Friday, April 8, 2016

My Cheapskate Home Recording Studio Set-Up & recommendations

Audio is first and foremost when creating courses.  When doing online courses, the optimal sound is "I'm a voice in your head".  You hear it in radio announcements, podcasts, SoundsTrue recordings…that beautiful intimate tone and absolute lack of background noise that sounds like your own conscience is speaking to you.  That's the goal here.


I'm amassing a collection of mics, sound equipment, accessories, etc.  It started when I worked at Rogue Music in NYC (codename "Spike") in the 1990s, and I got a Tascam Porta-05, a couple of Shure mics, some ridiculously long XLR-to-1/4" cables, mic stands, studio monitor headphones, etc.  I didn't know enough, anything I recorded back then sounded like crap.  But it was MY crap.

I got an Edirol UA-25 at some point, which was 1/4" analog audio to USB (digital audio).  But it developed a high pitched whine I could never seem to get out of my recordings, although I recorded much better audio than I ever did on the Porta-05 for a short time.

I used my mics and created some live on-screen videos of myself, but most of the equipment sat in a bin for 20+ years.  I got rid of the Porta-05, I retired the UA-25, I actually used an Andrea headset (that came with Dragon Dictate back when they gave you a real headset) to record a bunch of screencasts for my business, and even used a newer Dragon Dictate headset when recording my first Udemy course. It really wasn't bad at all.

You can see some of the evolving home studio set-up in my blog post on echoes & reflections: blankets on the walls, my studio monitor headphones (Sony MDR-600s so old I had to crochet new ear covers for them -- using red and green so I can easily tell right from left) on the desk.  I was still recording with a newer Dragon headset mic at that point.

Note: all prices are in USD.  All links are affiliate links, but none of these products were given to me at a discount, and I do NOT own every product listed.  Products I have not personally purchased or tried out have ** next to the prices -- those are recommendations based on features, a low price & decent reviews.

Headphones - "studio monitor headsets"

First, a minor lesson in Hz:  "…the entire range of men’s and women’s voices remains between about 65 Hz for a male with a very deep bass voice to the highest note of a female coloratura soprano, just above 1,000 Hz, at 1,280 Hz. (A female high-pitched scream can go quite a bit higher, to around 3,000 Hz.)"

This means that human voices are a slice of the range of human hearing.  This can be helpful -- you can run your recordings through high and low pass filters, and eliminate frequencies below and above this range, but you have to be able to hear whether you've accidentally eliminated some of the "richness" of the undertones and overtones of the voice when you do this.

One of my peeves and frustrations is when people judge audio quality with sub-par equipment.  Good headphones make a tremendous difference when listening to test audio or editing your audio.  It might even be more important than shopping for mics!  If you can actually hear the problems, you can take care of them either before you start recording, or in post-processing work.  And why go through all the trouble of making a test recording if you have to upload your audio to get opinions from others, many of whom aren't wearing headphones either.  When the Udemy reviewers watch your video, I guarantee they're wearing a good headset.  You should too.

My Sony MDR-600 headphones have a frequency response of 5hz-30,000hz, but they're discontinued and the newest model of the line is over $100.  Here's a highly-rated pair of Superlux HD668D studio monitor headphones for $38**.  [Updated: better, cheaper Headphones]

Compare this to a toss-away pair of under-$20 headphones I purchased for just basic audio monitoring by ECOOPRO.  Their response is 20Hz-20,000Hz, and they're not so great in so many other ways -- I just have them to run a quick test and say "Is this mic on?" before I start recording audio.  I can at least tell whether there's a HORRIBLE problem with my sound before I start a recording run.

When you're listening to your test audio, you may need to listen a couple times because our brains can automatically filter annoying things out.  You're looking for that "I am your conscience" sound -- so listen for noise reflections (i.e. "echoes"), mouth noises ("clicks & pops"), hums, whines, cars passing by, etc.  If you sound like you're on a soapbox in a bathroom, you know you need to both treat your environment and quit projecting like you need your voice to reach the back of the auditorium.  It's just you and one listener, cozying up on the couch or sitting across from each other at a tiny cafe sipping coffee and chatting.

Microphones that Fit Your Purpose & Environment!

It's true that your mic makes a big difference in how you sound when you record -- but don't downplay the importance of the style of videos you're going to record, your recording environment, and your own personal recording style.

There's no need for this to get expensive; you can make do with a half decent mic if you control your environment and put a little effort into your post-editing.  However, in interests of time and efficiency, you will eventually want to reach the point of being able to bulk-process your videos with as little post-editing-work as possible.  That means near-perfect takes and near-perfect quality right from the start.

