The Complete Guide to Doing Voice Overs Like a Pro

woman recording voice over on computer

Chances are, if you make videos — especially how-to and explainer videos – you will need to record voice overs. In fact, depending on how many videos you create, you may have to do a lot of voice over work.

Some might think that the audio portion of a video takes a backseat to the visual portions, but that’s not true. Most video watchers note that they are more likely to stop watching a video with bad audio vs. lower-quality video. In fact, a recent TechSmith study of video viewing habits showed that more than 25% of video viewers watched a video all the way through because the audio was good — more than those who said professional video style was most important.

So great audio isn’t just important. It’s necessary to keep an audience interested and engaged.

But how can you ensure your voice over is good enough to keep your audience’s attention? Relax! It’s easier than you think!

Audio editor interface showing an audio file ready to be edited

Essentials of good voice over

Some of you might be wondering about the difference between voice over and narration. The short answer: not much. In most cases, you may use voice over and narration fairly interchangeably. However, to be technically correct, narration typically refers to an audio vocal that describes all the action on screen or tells a story based on what’s happening, while voice over may or may not describe as much action and is often more instructional in nature.

But, regardless of whether you’re doing voice over or true narration, most of the information and tips in this article will work!

There are many elements that make for good voice over audio, but it may come as a surprise to many of you that having a “good voice” isn’t necessarily one of them.

Great video voice audio over comprises several elements:

  • Audio clarity and volume
  • Pacing
  • Vocal tone and inflection
  • Pronunciation

Audio clarity and volume

The clarity of your voice and a comfortable volume may be the most essential parts of great audio. If your voice over recording is fuzzy or muddy sounding, it will be difficult for people to understand. Audiences likely will be distracted and unable to absorb the information or may simply move on. Either way, they miss your message and you miss an opportunity to share what your knowledge.

Similarly, if your audio’s volume is too low, it may be difficult for people to hear. Too loud and you risk annoying distortion. Luckily, there’s a pretty solid sweet spot for volume. See the section on recording your voice over for more information on audio levels.

Pacing

Ever talk with someone who has a really exciting story to tell, but they’re so excited about it that they rush through it and when they’re done you can’t even remember what they were talking about? Or, someone who drones on and on with no end in sight, threatening to put you to sleep?

This is pacing. Too fast and your audience won’t know what hit them. To slow and they’re likely to get bored. The best voice overs have a natural and deliberate pace. Start with a script and practice it before you record to help you speak at a more natural pace.

And remember, pacing also includes things like pausing occasionally for effect or just to give them listener a break to process important information.

Vocal tone and inflection

Like pacing, vocal tone and inflection refer to ensuring you speak in a natural and pleasant manner. You want to be friendly and engaging, but not so much that you sound fake. No one wants to sound like a game show host. But, you also want to avoid monotone robot voice which, like pacing that’s too slow, can be boring and off-putting for listeners.

Pronunciation and enunciation

Part of great voice over work is ensuring that you pronounce each word correctly and that you speak clearly enough to be understood. Avoid mumbling but don’t shout or over-enunciate, either. Don’t worry, though. No one expects you to sound like a professional voice actor. The best thing you can do is speak naturally and clearly and the rest will follow in time.

How to not hate the sound of your own voice

This is the number-one issue most people bring up when they discover they have to do voice over work for their video. Let’s face it. Most of us rarely have to hear our own voices in audio recordings. We’re used to the rich, warm sound of our own voices in our own ears. There’s no way around the fact that you sound different on recording that you do to yourself.

So how do you stop hating the sound of your own voice? The answer, unfortunately, is that you just have to get used to it. Think of it this way: Your voice on recordings is how you actually sound to everyone around you. When you speak to others, that’s what they hear. So, there’s really nothing to be embarrassed about, is there?

In all seriousness, though, everyone who does voice work has to overcome this hurdle. Luckily, like most things, it gets easier the more you do it. Do enough voice over work and soon your voice on recordings will sound almost as natural to you as the one you hear in your ears.

If you simply can’t get over it, though. You can always enlist the help of another person. You can grab a friend or colleague, or you can even hire a professional to do the work for you.

