Recording Basics 101
There are basically three things that will effect any digital or analog recording. These three items have been know since the dawn of recording and they have never really changed. They are as important in 2018 as they were back in the 50’s and 60’s. The most dramatic change has occurred in the past decade when the prices dropped so low, that anyone with a few dollars can now produce professional audio from their spare room.
All you need is a good entry level mic suited to your voice and recording environment, a professional DAW, (Digital Audio Workstation), and be able to implement/follow a few simple rules. By doing this, you will stand the best chance of recording speech is a professional manner.
1. Recording Environment.
2. Microphone Types.
3. Microphone Placement.
Back in the day, the only place you could record was in a professional studio. They had the gear, the space as well as the knowledge to get the job done. While they are still very active for profession recordings, professional narration as well as Podcast recording has now shifted towards the “Home Studio”.
So how does one go about creating a Home Studio Recording Environment? It really is not as hard as you may think. There is a 33% rule for doing this and the closer you can get to this rule, the better your recordings will sound. When it comes to the room you will be recording in, you want to have 33% absorption, 33% diffusion and 33% un-treated areas within your recording space.
This is why it is not recommended that you place your mic inside of a box that is lined with sound absorption material. It will suck the life right out of your voice. This is also why you never want to record in your kitchen, unfinished basement/unfinished rooms or your bathroom. They all contain hard reflective surfaces and will make your recording sound thin as well as add a great deal of artificial reverb, commonly referred to as “slap back“.
One of the best places to record is in a walk-in closet, located away from any exterior walls. Being on the interior of the house, this location will help eliminate outside noises such as traffic, kids playing, neighbors cutting their grass and things of this nature. The cloths inside the closet work great for absorbing the sound waves reflecting off of the other surfaces inside the closet.
So what does the perfect walk-in closet consist of? Hardwood, concrete or tile floors along with any clothes that fill up the closet along with some different sized boxes sitting on the shelves. Think about the 33% rule. The hardwood floors along with the ceiling are the untreated areas. The cloths are the absorption factor and the different sized boxes will help create diffusion.
Carpet is not recommended as a flooring as it will kill certain higher frequencies regardless of what mic you may choose. That is why you never see carpet in professional studios where they do live recording or in orchestra pits. If you do see carpet in a professional studio, it is always under the drums or low percussion instruments as it will aide in making the low end of the instruments sound better, by helping to remove the higher frequencies.
It is very easy to buy a four foot by four foot piece of ¼ plywood to place under your recording area. This little trick will help your vocal recording tremendously. Is it a must? Well, the only reason I would not recommend it, is if you simply did not have the money to pay for it. If that is the case, it should be placed number one on your wish list when you do have the funds.
You can also do the same thing with a regular closet if you do not have a walk-in. You would simply use something like a TV tray, located inside the door opening to place your mic stand on. This setup works great if you are recording into a digital recorder or a laptop computer. You can place a stick up light to help you see if your closet does not have one already installed.
So what if you just want to record at your home office desk? This is very easy to do as well but it will require more room treatment due to the size and location. You need to stay away from windows, exterior walls, heating and AC vents as well as any noisy office equipment if possible. This could be fax machines, computer fans, office phones or even internet routers. These items are usually located in most home office spaces.
You want to make sure that you have soft furniture such as beds or wall panels installed. Book cases are great for diffusion and you can also hang quilts or heavy bedspreads up on your walls to help with sound absorption. You can build frames out of PVC pipe that will act as a home studio for very little money. All you need is a tape measure and hand saw. If constructed properly, you do not have to worry about gluing them together.
You can build a professional face shield for around $10.00 that works as well as a $150.00 store bought model. I have the $150.00 model as well as several ones I have built using PVC pipe for different recording applications. You can build these frames for corners as well as straight walls and you can even construct them to have top enclosures as well. Professional recording booths can cost upwards of $8,000.00 and you can achieve the same results usually for under $100.00.
The number one goal is to reduce as much exterior noise coming into your recording area while at the same time, controlling how the sound reacts inside your recording area. That truly is the bottom line for your recording environment.
Since we are talking about recording speech, we will be talking about dynamic mics verses condenser mics. At this time I have around $12,000.00 invested in these types of mics and my favorite one for speech, is the Shure SM57 dynamic mic. It cost $99.00. I also have the Shure SM7b which cost $450.00. This is the mic that Michael Jackson used to record the number one selling album of all times, Thriller.
The SM7b is known world wide for being used by broadcasters and radio stations as well as professional narrators and voice over artist. While this may be one of the best mics on the market, you will also need to invest in a quality preamp to power this mic. If you use a low quality preamp with a high noise floor, this will only be amplified by this mic and your audio will suffer greatly.
