recording spoken audio
July 13, 2005 8:31 AM   Subscribe

My not-for-profit theatre company (run by me and grumblebee) wants to start producing audio dramas and releasing them as podcasts (and maybe on CDs). We have a limited budget (under $1000). What recording equipment should we buy for good quality sound?

We've been looking at The Marantz PMD 660, which got a fairly good review at, but what mics should we get for it? Or should we go with something else besides the Marantz? Do we need a preamp? People keep making all sorts of suggestions, and each person's suggestions are totally different from each other person's suggestions. I guess that's to be expected.

But we're so overwealmed with suggestions that we don't even know where to start. We DO want nice quality, but we don't want to spend five years picking between two mics that sound almost the same to anyone except sound technicians. We'd LOVE someone to just pick out a "kit" for us, and say "buy this" so that we can get started.

We already have a laptop with a soundcard. And we have Adobe Audition. So we're fine with computer equipment and software. We just need good recording equipment.

We will be recording 5 - 8 actors who will sometimes be speaking at once. Should we get an omni-mic? Which one? Or a bunch of lapel mics? Help!
posted by Evangeline to Technology (24 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
My one recommendation to any and all podcaters new and old: invest in a good compressor and learn how to use it - Or, at the very least, get a limiter.

The volume on most podcasts I listen to is all over the place - a compressor will help manage this and will make the podcast infinitely more listenable.

I'd also suggest a mixer and some microphones - they don't have to be great microphones, but I'd probably still go for Sure SM57 - the mixer will help you keep everyone (quiet and loud talkers alike) at the same general level. The mixer will also allow you to place people wherever you want them in the mix by panning them left or right - you can usually get a little bit of individual tone control on a decent mixer too.

Also, don't forget to pick up some mic stands - people holding mics creates lots and lots of noise.
posted by soplerfo at 9:28 AM on July 13, 2005

I'd suggest individual lapel mics, which you will then have to feed into a mixer (a box that will combine all the voices together to 2 audio tracks - Left and Right).
I'm suggesting lapel mics because they will really cut down on ambient noise (air conditioning system, people shuffling their feet, cars outside, etc) and an omni mic will only enhance those unwanted noises - they will treat an air conditioner hum as just as important as your actors' voices. Good lapel mics should cut out most of that noise and focus on each actor's voice; just make sure actors are sitting a couple feet from each other.

The Marantz is a good choice, and the added bonus is you won't have to worry about machine-induced hum from a standard sound card input. As I said, you'll need a mixer (which will have microphone preamps inside it), if you want more than 2 actors speaking at once. This will give you maximum control, and you'll also be able to set individual volume levels for each person, so that everyone will be heard. I'd go with Mackie, which has a great reputation for quality mixers, and at very reasonable prices (you should be able to find one for between $300 - $500, even cheaper used or on Ebay). Cheaper in equipment isn't always better, but in Mackie's case, the price is much lower than the quality of components. It may seem like overkill, but using a mixer will give you the most control over the voices, which will make for a cleaner, more professional sounding product.

You'll need to get the right kind of cable to feed audio from the Mackie mixer to the Marantz recorder, but that won't cost much. Feel free to Email me with questions, or I can point you to some online audio gear stores that have discount prices. Good luck, the project sounds like fun!
posted by turtlegirl at 9:44 AM on July 13, 2005

For mics, I'd argue for the SM58. It's tailored to voice, as opposed to the SM57, which is more broad in its design. You might want to go with one of each. I saw an ad in a direct mailer that would give you one of each for about $40.
As a side note, I've dropped a 10-year-old SM58 off of a catwalk and had it work perfectly, aside from the ugly dent in the mesh.
posted by klangklangston at 10:03 AM on July 13, 2005

I may be misunderstanding your needs, but it strikes me that if you have a laptop and soundcard (with inputs?) and are planning on recording people speaking you don't need an outboard recording device: you can record right onto your harddrive.

Here's what i'm picturing which may or may not serve your needs. Actors at a table, one or two omni mics (the low-end Electrovoices would be perfect) alightly above their heads, roughly equidistant from each actor. No need for a mixer, actors control their own voice level. The mics plug into the laptop's sound card, which could be under the table to reduce hum.

I'm suggesting a set-up like this because i think it would produce the most natural sounding performance. A group of actors with lapel mics whose volumes are being controlled by a mixer and have these cables running off of them; or a group of actors, each with an individual mic they have to speak into (and focus on) seems a very awkward situation to inspire good performances. The touch of ambient sound introduced by using omni-directional mics, is, IMHO a small price to pay for their natural sound and ease of use.

