For many people who start dabbling with podcasting or other audio recordings, there comes a point where you want more professional results. But, where to start and how much will it cost? Searching the world of professional audio recording turns up some confusing and expensive recommendations. The technology can be very confusing.
But, you don’t need to spend a fortune on equipment or study to become a sound engineer to raise the quality of your work. Here are a couple of tips that will raise your work above the pack and give your podcast a professional edge.
Critical Podcast Upgrade One: Your Recording Environment
You may have started your recording career by grabbing that headset that came free with your computer, plugging it into the sound card on your computer and firing up a free program like Audacity (or one that came with the computer) to start recording.
There is a very good chance your computer is not in an ideal sound recording environment. It may be in a loud office space with hissing air vents, ringing phones, and packs of wandering colleagues discussing last night’s American Idol results.
Or, you may be using a home computer in your living room and have to contend with kids or roommates making noise.
In addition to the outside noise, if your computer is anything like mine, the cooling fan is making a pretty loud noise too!
And finally, the room you are in often has many hard surfaces that cause sound to bounce around adding subtle (and not-so-subtle) echoes into your recording.
The ideal fix: Build a sound recording booth that is isolated from the rest of your environment, has special wall and ceiling treatments to absorb and diffuse echoes, and place your computer gear outside the booth and run extension wires to bring the monitor, keyboard, and mouse controls into the booth.
This fix won’t be quick and easy, but it can be done by a do-it-yourselfer!
The workable solution: If you are not prepared to go all out with your recording environment, there are a few fixes you can do to improve your current one.
- Move your computer as far away from your microphone as possible to reduce fan noise
- Hang heavy blankets over hard flat surfaces to reduce echoes
- Schedule your recording time during low traffic times to reduce outside noise
- Get as close to the mike as possible so that your voice is much louder relative to the background noise
Critical Podcast Upgrade Two: Your Recording Equipment
(specifically your sound card and microphone)
That cheap little headset that came with your computer is never going to capture the rich tones in your voice like a higher quality microphone will. Radio announcers use a type of microphone called a ‘large diaphragm microphone.’ These microphones are suspended in a ‘shock-mount holder’ that isolates the mike from vibrations. And, they often have a device called a ‘pop-screen’ in front of the mike to prevent those explosive breath sounds that happen when you say a phrase like “Power-Promos.”
These microphones can cost thousands, and the cables and connectors will not be the same as your low-end consumer gear – so you will need to buy more than just a mike to get it all working.
Samson makes a model (the C01U) that is less than $100 and has a USB port so you can connect it up to your computer without going through your soundcard. It’s not the high end of the quality scale, but it will be a lot better than the free headset. This is the solution I chose for my own recording work. I purchased the package shown in the photo on the right which includes the shock-mount, table stand, long USB cable, software, and an aluminum carrying case. In addition, I purchased a professional pop-screen that is manufactured by a company called Middle Atlantic. You can find deals on these components on auction sites like eBay (I got mine there for less than $200 USD total.)
If you are on a really tight budget, you can make a home made pop-screen by bending a wire coat hanger into a circle and stretching a pair of old nylons over the loop. Place this between your mouth and the mike and your ‘plosives’ won’t explode anymore!
Your computer’s sound card is another problem. Most computer sound cards are cheaply made. They do a good job for most purposes, but they don’t have sufficient electrical shielding to keep the electrical interference in a typical computer from ‘polluting’ the audio circuits. The electrical signal from a microphone is very weak, so it doesn’t take much to mess it up. Also, your standard computer sound card will generally have consumer input connections (those little mini-plugs.)
Another problem crops up when connecting professional level microphones. Many require power to be provided through the cable (this is called ‘Phantom Power.’) Professional gear is set up to provide this power with the flip of a switch – but not consumer gear.
One solution to the sound card problem is to get an external audio interface like the Tascam US122L. These boxes have professional connectors, phantom power and more. They will convert the microphone signal into a digital signal and then send it to your computer via a USB wire and are well shielded from electrical interference.
A secondary bonus to using an external audio interface is that you can easily move it between computers to provide professional connections to any Mac or PC. As you upgrade computers just plug in the box.
Now, If you use a USB microphone like the one I chose, you can bypass this upgrade altogether because the analog-to-digital conversion process is handled inside the microphone itself.
The Go-To Guy!
P.S. If you are strictly podcasting, you might want to consider a stand alone digital recorder like the Marantz PMD660. It has professional grade connectors, phantom power, and other pro features built in. It’s also small, portable and will run off batteries. Because it records to a compact flash memory card it has no moving parts, it is also silent. Just find a good place to record and go – no computer required! I use one of these recorders in my professional work and it provides excellent results every time.
If you are listening to the podcast version of this article, visit us on the web at go-to guy enterprises dot com.