Archive for January, 2012

Setting Up Your Own Recording Station At Home

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 13, 2012 by adoseofbuckley

I think younger broadcasters starting out in the industry get the impression that it’s expensive and difficult to record broadcast-quality vocals at home. It’s not exactly pocket change, and it’s not as simple as plugging a USB or little headset mic in to use Skype (well, it can be but it’s not the best solution), but people I’ve talked to over the last year or so who are getting started in the business seem to feel that it’s not at all within their reach. Well… it is, if you can scrape together $300 or so. This article will outline a few ways you can get started, along with some technical information and some issues I’ve run into that might act as helpful lessons while you’re attempting to set things up.

WHY WOULD YOU WANT TO DO THIS?!:

I don’t know… you’re the one that clicked to read this. Think of it as an investment though. Say you’re in the radio biz right now, and you get canned tomorrow, but you need to update your demo to find a new job (or you’d like to create a custom demo for a potential new employer). Where do you plan on recording that? Chances are your old boss isn’t going to let you come in and play in the production studio. I’m going to warn you in advance though, if you’re hoping this will guide you towards picking up enough equipment to start your own voice over business… it might get you started, but you’re probably going to need to spend a lot more. This is great though for higher quality podcasting, doing some home musical recording, or maybe even making smarmy YouTube videos (*cough*), but it’s missing the processing and some other high end equipment that your competition would already have.

WARNINGS:

I have a background working with computers (my first job was working as a repair tech, I still provide help desk services for my current employer from time to time, and I have a diploma in Computer Programming, even though I couldn’t create a “Hello World” program in C++ to save my life anymore), so things that were headaches for me may end up as migraines for you. I also don’t practically have time to troubleshoot issues for everyone, and I’m also not an expert on this. If you have a question, please feel free to comment/send me an e-mail (dose@adam-buckley.com) but I may or may not be able to respond to each one (others may be able to though).

Also, most of the prices I quote are from the PA Shop, a place I’ve dealt with very reliably from my first mic and firewire pre-amp to all my latest components. This is not a commercial for them, I don’t care where you buy your stuff from, but I’ll say I’ve never had any problems with them, so I have no problem recommending them.

THINGS YOU SHOULD HAVE BEFOREHAND:

Recording Software

Some pre-amps and mixers come with something, but some people I know like Audacity [http://audacity.sourceforge.net/] because it’s free and has a lot of functionality of more expensive recording and editing software. I personally use an old copy of Cool Edit Pro, because of how similar it is to Adobe, and how easily it detects a device that it can record from. I don’t know a lot about Audacity, only that a lot of people seem to make it work for themselves, so if you’re having trouble with that, I’m sure there are a number of tutorials written by the Audacity community that can help you.

A Quiet Area

I don’t know a thing about sound proofing, you might be able to find other articles written on that, but I will say it’s expensive. We’re just talking about something to get you up and running, if you want to start your own voice-over/narration business, the information here probably isn’t quite going to get you where you need to be for that. However, don’t be angry when you decide to use this as a guide to purchasing some items, then get mad when all your recordings have your neighbour’s music or screaming kids in it.

A Somewhat Decent Computer

You WILL have problems if you’re just going to try this with a $250 Netbook or low end laptop. You’ve been warned. Same goes for if you try to hook it up to your 5 year old PC. Also, is your computer’s fan really loud? If so, your mic is going to pick that up. The chain is only as strong as its weakest link, always keep that in mind.

Patience

Depending on your level of computer knowledge and technical abilities, this could be a bit of a chore. You might get frustrated half way through and just take it all back. Be patient, but if you think your problems are going to be too much to overcome, or this whole project is over your head, make sure you save your receipts.

