to your phone. When you’re voice acting, you want to be able to hear exactly what you’re recording. Noise cancellation headphones also won’t cut it since they’re designed to eliminate sounds you should know about.
For all the sound cards and microphones I’ve tried, I’ve always been very loyal to my voice acting headphones. Here are my two favorite brands:
These were my go-to for years. They’re extremely bright though (they highlight the highs), so while they will help you catch all the little mouth noises in your edit, sensitive ears might find these harsh. The earmuffs tend to fall apart after many years of use.
Audio engineer George Whittam recommend these to me some years ago. These are more subdued (they’re more focused on lows) so it took me some getting used to, but they’re still clear. I like how comfortable they are (so plush) though I tend to turn up the volume on them because they aren’t as clear as the Sonys. The downside is that I’ve had to send them for repair (under warranty through the company) twice (for two pairs). For some reason, I always lose hearing on one side so there’s definitely a manufacturing problem. Otherwise, they’re great.
Pump Up The Volume: Stand-Alone Preamps
The word preamp is short for preamplifier and that’s precisely what it does: it amplifies the electrical signal it receives (in this case, the sound you make when you’re speaking into the microphone that’s connected to it) by giving it some extra power. Truth is, microphones need the extra power provided by preamplifiers, otherwise you’d have to amplify your voice digitally (in your recording program) and it could end up sounding distorted. You want a sound to be amplified enough naturally (analog, via a preamp) so that you can manipulate it in various ways (digitally) without incurring losses in quality.
All audio interfaces now have built-in preamps, but you’ll generally use a stand-alone preamp (in addition to an audio interface) with more expensive microphones (like a Neumann or an AKG) because they’ll sound the best with the extra power boost. These mics are also more sensitive and will pick up noises that come from audio interfaces that have built-in preamps. But stand-alone preamps are like microphones and audio interfaces: they can highlight some of your vocal attributes, so again, you won’t really know how a device sounds until you try it with your audio chain (mic, audio interface, wires, etc.)
If you use a high-end voice acting microphone with a stand-alone preamplifier, you might notice that lower frequencies, like background noises, are a bit dimmer. This is a side effect from using a device that’s adding very little noise to your mix. It’s not like you can cover up a noisy room by using a stand-alone preamp, but it can drown out a room tone that’s just slightly too present while still giving your voice a beautiful boost.
In the old days, audio interfaces offered no amplification at all, so having a stand-alone preamp to use a microphone was a necessity. That just isn’t the case anymore as audio interfaces now all have pretty decent built-in preamps. In the same blog I’ve already pointed to, I discuss a series of tests I did to help you compare:
- A microphone connected to a sound card (with its built-in preamp);
- A microphone connected to a sound card (with its built-in preamp), plus, a stand-alone preamp.
In my test, I used the stand-alone preamp I own, which is the Grace Model 101. If you can’t really tell the difference or aren’t madly in love with the difference you do hear, then you’ll know that you don’t need one. If you love how a stand-alone preamp sounds on a certain mic and can afford one, give it a try.
The important thing to understand when using a preamp is that you’ll want to bypass the sound card’s amplification process. To do so, plug your microphone into the preamp (MIC in), and plug the preamp into the sound interface (MIC in). But be sure to turn the gain (volume/level of the Mic input) on your sound card all the way down, and to turn up (or adjust) the gain on the preamp.
If you want to dive deeper into the topic of preamps and how devices add their own noise to a mix, read this article about preamps and listen to some sound tests. It might read like a lot of gibberish, but why not start getting familiar with this kind of language? You’ll have to become somewhat of a technician if you want to be able to make money with your voice, especially in the new world the pandemic has landed us (all VO actors must have a studio).
The Preamp I Use:
Grace Design MODEL 101 Microphone Preamp $550-$765
Keep in mind that most preamps were designed for use with multiple channels (instruments or microphones) so many of them are exceedingly complex to use (and overkill) for a voice trying to make a buck from home. One the best alternatives on the market is this portable single channel device. I wouldn’t shy away from buying this used as these are quite expensive new, and rarely moved around (while they’re portable, they’re not the kind of thing you’d move around a lot). Another reason to buy it used: it’s quite durable (I’ve had mine well over 12 years and never had any issues).
