How Voiceovers and Clients can stay connected during COVID-19!
In last month’s post, COVID-19 was pretty fresh and had just become a big thing affecting everyone personally. Overnight it also seismically altered the world of voiceover. The game changer was those voiceover artists that had made professional studios a part of their offering enabling clients to link in from anywhere in the world and direct a session or even record it their end. Projects could still go ahead during COVID-19 and observe social distancing, safeguarding the health and safety of the producer, director, client, engineer and voiceover talent. Right now, it is crucial that a voiceover knows and understands how to use dial in applications in order to continue facilitating sessions for clients. Looking at it from the other side, it may also mean a sudden introduction to this part of the TECHNICAL dimension of voiceover for clients who may not be used to it, but require ways and means to continue project pipelines.
To put it simply these applications enable us to do what we were doing together in the same room before Covid-19, just remotely. Normally the client, the producer, the director and engineer would be on one side of the glass in the room listening to the performance. And the voiceover would be in the booth bringing life to the words along the creative direction of the director, client and producer. These applications simply re-create that scenario, except that no one is in the same room, but located all over the world.
It is important from the start to note that these applications will amazingly facilitate a session between people situated around the world, making possible the remote delivery of studio quality audio, but they cannot magically make the voiceover talent’s studio better. If that space is not already functioning well with solid Internal Acoustical Dynamics and low to no external noise spillage inside (affecting the noise floor) then you will get everything that has failed to be addressed at source. Meaning the actual session may not be able to be utilised for your project. That is where experience truly comes into play.
So for now, assuming that there is a solid studio at the voiceover’s end, and for your illumination and to enable pipelines in commercials, corporate films, e-learning and animation and gaming to continue here is a run down of all the known and major players enabling clients and voiceover artists to connect remotely and continue voicing to keep projects going during COVID-19.
They are all termed virtual audio codecs. You may ask “Why isn’t ISDN in this list?” Good question. ISDN was the forerunner to all the ones that we are going to deal with, which gained prominence in the 1990s. ISDN is a physical audio codec system requiring a pair of hard-wired connections to a house or studio, similar to a standard home phone line. At the end of each of these lines was an encoding and decoding machine, a physical rather than virtual codec. That codec and phone line spoke to the voiceover artist’s studio and the client studio and enabled remote recording. Problem was that it was expensive in set up and monthly running cost and largely found in high-end studios.
Fast forward to today and just as the Internet has upended travel (air b n b), transport (uber) and takeaway (deliveroo) it is having the same effect on ISDN. As virtual audio codecs have become more stable with the increasing speed and reliability of the internet (only set to get faster with 5G incoming) there has been a shift and migration away from ISDN. With COVID-19 the expectation from studios was for Source connect Standard or ipDTL from voiceover artists. No mention of needing to install ISDN lines because ISDN is being killed off. It will no longer be available in the UK from BT after 2025 to current users, and you cannot purchase and set up ISDN after 2020. Everything is shifting online and instead of physical components to enable connection, we are going digital with IP connections. Quite a mirror to the current COVID-19 climate isn’t it?
So the list of virtual audio codecs in which to recreate a live studio setting. We work from the more simple applications focused on remote direction only, to those enabling remote recording at the client’s end as well.
1. Hardware: Mobile phone with ear buds.
The only actual hardware (Like ISDN) on this list. If all else fails and you have a newer voiceover artist or client this can work. The voiceover simply sets up in their studio and either has the phone on speaker inside their studio so the client can listen in (not recommended) or has earbuds in their ear talking to the client as they record. It is simple, rudimentary and can get the job done if all else fails.
From that limited Hardware option above to the numerous Virtual possibilities we have the following.
All of these in category A utilise the Voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP) allowing calls to be made over a broadband internet connection (digital) without the need for a regular (analog) phoneline. Though there are differences in their capacities. Category A – Remote Listen and Direction ONLY
A standard workhorse enabling clients to link in. It only enables remote listening and direction and relies on a voiceover artist that can ensure their interface is acting as the input source in Skype (simple to do) and can run the technical side of things at the same time. I have done countless sessions like this over the years as have most working voiceover artists. Quality on the call is low however, and it is not built for voiceover purposes specifically. That is why it will only be a direction and listen in tool. Which can work for some agencies and clients.
Like Skype it facilitates real time listen in and direction. Simple, easy to use. There is a growing preference for Zoom over Skype as audio quality is slightly higher and clients can also be provided with a contact number if they are only able to dial in for the session.
