How Does Jeff Bell Make the Most of His Gnarly Voice?

How Does Jeff Bell Make the Most of His Gnarly Voice?

Posted by Auralex on 25th Aug 2020

Note: Interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. The interview was conducted by Kevin Booth, Auralex national sales manager. Robb Wenner, Auralex artist relations, produces the podcast and jumps in with questions. To hear the interview, subscribe to Auralex Creative Spaces on your podcast platform of choice.

Kevin Booth: How did you get started in radio and broadcasting, and what drew you to that initially?

Jeff Bell: I was a band nerd during high school, so I’ve always been drawn to music. I was just kind of a wandering soul after high school. We had moved to this remote place in Arkansas, and there was an ad in the paper for disc jockeys. They were looking for people to work part-time at the radio station.

So I went and applied and talked to the guy, he heard my voice and recognized there was something there. He also had a broadcast school that he was doing for a few months, come in a couple nights a week. It was a daytime radio station, so they’d shut it down and use the studios at night to practice. That’s where I learned the ropes of production.

I immediately started looking for opportunities. Sending out tapes and moving around the country.

KB: Were you aware of voice-over work when you started?

JB: I had no idea that any of this stuff was a career field at all when I started. It never occurred to me that being a disc jockey was a job [laughs]. It all came in that instant, when I was in a radio station and realized that I was good at this, that this was a thing for me. I had no direction, no life plan, nothing at all [laughs].

KB: You played in bands throughout that period, too? Played music?

JB: I played music always, but I lived in small towns and rural places and didn’t really have bandmates very often. I couldn’t really find cats to play with, you know? I never really was in official bands or anything.

KB: So that transition from broadcasting to voiceover, was that pretty seamless? When did that happen? As technology changed?

JB: All of that. I was on the air for 18 years and in my last few years, I started doing imaging for radio stations around the country. So those kind of overlapped. I had my full-time job on the radio and I was doing radio imaging and occasional commercial stuff at home. I set up the home studio in 1997, opened my voiceover business in 1998.

I didn't leave the radio station till 2001. So there was a bit of a transition there where I was able to sort of build the business while having a gig, which was important. And then after they bounced me out of there, I already had enough income to just keep pursuing that. I immediately scored the agent in Milwaukee who led me to my first Ford job that came right after I got the axe from radio, which was super lucky. Then I just kind of busted my ass for a year or so, a couple years. Hand-to-mouth, dollar-holler things. And then the Ford stuff really kicked in, big time.

KB: That's really set the stage for everything else, right? That's going big. I love that video where you're kind of trying to squeeze all that in, in the disclaimers. It really shows the art and the difficulty of getting that done.

JB: Well, and those are old radio skills, because back in the day, it was tape. And there was an analog clock on the wall. And you wait for the second hand to come to the top, and then you hit record and you race through all that, and you mix it while you read it. All that stuff had to be done straight to tape. That's kind of the interesting thing about the way Ford behaves. When we cut stuff, we behave as though we're cutting to tape. We don't come back and edit later. They make me hit it. 29 and a half [seconds], you got to hit it. Yeah, every time. 60 [seconds], it's got to be 59, so it's all those old radio skills day-in and day-out that help with that work.

KB: Are there any voiceover artists or voice that you use as inspiration?

JB: I think that you kind of pull a little bit from everybody. The guy the first guy that that's put this idea in my head was Joe Kelly. He later became my friend. My second radio station, we hired Joe Kelly of Super Spots out of Chicago, to be our station imaging voice. That would have been like 1984 and from then on, I'm like, “Yeah, that's what I want to be.”

KB: So do you have an agent now? Or are you independent?

JB: I have a couple agents. Two or three agents that send auditions, that kind of stuff. I enjoy the challenge of doing auditions and trying different things. Otherwise, you end up doing the same ‘bark-and-growl' stuff all the time. It’s interesting to challenge yourself in the auditions.

KB: Another one that people may recognize your voice from is the Liberty Mutual commercial, right? It’s on your Facebook page. That's a very interesting one, kind of showing the outtakes. Was that natural? Was that planned?

JB: The funny thing about that commercial is that I was the last element put into that. The audition I did didn't really match what we ended up doing. But the direction during the session brought us to that sort of King Kong, you know, the mouth-doesn't-match-the-words vibe. And that happened during the session. So that turned out to be more interesting than the audition when we got into the session. But yeah, that's just lucky because the actor kid, that guy, he killed it, you know?

KB: Your workplace, you have more than one room that you've kind of done some videos. In those videos, you’re constantly making changes it seems, in the room, the way it sounds. Is that true and you're just constantly working on it, tweaking and tuning the space?

