Native audio vs. dedicated recording software

Many multimedia development programs have native recording capabilities that allow users to record directly within the software production environment, instead of using a dedicated recording software or device.

I usually prefer using the dedicated recording software (I like Sony SoundForge), as these programs have greater capabilities and options that enable the narrator to produce higher quality results, with greater flexibility in the production and editing.

For example,  I always run a noise gate processor to remove background noise, and tweak the equalization slightly to increase intelligibility.  These capabilities are well worth the small investment in dedicated recording software.

Multiple narrators within a program

I often receive requests for recording multiple narrators for use within a single program.  This usually works out fine, but the approach raises a number of issues that the designer/writer should consider:

  • Adversely impacting comprehension:  One narrator typically gives the program a cohesive and consistent voice.  The viewer becomes familiar with the voice, aiding comprehension.  Multiple narrators can create a slight increase in cognitive load, requiring increased concentration in order to adjust to the new timbre, accents, speaking rhythm, pacing, etc.
  • Increased variety:  Multiple narrators can create an increase in the level of excitement in the presentation, by providing a new voice at various points within the program.  For example, shifting from male to female, or through various voices, can increase the overall impact of the program.
  • Increasing Production Safety– using multiple voices throughout a program can allow you to revise or add to the program at a later date with minimal impact (even if the original narrator(s) are no longer available).  Since the audience is used to hearing several voices, they will not perceive a new voice to be out of place within the narrative.
  • Consistency – make sure that the voices are not to dramatically different.  For example, too much variety in accents, pacing, timbre, level of “professionalism”, etc. can be distracting, as the audience will be required to concentrate to interpret what each new voice is saying.

One approach to increase the impact of multiple narrators is to use specific  voices for specific areas of the program.  For example, one voice carries through a single topic or section , with the new voice signaling a change in topic or section  Or you can have specific voices for topic overviews or summaries, and another for topic presentations, with another for questions and interaction prompts/instructions.


Always monitor your performance using headphones

A good pair of closed back headphones (that have cups that reduce the sound from the headphones from reaching the microphone) are an essential investment when you are putting together your narration setup.

Closed back headsets allow you to monitor your performance at a sound level that will enable you to hear problems or errors that can impact the quality of the record.  For example, you can listen for rustling of papers, squeaky chair noises, and other glitches that would go unnoticed.

If you need to hear your voice directly, then move one of the ear cups of that ear (and if possible, lower the volume on that side using the balance control).   This will end up saving you time in editing and retakes.

Processing narration audio files

Professional sound recording software provides a range of effect and processing options that are particularly useful for improving the overall quality of narration files.  The ones that I typically use are:

  • Noise gates – this is a processing tool that allows you to set a lower level threshold for the sound, and then mute any sound that occurs below that level, in the space between words and sentences.  Used properly, it can help make your recording sound like it was done in a well soundproofed area, because listeners hear silence in the spaces between statements, while the room sound is mostly masked by the (much louder) sound of your voice.  It can take some experimentation to set a gate properly, and it will not cover up undesirable room sounds perfectly, but it can really help clean up a recording.
  • Equalization – EQ can be used to (slightly) reduce a continuous noise issue (such as HVAC hum), or to brighten up a dull sounding recording to increase intelligibility.  It can also be used to (slightly) fix the sound of excessive room reverberation.
  • Reverb – you can enhance a signal that is too dry by (sparingly) using a little bit of reverb (select small bright room, quick decay).
  • Time compression/expansion – though I have rarely needed to use it, preferring to time the performance to the visual, narrators can use this function to adjust the duration of a narration segment to match the duration of a visual event, such as an animation.  Note that this can result in some artifacts that can make the segment less usable, but it is worth a try to attempt to fix a segment that is too long or too short.

Most recording software includes  these types of processing effects and other processing that is intended to address specific needs, but for most cases, they are not that useful for narration, and can distract from the narrative impact if overused.

Simple Accoustic Treatment/Control of a Recording Environment

Creating a decent sounding room for recording voiceover narration is not necessarily a major effort.  Some simple approaches to controlling the acoustic environment can include:

  • Using thick drapes or hanging thick blankets to absorb sound reflections and help deaden a room.
  • Home environments can use pillows strategically placed around the microphone to reduce reflections
  • Commercially available acoustic control products  can help address specific problems in an effective manner, though these can end up being somewhat expensive.
  • You can build simple but effective home-built acoustic control devices such as a board covered with standard insulation, covered with fabric, hanging thick rugs hung on a wall, etc.

The key is to first identify the specific characteristics of the acoustic problem, and determine how is can be addressed.  For example:

  • First, find the best position within the room, with minimum background noise, reflections, and standing waves.  Then work to address any remaining issues.
  • Computer noise can be reduced by moving the CPU away from the recording position, covering the CPU with a heavy rug or foam isolation (making sure to leave an opening for the cooling fan air), etc.
  • Standing waves require larger surface treatments.   This is where you need acoustic panels, rugs and foam wall covering, etc.  Or move some furniture around, such as placement of high shelves, to change the overall acoustic characteristics of the room.
  • A microphone position that sounds too lively can be addressed by a smaller treatment in the vicinity of the mic, such as using acoustic foam in the immediate recording area, pillows, etc.

You may need to continue experimenting to determine what the source of the issues is, and how it can best be addressed.