Podcasts & Sound Production: Hardware

As a first-year undergraduate student, I was enrolled in electrical engineering and worked in sound production. My ‘plan’ was to get picked-up by sound production company and drop out of school to work on band tours. Parts of the ‘plan’ worked out, I worked for a couple production companies with numerous bands; others did not, I never dropped out of school and, in the end, have spent more of my life in school than not.

I start with that brief bio to add some context to the rest of this series of posts. Recently, there have been several conversations around topics of ‘sound production’ (usually, not using that term) and podcasts. A friend asked for some recommendations on technical hardware and several people have asked me about preferences for editing software. These two different elements are tied to each other in production and I want to layout some of my preferences, as well as some of the things to think about in terms of producing good quality recordings for Podcasts. In this first post, I want to discuss the basic elements of hardware and go through pre-recording stuff. In later posts, I will talk about audio editing, some tricks and good practices in recording, and things to do after you have recorded your show in the editing process.

Hardware Basics

Podcasts are relatively simple to put together and can be done easily with a minimal amount of ‘stuff’ (hardware and software). What is slightly more complicated, and takes up the most time, is the behind-the-scenes work of editing. Therefore, I want to briefly discuss the hardware and pieces that go into the recording, and then turn to the editing in later posts. I’ll put links to recommended hardware and software throughout all the posts. I am Mac user and the availability of GarageBand in Apple software packages means I will make reference to that program, as a baseline. Other programs are available and there are some really good free, open-source options (LMMS being a great one).

The basic circuit layout is a person speaking into a microphone, which is connected to an audio interface via an XLR cable. The interface connects through USB to the computer and the software allows for mixing the sound input and track recording. My perfectionist-side thinks that using microphones is better than computer built-in microphones, as it allows you to single out issues and edit them without causing further problems. So, taking a basic interview as what is being reordered, you will need: 2 microphones; 2 XLR cables; 1 audio interface (USB cables are usually included), computer with recording software. Most audio interfaces have a headphone jack (1/4 input, not a mini-jack phone type headphones), which is helpful for editing and setting levels before you record.

Microphones

There are 2 types of microphones: dynamic mics and condenser mics. Dynamic mics are versatile mics that do not require power and are made up of a coil of wire set in a magnetic field. The Shure SM58 is a standard performance mic that is pretty rugged and does the job (built around voice amplification). Condenser mics require power, which it draws from the audio interface, and uses a diaphragm to conduct vibrations. If you go with a condenser mic, you will need to make sure the interface has ‘phantom power’. Most interfaces do, but check, otherwise the mic will not work. Condenser mics are usually slightly more expensive, but in general ‘pick-up’ more sound than dynamic mics. Blue makes a USB version of the Snowball, in which case you do not need an audio interface.

Mics are also described in terms of their directional pick-up settings, either cardioid or omnidirectional. Cardioid mics pick-up sounds from the front, while omnidirectional will pick-up sound from all sides. Cardioid is probably best, as I prefer 1 mic per person. You will also need cables: XLR the type and 20 ft is a standard length (although, you probably do not need that long a length)

Now some placement and best practices for mics: if you have a dynamic mic you need to keep it close to your mouth (about a hands distance). The mic has a limited range of pick-up so, if you move away from the mic or if you turn your face, the sound will drop. You want a consistent volume and this requires you to limit movements and face the mic. Condenser mics will pick-up more sound and so, you do not need to be quite so, on the mic. The trade off is that it also picks-up more background noise, which can make the recording messy. In this sense, the place where you decide to record is also important. If it is a noisy room there are some tricks you do to cut out some of that noise, like using a gate (I will discuss using gates in another post, as it requires some explanation).

Now, I mentioned above that I prefer a mic per person, rather than trying to catch everyone with one mic. This is an issue of control, as each mic has a separate audio line allowing you to set the gain (volume) and EQ for each. If one person is louder/quieter than the other, the separate audio lines can be ‘mixed’ (referring to the act of setting or adjusting the audio mixer) to produce a balanced volume. I am sure we have all heard the either to loud or to quiet voices, which strain the listener. (In many ways, the best audio is unnoticed. If I had a great show, the folks in the audience would hardly notice what I was doing.)

Audio Interface

Audio interfaces are the bit that converts the microphone single into a digital single. Most have some basic features that are helpful in getting things set. Most are similar and have mic inputs (usually 2 but you can get 4), gain (controls the volume of the incoming single), headphone input and volume control, and (most) have a ‘monitor’ controls for recording over playback (for music recording).

Audio interface tips: you want the audio single coming in to be high enough that you have space to work with. This does not mean turning the gain all the way up, but making sure that the person talking peaks into the yellow range (‘Peak’ is audio lingo for the loudest noise). If you are hitting the red (the highest level), you will begin to distort so, make sure you are not turned up to the level (it’s also bad for the longevity of your equipment).

You will want both lines to sound balanced. This does not mean that each line will be at the same level, but you want then to sound about the same. You will quickly learn your own starting level the more you record, but it is always good to double check before you start recording. The better balanced the levels are when you record, the less time you will have to spend fixing the balance during editing.

