Friday, September 16, 2016

Recording Your Stories At Home - 4 What the Dang Does a DAW Do, and other tips!

So let's start at the beginning of this so you can do the best job you can. And please remember this is a blog and there are things YOU need to do to gain the skills you want! Hate to say to it, but I can't make you great.

You have your space - you cannot hear furnaces, clocks, screaming kids and all that, right?
You have your equipment. Let's put it together in the room.

If you are going to record on a desk, have some material around which you can lie over the hard surfaces to keep sound reflection to a minimum. If you are standing to record, that is not going to be an issue.

The microphone needs to be a fair distance from the back wall for the same reasons, unless you have something to absorb the sound behind the microphone. This could be packing foam found in computer boxes (or used to be), egg crate foam from a craft store, or a thick towel pinned or hanging up (a tea towel won't cut it- sorry), or something like sE's Reflexion Filter but this will cost you $200 or so. You could get a large crate, or a laundry basket, set it up on your desk and fill it and cover it with towels. A much cheaper option!

No pop screen here! The mic was very unresponsive. Hear:

The microphone needs to be pretty close to your mouth, but not too close. You will want to play around with the mic to see which position gives you the best tone. It might be upright, leaning forward or back a tad. The distance from you and the microphone (with the pop screen between you) should be about 8 inches.This way the mic does not have be cranked to pick you up (and picking up any other sounds too). Pop screen? You should have a pop screen to stop the plosives. Those are the breathy air noises, those pops you get when you say 'B', and 'P' etc. These are found at all sorts of prices but one could make a fairly good screen from coat hanger wires and ladies hose! Imagine a table tennis bat with stockings instead of wood in the middle! This needs to be in front of the mic between you and it. Keep you back straight. The diaphragm of the mic should be level with your mouth if you are using a diaphragm mic. If you don't know where that is, move the mic up and down until you get the most signal (volume) from it. If you are using a dynamic mic, then the top needs to be pointing directly at your mouth.
Plug the mic into the computer, or the USB box you have and make sure that is hooked up to the computer. Ensure, if there is a built-in mic on your computer and it is close to the speakers, it is off otherwise you might experience some crazy feedback. You can also plug in headphones, although this might not work as well as you think!

Open your DAW! Open a new song. Create a track. You cannot record without a track. Make sure all the effects are off. Add those later. If you record with them on, you cannot take them off later. You have more control later, IF you want to add any. Make sure it is mono. Unless you plan on exasperating voice through left and right channels, you will need stereo, but almost all the time, a straight vocal recording is done in mono. You are ready to roll. Or record at least.
Check the levels of the microphone on the DAW by hitting record. Make sure when you talk into it, the top and bottom of the signal you should see - that wiggly band in the middle - does not hit the outer edges of the track and red warning lights light up! That is peaking and will sound bad - very distorted and scratchy, and not be able to be edited out later! Also, you do not want a narrow band in the middle, as that will be too quiet. The center of the band is 0 - zero. You want to get the level to something around -6. This is only a guide. As long as nothing hits the red, you should be good. Plug in your head phones. Turn the volume down low, so you can barely hear yourself. If it is too loud, you might stumble over what you are saying. It takes a while to get used to!
Go back and record your story.

