Collage of audio equipment / Copyright FOTW Audio Productions, 2016

Basic Audio Production for spoken word – an FOTW primer!

Collage of audio equipment / Copyright FOTW Audio Productions, 2016Rode NT2A mic with shockmount ~ Hindenburg Journalist ~ M-Track II with KRK6 speakers

Someone recently asked a FB group I belong to about what is some good gear to get started with for doing voice-overs. I was immediately tempted to fill up an FB comment box with endless text, but fortunately, I was on the train on my way home from work. Instead, it gave me a chance to plan it as a proper post about audio production for voice, and the gear you will need to do it with.

Though I am not a podcaster, I am mostly working with spoken voice recordings, adding music and sound effects for single features and audio stories; as well as putting together a live pop-up channel each Halloween. Last year, I also taught a class on how to use Hindenburg software to make short audio features for journalists, which gave me a chance to consolidate some of my knowledge.

Anyway, these are some of the  main things you will need if you want to start recording your voice for ads, audio stories, or podcasts. If you are careful and hunt around, I think that you could limit your total spending to around $800-1200 AUD, and still have a professional sounding rig.

A deceIcon of microphonent microphone. I am not an audio engineer, but you cannot skimp on your mic if you want good sounding audio. Most of the well-made, good quality brands will cost from somewhere between $150-500. Don’t buy a cheap USB mic — they are not powerful enough for high-quality audio. I have a RODE NT-2A condenser mic, but I also know that their NT-1A is also good and a little bit cheaper.

An audio cSound Waveonverter. This will convert the ‘analogue’ signal of your microphone into a ‘digital’ signal for your computer. So basically that means running a 3-pin XLR cable from your microphone into the 3-pin XLR socket of the audio converter, and then a USB cable into your computer — that’s it. You can also plug your headphones into the audio converter and control the volume from there. I use an M-Track II which cost me $100 AUD.

Icon of laptopA recording program. You need a means to record the audio onto your computer — and then be able to edit it (which means cutting out the rough bits) — and then mixing it (creating layers of sound and balancing the levels of the final output). These programs are sometimes called DAWS (Digital Audio Workstations) and should allow you to do three main things:

  • Record and create original sound files
  • Edit the individual sound file (by adjusting the volume and removing the parts you don’t want through cutting and pasting)
  • Mix all of the individual sound files together in a ‘multi-track’ environment into a single, final audio file

This kind of technology comes from the music industry, and ProTools has become the industry standard. However, I have always used Adobe Audition which started life in the 90s as a free program called ‘Cool Edit’.

Over the last five years, I have also started using another program called Hindenburg Journalist which is specifically designed for radio producers in the Public Radio sphere and is a lot cheaper than many of the others. It also easy to learn, following the same principles of sound mixing as the other programs, making it no problem to transfer your skills across to them, if you need to.

Icon of headphonesReference headphones and speakers. You need to be able to hear what you are recording in the way that it most ‘accurately’ sounds. However, most commercial speakers and headphones cannot do this, as they are designed for the retail market and so have had tiny adjustments made to them to sweeten and boost the overall sound.

Basically, you can start out with just a good pair of ‘reference’ headphones. I use a pair of Sennheiser HD-448, which have lasted me for about 4 years. They have been discontinued, but there are other models that do a similar thing. But don’t spend more than $150-300 on them; many of the more expensive headphones around are developed for the high-end stereo market, rather than audio production.

Icon of stereo speakerReference speakers. Later on when you feel more familiar with sound production, and can afford it, I absolutely recommend getting a good pair of reference speakers. I put this off for too long, and didn’t realize how crucial they were until I went into a proper studio and could hear what my audio really sounded like, all the mistakes that I couldn’t pick out through mixing in my headphones alone! So I then bought a second-hand pair of KRK Rokit 6 speakers for $300 AUD, and this vastly improved everything! I can also plug them directly into my M-Track audio converter, so there is not much setting up involved.

Icon of someone shh-ingA quiet space. This is also fundamentally important. You don’t want a bare room that has too much reverb. You want a room full of stuff that will absorb some of the sound that usually bounces off bare walls. A microphone will also pick up so much more than your ears can notice — so any street noise like construction work, passing cars and birds in the evening, TV in another room, will all be recorded along with your voice. You can speak close to your mic — and that will help to overshadow some of the background ambient noise. If you are working at a professional level, you might consider building a special soundproof room, or teaming up with a professional studio, where you can go in and record your final takes on big projects.

Plugins. Icon of robot faceThese are little software programs that have dedicated tasks, like creating artificial reverb or crazy robotic voice effects that you can ‘plugin’ to your DAW. Many of the DAWs come with a set of their own plugins. However, it is always good to find out what else is around, and what other people use to polish their sound — and then give it a try with your own voice. Here is a very professional set of free effects plugins from Kjaerhaus that I have always used.

Icon of sound fileExtras. A pop-filter is good for catching the ‘plosive’ sounds from saying the letters  p, t, k  which often create a ‘pop’ and spike in your recording, and are the kind of things you either need to re-record or cut out during the editing stage.

If you only need to record and edit audio, then Audacity is a very powerful free program for audio production. However, it’s not so good for mixing, as it doesn’t the ability to ‘multitrack’ properly.

Icon of radio broadcast towerFinal word. Always ask people for advice. There is no harm in it: people will always share what they feel like sharing, and keep to themselves what they feel like keeping to themselves — so it’s all good! Pro audio and music equipment shops are also the best places to go, as staff will always be able to explain to you anything that you can’t get your head around on your own. Also, look out for any short audio courses that you can do.

Audio is also very flexible, and has become relatively cheap to make, especially that there is this wonderful distribution model called the internet. However, try and do something original; don’t model yourself too much on other people, otherwise you won’t have a point of difference in what you are doing.

Look after your hearing, too. This is very important. Give your ears a break, the way you would your eyes with reading. Switch intermittently between headphones and speakers. Also, don’t always listen to things with the volume full bore — save that for the pleasure of your final mix. It is very easy to damage your ears, and something like tinnitus can really make your life miserable!

The American radio website Transom.org has been a massive help to me over the years, especially the technical articles by radio producer Jeff Towne.

Finally, get a good lamp for working at night and keep a few snickers bars handy.

Icon of old fashioned radio

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