Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Recording You Stories At Home - 2 Equipment, Voice to computer

In the previous blog about recording your stories I described how to create a good space for recording your stories. This blog post will show how import this is, why it is different from recording musicians, and what equipment you will need, or want. I will talk about the cheapest way to record, to a more professional approach. Are you ready? Then let's get it on!

The Astatic JT-30-C. I believe it is from the 1940's
So you have a recording space, and need to fill it with stuff! But what stuff do you need? Should you buy the largest and most powerful computer ever built to store all the files? Is the most expensive microphone the one you need? If you have a microphone you use for live shows, can you record with it? What about voice recorders?

Hold on a moment. I want to add something about the space first. You remember how I said if you can hear a clock, or furnace, turn it off? Here's why - if you can hear it, so can the microphone. Take a listen to the first minute of Led Zeppelin's Black Country Woman
A prop plane flies over as the reel is rolling and they're recording. It is left in. My point is the engineer heard it and asked if they wanted to wait, but Plant says: "Nar. Leave it." As the guitar comes in, most of it is drowned out. You have to listen very carefully to hear it. This is where it's different for voice recording to rock and roll. There is no music to cover up background sounds! If they are there, they are there and will be heard on the final product. Because of my space, I have developed an ear for this and when recording in places other than my own, I can hear oncoming trucks, mowers, or planes, I am aware of them and I can stop and wait until the sound has passed. With a well sound proofed room, you will not need to worry about that. If you do not have a well insulated space, you too will need to develop an ear for such things.

So, equipment. Let's start at the lower end of the spectrum and work up and begin with where the sound first goes. From your gob, into the mic!

What is the best microphone you can buy? I get this question a lot. The simple and very true answer is: the one that's best for your voice. Everyone has their own voice and each mic is slightly 'colured'. This means a certain mic may favour the top end, the high notes, if you will. Some microphones might favour the lower end, the lower notes a fraction. It is the same with speakers. Some can make something sound tinny, or heavy on the bass. My first foray into the studio was a fun experience. I had a number of microphones to choose from, from a $100 mic, to a $3,000 mic. And yes, there are more expensive microphones out there. I tried out the $3,000 mic and found it made my voice sound too tinny, it accentuated my sibilance ('s' were too sharp). I tried out a couple of others and found the $1,500 mic made my voice sound great. Nice and warm. Not too deep, not too high, just right. You NEED to test out a mic before buying it.

The cheapest way to record these days is using a portable voice recorder. That's right. A voice recorder. They can be found for little money ($100 and up), have great quality, for the most part, and will service you very well indeed. In fact, my second CD was recorded on a voice recorder. I used my Roland R-9 on a mic stand. The only thing you need to be very aware of is: motor noise. If you buy an Olympus WS-852 for $50.00, there will be motor noise and you won't be able to get rid of it. However the WS-822 might not. I am not suggesting Olympus as these are really designed for office use - dictation and the like, not entertainment recording. Manufacturers who I would suggest are: Roland (Edirol), Zoom (H2 and up), Sony, Tascam and Boss, although the later two can be as pricey as a good microphone. The thing about voice recorders is that you can take them and use them anywhere and edit later once the file is downloaded on to your computer. You can use them at a gig without anything else (no cables or boxes to link to), and use them in a studio. Very versatile.
ADVISE: Make sure the devise can record at a minimum of 16 bit, and 44.1 kHz. 24 bit is even better. CDs are 16 bit, but it is better to record at a higher level rather than degrade too soon. If it only records MP3, or WMA then don't go there! Those are much lower quality, being compressed files. You are looking for WAV and AIFF, even FLAC, but FLAC (lossless) might cause you some problems later. When or if you are in the market and buying a devise, take some noise blocking earphones or buds, record something and play it back listening for motor noise. If you buy one of the suggested makes, and are spending upwards of $100, you should be fine. But check this out for yourself. I have not played with all makes and models.

My very old and still very serviceable voice recorders

The next most economical way to go could be to use a USB microphone. This second microphone option allows one to plug directly into the computer and your digital audio workstation software. The only downside I see to this is that it can only be used with a computer with a USB port (unless it has Mac capability). The company Blue seem to excel with these types of mics. Rode, Apogee, MXL, Shure, Audio-Technica and sE also make USB microphones, so have a good look around before buying. Obviously, if you are recording a concert using a laptop or iPad, only being able to plug into these would not be a problem. However, if you want, or have to put the microphone into a mixing desk, this would be an issue. It can, however, be a cheaper way to go. Again, you need to check different mics out to hear which sound good with your voice.

Behringer XM8500 and the Shure SM58

Your own Shure SM58 that you use for live shows, might work well. The SM58 is a fine example of a dynamic microphone. Most radio stations use dynamic mics, and if you have a problem with noise in your recording space, a dynamic mic could be the way to go. Why is that? The dynamic microphone will pretty much only record what it is pointing at. Remember watching some film or tv show where the singer pulls the mic from his or her mouth before belting out that last amazing note? Well, that's so when that high volume hits the mic, it won't blow the microphone up, as it were. By angling it, or moving it away, the mic hears you far less. Surrounding sounds are mostly cut out. This is putting it very simply, but hopefully in a way that makes sense. There are some very good studio dynamic mics, but usually these are saved for live events or live, multi-instrument recording sessions to prevent other instruments, vocals, etc. bleeding into another microphone. Again, you need to check different mics out to hear what sounds good with your voice.

