Podcasting Basics: Episode 4 – Recording Tips and Tricks

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Show summary

Join us today as we discuss recording tips and tricks that you should use when recording your own podcast audio. Learn about sound metering, optimal signal level for recording and how to get the best possible sound out of your home studio. Enjoy!

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Episode Transcript

Nemanja: Welcome to the Nootka Sound Podcast, I’m your host Nemanja Koljaja, A professional Sound Engineer, Audio Editor and Podcast Producer and a CEO and Founder of Nootka Sound, a professional podcast production facility. By now, you should know what a microphone is, how to connect it to a computer and how to record yourself into a DAW. And now, it’s time to talk about doing it in the right way. But before we get started I’d like to say that there are no rules in audio recording, sometimes one method will get you one kind of results and another method will get you something totally different. So manipulating sound is subjective, especially when it comes to music, and all of it may depend on the taste of the person who’s operating the sound board. And there are many ways to do one thing in audio production and there is no right or wrong, well there is, but only if it sounds good. Having said that, this set of instructions specifically apply to recording vocals for podcasts and it represents a good basis which you should use to get a healthy signal. If you’re a more experienced sound engineer, then you can do whatever you feel like and as the saying goes, you have to know the rules in order to break them. So if you’re just starting out and this world is still a mystery to you, make sure to follow these points and I’ll guarantee you’ll end up with a decent quality recording at least. So the secret behind getting a super high quality recording is to have a steady distortion-free signal and the secret behind that, is that the signal is supposed to be high enough so It’s louder than the internal noise of all of the audio equipment you’re using and at the same time it’s low enough so it doesn’t overload (or clip) at any point in the signal chain. So to simplify, your goal is to get a signal that’s high enough so it’s louder than the noise, while being low enough so it doesn’t clip at any point.  Nowadays, it’s really not that hard, especially, because modern audio equipment has a very low signal to noise ratio, which means it doesn’t produce much noise. On the other hand, if you were using an analog medium, such as tape and a tape machine, there would be a lot of noisy parts and mechanisms, so the level of noise would be much greater and you would have much less dynamic range to work with when recording. Make sure that the recording signal is without any distortion, mostly in the digital domain but at some specific points in analog, too. If you take a look at your equipment, really the first thing in your signal chain is the microphone. And this is the analog point, as well as the first step in your signal chain, where you have to look out not to overfeed the input. Now, when recording vocals this is a little bit harder to do especially if it’s a decent mic, but you can distort the diaphragm with a source that is too loud which can in some cases even break the microphone. That’s why good quality microphones that are sensitive usually have a pad circuit built into them that you can use. However, in podcast recording scenario, it really is almost impossible to overload the microphone at its input. So the next point in the signal chain you should look out for is the mic input on your audio interface. The signal that’s coming through your audio interface will mostly depend on your gain knob or the amount of amplification you apply to the signal. So you should always start with the knob all the way to the left so you aren’t adding any gain. The next thing you should do is talk into the microphone or play the instrument you want to record, and while you do that you should be looking at the LED light next to the mic input (for example on Focusrite Scarlet there is an LED light that goes around the gain knob). If the LED is glowing in red, that means the input is clipping and the source is too loud for the input to handle. Whether it’s constantly being lit up in red or just occasionally, and your gain knob is all the way the left, there is only two things that you can do. Move away from the microphone or engage the PAD button to attenuate the signal. Try both and see which one sounds better and go with that one. If the source is still overloading the input then you either turn down the volume of the source you’re recording (if it;’s a speaker for example) or just try another microphone, maybe the one that’s less sensitive. If you’re just getting the green signal and you’re not getting any red flashes you should perhaps try adding some gain until the clipping starts occurring and then dial the knob back a bit and you should be fine. It’s always a good idea if you’re recording vocals for a song or a radio drama, to ask the artist to go through the loudest passage and the quietest one, as well. That way you can set up the gain so it’s not clipping when the person is yelling and it’s not too low when the person is whispering. Asking that person to slightly move back when they are yelling and to move closer when they are whispering is helpful as well. Now when you’re sure you’re not overloading the pre-amp of the audio interface, the next thing would be to check the signal level in your DAW. Simply turn on Input Monitoring and speak into the microphone. The signal should be in the green/yellow area. If it clips it will reach the red area which is at the top of the meter. So same as for the first two steps, you would adjust the gain knob until the signal is high enough but it’s not clipping at any point while you’re speaking. Now let’s get into the technical stuff. So the signal level in a DAW is represented in dbFS, which stands for decibel full scale, which is a unit for measuring amplitude levels in digital systems. In dbFS, 0 is the absolute highest signal level achievable. 0 dbFS is also the point of clipping. That means as long as your signal is not reaching 0dbFS, clipping is not occurring. So if you’re looking to get a little bit more methodical, I’d recommend trying to record you signal at -18dBFS. It corresponds to 0 VU, which is a recording level standard for analog equipment. So I’d say the optimal level for recording is between -20dbFS and -6. That way your signal is nice and healthy and there’s still plenty of headroom for loud peaks that may occur. One also important thing to mentions is that the metering in a DAW can be pre-fader and post-fader. Post-Fader means that every audio effect and plug in that’s on the channel, as well as fader position will impact the metering. Other way of saying that is the signal will be metered after it goes through all of those effects. Pre-fader means that the signal will be measured at a point that comes before all of the plug-ins and volume knobs. That’s why I recommend when you’re recording, you switch to pre-fader metering and then when you’re in post production, like mixing or mastering you switch to post-fader metering. In both cases you would look out not to reach the 0dbFS level on the meter.

One last thing I want to talk about is tips on improving your recording environment. Let’s assume you’re doing this from home and people generally take one room that they usually spend their time in and record there. First thing, I’d actually recommend before you start recording your podcast is to spend some time in each room of your house. Or you if you have an office or a condo, go there and spend some time there as well. Just sit in every room and listen to what’s happening in the environment. Are there any loud extraneous noise sources, like traffic, low frequency rumble, birds, anything and everything that may affect the recording. After having listened try clapping your hands. Take a listen to the reverbation of the room, to see are there a lot of reflections bouncing off the walls. Is your voice echo-y, muddy or not clear. Do this for every room and decide which one sounds the best. When you’ve settled on a room, before you actually start recording make sure to turn off everything you’re not using, perhaps a TV, a noisy LED light, close the windows or turn off the AC. Make sure you’ve done everything in your power so that your recording room resembles a recording studio. If you have additional resources or some spare time you can order some acoustic foam panels for your walls or even build ones by yourself. DIY has always been an important aspect when it comes to audio engineering, especially in the last couple of years. If that’s just too much of a hassle, just take some blankets or pillows and put them around your recording space.  Make sure to spend some time on improving your room and your set-up. Also, spend some time learning about your equipment, your DAW, your computer, your microphone and spend some time recording your vocals before you actually get started with podcasting. Record a couple of episodes by yourself and take notes of what parts need improving. It’s not rocket science, the more you practice the better you will be, same with everything else in life. So good luck and try your best! If you get stuck with anything, send me an email info@nootkasound.online.

That’s it! Thank you for listening, make sure you share this podcast with your friends and click that subscribe button so you never miss an episode! If you have any questions for us or suggestions about a topic we can cover related to the podcasting industry leave a comment below or send us an email at info@nootkasound.online. Also, make sure to check out our website, podcastproducer.org. This is the last episode of our series, the Podcasting Basics. Next week, we’re going to start interviewing the actual people who are a part of the podcasting industry. Tune in to our next episode where we sit down with Todd Hines about his contribution to the Martech Podcast. Peace out!

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