The humble bedroom of one of my kids was the setting to record the voiceovers for a network TV talk show.
The George Lopez Show was a late-night talk show hosted by comedian and actor George Lopez that was just canceled last week. I was sad to see it go, not because I watched it, but because it employed me. Specifically, I had recorded several of the show’s voice-overs with its announcer, Billy Vera.
Billy Vera is a singer, songwriter, bandleader, and producer whose credits are long and impressive. He’s produced albums for Lou Rawls (including one with Nat King Cole), led and sang with the band The Beaters, and wrote and sang a number one song called “At This Moment (You Just Don’t Love Me Anymore),” which was featured famously in an episode of “Family Ties,” starring a young Michael J. Fox.
And here he was in my studio recording voice-overs in his wonderfully resonant, soulful baritone. It was a real pleasure to work with Vera for a week, and the circumstances that brought him to my home studio were interesting.
Vera lives and works in southern California, but he’s from Back East, where I live (right outside New York City). He has a demanding professional schedule, one that doesn’t let up just because he travels out of town to visit family. So when he left SoCal for the Big Apple, he somehow had to maintain his voiceover recording commitments for the George Lopez Show while on the road.
Vera must record his announcements on the day of the show, because the show’s producers never have a finalized line-up until just hours before the taping. The easiest way for Vera was to simply find a studio wherever he happened to be. After he recorded his spots, they could be sent via a large-file transfer service (like yousendit.com or transferbigfiles.com). Through a mutual friend, I got the call. Could I record Vera’s spots, each day, every day for week? Sure, I said.
My full studio is currently dismantled and under re-construction, but I figured I could simply set up a vocal mic, interface, and laptop in any room in my house. This made it more like a mobile recording gig. I realized later, I could have done this in a hotel room, as Vera stays very close up on the mic. In other words, the room factored very little into the equation. His close-mic technique allows him to use the proximity effect (the pronounced increase in bass response when getting closer to the mic) for dramatic purposes as well as deliver an advantageous breathy quality to his readings. He’s got a great TV announcer’s voice.
My gear of choice was an AKG SolidTube large-diaphragm tube mic, an Avid Mbox, and a MacBook Pro running Pro Tools 9. Just as important, I had set up a music stand and a portable battery-powered light to shine down on the script. I included a sharpened pencil (with a good eraser). In Pro Tools, I set up a template several tracks with different EQ and dynamics settings for playback, depending on what I was to hear. We’d be listening back to every take, and Vera doesn’t know me, so I wanted the playback experience to be reassuring to him. And I made sure I had other things taken care of, like a pitcher of cold water with lemon slices in the fridge, and tea in the cupboard (though most vocalists show up with their own bottled water these days, as did Vera).
Billy Vera stands ready to record his announcer cues for the George Lopez Show. We used an AKG SolidTube mic through an Avid Mbox into a MacBook Pro running Pro Tools. Note the little touches: the battery-powered light that shines on the script (visible just under where the popscreen filter’s gooseneck joins the boom) and the pencil on the music stand. These were noticed, utilized, and appreciated by the talent.
When Vera showed up, we hadn’t received the scripts via email yet. So we hung around, chatted, and then sidled up to the bedroom to get a soundcheck. I was grateful I had opted for the Mbox, because of its built-in limiter (called SoftLimit). Billy was loud. So loud that I could hear, acoustically, the flutter echoes from the corners of the untreated room. Fortunately, these reflections didn’t read over the mic, and were not a factor in the recorded sound. I scrambled to re-set my levels just to keep out of the red, and had a tough time riding the fader, because Vera would go from a whisper to a roar. I managed, but with some hardware help.
