Audio quality vs. voice quality: which is more important?

Hello everyone - 

I had a question about audio in e-learning. We use a lot of voiceover narration. Up until about a month ago, we used professional narrators to record our courses. Now, we're using a few people on our floor who have good voices. We don't have a studio in our office so not only do the current narrators sound less professional, our internal audio sounds mediocre.

If I can make the case for budget dollars, do you think we'd be better off finding a cheaper narrator with his/her own studio? Or does it make sense for us to buy better equipment and bring the studio into our office? And what are the costs and equipment you'd recommend for bringing in-house?

Thanks!

27 Replies
Carla Stewart

Hi Bobbie,

About two years ago we stopped using professional narrators. It had nothing to do with the talent - they were amazing! It was more because of frequent updates to courses. We update our courses 2 times a year (every course!) so it was just easier to record internally. We spent several hundred dollars on a mic and preamp and put a few padded curtains up in the guest office. Easily spent less than $800 and we never regretted it.

There isn't a lot to know about audio once it's set up. We hired someone to come in for an hour to ensure we had things set up correctly.  

One unexpected benefit of the studio is that it created some excitement around my e-learning team. Some of our SMEs actually look forward to coming in and sitting behind the mic. It's crazy, I know, but it's been a lot of fun.

Shelly Cook

For me, recording audio is my least favorite part of the development process.  Since I do not have a professional studio, I find it difficult to have consistent sounding audio if a course is extremely long and/or my recording time spreads over more than one day.  So, my vote is for professional narration as it's not very expensive and when you factor an average hourly rate, in many cases, you can't beat it.

As an organization, it depends on whether the quality of the audio is going to undermine the integrity of the course or if it is externally focused vs. internally focused in terms of audience.  If the imperfections of my audio are still good enough to not be distracting for the learner and it isn't going to take a ton of time, then I do it.  If a course is designed for an external professional audience, then we use professional narration.  Think of it like a marketing manager - you wouldn't hire a graphic designer to create a professional poster if a homemade flyer will do AND you wouldn't post a handmade flyer in the community for a professional event.  Same is true with narration - it's all about time, money and quality - you have detemine the right balance.

Kevin Thorn

I would put Audio quality above Voice quality. Here's why - certain bit rates can cause what was a good 'sounding' voice to sound more lispy and scratchy. This saves on files size but for the sake of quality.

Voices however is what makes eLearning more personable. A professional voice in some cases doesn't add any value no more than stock photography adds. A nicely dressed model in a designer suit doesn't relate to the average person. Nor does a voice that sounds like it should be advertising this weekend's big furniture sale.   Similar to what Shelly described.

To Cara's point, SME's really take ownership when you include them in the development. Plus, depending on the audience, learners may recognize a voice and they become immediately more engaged because they can relate to the person talking to them.

I use a Audacity and a Logitech headset with noise canceling to record audio. Once recorded, I can tweak or add filters within Audacity (FREE tool by the way). In some cases I record directly in Articualte and it does a fine job although not much tweaking abilities.

Robert Kennedy

I don't know if I can put one above the other.  There are advantages to each.   As Carla mentioned, it can cut down on time, efficiency and cost if you have in-house equipment and people with ability.  The flip is that professional voice actors are trained and should give you the sound, editing and style you are looking for each and every time.  If I put one above the other, I guess I imagine the worst....really clean audio with a whiny voice, uuugghhhhh.  Or, a really nice voice with scratchy audio that sounds like its in a cave.  Both horrible to me.

Bottom line, determine what your time and resources are and what works best for you.

Jenise Cook (RidgeViewMedia.com)

Have you looked into www.Voices.com  or  www.voice123.com  for hiring profesional VO talent?

If you haven't it's like an auction... the VO talent bid on your project.

That could be a way to keep your costs down, especially with twice-a-year updates.

