Question on narration

I've been wanting to do a bit of research, and think this is probably one of the better places to start.

Having narrated a fair number of eLearning shows over the years (including an award winner for the NECA), I sometimes wonder, from a design standpoint, when it's appropriate for a presentation to feature narration, when (if ever) it isn't, and how important course designers think strong narration is to the overall flow of a good eLearning experience.

I know some folks provide their own narration, while others rely solely on professional Voice Actors/Artists to say the words for them.  Is this a matter of preference, material, budget, or some combination thereof?  What other factors determine whether or not a professional narrator is brought into the scene?

Thanks, gang!

ab

63 Replies
Andy Bowyer

Daniel--

You're quite welcome.  For the equipment, and I could go on for days about this one too--very long stories involved here--I currently use the following:

I'm PC based using Adobe Audition to record and edit my audio.  Some say that's like using a nuclear missile to get rid of an ant infestation, but it's what I'm comfortable with.  Sue me.

As for the hardware itself, I use a Shure SM-27 condenser mic in the booth (yes, I have a booth) and an M-Audio Fast Track Pro as my digital interface between the mic and the PC. 

Long story VERY short, last summer I experienced a massive studio-melt down and ran through several incarnations of studio setups utilizing several combinations of equipment.  It was a MADDENING process.  Each time I would pick up a new bit of gear, I would spend literally HOURS trying to get it all to work together.  Until the one I just described.  It was quite literally plug-n-play, and sounds better than anything I've ever had.

Remember:  when setting up a "home" recording studio, LESS IS MORE.  The fewer bits of gear you have between the microphone and the computer the better.  But a digital interface is essential

So that's the long and the short of the physical set up.

ab

Guy Greenbaum

I think Bruce is on the money when he advocates for value-based positioning, though I disagree with not posting prices.  In my experience, being transparent with pricing is a good way to reach the kind of customers/projects you want and close deals quickly or at least get conversations started.

With regard to technical execution, I think a basic issue that gets overlooked is dynamics.  Having to normalize individual files, or compensating for volume differences directly in software is a real time-killer.  Articulate provides an excellent audio editor, but making sure your record levels are strong and consistent makes for a better experience all around.

Regarding gear, what about the Director Knob?  You know, the knob that does nothing for when the creative director has to have the last word?  =P

For anyone with narration/VO needs - I've used Andy for years on many projects.  His professional delivery adds a very polished touch.  His flexibility and quick turnaround have put the final touches on many a project.

Andy Bowyer

Guy--

First off, THANKS for the kind words.  It's always a pleasure to work with you and yours on any project.

That said, in terms of "balancing" audio, I've often wondered about something, and especially lately as an audio editor....

When you're doing a project that involves MANY outsourced Voice Talents, what do you do as a designer/developer when the audio you receive from the various talent pool (and in this case, I mean "audio acquired from studios NOT your own") doesn't come CLOSE to matching in terms of ambience, quality, etc.?

Because recently, I've edited some stuff that was for the same "module" that didn't come CLOSE to matching, but was assured "don't worry about it.  By the time the software 'dumbs it down' you won't be able to tell the difference..."

I did, and still *do* "worry about it." 

Is the difference in the audio "transparent" when it's all said and done?  Or are the differences still audible, and therefore distracting?

Bruce Graham

Guy Greenbaum said:

I think Bruce is on the money when he advocates for value-based positioning, though I disagree with not posting prices.  In my experience, being transparent with pricing is a good way to reach the kind of customers/projects you want and close deals quickly or at least get conversations started.


I think this is probably a difference based on what we do. I am first and foremost someone who understand and feels confident in a lot of industries and areas of business, and creates eLearning based around this. I also add v/o. My clients do not expect prices to be posted, that's not how complete business projects tend to work IMHO. I tend for work for large organisations over a protracted length of time/several engagements, so the fees that I charge are worked out over ongoing discussions, calls, meetings and lunches. They do not appear on my website. On occasions where I bid for work on the online auction sites, I always tend to post an indicative price "...to be confirmed upon full investigation and discussion" with the client.

Sometimes, it can take me several weeks to close a deal - if (for example), I am trying to win a series of say, 50 courses. I'm currently in the middle of exactly that with a client, and we are being very creative with our Ts and Cs. They are a startup so I am working for a reduced % fee, but we are then going on a capped % profit-share sum over a 2-year period. That's not the sort of thing you put on a website.