Again, it does not facilitate remote recording on the client’s end or video streaming of a project. As such it would be for work that requires less decision by committee like in bigger commercial campaigns. Perfect for a corporate film or e-learning project (if the talent is not getting on with it by themselves).
Commonly used in the gaming world, it is gaining momentum as a means of remote recording and listen in. The remote recording function tends to be for podcasts and interviews and not suitable for the work in voiceover which requires detail. If remote recording is what you are after, better to stick to the major players below. Little used outside of gaming, but gaining enough of a foothold that it will be a player in years to come.
Thus far these applications have shown to be able to facilitate remote listening and direction only. The standard of quality is nowhere near what is required for remote recording at the level that audio projects in voiceover work at. The quality required for optimum client direction is also questionable.
THE OPUS CODEC
When Google rolled out their Chrome Browser they included a high quality (24 bit) audio pipeline – the OPUS codec – within it. Companies have made use of that to have a non-time-corrected way of communicating with high quality over the internet. That means clients / studios can still record voiceover talent remotely, but sometimes there are glitches requiring that section to be retaken. For this reason talent instead record locally and transfer the files after the session, making this more a Skype like application but with better quality and built for purpose functionality.
5. Bodalgo Call
Simple and easy to use. A step up from Skype and Zoom and starting to head to built for purpose territory of the applications to come. It’s free and able to be used by anyone. One person creates a room and invites multiple parties to join that room via email and then the session begins. As long as the voiceover has correctly selected their input those parties will be hearing the exact audio generated from their studio environment. The only downside (if it matters) is that it does not enable remote recording through the application. It relies on the voiceover recording on their Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) and sending the raw session file afterwards.
6. Source Connect Now
Not to be confused with Source Connect (standard / pro / pro X) coming later. This is Source Connect’s OPUS codec offering. It is used by one party who initiates from their account and then invites other participants. It is used by studios but not as frequently as Source Connect Standard / pro / pro X. If this is your first time with it there can be a steep learning curve. But it is built by one of the market leading companies. There is talk of Source Connect Now eventually being able to talk with Source Connect Standard and Pro, though that is currently not the case. It does have a recorder, but unlike the ones to come can only record the local end (me). Since the voiceover is likely to initiate the session that is the same as them recording on their own software and sending afterwards.
Category B – Remote Listening, Direction and Recording OPUS
These require more technical know how from the voiceover artist, including always having a wired Ethernet (cat 5 or 6) cable connecting to the broadband (no WIFI as it is less stable). Unlike the ones to come after though, they don’t require both parties to have an account with the application. They still rely on the OPUS codec as the foundation of the application.
7. Session Link Pro
Paid. (monthly / half yearly / yearly pricing options)
Based out of Germany and more common in Europe, Session Link Pro is a high quality bi-directional audio connection with low latency that enables a studio to record in real time at their end the talent at the other end (what they call “far-end recording”). It is built for purpose with audio in mind so we are getting closer to an application able to produce a studio quality level, so long as the voiceover has a solid studio their end.
Everything gets set up by one participant of the connection (studio or talent) and the other participant’s receive an invitation via email (the Session Link) which they open in the browser. Session Link also offers an add on for video sync which can be used for dubbing and ADR. But the big caveat is that this is all based around the limitations of the OPUS codec which was built generally for communication over the internet, unlike the later applications which are engineered and built for recording over the web (Connection Open – Source Connect).
Free and Paid.
Cleanfeed, a UK based company, has two versions to it’s product. The free version is like Source Connect NOW and Bodalgo Call – one person initiates from their account and invites the other guest. The paid for version adds a lot of functionality that would be more useful to a high volume production house. In the context of a simple link up between voiceover and client the free version suffices. Both Paid and Free utilise a recorder in the application. This enables recording of the voiceover, the client’s end or both. Like with Bodalgo Call multiple parties can join the call.
Paid. (1 day / 1 month / 1 Year pricing options)
Developed in the UK, ipDTL (internet protocol Down The Line) uses the OPUS codec and has a few levels of account types with associated features. As with Cleanfeed and Sessionlink Pro one person sets up the call and invites another person onto that call meaning only one person requires the account. The tiers enable different features such as multiple connections, ISDN and phone line bridging and sending and receiving video.
