The Tech of Knee-Deep in Tech, 2022s edition - part 2
In part 1 of this blog series I outlined the gear we use to record the podcast. This part will focus on the techniques and settings we use to recording an episode.
We share a OneNote file with ideas and information for every episode. We kind of screwed up the episode numbering early on. While we’re technically on episode 171 at the time of this writing, we have recorded several more specials and weirdly numbered episodes. This goes to show that not all ideas are good ideas in the long run and that starting a podcast isn’t easy… Late 2020 we decided to up the episode length to 45-ish minutes. Some of the episodes run longer, some run shorter. It always surprises me how difficult it is to judge time while recording.
Some things we’ve had to learn the hard way. Sound treatment matters – more or less depending on the type of microphone used. Proper microphone technique matters even more – especially on condenser microphones. It is easy to breathe loudly, and that means more work for me in post-production. The same goes for distance to the microphone. Changing the distance will immediately affect the loudness of the signal – again leading to more work for me in post-production. Clicking the mouse or typing at they keyboard isn’t something you notice while recording, but trust me – the microphone does.
Switching to the GoXLR have helped tremendously. There are several reasons for this, but chief among them is the built-in noise gate. This essentially cuts the signal to zero when I’m not speaking. The trick is to set the gate threshold correctly, but fiddling with it a bit solved that as well. The built-in compressor does wonders for any unevenness in sound volume. A compressor is what keeps your ears attached whenever a radio host screams into the microphone - the signal intensity is instantly reduced to a specified level, something that leads to a much more even listening experience (and makes it an order of magnitude simpler to post process!)
The GoXLR is a marvel of settings, all wrapped into a piece of software that leaves something to be desired from a usability standpoint. Case in point: do NOT forget to save your settings to a profile, lest they get reset every time you reboot your machine. Ask me how I know.
There are a couple of components to set.
We all use dynamic microphones, so the mic setup is fairly straight forward.
Setting the gate can be a bit fiddly - start at zero and pull it up until the ambient noise gets quiet. This might need changing depending on the recording space, but be careful with setting this too far from zero as the gate might not open quickly enough when you start speaking, leading to clipping. Not fun.
Setting the equalizer was not much fun. I’m not an audio engineer by any stretch, and I’ve read a ton of conflicting opinions on the matter. These are the settings I settled on, and they seem to work well for our voices. We might tweak the settings for Heini ever so slightly in the future, as the female voice carries a somewhat different frequency curve than the male voice.
The trick with the compressor is not to overdo it - a threshold somewhere around -16 to -20dB seem to be the sweet spot, and the ratio of 4:1 still leaves a good dynamic sound. If you have a screamer for a host, you can up that to 8:1 (or higher), but it will consequently flatten the dynamic range substantially - something you may or may not want. Do keep in mind that the compression need to be compensated for with some make-up gain in order to keep the signal at a reasonable level.
Recording the hosts
We used to record our audio locally as we had a horrible experience with ZenCastr, an online podcast recording service. As we where looking around trying to find a reasonable tool for doing remote interviews, Simon stumbled on Riverside, a service much like ZenCastr. The main difference between Riverside and ZenCastr is that Riverside actually works - and works very well at that(!). We started using that for our normal episodes, and when Heini came onboard from Helsinki, this was way. It’s not free at $19 per month, but it is very well worth it for us. This also sorts the issue of needing to synchronize our audio streams - yet again making my life in post production that much easier. Since Riverside can record both audio and video, there is no need for Teams or such to see each other either.
Despite the audio coming in from GoXLR is clean and without clipping, as digital belts and suspenders, we also make sure to record about five seconds of quiet before speaking - this is to give me ample data to use for noise reduction later in the post-production. Then it’s time to start the show with the usual “Hello and welcome!" and off we go.
When we’re done recording, I simply download the synced audio from Riverside and fire up Audacity.
Recording with remote guests
As Riverside works so beautifully well, we use the service for guests as well. We were afraid there was a limit of a maximum of four streams, but we were pleasantly surprised to find that the limit is 8 (7+1 host)!
Recording on-site is very similar to recording just the hosts. We all use the same kind of microphone (AKG C520/C520L) connected to the Zoom H6 previously mentioned. The levels are again set for -18dB. As the three of us (and the guest!) will have slightly different loudness, it is key to set the levels per channel. Rarely we find ourselves having more than one guest. The Zoom H6 is indeed a six-channel recording device, but it only has four XLR inputs. The last two channels can either be recorded on the X/Y microphone included (not a good idea) or using the 3.5mm input jack on the X/Y microphone (an excellent idea).
As this is a stereo jack, we have a choice. Either we bust out two Rode SmartLav+ lapel microphones and a 3.5mm stereo-to-mono splitter, or we use the Samson MobileMic receiver and two beltpacks+microphones. The receiver outputs a stero signal (one channel for each transmitter) and that can be used straight into the Zoom H6.
As the AKG microphones are condenser, we try to find a good recording area. We’ve found that while it might seem like a good idea to record in an empty and quiet room, the reverb will be evident on the recording.
It might actually be a better choice to record out in a hallway, despite the murmur and sound of passers-by. It’s all down to judgement at the time of recording, really. Here it is absolutely vital to leave 5-8 seconds of quiet in the beginning for noise reduction. But do be careful with the noise reduction in post-production as it might not behave as expected with a noisy background!
A tip for using a head-worn microphone with a guest not used to them: be wary of facial hair. It is easy to miss that a moustasche is constantly scratching the foam around the microphone, but the microphone will not miss it. At all.
The next post in the series is about post-processing, and I can already warn you that it’ll be long and technical. You were warned.