Did you buy a fairly decent microphone, but your audio still sounds like crap? There’s a good chance it is not your microphone. It is probably you. But there is hope, you can fix it!
At Spazbot Studios we have more than a few microphone performance ‘experts’. I readily admit, I would be lumped into a group featuring Spencer Downey and my co-host on Stormcast, Willie ‘Dills’ Gregory. Some might call us ‘The Audio Snobs’. We often notice problems with vocal performance not just within our group, but other shows and other content creators. We try to discuss these issues openly in our slack to help folks understand how to be conscious of their vocal performance. Recently, we had a twitter conversation about microphone performance, and I thought, “You know what, I need to write about this,”.
Before, I move any further, I want to point out that while I may know some tricks for better Microphone Performance, I was not born with this knowledge. I had to learn how to use a microphone like any other person. I have performed with microphones a number of different ways, and I was fortunate enough to have a kind sound technician offer me advice on how to improve what I was doing to also make his job a bit easier. So, consider this post a kindly offering of helpful advice.
One more thing, I am not going to get into Dynamic vs Condenser Microphones as that debate is terrifying and probably not actually helpful. What is helpful is understanding the directional preferences of your microphone and the sensitivity of your microphone. Do you know that? If not, read the manual on your microphone.
Here is a really good question to ask before we get started. “What type of sound should I strive for, Mick?”
This is a great question. It is actually a better question than, “What microphone should I buy?” You may not realize how sensitive some of your listeners actually are, and how much they can be distracted by the smallest things, but you need to undestand that it is a Big Deal to some of your listeners. When you are recording your podcast, you want to deliver a warm and clear vocal performance that is free of background noises, distortion and percussives. You should sound like you are right next to the listener not shouting in a cave that also has a helicopter taking off and a Dragon learning how to roller skate while his little brother learns how to make pyro-technique entrances for his favorite WWE Super Star. This makes your listener really sad. Trust me. So, how do you do get that kind of audio?
I will remind you once again, your Microphone is not the problem, you are the problem. I can have a Telefunken ELA M 250/251, but If do not know how to use it properly, I am wasting the nine grand I spent on it. Also, you maybe on a headset microphone. If you are, a lot of this will matter to you as you should be conscious of where you place your microphone in proximity to your mouth! That leads me to Tip #1!
Tip #1 – Proximity is the most important thing ever! 100% of every microphone on the planet benefits from your lips being about 1 – 4 inches away from the microphone. Yep, that microphone should be no more than a finger’s length away from your lips. I cannot tell you how many performers I see get this wrong. I routinely see people a full two feet away from their micro-phone, and this really puts you in a situation where capturing quality audio is almost impossible.
Here is why! The Further you are away the more you have to increase the volume of the microphone so it can pick up your audio. This is bad if you are in a non-audio sensitive room (like a recording studio). If you are far away and you crank your microphone up, that means you will hear things like the air conditioner, the ceiling fan, the floor creaking, your dog farting, your wife doing the dishes, etc. If you have a sensitive condenser microphone it will pick up ALL of that. This is why when people buy a microphone they over look a very important accessory (besides the cable) the STAND. That is the single easiest way for you to get your microphone closer to your lips during the record.
Same thing goes for Head Set Microphones. Is the microphone down near the crook of your mouth, or is it tucked up back by your ear? If it is up by your ear, you are going to capture LESS clear audio, than if it is right near your mouth.
But regardless of how you get close to that Microphone, you absolutely MUST get close to that microphone! The further you are away the worse your audio will get. This tip is #1, because it is the source of about 80% of your problems.
Tip #2 – Speak Clearly and Slowly For Crying out Loud! This is a simple technique that helps any performer. Essentially you want to speak clearly and precisely so that the listener can follow what you are saying. Also, for you SPEED Talkers, you absolutely must slow down. No Microphone is going to fix these problems. This is on you. If you speak too quickly, your audience will stop listening and stop subscribing. So, you must focus on speaking clearly and in most cases a little slower than you would if you were speaking to your friends normally.
