BOSS Audio: Normalizing Your Audio

What is normalization and is there a standard for it? You’ve probably asked those questions, and this week’s episode has answers. Anne and VO Tech Guru Tim Tippets talk about peak normalization, RMS normalization, understanding your noise floor, and why louder does not always mean better. Check out this episode to learn optimal input levels, the difference between amplification and normalization, and how to avoid digital distortion. Use these tips to create dynamic audio and rock your business like a BOSS.


Quick Concepts from Today’s Episode:

  1. The broadcast standard is to “normalize your audio to -3db”. This is so people can hear you at a standard level, no matter what device they are on 

  2. Peak normalization takes the peaks of your audio and sets them to the level you specify Everything else in your audio moves relative to this

  3. RMS (root mean square) normalization averages the overall volume of your audio to the level you specify. This is standard for audiobooks, but not for traditional voiceover auditions. 

  4. Emotions in your voice, show up as peaks and valleys in your audio

  5. Making your audio louder also brings up your noise floor and any background noise along with it

  6. If your input levels are at -6 to -12db when you are recording, and you are monitoring with your headphones, you can hear if there is any background noise

  7. You should be aware of the numerical values of your levels, not just the colors as they appear in your DAW and/or on your interface

  8. A dynamic VO that is done correctly will win out over an audition that is simply louder

  9. When everything is loud, nothing is unique, and there’s no way to discern emotion and nuance

  10. You can get plug-ins for certain interfaces that will process your audio in real-time

  11. A combination of your performance, software control, mic technique, and normalization can create a winning audition and great audio to submit to your client for the final product

  12. You should focus on quality of audio and performance when sending in your auditions. Don’t try and win the loudness war

Referenced in this Episode

Direct links to things we brought up ++

  1. Look at all of the gear and plug-ins that Anne recommends!

  2. Check out all of the equipment that Tim recommends

  3. These cables are studio gold!

  4. Recorded on ipDTL


>> It’s time to take your business to the next level, the BOSS level! These are the premiere Business Owner Strategies and Successes being utilized by the industry’s top talent today. Rock your business like a boss, a VO BOSS! Now let’s welcome your host, Anne Ganguzza.

Anne: Hey everyone, welcome to the VO BOSS podcast. I’m your host, Anne Ganguzza, along with the audio engineer extraordinaire, Mr. Tim Tippets. Hey Tim Tippets! How are you?

Tim: I’m good, how are you, Anne?

Anne: I”m doing great. Tim, I got a question for you, which I think you’ve probably received multiple times in the past. But it brings me back to when I first started in voiceover, and I was on the Voice123 pay-to-play. And the first time I saw this term was to normalize my audio to -3 dB.

Tim: Right.

Anne: And I get the question all the time from people new to the industry like “what, how do I normalize? What is normalization? Do I need to do it, and at what level do I need to do it?” So I thought it would be a good time to maybe talk about, at least begin the conversation about normalization, and what it is and why we need to do it. [laughs] I know that I have been normalizing my audio to -3dB, but maybe I don’t need to. Thoughts?

Tim: Well, why did you think you needed to normalize to -3 db? Back in the day, what did they tell you?

Anne: They basically said all auditions had to be sent in and normalized to -3 db. And my understanding was so that, you know, all of the submissions came in at roughly the same volume level.

Tim: Right.

Anne: And that was what helped to do that.

Tim: So the -3 dB is so that people can hear you at a certain level —

Anne: Right.

Tim: — regardless of the device that they’re on, right? But these days now, you’re hearing, what, anything from —

Anne: Oh my goodness! I’ve heard, you know, 0. I think next in line, I heard 0. Then I heard -6, -1. I’ve heard all different values. And so, is there a standard? Is there a right answer for that?

Tim: Well, let me ask you a question, ok? So -3 dB has always been the broadcast standard for normalization, right? Which means whatever the loudest peak is in your audio, it’s going to look at that, and if it’s louder than -3dB, then it’s going to lower that. Like let’s say it came in a -1dB.

Anne: Right.

Tim: It’s going to lower that to -3 dB, right, which is a total of 2 dB. And it’s going to take all of the other audio down with it 2 dB, right? So that’s what peak normalization is all about. Now if you were well under at -6, and that was your loudest peak, then it’s going to lift that 3 dB to get it to -3 dB. And the rest of the audio is also going to be lifted by 3 dB. Make sense?

Anne: That’s peak normalization.

Tim: That’s peak normalization.

