Monday, October 19, 2015

My consultation with, Dan Lenard.

I know my next post was supposed to be on Habit 2 of the Seven Habits of Highly Effective Peoplebut I needed to interject and share a great experience I had a couple of days ago with a highly regarded figure in the voice over business.  Come to think of it, this experience is related to Habit 2 in a big way and I'll explain when I get to that post in the near future.

At the start of 2015, my goal was to re-tune and pick up the momentum in my VO career. That entailed practicing more, getting as much coaching and feedback possible, auditioning, and continue building a web presence, hence this blog :)

I am a huge fan of VOBS (Voice Over Body Shop), formerly known as EWABS (East-West Audio Body Shop). Though I don't often catch the show live on Monday nights at 9 pm ET, I almost always see the play-back on YouTube by the end of the week.  I hardly miss an episode, much like how I am with The Walking Dead.  Anyway, I had the utmost pleasure to work with a true expert in the voice over field - the Home Studio Master himself, Dan Lenard.

Why Dan Lenard?
Dan is one-half of the duo host team of VOBS, and along with co-host George Whittam shares a treasure trove of knowledge not only about the technological aspects of voice over, but also on coaching, unions, online-casting, marketing, vocal health, genres, and much more.  In addition, the guests that have been on the show such as notable VO actors Mark Graue, Rick Wasserman, and Randy Thomas to name a few give it additional credibility - not that it was in any need of it.  I've been hooked for the better part of the past three years and have put so many of their tips into practice that it really made a difference in my continuous career development as a VO.  

One of my favorite segments from the show is Dan's Tip of the week - snippets of valuable information explained in very simple terms.  Basically, it's an enlightenment of sorts showing that you don't need to go crazy in buying equipment (not to mention the expensive stuff) when all you're trying to do is produce professional quality recordings in your personal studio.  "Broadcast quality" and "industry standard" are two terms that invoke grimaces. That's because they're ambiguous and can often mislead anyone in the early or exploratory stages of the voice over biz into spending thousands of dollars on equipment, software, recording space, and whatever additional things are out there based on misinformation. Dan's guidance shows that simple, effective setups are all that's required and they won't break the bank.  

Voice over is certainly an investment of time and money as you dig deeper and develop.  I realized this at the very beginning when I started to look into costs associated with equipment, coaches, demos, and supposed experts that say they can help you along, for a fee.  I could've gone to Dan a lot sooner, but if it has anything to do with me putting down my hard-earned coin on the table you can bet I'll be patient, do my research, and wait until the time is right before I go ahead with my purchase.   Watching the show put any doubts I may have had to rest.  I thought, "this guy must be the real deal".  It was time for me to have that one-on-one consultation take place.

Before meeting up with Dan, I sent in a sample specimen for a free analysis as he offers on his website.  My initial issue was that my recording levels where too low. Dan confirmed it and offered to troubleshoot with me.  However, being the IT person that I am where troubleshooting is second nature I figured out that my gain was simply set too low on my pre-amp.  I responded back that I had figured out what the issue was, but that I would be interested in doing a consultation with him anyway - a "pick his brain" session is what I called it.

Booking time with Dan was fairly easy and after a couple of email exchanges we found a spot that worked for both of us. Right before we were scheduled to meet I had my booth setup and ready to go as I do for recordings and connected with him via a video conference using Zoom.  I didn't have the Zoom plug-in client prior to our session, but I just downloaded and installed it effortlessly from Dan's meeting invite.

The meet 
First impression - great guy, very friendly, down-to-earth with a clear intention to offer any assistance necessary.  In other words, he's the same guy I see on VOBS, but with the one-to-one focus in this case.  I started off describing to him my booth setup, audio chain, and some general challenges I face from time to time.  Because I watch the show so much I was able to build my booth based on some of the ideas and best practices I drew from it.  If you're curious, in a corner of my basement I built a PVC frame that's about 4' 5" x 2' 5" x 6' 2" surrounded by VocalBoothToGo sound blankets hanging off the frame with shower curtain hooks.  Square-foot wedge sound absorption tiles are glued to the ceiling covering the the space overhead.  Though it's not "soundproof", it makes for a nice "dead" space to record in.  I was pretty elated to find out that I had done it right.  Dan noticed my noise floor was at better than acceptable levels as far as a personal studio goes (around -54dBFS to -60dBFS).  

Audio technical 
We talked about mics and it was a delight to see that we were using the same one in our session, the CAD E100s. My decision to buy the CAD about four months ago was partly based from another tip I picked up watching the show.  I like the fact that it has a built-in hi-pass filter which is great for personal studios where you may get the occasional street sound rumble from cars, trucks, or even planes.  It cuts off all those low frequency noises.  What's more important though is that it makes me sound like me.  Dan spoke of how crucial that is because no one else sounds the way I do and he thought the CAD was a good match for my voice based on how my sound was coming across in the session. Another check off the list.  

My cozy recording space.  Notice I am using a Heil PL-2T mic arm attached to a shelf on the right side of my booth.  My CAD E100s hangs upside down.  When recording, my eyes are at level with the diaphragm while I read copy off my laptop which sits on a sheet music stand.  The 2i2 is on a small folding table to the right below the stand.

We then went over the sound sample I sent him a week or so earlier.  My issue and the main reason for reaching out to Dan then was that my sound wasn't peaking past -12dB.  To go back in history a bit, our previous home was on a secondary road, with the local commuter rail-road passing directly behind the house, and in the flight path of JFK at least three times a week.  As you might imagine I had to pick the right times to record and I grew accustomed to keeping the gain at a lower setting on my Focusrite 2i2 in an attempt to keep as much ambient noise from bleeding into my recordings.  When processing the audio thereafter I would have to normalize to -3dB which became a bit of a hassle.  After some testing in our current home which thankfully is in a much quieter neighborhood I found that all I had to do was turn up my gain on the 2i2 to the 3 o'clock position, and voila!  The one thing I thought was strange was the gain knob being up that high; at least to me it seemed to be high.  I even checked my sound settings in Windows and verified that my OS recording level was at 100% which is also reflected on the mic recording level in Audacity (my current DAW of choice).  Dan confirmed that the 2i2's knob position at 3 o'clock is indeed normal. Whew!  