The multi track recorder enables recording one or both ends and features that the voiceover are primarily concerned with (like input and output). For the client working in an agency where in house mixing and recording is not common this may be overkill, where other applications are more suitable with the talent sending files after the session. But ipDTL has emerged as one of the front-runners with technology that does amazing things like Bridging to ISDN.
A note that all the above in the OPUS category are working on WebRTC (web Real-Time Communication) / OPUS. This is a free, open source project that is focused on real time communication (RTC) via more simple application programming interfaces (APIs). WebRTC was built for peer to peer communication and connection in general, so there are limitations to the above mentioned applications. The limitation lies with the internet. Use of the above is always predicated on a hard wired Ethernet connection (cat 5 or 6) in order to ensure a stronger connection. Even so, if the connection drops at all the real time nature of the audio and video starts to drop, and lags / speed up are experienced in order to get back in time. This will come across in the audio in those recorders. Which is why it is essential that the talent self-records also with a hardwired Ethernet connection.
The following two stay away from the OPUS codec and operate closer to what ISDN does in a physical way.
Category C – Remote Listening, Direction and Recording STANDALONE
For the following Virtual Codecs to work, they require both parties to be in possession of the virtual application. That is how they connect to each other and do very effectively what ISDN does with it’s physical codecs.
10. Connection Open
Paid. (1 day / 1 month / 1 Year pricing options)
Originating in 2007 from Nevada in the USA, Connection Open works via it’s own application. Because of this both connections on the call need to have an account. This may limit it’s use beyond production houses where volume justifies use. Though one account can give a day pass out to a non-account holder, but this is not free.
The gamechanger is the almost near zero latency for remote / distance simultaneous recording and playback. Latency refers to delay and when working with voice and communication, the data transfer can cause a delay in the real time nature of that communication. Connection Open has been designed to support uncompressed audio between multiple users with very low latency That means it provides a clear and reliable signal and has a simple and easy to use interface.
What makes Connection Open production house friendly is the ability to record into their DAW(recording software) via a plugin. Makes for easier workflows rather than recording in the Connection Open app.
11. Source Connect Standard / Pro / Pro X
Paid. (monthly subscription / outright purchase)
Source Connect in it’s standard / pro iteration has been around since the early 2000s. It was the first challenger to ISDN. At that time it was hampered in take up by internet speed. Today, things have changed. Source Connect has now replaced ISDN in most studios because of Internet speed being able to effectively meet what Source Connect can do.
Source Connect runs as an application like Connection Open, only that you can’t give someone a link to a day pass for a session. Both people need the application because Source-Connect essentially has to talk to itself to make sure the audio stays in tact using identical timecodes. A lot of activity in the background that the application makes appear seamless in real time. And very similar to ISDN.
This feature makes it the solution of choice for production houses, not just for commercial or character work, but also when it comes to ADR and dubbing, requiring the specificity that a time signature allows. This has really separated voiceover artists during COVID-19 as there is an expectation from studios now that it is a standard part of our technical arsenal. It also enables ISDN bridging, so can talk to ISDN around the world if needed.
So, which to choose?
If you as a client are not already running with the more heavier applications like Connection Open and Source Connect, and you trust your voiceover talent’s TECHNICAL chain (their studio), then it is probably best to stick with some of the less intensive applications that rely on listen and direction only. Then you can get your RAW file from your voiceover and send off to be processed by the engineer.
Aside from the last two, many of the more fit for purpose applications require one paid for account that can then invite other participants at no charge. This might be a great way to get to know an application that your voiceover is already using with better quality than Skype. For many Skype and Zoom will suffice but most modern voiceovers know and use the OPUS codec options and this is something to consider as audio quality is superior making for a better experience. That could make all the difference on the link up when listening to delivery of key lines becomes crucial.
Whatever you choose, focus on function and what meets your needs. Some are European Centric (Session Link, ipDTL, cleanfeed) while others are American Centric (Source Connect, Connection Open, Zoom).
With this abundance of technology it is likely that once COVID-19 restrictions lift, clients will see the added value that these applications bring, combined with an experienced voiceover artist’s technical ability in using them and generating a professional sound to rival those of in-house UK and US studios. This will be the future of voiceover more than ever.
What it requires is a voiceover artist who is more than just a talent. Who has a professional recording environment and the ability to dial in anyone from anywhere in the world. That extra level of technical ability, standard for working voiceovers, has become an added layer of trust during COVID-19.
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Paul Mclaughlin © Versatile Voiceovers