On Preview: hmm. Seems like i'm in the minority on this one. One thing to correct though, omnis are very responsive to distance and volume. Meaning they'll only treat air conditioner hum the same as a voice if the both speaker and a/c unit are the same loudness and distance from the mic.
posted by verysleeping at 10:09 AM on July 13, 2005

If you can't afford the hardware, there are software mixing solutions which will allow you to limit/compress the recording in post-production.

Sound Forge (Sony) is arguably the best PC sound-tweaking package out there, and can do these functions. There are other cheaper alternatives (like CoolEdit), but I don't know if they have that functionality.

In time, you might get sick of performing transforms on huge sound files, but by then you'll know what hardware you really need, and can make a more informed decision/purchase, if necessary.
posted by catkins at 10:13 AM on July 13, 2005

I have the marantz, and it's very nice. But it's not what you need for this type of project.

Get a small mixer, plug a few mics into it (the SM58 recommendation is good) and run it all into a computer. For audio drama you want some control over the levels of each of the performers and, possibly, sound effects (though by dumping everything into a computer, you can add the latter in "post" as it were).

Most importantly, you need a quiet and comfortable space to record in. This is far more important than the specifics of your equipment. Can you find a place away from traffic sounds? A place that doesn't suffer from creaky floors? Can you hang some blankets or rugs from the walls to cut down on reflected sound?

You'd be surprised how far that sort of thing goes toward making a great recording. It's not as important if you're doing interviews in the field, but makes a HUGE difference for things like audio drama.
posted by aladfar at 10:14 AM on July 13, 2005

One more quick thing. Since you are running Audition you already have compressors, limiters, the ability to do sound effects post and tweak what you recorded, all built right into the software.
posted by verysleeping at 10:22 AM on July 13, 2005

Thanks for all the help so far!

Yes, we have a quiet place to record.

Naturally, I am intrigued by the mics into the laptop solution, since that sounds like the least expensive way to go.

We have a really good group of actors (most are professionals in NYC, some have appeared on Broadway, etc.), so the performances will be great. Within our budget, I'd like to get the best sound possible. If we're lucky, these productions may have some life in them. They may wind up on CD or even radio. We don't want them to be turned down because they sound bad. Is a laptop and mics really good enough?

verysleeping, you LITERALLY suggest a laptop and a couple of mics. But surely you at least need a mixer/preamp, right? For one thing, most laptops only have one mic input.
posted by grumblebee at 10:23 AM on July 13, 2005

Response by poster: If you record directly to a hard drive, are you likely to run into issues in which other system processes consume so many resources that there are occasional skips in the recording? Obviously, I would shut everything else down (including anti-virus), but are there any other gotchas?
posted by Evangeline at 10:41 AM on July 13, 2005

I think verysleeping is on the right track. Get yourself a decent condensor mic and put it in front of the group of actors. With that, a couple of music stands to hold the script and a line into your computer, you can do an awful lot.

I use a Shure KSM32 for this sort of thing and it works wonderfully. I have the mic connected to a Mackie 1202 mixer and then run a line in to my computer.

After a few takes, you'll figure out how loud to speak and how far to stand away from the mic. Google around for info on the old radio plays - you can find pictures of people as they are recording.

I've done the routine of putting a mic on each actor and mixing and monitoring levels and have found that it's too much a pain for what you get. A single mic with a few motivated actors is much easier and sounds much better.

I also second the above advice on compression/limiting. Don't compress while recording, though. Get as clean and raw a signal to tape and experiment with different compression settings on the final product.
posted by Rubber Soul at 10:41 AM on July 13, 2005

Understanding the nature and seriousness of the project better, i'd revise and say go with something like this M-Audio Interface. Or perhaps the M-Box. My point is simply that unless you're planning on doing field work, a device like the Marantz is unnecessary.

It's true that most laptops only have one input but it is often a stereo input, meaning two mics through a $10 Radio Shack adapter gets you two independent signals into the computer.

All of that said, some details about the laptop and its soundcard and whether it's USB or FireWire might make it easier to make more helpful suggestions.
posted by verysleeping at 10:44 AM on July 13, 2005

Response by poster: Laptop is a Dell Inspiron 8600. It has both USB and Firewire ports. I can't figure out what sort of sound card it has, and Dell's website isn't much help. I have a feeling that the sound card is built into the motherboard. (The specs don't list a sound card, but it obviously has one.) I am willing to upgrade the sound card if it's possible to do that and if that's within our budget.
posted by Evangeline at 11:01 AM on July 13, 2005

Response by poster: verysleeping, what specific mics would you recommend?
posted by Evangeline at 11:04 AM on July 13, 2005

If you are serious about a professional product, and taking the trouble to use a good studio space and professional actors, you should not limit yourself to $1000. You can't really achieve a professional product even if you use an existing computer as the recording device.

