Recording Environment: 11 Tips for Capturing Quality Audio When You Don’t Have a Studio
I am currently living on the coast of England. I have a big bay window overlooking the ocean, which has always been a dream of mine, and when I’m lying in bed, I feel like I’m in an infinity pool.On a clear day, I can France.
All this might sound pretty magical, and it is. However, my housing situation is pretty random: I’m a lodger living with a Sri Lankan family and two other guys renting rooms here. This is not the ideal podcasting environment.
There are always people chatting in various parts of the house. Seagulls squawk outside my very large, glass window, which lets in a ton of street noise because a little road runs along the coast between my room and the sea. I have high ceilings. Right now, a helicopter is flying around for some reason and someone just fired up a lawnmower. So, I have a room with a gorgeous view, but also a number of recording challenges. On episode six of Podcasting Step by Step, I talk about how to create a quality-sounding podcast when you’re recording environment is not so great.
How sound works
When you speak, sound waves bounce around the room, and when they hit hard surfaces, like windows and tiles, this can cause an echo-y sound in your podcast that you don’t want. This is why you should never record in a bathroom, even if it seems like a quiet place.
Record in a closet
Soft surfaces, like clothes, can absorb the sound waves, which is why a lot of podcasters record their shows in their closets. If you can fit in there with your equipment, go for it. I don’t even have a closet, just a wooden wardrobe. So if you’ve got a closet that you can walk into, you are doing pretty well for yourself, my friend. I do have carpeting, though, which helps absorb the sound waves.
Close your windows and turn off machines that make noise
Turn off air conditioners and fans. If your computer is working overtime and sounds like an airplane about to take off, restart it. In fact, it’s a good idea to restart your computer anyway before a remote interview to give it a little refresh.
Cover up hard surfaces
Close the curtains. Lay a blanket or towel on your desk under your equipment.
Hide under the blankets
In a pinch, throw a coat or a blanket over your head and the microphone to reduce room reflections. NPR reporters are famous for doing this when recording outside the studio. I’ve seen photos of them in what looks like little pillow forts in their hotel rooms.
Wait until no one else is home to record
If the house is free for an afternoon, I’ll go downstairs to record in the living room. That environment isn’t the best, either, because it’s a lot of glass and hard surfaces, but at least there’s not the constant hum of cars. I lay a towel on the table and then surround my mic and computer with pillows and a big, fluffy duvet.
Help out your guests
If you are doing an interview with a guest, you want their recording environment to sound good, as well. If they are in a noisy office with other people talking, that sound is going to get picked up and will be really distracting to your listener. So give them a heads up before the interview on what they need to do to prepare.
For example, if you’re doing a Skype recording, tell them to record in a quiet place with strong wifi, or, even better, to plug their ethernet cable directly into their computer. Like you, they’ll need to wear headphones to prevent feedback, and they should turn off any programs not essential to the interview, as well as notifications.
Use a dynamic, cardioid microphone
As I mentioned in the last episode on podcast equipment, most podcasters would benefit from using the ATR2100 or the Samsun Q2U.The cardioid polar pattern on these mics mean they are picking up what is in front of them -- you -- and less background noise. These dynamic mics are less sensitive than condenser mics like the Blue Yeti, which pick up all the noise around them.
Point your mic away from the noise you don’t want picked up
If I have to record in my room, I will sit as far from the window as I can. The mic will be facing me and will be opposite the window with the street noise.
I speak about a fist away from the mic, slightly off axis rather than straight into the top of it so I can avoid those harsh plosive sounds made by words that start with ‘p’ and ‘b.’ The farther away I move from the mic, the quieter I’ll be, so I can’t stray too far. You have to stay close.
FYI, if you already have the Yeti, know that this is a ‘side address’ mic and that you’re not supposed to speak into the top of it, but from the side, and make sure to choose the cardioid polar pattern when podcasting.
Record 5 seconds of silence before you start speaking
Most rooms in which you will record will have some kind of noise to them. Capturing a few seconds of room tone without your voice will make it easier for you to remove the white-noise buzz of the room later when you’re cleaning up your audio. You’ll do this via a process called noise reduction, which you’ll find in your Digital Audio Workstation, like Adobe Audition or Audacity.
Sound treat your walls
If, unlike me, you live like a normal person and have a home, you could build your own studio if you have an extra room. This means rugs or carpet for the floor and acoustic foam for the walls. Or you could just use mattress foam or packing blankets, or any blanket you have.
I recently bought a portable vocal booth, which basically looks like a U-shaped piece of gray acoustic foam that is, as the packaging says, “designed to give outstanding absorption efficiency.” I’m not sure this is actually doing anything that a duvet can’t do, and I also question the portability as my carry on is pretty small, so I won’t recommend this one.
If you are feeling ambitious and want to build your own DIY studio, here are some videos of what other podcasters have done:
Record in a studio
If you have a bit of a budget, see if there is a recording studio near you that you can use. I’m not living in a massive city, but I learned that there are several recording studios near me, and they are not outrageously expensive. They rent space by the hour and by the day, and it’s cheaper the more hours you book. So, you could plan out several solo episodes, or line up several interviews back-to-back, and then go into the studio and get a month’s worth of shows recorded in one go.
You can also look into community centers that might have a space you could use for free, and this could be a great opportunity to give something back, like by giving a talk or workshop on whatever your podcast is about. Local, community radio stations might also be willing to give you recording space in exchange for airing your show, and that’s a win for everyone.
Summing it all up
Your recording environment is so important. Unexpected things happen. I was once about to record a remote interview and a neighbor started drilling. So I ran next door and kindly asked him if he could wait an hour. He did.
There’s the adage ‘garbage in, garbage out,’ meaning if you record bad audio, that’s what you’re going to end up with. There is only so much audio engineering can fix. So, record as cleanly as you can to make your editing and mixing life easier later on.