Friday, May 27, 2011

On headset microphones and my own damn stubbornness

I mentioned in my last post that, until recently, I have been using a headset mic to record all the voice acting for my games.

Rebecca Whittaker, as "Astrid" from Puzzle Bots.

It's always surprised me that I've gotten away with this setup as long as I have.  Back in the dark ages of 2006, when I was making The Shivah, I decided to give the voice acting thing a whirl.  I only had one problem - I knew nothing about audio or voice over production.  Not knowing any better, I downloaded a free audio recording program called Audacity, clipped a headset mic to the actors' heads, then handed them the script and let them go to town. I didn't even adjust the levels, which is obvious when you get to the scenes with Joe DeMarco.

When the game came out and reviews started popping up, there were ranging opinions about the voice actors but nobody seemed to notice or care that it wasn't recorded in a full-fledged studio.  So since the system seemed to work, I didn't bother fixing it and used the headset mic again in Blackwell Legacy.

Abe Goldfarb as "Joey" in Blackwell Legacy

As time went on, I learned a bit more about audio editing and voice directing in general - a common complaint was the constant breath pops, which I eventually I got the hang of removing - but the core method remained unchanged. I was still using a freeware audio program and a $20 headset mic from Radio Shack. 

A few games later and I got a publishing deal with PlayFirst for Emerald City Confidential.  Suddenly, I was flown out to San Francisco to direct voice actors in a real, high-end studio.  An audio engineer sat behind a complicated piece of equipment while the actor sat in a separate room behind sound-proof glass.  We'd press a button to speak to them directly and direct them as we needed.  It was all very slick.  The studio was bigger than my apartment and the cost of the whole thing was higher than the budget of all my games combined, but it was worth it.  For a week we recorded, and I admit - the sound quality was awesome. 

But there was a snag.  PlayFirst guidelines stated that the filesize of the game had to be under 80MB. The only way to do that?  Compress the VO files as far as they would go, and then compress them some more.  The end result of all that money and high-end equipment was VO footage that sounded like it was underwater. 

Suffice to say, this experience embittered me just a tad. After ECC wrapped up, I went back to Blackwell Convergence and back to my headset mic.  This setup - ghetto though it was - became a badge of pride.  Sure it was cheap, but I could create VO footage that sounded infinitely better than what ended up in ECC.  So I kept using it.  Blackwell Convergence used it, then Puzzle Bots, and most recently Gemini Rue.  The only ones who noticed were professional audio people who already have an ear for that kind of thing.  But most people? Nobody cared.

Then, finally, my headset mic decided enough was enough.  The sound quality became staticky and finally crapped out altogether.  I went to Radio Shack to buy another one, but they no longer carried the same brand in stock.  Deciding it was time to bite the bullet, I bought a Blue Yeti microphone at the recommendation of an audio buddy of mine who was extremely vocal in getting me to make the switch.

After spending some time figuring out how to put the thing together (and after being told that I had positioned the microphone the wrong way around), it was ready to go.  I scheduled Abe Goldfarb and Rebecca Whittaker (the actors behind Joey and Rosa) to come over.  After they were done, I had a listen.

And... well, it sounded good.  Damn good.  In fact, I'd go far as to say it was much better than the headset mic.  It sounded cleaner, fuller.  The actors also preferred standing up to deliver their lines into a microphone that wasn't an inch away from their mouths.  Plus, I could plug my headphones into the microphone itself and get a much clearer representation of what was being recorded.  I could listen more closely for breath pops and mouth clicks.  The quality of both the sound and the performances were much improved. Here, compare for yourself:

Joey from Convergence

Joey from the upcoming Deception

The difference is subtle, but it's definitely there.  Once the audio gets mastered, it will sound even better.  So... I guess I feel kinda silly.  It took me almost five years to make the switch to a "real" microphone.  But now I'm never going back.  I am extremely microphone proud.  VO wise, I think Blackwell Deception will have the highest quality of anything we've done.  I can't wait for you to hear the results.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Oh right, this is here.

Hello wayward web wanderers!

With all the twittering and facebooking I do, it's very easy to neglect this little chunk of cyberspace.  Here's what we've been up to in the last few months since I updated:
  • Gemini Rue was released, and is still selling very well (at least 3x higher than was predicted in the last post).
  • The next game in the Blackwell series (Deception) has hit alpha, and we're beta testing.
  • We've also started recording the voiceovers for Deception.  Abe and Rebecca are back as Rosa and Joey.
Speaking of VO, I got a fancy new microphone!

Rebecca Whittaker voicing Rosa at the mic

For years I've been using a Radio Shack headset microphone, which has always done the job and - oddly enough - very few people noticed that it wasn't a professional setup.  But recently an audio buddy of mine recommended this Blue Yeti microphone and I finally made the plunge.  I have to say, I love the thing.  I'll write more about that - among other things! - soonish.