Successfully Recording Your Lines At Home

2. Equipment

  • The Soundcard

Laptops and PC's usually come with built-in "sound on board" soundcards. There is nothing wrong with using them. Regardless of additional sound features, laptop soundcards are usually processing a typical 2-channel stereo sound. Most PC soundcards are even capable of a "direct" 5.1 or 7.1 channel output and have lots of plugs. However, the question of stereo vs. surround is absolutely irrelevant when it comes to your recordings. Because even a Mono recording of yours will be fine.

On the back of your computer, there will usually be at least three plugs (similar to the picture shown). The microphone plug is usually marked in pink. The line-out plug, marked in green, is meant to be used both for headphones and/or speakers.

(picture courtesy of www.windows.com)

Note: If someone has told you that all on-board soundcards are crap, and that you have to install a different one in the first place, take it with more than a grain of salt and think twice before purchasing one. If you're playing a lot of computer games and own a high-end PC, you might want to install one of the Creative Labs Sound Blaster series soundcards. However, bear in mind that while they are very good stuff and excellent for gaming, buying one just for the sake of your recordings is not necessary, in my opinion. Their control panels have so many options that once you've "messed" with your speaker settings, you will hear your own recording in a way that is different than how the editor or producer will hear it.  More importantly, if you have been advised that the sound quality of your recordings is really bad, and you're desperate already, do NEVER believe anyone who tells you that your bad sound quality was simply the fault of your soundcard.

  • Appropriate Speakers

Having an appropriate speaker system at home is no luxury, nor something to shrug your shoulders at. It is an absolute necessity!

Ask yourself a simple question: Are you actually able to hear FOR YOURSELF whether your recordings are good or bad? Or does everything sound always fine to you at home, and you don't understand at all why you're getting bad feedback, or are constantly asked for unnerving re-do's?

Your speakers are just as important as the microphone you are using! If you're not able to listen back to your own recordings in the best possible quality, how can you think about just pressing some recording button somewhere, sending over your lines to the editor, and believing that everything will be fine?

Don't be careless. Appropriate speakers are essential for your recording quality, and if you're already worried about the last 50 bucks in your pocket, then I have to tell you: now is the time to spend them. Get yourself better speakers, even before you think about another mic.

Note I: I'm not promoting products by the Logitech company, but one can't deny they have become the market leader for PC speakers, and most systems from other competitors are indeed rubbish. Be honest to yourself - if you have no idea which kind of speakers you should go for, then don't think twice when it comes to the range of about 50 bucks. Just throw your 10 year old junk into the bin and go for a proper 2.1 system with a subwoofer.

Note II: If you prefer speakers WITHOUT a subwoofer, tell me why. Or ask yourself the same question, and why you honestly believe you don't need one. In part 6 of this guide I will explain why the woofer is more important than you think.

Note III: Never go for the very cheapest. The picture above shows the Z323 system, which costs about 35 Euros, and for myself I would say this is the MINIMUM of what you should own! If money is no problem for you, then go on and get the Z623 which has 200 watts and is THX certified. Or buy a good Philips system from their SPA series. But either way, with the Z323 system or above, you will be amazed about how much detail you are suddenly going to hear, especially when you're using a laptop.

  • Microphones

Can you achieve good sound quality with a cheap microphone? Well, it is theoretically possible. But it can be like playing Russian roulette for you - when there are 6 different cheap models in your store's display, it will inevitably be, of course, the one that you buy which is not good enough. It's called "Murphy's Law", so don't do that. Don't just buy the cheapest mic simply to have one. You might not be able to afford a studio condenser microphone with a shock mount and stand (as described below), but there are many kinds of affordable and acceptable microphones out there. I will just introduce the main types and explain both their pros and cons.

Karaoke Microphones

Don't you dare! Firstly, you have to hold it in your hand, so the noise of your fingers might be on the recording as well. Secondly, you have to hold it so close to your lips that your P's and B's will produce bassy explosives on your recording file, which cannot be erased. Lastly, the cheap ones are so bad that you will sound like a cat being strangled in an alleyway.

Using one of them would probably tell more about yourself and how little you care about the character you want to portray, and the project you are recording for.

Summary: It's a definite No-no, with no excuses.

Headsets

I have processed some headset recordings which were actually fine, but I have to say most of them were "problematic" in post-production. The cheap ones tend to produce very "tinny" or "hissy" results, while the expensive ones are so sensitive that the danger of explosive P's and B's is so high that even the foam breath cover on top of the mic doesn't help much. 

