Voice Over is unique artistic performance because it is entirely produced with sound.
There are other performances of sound–a live rock concert for example– that depend on sound but they have other aspects that contribute to the experience: costuming, lighting, pyrotechnics. But voice over is only sound.
Think of an audiobook. The setting, the weather, the characters, the plot and the emotions are entirely conveyed by the reader’s voice. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”
But as you create a voice performance you’ll find that some sound is your friend. And some sounds are your foes.
The Famous Signal to Noise Ratio
When you flip on that microphone and begin performing, the recording software captures everything. Sound engineers from the very beginning divided that “everything” into good things that you want to hear and not so good things that you don’t want to hear. They called the good stuff the “signal” and the unwanted stuff “noise”.
Your Voice Is the Signal
So what is the signal in your recording? Duh! Your voice. Ideally you would want to hear only your voice. And nothing else in the background. This is ideal, but it’s also impossible. Even the finest mics and electronic equipment have a faint hiss that they add to the recording.
To overcome this you want to record your voice at the correct level. I call this the “Goldilocks” level. Not to HOT (which will cause clipping distortion) and not to COLD (where your voice is down there in the basement competing with the hiss). Here’s picture of good levels:
So what is Noise?
Noise is everything that is not your voice. But let’s break that out into identifiable categories.
As electronic hardware has improved this has become less and less of a problem. But you want to find it if you have it and eliminate it.
HISS can be caused by a cheap mic, poorly designed analog-to-digital converters or poorly isolated USB circuitry. The solution to this is spend a bit more money. Choose a CONDENSER mic. Most mics around $150 or more will have very low “self-noise”.
Here’s some HISS to listen to so you know what it is:
HUM is caused by your electronics picking up the electromagnetic waves from the power lines in your studio. That’s why we don’t recommend DYNAMIC miss: the coil of wire in the mic can pic up stray hum. Hum can also be caused by a “ground loop” in your audio system. Try to have everything plugged into the same socket to prevent this.
Here’s some HUM to educate your ears:
This is what we usually call “noise”. Leaf blowers and trash trucks. Jets flying over. Traffic. Kids playing Guitar Hero, your neighbor’s 1000 watt 5.1 surround sound system. Find the quietest room in the house, preferably between other rooms and close all the windows. Stop recording when the helicopter is overhead.
Or more subtle things like the air conditioner, the refrigerator, ticking clocks, the washing machine. It’s best to listen for these background sounds on your recording with headphones. We can be so used to them we don’t notice that they are in the recording.
These are sound you create because you are recording. The two biggies I hear are:
Also called “room ambience”, “room reverberation”. Whenever you speak some sound goes directly into the microphone. But some sound bounces around the room, is delayed and enters the micro a few milliseconds later. This creates the sound of reverberation (“reverb”) in your recording. Just imagine recording in your bathroom. This reverb is fun if you’re singing in the shower, but it’s deal-breaker if you’re recording a voice over.
The only way to eliminate this is to deaden your recording space with absorbing materials. Carpet is better than tile floors. Drapes and couches are a good thing.
To really kill the echo you can hang moving blankets on the walls where you record.
Forget desktop computers… they have four or five noisy fans cranking away. But even laptops have a nasty habit of kicking the fan on in the middle of recording. Some cures?
A wireless keyboard, screen and mouse. This allows you locate the computer far from your mic.
By Your Recording Ye Shall Be Judged!
Not to be an alarmist… well, actually, yeah, let’s be an alarmist. Almost ALL auditions and 90% of the jobs you do will be recorded in your home studio.
The first criterion that hey judge you audition by is your recording quality. Before your performance. Before your voice. If Morgan Freeman sends in a noise recording they are not going to hire him. And they assume that the JOB will sound like the audition. So your AUDITIONS (and jobs) need to be BROADCAST QUALITY.
Which means: your voice at a good level… and nothing else. Great SIGNAL and NO NOISE.
Set It and Forget It
The good news is that once you set a good recording level and eliminate any background noise, you’re good to go. So roll up your sleeves, turn your ears up to “super sensitive” an optimize your recordings. Then get on with the fun we call voice over.