JB: While I got you guys here, I want to turn the tables on you and ask you guys some questions, because I think that especially with COVID and everyone having to develop their own home studios now, I don't think people necessarily know how to listen. So what happens with me, when I added these panels to the ceiling in the booth, I was listening for months and I was getting the sort of buildup, this low-end buildup in here. I'm like, ‘There's some reflections going on.’ And it's building.

So it's not offensive. It sounds good right now, but it just started. So I got these ceiling panels and that all went away. But what I want to ask you guys and I know Robb [Wenner, Auralex artist relations], you’re a teacher, maybe you can help explain. How do you listen for a reflection? Because it's like the sound after the sound. But how do you teach someone to listen for those reflections? Like when you're trying to tune your studio? That seems like an extra skill in the ear.

KB: It is one of the things. Go ahead, Robb.

Robb Wenner: That’s part of recognizing that you do have a problem in the room. We always say that the purest sound that you'll ever hear is if you stick your head right in front of your monitor. As soon as you move out of that, and the sound populates into the space, that's where you have to start looking around and listening and just kind of analyzing it better. Even if you're not sure what the problem is, what it is you're listening for, you can definitely hear there's something going on.

JB: But how do you determine what the reflections sound is? Because it's such a subtle thing, like the sound after the sound?

KB: Yeah, and in a mixed-position scenario. We consult people every day on how to do that based on best practices and reflections and things like that. Sometimes it still comes down to the room and the geometry of the room and being in the room, something that's created that you wouldn't hear offsite.

JB: Interesting, because I know that's a big problem, a lot of people not really understanding what to listen for. I've got a little tinnitus; I’ve been under headphones a long time. So sometimes it's hard to spot where I'm hearing a reflection or how to treat it, you know?

KB: We started making portable treatment that you can move around, I think one of the advantages, something I noticed right away for that, it helps to train your ear by moving around and find out what it does, right? So the same as moving the microphone in recording to get the best sound versus EQing, move it around the room to find out where it's absorbing and how that makes changes to the room, is probably the best way to get started with that.

JB: You guys, tell me again about your service, you have a service that you do for the room treatments?

KB: A personalized room analysis form called a PRAF. You just go online and fill in the details of your room and upload some pictures. Pictures are great because they give us an opportunity to look at the space as well as dimensions. And we start to look at it from there. Combined with information about your equipment, what you're using, are using the subwoofer, how big is the room. If a room is less than 14-½ feet, well an 80-hertz sound wave is 14-½ feet for it to develop one time. So that's going to revolve, that's going to build up back into the room where you listen to the track, more low end coming into the space, you know? So those kind of things that we factor in, and then we send you back a drawing and suggestions of what you should do with the room. For voiceover space, we can do the same thing there.

JB: A lot of the trouble that I've had and I think a lot of people are having is, it has less to do with treating the spaces then keeping other sound out of the space, which is very difficult. I had really good luck with that mass-loaded vinyl in my control room.

KB: Yeah that's the SheetBlok.

RW: That's also a bit of a confusing thing to some people is that they look at absorption panels, or our Studiofoam or something like that - it's controlling the sound within the room. Soundproofing involves construction and trying to eliminate sound transferring out of the room and back into the room.

KB: The SheetBlok is a real heavy black dense poly material that just blocks 27 decibels flat out. Of course, it's different across different frequencies. But for the most part, 27 db, it just stops it. That combined with other masses that you can build in the wall...

JB: Some sounds, they're just not going to be kept out, like the Coast Guard helicopter that went by earlier.

RW: If people have the ability to build a room within a room, then you are able to eliminate that. I've been in a lot of studios that are in the flight path of airports and you sit there and go, ‘Why in the world? Who thought this was going to be a good idea? But if it's built right, you can eliminate that.

JB: I had a commercial space down here in Florida, and it had 10-foot ceilings and I had a booth inside it. It was right across the street from the fire department. None of that stuff would get in. Just having that extra room in the room. But this room, the one in my house, the ceiling’s right here, leads right to the outside and there's just not really any way to stop that travel.

KB: In the room-within-a-room scenario, you're basically decoupling that room from the other wall from the other space. Any time that structure touches the other structure, it vibrates through the drywall, through the framing, through the ceiling. All those vibrations carry through and they make their way out. So if you build a room within a room that actually is decoupled, not touching that outer wall, combined with mass and absorptive materials and the SheetBlok we talked about, that's how you get there.

KB: So, what is your signal chain then?

JB: For my voiceover, I use a [Neumann] U-87. Through a Manley VOXBOX. And that's all you need really, that's everything I have. I have a Aurora Lynx 16 and SSL Nucleus 2 studio controller. But basically what you're getting is straight out of the Manley and the U-87. In the control room, when you see me doing the videos, I'm using the Sennheiser 416, and that seems to work really well in there. I don't enjoy it for voiceover because I move my head so much when I deliver. But when I'm using it sort of at a distance in there, the 416 sounds fine, and they have a similar sound. My ear doesn't care for the 416. It's what everyone in the industry uses, that or the U-87, but the 416, it has a hollowness to my ear. I’m into the big diaphragm and the big tubes [laughs].

