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Home Recording Studio Suggestions

Tom Terrific

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I asked: I'm having trouble making quality audio tapes at home using the equipment I have. What specific equipment and setup do you use to make good audio recordings?

Here's the notes I took when talking to a few fellow speakers and other professionals.

Microphone Mixer Records to Studio Software Suggestions
Robert Skoglund..."The humble Farmer" Professional radio type Mackie DAT No sound insulation ? Get a sound engineer to come in and "calibrate" your setup.
Michael Morgan Radio Shack lavalier

test them in-store.

Attach it to your tie.

2 to 3 inches below the tie knot. $19.00


previous Behringer


Record at mono for up to 140 minutes. Mono is just as good as stereo.

No sound insulation Pro Tools Pro Record in Mono. It's just as good as stereo.

Play your recordings on a cheap system and if it sounds good there, then it's ok.

Brad Snyder Radio Shack Optimus Unidirectional, #33-3023 Mackie, model 1202 VLZ Pro Sony Minidisc No sound insulation None  
Geoff Bryan Shure SM87A Mackie 1202-VLZ DAT Studio choice is very important ! Digidesign Pro Tools  
Professional AT3035   Computer Use Sound blankets Pro Tools but recommends Cool Edit 2000 for most users  

Notes on getting the proper sound level

-- Michael Morgan

Change the audio recording level on your minidisc to manual instead of automatic and see if that helps.

-- Brad Snyder

The only time I've had problems with noises and pops I was doing one of two (or both) things... I didn't have the windscreen on the mike and/or I was talking directly into the microphone... for me it seems to do better if I talk across the mike instead of into it.

from Geoff Bryan:

There are really three phases to production of an audio program:

  1. Recording the raw voice tracks
  2. Editing and post-production
  3. Reproduction of copies in quantity

I'm assuming you are talking about one or both of the first two items, although all three can be done at home.

Let me start by saying that I have a lot of recording equipment and I have a lot of experience using it -- in a past life I have worked both in recording studios and in radio-TV broadcasting as an engineer. Yet I can say that virtually without exception I have been happier with the product when I have worked in a commercial recording studio, even quite a modest one. There is something about that environment that seems to bring out an extra level of performance. (The studio I like best for simple voice work here in Hollywood ends up costing about $90 an hour, including the engineer, with another $85 an hour if I use a producer.)

Having said that, let's review the elements.

1. Recording the raw voice tracks

The most important single ingredient in getting good results from voice tracking has nothing to do with the microphone you choose or the recorder it is connected to. Rather, by far the most critical element is the room you work in.

If you give me a nice, quiet room that is not too reverberant and is free from the sound of barking dogs, passing traffic, rumbling refrigerators and noisy furnaces, I can get you a fine recording even with a $20 microphone hooked to a cheapo Radio Shack cassette recorder. When I was doing interviews for Voices of Experience several years ago, I got consistent good results with an inexpensive dynamic microphone hooked to a modest Marantz cassette deck simply because I was very particular about the recording environment. It makes all the difference in the world.

Step one in getting good results at home, therefore, is creating a quiet place to record in. If you have a book-lined study with carpeting on the floor, this might be a good starting point, especially if you can close doors to keep out external noise. Otherwise, I would go for a large room, with lots of absorptive surfaces, keeping the microphone close to your mouth so you don't pick up too much reverberation and hollowness. Setting up in the center of a quiet bedroom might work, for example.

Of course you can get studio foam and other acoustic treatment materials to turn a room into a quieter recording environment. A lot of information on this is available at the Auralex web site (www.auralex.com). It may be more trouble than you wish to go to, and absorptive foam will not keep out external noise such as traffic.

Second, position the microphone close to your mouth where you stand. Mark S.A. Smith has suggested a clever idea for this: taking a lapel (clip-on) microphone and attaching it to the brim of a baseball cap, pointing down at your face. This puts the mike at a nice distance from your mouth, and it is out of the direct path of your breath which minimizes sibilance and popping p's. You could also try one of the headworn microphones such as those used by aerobics instructors. (I have used these and am not crazy about them, but your experience may be different.) Otherwise, place the microphone a few inches away from your face, slightly above your mouth and angled down so that it points into an imaginary "cloud" of sound that forms in front of your mouth. (You will want a boom stand, available at music stores and pro audio stores, for this.) Use a windscreen and/or "popper stopper" as necessary.

