Monday, January 11, 2010

eLearning Audio: An overview From Start To Finish

In this week’s blog, I will discuss my audio process from scripting to editing. To be clear about how this process works for me, I will divide it into three sections. First, I will discuss my script process, second will be audio recording, and finally, audio editing.

For me, Audio in eLearning is part science, and part art, much like the graphic design process. From what I have gathered, most do-it-all eLearning professionals handle audio in one of two ways. The first way is to create your module, then record the Audio and then just plug it in. The second way is to record the audio first, and then create the module to match the audio. By the way, these separate methods are most prevalent with Screencasts. For the most part, I personally develop the module and then work on the Audio; however, if I need to create a quick screencast of something, I will do it the other way. The reason why I do it this way is because I typically find things to add to the script as I am creating the modules… Things my SME’s usually don’t think to talk about. I can ask them to be as detailed as possible, but sometimes when people are really good at something, they forget about the basics.

Anyway, the first part of the scripting process is to gather information from your SME’s. What information should be discussed? Are there any terms or processes that should be defined? During this process you should lay out every step in a logical order, and make sure the SME agrees. Once that’s finished, it’s time to begin writing the script. The first thing is to lay everything out in order, as approved by your SME’s. Start writing out steps in paragraph form… don’t worry about it being perfect at this point, just get something down. Continue this process until the entire script is in rough draft format. Next, have the SME’s look over it and make sure everything is accurate. After that, I will read the script over again and re-write areas into conversational English. This process usually takes a while because choosing the correct wording can be tricky at times. Once this is complete, I hand off the script to our department’s technical writer for grammar editing. At this point, it always gets interesting as there’s a push and pull between keeping things short, and keeping the conversation fluid. Once the script is ironed out, there’s one last stop before recording, and that is to the Narrator. Because I want the script to sound as natural as possible, I give him freedom to change the script, as long as it doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence.

With the script finished, it’s time for audio recording. With a No-Budget situation, I have to resort to free software, and personal equipment. As a Listed in my “Trainers Toolbox”, I am using Audacity as my recording software, and my own personal Rhode VideoMic to record the audio. I’ve had to learn the basics of audio engineering just to get a tolerable voice recording. The first thing I learned was that the better audio you can get going in, the better the end results. What that means is that if you have a bad microphone, record in a noisy area, or an area without something to absorb sound, or have a bad connection to your computer, at this level there’s not much you can do to make a good recording. With that in mind, I record in one of our training rooms, it has a fabric-covered retracting wall between it and the next room. This helps to keep the audio waves from bouncing all over the place when my narrator talks. The problem with reflective surfaces is that when you speak, the sound waves go forward, bounce off the reflective surface, and then return to the microphone… So essentially the microphone is picking up every word you say AT LEAST twice… probably more. There are a few things that can be done cheaply to combat this. There are a number of blogs out there with instructions on creating a mini-sound booth which only houses the microphone. Perhaps I will cover cheap alternatives in a future blog.

When I’m recording, the first thing I do is make sure my narrator has plenty of water, and the doors are locked to minimize interruptions. I then print out a copy of the script for each of us (if he hasn’t already printed one for himself. Next I set up the microphone away from the laptop. I found that when my laptop is close to the microphone, it creates some kind of frequency interference, and it picks up the laptop vibrations as well. From there I do an audio check to set up the recording levels. Audacity has an audio input meter that shows when sound volume is peaking. So I will have our narrator read the first paragraph, while I adjust the input levels. Once that’s set, we are good to begin.

The recording process can be a little tedious depending on what he is having to read. We typically record straight through until we hear something that needs to be re-recorded. Sometimes we get through whole paragraphs, other times it’s sentence by sentence. It was a real slow process at first, but after a while, my narrator began to pick up on when I would ask him to do things again, and just did it on his own. That really cut back the amount of time it took to do a recording. As a general rule, we leave a little bit of space between a bad take and a re-take to help me in the audio editing process. Sometimes we end up re-writing parts of the script during recording, if we feel like we can make it a little more fluid. That being said, we can usually lay down a ten minute script in about an hour to two hours. When we first started, this took about thirty minutes… because we were much less picky with what we considered “good” and “bad” audio.

Once I have the audio file, it’s time to edit. The first thing I do is save an original copy of the entire take. From a copy of the original, I first adjust the audio levels to about – 6 decibels, and then run an equalization filter to raise the base and mid-tones in his voice to a decent level. Once that’s finished, I save, and begin cutting and pasting the audio until it matches my script. When everything sounds good, I go back and drop in any into and outro music and save again. Finally, I export the audio as a WAV file. This is just a quick overview, but hopefully it gives you a good idea of my audio processes. As I improve in this field, I hope to post more about this topic.

Next week I begin Graduate School at Boise State University, studying Instructional and Performance Technology. I’m hoping to discuss some of the things I learn from there in the future. In the mean time, next week I will discuss my graduate school search, and why I picked Boise State University over a few others.

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