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Recording Spoken Word - A Practical Guide

August 25, 2016

 

I have been recording spoken word for a number of years, including my audio version of Roses of Winter, character roles in online dramatic podcasts, and oral history interviews. I would like to share with you some basic techniques for recording spoken word in a home studio or field interview context. 

The Basics 

 

First, let's discuss the basic components you will need. 

 

Condenser microphone 

Audio interface 

XLR cables 

Computer 

Digital Audio Workstation 

Shock mount 

Pop filter 

Mic stand 

Headphones 

Selecting a microphone 

 

The type of microphone most often selected for spoken word is the condenser. Condenser microphones capture and accurately record a wide range of frequencies. They come in a wide range of prices ranging from less than $100 to several thousands. For the beginner and intermediate user there are a number of 

acceptable inexpensive microphones. I own several condenser mics.  The one I use most often, is the AKG Perception 220 

AKG Perception 220 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                                  

 

 

 

 

                

 

 

 

 

Phantom power 

 

Condenser mics require a power source to operate. This is provided by an audio interface and is often referred to as phantom power. You 

may also see it described as +48 or 48 volts. 

More about microphones 

 

Each mic has its own tonal qualities. New microphones are usually non-returnable so how do you find out how a mic sounds? One way is to look for audio samples 

online. Another method is to turn to people you know who record. Most will have a collection of mics and may be willing to record samples of your voice. You 

will probably find one or two mics that sound better with your voice. The accoustics of the space in which you record will also play a large role in the audio 

results you obtain. Select a space that is as silent as possible, away from household equipment. 

Selecting an audio interface 

 

An audio interface is a device that is placed between your input devices - mics, musical instruments, for example - and a computer. There are many models of audio interface available. The features vary in terms of inputs and outputs. Some common connection types are USB and Firewire. The audio interface functions 

to convert the voltage signal from your input into a digital signal that the computer can process. For voice work, one or two XLR inputs should be 

sufficient. 

Tascam 122L Audio Interface 

 

This is one example of an audio interface. There are many to choose from. I now use one made by Mackie. There will be more information later in the post about 

how to use an interface. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cables 

 

 

​​Use good quality cables with XLR connectors. XLR cables are balanced to minimize ​​noise pickup. Use the shortest length that meets your requirements. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Headphones 

 

 

 

It's important to get a good set of headphones. Monitoring sound requires headphones with a flat frequency response that will 

provide accurate reproduction of the sounds you are recording. The headphone I use is the Sennheiser HD 280 Pro (shown here). 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mic Stands 

 

 

 

A sturdy mic stand is essential. They come in a variety of types, including floor and desktop. The example shown is a desktop stand. The stand I use most often is a desktop stand with an additional boom attachment. 

Select what works best for you. 

 

 

 

 

 

Accessories 

 

I recommend adding the following accessories 

for your recording kit. 

 

Shock Mount 

Pop filter 

 

Let's look at examples and discuss why they are a good idea. 

 

Shock mounts 

 

 

 

This shows the shock mount that comes standard with the AKG Perception 220 condenser mic. A variety of shock mounts are available. Make sure you select the correct one for your mic. Shock mounts have elastic shock absorbers designed to minimize transmission of vibrations from the mic stand. 

 

 

 

 

 

Pop filters 

 

 

This shows the Stedman Proscreen XL Pop Filter. Pop filters are designed to reduce those sounds produced by speakers when pronouncing certain consonants such as 'p' and 's'. I prefer the Stedman Proscreen pop filter to less expensive cloth filters. The Stedman is made of metal and designed to direct breath sounds away from the mic. 

 

 

 

 

 

Putting it all together 

 

We have looked at the equipment. Now the fun part - making it all work together to get a great sounding product. 

 

Let's connect a mic and get started! 

Audio Interface Inputs 

 

 

This shows the inputs on the front of the interface. Two XLR mic connectors (left and right) are provided. There is also a line/guitar in input and a 1/4-inch headphone jack. When recording a single voice I typically use the left input. 

 

Main controls 

 

 On the right of the unit I have selected Mic/Line. Important - I have made sure that phantom power is off and the volume controls are turned to the minimum setting. 

 

Connecting and disconnecting the mic 

 

Condenser mics should be handled with care. Before plugging them into the audio 

interface make sure that the input volume controls are turned to the 

minimum setting and phantom power is off. After recording is complete, reduce the 

volume setting to the minimum setting and turn off phantom power before disconnecting the mic. This avoids the possibility of damaging the mic. 

 

Audio Interface outputs 

 

 

This interface model also has line out and Midi in and out connectors. To the right is the USB cable, which is connected to a laptop and provides power to the interface. 

 

 

DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) Software 

 

 You will need a Digital Audio Workstation, which is software that will allow you record sounds and edit them. One function of the audio interface is to convert the analog or voltage signal from the mic to a digital input that can be processed 

by your computer. This one is Amadeus Pro but there are many 

others. 

 

Settings 

 

 Before you begin you will need to check the settings on the software you are using. You will need to select your audio interface as the input source. The setting shown here would need to be changed before you can record. Another important setting is the IO Buffer Size. This needs to be adjusted depending on whether you are recording or editing. 44.1 Hz is a widely used sampling rate for CDs. 

 

Recording levels 

 

 

Output levels from the audio interface are controlled by the volume knob on the control panel.  It is important to check the sound levels on your software's 

sound meters. 

 

Setting levels 

 

 

Sound levels are expressed in decibels (dB). The image shows the recording level illustrated as bars. You may also see a meter type display. The high point of the scale is 0dB on the right. Levels that remain at 0dB or above will produce sound distortion. Levels that range from -5dB to -10dB are acceptable. Color changes from green to red near 0dB. 

 

Other methods 

 

USB Mics 

 

I would like to share a couple of additional options for recording spoken word. First,

USB mics. 

 

 

 

The image shows an AT 2020 USB condenser mic. USB microphones connect to a USB port on your computer. Set up is easy and such mics can produce good results. Many podcasters, including me, use this type of mic. 

 

 

 

 

 

IPads 

 

 Interfaces have become available that allow you to connect condenser mics to IPads. This image shows my AKG Perception 220 connected to my IPad 2 using an IRig PRE interface. You can also connect a USB mic to anIPad using Apple's camera connector. More recently, a series of interfaces have become available that combine with the IPad to make an audio interface. Technology changes rapidly so you should conduct your own search to discover what is currently available.

 

 

Editing

 

The raw sound files that you obtain will need editing and processing. This can be done with within the DAW. That will be covered in a future blog post.

 

Conducting Interviews

 

 Recording oral history interviews may have to be conducted in circumstances that are less than ideal. To get a useable recording requires controlling as many of the variables as possible. I have recorded interviews on Skype and in the field. In a field setting try to find the least noisy location in the structure where the interview takes place. Since condenser mics are very sensitive, air conditioners and even refrigerator pumps can compromise a recording. It is often difficult or impossible to mitigate background noise at the editing stage so strive to make the input the best possible. 

 

I hope you found this short introduction to recording spoken word to be helpful. When I started out I learned a lot by trial and error but also from more experienced friends and colleagues who were generous in taking time to provide information and advice. This is a very basic tutorial but it should get you started. As you become more accomplished reach out to others and share what you learn. 

 

 

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