Testing, testing – what should an English voiceover sound like?

Is it me, as Terry Wogan used to ask?  Is it me, or is there something odd about the way radio sounds these days?  New technology doesn’t always work better, for a start – since the Today programme moved to the new Broadcasting House there has hardly been a day when the connections to the outside world worked as they should.  No doubt there are very good reasons why such a complex digital installation would take some time to bed in, but each day it gets harder for the presenters to know what to say when yet another down-the-line piece fails to appear, or starts and then splutters to a halt.  What this has to do with the working English voiceover who wants to send out sound files in good quality, I’ll come to later.

No-one would want to go back to the old days, when it took days for the Post Office to set up an audio route from A to B, when line testing and equalisation were a constant chore and the best way to get someone on the air in a hurry was the good old telephone box, with crocodile clips to connect your Uher to the back of the mouthpiece.  But I do wonder whether the arms race between news outlets for immediacy and coverage gets in the way of creating a bearable experience for the listener.  At least the acoustic on the Today programme is slightly better now than it was when the studios were in a goldfish bowl in TV Centre, so the voices sound a little more like studio quality.

As for what studio quality is, that’s another matter.  It’s a concept that varies from era to era – sometimes Radio 3 plays archived Prom concerts from the 1950 or 60ss, when the BBC was rather dismissive of developments in music recording and preferred a more open acoustic than was then starting to appear on record.  The results sound very odd compared to today’s Proms; as though you are outside the hall and listening down a corridor.  ‘Normal’ quality changes according to where you are in the world, too – I once met someone from a Scandinavian broadcaster who had come over to the UK to study how they made the Radio 4 speech sound.  On his return home he changed everything in the radio station – microphones, acoustic treatment, mixers and monitoring loudspeakers – only to find that the end result was exactly the same.  The problem turned out to be that a Finnish voice sounds different from an English one.

Anyway, back to the technology.  We have experimented with a reputable digital desk, and no doubt we’ll have another go one day.  But for the moment I am very glad to have an analogue studio desk – a very nice Calrec compact console originally built for Irish radio.  There was always something odd about the digital mixer’s sound; something ‘gritty’ I think, and no amount of experimenting with external wordclock or dither modes would make it sound quite right.  So now we are free of sync issues and so on, and while we do have a Finaliser for people who want that sound, the main limiter for this English voiceover is a BBC device that uses a short delay-line to make it overshoot proof.