I ended up purchasing a good mic, the Audio-Technica AT2005USB -- a mic with both XLR and USB capabilities -- which cost me about $60 but is currently going around $75. This mic is a dynamic cardioid mic -- and for $25 less you can get the ATR2100-USB ($50) which also has XLR capabilities.  I didn't care for how the analog sounded on the AT2005USB when hooked up to my Behringer XENYX 302USB (below), so this would be a great starter mic for while you're still editing your audios and not looking for 100% perfection (which can be expensive).

That brought me back to some classic mics I already owned when I purchased audio equipment over 20 years ago.  The Shure SM58 ($99), a favorite of on-stage performers because it takes a licking & keeps on ticking, has a warm response, good tight pick-up so it rejects background noise well, and is inexpensive.  I think someone said they have left it in beer and were able to use it after it dried out -- but I don't recommend you do that.  It's so popular that Shure still produces this mic.  And the Shure 869 (which I'll mention later, but I believe is a discontinued model).

If you want SM58 quality, without the $99 price tag, check out the Samson CS Series Capsule Microphone.  This one has a swappable head and gives you 1 head that is comparable to an SM58 (voice mic) and another that's comparable to an SM57 (instrument mic).  At just $40**, you get to try out 2 types of dynamic XLR mic and see which you prefer.  You will need a way to go from Analog-to-Digital (XLR to USB) so you may want the Xenyx302USB or similar (below).

Capture every nuance of your home & neighborhood with these highly-touted mics

If you don't mind needing to pad your house with foam and blankets, many people recommend the Blue Yeti ($130**) or Blue Snowball ($90**) -- but what they don't realize that these are condenser mics and they pull in a lot more background noise, audio reflections, etc.  The people recommending these mics probably didn't get a headset to listen to themselves.  You can tell because when you listen to their recordings, you feel like you're in the room with them.  It's great quality noise -- but the opposite of the "I am your conscience" voice that works best for this type of intimate 1:1 application.  If you want to do less editing, skip the condenser mics. If you have a noisy environment -- cars, dogs, trucks, airplanes, old computer running its fan all the time -- avoid condenser mics at all costs.

Also, while a condenser mic WILL pick you up when it's several feet away from you, you'll pick up a lot more room, noise, sound reflections, etc.  If you want to re-record or do tons of post-work, use your Yeti or Snowball mic for recording talking head videos.

If you have a controlled environment, and don't mind having to pony up for phantom power, the Floureon BM-800 ($30**) is a cheaper condenser mic with great ratings.  For that price, even I might try a condenser mic again some day soon.  While it "really" requires phantom power, a Windows PC may send enough power to it for you to use it while waiting for your phantom power (or the money to afford phantom power) to arrive.  Hooks right into your PC's microphone port.  Will not work with a Mac without phantom power & digital (USB) audio conversion.

To go even cheaper, here's a well-rated Ohuhu condenser mic for $22**, requires phantom power.  What I do like about this one is that it's got good noise rejection so it's uni-directional.  I wish everyone would do a mic test like one of the reviewers did.  Unlike many other condenser mics, the sound drops considerably when you back up from the mic.  You have to be "all up in it" with this mic to get great sound -- so you won't be using it for talking head videos.  But for online courses, this is a good mic.

Get the mic out of your face: Talking Heads, Exercise Videos, Screencasts, etc.

You have to ask yourself whether you'd be better off with a lapel mic, shotgun mic or a headset mic.  For exercise videos and screencasts, many instructors use a headset mic.  Lapel mics are likely to pick up clothing noise, arm movement, etc.  You've seen Madonna dance and wave her arms around with a headset mic on, right?  For screencasts, it doesn't matter what the headset mic looks like -- huge gaming headphones, etc.  For on-screen headset mics, a good mic blends in to your skin tone or is unobtrusive (white-person beige version example ($13**), I wish they had other colors, requires a transmitter power pack or phantom power).  For live-action video like exercise or martial arts videos, you might want a wireless headset battery/transmitter -- not bluetooth but radio.  That's up to you, but you might find it's expensive.

An interesting mic to check out for talking head videos, especially where you're a wavy-arm person for any reason, is a binaural mic for $89**.  These mics record sound from inside your own ear.  "What?!? Get out!"  Yeah -- this is another mic I plan to experiment with someday.  Requires external power, and has a 1/8"/3.5mm jack -- you can use an adapter to 1/4" and use it with the XENYX -- I think.  They say it sounds more like your own voice in your ear because it's picking up vibrations through your jaw and skull.  Awesome.  They have an XLR version but it's expensive ($200**).