I'm a professional VO talent, so I need to disclose that I (obviously) favor hiring a trained narrator. There is SO much more that goes into becoming a talented VO actor than sound proofing a room and setting up the recording equipment and software. A VO pro, as Robert mentioned, puts a lot of time into his/her training so that "the voice" enhances your project.

But, budgets do prevail. However, a professional VO talent will become a part of your course content and won't detract from it or distract your learners.

If you can, make the business case for a pro, and then try the "bidding" sites above.

@jenisecook

Andy Bowyer

I, too, provide narrations for eLearning courses (in addition to a variety of other work, including character voices for American Greetings,) and think a good professional narrator can be worth the added budgetary requirements.  Consistency in sound quality can be an important factor not just on an atmospheric level, but in course updating as well.  Good narrators also come equipped with editing software and the know-how to insert "quick fixes" in your narration files rather than having to re-record an entire segment.

Primarily, I'd encourage finding someone who will work *with* you and your budget--the sites mentioned above can be great resources, but can also cost you time as you may end up slogging through dozens of auditions some of which will be terrible, some of which will be hard to choose from because they're just that good.

At the end of the day, you may find that finding a few "go to people" isn't as hard as you think, and with today's economy, again, finding narrators who are willing to negotiate with you is pretty easy.

With the plethora of voice-talent providers out there (and there are more than you can shake a mouse at) you need to look at *service* as much as talent.

Best of luck!

Andy

Steve Flowers

In house narration can turn out really well. Especially if the voice is authentic (a seasoned SME explaining a concept really well or telling a story). SME's can be really great, particularly if they aren't pretending to be radio announcers. However, I'm not convinced of cost savings using inhouse narration stand-ins vs. specialized talent. There's alot of stuff that needs to happen with audio. And if you're only a casual performer, even if your voice is passable, it's quite likely that your company is going to pay more for you to operate outside of your specialty than they would if outsourcing the specialized media.

I don't see the resource benefit (other than iterative convenience) of using an ISD or other specialist to provide extensive voice talent (small bits usually doesn't hurt too much). This is a classic peeve of mine, using expensive labor for less expensive tasks, often at less efficiency and a serious quality penalty.

Given the choice I would sacrifice neither sound quality nor voice suitability for purpose (tone, authenticity, character). When in control of the project, I'll exercise the choice to sacrifice neither:)

Andy Bowyer

In as much as I have a "vested interest" in the suggestion that pro-talent can "do it all," I will admit that there are times and places where a narrative can have a much more authentic sound if delivered by an expert in a given vocation (regardless of the speaking voice or styel of the presenter).  Especially if the individual providing the narration is genuine and passionate about what they're doing.  Sometimes jargon, common terms, and even acronyms leave people like me at something of a loss, and consequently I (for one) will give it my "best guess" as to the proper inflection.  I've never been told "no, that was wrong," but I do sometimes wonder if it sounded plausibly authentic to the learner.

It all goes back to the fact that situations like this are highly subjective in nature, and so there really are no right or wrong answers, or better or worse approaches.  In the end, it just has to "work" for all involved.

A @work

I'd go with the voice, and I'm a sound guy first and foremost. People can ignore a lot of background noises if you can keep them engaged and entertained. Obviously you want to be free of technical problems, but if I had to choose between a great recording of a bad narrator and a noisy recording of a great narrator, I'll always pick performance.

Robert Kennedy

@OSPI, See the thing for me is that I can't necessarily always impose my preferences on the end user or learner.  I just need to create the best experience possible.  What might not be annoying to you absolutely grates the nerves of someone else.  I guess if I had a gun to my head, I might side with you.  But since I DON'T, lol, I pick neither.  I don't even consider one the "lesser" of two evils at this point.  Reminds of being younger and driving in the car with my parents on trips.  When you are getting out of radio range of a station, it begins to get "static-y".  While it would drive us ABSOLUTELY NUTS to listen to this, my dad, because he wanted so badly to hear the news or whatever was playing at the time, would listen to it until there was absolutely no more signal and only static or the station changed completely.  Drove us crazy, but he didn't mind.  Point? What you tend to ignore, I might not, no matter how engaged or entertained you think I am.

