Voiceover or voice over (or even voice-over)? Is there a dilemma here? Well, it depends. Yes, if we are talking about the difference between a video sound technique and the Apple software product that goes under the name of VoiceOver. And then no, if you follow discussion among voice acting professionals online. Most are of the opinion that essentially, there is no difference.

But, that might be the case if you are talking about the one and the same technique used in videos and films. The difference lies elsewhere. Both voiceover and voice over can actually cover a number of techniques, of which some certainly go under other names.

The first would be between voiceover in general and voice acting. This difference depends on the approach of the producer/director and voice actor. This determines how the voice should sound coupled with images.

Feature film techniques see a difference when a script envisions either an omniscient narrator or voice by a protagonist. These techniques also exist elsewhere in filming. The first would fall into the voice over (or voiceover) category, while the other goes under the name of off-screen.

Finally, there is a difference between voice over and dubbing. The latter, also known as language replacement is when “the audio track of the original video footage is mixed with the alternate language recordings of the dialogue.”

The essence of the voiceover or voice over the debate is not in the semantics but what we understand by these terms. While some meanings fall under the voiceover or voice over category, others actually refer to different film/sound techniques.

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This post has been updated in November 2021. 

The difference between voiceover or voice over and voice acting

As mentioned, the first actual difference any potential client should consider is between voice-over and voice-acting. Penny Abshire discussed in detail the difference between the two here. She lists the following characteristics of voice over:

  • The voice over actor sounds like he is reading or announcing the text. In most cases, he is doing exactly that.
  • “Content is information-heavy (primarily intellectual, often with many featured items) with little or no emotional content.”
  • The intent of such a performance is to convince the viewers/listeners into taking a certain action. In many cases, such action has a commercial background.
  • The overall effect of the message can also have an adverse effect on the viewers/listeners.

Voiceover or Voice Over Dilemma

According to her, the voice acting performance has the following characteristics:

  • The performer creates a believable and real character in conversation with the listener.
  • The message content is primarily emotional, with a single clearly defined focus.
  • The goal of the message is to “tell a story” that the listener can relate to on an emotional level.
  • The overall effect often is of the message is one of keeping the listener’s attention and creating a memorable moment.

As she points out, good “voice-over” is usually done within the context of a larger performance or is designed for a very specific purpose. It’s a presentation by a very specific character. The best “voice-over”  performance comes from a foundation of “voice acting.”

On the other hand, “voice acting is about creating real and believable characters in real and believable situations that listeners can relate to and be motivated by. To achieve this, the performer must be able to reach the audience on an emotional level. And as a performer, the best way to communicate emotion is to present the message from personal emotional experience.”

Voice presence – on or off-screen

As explained here, voiceover (voice over) and off-screen might imply similar things, but actually have different applications. “Both indicate that dialogue comes from someone not currently seen on the screen. The difference isn’t where the speaker is not, but where the speaker is.”

Off-screen involves somebody who is a protagonist of the film/video (above). “The character that speaks is in the scene location but the viewers cannot currently see her/him.” As Lights Film School (LFS) mentions, this method is quite common “in hard-boiled film noir films.“ Screenwriting adds that it is also a technique in videos and TV multi-camera sitcoms.

Voice over comes in when the speaker “is not physically in the scene. The speaker could be someone on the other end of a telephone line or radio broadcast, an unseen narrator, or a character’s inner-monologue.” LFS adds that directors/producers often use voiceover “as a way to detach dialogue from a particular image. In this technique, the writer uses voiceover to place lines that would have chronologically been spoken at a different place or time over an image in a separate one.”

Also, voiceover can “clue the viewer into the inner-monologue of a character whose thoughts we would otherwise not know.”

LFS does make a difference between voiceover and voice-over. They also call the latter off-camera or off-stage commentary. They define it as “a production technique where a voice—that is not part of the narrative (non-diegetic)—plays a part in radio, television production, filmmaking, theatre, or other presentations.”

  • The voice-over comes from a script and the actual speaker is someone who appears elsewhere in the production or by a specialist voice talent.
  • The production usually pre-records it and places it over the top of a film or video and commonly used in documentaries or news reports to explain information.
  • Another use is in video games, hold-on messages, as well as for announcements and information at events and tourist destinations.

Difference between voice over and dubbing

Defining voice-over, CMI adds another name for it – ‘UN-style’. It describes it as “mostly narrative in nature, does not lip-synch and does not transmit the tonality and overall richness of what is being said in the original footage.”

Voiceover or Voice Over in voice acting

Dubbing is also known as Language Replacement. It is “recorded by professional voice actors and the audio track of the original video footage is mixed with the alternate language recordings of the dialogue. Word choice is extremely important as the translated video must be synchronized with the lip movement of the actors on-screen.”

CMI further compares dubbing to voiceover or voice over. Dubbing is “much more precise, both from translation (and ADAPTATION) of the original content, as well as a technical delivery point of view. A well- crafted dub is unnoticeable to the viewer, as it is truly an “acted” voice recording that uses sound engineering and editing to ensure true lip-synching – making the original actor seemingly mouth his/her dialogue in the target language.”

So when to use voice over and when to opt for dubbing? Producers and directors use Voice-over frequently  in news-related segments, digital learning or documentary clips that are short and where the translation is the primary objective.” V/O has more of a “translation” only aspect to it, with less emphasis on a nuance of tone and emotive content.

V/O tends to work best for shorter segments of content. This could be footage from in-the-field reporting, or conference proceedings where the voice-over is really the recording of a live interpreter.

Dubbing makes more sense in another situation. This is “when the video content is conveying a large amount of high-impact information.” This could be the case in, for example, “high impact training environments or sophisticated lectures with information-intensive presentation slides.”

Voiceover or voice over – disregard the semantics, focus on the content

So, in the linguistic sense, voiceover or voice over, there might be no big difference. The key though is in the implications of any recording technique as such. As noted, it depends on what a potential client needs and what he wants to achieve with his video/film project. What he really needs might go under a completely different term that what either voiceover or voice over stands for.\

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