What is the difference Between Voice-Over,
Dubbing, and UN-style Dubbing?
Written by Nigel Kettle
At Kettle Media Concepts, we are asked this question a lot, so we wrote an article about it.
Voiceover is a broad term. It is adding recorded voice to an audio track. It is often used to explain what is going on visually or provide additional information in a video. It is also used in audiobooks.
Dubbing: This is used to replace one voice recording for another in a scene. It is often used in movies and TV shows. The scene may have been noisy during the recording, the actor may have made a slight error or mispronounced a word. On the set, the director would have the actor do another take the fix the error. But if the mistake was not caught on the set, or they just couldn't do another take, you can still fix this in post. Then, we take that actor into a VO studio and have him repeat those lines and switch them out. Yes, the ambiance will be different, but some fancy mixing will make it work just fine.
Dubbing is also used to replace one language with another, say Spanish with English for the American market. Dubbing for foreign dialog replacement is tedious because you have to fit the new language within the time of the language it is replacing. Since some language runs longer than others, a lot of script editing is often required to shorten or lengthen parts of the dialogue. For example, in English, the person says, "Let's get some food." In Spanish, that is “Vamos a buscar algo de comida.” As you can see, the Spanish is much longer. If you replace that recording with the Spanish translation, the lip of the person speaking will stop moving, but you still will continue to hear the talking. Visa versa, if you are going from Spanish to English, the voice will end, but you still see the lips moving. You may recall seeing a lot of this in old Chinese movies. To fix the issue, we have to edit the script a little. So for the English to Spanish, we may change it to "Vamos a llegar cominda," which translates to, "Let's get food." Visa versa, from Spanish to English, we would change it to "Let's go get some food." This will fit much better without lip flapping. Depending on the situation, we may have to adjust this a little more by having the voiceover person speak more quickly or slowly to fit correctly. Good dubbing is a precise and lengthy process if you want it done right and feel natural. You can also do it on the cheap side as we often see in many foreign movies, and it doesn't look very good. I hate watching those.
Now that you understand the process, you realize why it can be an expensive process. Due to the cost and time involved in this process, it is almost exclusively used for TV shows and movies with a decent budget. The cheaper alternative is subtitling, but I hate watching movies with subtitles. First, it detracts from what is going on in the scene. Second, there are too many small nuances that you miss in the background. People who claim they prefer watching movies with subtitles are often not very keen viewers who pay attention to the subtle hints or action in the entire scene. They are often too preoccupied with the dialogue.
On a side note, for dubbing to be done right, you need actors, not just a standard voiceover artist. You need people that can really act. Too often, you watch shows that have terrible dubbing actors, and it spoils a great movie or TV show.
So, what about corporate videos, documentaries, and the likes? Well, there is another option that you see a lot in documentaries. We refer to this as UN-style dubbing.
UN-style dubbing: If you have watched the speeches of world leaders at the UN, you know what I am talking about. In this option, you hear the Spanish speaker for a second or two, then their volume is lowered, and you then hear the English translation over it. This is the fastest option, but it is prone to many mistakes when it is done live. However, it is the most efficient way to do dialog replacement if it is for pre-recorded content. You simply dim the audio and place the dialogue of the other language over it. For this recording session, a linguist supervisor/producer usually follows along and ensures the VO talent is reading, pronouncing, and conveying the emotions correctly. For this option, you do not need an actor; a regular voiceover talent will do just fine. UN-style voiceovers are usually flat, with minimal emotions. This option is often used for documentaries and corporate videos.
Note that with UN-style voiceover, you are often diming the entire audio track, including the music. However, if you do have access to split tracks, where the music is separate from the dialogue, you can just dim the dialogue and keep the music at its current level.
Dialog replacement can be accomplished via dubbing or UN-style dubbing. The big difference is the cost. Dubbing is about 3 to 15 times more expensive than UN-style dubbing, depending on many factors.