How To Set Proper Levels for Voice Over

Dan Friedman

Today, every voice actor needs to have the capability to record themselves. No matter what equipment you use (places like Sweetwater can help you decide the proper equipment for you to invest in), you want to be able to use it to the best of its ability. Traditionally, this has been the job of the recording engineer. When voice actors record in their home studio, they take on the job of being a recording engineer. When recording from home, your most important task is to capture your audio with the highest quality possible. This doesn’t mean you have to increase your sampling and bit rates to astronomical numbers. That just isn’t necessary for voice recording. 44.1khz and 16 bit is generally fine. However, it is imperative that you set proper levels so that your audio can be heard.

In Edge Studio’s Monthly Audition Contest, we have been receiving more and more submissions that we can’t hear because the talent did not set proper levels. The submissions sound like a faint whisper, and it’s impossible to even consider those submissions if we can’t hear them. Imagine what a casting professional would do if you sent an audition with audio they couldn’t hear? (Hint- it would take up very little space in their garbage.) Here’s a quick guide on how to make sure casting teams can hear your auditions and can consider you for a job:

Good levels generally hover between -6db and -12db on your audio meters. So, how do you get there? First, every script you read deserves individual attention as each is different and you may be doing a variety of different styles of reads as you go about your day. For instance, you may do a read for a video game where you are screaming in agony, and then later that same day you record a meditation spot. Two totally different ends of the voice over spectrum. Therefore, you should set proper levels with each new delivery. 

It is best to set levels using your gain k**b on your preamp/interface. It is the most obvious place to make your changes and also the most noticeable when something has been changed. 

Begin by stepping up to the microphone using the correct distance, or proximity, appropriate for the script. Some scripts are intimate, others less so. 

Read your script exactly as you intend to perform it. You should already have figured out how you intend to do that. 

Turn your gain k**b clockwise to increase the level from the preamp, or counterclockwise to reduce the gain. Watch the meters on your DAW (all DAWs have these meters, from Pro Tools to Audacity) and on your preamp, if available. When your levels are averaging in that -12 to -6db range in your DAW, you are good to go and have set proper levels for your read. You may have some peaks that go above -6db. That is okay, as long as you keep them below 0 (or, for safety around -2db.) You’ll always want to listen to be sure you have a clean signal that is free of distortion.

Setting levels in this range consistently may eliminate the need to use tools such as normalizing. It also ensures that you are using all of the digital 1’s and 0’s available to you in digital recording. Setting levels properly is also critical to determine your noise floor, which is any sound remaining that exists within the room or that is being produced by the equipment once your levels have been set properly and you have stopped talking.

It is important to note that USB microphones don’t often have preamp controls. Therefore they are limiting when it comes to being able to control levels directly from your hardware. XLR microphones with a separate preamp/interface are best for both control and flexibility. This is why USB mics are not yet considered industry standard; the technology has still not caught up to a good old fashioned mic and interface. 

If you have any questions or need further assistance, you can work with me one-on-one by booking a Home Studio Consultation with me. I can help you make sure you set proper levels, in addition to any other home studio troubleshooting you may need. I also highly recommend you take my Home Studio 101 class and get a basic understanding of how to construct your home studio, what equipment you should think about investing in, and how to ensure everything is in working order.