Some programs - all the ones that usually cost something, (although the free version of Studio One 3 has it!) have a wonderful little widget called roll back, or pre-roll. If you can master this, your life will be made so much easier.  (Audacity, which I just downloaded to see, does not have this as far as I can tell.) Usually, without this technique, if you make a mistake, you will have to start recording over and cut the bad bit, the mistake out and then drag the right hand segment to join the remaining left hand segment! Sometimes when you restart, the cut does not work and you have to rerecord a whole lot more than you thought. This can make a job last forever. Or feel like that.
With pre-roll what happens is that you stop when you make a mistake, go back to the last good bit - find the clear end of a sentence or paragraph, if you will - and mark that spot. Mentally if no other way. If you have pre-roll engaged, the cursor will go back a pre-set time (usually three seconds but many programs allow you to choose how long), when you hit record. You will hear in your cans, your headphones, the last bit of the clean work, the end of that sentence or paragraph and THEN it starts to record. You jump right in with the following sentence.  This means you are editing on the go. There are not segments to pull together - yet!
Once you have recorded the story, you will want to listen to it all the way through. If you are reading from a script, something I do not when telling stories, but do do when recording audio books, obviously, there is a good chance that you misread a word, or fumbled a word. Sometimes a pause might last forever. The 'standard' is that you should never leave a silence longer than 3 seconds. People think it is over after 3 seconds. Don't ask me why - it just is!
When you mark up the spot you want to leave, enlarge the section/segment as much as you can and get the cursor as close to the end of the 'signal' as possible. This will make sure any breaths you might have taken are cut out. It sound weird when you make an edit and listen back and there is a part breath between words, or sentences! A little gasp!
So another thing you will need to listen for are mouth pops. These not the plosives we talked about earlier. These are the noises your mouth makes when saliva pops on the corner of your mouth or at the back of your throat. If it is bad, it sounds disgusting. Keeping hydrated helps alleviate this. Eating sweets and candy make it worse! You will need to cut those little buggers out! OR, OR!
If you use Audition by Adobe, then you will have this - a spectral frequency display! If you are not paying $20 a month for the rest of your recording life and are using something else,then I will save you searchingfor one, as I found a spectral frequency display plug-in. And it is only fifty bucks! It is called - Spectro from Stillwell Audio and can be found here:
I love this little gem. It makes my life easier and that makes me happy!
Basically you drag the plugin onto the track, or activate it with the track depending on the DAW, and you will see all sorts of orange and yellow appear in the programs screen as you play the track. Listening you will hear those mouth noises, and to remove them, you will drag a box over the frequencies and hit M for mute, and it's gone. Obviously there is some finesse in doing this so it sounds good, but you can use this to remove other sounds that also pop through. Obviously, the more you are using this (bigger boxes), the more likely the sound will degrade- if you take out too much. Find what needs to go, and only that and you are set. I found that there have been a couple of times I have still got a plosive when I record. I might have moved a tad closer to the mic. But Spectro has helped me get rid of those too. I was thrilled. They will be at the very bottom of the screen as a small bright yellow ball or box. Make the smallest box you can, and pop it over the pop and the pop is gone! Again, as with all of this, you should play with it and find what works and what doesn't. Go overboard just to hear what it sounds like, go underboard too! There will be times when even this does not work, and you will have to rerecord, But I love Spectro! This is for us PC users and Mac users. I cannot thank Stillwell enough for this product. It is a life saver. You can download it for free and test it out. If you are only using it for fun, and not making tracks to sell, it costs $25 (or if you are using Reaper), but if you do what I do and sell your stories and/or music, and/or audiobooks where you can, then be honorable and pay the full fee. It is so worth it. And they have friendly, helpful email tech support.

A note on headphones. As with speakers and microphones, headphones have coloured sound - a bias to the top, middle, or low end of the sound spectrum. You might love listening to the heavy bass beat when driving, or shopping, blocking out the whole world, but when recording you want the most balanced and clean sound you can get. Otherwise, when you edit and play with the EQ, you will pull up the treble because it sounds all muffled, but when it is played in a car, or on a stereo, or on a device once downloaded, etc., it will sound as tinny as the Tin Man might sound! I have a pair of Presonus HD7's which came with the kit I bought that are good. I love AKG K240's which fit really nicely on me and have a wonderful balanced sound. Neither are closed headphones. This means they have open bits to them, so other outside sound can be heard when working with them. I will be getting some of the Sony MDR 7506 closed headphones at some point. Closed headphones might make your ears sweat a little, but it will keep out all, or most, other sounds. I have tried earbuds, but they do not give the fullness of sound you want to be able to hear. As with the mics and with speakers Sennheiser, Audio-Technica, Tascam, and many others make great headphones. Stay with the well-known names and you should be good. Do not buy cheap, but buy economically. Better still go and try some out and find cans which are comfortable to wear. If you are sitting for an afternoon wearing headphones, you want to be comfortable. Places like Guitar Centers have headphones. See if you can find a local recording studio and pop in for a look around. Try their headphones on for size!