Steve Flowers

I'm not a fan of the voices represented, but the price is right for a la carte narration. http://www.narratorfiles.com offers narration for $20 / page. I have a client that swears by them, not that I've used them myself.

I'm not sure of their turn around or responsiveness. This is something else I look for in a specialized vendor. My favorite narrator is good, fast, and reasonably priced. If I send him a script at 10PM, I usually get the fully cut files within the hour. He's a machine and I've been using him for a few years now. Finding a trusted partner is worth its weight in gold.

A @work

Fair enough, Robert. If I know I am boring my students, I'll make sure it sounds good.

I hear you on the radio, though. Had the same type of trips. I guess there is a fine line between "noisy but good" and "unusable technical problem."

I like to have both good talent and good sound, but with a gun to my head, I'd side with me, too.

F C

This is a great thread - thanks to everyone for posting their comments.

I am wondering if some could pl. give me a ballpark figure for what it costs to hire a professional? How is the work priced? I just signed up for the voices.com site but am not ready to post a job on behalf of my client yet - until I have a feel for approximately how expensive the work is.

Also, does anyone have any tips about how to improve the quality of sound when you are doing it in-house? Aside from a good microphone and a quiet space - what else helps?

Many thanks!

A @work

There is a great range in the price of professionals depending on experience. Here's a case study. I hired one inexperienced narrator for a $100 flat rat to read about an hour long training. It took them 2 days to do it in my studio, a week to edit and it was ultimately unusable. We replaced her with someone who charged $150 the first hour and $100 each subsequent hour and got the session done in under 4 hours (including breaks), cut it the next afternoon, and made the customer super happy with the new version. So considering the stuio time and editing, it was way, WAY cheaper to pay someone with the know-how AND the elbow grease than go cheap and try to fix it in the mix. Alternatively, I know some narrators who will record themselves in their own space and give me best takes only (meaning light editing on my part) and will do it at a price per page or by word. With those good folk, I am free to work on something else in the studio while they all the reading, recording and most of the editing. Prices in those cases can also depend on equipment involved and whether they need to ship anything.

Robert Kennedy

Hi FC,

A @OSPI give some good thoughts.  The range that he mentioned is right in the ballpark.   We have had talent charge anywhere from $250 - $600 for a 20 min technical read.  Of course, 20 mins of read is not exactly 20 mins of recording time.  Then you add in editing.  It can get up there if you let it.  Form relationships with some local VO artists.  THere is a guy named Andy Bowyer that posts on here from time to time.  Look him up.  I have done voice training and can share with you the industry rate card that was provided to me.  I can't post it but can share it if you PM me.

Steve Flowers

We've used a few folks. My favorite is a trusted vendor that is absolutely awesome at quality / turnaround time. As my goto guy he gives me a good rate.

I've seen some decent demos here: http://www.narratorfiles.com

$20 / page seems really reasonable if the quality is decent. A page isn't much more than 40 seconds of narration with their formatting conditions, so bulk could run up the bill.

James Brown

Q. Have you guys forgot the thread about microphones on the snowball and snowflake microphones and the thread on placing the microphone in a foam layered box? I for one have a low budget and I want to start making some screenr's and some clips for YouTube. I'm very impressed with the snowflake and the snowball and for under $100 they do a pretty good job.

As mentioned above, use a quit office and possible a sound dampening device like the foam lined box and see if the narration quality does not improve. Of course if you are not on a tight budget then use some of the solutions above. I think anyone can make quality voice recordings if they have the right equipment.

Good luck...

