Sound Advice: Recording and Editing Narration

Narration is the fundamental ingredient that ties all the other elements of a video production together. Narration provides continuity, structure and vital information. It serves as a tour guide for the audience and an organizational tool for the producer. Narration can clarify, embellish and reinforce key information that may otherwise slip by your audience.

Essentially, narration tells a story or conveys a message verbally. It can be used extensively throughout a video as a running monologue, or it can be used sparsely, to help clarify complex information. But as simple as narration is, good narration is elusive. All too often, video producers concentrate solely on the visuals, overlook the value of narration and end up putting audiences to sleep with a lifeless, droning monotone..

There are three essential ingredients for creating high-quality narration: a well-written script, smooth delivery and a crisp, clear recording. For this article we will make a few basic assumptions: 1) You have a camcorder and an external microphone. 2) You have a script. 3) You have someone to read your script into the microphone.

Pick a Good Spot

Choosing a good recording location is perhaps the single most important thing you can do to control the quality of your audio recording. For recording narration, choose an indoor area free of noises like ringing telephones, screaming sirens, rumbling trash trucks or droning airplane engines.

Because sound has a tendency to bounce around (creating reverberations and echo), you should look for a room with furniture, rugs and wall hangings to help absorb the sound and eliminate any echo. A well-furnished den with thick carpet and bulky furniture may be perfect. Tiled bathrooms or kitchens, cement-floored garages or empty warehouses typically provide little or no sound absorption, making them bad locations for recording audio.

It’s not a bad idea to lock the doors at your recording location so no one accidentally stumbles in and ruins a take. Fasten a "Recording in Session" sign to the door to let others know to be quiet or come back later.


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Record Silence

When recording narration it is important to realize that silence is rarely silent. Each location has its own distinct sounds consisting of ambient and other noises. Often these sounds are subtle and may not be noticeable when you are on location. When editing your clips of narration into short bites and spreading them out under your video, however, this "silence" can create abrupt audible changes that will be obvious to your audience.

To eliminate the sudden change from one scene to another, record several seconds of silence in the room where you record your narration. Later you can edit this ambient silence into the gaps between edited pieces of narration. Remember, if your camcorder has automatic gain control (AGC) you’ll need to drop the levels of your ambient silence in your editing program.

Get the Mike Close

Once you’ve secured your recording area, you need to set up your mike to get the best pick-up possible. Whenever we talk about recording sound, we emphasize the importance of getting your microphone as close to your source as possible. In this case, that source is your talent.

Getting the mike, whether external or on-camera, close to your narrator’s mouth (6 to 12 inches away) will provide the clearest and cleanest narration possible. A hazard of getting close to the mike is picking up unwanted popping (or "plosive") sounds that can occur when sounding the letters B, P and T. To avoid pops, have your talent speak over the mike instead of directly into it (see Figure 1). If you have access to one, you might use a pop filter to remove the plosives before they reach the mike (see Pop Filters sidebar).

Rehearse Before You Record

Have the narrator get familiar with the script by reading it aloud several times before you actually record it to tape. This exercise will likely save you time and frustration later. If your narration is time sensitive, a 30-second commercial for instance, use a stopwatch, clock or watch with a sweeping second hand to time the narration.

Another benefit of rehearsing the script is being able to match the tone and pacing to your visual images. The more familiar you and your talent are with the script, the smoother and more natural sounding the delivery.

Count It Down

Most camcorders have automatic gain control that adjusts the audio levels as they record. AGC affects all audio, whether recorded through the camera’s built-in mike or an external mike plugged into the mike jack. When sound levels are loud, AGC drops the level to avoid distortion. When levels are soft, AGC boosts the level to hear the source. When you press Record on your camcorder, the AGC will adjust the audio levels to the ambient "silence" of the environment (usually resulting in an audible hiss). When your talent begins speaking after a moment of silence, the AGC will take a second or two to adjust to the new sound level (his voice). As a result, your talent’s first word or two will sound extremely loud, and may distort until the AGC adjusts to the new level. One way to avoid this abrupt jump in volume is to have your narrator count down out loud before he begins reading the script. Simply count down, "threetwoone" before reading the narration. This gives your camcorder’s AGC level a chance to adjust to the level of your narrator’s voice, reducing noticeable shifts in audio levels.

Keep a Log

A shot log is as valuable for recording audio as it is for shooting video. This is especially true if you have a lot of audio to capture to your hard drive. A log is a simple device that records the scene, the take number, the length of the take and an on-the-spot rating of the take.

It’s best to record your narration all at once so you don’t have to leave your edit bay to re-record and re-capture more audio. That means recording a number of takes. Even if you think your talent has nailed it on the first try, record at least one more rendition just to be sure. You may have inadvertently recorded some noise or a pop that you didn’t hear at the time. Give each take a number, and log its start and stop times and whether it was a good, fair or bad take. When it’s time to capture your narration to your hard drive for editing, you’ll know which take to grab without wasting valuable time listening to them again.

Use Visual Cues

Capturing your footage to your hard drive is one of the most time-consuming and tedious parts of editing video. Anything you can do to save yourself time will pay dividends in the long run. When it comes time to capture the audio to your hard drive you can use visual cues to alert yourself to good takes, but only if you’ve recorded them.

When you record your narration, point the camcorder at your narrator and hold up a finger to the lens or write on an index card with a black marker to indicate the segment and take number (Opening Narration, Take 1, for instance). Record each visual cue for 10 seconds so you can later spot them easily while fast-forwarding or rewinding through your footage.

Pause for Effect

Once you’ve captured all your narration and you’re ready to edit, you may need to trim some of the audio clips to better match your visuals. It can often be difficult to edit between words or sentences that run tightly together.

By exaggerating the pauses between sentences when reading the script, you create natural edit points. This can be helpful for portions of video where there are lapses between the shots and the narrative descriptions.

That’s a Wrap

Whether you’re looking to create an epic documentary, enhance your instructional videos or spice up an event video, narration is one of the simplest and most effective ways of elevating your production’s quality.

By following the simple tips for recording that we discussed in this article, and editing your narration accordingly, you will quickly see and hear how high-quality narration can dramatically improve your videos.

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.