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Getting Good Audio on a Budget: How to Record Sound

VideoDigital StorytellingMultimedia & Design

Audio is the foundation for conveying your message effectively through video or auditory media.

High-quality video feels weak with poor audio quality, whereas low-quality film with great audio can still grasp your attention.

When it comes to radio, podcasting and other auditory media, audio quality becomes absolutely crucial. It determines how your listeners connect with your message, and whether you grasp their interest and bring them into your story’s setting

From choosing the right microphone, to layering multiple tracks, this primer teaches fundamentals on how to record and edit interesting, quality audio for your nonprofit’s stories.

Choosing the Right Microphone

The ‘right’ microphone meets your needs and budget. These questions help assess how much to spend:

  • How much can your nonprofit afford? You need to set a budget limit to guide you.
  • Where will you be recording audio? On the go or solely in your office? Consider whether your mic needs to be portable.
  • What will you be using your audio for? If you’re creating simple how-to videos, you may not need the same quality mic as you would for podcasts.
  • How frequently will you be creating auditory media? Does your nonprofit do this on a regular basis? If you’re investing for a one-off project, it may be best not to spend too much on a mic - or even better; rent or borrow equipment.

Understanding how microphones work will help you make the right choice; let’s start with the different types of microphones and their polar patterns.

Common Types of Microphones

Need to record voice-overs? Here are three types of microphones that are ideal for voice-over audio.

Lapel Mics clip onto a shirt collar and captures sound consistently regardless of how your source moves.

Hand-Held Mics are great for portability and recording sources on the go - especially for ‘streeters’ where you’re interviewing multiple people back-to-back.

Tip: When using a hand-held mic, don’t point the microphone directly at your source’s mouth. It will capture the air coming from their voice, which causes ‘popping’ when they pronounce ‘P’s’ and other hard syllables.

Instead, point the mic towards their mouth at a 45-degree angle, so you capture their voice directly, but keep your mic out of their air stream.

USB Mics connect directly to your computer and usually act as ‘room’ mics - in other words, mics you place on a surface to capture any sound within the space you’re recording in (rooms mics are generally omnidirectional).

USB mics are great if you only record in quiet environments like an office or studio, and if you tend to record multiple people at once, such as live-interviewing for a podcast.

Polar Patterns

Polar Patterns

Omnidirectional: Captures sound from all directions, and therefore doesn’t have a proximity effect. The proximity effect means a directional mic will make your voice sound warmer and louder (i.e. it boosts low frequencies) the closer you speak to the microphone.

Cardioid: Captures sound in a 180-degree axis in front of the microphone, with some sound bleeding in from the back.

Hyper-cardioid: Captures sound directly in front of microphone, and some from the back.

Bi-directional (figure 8): Captures sound equally from both sides of the microphone.

Shotgun: Captures sound that the mic is pointed directly at, and some directly to the sides and back.

Do I need a Digital Audio Recorder?

Unlike USB mics, most microphones can’t record directly into your computer. They need a device to translate the microphone’s analog signal into a digital signal your computer can understand. Two such devices are audio interfaces and digital audio recorders.

Audio interfaces aren’t portable because they connect your microphone to a computer, and they need a microphone and computer to record sound. However, their advantage is they can translate the signal of two or more microphones at once, which is ideal for a studio setting.

Conversely, digital audio recorders are portable and have their own built-in microphones (of varying quality), which means you can record and save audio files with just a digital audio recorder. However, to get better quality audio, you should connect a proper microphone to your digital audio recorder.

Best Budget Options for Nonprofits

There are two likely scenarios you’ll be recording audio: either in an office (or another quiet space), or on the go. Here are two great budget mics that record quality audio without the need of additional devices (other than a computer).

For recording in a quiet space: Blue Snowball iCE USB Mic

Because purchasing an audio interface adds to your cost, USB microphones are your best bet. And the Blue Snowball iCE is an affordable, quality option.