Andy Bowyer

I'd caution against thinking a foam layered box is going to solve all the world's problems.  It can help with "reflected sound" a bit, but in my experience, the end result can end up sounding  muffled and rather "flat and hollow."  That said, I've been having some weird issues in my studio lately.  I took my mic on the road, and since my return I've had some strange problems related to *mic placement* within my recording booth.  It's amazing what a difference a matter of less than a foot in either direction can make.  So be sure to take the time to "explore the space" with your mic.  Maybe it's best to bury it in the back of the box, maybe it's better to leave it closer to the front.  It will take time and patience, but you can likely get a sound you're happy with.

Oh--and Robert, thanks for the plug.  I really appreciate that. 

ab

Steve Flowers

I've used the snowball in the past for a range of things. Managed to pick mine up for $80 bucks a couple of years back when Compusa was going out of business (it was a good deal back then). For the price it does a great job. I rarely use a sound booth but most of my use is podcast quality sound. I've had my 80 year old neighbor do some character voices from his living room. It worked GREAT for this. I'd say it's well worth $60 to pick one of these up.

The real hitches with voice talent are those listed above:

  • Emphasis on voice talent. A good voice presence is one factor. Knowing how to read and getting those reads right the first take is another. 
  • Processing talent. If the first takes are perfect (which good talent will hit the first shot) then processing is relatively easy. Cutting it up is one part, the audio engineering is the other. This takes talent as well or you'll end up with silly reverb and unnatural EQ.

Doing it yourself is one way to go. But normally what you'll invest trying to get it right won't be worth your final outcome when compared to what you would have paid for a pro to do that work. I think it's OK for one-offs or if you're goal is to develop your own voice talents. But the resource balance is off having an ISD (specialist) do voice work (specialist) at a novice level. Some do a really great job - are pretty efficient and sound relatively good. Most I've seen should have gone with a pro I prefer to go with a pro when I have the choice so I can focus on other areas of the production.

Andy Bowyer

Great points, Steve.

It bears repeating that even if a Voice Talent hasn't a CLUE what the course material means (and I'm betting that happens more often than not) they have the expertise and training (be it with a coach, or from years of experience) to sound like they do.  It is also noteworthy that in many cases, like mine, not only can a professional Voice Talent narrate your presentation, but they can also edit the narrations into drag-and-drop files that will make your job as a course designer even easier.

Sites like Voices.com, or Voice123 can be great, as you can sometimes get someone who can do both and sound good doing it, but beware that a single posting for a single job can give you an overwhelming number of responses, and you may well spend too much of your time sifting through more auditions than you planned on.  And the longer the script you provide for an audition means more time listening, sifting, and wondering who will be really right for the job.  On the plus side, you may get a decent narration for much less money than "the going rate," but on the minus side, you may also be buying more headaches than you bargained (literally) for.  There is a glut of would-be "Voice Over Artists" in the world, and not all of them are, strictly speaking, professionals.  IF you're "going shopping" for talent, I'd suggest  e-LearningVoices.com, a site that features both male and female voices that are essentially "hand picked" and have proven a knack for the medium.   Granted, as a person represented by the site I did have to pay to play there, however, they would not take my payment until they were sure I had the tools and the talent to deliver the goods.  You can rest assured that the talent pool there understands that providing a narration for an eLearning course is *not* the same as selling a used car, or is a chef at Denny's by day, and part-time voice over person with a Radio Shack mixer and microphone by night.

If you're going shopping for a professional voice talent, shop smart.

Best of luck!

Sean Speake

Full disclosure, I do voice-over work as well.

I've also worked in film and television, and to be honest, I prefer to work with professionals whenever possible. Amateur actors were almost the death of me.

A SME may know the material cold, but if it takes them 5 - 10 takes to get a page finished, have you really saved any time? What is the opportunity cost of having a SME doing VO, rather than something else?

Truly professional VO talent reduces the amount of editing required, minimizes the number of takes, and minimizes studio time if you're renting studio space.

This is re-iterating what others have said, but I think it's important enough to emphasize again.

sean