Project Narration Guidelines (for eLearning, or most anything)

If your eLearning project calls for narration – whether to enhance the on-screen content, provide navigation instruction, to address 508/Accessibility requirements, or just to have an extra bit of media within your piece (the suitability of all to be ideally determined in your instructional design phase) – there are essentially two approaches: Record it yourself (or ‘in-house’) or Hire a professional.

In-house narration can be worthwhile for a variety of reasons. For example, if a faculty member or subject-matter expert is well-known, having that SME record the narration can lend some weight to the overall engagement and perceived validity of the course; or if you need to work out the timing of various media elements, recording a temporary ‘scratch’ track can certainly help with production and beta reviews of the product before expenses are incurred using professional talent.

Professional narration does usually add a cost to the projects, of course, but with proper management of the script and resources, it doesn’t have to be expensive. The advantages of clean, clear, and properly-enunciated narration can only help improve the overall quality of the project.

If you work with outside, professional narrators – or even experienced narrators in-house – Rebecca Haugh (a narrator we’ve used often) has published a solid set of 5 Tips for eLearning Voice Recording. And of course, those are solid considerations to keep in mind when you are recording narration internally with less-experienced folks.

Having developed, managed, and even recorded untold numbers of narratives for eLearning projects, here are a few additional guidelines (some of which Rebecca touches on as well):

Equipment

Assuming an otherwise quiet environment, a lot of ‘white noise’ can simply come from your computer. Power supplies are notoriously noisy, whether from the fan spinning to excessive electromagnetic (EM) generation. The placement and quality of the audio card matters too. Many folks prefer standalone ‘add-in’ cards instead of the audio features that tend to be integrated into the computer motherboard these days. Generally, how much your actual computer will affect the quality of the sound recording is a huge variable – some have almost no impact while others turn out impossibly noisy audio.

You may not have too much of a choice regarding the computer, so then avoid really cheap microphones like those that may have come with your workstation or laptop. Those mics are very simple and probably poorly constructed. Freely test them out, of course, and if all sounds good then you’re all set.

On the other hand, good quality microphones (i.e. “studio condenser mics”) can make you sound better but they can also be much more sensitive to surrounding noises and interference, which can result in a lower-quality recording than a cheaper microphone!

But generally it’s at least worth a small investment for a moderately priced headset. Those with the older ‘mini-stereo’ connections seem to retain an edge in quality; USB-based headsets are widely derided by multimedia developers… However, many folks use USB-based headsets without any cause for complaint. This is, again, likely due to variations in computer ‘noise’ and headset quality.

Here are some general product recommendations from various discussions:

  • Logitech headsets: generally inexpensive with reliable and decent output. Try to find one with a ‘pop-filter’ (the cushioned ball thing) over the mic.
  • Samson C01U: a decent mid-range microphone. USB-based so will be dependent on your computer’s capabilities. It may come with a stand, or may not…
  • Yeti: a very popular, mid-range mic for many ‘do it at home’ users and those without the budget for a professional narrator. Nice setup, comes with stand…but is USB.
  • Snowball: Same general following as the Yeti, perhaps with a bit more flexibility (i.e. iPad compatibility).
  • Shure SM58: Same general capabilities as the Samson, much more traditional style, and pretty high-end (at least in price but also in reported quality output). Will usually need a stand.
  • Zoom H4N Portable Recorder: If you just can’t get any good quality out of your computer setup, consider something like the H4N (a follow up to the popular H2N). It’s a self-contained unit with lots of features and is a great solution for recording out-of –the-studio (or office, as it may be). Of course, this sort of equipment isn’t cheap – you could probably buy a chromebook for the same price.

Microphone choice can be a personal thing; especially the more involved you become with audio recording. There are intense debates over mics! Overall, you don’t need super-high-end; you shouldn’t need to spend much over $100 at most for a quality microphone.

Software

Once you’ve got a decent computer (minimal white noise) and a decent microphone (headsets included), it is best to use dedicated audio application to record the actual audio files.