Conversations start based around my website, or their business issues, never price. By the time we get to price, they understand the  value proposition I bring compared to others - and that includes my v/o.

I am always very transparent with my price, but that price can also vary based on what someone requires, and their budget.

Bruce

Guy Greenbaum

Andy, I feel your pain.  Editing is time-intensive and fixing bad audio is often just not possible.  In the case of the example you mention, can you get a copy of the finished product so you can hear the results for yourself?  Just keep in mind the likely use case - it's probably not going to be played back on studio monitors in a quiet room.  Make it a win-win next time around and give the client an informed recommendation.  Demonstrable expertise suitable for publication on your website, I say!

While the audio does get 'dumbed down' aka compressed, the days of washed-out 8-bit PCM audio are long gone.    Maybe in cases where you know you'll be working with multiple sources, budget time for mastering with just a normalize and eq pass.

@Bruce, it sounds like you're working on some large, more customized types of projects with customers who already understand your value.  Sounds good to me!  The profit share angle is very interesting.

I think that in cases where you're having to generate leads and compete for more projects, especially smaller projects, it's effective to "productize" elearning production.  Publish suggested package/prices.   Articulate Studio and Storyline are such great products for creating valuable yet tightly scoped elearning projects.

Along with effective marketing, making pricing public can demonstrate expertise and instill confidence in new customers.

Thanks,

Guy

Andy Bowyer

Great suggestions, Guy.   Of course, in the scenario I was describing, I was only a "hired gun" for one phase of the project, so I can only imagine how it'd sound when it was all said and done.  But I was assured "it would be fine."  And due to that pesky NDA, I'll likely never hear the whole thing assembled.

At any rate, this is why I generally prefer doing the "one man shop" thing.  And hopefully my clients all know that when all is (literally) said and done, they're getting top-notch audio quality from me, and reliable performance to boot.

ab

Bruce Graham

Cynthia Furk said:

Hi Andy

Just to add my two cents to the conversation; don't forget to read your narration script out loud to make sure that it flows smoothly, before voicing it yourself or giving it to someone else. Narration should flow like a conversation or a fiction story. 

 Cynthia


Absolutely - "subvocalization", (or talking to oneself without actually making a sound), seldom if ever results in the correct timings.

Bruce

Andy Bowyer

Years ago, I was in charge of the commercial production department for a cluster of six radio stations.  Many times I'd receive a piece of copy for what was supposed to be a thirty or sixty-second radio ad, and I could always tell at a glance if it was too long.  I would gently say to the person who wrote the commercial to "read it with a stopwatch."  Invariably they'd bring me a longer piece of copy the next time.  Then I'd tell them to "Read it out loud, with a stopwatch."  And they'd be shocked and ask why they had to cut their ad copy by two thirds...

...because reading in your head is far faster than reading out loud.

And in truth, sometimes even reading out loud can be a deceptive process if you don't take into account things like inflection, emphasis, and emotion.  This is why I've always believed it's far better to have the voice track before finalizing timings and things with audio/visual presentations.  Edits are generally easy if the script has to change in most cases as well.

Sheila Bulthuis

Guy Greenbaum said:

 For anyone with narration/VO needs - I've used Andy for years on many projects.  His professional delivery adds a very polished touch.  His flexibility and quick turnaround have put the final touches on many a project.

I second Guy's comments, I worked with Andy on a fairly large project and he was fantastic – incredibly responsive and flexible as well as a nice guy.  J

This thread is great, lots of interesting opinions and viewpoints.  My two cents as an independent L&D consultant: I encourage my clients to include audio in e-learning courses whenever it makes sense, which is most of the time.  But I think there are (a few) situations when it’s not necessary and simply adds additional cost.  No matter how much we all hate them, there are still going to be courses that are done simply to “check the training box” and it’s often not worthwhile to do audio or a whole lot of involved graphics work on those.  I also have a couple of clients who simply can’t use audio, due to technical or environmental constraints (yes, even in 2012!).

That said, when I do include audio (which is most of the time) I always try to use pros.  Not all that expensive in the grand scheme of most of my project budgets, and totally worth every penny for the level of quality you get.

Andy Bowyer

Thanks Sheila and Guy, for the very kind words!