This device is gaining traction from gearheads on the market, but I think it’s overkill for home use. Also, it’s not a stand-alone preamp, so you’ll be dealing with a built-in preamp. I’d say save your hard-earned dollars and go for the Audient or the MOTU and if you ever hear a commercial studio complaining about your home studio (they probably won’t), you can think about upgrading or adding a Grace 101 to your chain.
You can also look for tube channel strips by Avalon, API and Manley, but again, these high end preamps are overkill for a beginner. Since built-in preamps in portable audio interfaces all sound great these days, these channel strips just aren’t not necessary.
The Brands I Hate Vs The Brands I Love
People often ask me for recommendations, and although there are many great companies out there, you’ll never see me using Audio-Technica. I find they make everything sound like a tin can; whether you speak in a mic or listen to audio with headphones. But as I’ve mentioned before, these things are highly personal (A-T are probably just too heavy on the highs or mids for my voice and ears).
Listening to Voice Over Audio Equipment Tests
Here are some audio tests for you to listen to. Note that the Rode sounds muffled (bad mic placement and technique on my end, which is why mic technique is so important). To hear them in all their glory, download them on your computer, and listen with professional headphones (as I’ve said earbuds just don’t reproduce sound well enough).
Pairings: Voice Acting Kits
Entry level pairing
- Pair the Sterling ST155 with the MOTU M2, the Scarlett or the Audient. I wouldn’t add a preamp to this chain, it’s just not necessary. You could do plenty of narration, commercials, animation and video games.
- Pair the Audio-Technica AT2020 with the MOTU M2, the Scarlett or the Audient. I wouldn’t add a preamp to this chain, it’s just not necessary. You could do plenty of narration, commercials, animation and video games.
If you promise not to move your head too much and speak straight on, you could do narrations and commercials with this pairing:
- Pair the RodeNTG2 with the MOTU M2, the Scarlett or the Audient. I wouldn’t add a preamp to this chain, it’s just not necessary.
Mid to high-end pairing
The Sennheiser is a piece of high quality gear, but I love that you really don’t need a preamp with it, which is why I’m calling this pairing a midway level pairing. But again, you’ll have to promise not to move your head too much, so you’ll still be limited to recording narrations and commercials (TV and radio promos included):
- Pair the Sennheiser 416 with the MOTU M2, Audient, or the Apogee Duet. You can also use those two sound cards with the Grace preamp, but it’s not necessary, they all sound great without it. You could do plenty of TV promo work and commercials with this.
High end pairing
Some top-of-the line voice acting pairings would be:
- Pair the AKG 414 with the Apogee Duet, the Audient, or the MOTU M2. You could also pair it with the Grace Preamp and the Apogee Duet or the Audient. You could do plenty of animation, video game work, commercials and narrations.
- Pair the Neumann U-87 or TLM 103 with the Apogee Duet or the Audient. If you use the Grace preamp, you could also the Apogee Duet, the Audient and even the MOTU M2. You could do plenty of animation, video game work, commercials and narrations.
Now that we’ve gone over voice over equipment, I’ll write an article about the best recording/editing software for voice overs next. In the meantime, I hope this sets you on your path to becoming more comfortable recording from home.
If you need help with your studio or your recording gear, I encourage you to read this e-book. If this doesn’t fix your issue, consider sending your audio to your peers and getting their advice. You’ll make connections while learning new things. You can also book a tech consult with an audio engineer like George Whittam or the Booth Junkie so you can get to the bottom of it.
Want some VO advice you can hang your hat on and act on TODAY? Don’t do it alone, piggy back on my success by joining my “Everyday VO” newsletter here to get exclusive tips from me, so you can do VO the Clever Way, Right Away. My name is Lili Wexu. I’m an actress, a voice talent and an author. To learn how to make $$$ in VO, read my e-books about Voice Acting & Announcing.