Every video project, whether it be for an internal corporate video or national commercial needs great audio. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon to hear poorly recorded and processed audio in either. Some video and motion graphic design schools do teach good audio practices but due the the complexities involved and depth needed to cover audio best practices, many may gloss over the details or ignore the topic all together. This article is meant to help any video producer who wants to refine their methods for dealing with audio, specifically voice over and voice mixed with a backing music track.
I’m not going to go into the setting used in specific software programs, as everyone is using something different but the general principals can be implemented in any full service A/V production.
The original recording needs to be top notch to begin with. No software program can correct audio that was not recorded properly. Many claim to have features that will like noise reduction, reverb reducers and the like. However, anyone experienced with audio knows the easiest way to getting professional audio is capturing the recording properly from the beginning. Getting a great voice over is fairly simple when you break it down. Here are the main factors in order of importance.
1. The Talent. The experience of the person reading your script is the single most important factor in your end result. Being able to lift words off a page and make them sound like original thoughts delivered by an original person is much more difficult than it may seem. Every professional producer and voice talent can tell you that it takes years of practice and training to become competitive. There is a good reason successful companies seem to work with the same small talent pool and pay them what they do. Doing your own VO unless you have experience or having the client read it is your first step towards an amateurish sounding project. You don’t have to pay union rates but ponying up for an experienced full time voice talent is a must if you want your project to sound competitive. Non broadcast VO rates start at about $100 per minute (~150 words). Anything less than that and you are probably hiring an amateur and likely wasting your money. Not that there aren’t bargains to be found at lower rates but they are very few and far between. Stay off of E-lance and Craigslist unless you are looking for a first timer, reputable talent won’t be found there. Try a talent agency in your area or search on the web for someone with decent credits. Be specific, i.e. “male voice over talent Denver”. If your project is for TV or radio expect any professional to charge based on the use (TV, radio, where and how long on the air). This prevents conflicts with other advertisers. Your client won’t be happy if they find out the voice they choose also happens to be the voice of their competition.
Union rates are listed here http://www.voiceoverresourceguide.com/la/08union.html
2. The Room. The recording space makes more difference in the quality of the end result than every other factor aside from the talent. A well treated space is an absolute must to capture a workable recording. Basically, you need lots of big, soft, sound absorbing materials in the space and few exposed hard surfaces. A common rule is 50% or more of the surface area of your space needs to be “treated”. Great recordings can be captured in a closet full of clothes. Closets full of clothes can be amazing if you are looking for a low budget solution and are a trusty fall back for talents working away from their home studio. Auralex makes special foam panels you can hang on the walls but I prefer GK Acoustic panels. They cost a bit more but sound great and look amazing compared to foam. Egg crate foam won’t help your cause even if it looks like sound foam, so don’t waste your money. Bookcases full of books make great treatment due to their tendency to “diffuse” difficult to deal with lower frequencies and they look spiffy as well.
Concentrate your treatment on the first reflection points. That’s the area the sound wave will hit first (the walls in front of the talent and ceiling in front and above). Then work on the 2nd refection points, where the sound will bounce to after hitting that first wall, likely behind the talent. When you have about 50% of your room covered including the floor (carpet or a thick rug, hopefully) and ceiling, you should be in pretty good shape for a basic VO recording. Also, concentrate treatment in the corners as well, as low frequencies tend to build up there. It goes without saying that you need the room to be as quiet as possible. Good microphones will pickup things you don’t typically notice like fan noise from you computer. Put your PC on the other side of a wall, in a closet or use something like a Mac Air that is near silent. You can buy monitor and keyboard extension cables online. And don’t forget to turn off your heat or A/C, the mic will pick that up as well and ruin your recording.
3. The Mic. There are lots of great options starting around $200 but if you plan on using it often you can purchase an industry standard about $1000 and never have to worry about your mic being good enough. Read this article on the differences between a dynamic and condenser mic and make your choice. In short, dynamics are easier to work with and perfectly fine for lots of projects but a nice condensers will deliver a better result, the caveat being they have to be in the right hands or they will sound much, much worse. Shotgun mics like the ubiquitous Sennheiser 416 ($1000) represent the best of both worlds, picking up detail like condensers but are more tolerant of noise and questionable room treatment. I use a 416 and it’s common knowledge that they record a larger percentage of VO than anything else. For hire studios frequently use the Neuman U87 for voice over ($3000) but the U87 needs to be in a very special environment to sound good, not a closet or first time setup.
3. The Pre Amp. Pre’s are much less important that your talent, room and mic choice but do contribute to your sound. Avalon, Manley, John Hardy, Great River and Universal Audio are all very common in the realm of professionals. Expect to pay $800-$4000 for a high end pre. If you are looking for value, the DBX 286a has decent pre’s and other effects like compression and gating for less than $300 and treated me very well before I upgraded to a Grace and later an Avalon. The CEntrance Mic Port Pro is around ($150) is great for a travel rig as it’s very portable.
4. The ADDA Converter. Short for Analog to Digital/Digital to Analog Converter. Honestly, ADDA matters much less than the above factors but with audio the devil is in the details and every little bit counts. Audio geeks will debate ADDA’s importance is certainly far below your talent, room, mic and pre choices. If you are on a Mac I couldn’t reccomend the Apogee Duet any higher ($600) Focusrite Scarlet 2i2 is great for Windows users and comes with 2 okay preamps (good for backups) for around ($150)
5. The DAW (digital audio workstation, editing software). Makes absolutely no difference at all in your sound, the only caveat being the on-board effects like compression and EQ. Audacity is free but Adobe Audition has everything you need and a great workflow for $350. Pro Tools is geared for complex multi-track music production, not voice over. You DO NOT need or want Pro Tools if you aren’t already very familiar with it so don’t waste your time with PT. Twisted Wave is great for less than $100 if you are working on a Mac. Lot’s of options here. I recommend Adobe Audition as it has a full feature set and very efficient workflow, for me. Debating DAW’s is like debating chocolate or strawberry. It usually comes down to personal preference.
Now that you have an idea of what gear is needed, let’s take a look at part 2 and learn the best way to process your recording after it’s captured in PART 2