How Voice Actors Are Building Remote Setups For Working at Home

Ashly Burch, Troy Baker, Erica Lindbeck and Phil LaMarr-Getty - Split - H 2020
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Four pros explain what gear they've had to purchase in order to maintain studio-like work spaces amid the pandemic: "When it has to be good, it can be a very daunting task."

With residents of Los Angeles now knee-deep in "Stay at Home" orders amid the new coronavirus pandemic, most industries have ground to a halt if they are not considered essential. Film and television productions have shut down and face uncertain trajectories, though some entertainment production is keeping up in the form of video games and vocal performance.

The Hollywood Reporter spoke with a group of four voice actors, as well as a talent director in interactive media, who shared details about what equipment they owned before the virus hit in full force, and what gear they've had to purchase in recent weeks in order to have work-from-home setups. 

Erica Lindbeck, who voices Jessie in the upcoming Final Fantasy VII Remake as well as a lead role in the upcoming GLAAD and Microsoft collaboration titled Tell Me Why, describes to THR how her work life used to — just a few weeks ago — involve driving around town, fighting traffic and listening to podcasts, to record roles in different studios. Her professional home setup was still used on the regular, but mostly for auditions. Now her work is 100 percent from home, where she uses a Neumann TLM microphone and a setup called Vocal Booths to Go. "It's patented sound dampening fabric on a metal frame and I have it in my closet," she says. "You can stand up in it; it's probably four feet wide and six feet tall." But even with that, she has had to elevate her setup, including getting Zoom, Source Connect and Pro Tools; formatting Skype to be able to use it while she records, hardwiring her internet for a more stable connection and using an iPad instead a laptop because the latter makes too much noise.

"It's like going from an A to B to an A to F," Lindbeck says of the transition. "The amount of steps needed to complete the task have multiplied." Like many other actors, she has been doing a lot of test sessions for sound quality. Contemplating how things have changed, Lindbeck acknowledges that she's in an unusual place right now. "It’s an extra weird position for me to be in because I was never a person who offered an at-home, broadcast quality [setup]," she says, adding that, pre-coronavirus, most clients preferred actors to work from studios. 

For a leisure activity in between social-distancing walks and take-out coffee runs, Lindbeck — who grew up playing video games like The Sims, Pokemon and Zoo Tycoon, watching animated series and Anime — has been using this time to devour high-fantasy books by Sarah J. Maas, including A Court of Thorns and Roses and The Throne of Glass series. 

For Ashly Burch, known for her role as Chloe in Life is Strange from publisher Square Enix, things are different now, but also the same. "The interesting thing about our industry is that, obviously a lot has changed in terms of work — usually I’ll go to a studio to record — but the sort of nice thing is that I’m used to auditioning from home," she tells THR. "I have a home setup to audition from, so that feels strangely normal." Burch has had to make several adjustments to her setup, though, which includes a Shure SM7B microphone next to a round wall with sound dampening material on it. All that is next to her computer, where she engineers herself while auditioning. "I've had to scramble a little bit to try and elevate it," Burch says, adding that there has been new gear and a lot of testing meetings over Skype. She actually has equipment arriving next week. 

"There’s certain games I’ve worked on now where, even the microphones need to be different," Burch says, getting into the nitty-gritty that can be easy to overlook. "For example, if you’re on a motion capture game, the mic placement and type of mic is different than a pure video game. So there are some projects that are thinking about sending a lapel mic, or, [I'm considering if] I need to upgrade. With games, people are always tweaking technology to see how they can get the best performance. You want it to sound consistent with what you’ve already recorded."

And then there are the unavoidable outside forces to contend with. "There are animals here, and sometimes they start to bark," Burch says, clarifying that she occupies the same space with dogs. "I live in a quieter, more surburban-y part of L.A., but there’s still people who have gardeners come, or they’ll start mowing their lawn, or kids [will be] running around screaming. It’s kind of inconsistent. I can’t predict it and I can’t time it." That is her impetus in deciding to get a full recording booth. "It's not going to be as sound dampening as a studio, but it would help," she says, adding that that the industry is focusing on how to get impeccable sound quality at home.

Away from work, Burch has been playing "so much Animal Crossing." Of the simulation video game, she says it's been a great way to interact with people. "We'll visit each other's islands and talk on the phone or video chat [at the same time]. It's comforting, calm and serene."

Keith Arem, CEO and creative director of PCB Productions, a content creation company that often works in interactive media, directing talent in major titles such as Call of Duty: Black Ops, calls this a "unique time in history." He says, "There's a fear in the air, you see it spreading online and in people's eyes — this is the first time in our lifetime that we're all experiencing something as globally unifying as this." He's been in the game industry for over 25 years, once taking on a role as the audio director for Virgin Interactive and Electronic Arts. "With high-end performances, we have to record them in very isolating conditions in recording studios and in motion capture stages," he explains. "To some extent, what's going on with the recent COVID crisis has made a unique opportunity for these actors to continue their work even though they're under the stay-at-home initiatives."