Preparing to record

Not all videos need a ton of preparation. Quick one-off screencasts or a fast demonstration of a new user interface for a colleague probably can be done mostly on the fly. But, for videos where you want a more polish, a bit of preparation goes a long way.

Find a quiet place to work

I’m sure you’ve seen what a typical recording studio looks like. Professional voice over artists typically have a room somewhere with walls covered in sound-absorbing foam, a fancy microphone setup with a pop screen and a computer workstation that looks like it could be straight out of NASA’s Mission Control.

Luckily, you don’t to go that far to achieve great results.

laptop with microphone and pop filter

Most importantly, you want a space free of distracting noises and where you aren’t likely to be interrupted. Most decent microphones pick up even faint ambient sounds, and those sounds will ultimately make it into your recording. If your space is at work, avoid areas where you can hear your coworkers conversing, etc.

Be mindful of the sounds of your heating and cooling system (this goes for a home recording studio, as well). If you can’t find a spot where you can’t hear air rushing through your ducts, you may want to shut down your furnace or AC for the duration of your recording. If your recording space is near a window, listen for sounds of traffic — especially loud trucks. They will definitely show up in your recording.

No place is totally silent, so find the best place you can — even if that means thinking outside the box. I have a friend who regularly records his podcast in his car. He lives in a small house with dogs and kids, so there really isn’t anywhere else quiet enough. He takes his laptop and mic out to his driveway, shuts himself in the car and records. The results are surprisingly good!

Choosing a microphone

Next, you need a decent microphone. I won’t go too in-depth with this, but my colleague Matt Pierce did an amazing post on choosing a good mic.

That said, if at all possible, try not to record your voice over using your laptop microphone. While built-in mics are fine for Skype meetings and the like, you will get much better results with even a low-cost external microphone. Even your smart phone’s earbuds will give you a better sound than just your computer’s built-in mic.

You don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars, either. You can get a very nice USB microphone for between $60-$100. If you will be doing a lot of voice over work, it’s well worth the investment.

If you intend to use an external mic, I also recommend investing in a pop filter. They’re cheap and they help minimize the distracting sounds caused by hard consonants such as “p” and “b.”

Choosing audio software

There’s no shortage of audio recording software on the market and most of them do relatively the same things.

Camtasia has an audio recorder built in that will allow you to record your voice over as you record your screen when appropriate. You can even edit your audio right in the Camtasia editor.

Stand-alone audio software may offer more functions, though, and might be a good choice depending on what you need.

My favorites are Audacity, a free open-source software that’s easy to use and produces solid audio, and Adobe Audition CC, which comes bundled with the Adobe Creative Suite.

Start with a script

Having a script is probably the single most important thing you can do to ensure your voice over sounds professional. Nothing ruins good narration faster than a lot of hemming and hawing or 23 umms in a row as you try to remember what you wanted to say next.

Close up of a typewriter with the words "Once upon a time" types on the paper.

The best scripts will include word-for-word everything you intend to say. Taking the time to write this out before recording helps ensure that you will cover everything you want to without the danger of meandering off into topics that aren’t related. Even a bulleted list is better than trying to do it all from memory.

A good script also gives you a chance to practice. Read it aloud several times before you record. As you do, be mindful of words or phrases that may feel awkward or difficult to say. A script often sounds different when read aloud vs. in your head.

This great blog post will give you more information on writing your script.

Do a test recording

Now that all the essential tools are in place, it’s time to record your voice over!

Before you get down to the nitty-gritty, though, I recommend doing a test recording to ensure your equipment works properly and your audio levels are strong. You don’t need to record the entire script, but a few paragraphs will give you enough to ensure that the audio is clear, at an appropriate level, and doesn’t include any stray or ambient noises.

Important: Use headphones to check the audio quality of your test recording. Your computer speakers will not be good enough for this. Headphones allow you to listen closely to ensure clear audio. Obviously, you want the audio to sound good on even the cheapest speaker, but you will be much happier if you use headphones. Remember, a good portion of your video viewers will listen this way, so you want to be sure they’ll have an optimal experience.

Good audio levels

Finding the proper recording level for your audio ensures that it’s easily heard and not distorted. While you can adjust levels as necessary when you edit your audio, starting with the best possible audio level is always your best bet.

The folks over at Premium Beat have a great post on recommended audio levels setting, but here are a few basics.

