In my previous blog post, I made my case for improving the quality of our online educational videos. I know you read it, and in fact have probably committed it verbatim to memory. So now that we’re in agreement that it is highly beneficial to take production values into account when producing our online videos, let’s get started.
I know what you’re thinking. “John, you are supposed to be teaching me how to improve my video, so why are you wasting my time writing about audio and sound?” Let me explain. While it may be true that a picture is worth a thousand words, a snapshot can only give a viewer so much information about a specific moment in time. For a viewer to get the whole story, they need spoken or written words. And how those words are presented matter, and they matter so much more than most people realize. Viewers will forgive bad video at times if their desire for the content overrides their need for it to look great. But viewers will not forgive bad audio (Harrell, 2016). If they are unable to hear what’s being said, or the audio borders on distracting, they will turn it off. You can watch an example of this here. So let’s replace that old picture adage with one of my favorites from broadcasting: “If it doesn’t make good radio, it won’t make good television!”
Humor me and do this brief exercise. Open a video that you have created for one of your courses, or if you haven’t made one yet, open up one of your colleague’s videos. Press that magical play button and then simply close your eyes and listen. What do you really hear? Obviously, you hear yourself talking and hopefully you can make out every word. But what else is there? Is there an air conditioner or refrigerator humming in the background? Maybe a distant lawn mower or a car speeding by outside your window. Is there low talking or hallway traffic coming through the wall. Maybe there is an unexplained hiss or hum that just seems to be coming from nowhere. Does your voice sound thin or hit too many low tones as if you were playing with the treble and bass settings on your headphones? Now, take a few minutes and just listen to yourself talk. Does your voice express emotion or is it monotone and dull? Do you speak with inflection that makes it pleasant for the listener? Do you speak with a natural cadence that is easy to follow or are your words and sentences irregular? Do you use a lot of filler words like “um”, “ah” or “like”? Most importantly, are you delivering a performance with your speech or just reciting words? As you wrap up this exercise, consider this conclusion from a recent research study: “When the video was difficult to hear, viewers thought the talk was worse, the speaker less intelligent and less likeable and the research less important. As soon as we reduced the audio quality, all of a sudden, the scientists and their research lost credibility.” (Newman and Schwarz, 2018)
Being aware of your physical environment is the first step in improving your audio. Where you decide to record your audio (and video) is one of the most important factors in how your audio will sound.
- If you are not just recording audio, but also video, you must take into account how a room looks and not just the sound. Try to find a place that suits your visual needs without compromising your audio standards.
- Choose a quiet place, a really quiet place. Take the time to really “listen” to a room to make sure it is free from as much noise as possible. Inner rooms, away from windows and hallways can be a good place to start. A room free of any electronics or adjacent to appliances will lessen the chance of ambient noise.
- Do a speaking test to hear how the room amplifies or distorts the sound of your voice and try to find a space that does not produce unwanted resonance or echo. Much of this may have to do with what is in the room reflecting and bouncing the sound waves around. Bedrooms and living rooms are often good places to record since the soft furniture can absorb many of these sound waves and diminish the reflections. Draw the curtains to even further absorb the sound.
- Make use of the recording facilities offered by the UB Libraries. Theses spaces are designed with sound absorption materials and padded curtains that will reduce the types of “hiss” and “hums” often associated with non-controlled environment recordings.
- If you must record in your office or classroom, look for ways to decrease ambient sound and improve the quality of your voice. Choose a time to record when the hallway or adjoining room traffic is minimal. Position yourself so that your voice is being projected away from hard walls or surfaces to decrease reflection, perhaps facing a heavy curtain or padded furniture.
- If possible, power off any unncessary devices that may impact your audio (i.e. a space heater with a low hum), and ensure that any cell phones or tablets are silenced so that your audio isn't impacted by notifications while recording.
Choosing the right equipment is the next crucial step to improving audio. By investing a small amount you can take your audio from beginner to professional level with a few easy steps. Better yet, share the minimal cost with a fellow faculty member and share the equipment.
- While I highly recommend you consider investing in your own equipment so that you have it available at all times, you can skip all that work and take advantage of the equipment loaner program offered by the UB Libraries. This program offers a wide selection of professional audio recording equipment, much of which is described below. This is a great program and if you’re unsure about making the investment yourself, start here!
- A quality microphone is essential to improving your audio. Do not use the microphone that is embedded in your laptop or webcam. Purchase a quality USB microphone that is designed to be used for online voice recording. You can research these for days on end, but I suggest you look at the options from Blue. You will find a high quality microphone starting at the Snowball price range or up at the Yeti range.
- If you do not like the tabletop stand-type microphones, there are lavalier microphone options available, but I caution they are more expensive and a bit more complicated to set up and use. The better options will not have a USB connection and so you will need to use the microphone input jack on your computer or mobile device. This may require changing internal settings and may not be simple “plug and play” as many of the USB options are. If you are interested in exploring a lavalier solution, start your research by looking at the Filmmaker Kit from Rode which is being used in production applications at UBIT.
- Use a desktop studio panel to deflect unwanted background noise and decrease those pesky bouncing sound waves. These are best used when recording voice but may not be practical when also recording video. This professional sound shield from Marantz is a good example of a desktop solution.
- Use the right recording and editing software. If you are recording in applications like Panopto or Zoom you may not have much control over your audio once it gets recorded. However, these programs do allow you to have some control of the volume level you are recording, so make sure you are aware of how to adjust these settings and do a test recording to make sure your audio sounds its best. Audio editing software can also help you greatly improve the quality of your audio either while you are recording or after it has been recorded. Audacity is the best known free software used by professionals and beginners. I highly recommend you download it and take some time to at least learn some basic functions.
- Again, make use of the recording facilities offered by the UB Libraries. They are equipped with much of the equipment listed above including tabletop booths and professional lavalier and standing microphones.
Finally, to improve the quality of your audio you need to realize that your voice (and body language if you are on camera) is part of a performance. Communicating information is only effective if the listener is engaged and your vocal delivery plays a significant role in that.
- Slow down. When teaching online you may expect to have less time to deliver your content than in a classroom. While this may be true, you cannot compromise information retention for speed.
- Students must feel your enthusiasm and passion for what you are teaching. Use varied inflection and pitch to add emotion to your voice. This is key to successful student engagement with your videos.
- Use the tone of your speech to convey personality and confidence. Students want a personal connection with their instructors. Relating to faculty as approachable experts is crucial to successful online learning. This can be achieved simply by how your voice and delivery come across in your videos.
- Record yourself and study how you can improve. Watch other faculty videos and compare how they use audio to keep students engaged. Practice until you feel your performance is worthy of a final take.
Let’s review. Location, equipment, performance. If you can start a process of evaluating these three key elements of your audio, you can begin to put better practices and skills into your productions. Take small steps. As with all production skills, audio is an art and takes time to learn. Pick a couple of the suggestions above and experiment; always practicing and listening to the results. You and your students will soon be hearing a significant, positive difference.