I use the Tascam US 16×8 Audio Interface that gets patched into my Alesis USB 8 channel sound board, just to have the proper amount of gain to power this mic. Shure recommends that a minimum of 59dbs of gain are required and make no mistake about it, you NEVER want to go with the minimum requirements when dealing with any type of audio recording.
The cost of these two pieces of hardware is around $600.00 including the cables. Combine that with the $450.00 for the mic and you can see where this will be very expensive to set this type of mic up properly. So lets talk about the Shure SM57. Believe it or not, it has the same capsule as the SM7b. This comes straight from the Shure website. You can have the most expensive mic made and if it is set up improperly, you gain absolutely nothing.
So what is the big deal when it comes to choosing a dynamic mic over a condenser mic? Noise! Yes noise. Background noises can include: Computer Fans, AC vents, TVs, Washers/Dryers, Kids Playing and things of this nature. Outside noises can consist of Kids Playing, Overhead Flight Paths, Lawn Cutting, Traffic, Emergency Vehicles, Dogs Barking and things of this nature.
Now combine this with electrical interference noise. Preamps, Overhead High Voltage Lines, Electrical Circuits, Noisy USB Buss or Sound Cards and Signal to Noise Ratios concerning your recording equipment input levels. When all of these noises are added together, you now have what is called a “Noise Floor”.
While these types of noises will effect both mics, the dynamic mics are much more forgiving when it comes to outside noise influences. To put it simply, I can be recording with my dynamic mics while the lawn care company is mowing outside my home and it will never be picked up by my mics and make its way into my recording.
You can not achieve these same results using a condenser mic. Condenser mics require a very quite recording environment. You need to understand that it is all the little things added together that will result in a professional recording. Condensers mics are made for studio work and that is why you never see them being used on stage for live performances.
They are so sensitive, you simply can not filter out all the unwanted background noise that they will pick up. And I promise you, they will pick it up! Does this mean that you can not use a USB condenser mic and achieve good results? Of course not! It means you will have to work twice as hard to achieve results that will be comparable to or below what you can achieve with a dynamic mic outside of a studio.
If you have invested in a $29.00 condenser mic package, off of some website that includes a condenser mic, a mic boom arm, USB cable and pop filter, you have already probably condemned yourself to failure. This setup is great if you want to have conversations over the internet but they have no place for recording audio you want to submit to the ACX.
This is one of the steps people have the least amount of knowledge with, and what makes it even worse, this is one of the critical steps that must be addressed to achieve professional recordings. This step is required regardless if you are recording instruments, vocals or speech. Many low end mics, both dynamic and condenser, will come with a little desk top tripod mic stand.
The best thing you can do is throw them away or build a stand that this tripod will sit on. If you have to build a stand, you are better off investing $20.00 for a proper mic stand to begin with. When working with the ACX, this is critical. It will help you avoid being inconsistent with your recordings, which may get your project rejected. Consistency is a major requirement when it comes to passing the ACX tests.
If you record chapter 1 with your mic 2 inches from your mouth and then record chapter 2 with your mic 4 inches from your mouth, there will be a tremendous difference on how each chapter sounds. Depending on what mic you use, this distance can be as little as 1 inch to effect your recordings. So why do I suggest you throw away the little tripod that may have come with your mic?
Simple, first of all, the distance between your mouth and your mic should only be between 2 to 4 inches. You will never achieve this distance using the cheap desk top tripod mic stand that came with your mic. You need to understand that if you can not achieve this proper distance, the very first thing that will be effected is your noise to signal ratio.
The second thing that is effected is what is referred to as “Proximity Effect”. Simply put, the proximity effect refers to how much bass is added into the recording, without using any equalization, (EQ) or special effects. It is a mathematical equitation that determines the distance from when the sound hits the front of the mic diaphragm to the time the sound hits the back of the mic diaphragm and at which pressure this sound is delivered to the mic. If this sounds confusing, just keep reading and I promise you it will become very clear.
So knowing this, it is easy to see that placing the mic 2 inches from the sound source, in this case our mouth, will have a greater sound pressure then if we place the mic 10 inches away on a desk top mic stand.
Hold your hand two inches from your mouth and sing the alphabet. Now move your hand 10 inches away and do the same thing. You should notice that when your hand was closer, you could feel the air hitting your hand and on some letters, it felt stronger.
These letters are called plosives. Yet when you moved your hand further away, you could not feel anything or if you did, it was at a much lower pressure against your hand. This is a simply way to illustrate sound pressure. Now substitute your hand for a microphone that works off of detecting sound pressure at minute levels and you can see how moving your mic 1 or 2 inches can change how your audio is recorded.
So the simple way to achieve all these requirements is simply to have a recording area that not only blocks out unwanted outside noise, but also controls how the sound inside your recording area reacts to the room surfaces.
Combine this with selecting the proper mic that fits your voice along with your recording area and making sure you can achieve proper mic placement 100% of the time, and I have no doubt that you will notice a remarkable difference in your recordings.