OPERATION VOCAL BOOTH: IT'S A WRAP
Recording equipment. It’s not for the faint hearted. Just looking at it used to give me the same heady mix of panic and rage as physics did at school. Specifically I remember one lesson on ‘Logic Gates’ circa 1997 which almost brought about a total existential meltdown. Man in brown trousers talks at you for an hour about electronics: the abstract notion of binary inputs and outputs, without ever once making a real-world reference. No matter which way I turned it, I had no idea what he was talking about, and I can just remember feeling so furious.
Thanks to that and countless other similar scenarios, I left education feeling certain that I just wasn’t capable of any so-called ‘left brain’ stuff at all. Now, don’t get me started on this ‘left-brain vs right-brain’ nonsense – I think it’s a lazy myth that holds people back, but as a teenager I was convinced because it suited me. I found maths difficult and art easy. Boom. The idea conveniently goes that you can either be good at mathematical stuff, or at creative stuff, but not both because the skills involved inhabit different parts of the brain, and one side is always dominant. As kids trying to invent quick-win identities, we are eager to group ourselves into one camp or the other. And lets face it the mathsy camp is pedalled as being far less sexy, I mean who wants to be logical (boring) when you could be creative (unhinged! mysterious!)
Yuck. When are we going to stop pushing these cringeworthy stereotypes?
By the tender age of 12 or 13 all this rubbish can be cemented into our ideas of ourselves and the world - that we are like THIS and can’t do THAT. End of story. Especially girls with subjects like physics.
Author Angela Saini puts it well in her book “Inferior, How Science Got Women Wrong” (which, incidentally I had the honour of narrating - in your FACE logic gates - for US Audible last year) when she says “Study after study has shown almost all behavioural and psychological differences between the sexes to be small or nonexistent. Cambridge University psychologist Melissa Hines and others have repeatedly demonstrated that boys and girls have little, if any, noticeable gaps between them when it comes to fine motor skills, spatial visualization, mathematics ability, and verbal fluency.”... “The scientific picture emerging now is that there may be very small biological differences, but that these can be so easily reinforced by society that they appear much bigger as a child grows.”
For me, the hangover from all of that has been that I practically have heart failure if I’ve even got to untangle a cable. In all my years performing music I’ve managed to completely avoid learning how to get my own sound right at soundcheck, instead relying on the men around me to sort it out. I had to be dragged kicking and screaming into learning to use recording software so I could write songs by myself and record my first tentative voiceovers – I was petrified of the whole thing . What I find interesting now is the way that facing those challenges transports you back to that original state of furious-kid-in-the-classroom, feeling powerless and overwhelmed. What a sense of achievement you get from facing those old demons and batting them away! (Full disclaimer - it's not been that long since I threw myself on the bed screaming 'TECHNOLOGY HATES ME' into a pillow - but I am improving.)
Researching and putting together my new recording set-up was a lot of hard work and definitely brought that old red mist down over me. I’d feel helpless and exhausted, drowning in the jargon of a landscape I don’t feel at home in. Everything looked the same on the screen, I couldn’t remember the numbers. The sad truth is that there really aren’t any music shops any more, so you have to work out what mic is going to fit your voice using a mix of experience, online research, and advice from the pros – It would have been so much more comfortable for me to go in and talk to someone, try some stuff out. In the end I was lucky enough to work with a few kind souls including recording engineers and producers who were willing to advise me (in the main the composer, producer and part-time wizard Ben Tarrant Brown). Without him I’d be standing on one leg shouting at the seagulls.
I mean, sometimes I do that anyway but it’s fine.
The mic I decided on which I’m very happy with, is the German made large diaphragm Neumann TLM 103 – it’s a top of the range piece of kit, based on the design of their legendary U87.
I thought, well if you’re gonna do it…
The TLM has a clean sound, very low noise and is hyper sensitive. I have to be careful what I wear to work, as the movement of certain fabrics (denim is particularly bad) is picked up as you gesticulate. To be honest I find it quite hard to embody a Piglet/ Millenial with my arms pinned to my sides.
Obviously the isolation booth comes into its own here – the only sound to have gotten through so far has been a helicopter literally circling overhead. I also found that my pop filter needed to be upgraded to a Pop Audio (foam fitting), as my old one wasn’t cutting it.
Along with the new mic came a new pre-amp and interface, which all needed some getting used to. Completely out of character, I got a bit over excited to start with, cranked it up and got cracking - the very polite complaint went, “we love your new sound Hannah but it’s a tiny bit.. loud”. Whoops.
What’s lovely is the glassiness, and the way nuances are picked up so perfectly, but on the flip side its very exposing. If I’m not hydrated enough, or if my voice is tired, it’s all right there. I’ve had to listen, mess around and make mistakes and learn to use all these pieces of equipment, and thanks to the help of my equally weighted human brain, (and to Ben for not murdering me in the process) I have.