Tips for Great Elearning Audio

This blog post was originally created for an elearning challenge on the Articulate community site that asked designers to share information on creating audio for elearning courses.

Have you ever taken an online training course and the audio was terrible? If so, you probably realize that bad sound is not only annoying, but gets in the way of learning. It’s hard to keep attention focused when there are long pauses, background noises, and other audio problems.

When creating online training, it’s a challenge to do audio well. People make entire careers out of doing voiceover work! For this reason, in my earlier days of elearning development I tended to keep things text-based and excluded narration. However, we know from research in cognition that audio narration and animation together lead to better learning (see Richard Mayer’s work on multimedia learning). So, I started to wade into creating voiceovers for elearning projects myself.

Here are some tips based on my experience to date.

Get a great microphone

Something I often hear when people talk about audio for webinars or online training is “get the best microphone you can afford.” This is good advice! But everyone I know is on a budget, and this tends to lead them to buy crappy microphones. I would add that it’s important to prioritize audio quality. Spend less somewhere else so the microphone you can afford is high quality. This will make a significant difference in the quality of your audio.

I use a Samson C01U USB Studio Condenser Microphone. It’s a plug and play USB mic, compatible with Windows or Mac, with no additional software, drivers, or cables needed. I got it in a “podcasting pak” so it came with a shock mount, carrying case, and sturdy desktop stand. You can get it more cheaply without the added equipment.

My recording setup
My recording setup

I work from home, so here’s my setup at the living room table. The C01U picks up sound primarily from the front of the mic, so there’s less need to do things to reduce background sound. I live in the city, and I’m amazed that often sirens, dogs, backing trucks, loud neighbors, and other sounds are not picked up when I’m recording. My living room has a rug on the floor and furniture, which does a decent job of absorbing sound. Other sound absorbing props would be overkill.

An alternative mic that I’ve used in the past, and that others commonly recommend, is the Snowball mic. I think there’s a significant drop in quality from the C01U down to the Snowball, but that’s just my opinion. Many people use the Snowball and are very happy with it.

If at all possible, I would avoid using a headset for recording elearning narration—the quality is just not there.

Use a pop filter

Home made pop filter
Home made pop filter

When you speak, some words are accompanied by bursts of air or hissing sounds. These sounds create distortions in your sound recording. You can avoid these distortions with the use of a pop filter—a disk of mesh placed in front of the microphone.

The pop filter is one place you may be able to save funds, to put toward that quality mic. While you can easily purchase a pop filter, you can also make your own. I made one using a cheap pair of stockings and plastic embroidery hoop.

There are other inexpensive and creative ways to make your own pop filter—a quick google search will bring up possibilities. Whether you buy one or make your own, taking steps to filter these distortions will significantly improve audio quality.

Don’t pay for audio software

For recording elearning, there’s no reason to pay for audio software. Mac users can get great recordings using GarageBand, which comes with the Mac. For Windows users, Audacity is free software that does everything you need. I currently use Audacity when I create audio for elearning. I’ve seen elearning-related blog posts that discuss the use of DAWs like Adobe Audition, but I think this is overkill for most elearning recording.

Audio recording tips

Reduce noise

This may sound obvious, but, pay attention to background noises like fans, air conditioners, and similar background sounds that you may commonly tune out in your workspace. These often come through in recordings. Record in places without these sounds. In a previous job, there was an air handler that ran 24/7 in my office. Result: I couldn’t create decent recordings there.

Check levels

As you get started, make a sample recording to check your audio levels. You need to be concerned with “clipping”, which happens when the audio is too loud for the software to handle. Audio software will have a way to show you when clipping occurs. In Audacity, you can go to View > Show Clipping and then you’ll be able to see clipping in red.

Audacity showing clipping
What clipping looks like in Audacity

Adjust your mic input down until your spoken voice doesn’t clip.

Use a script, but keep editorial control

It may be tempting to record your narration without a script, especially in screen recordings for software training, or lectures. Recording without a script can lead to lengthy pauses, use of “um”, problems with pacing, fluidity, and inflection, and content that is not clear and concise. Some of these issues can be edited after the fact, but some can’t. Simply put, using a script to record leads to better quality.

In most of my elearning projects, I’m typically in a position to make minor edits to scripts (and often I’m a subject matter expert myself in the projects I work on). This allows me to make adjustments when scripts are “off”—meaning, they may look great written out, but when they’re spoken, they sound awkward or are unclear. If possible, try to get permission to make minor script changes to ensure the narration is concise, flows, and makes sense when spoken. If your subject matter experts allow you to have some editorial control, you’ll end up with a better quality recording.

Record all audio at once, then export in segments

I typically record audio narration outside of the elearning software I’m using. I’ve noticed when recording that even over a span of 30 minutes, my voice may change in volume and tone. For this reason, I record an entire elearning scene or module into one file, with longer pauses between segments so I can easily see where they are. Then I export each segment, and import each into the elearning software in its appropriate place. This creates the greatest possibility that the sound of my voice will be consistent throughout the module and sound as natural as possible.

Clean up your audio

Edit out lengthy pauses, as well as “um”s, obvious breathing or other mouth sounds, throat clearing, rustling paper, background noises, and similar sounds. This is very easy to do using Audacity or GarageBand simply by highlighting the unwanted space or sound, and hitting the delete key.

Audio software will also typically have a feature to remove any ambient background noise. As a final step in sound cleanup, removing background noise can add the final polish to your audio file.

Wear headphones for cleanup

Many audio experts recommend wearing headphones when recording. I think this is overkill for elearning, but I do wear headphones during audio cleanup. This allows me to better hear any of the problems noted above and edit them out.

Work on your voice

A lot of the tips and tricks one sees about recording audio for elearning is technical, including what software to use, and what equipment is best. But we also need to pay attention to the most important piece of equipment—our voice. For a quality recording, there’s more to it than simply plugging in your mic and starting to speak. Tips for your voice include eating a tart green apple to reduce a dry mouth, yawning to reduce a nasal sound, and warming up with tongue twisters.

I’m currently working on my voice skills. Here are some of the resources I’m using:

  • 8 Voice Over Diction Guidelines For Voice Actors – http://www.edgestudio.com/8-voice-over-diction-guidelines-voice-actors
  • Voiceover Exercises from Connie Terwilliger – http://www.voiceover-talent.com/VoiceoverExercises.htm
  • Why You Hate Your Voice, and How to Improve It -http://hubpages.com/hub/6-Reasons-Why-You-Hate-Your-Voice
  • The Great Voice Company – http://www.greatvoice.com/category/voice-over-articles

If you have additional tips on recording elearning audio, or any thoughts on the tips above, please share them in the comments!