08 August 2008

The Updated Studio

The following is really only for recording geeks; read on if you'd like to know what I'm using to put together my latest podcasts. This is really a bit premature since I'm writing this before releasing any of the new audio, but it will be a good incentive for me to hurry up and get something done.

My current apartment studio setup now starts with a Neumann BCM 705. Choice of microphone is highly individual -- a mic that makes one person's voice sound good may emphasize the flaws in someone else's voice. I'm pretty satisified with the way this mic makes my voice sound. My voice is a little nasal and thin -- I've got an extremely deviated septum, which tends to make me tend towards mouth breathing, and if I avoid mouth breathing, my nose is a little "whistley." (Is that too much information?) Not all the time, but you can hear it, and some microphones emphasize breath noise worse than others. This one seems to be fairly resistant to breath noise, and also to pops, to the point where I didn't feel the need to set up a separate pop filter.

This is Neumann's only dynamic microphone and one of only a couple broadcast-style microphones designed to hang from a boom. As such it might seem like a slightly controversial choice -- why not use a BCM 104, a condenser mic? The 705 was also quite a bit less expensive, which is certainly a consideration. Price was not the only consideration -- I did not want to buy a mic made in China. The 705 is made in Germany.

Also, given that the background noise level in my office/studio is not all it could be, I thought that a dynamic microphone might exhibit a little bit less sensitivity to background noise. So far that seems to be true. It might be interesting to do an A/B comparison with the BCM 104, and to try out some other microphones favored by podcasters, but for now I'd buy the mic again. The hanging broadcast-style design makes it much easier to use for reading.

OK, enough about the microphone. The stand is an unexciting cheap boom stand, not really a spring-loaded broadcast-style stand, but good enough for now. From there the mic goes into an Apogee Ensemble. The Ensemble is probably the item that has the most overall effect on the quality of the recorded vocal track. There are much cheaper audio interfaces and mic preamps, and of course much more expensive ones as well. I chose the Ensemble because I've become very sensitive to noisy mic preamps. It has a lot of headroom and a very neutral-sounding noise floor. I also have been gravitating towards doing all the vocal processing -- compression, etc. -- in software, so rather than set up a typical hardware channel strip I decided to spring for as clean and straightforward an input path as I could manage. The benefit there is that you can change your mind: you can just change some software settings if you decide you want more compression, or less, or sibilance removal, or not. As long as the original signal is clean with a reasonable gain level and some headroom available you have a lot of choices. Recording the effected signal tends to limit what you can choose to do with it afterwards.

I've had an occasional technical glitch with the Ensemble, but for the most part it seems quite easy to use. I'm currently monitoring the signal in headphones on the way back out of the computer, which means I'm hearing it out of phase with my voice, but you kind of get used to that; the latency is certainly far better than it was with my USB recording solutions. I'm only really listening for words that sound unclear, pops, excess breath noise, or anything else that would make me record a second take; I'll listen to it in much more detail later.

Anyway, the Apogee is connected to a Mac Pro. The computer is tricked out with 8 cores and 8 gigs of RAM. This is not strictly necessary for Logic; I could get by with a fraction of that. The memory is really there for doing photo work using Aperture and Photoshop, especially for slides and detailed restoration. But it doesn't hurt -- Apple Logic is very responsive on this machine and I can stack up plug-ins and tracks.

Next time, more about the plug-ins and the challenge of creating vocal effects for horror and science fiction -- they must sound strange, not too terribly cheesy, and also be completely intelligible and not fatiguing to listen to!

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