I don't know what's used in theater recording these days, but important questions concern, for example, whether actors will be moving around, speaking simultaeneously from different locations, and how many there will be on mic at a time. Almost certainly you need a mixer running phantom-powered condenser mics, probably lavaliers. If actors can be fixed in place and speak one at a time, you might get by with a couple of condenser vocal mics (M-Audio has a cheap condenser out called the Nova, about $100, that sounds darn good to me). You will need either a fast computer with a large hard drive and a high quality sound interface (assuming especially that you want to multi-track actors voices so that you can mix them in post-production) or a dedicated audio recorder (I recommend the Marantz PMD671 over the 660 -- much better mic preamps according to the buzz, though I have not owned a 660.) Or there are standalone multitrack digital recorders now as well (Edirol R4 is about $1500 and provides 4 channels). A computer is fine, with a quality interface (firewire, not USB, if you are serious here -- MOTU 828MkII or Edirol FA66 are nice and about $800 and $500 respectively). These interfaces provide some hardware mixing, and of course software mixing, as well as direct-to-computer multitrack recording. Or spend more money and go with industry-standard Digidesign hardware and software. You'll need either stereo or multitrack recording and editing software (I like BIAS Peak and Deck for Macs, but there are many choices), and getting the right solution here will save you hundreds of dollars in time later. Mostly, you need someone comfortable with this technology to do the work, or teach you how to do it. There is a learning curve here, and it's fairly steep. At the very least, you're going to want to experiment extensively with whatever you choose before you start paying actors. Plugging an SM58 into an M-Audio Audiphile interface will give you adequate sound for speech that is right up on the mic, but you will have little ambience, and the sound will be clearly inferior to using a more sophsiticated setup. You'll also want a good stereo field condenser to record raw ambient room sound to use in blending and mixing. Good mics, and probably a number of them tailored to different recording priorities, are the most important part of the chain.

Don't forget that your actors will also need good quality headphones for monitoring, as will you.

Do you have any competition in the podcasting world? If so, listen to their products and see what the standards are. I for one would have a hard time listening to a podcast of theater that sounded like it was recorded on the cheap. You want the audio illusion of liveness to survive compression to mp3 and playback on earbuds. That takes investment.
posted by realcountrymusic at 11:18 AM on July 13, 2005

Response by poster: realcountrymusic, I hear what you're saying. It will probably take us a while to make recordings that appeal to real sound people, like you. We just can't afford the kind of set-up you want (we're a not-for-profit, and we subside on donations). We're going probably going to give these productions away for free, so they won't bring in any revenue. Your setup will be something to shoot for in the future, so I thank you for it. At the moment, it's just not realistic. In that case, I guess we could just scrap the project until later. But I'd rather not do that. I believe that are enough people out there who would enjoy what we have to offer if we can get the sound quality fairly good (as opposed to great). We are applying for grants, and if some come through, we may be able to step it up to the next level.

By the way, we will be recording the actors speaking together. We may cut various takes together, but we WON'T record the actors separately and then mix them in post.

By the way, our company only produces classics. So we'll be doing Shakespeare plays (probably uncut), Greek drama, etc. I don't think anyone else is doing that yet (I mean for free as a podcast. You can, of course, BUY audio versions of these plays).
posted by Evangeline at 11:29 AM on July 13, 2005

Grumble, I'm suggesting this...because I know you.

Scrap your plans. I think a stage play recorded (multiple mikes) is a mistake. You'll get quite a bit of cross recording problems (an infernal headache).

Your actors are good, devoted and motivated. You already have all the tools (software, intention to buy hardware.)

Why not have them by as a group and record them individually (as a group?)...this is a slight headache, the same you're running into...

and then foley in sounds.

You could do this like an 'old time' radio play. 2-3 mikes, seperated but close enough that the actors can hear/see each other.
posted by filmgeek at 11:38 AM on July 13, 2005

filmgeek, thanks. I will record that way if I absolutely have to, but I'd rather avoid it. I am a strong believer in real people actually talking to each other. That's what I want to capture. I think performances are significantly different if you record people separately and then mix the dialogue than if you record their actual dialogue.

Naturally, I want it ALL. Natural dialogue plus excellent sound quality. But if I have to give one of those two up, I'd sacrifice the sound quality.

Having said that, we probably will add some sounds in post.