RW: How long did it take you to decide that the U-87 was the best mic for your voice?

JB: My first mic was a Neumann TLM 193. My buddy had one of the those. I used that and I'm like, ‘That's a good mic.’ That's what I can afford. So that was my first mic for the first few years. I don't even think you could go to Guitar Center and try one out back in the day. I just ordered one. I just knew that was the thing.

But when I recorded my first record, I sang through a U-47. And that is a sick mic! Just sick. So it's tempting to get one of those, but don't like to leave those two mics hot all day. They seem to get a little fuzzy.

KB: A standard broadcast mic, like a [Shure] SM7B, is a great mic, but it probably wouldn't capture the resonance in your chest that the U-87 does.

JB: And the U-87 with the big diaphragm allows me to really move a lot. And then it also sort of absorbs this sound that rumbles off my chest. And I feel like some of those other mics don't hear all that.

KB: Many of your videos are really supportive of the voiceover community in an instructive way. That's really cool that you do that. Sharing your tips and secrets with everybody. One of which is about the woofer and the tweeter and your chest voice and your head voice and using those.

JB: That is a technique that I developed for myself about 25 years ago and I've been doing it ever since. I was living in Milwaukee, and I noticed that everybody kind of has that Wisconsin accent and I thought, you know, maybe it's because their nose was stopped up half the freaking year. And I thought, you know, maybe if I learn to speak with my nose stopped up, I could avoid all that crap. That’s what prompted that. I don't want to pick that up. And I'm gonna catch a cold a couple times a winter so I learned to learn how to talk on the radio without my notes. So I started doing that and then realize that you get this huge resonance in your chest. And it sort of multiplies the resonance because it's in the larger chamber of your body. So it went from just being sort of a gag to avoid picking up a local accent to just this way of achieving a different level of depth.

Over the course of the years, I've taught that technique to a half dozen people I met along the way. And I have heard them change. I've heard the effect it has on them. And, and the resonance in the depth and just the warmth that it brought. In fact, just last night, I was talking to a friend who said she was explaining this technique to someone else. And then two days later, that video came out and she just shared it with them.

I think people don't realize how your body works. And it's a discovery that I made. So it's not some special technique I invented. It seems like a perfect thing to share with others, like this is how your body works. Get to know your body. A lot of voiceover is sort of biofeedback and learning how to trick your body into doing these gags, you know, it's not normal to talk like this [changes tone dramatically]. If someone walked up to you on the street, you'd be like, “Dude, get the f*** away from me. You're troubling me.”

KB: There's another video about tempo and metronome and timing. I found that one really interesting because I found myself kind of ghost tapping out the intro as I tried to do the intro for this show. It just really helps.

JB: When you're doing a lot of different speeds and auditions and takes, you don't really have a reference point, and I noticed when I do the Ford commercials, as we go, I seem to get a little more excited. So it's a lot like sprinting, when you do a 30-second read top-to-bottom, you take in big air, you read a little bit, you grab more air, read, grab, read, grab, and you're really working your lungs and your body. So at the end of it, you're kind of exhausted and winded.

You're using your air management the same way you would as a singer. So I start to notice all the same things apply, musically. The difference in reading a commercial and reading a song is that in a commercial, all the lyrics are right in the intro. You know, it's about the same number of words as a song, you just have to say them all right at the beginning. You end up managing your air in a similar way that you would as a singer. Because I spend so much time singing and playing music and stuff, I noticed these similarities and pull them together.

KB: Beyond those things, do you have any advice for aspiring voiceover artists or current voiceover talent?

JB: There's so much instruction out there you know. I've had to make all this stuff from whole cloth. I'm in the middle of the woods just talking to myself in a room, so I just had to invent myself along the way. But there's so much instruction now, they're great instructors. You can do it just Zoom, on the internet, that kind of thing. And acting classes because the industry is moving more toward acting and announcing and I'm just like a standard announcer type of guy. My pipes have just become this gnarly things that normal people don't sound like. I sound like an announcer all the time. But I think the more you can develop your acting chops, the more opportunity you'll have. Study things like video games. There's a lot of opportunity for non-announcer like, you know, acting type of jobs.

RW: Have you done much audiobook recording?

JB: I'm not really into the audio book thing because it takes forever [laughs]. I have a very short attention span. I get a little iffy in the last 10 seconds of a 60-second spot. I might just bail out, it's tough. About 45 seconds, I can stay with you that long.

45 seconds, I can stay with you that long. I tried to read a pamphlet. I’m like, no way am I sitting in here for 18 pages? I’m too fidgety for that.

