In the first half of this article, I answered one of the most common questions in recording, "How do I get rid of background noise?" I shared some simple ways to capture clean audio to begin with, so you don't have to hassle with software noise reduction and other "fix it in the mix" hacks later. My strategy, in other words, is to fix it before the mix.
This time, I'll address another common question by going deeper into the equipment side. Below, I'll share my personal gear recommendations — microphones, mixers, power conditioners, compressors, and other recording equipment that's worked well for me. I'll also explain how you can soundproof your home studio inexpensively and effectively.
Power conditioners are devices that remove noise from your AC power. AC power in most cities (and especially out in the country, where I live) is dirty, filled with analog artifacts that sometimes end up in devices powered from your wall socket. Plugging a power conditioner between your wall and your gear can reduce hum, reduce noise in the signal, and just make the whole system run more smoothly.
Here's a list of power conditioners from Zzounds, an online retailer I like to deal with.
I recommend you get a power conditioner with an LED voltage meter; it's fun to watch your power surge and dip. (Most residential power fluctuates from around 114 volts to around 123 volts, depending on everything from the price of power to how many of your neighbors are running their air conditioners.)
There is a difference between soundproofing and sound treatment. A good recording studio, even at home, has some of each.
Soundproofing is keeping outside sounds out. Sound treatment is keeping sounds occurring inside the room from reverberating off the walls. Sound treatment is a lot easier than soundproofing. Sound treatment involves hanging a material that absorbs or diffuses sound. I find that acoustic ("egg crate") foam works best, but you can even use blankets.
An environment can be soundproof but not sound-treated; a cave would be a good example. An environment can also be sound treated but not soundproof. Lying under a blanket in a noisy factory would be a good example.
True soundproofing of a room costs thousands of dollars and involves consultants and contractors. To truly soundproof a room, the best way is to build a room within a room, with none of the walls or the ceiling of the inner room touching the walls and ceiling of the outer one, and the floor isolated with sandbags or other heavy stuff.
But you can sort of soundproof a room in a home you own pretty cheaply, with stuff from Home Depot and some elbow grease. We did this by putting three layers of plywood, with pillow batting in between, over the one window in our studio.
Check out my blog post, with many photos, called "How We Soundproofed Our Home Studio for 100 Bucks."
And here's how it sounds — a vocal recorded with my Zoom H2 in my studio, followed by one recorded in my reverberant, tiled kitchen. Notice the difference.
Michael's hyper-carpeted setup can work well for voiceover recording, where you want a focused sound with minimal reverberation. (I often record my O'Reilly podcasts in a closet, placing the microphone between hanging shirts.)
For recording acoustic instruments, though, you'll probably want a livelier sound, which requires hard surfaces. Unfortunately, the small size and parallel walls in typical untreated bedrooms make them sound boxy, so one approach is to record fairly "dry" in the manner Michael describes and then add digital reverberation later. —David Battino, Editor
To get the intimate sound I wanted for vocals, I next got extreme with carpet, the DIY substitute for acoustic foam. Not only did I nail rugs up in my closet, I nailed them to practically every surface in my studio. If you go this route, make sure you use fire-resistant rugs.
Cover the walls, ceiling and floor. You can buy the carpet, or I've heard of, um, friends, dumpster-diving clean carpet remnants from the trash bins behind a rug-laying company.
The wife nailed rugs to all walls, floor, and ceiling in a room in our home. We love it. It's not only our studio, but also our office.
If you are a renter, or don't have a dedicated room to sacrifice to the pursuit of perfect audio like we did, you can approximate the same thing by hanging up thick blankets all around you. Or you can use a DIY portable vocal booth.
The portable vocal booth is really cool, and hanging blankets to build a little acoustic fort will get the job done, but there's nothing like having a room that you just walk in and know that it's devoted only to making music or doing your podcast (or in my case, both). It makes you take your art more seriously, and I find a sound-insulated room is great for not only making music in, but listening to music in.
Our studio room is not only the place my wife and I record podcasts, do paid voiceovers, and do music; we also hang out there a lot. It's our studio, our den, and our clubhouse. We call it "The InterNest." (Debra Jean's not only supportive of my stuff, I bring her into my art too. How many wives would consider going to a podcasting expo on their wedding anniversary to be a fabulous idea? Mine does. And when we got married, I got her a ring, but I don't like to wear jewelry, so she bought me a microphone.)
We also sound-treated other rooms in the house. Applying the technique to our bedroom let us record podcasts while lying down and gazing at the mountains outside the window, a comfortable setup we call "bedcasting."
