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What Makes For Sound Voiceover Audio?

photo credit: Gerralt at Pixaby

In May’s VO newsletter, the topic was how to discern quality in Voiceover, given the large influx of new voiceover artists to the market with Covid-19. As Voiceover is largely still the only avenue of acting in operation as theatres, both for plays and films, are shut down as well as shoots slow to get back in production, voiceover is a viable alternative for actors right now.

Amidst that influx, there is a lot of inexperience that comes from doing something new. What is paramount in a voiceover artist’s offering is their audio and studio quality. This is not something that can be created overnight. It takes pro audio experts years to master good sound. Same with a voiceover understanding the fundamentals of producing great sound.

And for those that are producing, writing copy and dealing with clients, it can be hard to know what constitutes good raw sound that is required from a voiceover artist so that the project won’t suffer. In order to bring clarity, so that your project is the best it can be and your client is coming back to you again for more projects let’s take a look at some of the things you may not know about, but need to be aware of.

What good sound is not

It’s good to understand what we are looking for, by establishing what we are not looking for when it comes to good voiceover audio. Bad audio that is hard to use has a low recording level represented by a small waveform in an audio editor, lots of reverberant reproductions of the original voiceover, a high noise floor with lots of noise from outside and lots of clicks, pops and speech aberrations like popped plosive sounds (eg Port) that create mini explosions in the recording. Something like this:

I had to leave my trusty studio and do things I never do in order to get a take like this. This can’t satisfactorily be used in your project and will need to be recorded again. There is no way to remove the room reverb, the outside noises of the birds and cars and the vocal noises from the recording. When raising the volume to compensate for the low recording level, everything else that hampers the audio will also become louder and more noticeable. It has only one place: the bin.

This audio quality is common at the lower end of the market, or on sites where it’s fast and cheap. Creating a space to produce good raw voiceover audio costs thousands. And learning over a period of time how to use gear in conjunction with that space to produce the best sound. It is the opposite of fast and cheap.

So, what is good raw audio that you can work with on your next project?

Good Recording Level

The recording level that hampers a recording from the example above, looks like this on a waveform (I’m using Logic)

You can see that the recording level is too low. The voiceover is too quiet or the gain knob on the interface they are using is down too low. It is better than peaking (too much signal), but it is challenging to do anything satisfactory with this.

The following is a visual representation of what is best:

This approximates to a level of about – 9 dB to – 6 dB which is a good overall raw recording level and translates to clear and well heard voiceover when listening back. Unlike the other end of the spectrum when levels are far too high (clipping):

No Reverb

Voiceover is not just buying a mic and then going into any room and recording in it. That is what happens at the low end where it is about paying £5 for a voiceover.

A professional voiceover studio requires particular expertise in making sure there is no reverb. Reverb is, in a more technical description, is secondary reproductions of the source sound that are bouncing around the walls, floor and ceiling and making their way back into the microphone after that original source sound (the voiceover saying their lines).

Removing reverb in a space occurs when there is suitable treatment of that space with absorption. It takes considerable expense to really treat a space for voiceover where the sound is dead. Not so dead as to be sounding like we are inside a box, but where the materials used soak up all those secondary reproductions of the source sound so that all is left is the source sound being picked up by the mic.

Noise Floor

Ideally, a voiceover recording has a very low noise floor with little underlying sound in the background. So, no fridges, boilers, air conditioning, cars from the adjoining road, street noise, or neighbour sounds. They all make their way into the raw audio and make it harder to use. That is what you could hear in the recording above.

Technically, this is a level of -60dB or quieter. Sound works on a logarithmic scale towards 0 dB, with volume to us increasing the closer it gets to 0 and decreasing the closer it gets to – 100 dB and beyond. Audiobooks for Audible distribution must have a noise floor of -60 dB or quieter.

This again speaks to the difference between professional and amateur audio. Inside a specifically designed booth, noise floor is pretty low, because this has been a prime consideration. It has been designed that way.

photo credit: Tumisu from Pixabay

Extraneous noises

The recording above had lots of extra noises coming in – pops, clicks and distortions as a result of the ambient noise in the environment and the voiceover on the microphone. Imagine listening to a commercial where the voiceover has lots of mouth noise in the recording. That would get very annoying.

We are after clean sound free of all those extra sounds, which requires experience and technique behind the mic (taking time) and plugins that are not free (costing money).

Drawing all those together, and contrasting to the first example littered with what we don’t want, you get a raw sound like the following with a good recording level, no reverb, a low noise floor and no extraneous noises:

This still needs to be mastered with EQ etc, but it sounds so much better doesn’t it? You don’t have to waste time and money recording again. Off to the engineer it goes, or if your voiceover has mastered the audio for you then you can slot it straight into your project. That is the value a professional voiceover brings every day of the week. We deal with all that, so you can get on with wowing your clients.

If you like, please share.

Paul Mclaughlin © Versatile Voiceovers

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