KB: Since you work from your own studio, COVID probably hasn't changed much for you in terms of work?

JB: It's changed what I eat. I have to deal with my own cooking now [laughs]. I miss the restaurants, I’d like to get back to that as soon as possible. That's also my social life, going to restaurants [laughs].

Just over a year ago, I built this booth in my house and moved out of the office space and back into my house. I readjusted to being in isolation most of the time and a lot of my work comes from both coasts. I have auditions first thing in the morning and then auditions come in late in the day, even six and eight o'clock at night, so I don't really get too far from the studio. And then the lockdown. What do you got to do? It's not that different really. But the work slowed down for everybody. It was quiet. There wasn't any work to do, but I was hanging around the house with all my toys and stuff [laughs].

RW: Have you noticed the work starting to pick up a little bit now?

JB: Yeah, I do a lot of Ford commercials and it's tough to sell cars when you can't invite people in. We're doing a little bit of advertising around the holidays, but you know, for the most part, it's really hard to invite people to come to your store. We're sort of opened up here in Florida, so people are getting out a little more, unfortunately. I think it's been slow. I didn't get a lot of these touchy-feely COVID spots. A lot of people were doing those. I don’t know, I guess they didn’t want a bulldozer for that kind of gig {laughs}.

KB: Is there something interesting about you that people might not know about?

JB: I don’t think I’m that interesting [laughs]. The stunt I did in Nashville, the guitar strap company, Bitch Straps. That evolved from me learning leather craft work in sixth grade. I never did it again until I was like 40 and bought all this stuff to do leather tooling. That’s when I sort of invented these guitar straps. There wasn’t really any sexy leather guitar straps on the market. I did that whole thing. And the marketplace was not interested, by the way [laughs]. But it was a fun adventure, and I got to meet everyone in the music merchandising industry.

But that’s probably the most interesting thing I’ve done in my life. Since I was 18, this is what I’ve done: sit behind a microphone. Every day, six, seven days a week.

RW: Is that your Mustang on your web page []?

JB: Yes that is mine. ‘68. I added electronic ignition. It has 62,000 miles on it. It’s a sweet car. It was a family car. The guy who flipped it to me bought it from the grandson. So it’s been in two families, so far.

I’ve got a video coming out that’s going to feature that car.

KB: So you moved from Nashville to Florida. Do you have any wild Floridian man stories?

JB: You know, the opportunities to become Florida Man are so plentiful that I don’t leave the house [laughs]. It’s just too easy. I’ve been in the paper before, man, I’m not gonna go back!

KB: I’ve got a question for you: that Super 55 light in the back, where’d you get that?

JB: [Laughs} So I’ve had a buddy in Nashville who is a carpenter. His girlfriend was working on an album in my studio. So we’re talking and I’m like, “Man, that cabinet looks like a 55 S.” Now, this cat is crazier than me. I don’t know what happened, but he decided to make this crazy thing. It’s made of MDF and CNC’d out to look like that microphone. This thing weighs 200 pounds. I just threw that idea out there not thinking he could near this kind of madness, and this is what he came up with. Automotive paint and LED lights and just fantastic.

KB: Yeah, the room you have, the vibe, seems really cool. With all the gear, all the acoustics, it really brings it together.

JB: You’ve got to have a cool vibe in your studio. My first studio I was ever in was a radio studio, and it feels like, when you enter these hallowed grounds, these special places, it’s like all the rules of life are kind of off. You have to be a little bit extreme and a little bit off the hook. That’s how I feel you should be, how you should feel, when you enter a studio. You should feel like you are free to experiment, to try whatever you want without fear, to get the most out of your time there. So that’s why I like to have a great vibe where you feel like you can sink in and be comfortable and hang.

KB: I’ve been to some studios that feel like a doctor’s office, a very corporate feeling, and that’s not the right way to go.

JB: It doesn’t seem to promote wildness.

KB: Right, or its disheveled and messy, and it’s not my mess and I can’t bring myself into this.

JB: Right. I spend every day in there, so I want to keep the vibe good. I like to stay in the art side of it. A lot of people think about the business side of it. I try not to, even though I sometimes far behind on bookkeeping [laughs]. I think staying on the art side of it keeps you more ready to perform.

KB: Thanks for joining us on the Auralex Creative Spaces podcast. Great conversation. Everyone out there, look up ‘Jeff Bell Voiceover, find him on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and LinkedIn. Jeff, be safe, stay healthy, and we’ll talk to you soon.

JB: Thanks for having me, guys. Good to talk to you.

The Gear of Jeff Bell

SheetBlok Sound Barrier

Neumann U-87 Microphone

Manley VOXBOX Reference Channel Strip

Aurora Lynx 16 Converter

Solid State Logic Nucleus 2 Studio Controller