I strongly recommend standing while you perform, rather than sitting. Your energy level will be higher, and it will be reflected on the recording. It's not that you want to shout or project your voice; in fact, that is the worst thing you can do. Energy level, rather, affects the verve and sparkle of what you are doing, even if you are speaking quietly. Think of the microphone as someone's ear that you are speaking into, and be gentle. Your recording should be an intimate, one-on-one experience, so that the listener will perceive that you are talking directly to him or her rather than to some abstract "group."

You will want to lay your script on a music stand, adjusted to a comfortable reading height, as you read your copy. Place a towel or a rectangle of indoor-outdoor carpet on the metal surface of the stand to reduce metallic noise. Eliminate page turning noise by pausing at the end of a sentence, before you turn the page, then turning the page and getting settled again, before you continue to speak. These pauses can easily be edited out later. With a boom-mounted microphone (as opposed to the baseball cap method), make sure you remain in a relatively fixed position in front of the microphone as you speak. If you turn your head from side to side as you read the copy (or go from one page to another), the sound quality and loudness will change noticeably on your recording. It can take some getting used to but, remember, your question was how to get good audio recordings. This will help.

What microphone to use? Microphones come in a gazillion shapes and sizes, at prices starting from $10 up to several thousand dollars. They all have different characteristics, strengths and weaknesses, and suitabilities for different recording environments.

Microphones for this kind of use come in two main categories: dynamic and condenser. (A third type, known as a ribbon microphone, is fairly rare and usually expensive, although some recording engineers wear by the sound in appropriate settings.)

Dynamic microphones, all other things being equal, are generally less expensive, more rugged, and less sensitive than condenser microphones. They are an excellent choice for many settings, and thousands of them are in use every day in studios across the country. They are particularly popular in radio stations (models such as the Electro-Voice RE20) because they can take the abuse of disc jockeys and talk show hosts.

Within this category you will also find two pickup patterns: omnidirectional and directional (also known as "cardioid" because of the heart-shaped pickup pattern). As always, there are tradeoffs. An omnidirectional microphone, as its name implies, picks up sound with equal strength in all directions. Omni mikes tend to be less expensive and to have flatter frequency response (at a given quality level). They also are not prone to the "proximity effect" of directional microphones, discussed below. Some people like the proximity effect and some don't.

Much more prevalent in the world is the directional microphone. These microphones are most sensitive at the front or "address" side, and tend to reject sound coming from behind them. As you get very close to them, they tend to emphasize the bass frequencies; this is called "proximity effect" and is inherent in the physics of this design. (You will recall how Bill Cosby likes to use this effect purposely in his stage appearances.) Directional microphones, for a reason flowing from the same design principle, are more sensitive to popping p's and wind noise, and for this reason must be positioned carefully, protected with a windscreen, and used with conscious awareness of the popping p problem.

For your purpose, I would probably go with a directional microphone, because it will be less prone to picking up unwanted room bounce and background noise.

Condenser microphones use a very delicate, gold-coated mylar diaphragm to pick up sound. They tend to have flatter response than dynamic microphones, and are very sensitive. They are also more delicate, and more expensive, and require either a small battery or external power to operate the electronics built inside them. They must be handled and used carefully, as rough treatment and/or blowing on the microphone element can damage the mylar diaphragm. They also are especially prone to the popping p problem, although they can certainly give a lovely proximity effect if you like that sound.

Condenser mikes are available both in the hand-held (barrel) style that clips onto a stand, and in a fixed, stand-mounted style that resembles the NSA logo. The latter is far more common for recording use. Condenser microphones typically come either in directional-only versions or in a switchable-pattern version that allows for omni, directional, or figure-8 (front and back) patterns. The latter (switchable) versions tend to be more expensive and would be unnecessary for your purposes.

Here in Los Angeles, the overwhelmingly popular microphone for voiceover work is a Sennheiser "shotgun" condenser microphone. It is an extremely directional microphone, originally designed to go on overhead booms pointed over film and TV sets. For some reason, when used at fairly close proximity to a voice actor, it adds a sense of urgency and intimacy to the voice that has not been duplicated any other way. But it is difficult to work with (from the voice actor's standpoint) because it is so sensitive. I'm not suggesting this for you (especially since these mikes cost $1,200 apiece) but just giving you some insight. Both Sennheiser and Audio-Technica make less expensive shotgun condenser mikes, and they might work well for voice purposes -- but I have not tried them.