Sheila, though I've only ever dabbled in the "design" aspect of eLearning--and that was a personal exercise to "see how the other half lives" (and honestly, my hat's off to you all--SO MUCH to have to know how to do!), I'm fascinated that there are still situations where the technology simply doesn't allow for the "bells and whistles" of audio/narration or even lots of graphics.

In cases like that, how do you compensate and keep things engaging?  (...aaaaaaaand now I've gotten off topic...but I'm curious!)

ab

Sheila Bulthuis

Andy,

I have to admit, I don’t love creating the no-audio courses.  On the other hand, I don’t believe that audio automatically makes a course engaging.  Neither do graphics, fancy interactions, etc.  In my mind, content is king.  J  Good content that is relevant to the learner and that makes a connection to their day-to-day jobs is what’s engaging.

Anyway, getting off my soapbox…  To answer your question, I’ve done things like having “characters” (photos of people) who “talked” (text callouts) about their situations, and the learner had to decide what the character should do next (branching scenarios).   I’ve seen courses – on this forum I think – in a comic book style that were really cool, and totally wouldn’t need audio.  I’ve also done courses where the learner uses documentation (policies, etc.) to answer a series of questions that are set up  like a game – no audio, not a lot of graphics, still reasonably engaging.

It’s not always a technology issue, either – sometimes it’s a budget issue…  And although I try to “sell” the value of spending a little more to get something better, in the end the clients make the call.

-sheila

Bruce Graham

Sheila Cole said:

It’s not always a technology issue, either – sometimes it’s a budget issue…  

-sheila


...and that Andy is exactly why I think there is a niche here.

Clients will be making v/o internally using budget that has already been sunk into staff costs. So for a miniscule increment on this, (not a miniscule fee necessarily...), the files can be sent to you, tidied, returned and implemented.

Get some friends to do v/os in different workplace environments, (echoey walls, somewhere with aircon, somewhere with person walking on a wooden floor outside etc.), and then the "before" and "after" as discussed. You do not need to remove the walking - you just need to show how much better you can make it, (an audible demonstration that you actually CAN put "lipstick on a pig", but at the end of the day it's still a pig.)

You just make a living from loads of smaller jobs rather than waiting for the bigger more lucrative ones. Loads of smaller jobs also makes it easier to smooth out the income peaks and troughs - a benefit that is seldom mentioned.

Hope that sparks some ideas.

Bruce

Andy Bowyer

Sheila--

That's very clever stuff, and you're right, of course:  content is king.  And I guess I really like the "branching scenarios" idea, and myself would embrace such a thing because I used to (and THIS will date me) play the "ZORK" series back in the days of text-based adventure games.  Also, I can imagine that it would sometimes be almost easier in certain cases to work without audio. 

This is why I find what you guys do to be so fascinating!  You really are only limited by the creativity brought to any given situation.  That's so cool!

Bruce--

I'm more and more enamored with your suggestion, as it piggy-backs off something I was already aiming to do...but your enthusiasm is making me revisit it more and more.  I need to get my "de-breathy sample" up and running.  P'raps will do that this afternoon.

ab

Laura Winkelspecht

Here's another consideration for deciding when to use audio: how often you need to update the course. I'd love to do audio for all my elearning, but many of the courses I work on need to be updated each year because of changes in the tax law or changes in the focus of the course. Having audio adds A LOT of time to the revision process because I would think the whole course would have to be re-recorded and then edited again--even if it only changed a little. I know a best practice is to try to record all your audio on the same day (or same time of day) using the same equipment to help make a cohesive whole. It would be really hard to piece new audio in after a year. 

Andy Bowyer

Laura--

That actually depends on a few factors.  If you're changing a few words here and there, or even a few 'sentences", changes can be inserted rather cleanly and transparently.  It all depends on the editing capabilities of the person you're working with, and the amount of verbiage that needs to be changed.  I've had clients ask me for "updates" on courses that were recorded literally years before, and was able to "sneak in" the new verbiage in a truly non-intrusive way.  Honestly, a few times, even I was surprised at how "same" sounding it was.

Also, if you "build in" an updating fee with your voice person ahead of time, there won't be any misunderstandings down the road.  In most cases, it's actually an added incentive, because the talent will know that it's not a "one-off" job, and that you'll be back for more.  It's kind of a win-win for everyone that way.


Something to think about.

