Disclaimer: I am not a trained professional or have any kind of background in Audio Engineering. I learned all the tips & tricks mentioned in this post while creating online video courses.
You are probably here because you want to start your own podcast … or create a Youtube channel … or you are simply curious about what it takes to build your own home recording studio. When I first started creating online video courses I had zero experience in audio recording and it has a mystery to me of what I have to do in order to get that “professional” level quality for my audio recordings. I spend tens of hours on various blogs and Youtube channels trying to gain all the knowledge I have now and I still feel like I am a total beginner. Without further ado, let’s start!
In order to get that top-notch quality, you need a proper microphone. You can, of course, record with your laptop mic but the quality won’t be that good. Why? Laptop mics are designed to pick the sound from all directions ( not only the front of your laptop ) so a lot of background noises will be picked up as well ( not just your voice ). A better solution would be using a headset mic, but if you really want to get that studio quality you would need something like this:
So, how do you pick a microphone? You’ve probably got a nice list of mics ( studio, shotgun, lav, it doesn’t matter ) that fits your budget and now it all comes down to selecting the one! The first microphone that I bought was based on Youtube reviews. I set up a budget ( around 200 EUR / USD ) and watched tons of reviews for each and every mic that was fitting my budget. I ended up buying Audio Tehnica AT2035 which is a great mic, but it doesn’t fit my voice. Later on, I got a great advice from a fellow Pluralsight Author who told me to actually go to a store and try out all the mics before buying the one that I want. And he was right! Nothing compares to being able to test out every microphone by yourself and figuring out which one you want. Even though I was not an expert, I could figure out which ones are a match for me in an instant. Of course, by the time of choosing the second mic I have decided to increase my budget, so in the shop I ended battling between the Neumann TLM 102 and Shure SM7B. Half an hour later I have decided to buy the SM7B.
To avoid aggressive “p” and “b” sounds ( called plosives ) you will need a pop filter! Some microphones come with an embedded pop filter so make sure to check out if you really need a dedicated one!
If you have bought a microphone with a USB connector then you can skip this section. But most likely you ended up buying a microphone with an XLR connector. It looks just like this:
As you’ve probably figured out, laptops and desktops do not have such types of connectors so we need something in between the computer and the microphone. That something is called an audio interface. Again there are plenty of options available! Just search for “USB audio interface” on Google and you will find plenty of examples for each budget. I bought Focusrite Scarlett Soloand I am more than happy with it. Really nice clean gain and it also supports phantom power ( I talk about both points it in the next section ).
Pre-amps and Phantom Power
The physics behind a microphone is quite simple. They convert the sound waves ( voice ) produced us into electric signals. Well, those electric signals are not strong enough to actually be understood by our computers, so we need a way to amplify them. In the case of a condenser microphone, we do that by using the Phantom Power which most often is marked as +48V. So, if you plan to buy a condenser microphone, then check that the audio interface you plan to buy supports Phantom Power. In the case of dynamic mics, you don’t need Phantom Power but you need a pretty strong pre-amplifier. Basically, all audio interfaces should contain some sort of pre-amplifier but not all of them are able to power a dynamic mic or if they do, the quality may suffer drastically. Earlier I mentioned something about clean gain. Gain is all about the loudness of the sound. If we increase the gain, then the sound will become louder. The problem is that increasing the gain too much may affect the sound quality and we can get a nasty added buzz on top of our recording. You can easily experience this with old speakers. Turn up the volume to a maximum but do not play any music. You should be hearing an sssss sound. Dynamic mics require a lot of gain so, just as I said earlier, we need a pretty strong pre-amp. While searching for pre-amps I have noticed that the most commonly used options with the SM7B are Triton Fethead and Cloudlifter so I ended up buying the Cloudlifter.
You’ve got the microphone, you’ve connected it to your computer and you are now ready to start recording. But wait a minute! What software should you use? Well, there are a couple of free solutions out there that can really do a great job. I have personally worked with Audacity and GarageBand and both of them offer great capabilities in a pretty simple user interface. If you are looking for a more “premium” software then I genuinely recommend Adobe Audition.
If your recordings suffer from various unwanted sounds like mouth clicks, hums, crackles, and many others then you should definitely try out Izotope RX7. It can do wonders to your recordings.
By now, you should have a pretty decent microphone and if needed an audio interface. Now, we are diving into the “extra” things that can improve the sound quality of your recordings and the first topic on that list is Room Treatment. I consider that room treating to be the next more important thing, right after choosing the microphone. Having the best and most expensive microphone won’t help you much if you are recording in a non-treated room. But, if you are recording in a treated room then you can get an impressive quality even from a terrible mic.
So, how do you treat a room?
Treating a room means just applying some objects on the walls, floor, and ceiling to prevent reverberation and reduce the echo. Usually, this is done using some foam-based material as you’ve probably seen in many videos and pictures.
There are 2 types of treatment that you can apply to a room:
- absorption – done with acoustic panels and bass traps
- diffusion – done with diffusers
- Front Wall – acoustic panels ( more than on the sides )
- Right Wall – acoustic panels
- Left Wall – acoustic panels
- Back Wall – acoustic panels and diffusers
- Corners – base traps
- Ceiling – few acoustic panels
- Floor – thick pile rug
If one of the walls has windows, then make sure the curtains are drawn while you are recording. Glass is actually a very reflective material.
- you don’t need to cover up the entire wall, only a few acoustic panels can do wonders to your audio recording!