If you can talk without waving your arms about:  Lapel mics.  I had a chance to test drive the the Rode smartLav+  (~$80) with a client of mine who was looking to start recording videos and it worked very well on her iPhone with the Rode Rec (free) iOS app.  This mic is an excellent choice for smartphone-enabled folk who have enough space on their phone to take good audio &/or video.  I'm not that person: I have an older iPhone with only 8GB.  This mic is equipped with a nice long cable for talking head videos, so you can set your phone up on a camera stand with a smartphone adapter ($8) or get a camera stand and smartphone adapter set ($13**).  If you can, get the Rode smartLav+ -- but cheaper smartphone-compatible lavaliere mics that are well rated include this one at $25** or this one at $18**.

If you have an XLR set-up with phantom power available, check out this lavolier mic with a full-sized XLR plug ($40**, sets of 2 available).  Just remember this is analog recording, and that mic cable is thin and probably un-sheilded.  Keep it away from transformers and electrical wires, etc.  I've never tried the mic, but it's on my hot list of mics to try out, and I'm curious as to whether to try cardioid or omni.  With all the noise in my house, I might try cardioid, but the few people who selected cardioid didn't seem to have a great experience.

I'm now working on testing out a shotgun mic.  I was looking at another model which was meant to mount on top of a video recorder, but actually ended up changing my mind and going with a Pyle PDMIC35 Shotgun Mic with an XLR connector ($26)…which will be here tomorrow, so I can't review it yet.  I'll update this post and post a review on Amazon once I've tested out the new mic.  I'll use my scissor stand, which is mounted behind my monitor, to point the mic at me from on top of the monitor and see how that sounds.

Update: the Pyle mic didn't work for me. It's extremely sensitive.  It picks up the cat lapping at her water bowl in the next room.  I sent it back.  In the meantime I had tested all my mics again and decided to swap my Shure SM58 for the Shure 869 for a while.  The 869 is a condenser XLR mic (phantom power with battery back-up just in case) with a tight cardioid pattern recommended for use on podiums for ministers, lectures & presenters at events. It has excellent noise rejection, extraordinarily low noise, and while not as warm and rich in tone pick-up as the SM58 it should be great for recording online courses.  You wouldn't perform at a rock concert with it (that's where the SM58 comes in) but it doesn't pick up reflections and barely needs noise reduction run on it.  This is a boon with the cats, teenagers and roosters in the background.

Mic Power! and other accessories

After I had bought the AT2005USB, I still ended up frustrated with my mic set-up -- ready to try to get richer sounds and do less post-editing.  I really wanted to give my 2 classic Shure mics a go and see if I could improve the sound of my recordings.  Enter the Behringer XENYX 302USB for $50.  This tiny mixing board is about the size of 12 ounces of hard cheese.  110mm x 130mm (about 4.5" x 5.5") footprint on your desk, not counting room for cables.  It's a 2-track mixing board with 1 XLR or 1/4" combo input, RCA inputs, analog headset mic inputs, mic gain, 2-channel equalizer (EQ) on each input channel, and USB output to your computer.  I was able to test out 2 mics I already owned because I put this piece of equipment into play.  Now, I'm using it to provide phantom power to my Shure SM58 mic and to control the gain on the mic, and I'll need it for gain and phantom power for the new XLR shotgun mic.

If you don't want a mixing board, check out the InnoGear 1-channel Phantom Power Supply for $20**.  Your mic hooks into this box via an XLR Male to XLR Female cable.  And you need another cable to bring the XLR output to your computer.  Some mics come with an XLR-to-1/4" jack that you can hook into your computer, in which case you need an XLR-to-XLR cable.  But most mics come with an XLR-to-XLR and you will need some way to get the audio into your computer.  You can get an XLR-to-USB (for Mac or Windows, note the connector is a little larger than most USB connectors) or an XLR-to-1/4" (for Windows onboard or soundcard mic-in jack).

So you're going to be set back by several pieces of gear unless you get a direct-to-USB mic.

Mic Stands

In my soundbooth I used a traditional floor mic stand.  When I first tried working with my old mics and the XENYX, I used a telescoping desktop stand.  But it's ALWAYS in the way.  You bump it, the mic picks it up.  You end up craning your neck to reach the mic rather than sitting correctly and having the mic come to you.  So I purchased a scissor stand with shock mount and XLR cable at about $22. Now, I've moved where it's clamped once, I was careful not to over-tighten the clamp on my desk, and it's been here for months -- so I think it's a good purchase. When I don't need the mic, I push it aside.  When I need it, I pull the mic over to me.  I sit comfortably, and I don't kill my back and neck trying to reach the mic.  The Shure SM58 doesn't fit the rather large shock-mount, but a piece of foam pipe insulation tucked inside the clip works just fine to hold my mic firmly, and you can't really see it if you use black foam and cut it down enough.

