There’s More To Recording Great Audio Than a Good Microphone

September 21, 2020
Photo by Joel Muniz for Unsplash

If you’re trying to record better audio for a podcast or voiceover, what’s the first thing that springs to mind? Using a high-quality microphone, most likely. But the space you’re recording in affects the way your recording sounds just as much as the microphone you use to record it. In fact, underestimating the impact of reverberation, or reflected sound, on an audio recording might be the number one mistake anyone recording a podcast or voice over at home will make.

Don’t worry: You don’t need access to a professional recording studio to record great-sounding audio. We’ll explain why your recording space matters so much — and show you how to record great audio without spending a lot on podcast equipment.

When it comes to audio quality, reflected sound is bad news

For those of us who aren’t trained audio engineers, it’s very easy to forget that sound is a physical force. Because we can’t see sound, we don’t often take into account the ways it interacts with the world around us: “Out of sight, out of mind.” 

But physical space affects the way things sound, and that carries all the way down to your living room, home office, or kitchen affecting the way your podcast or voice over recording sounds, too. If your podcast setup doesn’t take into account the room you’re recording in, the best podcast mic you could buy won’t even sound half as good as it should.

Listen to this sample recording made by musician and audio producer Pablo Mirete. This sample, recorded using a Røde NT2-A condenser microphone and a Scarlett Focusrite 2i4 audio interface, illustrates the sound of an acoustically untreated room — a typical bedroom or home office, for example. 

A typical recording in an acoustically untreated room.

It’s perfectly legible, but if you listen closely, you can hear an echo-y “hollowness” in the recording. This is because his voice — aka the sound waves he produces when he speaks (which travel very fast: roughly 1,125 ft/s or 767 mph) — bounce off of the flat, hard surfaces in the room he’s recording in and commingle with the original sound. That’s reverb at work.

Reverb fatigues listeners’ ears

To really make the difference audible, Mirete simulated what recording in even more reflective spaces sounds like. For example, here’s a typical kitchen:

A typical recording in a kitchen.

And a larger room, like a studio or workshop:

A typical recording in a large studio or workshop.

This “hollow,” reverb-y sound fatigues listeners, especially over time. Now, you probably aren’t recording your podcast in a large, empty workshop, so you likely won’t have to deal with this much reverb. Even still, chances are that if you’re recording at home, you’re picking up more reverb than you should. What can you do?

Softening your recording space improves audio quality

Reverberations are caused by sound waves reflecting off of hard surfaces: walls, ceilings, wooden furniture. Recording somewhere with lots of soft materials and surfaces (drapes, curtains, carpets, clothing) is an easy, effective way to improve the audio quality of your podcast or voiceover recording.

If the closet works for Ira Glass, it’ll work for you. (Courtesy Ira Glass/Twitter.)

In fact, according to Kate Astrakhan, founder and CEO at podcast agency Podcast Network Solutions, softening your recording space is a critical first step to recording better audio at home. “Before you select the right podcast microphone, first make sure that your room is full of soft surfaces, not hard surfaces,” she says. “And then even if you buy the cheapest USB microphone, your sound will be better than it would be otherwise.”

For many — like NPR’s Ira Glass up above — the simplest solution is recording in a walk-in closet. Hanging clothes do a great job at softening a room because they both dampen sound waves and diffuse reflections. Recording in your closet might feel a bit weird, but it will definitely get the job done. Listen for yourself.

A typical recording in a walk-in closet.

That’s Pablo Mirete, who recorded the audio samples you heard earlier, recording in a walk-in closet. The difference is immediately audible: his voice sounds richer and fuller, and he feels “closer,” more present, and simply much more enjoyable to listen to.

That’s what you want your podcast, voiceover, or video to sound like!

A DIY acoustic isolation box will go even further

If recording in the closet isn’t possible — or just wears out its welcome — acoustic foam works wonders for dampening sound and reducing reverb, but sound-proofing an entire room at home isn’t exactly practical (or affordable) for most.

The next best thing is building a box with acoustic foam, like this one above, designed and built by podcaster Allan White. He needed to produce quality podcasts on a budget, and so he focused on what would make the biggest difference in capturing excellent vocals: “starting with as clean a signal as possible,” he writes.

He built the box from a collection of inexpensive, readily available materials, and explained its construction and assembly in a detailed Medium article. He also created a YouTube video that shows off how it’s put together.  

If you’re not averse to some DIY handiwork, building a box like the above is a surefire way to improve your audio recordings, no matter what kind of microphone you’re using — or what kind of room you record in.

Don’t neglect microphone technique

An essential part of getting a great recording from any microphone — whether it’s bottom-end or top of the line — comes down to how you use the microphone.  

Think back to the first time you spoke into a microphone. If you’re anything like me, it involved a lot of fumbling, speaking both too close to and too far away from the mic, and moving both your head and hands around haphazardly. Technically, that’s microphone technique — or a lack thereof, in my case.

Thankfully, just like any other skill, microphone technique can be learned, and a few solid principles will take you far. To start, focus on three things: proximity, gain, and plosives.

  • Proximity is key: You generally want to speak about 3-4” away from your microphone. Closer and you’ll over-emphasize low frequencies and sound rumbly; farther and you’ll over-emphasize high frequencies and sound tinny.
  • Check the gain: Adjust gain (or input level) on your microphone or audio interface such that you see levels peaking at about -10 dB when recording. Correct gain is primarily a function of your distance from the microphone, so if you regularly adjust the position of your microphone setup, make sure to adjust gain as needed. 
  • Avoid plosive pops: Either a pop filter, a taut piece of fabric which attaches to a microphone stand, or a foam cover on the microphone mouthpiece itself will help prevent plosives, like “p” sounds, from registering as loud, distracting “pop” sounds.

There’s more to good microphone technique, as this thorough guide from Buzzsprout reveals, but focusing on proximity, gain, and using a pop filter will start you off on the right foot.

Great-sounding audio is within your reach

As you’ve learned above, where you record your audio matters just as much as what you record it with.

The good news is that great-sounding audio is within your reach, no matter how simple your recording or podcast setup is. Now get out there and make your listeners’ ears happy!

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