So you have recorded. You have edited. Now there is the 'make it sound pretty' bit!
Hopefully the DAW you are using has a number of different EQs you can use and try out. The free version of Studio One 3,does not! The artist edition might, but you should check first, before you buy! Audacity has a few pre-made EQs you can play with. Personally I never found one (admittedly in the past) which worked for me. Here is the Key Thing I learned about EQ. If it does not sound bassy enough, do NOT up the bass. Drop the treble. If you sound too muddy, do not up the treble, drop the bass. This is the opposite of what some folks do in their car. They turn the treble and bass to full. Don't do that. It sounds like a bad radio station. EQ is not something that can be taught over a blog. It takes years to grow and get your ears tuned to master a track well. My suggestion is that if you cannot make it sound good, ask someone who can. If you value your products make sure you do it well, or don't do it. Find the pro who can help you. If you can play with the frequencies, which the  better DAWs allow, then make it sound really bad and work backwards making it sound better until you hit it on the head. The only way you will learn how to do this is like anything else - use it, play with it, make deliberate mistakes and fix them. And repeat. At some point, hopefully, you will get it.
Sound effects. This is something personal. I personally cannot stand any sort of echo or reverb on my voice for spoken audio work. I like it clean and crisp so when folks are listening to the track, it seems you are right next them and not in the catacomb which sounds cool, but far away in another place altogether. You can add those sorts of things to places and pieces that work, although that can be distracting too. Someone might have dialogue in a crypt (it is getting close to Halloween as I write this!) and it might work, add to what you are trying to do. Or it might sound awful and fake. Try these sorts of things out. It is fun, but make sure you really want something there and get feedback from others as to whether it works or not.
Once you have done all that, mix it down to an MP3 - the lowest quality, and listen to it on a device and on a good stereo. Play your track next to other tracks - like music CDs. Is your track too quiet? This is when you go back to the DAW and raised the mater level a little. Does it clip? Go in the red? Most likely there is part of your story which is a little louder than the rest. Find that or those spots and drop those places down a little, but then raise the overall level. There are other ways to do this,such as compression. But for voice, I am not a fan of it. Compression can easily destroy what you have done. This is something I do leave to the pros, but mostly I cut the levels of the loud bits and raise the master gain up a little at a time. If it is too noisy overall, I lower the gain but still look for those peaks. Play the track in a car. If you find yourself reaching over to turn the volume down or up, then have someone with you to mark those times. Go back and revise what you did. There are some story CDs I cannot listen to in the car because the volume goes all over the place. Not only is that not so great to listen to, but it means I am always reaching for the volume,distracting my driving. Not a fan of that sort of thing.

After this, hand the track, or tracks to an HONEST friend or three who you trust. Ask them what they think and demand HONEST answers. Listen to them and try and follow what they said. If one person says it, is might be true. If two people say it, it will be true. If three people say the same thing and you don't listen to them, go get professional help! Or don't expect to sell much of what you have made!

Setting the bar high is the professional thing to do. To say; 'well, it will do' will not encourage people to buy the next recording, or even listen to it. Or the next. When you have the finished product, make a WAV or AIFF file. Next to FLAC these are the highest quality files you can make. Don't mess with FLAC unless you have to! Then put it out there!

Well, I hope some of this helps, or gives you something to think about. I welcome comments and additions to what I have written. The laundry basket came from a colleague of mine's comment on a previous blog about recording! Listen and act! This is not a course in recording, merely four blogs to help you get started and to give you an idea

Good luck! Have fun. If you don't you wasted a lot of time and money which could have gone to other things. And if you have money to spare, throw it this way! I am happy to help out!

Now I need to fetch my daughter from school!


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