Improving the quality of your podcast vocals isn’t rocket science, but it does require attention to some aspects of the recording process that you might otherwise overlook. After all, sound engineers and producers spend years honing their craft, and voice actors and radio characters need to develop at least one mic engineering module. Understanding the basics of microphone characteristics, whether USB or XLR mic, will help you approach your recording with more confidence.
Understanding Polar Patterns of Micro
We’re not going to delve into the magic of how the sound leaving your mouth is converted to the correct sound in your recording platform. It’s interesting if you want a good understanding of how things work. Still, for this story, we’ll focus on the first aspect of microphone operation, which is important information for anyone hoping to make a quality record: Polar Patterns.
A mic’s polar pattern refers to how its diaphragm accepts or rejects sound. For instance, does it reject sound coming from the sides? Does it reject the sound happening behind it? Today, many mics have more than one model, which often uses multiple capsules inside a single mic housing. But usually, XLR (and many USB) mics have a fixed pattern. There are several templates out there, but here we will focus on the most popular options.
In the diagrams, the polarity is shown as a circle. A full circle represents the possible 360 degrees of a sound field, and parts of the circle removed in the diagram represent areas in the surrounding sound field where the mic refuses or cannot record sound. That is a gradual measurement where the mic doesn’t cut suddenly. It will usually fade in or out of an area where it emits sound or rejects it, so the resulting shape of Polar patterns will often be rounded bubble-like areas to represent this fading.
That is easily the most popular model you will find. It looks a bit like an upside-down, oddly drawn heart. The valley between the two rounded parts of the heart shape represents an area where the mic rejects sound from education, and since this area is at the bottom of the diagram, it refers to the space behind the mic housing.
So the cardioid mic accepts sound mainly from the dead state, addressing the capsule by speaking directly into it. Move to the sides a bit, and the signal is somewhat weaker. Move to the opposite end of the mic; sound from that area will be mostly rejected. It’s gradual, of course, that the capsule will pick up sound from this area, but it doesn’t pick up as much.
Live recorded audio will usually sound closer to the mic, and sounds in areas of mic signal rejection or near them will sound different; From these areas, you’ll hear more reflections from walls and other surfaces than direct signals into the capsule itself.
Therefore, the Cardioid is ideal for recording a single speaker (or musician) and capturing a little less room for reflection or any other sound behind the mic. Super and Hypercardioid models are more directional versions of cardioid patterns, which can better isolate your sound source in a room full of speakers, musicians, or other sounds.
Some mics can capture comparable levels of live sound when processed from the front or rear. Their diagram looks more or less like figure eight. These mics are common for many applications, but the obvious two choices are when you have two speakers or singers that you want to have on the same channel or track when you mix. If two people face each other, like an interview or a two-person podcast, a properly placed octagonal microphone between them can capture the conversation into a mono track.
The eight mics are also useful for capturing live signals. Such as a slight echo in a large room. In a room with high ceilings or highly reflective surfaces, chosen for these characteristics, a figure-eight mic can often capture a bit of the magic of that room along with a live signal from a sound source, be it a speaker or a guitar sound.
As the name suggests, this model’s scheme looks more or less like a full circle; it can pick up sound at relatively equal levels whether it’s handled from the front, back or side. The advantages here are many. Want to capture the bustling sounds of a busy restaurant or subway station? The Omni is ideal for recording mono environmental sounds (don’t confuse them with stereo microphones or stereo field recorders, use two capsules placed close together to get a stereo representation) of an environment that will record to dual tracks). Perhaps a roundtable discussion? If the desk is literally round and not too big, placing each speaker in a foot or so of the mic could theoretically get a fairly even podcast on one track.
However, the more speakers you record, the more likely you want to set up multiple microphones to capture audio. Since USB microphones aren’t made for multi-microphone scenarios (most recording systems can only use one USB microphone at a time), here’s how to record multiple speakers over USB. It may not be ideal, but it’s your best typical mic model for a single mic scenario if you have a group of people talking. Of course, the challenge will be to get each one to match the other’s level so that certain speakers don’t stand out while others seem lackluster. That brings us to the mic technique.
