Six Keys to Better Audio for Home Recording and Podcasting
Just a couple of years ago, we introduced the topic of podcasting in Shure Notes. For some of our readers, we may have been introducing the concepts as well. Today, no reliable estimate exists of the millions of podcasts around the globe. But when the President of the United States gets into the game, it’s clear that podcasts are a powerful and prevalent communications medium.
For this issue, we decided to focus on the recording process. And for that, we turned to Chris Lyons, who not only produces Shure podcasts, but wrote our newest book on Home Recording and Podcasting. Since this is a very broad subject, Chris suggested that we break it down to six critical elements.
Let’s talk about the fundamental differences between home recording and podcasting.
Home recording is the term used for any recording created outside of a traditional professional recording studio. This term can be misleading because recording equipment has become so compact, easy to use and affordable that there might be no difference between the equipment used in a traditional recording studio and what is used in a home ‘project’ studio.
Podcasting is the generic term for creating audio or video files that can be subscribed to, so that the subscriber is automatically notified that a new episode is available. It is also a generic term for downloadable (non-subscriber) recordings – especially those that are part of an ongoing series.
Podcasts can contain audio only, audio with graphics, or video, and can be played on an MP3 player or a computer. Podcasts are created by traditional media organizations while others are created by companies, religious groups, educational institutions, or individuals.
The bottom line is that home recording is a method of capturing and producing content, while podcasting is a means of distributing that content. In other words, many people reading this issue are both home recordists and podcasters.
Six Things You Can Do To Make Your Recordings Sound More Professional
1. Get the right gear.
If you only need one mic (to record a podcast with just one talker or just one music track at a time), a microphone with a USB output might be most convenient. If you need to record multiple talkers, singers, or instruments simultaneously, then XLR mics connected to a mixer is a better solution. If the mixer doesn’t have a USB output, an XLR-USB adapter can do the job.
2. Find a quiet place.
Household noise (from appliances, heat/air conditioning, etc.) may not be that noticeable to you, but a microphone hears it loud and clear. To get professional-quality sound, record in a location that is as quiet as possible.
The ‘deader’ the better.
As recording equipment becomes more compact, you can look to smaller and smaller spaces for your home recording and podcasting needs. This is good because it provides more oppo rtunity to find the most acoustically neutral (quietest and least reflective or ‘dead’) area. Smaller areas also make it easier and less expensive to improve the acoustics.
What are you looking for? It’s more what you are looking to avoid:
Reflective or hard surfaces, such as windows or concrete walls. If your space includes these surfaces, you will want to ‘deaden’ them with acoustic foam, carpet, blankets, or heavy drapes.
Fans, air conditioning units, furnaces or other appliances that generate mechanical or electrical noise.
Other people. Use a sign to alert family and friends to stay away while you are recording.
Make a few sample recordings.
Your brain is quite good at ignoring background hiss or mechanical noise, so make a recording of the chosen areas for a minute or so. Then listen to them on your MP3 player or computer. You’ll be surprised at how much noise the microphone picks up that you didn’t notice while standing in the room. Obviously, the area with the least amount of noise should be the winner.
Place the microphones far from unwanted sound sources.
Be sure to also point the microphones away from any unwanted noise. Make a few sample recordings of the chosen recording area, with the microphone facing different directions, to find the quietest possible placement.
While you can clean up the sound (somewhat) during the editing and mixing process, the equipment can become expensive and the techniques start to get very advanced. Even if money and expertise are at your fingertips, there is only so much that even the world’s best sound engineer can do to soften the negative affects of background noise and hiss without noticeably altering the sound of voices or instruments.
Simply put: the best way to eliminate unwanted and ambient noise is to make sure you do not capture it in the first place.
Can’t find a “dead” enough space? Sing or talk into the closet. One of the best tricks we’ve found is to open the closet door, throw blankets or sleeping bags over the wide open doors, and position the mic so that the least sensitive side of the mic is facing into the back of the closet. The more clothes in the closet, the better! This absorbs many of the reflections and can give you a more intelligible sound
3. Stop the Pop.
First of all, you need to understand what popping or plosives are.
When you say the word ‘pop’ for example, you will hear an explosive breath after the ‘p’, that is, ‘po-puh’. Pops occur most often with “p”, “t”, “d”, and “b” sounds, and can be very distracting on the final recording. Windscreens and pop filters provide an acoustically transparent shield around your microphone, which breaks up the wall of air before it hits the mic and helps reduce popping sounds.
