So, is there really a “best audio format for voice over”? I mean, so much of the time, we receive the typical WAV/AIFF request, but has there been a change over the last few years that people just haven’t caught onto yet? I really believe there has been, but I also believe it’s going to be very difficult for this to catch on in the editing world. All I can say is, after being on the recording, audio editing, video editing and producing side of things, this would make the voice over process, not only much easier, but much quicker.
This all came about a few months ago, when I had the pleasure of being around one of the top (if not the number one) voice over promo guys in the industry. Trust me, if you live in America, you know his voice. I was lucky enough to be in the same room with him as he did a few voice over sessions for two major networks. After recording the first one and getting ready to send it off, the sound engineer asked, “What format?” Convinced that I knew the answer, I almost didn’t pay attention to what he said. Glad I did. Wait, did he say, “MP3 256”? Did I hear that right? If I did, then this an audition or a scratch track or something of that nature. Surely, a major network does not use MP3 voice over tracks for national promos. So I had to ask and, to my shock, no doubt about it…a major network, a major talent, a major promo for a major show and…MP3 format. “Is this normal,” I asked. He informed me that, not only was this normal, it has become the standard among most major networks to use MP3 voice tracks.
I know you’re asking, “Why?” I’ll get to that answer, but first, I think we have to remove a huge misconception. I’m sure you’ve heard it. You know, the one that says MP3 is bad quality? I really believe this has been passed around for a few different reasons. The first one being that, nearly 10 years ago, one of the most popular professional videos editing softwares in the world would not accept MP3 files. They had to be converted in to one of two formats (Can you guess?)…WAV or AIFF. Considering the widespread use of this program, that pretty much wiped out the use of MP3 files among a lot of professional video editors. Next, I believe that simply the difference in file size causes some people to automatically believe that WAV is exceedingly better quality. I know this, because I’ve heard that theory more than once, including from a good friend that would religiously make the claim that MP3s were “lossy.” And truthfully, it’s a valid argument when looking at the surface. A WAV file with the same specs (bitrate, hz, etc.) is going to be, on average, nine times bigger in size. Keep in mind though, a bigger file size doesn’t always mean better quality. A lot of High Definition video formats have exceedingly sharper image quality than formats that were commonly used for Standard Definition and many of them take up a fraction of the space. The reality is, agree or not (many probably won’t), a high quality MP3 (at least 256 kbps) has an undetectable difference in sound quality. Through testing this with many clients that have requested WAV or AIFF, I have provided my audio in both the requested format and high quality MP3, and more than half the time when they have come back to me for another project, they say that I can just provide them with an MP3. If they can’t hear a difference, then it’s not there, and the only difference that they should care about, is an audible one. I mean, hey, it’s good enough for the major networks.
Ok, back to the question of why. If there’s no audible difference, then we have to be honest in that the obvious differences, are really attractive. An MP3 is just barely over a 10th of the file size. And some voice talents don’t know this, but we are often times, the very last part of a project. Typically, a video is being shot and edited, while a script is being written and rewritten to make everything fit perfectly. Once everything is completed, the director will record themselves to hear how the script fits, and if everything sounds good, the voice talent gets the call. By this point, the deadline is pretty close. I couldn’t tell you how many voice projects I’ve done where the client says, “Can you get this to me in the next few hours because this is due at the end of the day?” Well, a file that’s a ninth of the size it would normally be, will obviously send much quicker, getting it into the client’s hands a lot faster. When you can do that, don’t be surprised if you have yourself a longterm client.
Remember, always provide the client with whatever format they request. However, don’t be afraid to include a high quality MP3, also. I’ve watched clients, editors, and even friends change their perception of MP3 audio quality…with nothing more than just listening.