Now that I have confused you with all this information, let me make some concrete suggestions. One of my favorite microphones for this kind of work is a Shure SM87A. It is a handheld-style condenser microphone designed for stage performers (so it's fairly rugged) and has a wonderful sound on voice. (I would not use it for recording an orchestra.) You do have to watch out for popping p's with it. Less expensive alternatives are available from Audio Technica, ElectroVoice, and AKG, in both dynamic and condenser models. Also, a little company called Marshall has some studio condenser mikes available starting at $200 which sound surprisingly good. As for the SM87A, I actually own the wireless version, which means I can use it at home and on the road.

You will need to connect the microphone of your choice to a preamplifier, unless you are using a recording device that has a built-in preamplifier. (Even then, you might prefer the better quality of an external mike preamp.) If you have use for a multi-channel mixer, a dandy choice is the Mackie 1202-VLZ mixer, which costs around $350. For just straight recording of a single microphone, inexpensive ($100 or under) single channel microphone preamps such as the ART Tube MP mike preamp and the dbx Mini-Pre Tube mike preamp would be just dandy. All offer phantom power to use with condenser microphones. You may also want to consider putting a levelling amplifier, or compressor, just after the mike preamp to control your levels (use them with restraint to avoid excessive pumping and breathing sound). For $80 to $100 you can get decent units such as the Alesis NanoCompressor or the ART Levelar Tube Compressor. You can also combine preamp and compressor in one unit from ART called the Tube Pac, that costs around $200.

Now comes perhaps the hardest decision: what medium will you record on? Your choices include audio cassettes, digital mini-discs, DAT tape, or direct computer hard disk recording. THis issue ties in with the second main category above (editing and post-production), so we kind of have to talk about both at once.

I am assuming that you want to be able to produce audio programs that run 20 to 30 minutes per side on cassettes. You may also want to have CD versions running up to 74 minutes per CD.

I am here to tell you that even the most seasoned professionals are not able to go for 1/2 hour without a single stumble, cough, or other interruption. Thus, although in theory you might think of recording one side of a cassette in one uninterrupted pass, this is unrealistic, and it puts so much pressure on you that you are actually more likely to mess up. Thus, I think any realistic recording "model" has to include a capability for editing. This allows you to take out stumbles, coughs, page turns, and so forth.

In today's world, editing is done on computers, with the sound stored digitally on hard disks. This is true even where the original source material is recorded on an audio cassette recorder, reel to reel recorder, or some digital format like DAT or mini-disc. You basically have two approaches available, therefore:

  • 1. You can record you raw tracks on some sort of stand-alone machine, such as a cassette deck or mini-disc recorder, and later transfer the tracks to a computer for editing; or
  • You can record the raw tracks directly into the computer.

The decision is a trade-off among expense, convenience, and the specifics of your set-up.

In my own case, the computer and editing facilities are in my upstairs office. The best room for me to record in is downstairs. Thus, what I do is set up a microphone and preamp, connected to a DAT machine, in the downstairs room, and I do my tracking down there. Then I carry the DAT upstairs and transfer the contents to the computer (a Macintosh) for editing. This has the disadvantage of the extra time required to make the DAT-to-computer transfer. However, it does allow me (at least in theory) to pick and choose which parts of the DAT recording I intend to use. Also, having the raw tracks on hand protects me if the hard disk crashes later on. In any case, given my physical set-up, I don't have any real choice.

An alternative used by many, many studios nowadays is to record directly to hard disk. With the price of large-capacity, high-performance hard disks so low, you can easily create a set-up that will allow you to put many hours of material on a hard disk. The main challenge is creating an environment where the potentially noisy computer (fan, hard disk whine) doesn't degrade the quality of your recording.

If you want to use the first approach, you can choose whatever recording device you like and can afford. A decent audio cassette recorder will serve you just fine for voice recording. The Marantz PMD-201 recorder, even though it lacks Dolby noise reduction, does a very nice job. Or you could use a decent consumer audio deck with Dolby noise reduction (just use one channel). Mini-disc recorders work fine, but the reasonably priced ones are so tiny, and the buttons so tiny, that I find them hard to use. In any case, hook up your microphone, external preamp if used, press "record" and away you go.

