I know there’s a fairly large segment of the Hot Pod readership that have deep experience with work-from-home arrangements and distributed workflows. After all, on the one hand, podcasting has long been the domain of DIY broadcasters, and on the other hand, the radio producer community is rich with office-free freelance mercenaries who are well-versed in the solitary, independent life.
The next two sections were chiefly constructed for folks who are newly settling into the work-from-home production life, or are getting reacquainted. But hey, who knows, maybe you’ll get something out of them too.
First up, assuming that lots of folks are going to become incredibly familiar with the cracks and creases inside their closets, I reached out to Rob Byers, audio mixer and engineer extraordinaire, for tips on improving closet recording set-ups. Currently, Byers is the Director of Broadcast and Media Operations at American Public Media, and in the past, he was a production specialist with NPR Training. He also worked on Criminal, which is how I originally found him.
After a long few days of whatever this nightmare is, what I’m about to write about feels so… inconsequential. That said, I know it will help those who are doing good work reporting on this crisis. So, here goes.
There are a few easy things you can do to help get a good sound when recording from home.
First, figure out how you’ll mitigate environmental noise like air handling systems, street noise, or your neighbor’s dishwasher. Most of the sounds inside your house will be easy to silence (turn off the air or the computer with the loud fan), but you won’t be able to seal out noises from outside. No off-the-shelf product will block outside sound, unless you have a real vocal booth with a fancy name like Ermentrude (!). Put distance and walls between yourself and the noise. An internal room with no windows is a good option — the quintessential closet-turned-voice-booth. You’ll probably end up with a “boxier” sound in a closet, but that’s ok, it’s still better than hearing the neighbor binge watching Netflix next door.
Now that you’ve found a quieter space, you need to deal with how it sounds. Odds are you’re in a bedroom, living room, or closet with a bunch of hard surfaces like walls, picture frames, or hardwood floors. These surfaces reflect the sound of your voice back to the microphone, which creates a “roomy” sound. Recording studios have acoustic treatment made out of soft materials to absorb and reduce reflections. You can mimic this. Find soft things in your house (like your devalued collection of Beanie Babies) and put them around your microphone and your voice. Make a large pillow fort around the microphone and talk into the fort. Or, drape a heavy blanket over you and the mic (shout out to Ari Shapiro!). Just get something soft and absorptive around your voice and the microphone to separate them from reflective surfaces. You will find this achieves a more intimate sound even if you are in a small space like a closet.
Here’s a video of the rig I built in my closet (props to whoever can guess the name of the stuffed bear). If you can spend the money, there are a couple of products that work really well, like the Real Traps Portable Vocal Booth. They look better than a bunch of pillows, but they aren’t terribly affordable.
If you are lucky enough to have different kinds of microphones, now is the time to try them. Your primary field mic or the mic you use in the studio may not be the best choice in your scrappy home recording setup because it captures the sound of those reflections so accurately. I won’t make a specific mic recommendation as there are too many variables in choosing a mic (the recorder you’ll use it with, budget, purpose, etc.). But if ya got ‘em, try ‘em.
One other thing: learn the location of your mic’s “null point.” This is the angle at which the mic picks up the least amount of sound. You can use the null to your advantage by angling it toward an offending sound.
I’ll offer two more things. One, I think our listeners will be more forgiving of a rougher sound right now — give yourself the permission to go with what you have. Two, there’s something really lovely about sharing DIY home recording setups, especially in this moment. Reach out and ask what’s working for other people! Share your photos with me on Twitter and maybe we’ll put together a 2021 calendar.
Quick thanks to my colleagues Corey Schreppel and Michael Raphael for helping me with this. Please take care of yourselves.
You can learn more about Rob from his website.
And before we move on, I highly recommend complementing Rob’s tips with this Transom piece by Jeff Towne, “Recording During the Coronavirus Pandemic.”