Techniques of using a mic
Just as acting on stage requires a special style of vocal presentation compared to acting on camera, speaking into a microphone requires techniques that are more radically different than you might have guessed when it comes to speaking in real-life daily. To understand why let’s discuss some of the most obvious factors that can affect vocal recording.
The P sound, the F sound, and a variety of other consonant combinations create a varying degree of air movement. The less experienced the speaker, the more likely their sound will send an unwanted breeze through the microphone. That can often distort a recording, but it rarely sounds good even if it doesn’t.
How do you prevent plots from destroying recordings? Well, even the pros will allow some pop to pop into the mic at once, but the two keys to getting rid of the elements are pop filters and better mic technique.
A pop filter attaches to the mic holder and places a thin layer of usually perforated nylon or metal (through which sound passes easily) between the speaker and the mic. Ideally, when a plosive hits the filter, the airflow is dispersed relatively silently and doesn’t reach the mic, but the sound coming out of it with the P or F word remains. In other words, it takes a plot and makes it a much more good sound.
Filters can’t do it alone. The microphone technique is integral to the elements. I’ve recorded professional voice actors in my previous career and was surprised to see some skilled speakers refuse to use pop filters. They don’t want a barrier between them and the microphone, and so they hon their mic technique to the point of needlessness. The average person (probably most of the people you’ll be recording) shouldn’t go for a sans pop filter. Still, by cleverly taking your mouth out of the diaphragm on plosive sound, you can avoid many of the problems that your amplifier might have a pop filter is generated. It’s also about limiting lip movement on the plastics, and it takes a lot of practice to get a natural sound while doing this. But people can give it a try and hear some results. Combining a mic technique like this with a pop filter? It’s a solid combo.
Pop filters will help reduce sibilance, which is often the result of too much EQ in the mids and highs. Too little complexity in a recording makes it less understandable for the listener; you need a certain level to understand the language.
A pure signal from a mic worth its weight won’t make much of a signal to the equation, and in general, most people won’t overextend themselves. There are exceptions, of course, but if everything sounds too “confused,” try adjusting the EQ between 4kHz-8kHz. Sibilance will usually be in that range, but it can vary. You want to focus on a narrow range of frequencies here and then lower the levels a bit, which usually means using a peak-style EQ and not a shelf-style EQ (which will raise or lower any frequencies above or under it, depending on what type of shelf it is). You can usually see the type you’re using in any decent EQ plug-in.
Unless the possibility is unbearable, it’s probably best to make the EQ adjustments after you record, so you have more flexibility.
This mic technique works especially well for people with deep, baritone voices (though it holds for all voices). The closer the speaker (or any sound, really) is to the mic, the lower the frequencies, like the bass in a speaker’s voice, will come out in a recording. The difference between eight inches and four inches from the mic would be quite dramatic. All in all, it’s not just a louder recording, but the bass levels on closer vocals sound more punchy. Maybe that sounds good, but it’s rarely for vocals unless you’re going to create a bass effect.
Someone with a deep voice doesn’t need extra help from the mic to make it sound like they do. They need the clarity that a mic’s crisp response can provide, and adding bass to the equation often makes things sound explosive or muddy. If the subject of your recording sounds too low or rich in bass, ask them to step back a few inches or take a small step back from the mic and play with the distance between the speaker’s mouth and the microphone until the frequencies are low domesticated.
That is pretty obvious, but where you’re recording will have a huge impact on the recording, and I’m not just talking about whether you hear a car horn in the background. A room with lots of glass or tiled surfaces will sound very much like an echo, like most bathrooms or stairs. A room covered floor-to-ceiling in carpet and sound-absorbing materials will sound deadly, and while this can be advantageous, the most natural sound will likely be somewhere in between, leaning towards the end of the sound of death.