For recording direct to your computer, you will need an appropriate sound card interface and recording/editing software. You will also want a relatively recent computer that will give you good speed and hard disk capability. There are a lot of options available for both the Macintosh and PC environments. I use Digidesign Pro Tools, which runs on Macintosh and certain PC models. That company's "toolbox" package comes with an Audiomedia interface card and a limited edition of Pro Tools which is perfectly adequate for this purpose. On the PC side there are so many choices it is hard to recommend any particular one. You don't need to spend a lot of money for this purpose; you don't need MIDI, music notation, special effects, or massive multi-track capability. Emagic, Cakewalk, Sonic Foundry and Steinberg all have very capable products available, and there is a large selection of sound cards that will work with them. There are even some shareware audio editing programs available that are pretty good.

2. Editing and post-production

The main editing and production capabilities you want are these: (a) the ability to edit your voice tracks to remove coughs, page turns, etc., as well as order them in the manner you wish, and (b) the ability to add in transitional music at the beginning and end of each side (and elsewhere, if appropriate). These are very simple demands, and so your selection should be based on what program is least expensive and easiest to use. Again, you don't need a ton of bells and whistles for this purpose.

In your editing setup you will also want some decent audio monitoring capability so you can make sure your product is up to snuff. You will need to be able to shut these off when you are laying down voice tracks (if you are going direct to computer) to avoid feedback.

A lot of big-city music stores feature whole departments devoted to computer recording and editing. Your main challenge will be keeping to a budget and avoiding the temptation of bells and whistles you don't really need. If you can find someone knowledgeable to help you, that would be a big step in the right direction. Just remember to keep it simple.

Also, you might pay a visit to some local recording studios and take a look at their setups. It's possible that one of them may wish to dispose of equipment that would be perfect for your needs, at a bargain price. And you might be able to persuade on of their engineers to help you get set up, acting as a consultant or perhaps simply looking at your existing setup and making suggestions about room treatment, mike placement, etc.

3. Reproduction of copies in quantity

Finally, as to reproduction of your programs: Telex makes cassette duplication equipment that allows you to make high speed copies of both sides at once. There are several models available, and they are not inexpensive, but they may be the answer for you. The most popular model has four cassette wells, one for playback (the "master") and three for recording copies (the "slaves"). You can add an expansion 4-well unit that has four more "slaves," allowing you to make seven copies at a time. These are available in both stereo and mono versions; for your purposes, mono would probably do just fine.

Alternatively, you can contract for cassette duplication at zillions of places. NSA's Janita Cooper at Master Duplicating in Phoenix is a popular choice for speakers; she can also help you with a lot of technical suggestions about the entire process. But I am sure there are reproduction facilities near you as well.

This is a very lengthy answer to your question, and perhaps more than you bargained for. However, I am endeavoring to respond to your desire to make better recordings. Better recordings come from (a) a good recording environment, (b) good performance technique, (c) adequate and well-operated equipment (i.e., levels set properly), and (d) knowledgeable post-production.

It is entirely possible to do all this at home. However, I would like to note that there can be advantages to working in a studio that you should consider:

  1. You have someone else (the engineer) to keep things on track, keep you sane, buck you up, and help make decisions about whether something sounds right or not.
  2. You won't have the distraction of making sure the equipment is operating properly while you perform.
  3. You won't have any household interruptions -- the time for recording will be yours alone for that purpose.
  4. The engineer can probably get somewhat better results, technically, than you will be able to, simply because he or she can listen in the control room and adjust for problems with mike placement, etc.
  5. The engineer will be able to put together your final product quickly on the computer. He or she uses the audio editing software every day, knows it well, and can make adjustments speedily. He or she can probably also supply royalty-free music and other appropriate sound effects, and generate masters that will be ready for you to make duplicates from.

You might also be able to do something in the middle. Dottie Walters once told me that she goes to the campus radio station at a local community college near her in Glendora and records her audio programs there in an unused radio booth. I have heard her programs, and the technical quality is good. She pays them something for this, but not very much. You might see if something like exists in your area. It may be that you would do raw voice tracking there and then bring the material home to edit on your computer, but that wouldn't be a bad approach, really.

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