Shock mounts are important if you're bumping around on your desk and the mic is picking it up.  The scissor stand I recommend comes with one.  If you already love your mic set-up and don't need the scissor stand, for the same price ($21**) you can get this shockmount with a pop-filter built in.

Pop-Filter, Windscreen

You have to choose what type of pop-filter you want, I of course got one of the cheapest ones I could find at under $8.  I also threw a foam ball windscreen into one of my orders -- in case I ever bring a mic outdoors for some reason, or if I need a fan blowing on me in an audio booth -- or just because they were so cheap at about $2.50.

Eliminating other Noises

Ok, I'm not really recommending this one if you're a cheapskate like me.  But I had the world's noisiest chair (and a lot of pain in my lower back).  You could hear the back of the chair squeak, metallic bumps, rollers scraping the floor, the air lift noises when I adjusted my weight.  I can't have all that noise in the background of a screencast video.  And I've mentioned the back issues caused by leaning in to mics rather than having the mic come to me.  So I opted to help my back (and by extension my videos) by buying a ball chair -- I got the Sivan Health & Fitness ball chair at about $70 and well worth strengthening my core, improving my posture which also helps my breathing, which also helps my asthma and helps me sound better in my recordings.  I can even bounce up and down, and you don't hear my chair in a recording.  I wrote a review on the chair on Amazon.  You have to pump it up every few days until it stops stretching, but aside from that it's very comfortable, and absolutely silent.

The next annoyance in my recordings was the clicking of my mouse.  Keyboard typing is bad enough, but I don't want to hear every mouse click especially in the middle of a sentence.  So I got this Kensington Silent Mouse for under $13.  It's exceptionally quiet.

Recommended Starter Kits

I know: "Just tell me what to buy!"

This is a starter kit that will do you good for non-talking-head videos -- screencasts, voiceovers, presentations, podcasts, etc.

Level 0: Wannabe Instructor:

  • Audio-Technica's ATR2100-USB ($50**) .  Whether you're on a Mac or Windows, you can't go wrong with this mic.  It comes with a stand clip, and a stupid desktop stand that you can discard if you want.  Especially discard it if it makes you have to crane your neck funny or if you're planning to type while recording.  Put it right back in the box.  [I own the very-similar AT2005USB by the same company, but this is the cheaper of the two right now.]
  • scissor stand with shock mount and XLR cable at about $22.  As a starter, ignore the XLR cable.  You can use it when you upgrade gear later.  A piece of foam & some electrical tape and it's a non-issue. This takes care of 2 birds with 1 stone: you now have a stand and a shock mount for the price of a shockmount.  If you're not recording at your desk then get a floor mic stand.
  •  cheap pop filter $8  This attaches to the mic stand, and has a gooseneck so you have many choices of how to position the filter, so it's not interfering with your line-of-sight.

Level 1: First Course Audio Rejected Upgrade:

I'll meditate on this and see if I come up with more "upgrade paths."

Where I'm at now...

One of my cats decided that my sound booth was a great deal of fun and started playing "Can I drag the curtains down?"  So, since the blankets were just clipped into place and I got tired of hooking them back up, I ended up dissembling my PVC sound booth and donating 2 of the moving blankets to my son, who has started doing his own recordings.  I had to pad his room, both to improve his recordings, and to improve my sanity.  We took 2 moving blankets and stapled them to his walls with a staple gun.  It's AMAZING how much they helped both his audio reflections, and muffle his voice that used to carry through the whole house.  In my area, we have Harbor Freight, a tool-supply surplus store.  I wait until I get a moving blanket coupon and go to town -- which happened last week. I now have another 3 moving blankets to re-do a booth around my desk.  That's the next Home Recording Studio project…I'm thinking ceiling hooks this time.

Note: links in this article are affiliate links.  It doesn't change your price, just gives me a kickback for making the recommendation.    I am not affiliated with ANY of these manufacturers in any way, and I was not given any products for free or discount to test them or review them.  Most products, whether purchased or not, were selected based on price, features & decent reviews of the product with the primary exception of the Blue mics which are frequently recommended mics in the Udemy Studio.

** Items in the article that I've never personally purchased or tested.  If it's not marked, I either own it or have personally tried it out when a friend purchased it.