Andy

Bruce Graham

Laura Winkelspecht said:

Here's another consideration for deciding when to use audio: how often you need to update the course. I'd love to do audio for all my elearning, but many of the courses I work on need to be updated each year because of changes in the tax law or changes in the focus of the course. Having audio adds A LOT of time to the revision process because I would think the whole course would have to be re-recorded and then edited again--even if it only changed a little. I know a best practice is to try to record all your audio on the same day (or same time of day) using the same equipment to help make a cohesive whole. It would be really hard to piece new audio in after a year. 

Personally, I would ask "Just because it is hard, does that mean you should not do it?"

Once people understand the costs/time involved, and you sell the benefits, they will not worry about the cost. That is the point.

Bruce

Steve Flowers

We build a 10% annual lifecycle cost into our internal projects for stuff like this. We've also tried courses without audio. Some effectiveness differences were indicated but the bigger problem was the feedback "where is the audio". We've conditioned folks to expect it so now the absence of audio is a distraction to both the participant and the support team.

In the grand scheme of things, narration is a low cost item for the value it provides when "designed in". Updates are something we write in as part of the commitment to maintenance

Guy Greenbaum

Steve Flowers said:

We build a 10% annual lifecycle cost into our internal projects for stuff like this. We've also tried courses without audio. Some effectiveness differences were indicated but the bigger problem was the feedback "where is the audio". We've conditioned folks to expect it so now the absence of audio is a distraction to both the participant and the support team.

In the grand scheme of things, narration is a low cost item for the value it provides when "designed in". Updates are something we write in as part of the commitment to maintenance


Commitment to maintenance, quality and feedback: indeed!

Rich Johnstun

The big issue I have is making courses multilingual. We support 11 languages so that's 11 different voice overs I have to deal with on a project. Then when I do get all the correct language voice overs, I have to sync my animations to  language I'm not familiar with (I can get most of the latin based languages because of my background with spanish, but the asian languages are killers).

Not all of my projects apply to all languages, so I don't have to go through this on every project, but when I'm told it's for the "whole company", I usually avoid voice overs. It's much easier to copy and past translated text. 

Andy Bowyer

Here's another one of those "awkward" questions for you:

Understanding that not all budgets are created equally, what is the ballpark you're typically willing to pay a VO person?

Having been asked for my rate card a few times recently, I've gotten responses ranging from "You're way out of our budget" to" that's not nearly as expensive as I thought."

Any one care to share your thoughts?

Andy Bowyer

...aaaaaaaannnd another question:

How important is it, really, that someone who provides your narrations be "on site" when the recordings are being done?  Would you rather have that kind of hands-on control, or simply receive the finished files (understanding that retakes may be necessary--another thing that should be discussed up front) and move forward from there?

Bruce Graham

Andy Bowyer said:

...aaaaaaaannnd another question:

How important is it, really, that someone who provides your narrations be "on site" when the recordings are being done?  Would you rather have that kind of hands-on control, or simply receive the finished files (understanding that retakes may be necessary--another thing that should be discussed up front) and move forward from there?

 


Not in the slightest!

So long as the voice has listened to what I require, interpreted that into high-quality recordings, and allowed me to re-spec once I have heard the voice, (because let's face it...sometimes - like with eLearning - you do not quite know until you see/hear it...), then I do not one hoot whether the person is here or in the Interether on the end of a Skype call.

I have recorded for Indonesian holiday homes, a religious museum in Texas and laskan Bar Staff Training; and whilst I admit it would have been more fun to travel to site, no-one cared.

Neither do I.

Bruce

Bruce Graham

Rich Johnstun said:

The big issue I have is making courses multilingual. We support 11 languages so that's 11 different voice overs I have to deal with on a project. Then when I do get all the correct language voice overs, I have to sync my animations to  language I'm not familiar with (I can get most of the latin based languages because of my background with spanish, but the asian languages are killers).

Not all of my projects apply to all languages, so I don't have to go through this on every project, but when I'm told it's for the "whole company", I usually avoid voice overs. It's much easier to copy and past translated text. 


I just get the translators, (while they are at it...), to insert some sort of "marker" in the text and/or audio, so that I know where to make the animation happen.

Never failed me yet, and they usually do it within their fee, (at least...that's what I negotiate, so they do it, or I go elsewhere).

There's always a way...

Bruce