Sound Track: Narration Sensation

When you hear the word "narration," what do you think of? Do you remember the uninspired drone that accompanied the grade school filmstrip Fantastic World of Fungi? Or do you think of the upbeat, assertive voice woven through those snappy late-night infomercials?

Done well, narration is the off-camera voice that ties a production together, maintains viewer interest and conveys valuable information. Done poorly, narration can suck the life right out of your video.

So how do you make sure your narration is effective? Good narration is well written, well delivered and well recorded.

Writing and delivery are important topics, but beyond our scope here. Once you have a tight, effective script and someone talented willing to read it, this is how you actually record narration that’s crisp and intelligible.

Location is Everything

You might think that audio equipment like microphones and tape decks are the most important factors for recording good sound. While they certainly are important (we’ll cover equipment in a little bit), the simplest and most important thing you can do for good narration is pick a good recording location.

Find the right acoustical setting and put the mike in the right place in relation to the speaker, and with almost any equipment (you can even use your camcorder for very positive results) your narration audio will turn out okay.

Ideally, you should find an indoor location free from unwanted noises. Traffic, people talking, lawn mowers–all these will compromise your audio by becoming a permanent part of your narration track.

Because sound bounces around in enclosed spaces and can lend an unappealing hollow texture to your recording, try to find a room with little or no echo. Mid-size rooms with lots of soft, fluffy furniture, drapes and carpet usually make good locales for recording narration. The average living room, with wall-to-wall carpeting, is a great choice, absorbing most reflected sound before it ends up on tape.

With a quiet, acoustically subdued space selected, the next decision is where to place the mike. The golden rule of recording is "get close," and it applies here as well. Getting the mike quite close to your narrator’s mouth will allow you to more easily avoid echoes and unwanted ambient noises. It will also result in a larger, clearer sound.

The higher frequencies that give sound its clarity and naturalness tend to disappear quickly as sound moves through the air, so getting the mike close helps capture these important frequencies on tape. Directional mikes (cardioid, for example) also pick up more low frequencies when placed close to the sound source. This makes the voice sound fuller.

A good starting point is to place the mike six to 12 inches from the mouth. If this seems too close, consider how often we hear voices miked at about that distance (or closer). Singers, lecturers, emcees, pastors–these voices are commonly picked up by microphones located just a few inches from their mouths. The resulting sound is usually wonderful.

The main drawback of close-distance miking is the increased chance of recording loud thumps as air from the mouth hits the mike. Consonants like "p," "t" and "b" are the worst offenders. The best solution is to stop the air without stopping the sound, something easily achieved with a fine cloth netting. You can buy "pop filters" which attach to a mike stand and suspend a circle of fabric between mike and mouth, or make your own. Another way to greatly reduce popping is to place the mike at a 90-degree angle to the narrator. In other words, talk across the top of the mike, not into it.

Microphone Options

Recording narration requires a microphone, a preamp (pre-amplifier) to boost the mike signal to a recordable level and a device to record the sound. The one piece of equipment you own that has all of these items in one spot is your camcorder.

You can get great results recording narration with a camcorder and its built-in mike. Just set up the camcorder so its mike sits between six and 12 inches from your narrator’s mouth. (If your camcorder is stereo, rotate it 45 degrees so the sound is going directly into one side of the stereo mike. Later, use the audio from that side only since using both sides of the stereo mike will degrade your sound). Unless your narrator can remember to direct every "p," "b" and "t" sound away from the mike, you’ll definitely want an external pop filter when using your camcorder. Don’t bother with the camcorder’s built-in wind reduction–these circuits usually take a large toll in sound quality. You will get the best results from models that allow you to disable the auto gain circuit (see October ’98 Sound Track column for more about auto gain).

In addition to camcorders, editing VCRs are also handy narration devices because many have external audio jacks that allow you to attach an external mike. Any number of different microphone types work well for narration. In general, condenser mikes will give you the clearest, most-
natural sound. An inexpensive, directional condenser mike designed for musical instrument applications works well. Even better (though more expensive) is a condenser mike designed for studio vocal recording.

Another type of condenser mike that works well for narration is the common lavalier. A "lav" will give you the same up-close, articulate sound whether it’s used with a narrator or pinned to your on-screen talent. Most lav mikes are omnidirectional, which means they won’t help much in isolating the narrator’s voice against unwanted noises or ambient room sounds.

Dynamic mikes meant for handheld use are another good choice for recording narration. Designed for singers bellowing at close range, these mikes usually have an internal pop filter to reduce breath noises. Though rarely as effective as an external nylon filter, the mike’s internal filter may be adequate. A decent dynamic mike (in the $100 price range) should give you full, crisp sound when placed a few inches from the narrator’s mouth.

You can also record very good narration with a shotgun mike. Drop the mike back to a foot or two from the narrator’s mouth, and experiment with the bass roll-off switch (some mikes include this feature to reduce the microphone’s bass response) to achieve the most natural sound. Since you can place the shotgun mike a little further from the narrator, you may not experience a problem with breath noises or pops when using this type of mike.


Mount Up

How you mount the microphone isn’t all that crucial when recording narration. The most convenient way to hold a normal mike is with a mike stand. A basic "straight" mike stand will set you back less than $30, and offers convenient height adjustment. A flexible gooseneck allows you to position the mike as needed, but it can shift around after you get it set.

The best option is a mike stand with a boom arm. This rigid arm rotates, spins and extends for maximum flexibility in mike placement. If you plan to do much narration recording, consider investing in a boom stand.

If you’re using a lavalier mike, the best place for it is not attached to your narrator’s body, which heightens the risk the narration will include incidental noises from rustling fabric. Try instead taping the lav to a mike stand. In a pinch, you could tape the lav to a tripod to hold it at the correct height, or hang the lav at mouth height from above. How you fasten a mike in place for narration isn’t as important as where you position it.

Though it’s not the optimum setup, your narrator can carefully hold the mike while recording. This works best with dynamic or condenser mikes designed for hand-holding, as they have special absorption inside the mike to reduce the scratching "mechanical" noise that tends to occur. Handholding a lav or shotgun mike is a bit trickier, as most lavs are extremely sensitive to mechanical noise, and a shotgun held at arm’s length may be too close for good sound. Caveats aside, I’ve heard narration that sounded great recorded with a handheld shotgun mike.

Lay It Down

There are numerous formats and methods to record narration. The best one is whatever works with your specific equipment and approach. Apart from the low-fidelity VHS mono analog track format, any video format (VHS or S-VHS with HiFi, Hi8 or Mini DV) is fine for recording narration.

Standard audiocassettes also work well for narration. If you’re going record and play back from the same cassette deck, use Dolby B or C noise reduction. If you’re using two different decks, shut off the noise reduction to avoid potential calibration errors between decks. Buy a good, high-bias cassette suitable for music recording for optimum fidelity and less noise. Get plenty of signal on tape–the loudest peaks should hit +2 or +3dB on the VU (Volume Unit) meter.

Computer users have it easy–they can plug a mike or mixer directly into their sound card and record narration right into the computer. This promises great fidelity and convenience
when editing.

Speak!

As you can see, the tools and techniques for recording clean narration aren’t expensive or complex. If you’ve never tried using narration in your videos, now’s the time. Use these tips, and your narrations will sound great.

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