Sound Advice: Voiceover Techniques

Whether you edit commercials, training videos or even movie trailers, at some point in your video career you’ll need to record a voiceover for a project. You know, the smooth, professional dialogue that urges you to dial a toll-free number and divulge your credit card. Of course, you’ll want a deep, resonant voice perhaps a famous radio announcer or TV personality. After reality (and your budget) kicks in, you realize your talent is either you or your Uncle Eddie (he sings karaoke every Tuesday night). Don’t panic! We’ve assembled several pointers on the subject hopefully everything you need to keep the relatives away from your valuable equipment.

The Script

It all starts with the script. Not only is the script the blueprint for your video, it’s also the roadmap for those parts of the program that require a voiceover. Writing a script that is grammatically correct is one thing, but portions of the copy will be read aloud; this often requires a different discipline. Make sure the phrasing in your text is lean, mean and easy to pronounce. Whether you perform the script yourself or use other talent, read the script out loud a few times and listen for clumsy words and phrases; edit as needed. Your narrator will thank you.

The Voice

Once you’ve got your script in top form, it’s time to look for vocal talent. First, determine what style of announcer best suits the project. Will the project benefit from a male or a female voice? Should the voice be a high-octane professional, or will a more relaxed and laid-back approach work best?

Depending on your location, there may be a wealth of vocal talent just waiting for your call. The first possibility is a local radio/television/cable announcer. Video voiceovers are a great way to use a skill they already have (and who wouldn’t like to earn some extra money)? Some may even do it for free in exchange for a copy of the project for their demo reel. In any case, make sure your announcers can work outside their day jobs. Some DJs have exclusive contracts with their employers and are not allowed to provide their voices for projects on the side.

Another option is the broadcasting/communications department of your local college or university. Many students will jump at the opportunity to work on a real video. They may even learn some real-world techniques that they won’t find in a classroom setting. Be prepared to spend extra time with student talent to fully explain what you want, but always treat them like professionals. They can surprise you.

Ultimately, you may end up doing the voiceover yourself. Whether for economy or speed, this approach is the best method for some assignments. I once narrated a series of training videos myself because no one else could pronounce the chemical names. Go figure.

The Equipment

As with your video equipment, high-quality audio gear makes for high-quality recordings. Having said that, I’ll confess to using a $10 computer mike on a couple of projects. It works OK in a pinch, but don’t make a habit of it.

For good narration, you need a good microphone. If you’re after a real radio announcer sound, beg, borrow or rent a high quality mike like a Shure SM-7 or ElectroVoice RE-20. Both are legendary for their warm, intimate and forgiving sound quality. Of course, you can also use a shotgun, hand-held or even a lapel mike, but don’t expect them to produce the same quality of sound. And don’t forget to use a windscreen or pop filter to eliminate breath pops.

You’ll also want a preamplifier or audio mixer to bring the microphone up to a recordable level. The Mackie 1202 mixer is an industry standard. This is a solid piece of equipment that will serve your audio needs for many years. If you just need to record one or two microphones, M-Audio makes a clever little preamp called the "Audio Buddy" for around $100. It’s definitely worth checking into.

The next item is optional, but highly recommended – a compressor/limiter. This little jewel automatically decreases the difference between "loud" and "soft," delivering a smoother, more even vocal performance. Several audio manufacturers offer high-quality, low-cost versions. Check with a local music store or musician catalog. Compression can also be easily applied in post-production with the right software tools.

Now, you need something to record with. Ideally, you’ll record the audio directly into a computer for editing, but it may be easier to record on another medium and then transfer to the computer. MiniDisc is a popular format for field recording. Some portable recorders are smaller than a deck of cards, but the audio quality is still excellent. Today’s digital camcorders also serve as CD-quality audio recorders and many can connect to external microphones and mixers. You should be aware of automatic gain control, however, and choose a model that offers manual level adjustments if possible.

The Setup

Ideally, you should record voiceovers in a studio. Although studio time might not be as expensive as you think, we’ll assume your production budget doesn’t allow for this luxury.

What you need is a more cost-effective solution. Walk through your house and listen closely to each room. Recite the Pledge of Allegiance or a few lines from your script, listening for the quietest, most echo-free room. A walk-in closet is often an excellent recording booth. Alternatively, a room with heavy drapes and/or overstuffed furniture works well. Once you’ve identified the recording room, make sure it has adequate lighting to read the script, and then provide your voice talent with water, cough drops, snacks and headphones to hear the playback (a happy performer is a good performer).

Have the announcer read through the script a few times. This gives him a chance to warm up and check the phrasing of the copy. It also allows you time to set proper recording levels, check for breath pops and listen for any other stray noises.

The Edit

Editing narration in a computer is a dream-come-true for the video producer. With the click of a mouse, you can easily remove coughs, sniffs and stutters. It is simple to remove unnecessary pauses between phrases, tightening the performance and producing a professional sound. The best part is that this miracle is standard equipment on all modern computers.

Unfortunately, your computer probably didn’t come with professional audio editing software. Video packages like Adobe Premiere and Apple Final Cut Pro contain some basic audio tools, but if you want real control, dedicated software is the way to go. Two of the more popular editing programs are Syntrillium’s Cool Edit 2000 and Sonic Foundry’s Sound Forge. Both offer similar features and the ability to add plug-in effects. Sound Forge XP (a lite version) can be found for free many places and Sonic Foundry’s Vegas Video has a full suite of top-quality audio plug-ins.

In any case, you’ll have the muscle to apply dramatic volume and tone adjustments along with reverb, delay and other special effects. Depending on your software, you may be able to reduce noise and even speed up/slow down the recording. Just don’t go crazy. You want a clean, professional recording for your video, not an audio circus.

Fade Out

Try these various techniques on your next project. You’ll be amazed at the difference they can make. With some attention to detail and an ear for audio, you have the capacity to record and edit high-quality voiceovers just like major production houses (minus the overhead and politics). And your audiences will appreciate it when they watch and listen to your videos.

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