What does it take to record great audio? A recording studio? A degree in sound engineering?
You may be surprised.
Justin David Proctor, audio recording master and two-time Grammy Award winner, joined this episode of The Visual Lounge to share his expertise in creating great audio.
Justin takes us through his advice on getting the right equipment, preproduction and planning, preparing the room, dealing with background noise, software, and much more.
You can watch the video on this topic at the top of this post, to listen to the podcast episode, hit play below, or read on for more…
Justin has worked in professional audio and music recording since 2005, engineering in multi-room large format commercial studios and cutting albums for major label record companies. He began managing a private record recording studio with his college records production partner a few years into this work while running Delivery Room Studios.
Justin has won two Grammy Awards for recording engineering and composes original music, which can be heard on television networks and streaming services in the US and overseas.
Why audio recording is easier than ever
A common misconception in the audio and video recording world is that you need to be at a certain level of experience to produce something good.
The good news is that modern technology, equipment, and software have made it easier and more accessible than ever for anyone to learn how to record good audio.
“Technology is a lot more accessible for a lot more people. And it does a lot of those complicated or challenging things for us. It’s pretty remarkable how sophisticated technology has become so that our experience as recorders is not complicated at all because it’s been handed over to technology.”
Don’t skip the preproduction stage!
One of the mistakes that a lot of people make with audio recording is they skip the preproduction stage. But according to Justin, this is an unmissable step that will save you a big headache later on.
The last thing you want to do, especially if you’re working with others/hiring people, is to find out that something doesn’t sound right on the day. The best way to avoid that is to practice and prepare beforehand. Test out your equipment, microphone positioning and see how it sounds before you press record.
“Any preproduction you can do before the day of the session, before you hit record, any kind of planning you’re doing ahead of time, including testing technology, is going to go a long way.”
This can save a huge amount of time on the day because there’s going to be much less setup time. You have everything ready from the get-go.
How to choose a microphone
There are so many microphone options out there, it sometimes feels impossible to choose. Luckily, Justin has some advice for getting started in your search.
One of the first things to know is the difference between condenser and dynamic microphones. Condenser microphones are the ones that tend to be larger with a large capsule in them. They’re more sensitive because they get a little boost of electricity called ‘phantom power,’ and that allows the diaphragm to pick up more sound in the room.
That doesn’t mean the dynamic microphones are necessarily worse or less sensitive. It just means they might need a little more power or the volume cranked up to pick up what you’re recording.
With dynamic mics, it’s a lot easier to hide your room. By this, Justin means that if your room is not treated well for audio, a dynamic mic is a great choice for that.
Another consideration is polar patterns. This is the direction in which your mic is most sensitive to sound. Dynamic mics only have one polar pattern usually, and condenser mics have switches that let you choose which direction you want to pick up sounds.
Finally, dynamic microphones are super durable and might be better for those who need to move about a lot.
Invest in quality
While Justin says it’s a lot harder these days to find a bad quality mic, he would still advise people to avoid the cheapest options. He would personally not go below $100, so it’s a bit of an investment upfront. However, something that’s better quality will last longer, and you won’t have to replace it in a couple of years.
He’d recommend Blue Microphones, Shure Microphones, Audio Technica, or Sony as great brands to start your search with.
Producing great audio in not-so-great environments
We can never have 100% control over the sounds in our environment, and most of us don’t have the luxury of a recording studio. So, what can be done about background noises?
Perhaps surprisingly, Justin does not have a dedicated sound booth. He lives in a 100-year-old house and uses attic space to record. His space is not heavily treated because he believes you don’t really need it to be.
“I don’t think I really need it. And also, I rent, so I don’t want to make permanent modifications to my environment. So I’m all about super practical, easy stuff.”
His first tip is to invest in a good, solid boom stand. If you buy a good one, it’ll last you forever. You can get either a floor boom stand or a desk one. However, with the desk ones, you’ll probably want to muffle the noise through the table with foam or even a rolled-up towel. That’ll help to absorb any vibrations.
Rather than going overboard with soundproofing and foam all over the place, Justin prefers to keep things simple. He instead thinks that overtreating a room can do more harm than good.
“A little air is good. Sound is moving air, so let it move and pick up a little bit but not too much.”
Another tactic he has is to buy packing blankets from Harbor Freight for a few dollars. He just hangs them up around the room to treat a room quickly and cheaply if he needs it.
When it comes to external noises like traffic, dogs barking, and so on, the above tips can help a little. But sometimes, you might have to get a bit flexible with when you record audio. You may have to pick a time of day that’s naturally a bit quieter to avoid the bigger sounds being picked up.
Another thing that many beginner audio recorders overlook is electrical interference. Nowadays, we’re surrounded by technology, and it makes sense to have your audio set up next to your computer. But Justin suggests moving your setup away from other electronics if you can.
Electronics generate noise and introduce EMF into your audio. That’s like the buzzing, beeping sound you hear if you have a cell phone next to a speaker.
“I use extension cables for my power and my USB as well as a Bluetooth keyboard. And I back away with my microphone so that I’m not sitting on top of my computer. I just create a little distance, and it means I’m not bringing any of that EMF noise into my recording.”
Where to address a microphone
One of the biggest things that influence your audio recording quality is the positioning of the microphone. This takes a lot of experimentation, but the first thing to know is how to address the type of microphone you’re using.
It’s a bit easier with dynamic mics because they’re shaped like an arrow towards you. Condenser mics are a little more ambiguous because they’re shaped differently. Also, when you change the polar pattern, this changes how you should address the microphone because it’ll be picking up different areas.
“Generally speaking, most companies will often put their logo where you’re supposed to talk. So if you’re looking at the logo, you know the mic is pointing in the correct direction. But read the manual on that one because it’s not too hard to figure out.”
Always do a test run
When you’re preparing to record some audio, or you’ve just purchased a new microphone, it’s always worth doing a test first.
Sampling your audio will help you work out the best way to address your microphone and where to position it for the best sound quality.
“If you’re wondering how to address a microphone, and you don’t really know how to talk into it, make a couple of test recordings, and listen to them. And then choose one. Give yourself ten minutes, 15 minutes to experiment and play around a little bit.”
This falls under the preproduction stage and is always worth doing, no matter where you are in your audio recording journey. It can save a lot of wasted time from re-recording audio that didn’t work well the first time.
To hear more tips from Justin, be sure to check out the full video or podcast at the top of this page. For even more tips and advice, head over to TechSmith Academy, where you’ll find plenty of handy resources on audio and video recording, editing, instructional design, and much more!