- Tom Kelly
5. Nailing Your Sound by Experimenting with Microphone Technique
I've said in the past that the most important factors to your sound is your environment and your microphone technique. The two are linked together pretty closely, and 1 slight change to either can drastically affect your signal.
In this episode, we explore several different microphone techniques with the Shure SM7b, not to find which one is "right" or "best", but to explore what we like the most, and that's highly subjective. That's not to say we don't bust a few myths in this episode and demonstrate bad microphone technique, but the bulk of this episode is critically listening to several different distances and angles of microphone placement. This is something I've been extremely excited for because I often see people complaining about their microphone sousing like junk, only to find out later they're talking into it from 2 feet away. It's very powerful knowledge to understand that you are entirely in control of how your podcast sounds, and the most expensive microphone in the world in a bad room with bad mic technique will sound worse than the cheapest microphone in the world that's being used properly in a well treated room.
I'll still advocate for better equipment all day long, but, it's important to know that the low hanging fruit, and the easiest and cheapest thing to fix is your technique. Very soon, this episode will be accompanied by a video exploring some of the same topics, but really take the time to get yourself in a quiet room with either a great pair of headphones or speakers and really critically listen to the different mic techniques explored in this episode. Audio is all about experimenting and very critically listening to the results. Don't worry about good, bad, right, or wrong, just try something new and see if you like it.
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My Signal Chain
Audio Interface: Apogee Ensemble
Microphone: Shure SM7b
Mic Stand: Rode PS1A Boom Arm
XLR Cable: Handmade...
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Hey everybody, welcome to Clean Cut Audio, the podcast. My name is Tom Kelly. I'm an audio engineer, podcast producer, founder of Clean Cut Audio, yada, yada, yada. Who cares? You're not here to hear about me. You're here to get better at audio for your podcast, and I want to help you in your journey. All right, let's do it.
When I was coming up with the episode list for this episode, especially around launch, I was trying to figure out what makes the most sense to launch with and according to the Sound of Music, let's start at the beginning, it's a very good place to start. So what is the beginning of audio? I mean, we can talk about gear and we can talk about rooms and stuff. The problem is the room stuff gets a little high level pretty quickly. And I think a lot of the way that people do gear stuff doesn't really add value to anyone. I don't want to be the guy doing, "Here's the top five microphones to buy in 2020" because I don't think that helps anyone. I don't want you to just blindly follow what other people say. That includes myself. I don't want you to blindly follow what I say. What I want to do is give you the tools to make these decisions for yourself. To really understand what you're working with and not just be told what microphone to buy or interface or whatever. I want you to know how to make that decision for yourself and you need some knowledge, some skills, and some values taught before we start really going high level on that stuff.
We will be talking about interfaces actually pretty soon because there's a lot of specifications that I don't think people pay enough attention to. We're going to get into that, but when it comes to capturing good audio, two of the most important things are the environment in which you are recording and your microphone technique. I like starting there because anyone on any equipment can get value out of this episode. This episode is about in microphone technique. And we're going to do some listening exercises.
So just to give you a rundown of my signal chain briefly, I am recording on a Shure SM7b with all of the switches on the back set to unity, this is a flat signal. I am using a custom made XLR cable, pretty high quality stuff, and that is going into an Apogee Ensemble interface at 61 decibels of gain.
Now, just to give you the baseline of what we're working with, that's my signal chain. We're not going to be talking about that. The important thing is, I am sitting up straight trying to have good posture and I'm talking into the Shure SM7b with the microphone pointed directly at my face and it is maybe a half a centimeter away. My lips are barely grazing the pop filter of this microphone.
Some people would say, this is not proper mic technique, but this is what I've been doing for a while. I'm pretty happy with it. But we're going to listen to this microphone at different angles and different distances and we're going to evaluate what is the best sound for this microphone.
And whatever microphone you have, I want you to do this as well. I'm going to be turning off all EQ for this signal. I'm going to leave the compressors running because it is important that the dynamics stay the same so we don't have a psychoacoustic effect of thinking that just the louder signal is the better one because that is something that happens. And I want you to hear the signal unaffected by any equalization so that will be turned off when we get into the experiments, which are starting soon.
Actually, let's just do it now. So again, I'm talking right into this microphone. It is pitched up about 10 degrees and it is not going side to side at all. It is pointed directly at my mouth and it is very, very close.
Now this is the same signal from the same distance. It is still pitched up about 10 degrees. So the bottom of the microphone is lower than the top part of it. The top part of it is equal with my mouth, but now it is to the side at about 30 degrees, and I'm still talking into the center of the microphone.
Some people argue that this is a better way to talk into a microphone because you're not forcing all of that air directly into the diaphragm of the microphone. The way the air particles move from your mouth into the diaphragm physically moves the diaphragm of the microphone and creates a voltage, and that's how it creates an acoustic signal, your voice moving through the air, into an electrical signal, which is voltage that travels through the XLR cables into your interface. So this is a little less aggressive on the diaphragm itself and we are, again, about 30 degrees rotated, but I'm still talking directly into the center of this microphone.