During this time, Arem has used the "power of the internet" to test capabilities, whether that means connecting actors with clients, assisting them with their own work-from-home setups, or creating remote recording rigs that are not only designed to be sterilized and sent out to actors, but matched to professional recording studios in Los Angeles. "We do about 30 projects a year, and we were in the midst of 3 or 4 when the pandemic really escalated," Arem says, adding that a lot of them have now postponed their large recording sessions until May, when the bulk of the crisis is expected to pass. "Assuming that the curve continues to flatten, we have editors, writers and producers that are sheltering at home and working via Zoom or Skype."

He explains that, most of the time, all the recording equipment and the environments have to match between actors, because they are stitched together to form conversations in games that need to sound like they're in the same space. This is especially crucial when dealing with a Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) title, which often have 300 or 400 actors interacting with each other. "The initial things we've been doing are educating the actors about the engineering and prerequisites in what they need to do to work at home, the recording space they're in, minimizing reflections and [contending with] all the sound issues that engineers have to deal with in professional recording studios, [and] trying to let the actors understand that they're in a situation where they have to do some engineering as well as performing when they're at home."

Considering the current state of affairs and rampant uncertainty in the world, Arem notes that video games are moving forward at a healthy pace. "The game industry has been doing very well regardless of the crisis," he says, "with people being at home, we're now seeing the World Health Organization recommending video games as a good pastime, and game sales have been up. It definitely is a thing that brings people together when they are separated physically."

Troy Baker, who voiced Joel in The Last of Us — a game that continues to be found by new players and inspire conversation seven years after its release, with a much-anticipated upcoming sequel — has a home studio and counts himself as fortunate to have always been a gear-head. "I've always wanted the ability to make sounds at capture them at home, and so I've been savvy with understanding the business end of the mic and how it plugs into things," he tells THR. Pre-coronavirus, he had a setup that was good enough to record auditions, but it has now had upgrades. "The last few weeks have been me crawling underneath my desk and running cables," Baker says, adding that he got a new computer to keep up with the demands of what he needed to do. "Installs, upgrades, getting frustrated, YouTube videos," he says, characterizing recent days. "When it has to be good, it can be a very daunting task."

He describes his studio, which was once a bedroom, as a "hybrid of hang space, music creation space, something that looks like the deck of the Enterprise, and then just a small booth." Baker has an iMac Pro with an Apollo interface — which he explains has the benefit of being able to use their software and plug-ins that make his job easier; and four other monitors, including one that mirrors his Mac in the booth so that he can see ProTools running and have a Zoom window open. When he's in the booth, he's engineering himself and going back and forth between two mics: a Sennheiser 416 Shotgun mic "that was made famous by Don LaFontaine," and a Neumann TLM 103. Both of them run about $1,000.

"It's always an investment," says Baker, who recognizes that any of his work-related hurdles and obstacles to overcome are "laughably trivial" compared to that of health industry professionals and industries that are more negatively impacted by the coronavirus. For now, he's just grateful to be a "gear-head," a phrase he uses multiple times during the call. 

A few years ago, veteran voice actor Phil LaMarr (Fortnite, Mortal Kombat 11, Star Wars: The Clone Wars to name a few) converted the space above his garage into a sound-proofed studio with a "relatively professional setup," which he used mostly for auditions. Now, that's where he's doing all of his work. "I had a Yeti Pro USB mic that connected directly to my computer, but I thought I might need something a little better, so I got a second mic," he says, adding that in the last few weeks, the bulk of his work has actually been done on his same old mic.

Generally speaking what LaMarr has realized is, "If you have a good mic, then you need a good environment, because a mediocre mic doesn't pick up as much around you," he explains. "If you have a $2,000 mic, you need a $10,000 studio. But if you have a $200 mic, you just need sheets in your closet." He has a recording booth with an office attached to it, which has occasionally caused problems when his computer has made noise, and a client has wanted to pick up his feed from Zoom. There are various kinks. "The biggest problem with [working from] home is that, even in lockdown, neighbors are still having their gardeners come," LaMarr laughs. "There's absolutely no control you can have over that."

LaMarr describes the first couple of weeks of the lockdown as a time when he received calls from his agent: "This has been canceled. This has been canceled. This has been canceled." It then changed to "This has been rescheduled, pending." Now, he's working on ongoing animated series that are figuring out how to continue. "The press has realized that animation is one of the few arms, along with YouTubers, of the entertainment world that can continue in this apocalyptic environment that we're in right now. All the work can be done modularly and remotely." 

He gives big props to Zoom for providing easy connections during this unusual time period. "It's been a lifesaver, because obviously, one of the main problems of isolation is the feeling of disconnectedness. Although, I have to say, the video chatting is much more alien to me than to my kids," he laughs. "They're used to interacting with their friends via video on their phone, but for us old people, it's like, 'Turn down the volume!' It takes a lot longer, but we're very grateful after we've done it."

Of the media he's consuming these days, LaMarr admits that, usually, he can't get to the television because his kids are home 24/7. Though, he did look at the AFI Top 100 Movies list [10th Anniversary Edition] and decided to start with the letter A: All the Presidents Men. Asked whether he'll continue through the films, he answers, "Hopefully we won't be here long enough to get through the whole list."