For many people who start dabbling with audio recordings or podcasting, there comes a point where you want more professional results. But, where to start and how much will it cost?
Upgrade number one: your recording environment
You may have started your recording career by grabbing that headset that came free with the computer, plugging 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.
You may be using a home computer in your living room and have to contend with kids or roommates making 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 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!
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 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
Upgrade number 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 word like “Promo.”
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 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.
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 soundcard is another problem. Most computer soundcards 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, they 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 (called ‘Phantom Power.’) Professional gear is set up to provide this with a flip of a switch, but not consumer gear.
One solution to the soundcard 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 the external interface is that you can easily move it between computers to provide professional connections to any Mac or PC.
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 and is silent. You can just find a good place to record and go!