 

#1 – THE SUPER EASY, CHEAPEST SOLUTION:

A USB Microphone (All in: Roughly $150 plus tax)

Things you’ll need:

A USB Microphone. Such as: Audio Technica AT2020USB (Price at PA Shop, $149.99)

http://www.pashop.com/site/php/products/productPage.php?name=AT2020USB

Well, it doesn’t get any easier or cheaper than this. It’s an entry level broadcast mic plugged into USB. You could buy a cheaper one if you want (See: the “Blue” series which you can pick up for around $100) or even a more expensive one (See: The Rode Podcaster, about $250 but my experience with it’s big brother, the Rode Procaster, was not a good one, so I could not recommend that without actually laying hands on one and I’m not about to spend $250 to find out), it’s not going to beat the sound you’ll get out of the other solutions I’ll discuss here, in fact it defeats the whole purpose of me even writing this (other than to tell you that you can record vocals in your house for $150), you could have typed “USB Microphone” into Google and you didn’t even need my help, but… here we are.

POTENTIAL ISSUES:

Control:

I have no idea what the driver of this is like, maybe it has some decent level controls… but if it doesn’t, you’re pretty well stuck at the mercy of whatever it gives you. There’s no controls on the mic itself, and the little research I’ve done doesn’t mention it coming with any such software.

Compatibility:

This mic may physically last for a while, but if the company doesn’t update drivers for it when a new Operating System comes out, you’re SOL. Also, no clue if it works on Macs (I actually have no clue if any of these solutions work on Macs by the way, I’ve been using PCs for 20 years and don’t have any interest in switching now, and I’m not going to buy hardware that’s upwards of 3 times the cost of the PC equivalent just because it’s shiny and well marketed).

Scalability:

It’s just a mic. I guess you could technically buy as many of them as you have USB ports, but there are no other inputs for an instrument or anything like that. Still, if all you want to do is record your voice with as few problems as possible, and you don’t think you’re tech savvy enough to attempt the more difficult solutions, this is probably the way to go.

 

#2 – THE EASY SOLUTION:

A Microphone & USB or Firewire Interface (All in: Roughly $285 plus tax to start)

Things you’ll need:

A Microphone. Recommended: Audio Technica AT2020 (Price at PA Shop, $107.23)
http://www.pashop.com/site/php/products/productPage.php?name=AT2020

A USB or Firewire Interface, Such As: Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 Portable USB Recording Interface (Price at PA Shop, $149.99)

http://www.pashop.com/site/php/products/productPage.php?name=Scarlett%202i2

An XLR cable (length will vary depending on your needs, Price At PA Shop, anywhere from $10 – $50, link below is a 6 foot cable for just under $10)
http://www.pashop.com/site/php/products/productPage.php?name=HXX-6

A Mic Stand. A simple desk stand will do for what you’re doing (Price at PA Shop, $16.49)
http://www.pashop.com/site/php/products/productPage.php?name=MS-105

I’m not officially recommending the Focusrite USB interface as I’ve never used it, but on paper it has what you need: A pre-amp with phantom power that plugs directly into USB, and some software to record into. I can however recommend the AT2020 as a great starter mic. It’s the same mic my college radio station used, it sounds well above what you might expect for under $110 (seriously, $110 for a broadcast-quality condenser mic… it’s fantastic). You could skimp a little more and pick up one of the Behringer C-series mics for $60 or $70 but I’m not about to recommend them.

This couldn’t get any easier. Install and connect the USB or Firewire Interface of your choosing, connect the microphone via XLR cable, set up your favourite software to record, and play with the knobs (or on some USB/Firewire Interfaces, the software settings) until you get something you’re happy with.

POTENTIAL ISSUES:

Latency

Latency is, essentially, when the computer can’t keep up with the input it’s getting (“lag” for you FPS gamers). Strange things can happen to your audio with this, the most common thing I’ve run into is that it “drags” words, distorting it by recording it even just a fraction longer than it was spoken. The driver software may allow you to correct this in the settings, by increasing the latency (so if you’re computer is having trouble keeping up, bump up the latency a few milliseconds and it should solve the problem, it did with my first interface plugged into a somewhat dying laptop). Ensure your drivers are all up to date as well, and that the product is actually compatible with your operating system.