- place most of the panels at the ear level ( at the position that you are recording )
- diffusers are kinda expensive, it’s ok to skip them
- if you don’t want to spend extra money on room treatment you can cover out the walls with blankets ( instead of acoustic panels ) and place some pillows in the corners ( instead of base traps )
- no, acoustic panels will not help you soundproofing the room
- be creative! arrange those acoustic panels in different shapes ( squares, triangles, hexagons, etc. ) and try out which one do you like the most
- don’t glue them to the wall ( unless you want to glue them permanently but if you are just like me, and live in a rented place, I doubt you will be staying there forever ); instead, glue them to a piece of cardboard and use Command Strips ( or any other non-destructive solution ) to tape them to the wall
Here comes the fun part, where you can make your recording sound even better ( or worse ). Before actually diving into audio processing let me tell you that this process is meant to tweak the sound and not completely change it. If you are like me, you will probably first hate your voice in audio recordings but in time, and with lots of practice you will learn how to control your voice and how to make it sound more exciting. When I started recording audio, I actually believed that with some audio processing my voice will be as exciting as a radio presenter. I was wrongly mistaken! Being an exciting speaker is just like playing an instrument, the more you know how to control the instrument, the better it will sound, even a very cheap one. On the other hand, if you aren’t that good at playing, you can have the most expensive and professional instrument ever, it won’t do you any good. So, try to incorporate a few exercises in your daily routine, or at least once a week! You will definitely feel it in the long term!
Back to audio processing! It can be done in 2 different ways:
- using hardware
- using software
Hardware Setup for Audio Processing
Both of them have ups and downs! On one hand, if you choose to process your audio using hardware stations then it becomes a one-time setup. You only have to tweak those knobs only once, and then everything will be set-up for all your recordings. However, if you are tweaking them wrong and you actually recorded using that setting than the entire audio recording can be trashed ( I did that once ). On the other hand, processing your audio recordings using software is way handier because you can process the same file over and over without having to worry about ruining it. However, you are processing digital signal which is not the “real deal”. While converting the electric signal produced by the microphone to a digital signal, a part of the information is lost. That’s why many of the professional recording studios, still prefer to use hardware processing stations. Which one should you choose? Well, if you are a total beginner then I definitely recommend starting up with software audio processing. You will be able to change those settings as much as you can without ruining the recording.
What kind of audio processing can be applied to a recording?
Equalizer ( EQ )
Sounds are represented by frequencies. The lower the frequency the “deeper” the sound is, the higher the frequency the more “thinner and highly-pitched” is. Well, your voice is a combination of multiple frequencies ( low, middle, and high ). Usually, males have stronger frequencies on the lower end ( bass ) whereas females have stronger frequencies on the high end ( treble ). EQ lets you manipulate those frequencies and make your voice sound deeper or you can add more clarity to it. There is a lot to talk about, but there are plenty of resources on the internet from where you can learn about EQ.
Our voice is not uniform! Even if we try really really hard to speak at the same intensity level, we would be able to do that. Compressors can be used to avoid those awkward moments when you are speaking at normal intensity and then, the next phrase starts with a very expressive interjection pumping the loudness levels through the roof. You should always use compressors but be careful not to use them too much! Applying too much compression it will make your voice sound distorted.
We all produce some very annoying sounds while pronouncing the letters “s”, “z”, “ch”, “j” and “sh” of the English alphabet. You don’t really feel it in a real-world conversation but you will definitely hear them into audio recordings. De-essing is a technique that can be applied to a recording in order to reduce or completely eliminate those annoying sounds.
Expander / Gate
An expander is used to make quiet sounds even quieter. A noise gate pushes that to the extreme, completely silencing the audio. How can this be useful? Well, wouldn’t it be nice to completely silence out the AC buzzing in the background while you are not talking? Or the fridge, or … I guess you got the point! Expanders and Noise Gates can really help you out to clean audio recordings.
You thought that this is it? I have barely scratched the surface when it comes to audio processing but I would say that the top four that can be applied in every scenario are the ones above. You should also check out different automated tools for repairing audio.
Headphones / Speakers
I am 100% sure that you have a pair of headphones at home or even some cool speakers. BUT, if you plan to do some audio processing those won’t be the right solution. Why? Commercial headphones and speakers are designed to enhance the audio and make it sound better. In other words, when you are hearing some audio on your headphones you are not actually hearing the real thing. There are some specially designed headphones and speakers exclusively for this purpose. Just google “studio headphones” or “studio monitors” and you will find plenty of examples.
Unless your microphone comes with a pre-packaged stand you would need to buy a boom arm to hold your mic in place while you are talking. I prefer boom arms compared to mic stands because they are more flexible and can be easily moved in different positions.
Any desk should do! There are, of course, studio desks that allow you to mount different hardware on racks or to place the speakers on them. But if you have a decent-sized desk is alright!
Checking the prices for audio equipment can be rather discouraging, especially when you notice that there are microphones in the several thousand EUR / USD price range. But don’t be discouraged, if you compare a 5000 EUR mic with a 500 EUR it doesn’t mean that the first one is 10x times better. Let’s say that if you spend 500 EUR worth of equipment you would get 90% of that perfect audio quality ( perfect audio quality = professional studio recording ). In order to obtain the remaining 10%, you would need to spend thousands of EUR more. But is it worth it? In my opinion, not really. Even if you get 80% of that perfect quality, it will still be more than enough to produce engaging content!
Recommended Youtube Channels for Learning
- Parker Walbe – he is a filmmaker but he also has some great videos about room treating and audio recordings
- Alex Knickerbocker – great content related to home studios
- wickiemedia – amazing explanations of audio processing techniques ( such as EQ, Compressing, etc. )
If you are wondering how my setup looks like you can find bellow the entire list of the equipment that I possess along with some photos:
- Shure SM7B Microphone
- Cloudlifter CL-1 Mic Pre-amp
- DBX 286s Audio Processor
- Focusrite Scarlett Solo Audio Interface
- Innox IVA 08 Boom Arm
- Glorious Sound Desk
- Sony MDR-7506 Headphones