Headphones for voice over: must be worn at all times - or not?

Voice over headphones: the cans cans danse

helmetFor those of you not versed in the voice over jargon, cans is another word for headphones, hence this bad joke. So, after the most cliché topic in the voice over trade (what is the best microphone for voice over recording), here's another topic that's been beaten over and over again, but is often misunderstood: using headphones during a voice over session. No, optional or 'highly recommended'?

So, headphones or not?

Critics of wearing headphones point out that they prefer to concentrate on their performance rather than the sound of their voice. It's a bit like a Formula 1 driver saying he'd rather not wear his safety harness because it interferes with his driving: using headphones allows us to concentrate on our work.
Even when we are in an acoustically treated booth (which is - or should be - the case for any professional voice over talent) there is interaction between the room and us. Our internal radar, which allows us, mammals that we are, to know where we are, is constantly working. Headphones remove this parasitic interaction by isolating us from the outside world.

By using headphones when recording a voice over, we can hear exactly what is being recorded. If we make a mouth noise that should generate a repeat, without headphones, it's only on re-listening that it would become apparent. And getting back into the same feeling is more difficult than stopping and doing a repeat immediately, staying in the feeling.

We listen to ourselves talk. Yes, we do

There's another reason, a physiological one. When someone else speaks to us, they are in fact emitting pressure waves into the air, a bit like the ripple of water after a stone has been thrown into it. We receive these pressure waves through our eardrums (and then the ossicles), which vibrate at different speeds depending on the frequency of the waves (the speed at which they are emitted). These vibrations are processed by a small organ called the cochlea, which helps to transform them into electrical signals that our brain then decodes into sounds.

earIt's a different matter when it comes to the pressure waves we produce ourselves. When we 'hear' what we're saying (without headphones), in fact we don't 'hear' at all (or very little): our eardrums and ossicles react less to these airborne waves than to the vibrations of our cranium, which interacts with the rest of our body, which vibrates, producing these waves. We're not in front of the speakers, we're inside the amplifier. And our brains don't need to decode, because we're the ones producing the music. That's why most people generally don't like the sound of their voice when they hear it recorded: it's not what they hear when they speak, so it's disturbing.

The only way to hear what others hear is to bypass this effect by wearing headphones. You'll find a fascinating article that explores this subject in more depth here .

On the same subject, I also invite you to have a look at this TEDtalk by Rébecca Kleinberger, a voice scientist.

The voice, just one of the instruments in the orchestra

And finally, perhaps the most important reason of all. If the project we're working on contains M&E's (TV or web spot, radio advert, network autopromo, corporate video...), recording your voice without taking these M&E's into account is an aberration - a topic I also address in my article A Question of Organ. It's a bit like recording the bass without taking the other instruments into account. The voice is only one of the elements in the mix and must be in harmony with the other elements in terms of intention, tonality, rhythm and evolution. And when you record overdub, in order to follow the original version, you obviously need to be able to... follow it.

Cans all right, but which cans then?

In the booth, you must imperatively wear a closed-back headphone to prevent the bleed that would interfere with your take. Avoid hi-fi models in favour of more neutral, professional headphones, designed specifically for the rougher environment of the studio and to be worn comfortably for long periods.

Which brand? Everyone has their own preferences, so do a test in shop and see which one suits you best. My personal preference is for Beyer Dynamic DT150 for recording; it is neutral, very comfortable, does not leak and is built to withstand a nuclear attack, or almost.
For critical listening, my preference is for DT770 Pro 80 Ohms from the same brand - it's too 'bright' for my taste to record with, but it's just as neutral, is even more comfortable and has phenomenal clarity.

The most expensive headphones? The one pictured on the right, sublime, it's theOrpheus HE 1 by Sennheiser. Great, if you can (pardon the bad pun) fork out around €50,000 - yes, with four zeros after the 5. It comes with its own tube preamp, but you're out of luck, it's an open-back headphone. Too bad, you'll have to keep looking!

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Feel free to share your experience here and leave your comments, suggestions or questions. Don't hold back, I'll do my best to answer them.