Now what I did is I'm kind of talking beyond the microphone. The microphone is about two inches away from my mouth, and then it is off to the side about two inches. In reality, this signal did get a bit quieter and I boosted it in post so that it stays as loud consistently throughout the entirety of this episode.
It's important that we have the output remain constant even if the inputs are a variable, and this is going to be a little less aggressive as a sound, a little less present, we have less proximity effect. Proximity effect is a phenomenon that happens when you get very close to your microphone and it increases the bass, response of your signal so that really low and that radio voice, this for example, is going to be an emphasis on the proximity effect.
It increases the the low end of your sound. Some people like that, some people don't. Some people try to avoid it. It depends on your voice. It depends on your microphone. But again, just know that these are all factors when you are recording. So I'm talking beyond the microphone. This helps for plosives. So those hard p's and b's are not hitting the diaphragm of the microphone with most of the air, most of the wind rushing from my mouth going past the microphone. The microphone is pointed towards my mouth, but I'm not talking directly into it at all.
Now what I'm doing is I'm talking directly into the microphone, but it is from three finger lengths away, which is about two inches. This is similar to how I usually talk into the microphone, but it's a little further away. We're going to have less proximity effect when we talk into the mic like this because it's not being, I don't want to say overwhelmed. It's not being emphasized with all that low end. This is going to be, oh, maybe more of a podcasty sound where it's not so present, it's not so in your face. It's all preference.
None of this is a right or a wrong. It's all a preference. And the point of this episode is not to find really what's perfect or what I like best. A lot of people don't even know that this is a factor in recording your podcast, so if nothing else, I want to introduce you to the idea of microphone technique, not just for what is right or what is wrong, but to find what you prefer. That's the important part of anything I do in this podcast. It's to learn other options and to explore them yourself. And it's hard to explore things when you don't know that they exist.
All right. Change it up a little bit. I'm still from about two inches away, and the microphone is angled about 30 degrees off axis, but I'm still talking directly into the front of this microphone.
And if you have forgotten it is a Shure SM7b, which is a dynamic cardioid microphone. Meaning we're not going to get into dynamic versus condenser right now. That will be a topic of conversation later, but a cardioid microphone means that it's mainly picking up signal from in front of it, a little bit from the sides, and very, very little from the back.
This is good for podcasting because you only want to focus in on the voice and nothing else. We're really trying to cancel out any of the room sound, any of the background noise, which you should be trying to eliminate at the source, but it's not always an option, and I understand that. So get yourself a cardioid microphone.
And now here we are with the mic, it's two inches away. It is two inches off to the left. And I'm talking beyond it and this is boosted a lot in post. Now, if I were doing a better job, I would probably be increasing the gain of my signals so that it's matched on the input side, but I don't want to disrupt my flow cause then I start saying, um, and having to think about it and editing all around this.
I like doing these podcasts in less than three takes. That is my goal. I do these, I try to do these pretty efficiently and get a more natural flow of conversation cause that's how I like these things to go. We learn best from friends, not some person at the top thinking they know best to just reigning down with all their perfect ideas. That is not me. I want to be your friend helping you with audio.
But this is boosted in post. I have clean enough gain to do this without introducing a lot of noise so we're just going to leave it like this. And I don't really want to go further away than this with the microphone, but I've heard a few people say that you should talk from a foot away from your microphone. And for a dynamic microphone that is not the case.
You want this to be pretty close to you. A shotgun microphone, which is largely used for film, maybe some professional voiceover. It is the very long, skinny, cylindrical microphones. That's a shotgun mic. Those are meant to be spoken from a distance, dynamics are not.
If we start getting six inches away from the Shure SM7b, which is where I am right now, we're losing a lot of our voice just in the distance because dynamic microphones are not as sensitive as a condenser or a shotgun mic or anything like that. It is really relying on the air pressure coming from your voice to physically move this diaphragm. And when we get too far away, our sound kind of comes out like a cone where it's a very narrow band at the opening and as you get further and further away, according to the inverse square law, as you double your distance from the source, the perceived loudness is one fourth of the intensity. Not even perceived loudness, just the physical force of this sound. So as you get further away, very quickly, your audio gets quieter and it gets less intense in terms of amplitude or loudness.
So especially for a dynamic microphone, we want to make sure that we are close to that thing as I am now. I just moved my microphone back to about two centimeters from my mouth. Maybe a little bit less. So less than an inch, slightly off center, but I'm talking into the center of this diaphragm.
Experiment with your microphone technique. Really, really critically listen to how your voice sounds from different distances, different angles, and keep in mind that the further you get from your microphone, the more room sound you are going to introduce into your signal.
