A great animated explainer video can be boiled down to three things: Story, Animation, and Audio. But as we all know—three is a crowd—and more often than not, the third wheel of this trifecta is Audio.
Audio can make-or-break your animated video, but more-often-than-not is overlooked and slapped on at the end of a project. Poor audio quality will ruin a viewer’s experience—no one cares about the animation or people if the tone is ear splitting, the music poorly cut, and the sound effects non-existent.
Many companies will use sound effects and music clips to help underscore the story of a video. That leaves one final component, Voice Over, which is the trickiest one of all to get right.
Voice Over is wildly important. It is the primary source of information sharing and provides the human connection that we all subconsciously look for when we consume any sort of content. Some budget video companies will use text-to-speech apps to cut costs (We’ll write more about this in another article). While other companies gloss over the audio, adjust the gain, and be done with it without addressing the other subtle issues that make the difference between amateur hour, and a professional production.
Here are 7 things to consider when working with voice overs to ensure you get the best quality for your audio. Don’t feel like reading? Check out this infographic with the same information.
Number 1: Equipment & Studio
Not all microphones are equal, and not all studio’s are either. When working with a voice over artist, you’ll want to make sure that they are using a quality microphone. I’ll save you the technical jargon and dissertation, but I tend to lean towards condenser microphones with an XLR input. Why? Because a condenser microphone will pick up more of the dynamic range (the details) of a voice. Why XLR? Because they TEND to be a higher quality sound than their USB counterparts.
As far as studios are concerned, you want to make sure your voice over artist is working in a properly treated room that is free from background noise and sound reflection. But don’t let the idea of a studio lead you astray. Not all studios are constructed well and absorb sound. It’s important to listen to audio samples from the set-up on quality monitors or headphones to make sure that you’re not stuck with an audio track that no amount of editing can fix. We’ll cover what to listen for under the next few points.
Number 2: Background Noise
While music is added to many videos you’ll find online, you still want to listen for background noise when inspecting the V.O submission. Can you hear traffic, lawn equipment, kids playing, yelling in the street, the air conditioning or other appliances? Is there a general hiss, or unexplained excitement in the air? All of these noises can ruin an otherwise perfect track.
The industry standard noise limit is -60dBFS. It’s important to have your V.O. artist confirm that this is in fact doable in their recording space of choice.
Number 3: Sound Reflection
Sound reflection and number 7 are my biggest pet peeves. Sound reflection is basically a slight echo caused by hard surfaces in a room. If you want to take a deep dive into what is happening and hear an example here is a good place to start. Otherwise, just imagine someone’s voice sounding slightly split.
More often than not sound reflection happens because a room is not treated to absorb sound. It can also happen when a studio IS treated, but the treatment isn’t quite absorbant enough.
Another common mistake is when a V.O. artist fails to account for other hard surfaces— like desks, tablets, and computers—near their microphone. Sorry, Jerry, I know you need to read the script, but the mic doesn’t lie.
Sound reflection will make an otherwise great project, sound amateur. Get it dampened!
Number 4: Mouth & Body Noise
Would you like to listen to a recording of Aunt Janice getting the food out of her teeth with her tongue? What about Uncle Chuck’s excessive need to slap his legs and clap when he tells a story?
Mouth and body noises are a nuisance. You’ll want to make sure your recording is free of clicks, pops, swallows, and other highly attractive mouth noises.
While you’re listening, also pay attention to body shuffling, clothes rustling, mouse clicking, and furniture… clattering. While most of it can be edited out in mixing and mastering, a lot of it can’t!
Plus, it can be downright annoying for a listener. And do you really want to be known as “the business with annoying mouth pops in their videos?” Didn’t think so
Number 5: Awkward Cadence & Operatives
Ok. Remember when I said 3 & 7 were my pet peeves? Well… I lied. They all are.
Number 5 has you focusing on cadence, how a line is being read, and operatives, the words that are being emphasized.
How can you tell… if your video has a quality voice over artist on it? Listen for the cadence and operatives. See what I did there?
Is your voice over artist emphasizing the correct words to bring the script to life? Or are they just emphasizing random words, giving a faux, generalized performance that “sounds good”, until you realized you don’t have a clue what they just said.
Don’t put the wrong emPHAsis on the wrong syLLAble… or word for that matter.
But buyer beware, don’t always blame an awkward cadence on the artist or (text-to-speech app if you went with a subpar agency). Some creative agencies don’t put the time and effort into crafting a script with a smooth, streamlined cadence, and proper punctuation, dooming an V.O. artist to inopportune phrasing.
The point is, if you notice awkward cadence, phrasing and operative usage in your voice over, then something somewhere is off and it needs to be addressed.
Number 6: Ending Consonants
When it comes to the pronunciation of the English language, Americans are among the laziest. While we all leave off ending consonants here and there in our everyday speech, when it’s recorded it makes for a sloppy accent. Make sure that ending consonants are there, specifically p, t, k, b, d, g, and f.
All that being said, in my experience addressing ending consonant usage is tricky, and honestly, sometimes I hesitate to bring it up. Some V.O. artists will take this note to an extreme and you’ll end up going from 90 seconds of mumbling to 90 seconds of over-exaggeration, which ends up being worse than the mumbling. Instant palm-to-face.
Normally I try to sidestep the issue and hire people who have stupendous articulation on their auditions. But sometimes demos are a misrepresentation and you need to give a note, so I tend to start by asking for a bit of crispness to the overall feel. If that doesn’t do it, I call out specific words, and casually point out that “just” sounds like “juss”, and “guest” sounds like “guess”. If that doesn’t do it, you’re going to have to let them know that they’re sloppy. And when you do, be prepared for the protestations.
Number 7: Sibilance & DeEssing
Remember when I told you 3 & 7 were my biggest pet peeves, and then I went back on that and told you it was all of them? Well now that I’ve reached number 7 I must admit that this is my absolute biggest pet peeve and I’m ashamed that I’m apparently a liar.
“Why?” You might ask. “Why is number 7 your biggest pet peeve?”
As I take a deep breath, you may cut me off and ask “What even is Sibilance?”
Well say this out loud five times fast, “Sally sells sea shells by the sea shore…”
Hear that high frequency hiss? That’s sibilance, and it will make a listener cringe if it’s not corrected. Funny thing is, a lot of the time it’s NOT correct, it’s masked by music and bad headphones. But pop on a pair of decent headphones, though, and you’ll cringe.
And THAT’s why it’s my biggest pet peeve, because if the sibilance is bad, I’ll turn off whatever I’m listening to. All of the script development, storyboarding, and custom animation won’t make a difference if the sound is harsh!
Luckily, there is a tool to fix sibilance, it’s called a DeEsser. A DeEsser is a tool that is used to pull those harsh sounds out of an audio recording. But it’s not an easy process, therefore teaching you how to use a DeEsser is another article in-and-of-itself. And even after I write the article, it’s something your sound engineer should be left to fix.
So there you have it, 7 out of a list of dozen (in not hundreds) of things I listen for when working with Voice Over. As always, if you have any questions feel free to reach out with questions. We’d love to work with you for your business video needs!