Audio levels are measured in decibels (db). The higher the number, the higher the audio level or volume. It’s a bit of an odd system, though, when you first encounter it. In audio editing, 0db is actually the maximum you want to achieve. Weird, eh?

For the most part, your ideal audio level is between -10db to -20db. Your audio should peak around -6db at the most. Never go above 0db, as your audio may begin to distort or “clip.”

Most audio recording software (including Audacity and Audition mentioned above) will have red indicators that let you know when your audio is in the danger zone.

The Adobe Audacity interface showing the audio level indicator.

The image above shows the Adobe Audition interface with the waveform (your audio recording) and the level indicator. The indicator shows that the audio peaked at just over -6db and is well within the acceptable levels.

Microphone placement

You also want to take a moment to consider where to place your microphone. Too close to the person speaking and it will be subject to all kinds of weird mouth noises. Too far away and it may sound lost in a large room. Ideally, place the microphone about 6-8 inches from the person’s mouth, and slightly below their chin.

Record your audio

Once you’re satisfied with your audio test, you’re ready to record for real! Seriously! Do it!

Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Remember to speak slowly and clearly. Enunciate each word, but don’t concentrate on it so much you sound like a robot.
  • Consider your tone: You want to sound pleasant, but not overjoyed or overly excited. Pro tip: Recording while smiling can help you sound happier.
  • Don’t stop if you mess up. You can always fix it when you edit. Just go back a sentence or two in your script and start again. Pro tip: If you clap loudly at a spot where you make a mistake, you’ll be able to find it easier in the audio editor when you go back to fix it.
  • If you make a lot of mistakes or it just gets too hard to keep going, pause your recording and take a break. A frustrated or tired voice over artist rarely makes for great audio.

Editing your audio

When you finish recording your audio, it’s time to edit. Even if you made no mistakes at all, there are likely a few things to edit out.

Again, I won’t go into a ton of detail on how to edit audio. Each audio editing application will be slightly different. However, the basics of editing audio are quite simple and have a very short learning curve. More advanced editing takes more time to learn.

First, I like to listen to the entire voice over recording from start to finish. I may make notes here and there to remind myself of something I want to go back and edit, but this time through I really just want to concentrate on the overall pacing and tone of the recording. Does it sound like I hoped? Did I rush or speak too slowly? Did I flub any words, mumble, or misspeak? Are there weird silences or unknown sounds?

Next, go back to the beginning and start editing out your mistakes. I also like to edit out any abnormally long silences between sentences or statements and any weird sounds that don’t belong. Remember, though, that pauses are ok (and even necessary) to help break up the audio and make it feel more natural and conversational, so don’t go hog wild with it.

The Adobe Audition interface showing a section of audio selected to be deleted.

The image above shows the Adobe Audition interface with a part of the audio selected for deletion. The green spiky part of the image is called the waveform, which is just a fancy way of saying what the audio looks like on your screen.

You may also use the editing software to create periods of true silence to remove any strange hissing or other audio anomalies that will be more noticeable when you’re not speaking. To learn more about this, check out this cool post on reducing audio noise in your recordings.

Import your audio into your video editor

If you recorded your audio in a standalone audio editor, you’ll need to save it and import it into your video editor. In Camtasia, importing and working with audio is as simple as a couple of clicks. For more information, check out this post on syncing audio and video in Camtasia.

That’s it! You’ve successfully recorded your voice over!

How’s it feel to be a pro?

Recording voice overs like a pro isn’t that difficult when you know how to do it. You may have noticed that the actual recording part plays little part when compared to the preparation. Taking the proper steps before you hit the record button and then taking the time to edit your audio appropriately will go a long way to ensuring your voice overs sound professional and engaging.

And remember, practice makes perfect! The more you do it, the more natural it will become.

Posted in Tips & How To's
Author
Ryan Knott

Ryan Knott is the Public Engagement Specialist for TechSmith.
Follow him on Twitter @ryanknott and connect with him on Instagram where you'll mostly find photos of pit bulls and food.
Fun facts:

  • Ryan is a nerd
  • Favorites: Alien (and Aliens), his dogs and iced tea
  • Secret talent: Coaching roller derby
  • Reading list: Anything by Neil Gaiman