Many folks record directly into their presentation or authoring tool – such as PowerPoint, Presenter, Captivate, and Storyline. We don’t recommend that. These are not audio-recording applications and their toolset reflects that limit. Far better to use dedicated audio tools, such as:

  • Audacity: free and an excellent piece of software and a lot of community support. Support the cause with a donation.
  • Adobe Audition: A pretty high-end piece of software. If you already use tools in Adobe’s Creative Cloud, this is the tool you want to use and learn. There’s a bit of a learning curve but help is out there.
  • WavePad: Mac or Windows. Not free but not unreasonable with a bit more features than Audacity (but not to the same level as Audition).
  • GarageBand: Mac only, and comes with the OS. Solid free tool for home recording and editing, and a $5 App if you want to try on the Apple mobile device.

All those tools are more than sufficient for recording and editing (see Post-Production section below) in-house audio tracks, and all include ‘noise reduction’ filters and processing, which is often the most important filter for finalizing self-recorded narration.

Environment

All the above does mean you should be aware of your recording environment. Ambient sounds – such as people talking and hallway or street noise – are some of the more frequent things that can ruin an otherwise decent recording. Additionally HVAC systems kicking on/off, doors opening and closing…overall your environment may work against the recording quality.

Maybe you’re confident recording in your office after hours is a good solution, but note bare walls reflect soundwaves easily and cause a small echo making the audio sound ‘hollow’.

The best solution is to find a more quiet location. Conference rooms can be good solutions as they’re often setup to minimize outside noise and echo. Alternatively, believe it or not, a cluttered office is often a decent environment – with lots of things to absorb soundwaves and prevent echoes. Editing and audio processing can help but can introduce additional problems (see the ‘Post-Processing’ section below).

Sometimes the best solution may just be to do the recording at home, after the family is in bed and outside traffic is at a minimum. Or as an alternative, Rebecca suggests,

“You can even try recording in a car. Acoustically many or most cars have been built to keep outside sounds to a minimum.  However, this is if you can record into a mobile device.”

Placement

The next primary effect on recording quality is placement of the microphone and how you actually read the script. Setup the microphone “off axis” – so it’s not directly in front of your mouth – and speak ‘across to top’ of the mic head (or “off to the side if it’s a standing mic”, Rebecca suggests) depending which best avoids the mouth clicks and pops.

Generally we’ve found a headset microphone set about 3” out from the mouth and located level with the lower-chin works pretty well.

Whether you are using a headset or a standalong microphone, finding the right distance between your mouth and the microphone may take some experimentation. Testing placement is important! Hit ‘record’ and note the mic placement, then move the microphone and do it again (i.e. “mic in front of mouth”, “mic above mouth”, “mic below chin”, etc) – then stop the recording and listen to the results. What sounds best for your environment and setup?

Post-Production

Despite what we said above, “white noise” may also be a result of having input levels too high. All audio recording software has some sort of visual input meter, those where you can see green-to-red lights. If your input is peaking well into the red on every word, your input level is too high. This may be adjusted by moving the mic way from your mouth, adjusting input levels in the software, or  – perhaps best – adjusting the input level of the microphone within the computer control panel itself. Ideally, your input should peak into the red only on hard constants and/or higher-volume recording (exclamations or effects).

If you have any of the above issue after recording your narration, whether it be noise from the computer equipment, the microphone, the environment, or the input settings – you’ve got one more chance at working out a decent outcome with what you have: noise filters.

Most audio-recording applications offer some sort of noise-reduction options. Some work better than others, resulting in a cleaner sound, whereas others are pretty basic and just result in ‘tinny’, higher-pitched output. Audacity and Audition both have solid noise-reduction filters…but as with any software, they can only do so much.

Summary

Ultimately, you shouldn’t rely on post-processing. You want the quality of the initial recording itself to be as clean as possible in order to end up with clear, engaging narration for your eLearning project. Ensure you have a quiet computer with a decent microphone, a reliable audio recording application,  and a non-echoing environment with minimal outside noise  – a combination of all those should allow audio recording of at least sufficient quality.

Of course, no amount of preparation or post-production will enliven monotone recordings filled with ‘um-ah’, unintelligible words, and an awkward cadence. Sometimes hiring a professional narrator is simply worth the expense to achieve quality results.

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3 thoughts on “Project Narration Guidelines (for eLearning, or most anything)

  1. Wow – great article Erik. Really in-depth and easy to understand. And you are so right about mic choice – opinions abound, particularly in the audio community where I come from! And thanks for the reference to my article. Be well!

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