How to Create the Perfect Sound for Your Course

Ask a group of course designers how to make e-learning more engaging and you’ll get plenty of suggestions for using images, videos, and animations more effectively. The visuals and interactive elements are really good places to start. But there’s another element that’s often overlooked: audio.

E-learning audio is more than voice-over narration. Audio includes audio interviews, ambient sounds, natural sound effects, and background music. Used effectively, these can help draw in learners, focus their attention, and fuel their imaginations.

Audio Interviews

If you’re like most e-learning designers, your clients, customers, and subject matter experts help you craft your e-learning course.

But you can use these different people for more than their expertise—you can use them for their voices. The voices of experts, specialists, and employees performing tasks can lend credibility and authenticity to your course.

That’s where audio interviews can really help! You can record audio interviews over the telephone, Skype, or at a work site with a digital recorder. Then, use single recordings or a series of clips throughout your course.

You can even use the same questions you ask during the analysis phase to record sound bites for your course. Here are a few examples of how you can direct interviews with customers, legal and compliance staff, and sales and marketing folks:

  • Customers: Ask customers what they think. What do they like or not like about your company’s service?
  • Legal and compliance: Find out if a new law impacts how your company conducts business. Ask legal and compliance staff how it affects employees and customers.
  • Sales and marketing: Seek out salespeople who always exceed expectations. If you're doing a sales training course, interview these superstars on their secrets of success.

Such “characters” humanize your e-learning courses. Use their expertise in their own words to draw in and engage your learners.

Ambient Sounds

The background noises you hear everywhere you go create a sense of atmosphere and location without relying on visuals or interactive elements.

You can’t always interview your experts out in the field or where learners perform their work, but you can simulate being there by adding a layer of ambient audio.

Consider the following work environments and their associated ambient sounds:

  • Warehouse: The sounds you’d hear in a warehouse could include forklift backup beeps, palettes being stacked, and people walking up and down truck ramps.
  • Legal office: The sounds in a legal office are likely more subtle than the warehouse. Common sounds would include quiet office chatter, printers, paper shuffling, and keyboard typing.
  • Customer service center: The sounds you’d expect to hear in a call center include background talking, touchtone phones being dialed, busy signals, and ringtones.

The key to using ambient sound in your e-learning courses is to look for the common, repetitive noises that exist where your learners perform their job functions, then layer those sounds below your primary course narration.

Natural Sound Effects

Sounds from the location or place where the real-world performance takes place can complement ambient sounds and draw learners' focus and attention.

Examples of natural sound effects for specific training topics include:

  • Automotive service training: The ambient sounds could include machines and the chatter of voices, while the natural sound effects could be the sound of an engine failing to turn over or the sound of a tire bolt removal gun.
  • Workplace violence training: The ambient sounds could include mundane office machines, printers, and soft chatter, while the natural sounds could include an employee sighing or the sound of someone typing loudly on a keyboard.
  • Safety training: The ambient sounds could include city sounds, while the natural sounds could include a horn honking or car skidding followed by a siren.

Natural sound effects should be louder than ambient sounds but should not compete with the primary narration. Ambient noises can play concurrently with primary narration, but natural sounds work best when they're filling gaps in the narration.

Background Music

This one’s a bit trickier. In most cases, music is more distracting than beneficial to a project. That’s in part because there's no universal agreement about what music means. People hear music differently.

For most projects, music probably isn’t appropriate. If you must use it, then do so sparingly so that it never competes with the primary narration.

That being said, the right project can benefit greatly from a music track.

Consider the example below. The background music combined with button effects and audience “oohs” and “aahs” help simulate a game show quiz.

Try viewing the quiz with and without audio to get a feel for how the effects bring this interaction to life.

 How to Create the Perfect Sound for Your Course

Example of background track and sound effects

So there you have it: four ways to use audio effectively in your e-learning course. Just remember, you don’t want the audio to overtake your course. Practice the “less is more” principle so your audio helps focus your learners and enhance your course.

Do you have any tips or tricks of your own for working with audio? We’d love to hear about them in the comments section below.

Jennifer Valley
Kim Hannan
Mike Jones
Douglas Audirsch

I have used a variety of sounds in our courses depending upon the design and style of the course. A few examples have been: - course designed like a talk show with a musical intro and announcer - course designed with correct/incorrect scenarios, with office sounds (typing, machines humming, phones ringing) very lightly in the background. - ambient sounds on slides related to the graphics and narration. E.G. A slide explaining a "deep dive" into a topic - the slide background is an underwater scene with a scuba diver and it is paired with a soft bubbling sound that only lasts a few seconds. We did this to establish the concept but then faded the sound out as the narration took over. Same course later referenced this same topic and we animated a scuba diver silhouette behind the... Expand