One thing you never hear in professional recordings is pops from breath noise. Be sure to use a pop filter and/or adjust microphone position to avoid these unwanted sounds.
4. Stay in control.
Maintaining a consistent sound level is critical.
Make sure your sound sources do not move in and out of the pickup areas of the microphone. Movement (for example, varying distance from the microphone) will change recording levels, which are hard to fix later.
It’s annoying when your recording level keeps going up and down, forcing listeners to keep adjusting the volume. Learn to maintain a consistent position relative to the microphone, both in terms of distance and angle. This will keep overall audio level steady.
Record any instruments separately from vocals
Use two microphones: one positioned near the singer’s mouth and one positioned near the instruments sound source.
5. Learn to use effects.
Digital audio effects can make both voices and instruments more pleasant to listen to and that allows listeners focus on your music or message.
There are plenty of effects you can use for home recording, though most podcasts (especially if you capture clean sound) don’t require much in the way of effects processing. While you can find a separate piece of hardware to provide each unique effect, most are commonly included as unique controls within a single software package or digital mixing console.
Effects processing is a means of manipulating or changing certain aspects of the recorded sound with the goal of enhancing the overall sound quality. Sometimes an effect is applied to an individual track (vocal or guitar, for instance) while other times it is applied to the finished recording.
Equalization can brighten a dull-sounding track, or tame one that has too much high frequency content, or just help different tracks to mix more transparently.
Compression can help to add punch and prevent annoying audio peaks. A compressor automatically turns down the talker’s or singer’s peaks (loud parts) by a preset amount so they don’t cause distortion. Compression also reduces the difference between the loudest and softest note, so the apparent loudness is greater. Example usage: A singer might vary in loudness from very soft to very loud, but the compressor reduces the magnitude of these extreme changes.
6. Listen carefully.
Monitor what you are recording while you’re recording it. This allows you to be aware of vocal issues (such as lip-smacking, mouth noises or pops) or musical mistakes that warrant a second take. To avoid feedback, you need to monitor through headphones or earphones; to avoid latency, you need to connect the headphones somewhere outside of the computer. (More about latency to follow.)
The simple truth is that before you can record or mix good sound, you need to be able to hear what you’re getting. In audio terms, monitors allow you to listen to the audio while it is being recorded or edited.
If you are mixing or editing different sounds that were previously recorded, you can monitor through loudspeakers, headphones, or earphones.
If you’re trying to sing or play along with a recorded music track, you need to monitor through headphones or earphones. If you try to do this with the speakers, the sound of the speakers will be picked up by the microphone , which could in turn ‘bleed’ onto the new track or be re-amplified through the speakers. This can cause the whistling or howling you know as feedback.
You must be able to monitor in real time, with almost no latency. A few milliseconds of latency isn’t critical, although it can slightly alter your perception of pitch or tone. More than 10 milliseconds of latency can have a noticeable effect on your rhythm and timing. To monitor in real time, you need to tap into the audio signal before it gets converted from analog to digital and fed into the computer.
Tip: Minimizing Latency
Latency is a delay in the signal path caused by the time required to convert sound from analog to digital (or vice versa) or otherwise process the signal. Usually measured in milliseconds, latency can occur at multiple points in the signal path…and it can really add up. This means the sound you are hearing might not be happening in real time.
While you cannot fully avoid latency, regardless of how much you spend for processing power, you can use hardware that allows you to listen to the sound at the beginning of the signal path.
If you are using one microphone, look for one with ‘zero latency monitoring’ (which means it has an integrated headphone amp) so you can monitor directly from the microphone.
If you are using multiple microphones, use an interface box with headphone jacks, which will let you mix and monitor the combined output.
If you are recording directly from the sound source (such as from an electric bass guitar connected to a direct box), check to see if your USB adapter has a monitoring option.
For much more information on mic types, mic placement and other technical information relating to podcasting and home recording, download the Shure Introduction to Home Recording and Podcasting Educational booklet (PDF.)
Chris Lyons is Manager, Technical and Educational Communications at Shure Inc.
With more than 21 years of experience in training, technical support, and product management, he has presented training sessions for retail salespeople, created online training content, and supervised the deployment of third-party in-store product demonstrators, both in the U.S. and abroad. He has written numerous articles and technical papers and is a regular contributor to Shure podcasts.