Another type of microphone is the condenser mic. This type of microphone picks up everything. Remember seeing rock stars performing live and they talk to each during a song but it is not heard? That is the dynamic mic keeping the surrounding sounds down. If it were a condenser mic, they would be easily heard! This is the studio go-to mic for voice. Generally it has far better sound quality, is more delicate, and can be more expensive. That said, there is a wide range of mics and prices you can look at. Have you seen photos or films where an old radio show is being recorded? A few actors stand around a single mic, a few others stand around another mic. These microphones can pick up each voice easily, and capture the live audience laughter. They do need extra power for them to work though. Dynamic microphones do not require any more power than that already surging through the equipment. Condenser microphones have a diaphragm inside requiring active circuitry, and needs what they call Phantom Power - a little zing of 48+ volts! Nothing to really worry about. And I will talk about that in a while.* These microphones, like the Audio-Technica AT2035 can be purchased for about $150.00 and go way up into the thousands as I said earlier. The AT2035 is a good microphone. I use an sE 2200a ii C. It's cost is more than the Audio-Technica, but I love the sound it gives my voice.

The real thing is not crooked like this appears to be!
The sE Electronics 2200iiC
Great brands to look at for microphones (both dynamic and condenser) are: Shure, sE, Audix, MXL, Audio-Technica, AKG, Rode, Sennheiser, Neumann and Blue. I have a Behringer mic which are generally thought of as cheap mics, which they are. But it sounds better with my voice than the Shure SM58 I have, for live performances. The Shure cost $100.00 and the Behringer cost $20.00!

The photo at the top of the page shows me using a microphone from the 1940's. If you like antiques it would be fun to try out mics such as these, but they do not always sound so good:
To use a mic like this for an effect can work, but you might want to buy a great sounding mic to start with, and get others to play with later!

Where does your voice go?
Both the dynamic and condenser microphones you would buy for live or studio recordings are generally hooked up with an XLR balanced cable (cables in a minute). This will not plug into your computer! But it will plug into a computer interface with USB bus power. I have used both the PreSonus  AudioBox 2x2 ($100), and the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 ($150.00) and found the 2i2 to be the better. Focusrite also has a smaller, one mic input , the Solo, for $100.00. Both have phantom (48v) power, as does the AudioBox which has an additional midi port on the back if you want to plug in and record a keyboard and such. There are many of these interfaces at varying price points, but I really like the Focusrite 2i2. Both Presonus and Focusrite have bundles where you get a condenser mic, headphones, cables and box/interface for between $150.00 and $200.00.

Now you need a cable to get the sound from the mic to the USB box. My advise is only buy  good quality XLR cables. If for some reason you have a box and it does not take XLR make sure it is balanced. These are called TRS balanced cables. See the bands (two of them) near the tip of it? That's balanced. If it has one band, it is not balanced. Why is balanced important? The short answer is to get the best sound possible. If you get a great mic and have crappy cables, noise will magically appear and cause distress! I could go into detail about why balanced cables are better, but that would make more grey space to read! A good cable, as with anything 'good', will last for a long while. And remember, nothing lasts forever! Going cheap does not always pan out. In fact it rarely does! Go economical, but don't go cheap.

* Phantom power - that little bit extra
Many condenser microphones and a rare few dynamic mics have circuitry built into them which requires more power than a 'regular' microphone. Some of these mics have tiny amplifiers in them. This much needed  48volts of DC current is provided in a mixer, or power supply like the USB boxes mentioned above. You will see a button which says either 48, or Psantom. A simple push of said button and off it goes, through the cable to the mic and the mic sends the signal back down the cable to the mixer where the sound is pushed out. Sometimes condenser microphones have a little extra power and increased signal as a result.

So try some microphones out, find one that makes you sound good (and not like you are on a cheap transistor radio) and invest.

So, you now have a space. And a mic and cable, that runs to a USB box which then goes to the USB port in your computer. Or you have a USB mic that runs directly to the computer. Or maybe you opted for a voice recorder which you will drag and drop files from to edit in your DAW on your computer at a later date. (That's the next one!)

If you found this information useful in any way whatsoever, please considering following my blog and subscribing. Click there on the right! If you know anyone who is interested in this stuff, or is also thinking about getting into recording their own stuff, forward the blog!

I will also invite you to visit my website: http://www.diamondscree.com/
where there you can listen to recordings made in the studio, watch short movies of me telling tales at various places, and where you can also sign up for newsletters (which are a lot shorter than this blog) among many other cool things!  Thanks for reading.


NEXT UP: "What's Behind The Green DAW?" A blog about digital workstations.

Intro about recording: http://worldofstories.blogspot.com/2016/01/learning-art-of-narrating-audio-books.html

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