A lot of audio is experimenting with different microphones. If you don't have multiple microphones, which is certainly understood why you wouldn't, really experiment with the angles and the distances of the mic that you have. Now again, one foot away is probably too far, but experiment between one and six inches away from your mouth. Get your mouth directly on it. Put it off axis. Put it a little bit above you, a little bit below you, a little bit to the side, and record on one session, like 10 different tracks to where you can quickly go from signal to signal. Make sure that the loudness is the same on all of your tracks. Because there is a psychoacoustic effect where our brain perceives whichever signal is louder to be the better one. So we don't want to influence our brain with the loudness because we're not looking for loudness.
Podcasts should be published at -16 LUFS. So whatever you are monitoring your signal at, it should -16 LUFS in your DAW and you should be listening at a pretty low signal in your studio or in your headphones. We don't want it to be too loud. We don't want it to be too quiet, but err on the side of too quiet to be honest. And critically listen to what is going on there. You can take your mouse and randomly click around so you're kind of doing a blind test and your listening to different portions of the audio where you don't know which signal is which and really find which one you like the most.
I did this earlier today and I think what I actually like the most is about an inch and a half away and slightly, slightly off to the side, which is about where I am right now. When you get really close, it's like really crispy on the high end, really boomy on the low end. And while that could sound good if you're trying to get the in or world effect, that's not really what a podcast should sound like.
So it's really important to experiment, and I change this all the time. I chang my EQ all the time, but we should be trying to get the signal we like the most before we start mixing or processing that signal. It's really important to be happy with the sound coming in because then you get a better sound going out.
I hope this introduced you to a couple new ideas. While gear is important, it's very important, the more important factor is how you use that gear and having the ability to know proper mic technique and then experiment with it a little bit so that you can get the most out of the equipment that you have.
It's not as simple as just throwing a microphone onto your desk and talking from two feet away. Where when you buy those lower and USB microphones such as an Audio Technica 2100 or the Samsung Q2U. I believe both of those microphones come with those tiny little desktop stands that only stand like three inches above your desk, and then you are crouching down really far to try to talk you into it. You need to get that thing close to you, especially if it's a dynamic microphone for the reasons we discussed in this episode. The inverse square law shows that as you double your distance you get one fourth of the intensity, and that creates an exponential loss of intensity with distance.
Most things in audio are exponential. It is not linear. Loudness is always exponential so slight deviations in distance, or quality, or tone, or whatever actually ended up being more than you think they are because things happened in an exponential fashion in audio. So that's something else to keep in mind.
That is it for this episode. Again, I'm not trying to tell you what's right or wrong, I'm trying to introduce you to ideas so that you can find for yourself what you like the most. Because in audio, while there is a right and a wrong sometimes, usually it really just comes down to preference. You can have the best mix in the world and there will be probably at least half the people that don't like it, so whatever you do, just know that probably half the population is going to disagree with you. That's something that I struggle with every time I put an episode out, wanting to make everyone happy, wanting everyone to love it. Sometimes I don't even love it myself, but I try the best that I can and that's what we owe ourselves and our listeners. As podcasters, give them the best audio you could possibly come up with, and in order to do that, we need to experiment a little bit with new equipment and with the equipment that we have.
That is it for this week. Please, I'm begging you, rate and review this podcast on Apple Podcasts. Let me know what microphone you're using and what distance and angle you like to record from. And let me know if this has jogged any ideas in your brain of different ways you can do stuff. And if you have a friend that has a different microphone technique, send this episode to them, let them know that they are free to experiment with anything in their podcast. Maybe you guys can send some samples to your friends and try to get a second set of ears on what they think is best. I really enjoy someone else critically listening to my stuff cause it's easy, as I mentioned in the last episode, to just be running in circles, trying to figure out what's best and you lose all focus. You lose all frame of reference, especially if you're not comparing your sound to the sound of others.
We want to not listen to our stuff in a vacuum. It exists in a world of other audio samples. We need to listen to other audio samples while we are working on our own so that we have a frame of reference to compare it to. If you want to learn more about podcast production and podcast editing, visit my YouTube channel, youtube.cleancutaudio.com where weekly, I put out new videos to make your podcast sound better and to get them done more efficiently.
And we are still trying to come up with some ideas on how to form a community around Clean Cut Audio and around better audio for podcasts. If you have any ideas, feel free to email me email@example.com and I'm really looking forward to getting to know all of you better, and to helping your show sound better, and to hear ideas that you have for how my show can sound better and be better as a whole.
I'm not doing this for myself. I'm doing this to serve you all and to serve the medium of audio in general. I love podcasts and I love podcasting, but my true love is audio and I want to make sure that I do good by it, and that I make sure that my show and everyone else's shows sounds as good as it possibly can.
We are living in a golden age of audio where very high end devices are coming down significantly in price to serve those who are only looking for one or two channels of very clean, very high end audio for a very, very small price. There's great equipment out there. We don't need to spend tens of thousands of dollars anymore.
We could spend a couple hundred and get some world class sounding audio. What a time to be alive! We should be taking full advantage of the time we are living in. It is a very good time indeed.
That is all for this week. Thank you so much for listening and I will talk to you all soon. Again, my name is Tom Kelly., This is Clean Cut Audio and I'll see you later. Bye.