I'm still undecided whether or not to ban usage of headsets completely from projects I'm helming. After all, even the good ones are made for chatting and internet telephony, not for quality recordings. No point in defending them.

Summary: Questionable.

Standard PC Microphones

It's the most used type of microphones. However, the cheap ones may not even sound bad, but their background noise can be so intense that in post-production, where the recordings have to be cleaned up with noise reduction, the processed files may sound tinny and faint. Don't go for the cheapest models but rather ones with a USB connection. The most capable ones are manufactured by Speedlink and Logitech.

Be aware that the background noise is always the same, regardless if you sit close to it or 1-2 feet away. All PC mics tend also to produce explosives on P's on B's, so your optimal sitting position can vary with each model.

Summary: Appropriate.

Dynamic Microphones

The good thing about this microphone is that you don't tend to lean forward while you're recording. Their background noise is low, and they are handy and usually quite solidly made. It's the favourite type of microphone for a lot of people, and the results after processing mostly live up to the sound quality requirements. Sometimes the sound is too bassy, but that can be equilized in post-production.

If it doesn't come with a little tripod, you have to buy one separately which is not always easy to find. If you don't have much money but can afford about US$25, go for the CAD U1 microphone (just look it up on Amazon).

Summary: Appropriate.


Condenser Microphones

These are, by far, the best possible choice with which to record your voice. Their background noise is almost zero, and your recordings sound rich, warm and calm. This is the kind of microphone with which you can achieve real studio quality at home. Once you have owned one, you'll never want to use any other type again.

As you can guess from the picture, they are not cheap. Not only do they cost a minimum of US$50 / EUR 40 or above (no upper limits), but you also have to purchase a shock mount, a pop screen and a stand. Most models have either a USB or 3-pin XLR connection.

Summary: Recommended.

Pop Filters

With a pop screen between you and your microphone, all kinds of explosive poppings on P's and B's will be reduced to a minimum. It is always good to have one, even though they cost between 10 and 25 dollars / Euros. Only God knows what makes them so expensive in relation to microphones and speakers.

Pop filters can be attached to the tabletop stands of most PC and dynamic mics (like the ones in the pictures above), and are an integral part if you decide to get a condenser mic. Screens are made of fabric or metal and vary in size, but any model with about 6 inches in diameter will do the job.

Summary: Recommended.

3.5 mm Input Jack

The typical 3.5 mm input jack works with the pink soundcard plug on your laptop or PC. Microphones with this connection don't need drivers and are recognized by Windows and Realtek HD Audio Manager immediately.

USB

Good headsets and PC microphones already come standard with a USB connection. It's becoming standard with studio condenser microphones, too. In some cases, driver installation might be necessary for Windows and Realtek HD Audio Manager to recognize them. 

3-pin XLR

Most dynamic and condenser microphones come with this kind of connection. You'll have to make use of Google if you want to go for an "XLR to USB" adapter cable, to make sure that drivers exist for your favourite mic, because there is no guarantee that an adapter cable will work. The better solution is to use an audio interface (as described to the right) to connect the XLR-based microphone properly to your computer.

Audio Interfaces

If you have a studio condenser microphone or dynamic microphone with a 3-pin XLR connection, purchasing a USB based audio interface is the logical choice in connecting your mic to your computer. Audio interfaces also have volume controls for all line-in and line-out channels, so you've got an external device at hand to fine-tune the input level in relation to your own voice and the size of the waveform you are creating during the recording.

Note: I have recommended some microphones by companies like Speedlink and Logitech. If you decide to spend more money to purchase a condenser microphone, I will even go further and recommend that you look out for models by CAD, SAMSON, AUDIO TECHNICA, FAME and T.BONE. Look them up on the internet or ask a professional lifter employee in the store of your choice. But let's make no mistake: I do not imply that these are the "best" microphones you can get, only that they're "appropriate", and that they can lead to very good - and sometimes excellent - results at affordable prices. There will always be better models, and you will also find studio condenser microphones at prices of 2,000 bucks and higher. However, I am not writing this guide for professionals who would know exactly what they wanted in the first place. I'm only trying to make suggestions which - if you follow them - you won't regret. If you have questions about a specific model you're interested in, or even about your existing microphone, don't hesitate to get in touch with me via email.