Which brings up one of my pet issues regarding interfaces: For live work, I insist on having an interface that includes either an onboard limiter (such as models by Avid and M-Audio) or insert jacks that allow you to strap on an outboard compressor before the A/D conversion. Without one of these options, you have no way of protecting the signal from clipping as it goes into the recorder. If you’re fast and clever, you can ride the input fader, but this is fraught with danger, especially if you’re dealing with an unfamiliar source (especially vocalists, even speaking ones), a dynamic performance, or both. Better to have a limiter watching your back.
I make sure all my interfaces have an onboard compressor/limiter (as shown here with the Mbox's SoftLimit function) or insert jacks that allow patching in of a dynamics processor before the A/D conversion.
The script finally arrived by email, I printed out two copies (one for Billy on his stand, one for me at my table), and we got to work. Here’s where one has to be sensitive to the personal dynamics in a session. I was prepared for Vera to be anything from a tyrant to a pussycat, but he was completely normal. This means that he had ideas of his own, but was interested in my input. He also welcomed having a second set of ears, and that is the mark of a true pro who doesn’t let ego get in the way. I caught slip-ups during a take that made listening back unnecessary. We saved a lot of time this way. And he moved through the script like a hot knife through butter. He was a total pro.
For my part, I made sure to keep the session rolling along. One of the best ways to do this is to provide clear direction to your talent. Without a producer calling the shots, it’s really up to the engineer, or recordist, to set the pace. Even though Vera has produced Lou Rawls albums, he was the talent here, concerned with delivering his performance. I was the one to say, “Let’s do a mic level check. Please read up to the line that says ‘And my special guest star, Manny Pacquiao.’” Billy obliged, I set levels, and we were off to the races. I was giving direction to the guy who gave direction to Nat King Cole. Freaky!
Even though this session involved no music, I still had to use my ears in a musical sense. I heard places where I thought the dramatic arc of the sentence should come somewhere else, and we often tried alternate ways. Sometimes my way was the keeper, sometimes it was Vera’s. But it was a true collaborative experience. Once we got derailed because neither of us knew how to pronounce one of the show’s guest’s last names. We had to wait while the show’s production company got back to us. Twice, Vera had to return, hours later, because there had been a last-minute change. This meant I had to be sure to get a repeatable performance both from the talent as well as the recording setup. But in the end it worked out.
I made one slight error that I know not to make again: I should have kept a better line of sight with Vera the whole time. As it was, he was slightly in my periphery once I turned my head from him to my screen. This was just the nature of the furniture layout (my laptop sat on an immovable desk) and where the best spot for the mic was (in the center of the room). But there were times when I could have seen a puzzled look on Vera’s face as he struggled with a phrase, rather than relying solely on my ears to pick up the hesitancy. Even between engineer and talent, even when separated by glass and distance, you can develop eye contact that can put you on the same wavelength.
Once we had the performances captured, Vera was done, and he went on with this day. I still had to do housekeeping—trim the files, delete false starts, get rid of mouth noises in between sentences, phrases, and sometimes individual words. Then I had to save in the file format requested by the production company (24-bit/48kHz) and send off the file. Upon hearing the first cues, the production company got back to me with a sort of left-handed compliment: “Great work. Not necessary to do all that housecleaning, as the TV guys are used to doing that themselves. We don’t want to set a precedent where they have our guys doing it. You’re a total pro, though!”
“A total pro.” That made the whole thing worth it. And it’s the same thing Billy Vera said to me when we wrapped the week’s worth of work. Except that he added something: “Man, I’d work with you anytime. Now I know who to call when I have a recording gig in New York.” Music to my ears.
Jon Chappell is a guitarist and the Senior Editor of Harmony Central. He has contributed numerous musical pieces to film and TV, including Northern Exposure, Walker, Texas Ranger, All My Children, and the feature film Bleeding Hearts, directed by actor-dancer Gregory Hines. He is the author of The Recording Guitarist: A Guide for Home and Studio (Hal Leonard), Essential Scales & Modes (Backbeat Books), and Build Your Own PC Recording Studio (McGraw-Hill), and has written six books in the popular Dummies series (Wiley Publishing).