Hanging out much of the time in a sound-insulated room makes your ears more sensitive. Since I've moved out to the country and also become nocturnal I've become a much better sound engineer, partially because I insulate myself so much from the noises of the common world. This can be a hassle, because it makes you more irritable with things like lawnmowers and cars blasting music you hate. But it does attune you to your art. (I have an idea for a short story about "the world's greatest record producer," whose hearing is so sensitive that the bands he records have to whisper to him. Even normal conversation is excruciating to him, and he mixes records on headphones only. Wish me luck with that. . . .)
With the room ready, it's time to gear up. Here are my recommendations for microphones and associated hardware — stands, cables, shockmounts, and pop filters.
The microphone is the most important part of your audio chain, and you can spend anywhere from 30 bucks to 20,000 on one. There are exceptions, but generally dynamic mics are used live, and condenser mics are used in the studio. Dynamic mics are more rugged; less sensitive to moisture, smoke, and rough handling; don't require phantom power (see sidebar); and don't feed back live as much. But condenser mics generally sound better for studio recordings. That's because their design, based on a charged diaphragm rather than a moving magnet, allows them to respond more quickly to transients and capture higher frequencies.
I'd recommend not going for a $30 mic. The best one I've seen is the Sennheiser E822S, and it pretty much sucked. Two inexpensive mics I can recommend are the MXL V63M (a good entry-level condenser mic at $69), and the Rode NT1-A Anniversary Model ($229). The Rode is much better than the MXL-V63. It's also the lowest-noise mic under a grand, anywhere.
Condenser mics require phantom power, usually 48 volts delivered via the mic cable. (It's called "phantom" because it travels on the same wires as the audio.) Get a mixer that has switchable (on/off) phantom power, and you're good to go. If you plug a condenser mic into a mixer that has no phantom power supply, you won't get any sound. [Ed. Note: Some condenser mics, particularly electret condensers, can run off internal batteries and thus don't need phantom power.] Phantom power is safe for dynamic mics, but can destroy a specialized type of mic called a ribbon mic. New ribbon mic designs generally avoid this, but it's best to make sure phantom power is OFF if you plug a ribbon mic into your mixer.
Unless you're using a USB mic like the Rode Podcaster, you'll need a mic cable. The Musician's Gear Low-Z XLR cable is a reasonable choice. It's offered in multiple lengths. Don't buy a longer cable than you truly need, as length can increase noise, although balanced XLR cables like these are less susceptible to noise than unbalanced guitar cables. [Ed Note: "XLR" refers to the three conductors in the cable — ground, left, and right. In a balanced setup, the left and right sides carry the same signal, but one side is reversed in polarity. At the receiving end, that side is subtracted from the other. This technique doubles the signal level (because you're subtracting a negative number) and cancels out any electromagnetic noise the wires picked up (because the induced noise would be essentially the same on both wires). In other words, the equation is (Signal – (–Signal)) + (Noise – Noise) = 2 x Signal.]
You can hand-hold a vocal mic, but that's tiring and produces thumps — and for recording instruments, hand-holding mics is awkward or impossible. A microphone stand like the Musician's Gear tripod offers an inexpensive solution. Tripod stands are typically more stable than weighted ones, and this model includes a telescoping boom for additional placement options.
Now you've got your mic steady, but you still need to worry about mechanical noise, such as the rumble of a truck going by outside, or the vibration of your foot tapping the floor while you listen to the music on headphones and overdub a quiet background vocal. To keep these noises from reaching your mics, shock mounts are invaluable. Shock mounts are little cages of elastic bands that decouple your mic from the mic stand. Upscale mics come with them, but you can also get generic ones or make your own.
Miking is an art in itself, and there's no substitute for experimentation. You want a mic close to the sound source, but not so close that you get distortion or, with voice, plosives ("pop" sounds from words with the letters "P" "B" "D" and "T") and sibilance (harsh noise from any words with an "S" sound). A good distance is between 4 and 15 inches, depending on the mic, the desired effect, and your preamp and mixer settings. Experiment to get the right distance for the right sound. Also, with vocals, pop filters, such as this model from Nady, will help minimize plosives and sibilance cheaply. If price is more important than aesthetics, you can even convert a coathanger and an old nylon stocking into a passable pop filter.
To get the microphone signal up to line level and then into your computer, you'll need a mic preamp and an audio interface. (Although most computers have microphone inputs, they're insanely noisy and not sized for XLR mic cables.) If you're running multiple mics, you'll need a mixer as well. I tackled all three problems at once with an Alesis MultiMix 8 USB mixer. At $149 street, the MultiMix is a great value. Not only does it provide multiple preamps with phantom power, it also digitizes the mix and sends it to your Mac or PC over USB. It even includes some zany signal-processing effects. (However, I recommend not recording with effects to your computer, because it reduces your options during final mixdown. You can always add effects in the mix (either with software or with hardware), but you can't remove them.)