My plan is to rehearse these for three weeks. And I will probably record rehearsals. That will (a) give the actors a chance to get used to (and adjust to) recording. And you never know, I may get some really good takes during the rehearsal process.

I am not thinking of these as recorded stage plays. In other words, we WON'T be recording our live events. These will be separate production, produced specifically for audio. Some of the plays we'll do will be ones that we can't produce live (due to expense -- big battles scenes or whatever). And it will give our actors chances to play parts that they never get to play on stage (because they don't look right).
posted by grumblebee at 11:50 AM on July 13, 2005

Evangeline, given the quick processor speed of the 8600, i very much doubt that you'll have skips/drop-outs. In the Digital Audio Workstation world there is a lot of talk about harddrive speed sometimes causing glitches but i personally have never had any sort of problem like that. Perhaps others may be able to speak to that concern better than i.

I suspect that upgrading the soundcard is probably not possible and also unnecessary. Purchasing a decent analog to digital (a/d) box like the m-audio or m-box is a much better solution.

I'll try to explain better why i'm advising against the marantz and the mics-to-mixer-to-soundcard. I think that introduces unnecessary complexity and noise into your signal path. A rule of thumb for getting clean sound is to minimize the route from mic to recorder.

Going with something entirely outboard like the Marantz means your signal goes from the mic thru an a/d converter to the flash memory in the Marantz, then when you dump into the computer it runs thru the a/d leaving the Marantz and again through the a/d entering the computer. Each one of these steps reduces quality.

The mics-mixer-soundcard model is a bit cleaner, as you're only doing one a/d conversion (mixer to soundcard), but there still is that mixer in the middle there and i'm not sure why you'd need it. Also, i'd imagine your soundcard only a/ds at 16bits. Considering your plans for this you may want to have a higher bitrate coming in.

Getting a box like the M-audio or M-box makes things real simple. Mics into the box into the computer at 24 (or more) bits.

One thing to look out for: does the a/d box play nice with Audition. The M-box will most likely not, but it comes packaged with Pro-Tools LE which can do pretty much everything Audition can and more in some cases.

Mic recommendation is tricky, particularly considering how specific your usage is. Some info that would help:
Will the actors be performing at once? (meaning do you want to set-up the mics and have them tackle the script straight through. Kinda like a sitcom is shot)
OR More piecemeal, with an actor reading some lines and then another actor steps to the mic and reads their line and then you edit it all back together in the computer? (kinda like how film is shot)

How concerned are you about vibe? I alluded to this earlier but one of the reasons i think an omni is nicer for this application than a directional (like the SM58) is it is pretty much ignorable. With 58 your actors will need to be constantly aware of how close/far they are from the mic and they'll need to be facing it directly all the time. With an omni the actor will have more freedom of movement and of expression. You speak too loud into a 58 and you'll get a nasty pop; you speak too loud near an omni and you'll simply notice the increase in loudness.

If you are doing multiple omnis get a matched pair to avoid phase problems. Gotta run but will return with better mic info in about an hour.

On Preview: My first question's answered and with that i'll totally stress going the omni route. I love my Earthworks but that might be a little pricey. Oh, and live sound for theatre generally uses boundary mics. I've no experience with boundary mics-- anybody else?
posted by verysleeping at 11:53 AM on July 13, 2005

Thanks, very. I think you're very close to helping us zero in on a solution (this is odd, responding in tag team with Evangeline... oh well...)

As I responded to filmgeek, I intend to record all the actors at once. If I absolutely have to, I'll pull one back in for post work. But that will be the exception, not the rule.

We won't be recording in a theatre. We'll be in a small room where we can have reasonable control over the ambience (we can hang blankets, etc.) It will be nice to let the actors get further and closer to the mics and to generally move around a bit (closer to each other, further, etc.) to simulate real movement.

So I like your omni suggestion.

So here's what I'm thinking about:

a couple of omnis (which ones? how much?)
audition or protools LE.
cables (???)

anything else?
posted by grumblebee at 12:08 PM on July 13, 2005

grumblebee, as far as cables go, you'll just need two XLR cables. You'll want to get two mic stands, probably boom stands.

One thing to note which realcountrymusic mentioned: there is a bit of a learning curve if you go with the M-Box/Protools set-up. That said, i want to gently disagree that that learning curve is unduly steep. I noticed in your profile that you have a lot of creative technical experience. I'd imagine the leap into digital recording won't find you overwhelmed.
(btw, Evangeline and grumblebee, i just looked at Folding Chair's website. Very cool work y'all are doing!)