Your other option is to hire a sound engineer to do all the editing…

Interfaces: M-Audio M-Track II; Behringer UMC202HD; PreSonus AudioBox iTwo

Bundles (Interface, headphones and mic): Presonus iTwo Recording Bundle (Amazon.com); M-Audio Vocal Studio Pro (Amazon.com)

Feel free to contact me, if you have any questions or want recommendations for specific things. In the next post, I will discuss some of the basics of audio recording software.

 

Registration Open for Religious Movement and Sensory Experience in Antiquity!

Registration is open for our upcoming conference Religious Movement and Sensory Experience in Antiquity, 12 June 2015. The conference fee is £10 and includes tea/coffee and lunch throughout the day.

Click here to register

Conference Program: Religious Movement and Sensory Experience (12 June 2015)

I posted the program for our conference, Religious Movement and Sensory Experience in Antiquity, on the conference page (as well as academia.edu). Registration should open soon and there is limited space so, keep an eye out here or on the Liverpool Classicists list for the registration email.

I’m excited for the conference and look forward to some great papers. It will be interesting to bring together a variety of scholars working on similar themes in diverse contexts. Should be a great day!

Current Reading

Current Reading

Since it’s a bank holiday weekend and I’m spending my time catching up on work I need to get done, I thought I would quickly post on my current reading, as all of it pertains to non-classics topics right now. Most of this reading pertains to my methodology and intro chapter. So, here we go:

Urban Studies: I picked up Henri Lefebvre’s Toward An Architecture of Enjoyment, edited by Stanek (2014) and de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life, translated by Rendall (1984). Both of these theorists are at the centre of my approach to urbanism, spatial theory and everyday life. It was good to revisit de Certeau’s work, as well as read the recent publication of a book Lefebvre wrote in 1973. Lefebvre’s Architecture of Enjoyment is a great reminder of some of the points Lefebvre develops in Production of Space (published the year after Architecture of Enjoyment). It is interesting to see certain ideas fully developed in Architecture of Enjoyment, that are not as clearly argued in Production of Space.

Sound Studies: Don Idhe (2007, 2nd ed.) Listening and Voice: Phenomenologies of Sound; Barry Truax (2001, 2nd ed.) Acoustic Communication; Brandon Labelle (2010) Acoustic Territories: Sound Culture and Everyday Life; Jacques Attali (2009, originally published in 1977) Noise: The Political Economy of Music; Robert Jütte (2005) A History of the Senses: From Antiquity to Cyberspace; and Matthew Gandy, BJ Nilsen (eds.) (2014) The Acoustic City. Still working my way through these…

I also picked up a new camera! I had a Nikon D60 from 2005-6 that had traveled with me to Africa (several times), Europe, and all over North America. It was a great camera and I loved using it. However, it has been slowly acting up (the auto focus was noticeably slow and not able to focus) and it was getting harder and harder to use. I looked around at a couple different compact DSLRs and CSC cameras and went with the Canon EOS M (the 3M should be out soon so, got a great deal on the old model). Its small, like a point and shot, but has changeable lenses and many of the DSLR functions. I’m excited to test it out this week, as I’ll be headed to Canterbury Cathedral for a Spatial Humanities workshop Tuesday and Wednesday. For now, it’s back to the books.

Ancient ‘House Parties’ or Explaining the use of crowd noise predictors

Currently, I’m still working on my chapter covering internal acoustics of various spaces in Ostia. My last post touched on the role of doors in shops, one of the spaces I analyse, and now I’m working through the various forms of residential structures, mainly houses and apartments. I pulled an older study of apartments and houses in Ostia off the shelf and started going back through bits of study, especially the authors discussion of particular apartments. While the architectural discussion was useful, I was more fascinated by one of the appendices, which had every building in Ostia with the authors calculation of inhabitants. Each building had a suggested height (# of stories), number of flats and total number of inhabitants. This was just the sort of random list I find fascinating and started playing around with the population numbers. Where was the densest population in the city? Which building had the most people? What was the average number of people per building in each of the five regions of Ostia? And finally, what would the range of noise levels if I ran the population numbers through a crowd noise prediction formula?

This final question lead me to start yet another spreadsheet with the all the buildings and their corresponding crowd noise prediction levels. As expected the range of noise levels was fairly consistent, as the per building population numbers were also fairly consistent. But once I had my spreadsheet, I figured I would map the predictive noise onto a few neighbouring buildings and see what would happen. I quickly realised that I had a couple of problems I need to address. Was I going to assume all the inhabitants were in the same space, as the crowd prediction formula assumed, or would I rerun the formula for each individual habitation on each floor. Thus, and for the sake of entertainment, I assumed that each building had it’s own ‘house party’ with all the inhabitants from that building in one flat! It was perfect! An ancient frat party in each building and now I had something even better to find in mapping the sounds. Where would you go to read a book away from all the noise? Having looked at the acoustics of the internal spaces and having worked out the noise levels for my ancient ‘house party’, I sought to find the quietest place where my ancient equivalent would go to get away from all those people.

I’m not sure how my supervisors will feel about my referring to crowd noise predictions as ‘house parties’ but it was entertaining.