The Alesis MultiMix 8 USB mixer is an incredible deal, but has a design flaw: the bottom gets too hot. Two friends of mine have burned one out in six months. I put mine up on old calculators to allow airflow, and have run it 12 hours a day for two years with no problem. The mics I mentioned above, recorded through this mixer into your audio program on your computer, can give you amazing sound.
Which audio program? There are untold choices. A popular one is Audacity, which is free and quite robust. Here's a tutorial on recording and editing in it. Also see this O'Reilly tutorial on podcast vocal editing, which uses Audacity as well.
Now that you've got your digital signal clean you might wanna dirty it up a bit — with "good" dirt, that is. Good dirt usually involves old-school technology, specifically, vacuum tubes, which can add a pleasing distortion. You can spend five grand on a tube preamp, but you don't need to. And only the most discerning ears will be able to tell. I've also gone the other way, and tried the $30 ART tube preamps, but they added a lot of undesirable noise to the signal, so I don't recommend them.
Whatever you get, make sure it has XLR inputs and outputs; they will add a lot less unwanted noise. I use and love the SM Pro Audio TB202 rackmount mixer/compressor/EQ. It's an amazing stereo unit that does a lot, and does it well.
The TB202 lists for $250. I bought my TB202 for $125 on Craigslist — not to save money, but because they're so in demand that every online store I tried was back-ordered a month. The one I got had all the red paint on the front worn off from years of use, but was otherwise in great shape.
The TB202 has a warm tube sound, is low-noise (for analog gear), and has some nice (if limited) compression and EQ. Compression reduces dynamic range (making loud sounds softer and soft ones louder), which can be useful, especially for voice or drums.
Mess around with the compression settings. I recommend starting with the Attack and Release buttons enabled (pushed in), and the Compression knob at about 1/3 (ten o'clock). Try adding a little more compression while speaking or singing into a microphone and wearing headphones to monitor the effect. Compression is damn nifty, and most professional recordings contain some. But don't overdo it; too much compression makes things sound fake and crunched.
Here are some audio tests I did with mine. Although this is a stereo preamp, it only uses one tube, because the tube has two channels. I'd recommend you replace the factory tube with a Tesla/JJ 12AX7/ECC83, which has much nicer sonic qualities and costs only ten bucks.
Although compressors can even out levels to some extent, you want to capture sound at the right level. The best levels for recording are not too loud, and not too quiet. That seems like a no-brainer, but it's crucial. Too-quiet levels in analog recording made the tape hiss louder than the program material. In digital recording, you end up with a signal that isn't strong enough to do much with, and when you raise it up to "normal" listening levels, it just doesn't sound good. The noise increases, and sound gets gritty.
Conversely, record too loud, and the signal distorts. In the analog days, producers sometimes used that as an effect, particularly on drums. But whereas moderate analog tape distortion can sound pleasant, digital overload distortion is just hideous.
You want your average volume to be somewhere in the middle of the level scale in your recording program, and your peaks (loudest parts) never to go outside the bottom and top of the scale. You can see what this looks like in these waveforms. Notice how the too-loud signal is squared off, indicating clipping.
To prevent overload distortion, most mixers (and some mics) include a pad switch. This lowers the volume by 10dB or more, which is useful for recording in high-volume situations. For instance, you should engage it when recording a guitar through a Marshall stack, but not when recording a spoken voiceover.
Another handy control is the low-cut switch (sometimes called "high-pass filter" or "HPF"). The low-cut switch eliminates everything below a certain frequency (usually somewhere between 75Hz and 150Hz). This is useful when recording voice, as there's little useful information lower than 150Hz. All you'll cut out is the UPS truck pulling up outside to deliver you more gear from Musicians Friend, and the wall-penetrating sub-bass of the Hummer with the spinners and bumpin' stereo that the rich kid up the driveway blasts because he's bored with his nice life and longs to live in the ghetto.
Use the HPF on voice, but not for bass guitar, keyboards or drums, as they all produce frequencies below 150Hz that you (and your audience) won't want to miss.
Digital recording technology has changed the face of music and brought the capacity of the studio to anyone with a little bit of disposable income. But the part of the signal chain before the computer doesn't really need changing. They got it "right" a long time ago. Microphone technology hasn't changed much in 50 years (though manufacturing improvements, and globalization, have brought the price of an entry-level condenser microphone down). And the technology for mounting and using a microphone (having a pop filter and a shock mount) haven't changed in nearly a hundred years.
It doesn't take an engineering degree to get a good sound, but it does take a bit of care. Love your audio like you love your best friend. Nurture it, pet it, tell it "good girl" (or "good boy," depending on your kink), and it will get where you need it to go.
Take notes with each experiment, see what works and what doesn't, and remember this: people only truly begin to get old when they become unteachable.
So teach yourself. Listen to your audio, and let it guide you. The world will give you its ears if you make something great that fills a void. And if it sounds great, all the better.