Essential Tips for Recording your Podcast #2: Connect and setup your gear (Recording Workflows)
In the first part of our series on podcast sound we talked about the fundamentals of digital audio recording. In this part we will cover specific podcast recording workflows, and their pros and cons. We will also discuss how you can setup your gear in order to achieve great-sounding results.
1. Laptop/Mobile Phone Build-In Microphone
Nowadays, every laptop or mobile phone comes with a build-in microphone and a simple audio interface. Although these options don't offer studio-grade audio quality, these devices can be typically used for drafting podcast ideas or recording when nothing else is available. In many cases, there’s no time to properly setup a recording and you need to rely on what you have available. Such draft content is typically spontaneous and can be invaluable but it may include noise or unwanted echoes from the room. So it's a good idea to do a quick sound check beforehand in order to obtain usable results. Of course you can further improve your recordings in post production by using audio repair software such as our highly effective ERA-N and ERA-R plugins.
2. Handheld Recorder
A simple and reasonably priced option in order to improve the sound quality are the handheld recorders, every journalist’s best friend. Modern handheld recorders are in reality small computers made for recording and usually have better quality microphones than your laptop or mobile phone. They are perfect for mobile setups and recording when you are on the go. Some more expensive recorders can also work as audio interfaces: just plug your external microphones via XLR and then connect them to a computer. A downside of handheld recorders is that you will always want to transfer your audio files to your computer. This is typically made via an SD card or via USB and can introduce an additional overhead. An example of common used recorders in this category are the Zoom Handy Recorders.
3. Audio Interface
An audio interface is an internal or external device that can be connected to your computer to take care of your audio I/O. With a proper audio interface you can use an external microphone (to learn more about your microphone options have a look at our previous post). Purchasing an audio interface and an external microphone to capture your voice might seem like an overkill in the beginning, but after a while you will probably realize that it is the most flexible solution. Bear in mind that you need an XLR cable, a microphone stand and a pop-shield for this setup to work. Pop shields are used to reduce the high energy impact that is created by ''plosive'' sounds e.g. the letters ''B'', ''P''. They look like circular nylon-mesh screens that clip to the mic stand and sit a couple of inches in front of the mic.
4. USB Microphone
Bear in mind that you will find microphones that can directly connect via USB. To put it simple, you can think of USB microphones as a combination of "microphone+audio interface" that will directly send digital audio to your computer. Some of these microphones definitely fulfil the professional standards of a podcaster and even if you decide to replace them later they will be always handy for recording on-the-move. The one downside is probably connectivity, you need a spare USB port for each microphone and because of the nature of USB devices, you won’t be able to easily use two of the same USB microphones.
5. Audio Mixer
Last but not least, a quite old-school setup would be to use an audio mixer and plug your microphone(s) directly to it. This setup takes more space and might be cumbersome, especially if you are unfamiliar with mixing audio devices. But when you have guests you'll see a great advantage: tweaking a hardware device is always simpler and you can set levels and quickly make a mix without looking at your computer’s screen. Marc Maron who runs the very successful WTF Podcast uses this simple and bullet-proof setup as shown on this video.
The ''polar'' pickup pattern of a microphone dictates how it captures sound from different directions. It's important to know what patterns are supported by the microphones you use. The cardioid or supercardioid patterns imply that the microphone is more sensitive to sounds that are directly "in front" of it and "ignore" the sounds behind it. Therefore these are recommended when you want to just capture your voice. In order to capture an interview with a guest with just one microphone you can consider using an omni-directional pattern setting.
You should always be careful to not talk too close to the microphone. This can create the so called proximity effect, a low-frequency boost that occurs when cardioid microphones are placed very close to the sound source. This low frequency boost can make your voice sound like Barry White but it can also make your voice sound unnatural.
The closer a microphone is to the subject, the better the ratio of direct sound to reflected sound and therefore your voice will have more clarity and will be less muddy/roomy. However, it's not a good idea to get closer than three inches from a cardioid mic, since the proximity boost will kick in and make your vocals sound bass-heavy. In case you hear a lot of sibilance and harsh "s" sounds in your recordings try moving the microphone down at an angle (and explore the off-axis directivity). If you are looking for a more nasal sounding voice move your microphone up. Even seasoned sound engineers spend a lot of time in microphone placement: this is something that is definitely worth doing.
The term "Gain" is used to express how much a signal is amplified by the pre-amp and can sometimes be adjustable via a hardware control such as a knob or a slider. Most audio interfaces have digital meters or colour LED indicators showing how loud the incoming signal is. As a rule, you don't want your microphone signal to be too loud or too quiet. Remember to adjust the gain of your microphone so that your LED is mostly in the green (and rarely yellow) range even during loud passages. The reason for doing so is that after a certain limit is passed, the audio is clipped (i.e. distorted). Although mild clipping can be corrected in post-production via specialized plugins, it's always advisable to avoid it in the first place. Last but not least, do not to change the gain during a recording: if you can't hear yourself or another speaker/source simply adjust the volume faders.
In most real-world cases, you will realize that no matter how hard you try to avoid there will be some form of noise or unwanted interference in you recording. This may be background noise (a fridge, a fan or even city traffic). This can also be electronic-type noise from your hardware (e.g. thermal noise, radiated noise or any other interfering signals). Bear in mind that by increasing the gain you also increase the noise level. Although noise can sometimes be removed in post production, it's again better to aim for a noiseless recording.