You can record in a direct-reflex room without speakers that sound like you’re in an echo chamber. Try surrounding your speakers with creative and non-reflective materials. Recording studios with large living rooms can use cloth-covered shields, called gobos, to isolate instruments in the same room, which works to a great extent. Not only does it block some outside ambient sounds, but it can also cut down on reflections. You can make your gobo or hang some blankets to whatever height suits you or move the speaker near a set of curtains.
Experiment with this in mind: Hard, shiny, or polished surfaces are often the most reflective (tile, glass, some metals), and soft surfaces like fabric tend to absorb reflections (pillows, blankets, drapes, foam, you get the idea). Wood surfaces fall somewhere in between (depending on the finish and type of wood). It can be desirable to produce a natural sound when combined with some nearby sound-absorbing materials.
Hopefully, this is a no-brainer, but you need to gain proficiency in your subject before recording. Ask the speaker to give you their actual loudest voice, with the volume up or fader buttons on very low; slowly raise the level until the speaker’s voice is regularly holding the volume at the middle; without going into the red zone. If at all the red areas show dangerous peaks, causing distortion.
A good rule of thumb for recording inexperienced vocalists: Almost no one will give you the loudest volume when you ask them to because they will consciously limit themselves a bit. So it’s safer to assume the loudness you get is that about 80 percent of your audience will tuck into the mic while singing, laughing, or screaming without thinking about it. In other words: Record at a lower level to avoid distortion. You can always run particularly dynamic or inauspicious vocals through a dynamic compressor; many engineers apply compression while recording.
EQ and Compression
EQ and Compression are best used after recording until you fully understand how they work, possibly an entire textbook, so that we won’t go into the details. However, keep in mind that your EQ and Compression will be quite subtle unless you use specific audio effects, as enhancing the high mids or squashing the peaks with a high compression ratio will result in amateur sound recording.
For your podcast, you’re probably looking for a fairly transparent and clean natural sound. If your mics lack the mid-high range, by all means, give them a decibel or three. If it sounds muddy, you can also try cutting some of the low or low mid frequencies a bit. If sibilance is an issue, try what is discussed in the section above. For Compression, try to avoid going beyond 4:1; although this will depend on many factors, it’s hardly a rule. It’s also worth pointing out that if mic placement and vocal talent match, some recordings will sound so good that no compression and EQ is needed. It’s certainly worth mentioning that a lot of USB mics have added a bit of both if they’re using DSP (digital signal processing). Every mic is different.
Use the right mic you need
If you’re in the market for a microphone, you probably know what you want to use it. But it’s important to realize that a high-end mic geared toward musicians can offer more fidelity (and less convenience) than you need to record a podcast.
We tested a variety of microphones and USB accessories to determine which is best for podcasts, among other scenarios (as well as different budgets). Check out our guide to the best USB microphones for a deep dive into choosing the right model for you.
Believe in Your Ears
The most important thing is to really listen to what you’re recording through headphones and also on speakers, if possible. When we learn something new, it can be overwhelming, and we can let some things slip that we don’t necessarily accept when listeners check out other people’s recordings. When the speaker raises his voice or laughs, is the sound distorted? Does someone move around too much so that sometimes they sound very close and other times? Do you get the annoying sound of rustling clothes or a plastic water bottle being put down? Do plots make every word with a P sound like a miniature explosion?
It’s a good idea to model your audio, at least at first, after a podcast you think is very well recorded. You may not have a professional studio and multi-mic setup, but even those scenarios still require basic mic placement and technique and getting the level right. Your goal is to position the mic in a position that will give you sound that requires little to no EQ and little to no compression; the more experienced you are recording, the easier this will be. Even if you’re recording someone in front of the mic, it’s your job to coach them. Try to do source by communicating with the speaker rather than “fix the error in the mix,” as the old industry says.
The bottom line is: Don’t overthink it, and trust your instincts when something stands out to you as bad; deal with it. When everything sounds good, note where the speaker’s mouth is relative to your mic and gain. Listen to what you’re recording and monitor your ears. Your recording will need less help with the mixing as you focus on getting the best sound through the mic in the first place.
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