Okay, so microphones. Be warned that what follows are suggestions to investigate, not necessarily recommendations. With the exception of the Earthworks, i've not actually used any of the mics i've listed below. I've used mics made by the same manufacturers but not these specific mics:

the Electrovoice 635 will go for like $120-150. EV is pretty huge in the broadcast mic world. Two of these and you're still within your budget.

the Earthworks TC20 Matched Pair will blow a gaping hole in your budget at $750 but holy crow do they sound good. (i bought mine a few years ago by dropping my classes for a semester and using my student loan money to buy mics; ridiculousness!)

These matched Russian omnis for $450 may work. Note: I've heard good things about the Sound Room, but have never used or purchased their gear.

The Sennheiser 62 seems pretty appropriate for your applications and will cost around $200.

Hopefully someone else might pop in here and be able to offer more direct mic suggestions. (I noticed you've mentioned above, i'll bet their site/forums could point you in a good direction).

Good luck and have fun and keep us posted when the first podcast goes live. This sounds like a really cool project!
(oh, my email's in my profile if other q's come up).
posted by verysleeping at 1:18 PM on July 13, 2005

Rode NT2000 ($600) or NT2A ($400) + M-audio mobilepre USB ($150) or audio buddy into laptop sound jack ($80), a cheap stand with a K&M boom arm, cable + pop filter (or make your own).

Or a pair of Rode NT5s ($400), and add a stereo mic bar (I like the one from Sabra)

I like the NT2000 for the variable patterns, you can use it as an omni, directional, or figure 8. The figure 8 might be very useful. I think it sounds good. The NT2A is similar but less expensive, but I've never used one.(wikilink on microphones, figure 8 is also called bi-directional)

The NT5s are nothing stellar, but a good price for a pair. They're pretty close to Shur SM81s for 1/2 the price.

The cheap stand + K&M arm only saves about $15 vs. a full K&M stand.

If you'd like to try out mics in NYC, drop me a line (profile), and I might be able to help. I'd strongly discourage you from buying any of the mics without seeing/hearing how they work. There are a lot of ways to approach this, and my opinions are only informed from my specific experience.
posted by Jack Karaoke at 2:23 PM on July 13, 2005

Please put me on your mailing list. I'd like to purchase a copy when you're done. I love stuff like this. Good luck.
posted by snsranch at 4:34 PM on July 13, 2005

I still think you should use individual mics (either lavs or something like the Shure SM58 vocal mic) for each actor. The problem with using an omni (or 2 omnis or a figure 8...any situation in which actors share mics) is that you lose control over each person's vocal level. This is, in my opinion, a BAD compromise. Why pay a lot for one expensive microphone and give up control of relative volumes when you can spend about the same amount for inexpensive mics and keep that control? Also, close micing (putting the microphone close to each individual's mouth) will always get cleaner, better results than using an omni that is 1, 2 or 3 feet from a pair or group of actors. I don't care how quiet the room is, it's going to have some kind of noise, either environmental or generated from the actors themselves (clothes rustling, etc). So either lavs, or vocal mics with stands that will let you get the mics in the faces of your actors is my suggestion. What type of mics you get is going to be determined by how much of your budget you spend on the mixer, any computer upgrades you make, and cables. Get the best quality mics you can afford after you buy the other stuff.

I agree with others who suggest that you don't need the Marantz in this situation. I thought it would be good because you can take it with you to record in different locations (if you need to), and you won't have the problem of machine-generated hum/static/noise that you can get from factory-standard computer sound cards. You might not have a problem with noise, or you might. Perhaps you can borrow a mic and test out recording straight into the computer in order to see how the sound card performs, then make a decision from there.

I also agree with others that software treatment of the stereo mix in order to even out the levels (compression) is going to help you a lot too (does Audition have a toolbox with a compressor/limiter in it? does it have a "normalize" function? - this would be used after compression to bring the final level back to "maximum" without peaking/overloading/clipping). Try Audition first. You don't need something as powerful as ProTools, and you can always upgrade later if you have the desire/need/cash. A couple of basic software editing features (delete/copy/paste audio to make edits) and a software-based compressor should be all you need to get started.

To summarize: 8 individual mics>mic cables>Mackie mixer>stereo output (cables/stereo RadioShack splitter mentioned above)>stereo input on sound card>record directly into your hard drive/sound editing software.

Websites for comparison shopping:
Sweetwater Sound:
Broadcast Supply Worldwide:
Musician's Friend:
posted by turtlegirl at 10:27 AM on July 15, 2005

Whoops, forgot to link those sites. Sorry!
posted by turtlegirl at 10:30 AM on July 15, 2005

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