Can You Hear Me Now?

Other than your typical birthday party or wedding video, most productions include some kind of narration or voice-over. This applies to documentaries, training and orientation videos, promotional projects and especially advertising. With the script as a guide, it’s easy to discover those portions of the video that need narration. Armed with your existing audio tools and this article, you can start recording today.

Gear Up

If you shoot much video, you probably have everything necessary to record and edit narration. A nice microphone is a good place to start. Most handheld, shotgun and even lapel microphones can be pressed into service for your voice-over. At the upper end of the scale, a large-diaphragm studio condenser is ideal for vocal recording. Vintage models can cost thousands, but there are dozens of project studio models — some even sell for under $100. If you record narration on a regular basis, even a basic model is a good investment. Large-diaphragm mikes have a unique sound quality that is difficult to duplicate. On the other hand, it’s possible to record a voice-over with a $10 computer mike or the one built into your camcorder. Just don’t expect studio quality from these low-cost alternatives. Don’t forget to devote a few dollars to a foam or hoop windscreen. These simple accessories will eliminate breath pops and add to the professionalism of your recordings.

You’ll also need something to record with. The simplest method is recording direct to your computer through the sound card. Most modern computers include an adequate sound card complete with line and microphone inputs. The adapters and cables you use to attach microphones to your camera should work here as well. Using your audio editing software, set the file for mono 16-bit audio with a 48kHz sampling rate and you’re ready to record audio for your video project.

Alternatively, you can use the audio facilities in your camcorder. Just set up the audio gear like you would for a video recording, import the recorded video into your editor and unlink the audio from the video and discard the visual information. If the narration needs extensive editing, export the audio portion as a WAV file and mutilate as needed in your favorite audio program.

Capturing The Beast

Hopefully, your narrator isn’t a beast, but the human voice can be an unruly challenge to record. First, no two voices are alike — each one has its own unique characteristics. While one microphone may sound great with men, it may sound terrible with women. Some voices are rich and full while others are thin and raspy. I’m guessing you won’t have many options when it’s time to record narration, so let’s see how to make the most of it.

Nearly all directional microphones have a trait called the proximity effect. Simply put, the closer you get to the mike, the deeper the bass. You can leverage this characteristic during your voice-over sessions. Start with the narrator six to ten inches away from the microphone and listen closely through headphones as they read some of the script. If the voice lacks authority, move the narrator closer until you hear something you want to keep. Likewise, if the voice is too boomy, move them back an inch or two to balance things.

You may hear some odd noises during these tests. Lip smacking, throat pops and occasional gurgles are common problems. A bit of lip balm should minimize the smacks while some liquid refreshment may get rid of the other sounds. Avoid extremely hot or cold drinks and anything with milk; it aids in mucus production which will just make the problem worse. Also, try using a pop filter. These accessories are inexpensive and widely available at music stores.

In a pinch, you can improvise one with some nylons and a coat hanger twisted into a circular shape.

Don’t forget the room. The space you record in also affects the sound quality of your voice-over. The ideal recording environment has a minimum of hard surfaces and sounds very quiet. This means you won’t be recording in the bathroom. If you want a little ambience on the final edit, you can always add it with a reverb plug-in. Short of building a vocal booth, a walk-in closet is a great alternative recording room. There’s a light for reading and the clothes absorb any acoustic reflections. You can also improvise with blankets, sleeping bags and mattresses. The February 2005 issue of Videomaker has a complete article on controlling room acoustics during video production. Many of these same techniques will work for your voice-overs too.

Slicing and Dicing

Just like producing video, it’s rare to get a single, perfect recording of your narration. The finished track is usually built from various takes of the material. While you could edit the voice-over in your editing software, it’s probably best to drop it into a dedicated audio editor like Sony’s Sound Forge or Adobe’s Audition. If you haven’t invested in audio editing yet, there’s another option. Users of Nero CD burning software have the Nero Wave Editor, which is a capable, free audio editor with all the standard goodies.

First, normalize the track to compensate for recording levels. Next, listen through the entire piece — following the script — and make a note of the best takes. Most audio editing software allows you to set markers at points throughout your audio. This makes it easier to sort the good takes from the bad. Next, using your notes or markers, remove all the bad takes until only the best material is left. At this point, you’ll have the best possible rough-cut of the narration. Now, it’s time for some micro surgery. This is when you zoom in tight on the various phrases and minimize or eliminate coughs, throat clearing, sniffles or breaths. It’s OK to leave some breath noise in your video — it just proves your narrator is alive — but remove anything that sounds like the talent was on a respirator during the recording. At this point, you’ll notice some segments are louder than others. Unless you want this for effect, go in and normalize each phrase separately to make the volume consistent throughout the recording. When you have a finished product, save it as a new WAV file and import it into your video project.

As in video production, it takes time and effort to create professional sounding narration. The good news is all the tools are already on your desktop and in your camera bag. With a little creative thinking and some patience, you can create voice-overs that can rival big-budget productions. Can you hear me now? Good.

Contributing Editor Hal Robertson is a digital media producer and technology consultant.

[Sidebar: It’s All In The Voice]

My production partner and I recently completed a project for the cattle industry. The goal of the video was to acquaint the viewer with new procedures and processes that would ultimately yield healthier, more valuable animals. Having spent some time behind the mike in radio, I had planned to do the voice-over myself. My partner had a better idea and contacted a regional celebrity friend. Although not a superior vocal talent, our new narrator had a familiar, folksy delivery that suited the project perfectly. As a bonus, he also raised cattle and understood all the terminology, so our recording and editing sessions were completely painless.

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