Music and Voice-Overs: When to Drop the Music
Most podcasts start with a blast of music, before the presenter fades the volume. She then says a few words with the music playing gently in the background. When she finishes speaking, she either fades the music up and it ends or fades it out entirely.
This is known as a voice-over and is often abbreviated as V / O. The music in the background is often referred to as the music bed.
Usually the music bed will be from a royalty-free 'production music' library. Your track will not be a commercial top 40 hit.
Why use a voice-over?
While some people do voice-overs simply because everyone else does, there are actually some very good reasons to use them.
When listeners hear too much spoken word, they often grow tired and become distracted. Music can add energy and refocus your listener's mind on what you're saying.
This works either half-way through your spoken word podcast or at the beginning. If you want to create energy right from the start of your podcast, voice-overs can focus your listener's mind immediately.
But being able to affect energy levels is not the only reason voice-overs are so useful.
Using music behind your voice also affects your listener's mood. For example, if your podcast is about funerals, you can instantly influence the mood with a calm yet melancholic music track. If you're making a sports podcast, you might use an up-tempo music piece with an aggressive guitar riff.
Not everyone has what used to be called in the old days a “broadcast voice”. Their diction may be poor or their intonation just lousy. Playing music behind their voice will often dampen the fact their vocals are poor.
Creating great voice-overs comes down to two things. Timing and the level of your music. Before I talk about when you should drop your music volume and start talking, let me say a few words about how loud your music bed should be, when you are talking.
How low should you drop your music?
The best instrument to judge the effective level of music behind the voice is your ear. You can't make the decision by looking at an audio editing software package and making a guess based on the wave-form.
Listen to the volume of the music and ask yourself, is the voice clear and easy to understand? If not, reduce your music. Beware that many people find it difficult to distinguish between voice and music for voice-overs broadcast on television and radio.
So use your ears when deciding how low to drop the music level. Err on the side of a lower music volume, rather than a high one.
When do you drop the music?
Dropping your music too late can slow the energy of your podcast and make it sound sluggish. And playing the music bed too long before your drop it, transforms the music from a communication tool into a performance piece. You don't want this.
Playing your music too long before dropping to a voice-over is like spending more time in the restaurant looking at a cardboard menu than actually enjoying your food. The menu should get you excited about the food and set the mood for wonderful cuisine. But the main act is the food, not the menu.
For serious podcasters, the main act is your content which is usually conveyed through the spoken word. Your music should create the energy and excitement that draws your listener to what you have to say.
So how long before you drop the music? Just a few seconds. To make it sound really good, though, it also helps to know some basic musicology in relation to the beat or time signature of the piece you're using.
I suggest that you listen to the timing of your music and drop the volume so your first words start on the first beat of the second or third bar. Don't do a slow fade but smartly drop your music at the 3rd or 4th beat of the bar preceding the bar you will speak.
Fade or End?
When you have finished your voice-over, should you fade the music off gently? Or fade the music bed up so the piece ends on a strong note?
I recommend a quick fade up so that the music actually ends rather than fades out. Depending on the length of your voice-over, this may require you to edit the music bed.
Editing your music to make it exactly the right length is tricky at first. But once you're in practice, it is very easy.
I think that in most cases, a gradual fade doesn't sound as good. Editing your music so it finishes a bar or two after your last words sounds much more professional.
Of course rules are written to be broken. There may be times when a slow fade actually achieves your editorial purpose. More often than not, though, you'll find tight fades actually make your podcasts sound snappier and more professional.