a solid foundation – environment

Now that we’ve got a quality set of basic tools, I’d like to talk about another factor that can heavily influence the quality of your recordings – the environment. The space that you choose to record in, how you treat that space, and even factors outside of that space, are all complex and important considerations.

At the beginning of my audio journey (audyssey?), I would simply close the door to my spare bedroom, sit down on the bed with my mic and laptop in front of me, and read. This was the quietest room, in back of the house, and surely that was enough to produce a quiet recording!

Well that was wrong. Wrong and naive.

My house is pretty old, a little on the small side, and most importantly, located on a hilly main street in a small town. Traffic noise is fairly regular, but at least to my ears, not that noticeable most of the time. Apparently after living here nearly a decade, I’ve just been mentally filtering it out. As soon as I started editing the recordings, I discovered that many exterior noises could be picked up by my fancy new microphone. A dog bark, birds chirping, and especially the sounds of big engines.

Even when the trucks and motorcycles and everything else outside was finally quiet, sometimes I’d hear a low, constant hum. Further, I could actually hear the reverberations of my voice within the room. I had assumed that since it wasn’t “echo-y” to my naked ear, it would be fine for recording. Unfortunately with a quality condenser microphone, any issues with the recording space will be picked up.

The first major step to resolving these issues was to isolate myself as much as possible from outside noise. I decided to convert one 2′ x 6′ closet into a DIY vocal booth. As you might expect, recording in it was marginally better, but still didn’t sound very nice. Since I don’t have the money to invest in actual soundproofing, I turned to the internet again, and found AudiMute sound dampening blankets. They’re a little pricey but the reviews were great and they seemed to be just what I needed. Four blankets were just enough to line my little closet.

It was so quiet, my ears rang when I stepped inside and closed the door. As my hearing adjusted, I heard the hum that had invaded my recordings, which I hadn’t been able to perceive before. The hum actually turned out to be two things, which were pretty easy to diagnose once I could hear them myself. The furnace, which is under the house in the crawlspace, and of all things, the refrigerator! The kitchen wall the fridge is against is the other side of the back wall of the spare closet, and the gentle hum was not nearly as gentle as I had thought.

So I added a few steps to my pre-recording checklist: Turn down the thermostat, and unplug the fridge. And try my best to remember to do the reverse after I’m done…

I made another test recording, and this time, the silence was beautiful. After processing, my voice sounded much nicer, nearly professional in quality. No reverb, no hums, no birds chirping.

But the traffic persisted. The traffic noise was very much reduced, to the point that it was actually eliminated, at least sometimes. Unfortunately transfer trucks and construction vehicles, as well as big diesel trucks and mopeds are pretty common down this hilly road.

Sadly, this is an issue that I can’t solve. If there were loud neighbors, or a bar downstairs, or heavy air traffic, I’d be in the same boat. Some parts of the environment are beyond our control. The best we can do is work around them.

In my case, this means three things: scheduling, listening, and adjusting my tool set. Generally, there’s less heavy traffic after dark. There’s less on Sunday morning than Monday morning (unless the weather is nice and there are bikers out). There’s MUCH less on a snow day. I try to plan around traffic whenever possible, understanding that it’s not always possible.

Second, listening. I found, through many test recordings, that when I take the time to let my hearing adjust to the silence in the closet, and listen closely, I can hear basically every vehicle that the mic picks up. This made me learn to listen while speaking, especially in the pauses between phrases and sentences. Whenever I hear an engine, I simply stop talking until I can’t hear it anymore. Then I re-take the last thing I said, and remove the rest in editing later.

Yes, this is less than ideal for audio work. Yes, I could invest more in soundproofing, or buy a new house somewhere quiet, or pay for time in a professional sound booth. And I’m sure I will do those things eventually. But does it make sense for my career and finances right now?

Third, my toolset. Condenser mics are great for voice work, since they pick up many nuances and can sound very natural. But those same attributes makes them less than ideal for a noisy environment. I’ve done everything reasonably possible to quiet my environment, but it’s still not enough. So, let’s try a different tool! I ordered a new dynamic microphone, which I haven’t tried out before. They’re less sensitive to very quiet sounds, but also don’t sound quite as natural as condensers. Once it arrives, I’m going to spend quite a bit of time testing it, side by side with the condenser, to determine if it’s the right tool for me.

I’ve read hundreds of recommendations and plenty of advice online from others, but no one can tell you how a specific microphone will sound in your space with your voice. Generalities will help you decide which mic to try, but personal experience will tell you whether to keep or return it.

Like many things in life, it’s about flexibility and adaptation. Approach your environment with a troubleshooting mentality, and you can probably solve most of your issues. Those you can’t solve, might be mitigated by simply changing your approach.

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