Tip #3 – Don’t Yell Into the Microphone! Most of you when you start will not have the budget to invest in a compressor limiter gate to keep your voice withing a certain threshold regardless of how loud or soft your voice gets. Microphones can be over-whelmed by the decibel level generated by YOU without this piece of equipment. When this happens, your audio becomes distorted and sounds ugly. Therefore, you have to do a couple of things to mitigate this.
First, you can keep your voice down and avoid yelling into your microphone. Strive to keep your voice nice and even throughout your record. This is a PRO move! The other thing you can do is learn to back off your microphone when you are about to yell, raise your voice, or perhaps laugh really loud! Essentially, do the opposite of what I indicated in Tip #1, get some distance from that microphone, but only when you yell!
Tip #4 – Don’t Whisper Into Your Microphone! A lot of folks like to dip their audio to make a point when they are speaking. It is kind of like an aside to the audience. It is an effective technique, but if you drop your audio too low, then you cannot be heard. This is also a unconscious issue for a lot of performers. As they speak longer they tend to drop the volume of their voice which requires an audio engineer to ‘ride the levels’ to keep the recording even! This is a big problem, and it is one I recommend you assess for yourself. If you listener is ever thinking to themselves, “What the hell is he or she saying?” You have lost them and you will lose that subscription.
Tip #5 – Percussive Sounds are bad! When you say words like ‘probably’ or ‘punctualty’ or ‘people’ what do they all have in common? That hard Percussive ‘P’ which can create a popping sound in your microphone. When you hit that hard P, You create a percussive wave that hits the microphone head.Reducing Percussive P sounds is more challenging to pull off naturally. So, how do you fix the problem?
This can be reduced by applying a pop filter or pop screen to your microphone set up. This is almost a requirement in my book and it is a relatively low cost item! Do you see the filter I linked over to the right of this text? That filter is less than seven dollars. You can also get an old fashioned foam pop filter that covers the head of your microphone. Regardless of the solution, you can drastically increase your performance by simply having a low cost solution to mitigate percussives that hit your microphone head.
Also, for you head set folks, foam pop filters can be purchased for the most discreetly sized head set microphone.
Tip #6 – Watch your Breath! Do you like to listen someone’s nose whistle? Do you enjoy answering the phone to find someone breathing heavily into the phone from their end? Guess, what!?! Your audience does not like this either, and they will complain when they hear it in your Podcast recording. Once again, Pop Filters and Screens can assist with reducing the noise of your breath into the microphone, but your own consciousness of the problem is important. I employ a technique I simply call ‘the tilt’. When I am recording a show, but I am not talking, I tilt my nose and mouth about thirty to forty-five degrees to the right (or left) away from the Microphone. So, if my Mouth is facing directly towards the microphone, that is zero degrees. Then I rotate my neck about 30 degrees and now if I breathe through my nose or mouth, it will not funnel into microphone. Problem solved!
Tip #7 – Become One With Your Microphone! This is going to sound a little blue pill / red pill, but bear with me. When I used to play Baseball, I had a favorite bat. I used it for batting practice and during every trip to the plate for games. When I played it felt like an extension of my body. I felt like it was a part of me. You need to develop this same relationship with your microphone. This comes with practice, but over-all you need to work with your microphone and develop a sense of awareness as to where it is at all times! Am I too far away? Am I too close? Am I breathing into this thing? You will eventually find this sweet spot and consciousness about your microphone.
If you have ever watched me record a show (yes I stream our live records), you will notice that I am constantly adjusting where my microphone is at. Granted I have particular Boom Microphone that makes this easy, but if you asked me if I knew how many times I actually did it during the record, I would have no idea. I just know when I am too far away, or too close to the microphone. You need to work with your microphone to develop a second nature level awareness of your proximity and positioning around your microphone. This will come with time, but it will only come, after you consider the previous 4 tips and work them into your technique.
I hope you found this post helpful. It was intended to provide you with simple and in some cases FREE ways to improve your performance on the Microphone. I know that not everyone can go out and afford more expensive gear to manage their microphone performance. I will discuss those options in a later post, but for now I hope for some of you this will prove helpful. If you have any thoughts or questions, leave a comment below or you can hit me up on twitter!