Do you already have a computer with a sound card that can act as your digital recorder? You just need to add some inexpensive recording equipment and software to your PC, and you can produce high-quality, effective voice recordings easily. What other gear do you need?
Microphone. To get your voice into the computer, you need a microphone. Don’t use the crummy little one that came with your computer. High-quality, inexpensive mics abound and sound far better than that trash. For basic voice work, I’d suggest either the Shure SM57 or SM58. These are rugged, good-sounding dynamic microphones. The ’58 is especially suited for female voice as it reduces sibilance (excessive esses) somewhat. Males can choose either. Both mics are available from music or audio equipment suppliers for under $100 (American Musical Supply, BH Photo/Video, Musician’s Friend, and others). Also, get a proper mic cable and a desk stand to hold the mic while you’re speaking.
Microphone preamp. Microphones put out such a low amount of electricity that their signal needs to be boosted. The sound card’s mic input includes the necessary preamplifier. Unfortunately, much like the cheapo mic that shipped with your box, most sound card mic preamps are too noisy for serious work. In a pinch you could use it, but at least, use it with a better mic.
For the preamp, you can choose either a small mixer to work with your mic or a dedicated device. Mixers essentially let you connect several microphones and other devices (such as a CD player) to one place and adjust their volumes independently. The Behringer Eurorack MX602A 6 Input Mixer has microphone inputs, level controls, and costs less than $60. Alternately, two good choices for stand-alone preamps include the DBX Mini-Pre Tube Mic Pre-amp and the ART Tube MP Studio V3 Mic Pre-amp. Both are under $125 and available from the same sources listed above.
If you do a lot of recording invest in higher quality mics, preamps, and a dedicated computer audio interface. Two better mic choices include the Marshall 2003 and the Rode NT1. For preamp needs, choose a combination preamp and computer audio interface device such as the Edirol UA-5 or M-Audio Duo.
Speakers and headphones. While computer speakers are adequate for recording, editing, and finishing basic recordings, those built-in to laptops are useless. Invest in some decent powered speakers, such as the Roland MA-8 Micro Monitors, and use them instead. Play your recordings on a variety of systems–home stereo, car, etc.–to check how they translate to other listening environments. Also, you can’t listen on speakers when recording because they’ll feedback when the microphone is on. Wear closed-ear headphones that keep sound leaking from them from being picked up by the mic.
Recording software. Choose recording software with editing facilities for fixing mistakes, compiling the best bits, adding music and/or sound effects, creating special effects, and delivering your finished voice tracks in the formats you need. A “light” version of a professional recording program is Sonic Foundry’s Sound Forge Studio 6.0
Quiet recording space. Your goal is to record a clear, intimate voice track, and that means keeping noise and the sound of the room OUT of the finished recording. Professionals record in a sound booth specially designed to keep noises out and make their voice sound good. These costs thousands of dollars and are a bit impractical for occasional work. A clothing-filled, walk-in closet works as a makeshift sound booth, though.
Getting a good level
Even the most basic onboard sound card has three connections: mic in, line in, and line (or headphone) out. Hook up your equipment by plugging your mic into the mixer (or preamp) and plug the output of that device into your sound card’s line in. Connect your headphones, too. (If you’re using a dedicted external interface, you’d plug into that. It connects to the computer through a USB port.)
Next, set your volume at the mixer (or preamp) using its controls and level meters. Start speaking, watch the meters, and slowly raise the volume until you get close to 0 (zero) without going over.
Launch the software that controls your sound card (it’s usually the little speaker icon in the system tray). Here is where you select your recording source (line in) and adjust its volume. Set this at 100%–all the way up–and then control your recording level with your external mixer or preamp.
Start your audio recording software and get into record ready. Record in mono, not stereo, and at CD-quality (16 bits and 44kHz sampling rate). You’ll notice that the audio software doesn’t have controls for setting levels, but you do rely on its meters when recording. Never, EVER exceed 0 (zero) on your digital level meters. Anything above that level will sound horribly distorted. You want any loud sound to fall below digital 0 with the majority of your level well below that (between -6 to -15 dB).
To greatly improve the sound of your recordings, get closer to the mic. The farther away you are from it, the more you pick up the room around you. Your voice starts to sound thin and distant, like a home video. Get closer and your voice is more intimate–the prototypical narrator sound. Another advantage to getting closer is the microphone itself may accentuate the lower frequencies in your voice and that can make you sound more powerful. How close? Put your lips between four and six inches away, about the width of your hand. Don’t talk down into the mic. Instead position it above your nose pointed down at your lips. Also, don’t position the mic dead center of your lips. Move it over to the right slightly, say 20 degrees, off axis. This leaves a clear view of your script, too.
Obviously, locate your recording area away from noisy equipment, such as computer fans. Put a little distance between the mic and the noise source. Also, avoid salty foods immediately before your recording session. Have some tepid water nearby and apply a little lip balm. These will keep your mouth and lips lubricated. Nibbling on some sliced apples can help overcome dry mouth, too.
When you’re ready to record, turn away from the microphone. Take a deep breath. Exhale. Take another deep breath. Open you mouth, turn back to the microphone and begin to speak. This technique eliminates the sharp intake of breath and lip smack that often occur when starting to speak.
Speak clearly and slowly. You can always tighten up your recording during the editing stage. If you make a mistake, go back to the nearest sentence start and continue on again, even if you flub just a word or two. Cutting in a single word or phrase is difficult and doesn’t sound natural.
Editing the recordings
You don’t have to nail everything in one take. Record as many run-throughs as needed and compile the best parts into the final recording. Listen back and evaluate what you did. Is everything there that you need? Does it sound good? Is the level right (not too low; not distorted)? If not, go back and re-record the bits you need, listen back again, and repeat the process until you’re satisfied.
Editing sound is much like editing in a word processor. You can’t see the words, but you do see a two-dimensional representation of the words as sound waveforms. And you can hear the words as you play them. You manipulate these waveforms just like you move words around in your word processor. Cutting, copying, pasting–all the techniques you’re already familiar with apply when editing sound.
Before you begin editing, turn off the mic, disconnect the headphones, and switch to speakers. Obviously, delete what’s not needed, such as a throat clear before you started speaking, any chatter between takes, extraneous noises, and so forth. Once you’ve eliminated the junk, move toward improving your performance. If you did multiple attempts at the script, find the best takes and build your final version from them.
Listen critically to any changes you make. I find that taking a long break let’s you approach the recording once again with fresh ears. Can you make it better? Is the volume consistent? Are there any noises, background sounds, or other unwanted parts that you could eliminate or reduce?
After editing the voice, you can add music or sound effects to sweeten the final version. To add music using Sound Forge, open the music file in your audio software, select, and copy it to the clipboard. You may need to trim the music to match the length of your voice recording, first. Then, position the cursor at the start of your voice recording, and select Edit > Paste Special > Mix. Here you can control the level of the music (source) in relation to your voice (destination). Double-check the mix to make sure you can hear your voice recording clearly with the music playing in the background.
As a final step, use your audio software’s normalization process to maximize the recording’s volume. Select the entire waveform and normalize it to -0.10 dB (98.86%). Save this file to the audio format you need, for instance, MP3.
### Jeffrey P. Fisher
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