We did a deeper dive into editing and processing.  He did a screen share from his end and pulled up Audacity.  He showed me some new tricks using the amplify plug-in to take care of some over-accentuated spots in my read.  He also went over some breath removal techniques using the silence function and went over deleting pauses I had left between some words to improve the flow of the read.  

In analyzing the audio sample further, he pulled out the big guns.  He showed me some editing features that Adobe Audition has to offer and I was completely blown away by its capabilities.  The spectrogram which pretty much reminded me of both my sons' sonograms while they were still in the womb, offers greater editing options. For instance, the removal of mouth-clicks which is a bit challenging in Audacity is something that clearly shows up in Audition's spectrogram such that you can highlight the area that indicates the mouth-click, delete it, and it's as if it never existed.  The same is true for breath removals.  Normalizing, compressing, and other common tools are done with a mouse scroll on-the-fly.  Truly an amazing piece of software, and Dan gave me a great crash course in it to say the least.

A sample screenshot of Adobe Audition's spectrogram

Performance coaching 
This was totally unexpected, but he went into a little bit of coaching with me. Remember, he's not only a voice over tech guru, but a working voice talent.  He pointed out some things I did well and some things were I needed some improvement - like being able to read a 20 second piece of copy in one breath :p .  Practice, practice, practice, was the key take away.  

A helpful organization 
We talked about WoVO (World Voices Organization) the non-profit organization he helped put together with other notable figures in voice over.  WoVO's purpose is to set the record straight by providing proper information, mentoring, and debunking any myths to success in this business.  It's also an entity serving as the ethical light in the crooked darkness created by groups and individuals out there trying to take advantage of hopefuls getting into the business with the lure of false promises guaranteeing success.  WoVO also has a personal studio certification (in beta at this time) available to anyone with with professional member status.  The distinction of a professional member is showing proof of having booked at least five paying gigs.  Sounds fine and fair to me.    

We chatted a little about the on-line casting sites or as they are affectionately known, "pay-to-plays".  He gave me some advice on certain things to watch out for and how the online casting places have changed in the last 4 or 5 years with even more cropping up here and there.  If you already follow some of the discussions around this topic you may be thinking about two of the biggest casting sites both of which begin with a V and end in a .com.  
I told Dan about my experience approaching one of those sites for membership right after I cut my demo at Edge Studio a few years ago.  At the time, I thought they were the better choice because I heard that the voice actor who was cast for Buzz Lightyear's Spanish speaking setting featured in Toy Story 3 came from this particular site.  That must make for some credibility, I thought.  However, after I submitted my professionally produced demo I was perplexed to receive a message from them claiming there was "background noise" and they wouldn't accept my entry because of it. I immediately went back to Edge and forwarded this correspondence to them to which their response was that they would take action.  A day or two later, the casting site apologized and said that it would be OK for me to join after all.  Needless to say I really wasn't too keen on dealing with them after that experience.  I still have a "free" profile up on that site meaning that if I want to audition for their jobs I would have to pay the yearly membership fee of $395.00 US.  The membership also includes being able to submit auditions on a regular basis along with getting private audition requests.  Dan mentioned that the way this casting site does things now is that you can set a bottom limit to the dollar amount on the auditions you want to receive not to mention an abundance of work that they post.  I had also heard from others who are members of both of these major casting sites, that this one usually generates more opportunities for talent. Knowing all of this now...I may just give them another shot.  

Business sense 
There are lots of things to consider when generating business. Yes, online casting sites require membership fees, but they do all the marketing, job sourcing, audition setups, and handle payment for you.  In other words, they can be very convenient for someone with a full-time job, a husband, and a parent like myself who really doesn't have the time to devote to those things. But, as I shared with Dan part of my goals in addition to being a member of an online casting site as a supplement to generating work is to start my own little CRM (client relationship management) system and continue building a client list the old fashioned way - networking and referrals.  It's a time commitment for sure, but Dan helped me realize that even devoting just a few moments each week will generate a lead eventually.  

Wrapping up 
As you just read Dan and I covered a good range of topics. He also encouraged me to keep doing what I'm doing, be consistent and hammer through, but stressed that it's also important to maintain a good work-life balance.  

Overall, the consultation exceeded all of my expectations.  Dan's knowledge is expansive, and his experience and reputation precedes him.  He's absolutely great to work with and won't beat around the bush because he knows your time and dedication are valuable (so are his).  He's very encouraging and emphasized that being truthful to and believing in myself is what will bring success.  Not only did I feel pumped and energized after the consultation, but I felt I had done something really productive in moving my career forward by getting together with an expert in the field who helped assess my situation specifically.  In short, it solved some mysteries for me regarding my technical setup and performance as a VO.  Dan let me know where I stand in my progress and I think I'm in a pretty good place now.  I now have someone trustworthy to reach out to if I ever need additional help.

Whenever you feel ready, no matter what your level of experience is in VO, get out there and go see the Home Studio Master!  It's well worth your time and your investment.

A BIG thanks to you, Dan Lenard!


  1. I shared this post on Twitter and Facebook. It's good to hear about your great experience, John, and thanks, Dan, for providing such a worthwhile service to voice talent!

  2. I really enjoyed reading this. Hope you have something updated that I can read out. Maybe you can also include some of your experiences about portable vocal booth, if you have any. Thanks