Some Practical Tips for My Podcasting and Voice-Over Friends

Shure SM7B (windscreen removed) with pop filter at my wife’s desk.

Podcasting and home voice-over work is exploding. But very few podcasters and voice actors possess the audio engineering chops to produce flawless recordings, which at best require extensive editing and at worse result in a sub-par product. As an avid podcast consumer and professional audio engineer, here are some of the things that drive me nuts:

  1. Excessive ambient noise (computer fans, keyboard and mouse noise, trains, etc.)
  2. Thin and harsh tone
  3. Varying level due to inconsistent speech and poor enunciation
  4. Varying level due to inconsistent distance from the mic
  5. Digital distortion

Here are some tips that can help with these issues and get you the best possible recording:

  • Stay as close as possible to the mic. This will help make sure your voice is heard more clearly while minimizing ambient noise being picked up, along with taking advantage of the microphone’s proximity effect to make your voice sound warmer.
  • If using a short desktop mic stand without a shock mount, please type lightly or place your keyboard on a different surface so the mic doesn’t pick up the thumps from your fingers hitting the keys.
  • If you use a pop filter (which you should), I like placing it about 1–2" from the mic, and then I touch it with my nose or even my lips to maintain a consistent distance. Maintaining consistent distance from the mic is one of the hardest things to do — especially with all you have to juggle while recording.
  • Use your mic’s pickup pattern and rejection (the back of the mic is usually where the mic has the least amount of sensitivity on cardioid mics) to your advantage in positioning it so it picks up as little noise from your surroundings as possible. Don’t place it beside your laptop so it picks up the fans. Place it directly in front of it and as far away as feasible. If you are near a window, make sure your mic is not pointing towards the window where the noise outside will be picked up easily by the mic.
  • Try to make sure the diaphragm of your mic isn’t parallel with any walls or other surfaces like a computer monitor since sound wave reflections can cause phasing and EQ issues. Angle the mic both horizontally and vertically away from other flat surfaces, and don’t have it too close to them.
  • Heavy curtains and a few strategically placed foam acoustic panels will help tremendously with acoustic issues in your recording space. Place a towel or throw blanket on your desk (which can also help cushion keyboard noise). Full bookshelves make great diffusers to break up sound waves. Do what you can to minimize parallel wall reflections that can cause standing waves, phasing, and “echo.”
  • If you actually make money podcasting or doing voiceover work (which makes you a professional), invest in professional tools and in a recording-friendly work environment. An office next to train tracks is not a good idea for a professional recording setup. Neither is a squeaky second-hand chair. Or a six-year-old computer which has a loud hard drive and fans that spin all the way up as soon as you open Logic and Skype. And most of all, please buy a better mic and audio interface than a $50-$100 cheap and convenient all-in-one USB mic. And get a decent mic stand to hold your heavy and valuable microphone. What you save in cost and “plug and play” simplicity, we all pay for in sonic quality — even if you don’t hear it. And you pay in the long run in time/productivity for having to work harder in recording and editing.
  • Be conscious of your vocal production and speech patters and make an effort to be more consistent in your speech volume, enunciation (open your mouth and don’t mumble), and loud outbursts. Laughter and being emphatic is great as long as you haven’t set your mic gain for soft speech.
  • Set your levels using your loudest possible speech tone, aiming for it to peak in the middle of the yellow in the software meter. Then turn your gain down one notch.
  • When you do laugh or get excited and loud, back a way a few inches from the mic, which should lower the volume the mic captures just enough to keep it from distorting.
  • Remember that generous amounts of compression helps smooth out inconsistent levels, but it also raises the background noise from cheap mic preamps and your surroundings. So consistent and solid vocal production will also help in this regard since you may be able to get away with less severe compression.
  • Make sure you can hear yourself in your headphones. This will ensure you can hear any ambient noise, mic placement, or gain issues and correct them. Any decent USB audio interface has “zero latency monitoring” which means you can hear your own voice before it goes into the computer.
  • Ear buds are not adequate for hearing everything you should be listening for and will hurt your ears after 30 minutes of use. Plus if cranked really loud could be picked up by your mic. Get a decent set of professional over-ear closed headphones. If you can afford it, I highly recommend custom-fit in-ear monitors since they are the best at isolation, the most accurate, and most comfortable for long periods of use (if made properly).
  • Besides good comfortable headphones, make sure your desk and chair are comfortable, and your mic boom stand allows easy adjusting. Fidgeting and having to adjust frequently will make noise. I love my standing desk.
  • Mishaps are bound to happen, so make sure your recording software is set to display time instead of bars+beats. Write notes on a piece of paper or use the software’s markers to note problems you hear while recording. This will make it easier to edit — especially if someone else is doing the editing!

Yes, this is a lot to consider to prevent a handful of problems. Audio engineering is a complex discipline, just like many other creative processes. And no matter how easy the tools and software can make things, it still requires a specific attention to detail — more so than writing, programming, or graphic design. With a little know-how and a decent setup, anyone can produce professional quality audio recordings without having to spend tens of thousands of dollars on a full-fledge professional recording studio. And the devil really is in the details. A little extra effort up front will result in a nice payoff with a much higher quality end product.