Whether you’re in a professional studio, home setup, or somewhere in between, one of the leading forms of audio recording revolves around work with Voice Over (VO).
Voice Over can be many things, but at its most broad definition, VO is any piece of narration across a form of media that is not accompanied by an image of the speaker. In practice, VO is applied across all major forms of communication: radio, movies, documentaries, commercials, TV shows, audiobooks, as well as in the theater, museums, conferences/presentations, and news.
When consuming media we often take this element for granted. However, a surprising amount of thought and work goes into making each particular VO performance sound its best. Setting aside specific budgetary and equipment limitations for the moment, here are some general guidelines for engineers preparing, recording, and delivering a great voice over.
1) Session Preparation
Regardless of the DAW, know before you start exactly what you’re being asked to deliver. In charge of the final product? Identify how the recording should fit into your finished media. Handing off the recording to someone else? Determine their preferred file format, naming convention, delivery system, etc.
Most often, VO files are recorded at a 48k Sample Rate with 24 Bit Depth and delivered as uncompressed .wavs; but you could be asked for 44.1, an MP3, or something completely different. Confirm how the client would like the files processed, edited, or split up. A little prep before recording can save you a lot of headache in the end.
2) Room and Microphone Positioning
In addition to being very quiet–the lower the ambient noise floor the better—the room should be absorbent, meaning little in the way of sound reflections and reverberation. To test this, clap in different parts of the room and see how much echo/slap back you hear. The more ‘dead’ the space, the better when recording VO.
No matter what microphone you have, placement is also important. A good rule of thumb for distance is 6-8 inches between the diaphragm and mouth, but for particularly breathy or poppy performers you may want to add some inches to this. As long as your levels are on (-6 to -10 dBFS) and things aren’t sounding too roomy, these techniques should minimize the work you’ll have to do after the recording is finished.
3) Microphone and Gear
Budgets will vary wildly here, but you don’t need the best microphone/preamp/interface to get a solid voice over recording.
At Studio West we use microphones and gear that are more on the transparent side, meaning they have a flatter more accurate sound, as opposed to adding warmth or extra color. We most often use a Neumann U87 or KMS105 and Focusrite Red series or Millennia preamps, with little to no compression going in. It’s best practice to wait and tweak the dynamics and extra processing in post, that way you don’t risk any destructive changes while recording.
4) Talent Prep and Recording
Though it can seem more clinical at times, voice over is a creative endeavor. As with musicians, creating a comfortable physical and mental environment for the talent will go a long way in achieving the best performance. Don’t underestimate the importance of hydration to a good performance, so always have water on hand–this can help limit mouth noises, fatigue, and raspiness. Provide a well-lit space and ensure the talent has as much familiarity with the content and session objective as possible. Small things like this have a big impact on the final product.
Do plenty of testing before the record, not only to check levels, but also to ensure you’re not getting excessive plosives, breaths, and mouth noises. These things can often be fixed/minimized in post, but the results may be imperfect, and it can be extremely time consuming, so it’s always best to eliminate the problem at the source.
For plosives, the shooting air sound you’ll often hear when saying the letter “P” – (put a hand an inch from your mouth and feel the air as you say “P”) the simplest solution is to use a pop filter, though this can only help so much. For additional help with plosives and mouth noises, position the microphone slightly off axis and above the mouth of the performer. Particularly skilled VO artists know how to work the microphone in trouble spots and will often turn away for plosives or put a pen up to their mouth (which splits the air from the plosive).
Every performer is different, so have them speak for a while and see what sound issues or quirks in their speech that you pick up on; try various strategies until you find what works best for your particular situation.
5) Processing and Delivery
Ideally your VO recording should be as transparent and natural as possible leaving the booth. If the performance sounds too dynamic, some slight compression could be useful at the time of recording. Once recorded, you can start sweetening your recordings using some processing in post-production.
Standard tools include light to heavy compression depending on the medium. Radio commercial VO is typically very heavy whereas something over a movie would be slightly more natural. Subtractive EQ can rid the performance of any harsh frequencies present in the room or naturally occurring in the talent’s voice, and potentially a gate to cut your signal whenever the talent isn’t speaking. Note that if the VO is cut into a commercial or show, silence is just edited out manually in your DAW. For something more continuous like an audiobook, gates can be useful in limiting extraneous sounds between speaking. In addition to processing, this is also the stage to chop your VO into the takes you need and clear out any excessive breaths or massage down distracting plosives and other noises.
If you followed step one, delivery should be a breeze. If you are the final stage, this is the time to begin incorporating your finished VO into whichever medium it was intended for.
Good luck, and happy recording!
For those in the San Diego area, Studio West is here to help. Give us a call and schedule a tour to see our VO rooms or book some time to record a demo reel of your own.
The Studio West Team