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How to (and Why) Produce High Quality Audio for E-Learning

— by Bill Cushard

Course development

Let’s get one thing out of the way right from the start and answer the question, “Should you use audio narration in your e-learning courses?” Ruth Clark, author of E-Learning and the Science of Instruction: Proven Guidelines for Consumers and Designers of Multimedia Learning, answers this question clearly when she recommends that you should have all speech as audio rather than as text on the screen, especially when describing a visual of some kind. Clark offers a wide variety of evidence to support this recommendation in her book, which is a must read for anyone who designs e-learning.

Now that we have established that you should use audio narration in your e-learning courses, let’s talk about how to create those narrations. There are two ways to go when recording audio narration. You could do it yourself or you could hire a voice over professional.

I have done both and have learned some valuable lessons along the way, which I share below.

Do It Yourself

Technology has made recording audio inexpensive and very easy these days. For example, there are free audio recording software application out there and most computers come with built in microphones. In fact, Mindflash makes it even easier to record audio throughout your course or to specific parts in the Arrange tab. Look for the microphone icon at the bottom of each tab. With Mindflash, you don’t even need recording software.

But even though recording audio is easy, there are a few things you should know. Here are some tips to get the most out of recording audio yourself.

Get a Good Microphone: Even if your computer comes with a microphone, it might not be the best one to use. Audio quality is the most important element of any multimedia content. A producer friend once told me that when shooting video, audio quality is everything. In fact, she went on to say that the video quality could be high definition, but if the audio is bad, it ruins the whole thing. Therefore, I recommend buying a high quality microphone. There are many choices so do your research. For a place to start, have a look at Blue Microphones.

Check Mic Input Volumes: Check the input volume in your computer audio settings to make sure the level is not too high. If the input level is set too high, you will get distortion in the form of crackling, especially when you pronounce hard consonants like “T” and “P.” You get the idea. That distortion can be distracting to learners and just plain sounds terrible.

Script Writing: Script writing for audio narration is not as easy as one might think. Most e-learning designers will just take the text that they were going to put on the screen, and use that as the script. But as you will find out when you start reading that copy out loud into a microphone, it might not flow as well as you would like. You will end up editing as you record. To avoid this time waster, I recommend deliberately writing the script knowing that you will be reading it, and then read it aloud to yourself as you draft it. We write differently than we speak, and you want the script to be writing as we speak.

Good script writing is especially important when you hire a voice over professional.

Hiring a Voice Over Professional

Hiring a voice over professional will be more expensive, but if you consider the time it takes to record the scripts yourself, and the opportunity cost of working on other parts of the course design, it might not be that much more expensive after all. Moreover, there is a big (HUGE) different between the quality of your voice (OK, mine) and the quality of a professional’s voice. Sorry, but it’s true. Need proof? Get some samples of a professional’s recordings and compare them to yours. Here are some tips to consider when working with a voice over professional.

When to Hire a Professional: I recommend using a professional when you have the budget, for a high profile project, or for training that your customers will complete.

Good Script Writing: Good script writing is especially important when working with a professional. Sentences, as written, do not always sound right and the voice over professional will need clarification. Other times, in your haste, mistakes will be made in the script from simple typos to incomplete thoughts to run-on sentences. The professional will call for clarification before proceeding. Much of this back and forth can be reduced, if time is taken in writing and reading aloud the scripts as you write them.

Speed Kills: No matter how good a professional’s voice is, if they read too slow, it will sound boring, and if they read to fast, your learners will miss a lot of information. Give guidance to the voice over professional on things like speed, tone, and how formal or conversational you want the script read. Have him/her do a trial run based on this guidance. Once this is level-set, the voice over professional will be able to repeat the speed, tone, and formality for all of your scripts, and you will have consistently good audio throughout the course.

Audience Matters: The voice over professional will want to know the audience. They will read differently for a group of accountants in New York than for a group of 20-something programmers from Cupertino. Tell the voice over professional who the e-learning audience is and what type of narration you think they would expect.

Whether you record your e-learning audio scripts yourself or hire a voice over professional, one thing is certain. Narrating text with audio rather than showing the text on the screen improves learning, which is exactly what you want to accomplish in your e-learning designs isn’t it? So as an e-learning designer, get used to writing and recording audio for all of your e-learning courses.

Bill Cushard, authorblogger, and learning experience (LX) designer, is a human performance technologist (HPT) with extensive, in-the-trenches experience building learning organizations in start-up and hyper-growth organizations like E*TRADE, the Knowland Group, and Allonhill. You can follow him on Twitter or on Google+.

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