Top Ten Audio Tips

Things to ponder prior to your next recording session.

  1. Choose the right mic for the job
    There are basically four types of mics: Handheld/Stand mount, lavalier, shotgun and boundary. Choosing the mic based its abilities will give you the best possible recording for a given situation.

    • Handheld/Stand mount – These mics need to be in relatively close proximity (18 inches) to the source, usually the mouth. Portability and sharing between speakers are a benefit as demonstrated in many informal interview situations.
    • Lavalier – AKA Lapel Mic. This mic clips on to the person speaking inconspiculously. Try to get the mic as close to the throat as possible. Good isolation from background noise but not the best vocal sound.
    • Shotgun – This long tubular mic excels by providing a narrowly focused sound pickup pattern and rejects noise from the sides. Often these are placed on poles or handgrips just out of the camera shot and pointed at the sound source. When used appropriately they can provide the most natural voice recording in a location shoot.
    • Boundary – This mic often is a flat plate or hockey puck type shape. These often can be placed on table tops or in front of a wide source.

    Additionally, your smartphone is likely a usable mic and recording device

  2. Avoid rooms with hard walls, floors and ceilings
    A good test of a room is to clap your hands once and listen. If you hear a lot of noise reverberating and echoing it’s not a good room to record audio in. If there’s not an opportunity to change rooms use a lavalier mic.
  3. Listen with headphones as you record
    By monitoring with the headphone output of the recorder or computer you will hear any audio problems that will end up on the recording if not fixed. This could include buzzes, excessive background noise, an unplugged cable, etc. The more you can isolate yourself from the live sound the more critical your listening will be. This can be achieved by running cables to another room or using full, over the ear headphones. Your phones earbuds are a last ditch choice.
  4. Mics don’t have brains
    Our ears, brains and other senses do amazing things when we listen. Unwanted sound is discarded in our brain as we focus our listening to the desired sound. Think of how you can pinpoint someone speaking across a noisy crowd. Mics hear everything and will put that on the recording. What you think of as a quiet noise will be much more noticeable once it’s recorded and listened to later.
  5. Get the mic in close
    The mic will nearly always yield a better recording the closer it is to the source. Moving closer changes the balance between the background sound and important sounds, and adds more oomph to the recording. However being too close can sometimes intimidate the person being recorded. Observe the situation to get a sense of the mood of the participants and place mics in the least invasive spot if someone is uncomfortable.
  6. Turn up the volume early in the process
    By turning up any volume (aka gain) control earlier in the signal chain you will keep mechanical and electrical noise down. Start at the mic and turn up the volume at any stage where there is a opportunity. However do this without going too high and reaching distorted levels. You want to avoid the need for any significant volume increases once you are editing.
  7. Start with fresh batteries
    Some mics, often those that connect to video cameras or consumer handheld recorders with a 1/8″ or 3.5mm male connecter, will have a battery. These mics are easy to forget to turn off and too often you will end up with a mic that has a dead battery. Always check your battery for freshness or bring a spare. Monitoring with headphones will help you know you battery is going dead.
  8. Record to a backup medium
    Increasingly recording is done straight to the hard drive of a computer and is extremely reliable. There always is a chance of a problem no matter how careful you are though. Having a secondary recording device running simultaneously can often save the day. Depending on your mic and mixer setup your may be able to split the signal and feed both recorders at the same time. Even if you only can use a handheld pocket recorder or your mobile phone with the built-in mic you can have a safety copy of passable quality.
  9. Get it right in the recording – don’t “fix it in the mix”
    Digital audio editing is powerful and can many techniques can rescue a problematic recording from many problems including noise and replacing speech. However those fixes require skill, experience and most importantly time in post-production. It’s nearly always easier to fix the problem at the time of recording whether doing a practice run to test for technical issues or doing a second take to fix that mispronounced word or skipped sentence.
  10. Practice, practice, practice
    Recording good audio should not be taken for granted – some people dedicate the professional lives to producing excellent audio. We take good quality audio for granted but bad quality audio leaves us disappointed. Experiment with the mics you have available to you, test setting levels to get the fullest and cleanest sound possible, and keep notes of what works well and what doesn’t. With time your recording methods will become more instinctive.

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