Anne: Right. So there’s a different — there’s another normalization too that I learned about when I was doing some audiobook work.

Tim: Right, and that’s RMS, which stands for root mean squared. It’s a fancy way of saying averaging. So you’re averaging the overall volume of the entire thing. And that’s fine for audiobooks, right? But when we talk about normalizing whether it’s for an audition, or for a job, or whatever, let’s just talk about — let’s say it’s for auditions. Let’s just put it there, because that’s really where the conversation is today is, is at what level should I be normalizing so that the people on the other end are listening to me at level X? Ok? So you’re hearing anything from 0.1, which is the absolute highest that you can pretty much go, or -6 dB, right? If you come in at -3 dB, and we’ve got two Annes, ok, not with the same talent level — if one comes in at -1 dB and is not so good, but the other Anne comes in at -3 dB, which one do you think they’re gonna choose?

Anne: Oh [laughs] that’s a good question. I never thought of it in that way! [laughs]

Tim: If you’re not so good, yeah, if you’re not so good, do you just want to suck 2 db louder?

Anne: Yeah, I don’t want to amplify that. [laughs]

Tim: We’re assuming a lot when we say “hey, send it in at -1 db” or whatever. You’re assuming that everyone has, is equally talented.

Anne: Right. Or the other thing too, Tim, is that I’ve had people, when my students are submitting homework, and I have them record mp3s, I always make sure they normalize it so I can at least — I don’t have to play with the volume all the time. But sometimes that will bring up not just their voice but the, all that audio and that noise in the studio as well.

Tim: Right.

Anne: So not just the talent [laughs] maybe not being as good, but the talent and all of the audio environment as well being brought up to like — a lot of times, the students will be like, “what? I don’t know where that came from. Let me just — if I don’t normalize it, it sounds better.” [laughs]

Tim: This is one of the misunderstandings that we should really clear up, because if your input levels are at -6 to -12 dB when you’re voicing and you’re watching your meter, we’re now near that -3 db level. If we’re listening, we can hear if there are noise makers, right, because we are up at that level. I’ve actually had some people record at very, very low levels because they say “hey, it lowers my noise floor.”

Anne: Sure.

Tim: That’s all good and fine, but reality is you have to bring it up to -3 dB, and using the math, if you lower it to where your peaks are at -22 dB let’s say, ok, without getting too far into the math of it, and your noise floor is quiet, well when you go to normalize it to -3 dB so that it can be heard nice and loud, all that noise floor goes up with it. Whatever the difference between -22 and -3 is, that same level of noise floor is now going to be increased by that same dB level. All that noise floor is just gonna get louder and louder. So that’s why you — that’s one of the reasons why you want your input levels to come in somewhere between -12 and -6 dB. Not consistently. You can go over -6 here and there and under -12. We’re just talking about an average. But we want to understand what our noise floor is —

Anne: Right.

Tim: — before we voice, so that when we do normalize, we don’t have this big problem of all of this noise coming back up with it.

Anne: Sure, and you know what? You’re the first person that I’ve actually like heard talk about “this is where your voice should come in at.” I’ve always thought I look at my levels and I definitely don’t want to go into the red. I’m looking at the colors of my levels. I’ve never actually looked at the values. That’s a good place to shoot for in terms of where we should be recording at in the first place, so that when we do normalize, it’s not gonna — well, we’re not surprised, let’s say, with a lot of noise or a lot of other unexpected things that we didn’t think we heard.

Tim: Right, well if your interface, if the interface that you’re going into has an indicator of green, yellow, red, you don’t want to be going in the red on that, because that means you’re clipping that interface.

Anne: Right, right, which is what I was always taught to look for. Just don’t go into the red. Be in the yellow. That’s what I was —

Tim: Right, but you have to look in two places. You have to look at your interface to make sure that that’s not happening, and then you need to look inside your software —

Anne: Yes, yes.

Tim: — to make sure that’s not happening.

Anne: Oh, good point. Good point, yeah.

Tim: You can go into the red in the software. That’s not a problem, like I said. You can go over -6, and you can hit -3 here and there. But you just don’t want to go to 0. You just don’t want to clip, because that is the digital equivalent of distortion that a human would hear in real life with dB, right? If something were 140 dB, and you were next to it and listening to it, your hearing would just, I mean, it would hurt, ok? And 0 is the digital equivalent of that. The problem is is we have no scale above that for the computer to relate to, because what is pain? Pain has to be something, so let’s call it 0, and then we’ll move backwards from there. Because in real life, dB can go infinitely louder and louder and louder.