It’s a cardioid mic, so only captures sound directly in front of it, but it can still be used to record multiple voices by positioning your sources side-by-side so they’re all facing the front of the micorphone.

Consider the slightly pricier Blue Snowball which can change to an omnidirectional polar pattern and record the whole room.

For recording on the go: Zoom H1 Hand-Held Recorder

Even though digital audio recorders have built-in microphones, they're often poor quality - especially budget models. And purchasing a microphone, cable, and digital audio recorder can be expensive.

That’s why Zoom’s H1 Hand-Held Recorder is a great budget opion: it’s a digital audio recorder with two high-quality cardioid microphones built in so you can record quality audio on the go with one product.

If the Zoom H1 is over-budget, consider the Sony ICD Px333 (only records in mono)

Back-Up Audio

When recording sound, sometimes things go wrong; you forget to hit record, or your audio file becomes corrupted. Don’t let circumstance leave you with nothing! Always have a back-up recorder running so that even if you fail to capture audio with your good mic, you still have something to show for the work you’ve done.

Recording from your phone is a good budget back-up option (make sure it’s on airplane mode!).

Tip: Always remember to do a test recording, and then listen back to make sure everything’s working properly and you’re getting the audio quality you’re aiming for.

Monitoring your Sound

The only way to guarantee you’re getting quality audio is to monitor it.

Monitoring sound is when you listen to your audio through a pair of headphones while it’s being recorded.

Monitoring ensures you are constantly aware of how your microphone is capturing sound. For example, if your source starts speaking louder, you will hear it in your headphones and be able to pull the mic back a little from their mouth to adjust and keep their volume consistent.

Even when using a USB room mic or lapel mic, monitoring can identify any issues that arise. Then, you can pause the interview to make an adjustment and save your audio!

Choosing a Location

A good location is as crucial as a good microphone. If there’s a buzzing in the background or a lot of wind, it’s going to muddy your recording.

Here’s what to look for when assessing a location.

Soft Ambience

There’s technically no such thing as silence.

Even in the quietest environments, there’s always a small amount of sound in the background - traffic in the distance, or the humming of an appliance. That’s why we use the word ‘ambience’, because it implies there’s still sound being made even if we can barely hear it.

A good recording environment will have a soft ambience; when you listen carefully, the background sounds are faint and won’t interfere with your recording.

Reverb

Small rooms, or rooms with hard-surfaces like cement, create an echo - this is called reverb. When speaking in this kind of environment, the mic will capture the reverb and make voices sound distant and muddy.

A great way to test a room for reverb is the ‘clap test’. Clap as loud as you can and listen: in a room with reverb, you’ll hear your clap echo. If a room is dead, you won’t hear anything.

The more dead a room, or the less you hear an echo from your clap, the better it is for recording.

Wind

When recording outside, your mic will pick up gusts of wind that distort your audio. Avoid windy locations when possible, or invest in a windscreen.

If the wind is coming from a single direction, you can also turn your back on it to shield your microphone.

Disturbances

A room may seem quiet at first, but a moment later someone may walk by while talking on the phone, or a ventilation system may suddenly turn on and make noise.

Ensuring your recording space is guarded from disturbances is extremely important. If you’re in an office, ask colleagues to avoid making noises around your recording space. Also ask someone who’s familiar with the space whether there’s anything to look out for.

Bonus: Avoid mic and cable noise!

Regardless of location, mic and cable noise can always be a problem. If your mic is shaking in your hand or your cables are moving, it’s going to create unwanted noise. When recording, hold your mic and cables as steady as possible.

Recording Background Audio

You can complement your interviews by layering a source’s voice with music or background sounds.

For example, if you’re recording an event organizer, you could attend one of their events and record the sounds that occur. Simply stand in a discreet place and point your microphone away from you, and you’ll capture the atmosphere of the setting.

Background audio helps bring the listener deeper into your story, and can be layered underneath your other audio by multi-tracking.

We'll talk about multi-tracking and other aspects of editing sound in part two of our three part series on getting good audio on a budget.