Line Noise/Mic Noise

The pre-amps on a lot of these USB or Firewire Interfaces aren’t the most quiet thing in the world… you’re paying for the convenience of not needing certain items (like a decent sound card, or expertise with more complex equipment). Couple that with a cheaper mic, and no matter how quiet your room or computer is, you’re going to have a noticable “hum” in your recording if you gain it too high, but if you gain it too low your voice will need to be amplified via software, which is going to amplify the hum anyway. This is fine if you’re just doing this as a hobby, and may not even be all that noticeable to most people, but for professional work it’s not going to quite cut it. Studio hardware like Processors, Limiters and Gates can help with this, but now you’re getting into the real money… something like that, you’re not plugging into a USB interface, if you have that kind of money you’re using a mixer. Which brings us to…

 

#3 – THE MORE DIFFICULT (but still obtainable on a budget) SOLUTION:

A Microphone, Mixer, and Sound Card (possibly optional) (All In, Roughly $280 to start, much more expensive if you want it to be).

Things you’ll need:

A Microphone. Recommended: Audio Technica AT2020 (Price at PA Shop, $107.23)
http://www.pashop.com/site/php/products/productPage.php?name=AT2020

A Mixer. Recommended: Mackie 402-VLZ3 (Price at Long & McQuade, $99.00)

http://www.long-mcquade.com/products/6679/Pro_Audio_Recording/Mixers/Mackie/402-VLZ3_-_4_Channel_Compact_Mixer.htm

MAYBE OPTIONAL: A Sound Card (I’ll explain why this MAY be optional). Soundblaster Audigy SE (Price at TigerDirect.ca, $34.99)
http://www.tigerdirect.ca/applications/SearchTools/item-details.asp?EdpNo=4459743&Sku=C44-3400

An XLR cable (length will vary depending on your needs, Price At PA Shop, anywhere from $10 – $50, link below is a 6 foot cable for just under $10)
http://www.pashop.com/site/php/products/productPage.php?name=HXX-6

A Dual 1/4” to single 1/8” cable (length will vary depending on your needs, Price at PA Shop for a 15 foot cable, $14.00)

A Mic Stand. A simple desk stand will do for what you’re doing (Price at PA Shop, $16.49)
http://www.pashop.com/site/php/products/productPage.php?name=MS-105

That’s right… a Mackie Mixer for $99 (one of, if not the best brand of mixer, and not because of hype or advertising, they’re built to last and sound great). It’s only 4 channels, but we only need 1 anyway (this is a little more scalable if you want to add a 2nd mic, maybe add an instrument, etc). This is my current setup.

Plug the Mic into the XLR, Plug your 1/4” cables into the Main Outs, plug the other end of that cable into your line in/mic in port on your sound card or motherboard (SEE POTENTIAL ISSUES BELOW), and now you’re starting to put something pretty professional sounding together… here’s a sample of me speaking into a Rode NT1-A (retails around $260 for the mic, but it comes with a shock mount and pop filter so that’s handy).

Voice Test

That’s quality at an affordable price 🙂

So, you’re probably asking yourself “why wouldn’t I just do this, it’s almost the same price as the simpler way, I’m not really saving any money, and if I don’t need a sound card it’s actually cheaper, AND it sounds better than using that other junk!”

Here’s why:

POTENTIAL ISSUES:

Noisy Line In Port On Main Board:

Your motherboard might not have this problem… mine did. No matter what you plugged into it, it would record/output a high pitched whine. I don’t care how good you think you are as a producer, you’re not getting that out without severely ruining your recording. Easiest way to test to see if you have this problem is… plug anything into that port. Could be an MP3 player (using a 1/8” male to 1/8” male cable, plug one end into the MP3 player’s headphone jack, the other end into the mic port on your computer). Turn the MP3 player on, and record into your favourite software, making sure your levels are ok. Now, pause the music… does it still appear to be recording (your levels will still be hovering, and probably inconsistent)? If so, stop the recording and listen back to it, carefully. Notice that whiny humming? That’s interference because a) motherboard makers are cheap and don’t work too hard on that, they’re not meant for high quality audio recordings, and b) the motherboard also has so many other things it’s doing, it’s a wonder that noise isn’t worse. A dedicated sound card will get rid of that, however…

Sound Card Driver Issues:

What a nightmare it was installing my Soundblaster card. After installing it using the drivers that came with it, I was having what I believed to be the same latency issues as I’d had a few years back with my original starter setup (words being dragged and just weird sounds overall every 20-30 seconds, but this makes no sense considering I’m using a PC I custom built a year ago with some excellent specs, and had no problems with my Firewire interface). So, I updated the drivers, which eliminated that issue, but now everything sounded overly compressed, despite the settings claiming I was recording at a decent quality (16bit, 48000 Hz). Of course, when I installed the updated drivers, it also installed a boatload of other Creative Labs software. So, I uninstalled everything, reinstalled just the most up to date driver this time, and it was all good. Problem was, this took at least an hour and a half of my day to get sorted out. Oh, also you need to know how to physically install parts in your computer. If you don’t know how to do that, and your on-board mic port sounds like garbage, you’re pretty well screwed for this option.

Requires A Little More Knowledge Overall:

The first setup listed in this article is literally just plugging one cable in and then talking into a mic. The second setup is pretty easy too; there’s a couple knobs on the USB/Firewire Interface that are fairly self explanatory (“gain” means “louder” essentially, though don’t ever say this to my college Production teacher, he will cause you great pain). The Mackie mixer really isn’t that complex, in fact this model is about as easy as mixers get… but there’s a few more dials and knobs you need to be aware of. You’ve got your channel’s gain, you’ve got your channel’s level control, as well as some control over the high and low ends (some basic EQ/processing which can bring out your voice nicely), and then the Main Mix control. However, you don’t need to be that intimidated… just set everything to Unity (“12 O’Clock” most of the time, or so the line is pointing at the “U”) and then figure out levels from there.

If none of that deters you, and you’re willing to really give it a shot… I really recommend doing it this way. For less than $300, you’ve got something that’s going to last you years (Mackie mixers are notoriously durable, and if you take good care of your mic it’ll last as long as you need it to, I just recently sold my first AT2020, had it for over 3 years and there were no issues with it at all, I bet it’ll last another 7 easily), and could help you out with your career down the road, or make you a few bucks on the side (maybe you know a local group that could use your talents for a modest fee, or if you have a quiet enough room this may suffice for getting you started in the VO biz, or doing voice tracking for stations if you have some connections).

 

POSSIBLE FAQs

Q: I’ve got everything plugged into my mic port, all my levels look good and I’m seeing levels through the board, but nothing’s recording. What’s wrong with my equipment?!

A: Check to make sure your mic port is a) set to be the default recording device, and b) the “volume” (what a terrible word to use for a mic port) is up. This is generally done in the “Sounds” area of Control Panel in Windows.

Q: I see some mic cables are more expensive than others for the same length. Does it really matter if I buy a more expensive one?

A: To quote Reverend Lovejoy, “Short Answer ‘Yes’ with an ‘If’, long answer ‘No’… with a ‘but’”. Depends on what you’re going to be doing with them. The cables will degrade quicker than the rest of your stuff… are you planning on moving it around a lot? Unplugging it and plugging it back in? If No, the cheaper cables should do just fine. If you’re planning on using this as part of a PA system or for doing live remotes, you might want to consider the more expensive cables (Solution #3 will work for that, plug the main outs from the Mackie into a venue’s sound system instead of a computer, use the line-ins for a computer or something that plays music, and you’ve got a little mobile PA setup that could be used for sporting events, small event DJing, etc).

Q: I’m popping letters like P’s and T’s like crazy, is there anything I can do about this?

A: Sometimes mic technique is just not going to help (especially with a cheaper microphone where your recording is too low if you’re too far away from it). Consider getting a pop filter… I however do NOT recommend the RODE Pop Shield. It’s like $60 – $80, and though theoretically it should do a fantastic job (it’s big and metal and looks bad ass), it doesn’t. I felt like I was better off not having anything on the mic, since it also kind of blocks your vision (making script reading more difficult when the mic is on the same desk as your monitors). Just get one of the round fabric ones, like this: http://www.pashop.com/site/php/products/productPage.php?name=MWS-56DLX. Always remember to try and keep your face about 4 to 6 inches from the mic and just a touch off-axis (not speaking directly into the middle of it) and that should help too. And of course, you can always edit them out (but that’s another tutorial for another day).

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