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How to Begin Home Recording: Level I

How to Begin Home Recording: Level I

How to Begin Home Recording: Level I

For more information about Gear and Recording, refer to this article.

When I first heard about the recent revolution in amateur spoken-word audio recording, my first thought was that it should have happened sooner. If the blogging phenomenon has taught us anything, it's that many people crave expressing their thoughts to the world. Itís no secret that the internet is an incredible venue for people to voice their thoughts and sell their wares. Whole new audiences and markets are appearing overnight eager for new audio content, and the time is ripe for action.

So what I'm driving at here? I consider spoken word audio to be one of the best tools you have for expressing your thoughts, presenting your work, and marketing your product to a massive audience. Moreover, it is becoming apparent that the listeners of this audio material are going to expand geometrically the more people begin searching for new content to fill their iPods.

Many people have an interest in recording but are held back by perceived obstacles and unfortunately never try it. Itís simple to sit down and write your ideas with a pen, but recording a high quality sound recording seems outside the realm of possibility altogether. With this article I will go through each step in the recording process. The time is now, the podium is ready, and with my help you will see just how easy it is to step up to the mic.

PART I: Computers and Microphones

The first piece of hardware you need is a PC, and a recent version of Windows (98 or XP). I know it might seem like an obvious thing, but one of the first preconditions of this tutorial is that you own or have access to a computer. With this out of the way, you will also need to assure you have a good sound card loaded on your computer. Most recent laptops and PCs come loaded with a good soundcard for music, movies and video games so don't worry yourself wondering whether or not you have one. Does your computer play music or any other sounds? Good, you have a soundcard. As you progress in your audio recording prowess, you will probably want to consider upgrading your sound card capabilities, but for now we'll use what you have.

Now that we've established the basic computer amenities you need, letís talk about microphones. There are many different kinds of microphones out in the world and not all of them work best for voice recording. Generally speaking, most professionals mention condenser mics as the best suited for broadcasting, and in the next tutorial, I'll discuss the next level of microphones you may want to consider. Since this is an absolute beginnerís course and you are just wetting you feet, letís find something that can fit a small budget. I want t give you two options, the first being a USB microphone and the second being a handy voice mic put out by Sony. First I recommend picking up a USB microphone, specifically those put out by Logitech. To be honest, this is not only your first, but it's your best option as it is cheap, plugs directly into your computer's USB port and consequently doesn't require the expense or technical hassle of buying additional gear like a preamp. Secondly, I will mention going to your local electronics store (Radio Shack or Best Buy) and picking up some variation of a Sony Vocal Microphone. The cost ranges between $9 to $20 and the more expensive the mic, the better. My friend David and I recorded our first 8 podcasts with one of these mics and they proved surprisingly versatile. In my mind however, the USB microphone has supplanted buying a cheap Sony mic, not only because they are easier to use, but because the cost is low as well (both mic options mentioned here will run you about $20 - $30).

  • Logitech USB Desktop Microphone
  • Sony Unidirectional Enriched Sound Vocal Microphone (Model F-V320)

    PART II: Recording and Recording Software

    Ok, so you have your microphone and your computer, what next? First of all, you'll need to search for the microphone input on your computer (be sure that you have a mini-plug adapter with the mic you purchase). Most of mic inputs are locate on the back of a PC tower or somewhere close the headphone jack. Once you've located the mic jack, you'll need to configure your soundcard for recording.

    On windows, click Start > Control Panel > Sound and Audio Devices > Audio Tab. Once you've clicked the audio tab, click on the Volume Tab in the Sound Recording box. A new window will show up called Recording Control, click Options > Properties and make sure the Recording circle is clicked. At this point your computer's soundcard has been set to pick up sound from your microphone and you should be able to record your first words. You can also adjust the volume of your mic input via the recording control window. Almost there!

    Now that the soundcard settings are um, set, we can get to what sort of software you will need to begin recording. The most popular program for this is called Audacity. It's a free program, and its interface is very accessible. I've been using digital recording software similar to this for about 10 years (for those keeping count, I was 16 and we were using Windows 3.1, so the situation has definitely improved!) and the best thing I can say about them is that they are some of the easiest programs Iíve ever used.

    Before recording in Audacity, you'll want to prescribe a sample rate. This tells Audacity what quality level you want to record your voice at. Click File > Preferences and then the Quality Tab. It's recommended that you set the Default Sample Rate to 44,100. This sets the program to pick your recordings up at a CD-Quality sample rate. Keep your Default Sample Format at 16-bit, and don't worry yourself with the other options right now.

    Once you set up a new project, a window will open up for you to record on. In audacity all you have to do is push the red record button and start talking. Once you are happy with you what you have, push stop. A wave form will begin to appear in the window you brought up for your project. This is the visual representation of your voice recording. You can then play it back to see how it came out, skip to a certain point on the wave with your mouse and even play it backwards. I could spend many pages describing a program like audacity in text, but honestly this is the one point in digital sound recording where I encourage you to experiment. Once you finally hear your voice come back to you, you can better determine where your strengths are, what you can work on and how you can best use this wonderful new tool to your advantage.

    PART III: Get your recordings ready for the world!

    So you've recorded your voice, experimented with audacity and finished off your first recording, what next? First off, listen to the whole recording again with your headphones. Look for things like ums and ahs, pauses and small verbal mistakes. Don't feel bad, when that record button is hit and you have to contend with the fact that every word is being recorded, even the best of us let the pressure get to us! Over time as you get used to utilizing the medium you will become more comfortable with the idea of being recorded and your message will flow as easily as conversation with a friend. For now, we have one last powerful tool in audacity: editing. I always go over my recordings and cut out any ums, pauses or missteps I can't live with. By all means, use the scissors tool and make yourself sound as good as possible!

    Now that you've edited everything to your liking, you also have the option of adding music or sound effects. Audacity has the capability of adding multiple tracks of audio and blending them together in one big beautiful work of home-made music. To add a track just click File > Add Audio Track and a new window will appear below your main recording window. You can put in any sound file you choose, but I would forewarn the use of copyrighted music.

    Once you are totally satisfied with your first recording ever, it's time to turn it into one big file. In Audacity click File > Export As Wav. Make sure you know where you are putting the finished Wav file so you can access it for the next step. Sometimes I loose track of where my Wavs go and I have to search my entire computer after I export a project. Not fun.

    Now a brief word on what a wav file is and how it compares to mp3. Wavs are big files on uncompressed CD-Quality digital audio. Most CD's hold some variation of a Wav file because they hold the most information and provide the best sound of any digital audio format available. In comparison, mp3 compresses all of the information of a wav file to a tenth of its original size. While an mp3 has less quality than a wav, this isn't immediately perceptible to most ears. Much of what an mp3 does is get rid of higher and lower end sounds that your ear doesn't pick up anyway. To this day I can only really hear the effects of mp3 on a sound file when the mp3's bit rate is really low (96 KBPS and below). That said, mp3 has become the standard internet sound file because of its small size and relatively dynamic playback quality.

    So where was I? Oh yes, the final step! You can actually export your finished project directly to mp3 when using Audacity by clicking File > Export As MP3, but I recommend going through one more hoop and exporting it to a wav file first. Why? Because when you export one of your projects to one file, you are consolidating many audio tracks in to one and it's good to assure that all of those audio tracks have been squeezed into the best audio format first before going one step down and consolidating those tracks to something even lower like mp3. That's one reason, the other is that I trust iTunes' mp3 converter more than I trust Audacity's to be honest.

    I hope you have iTunes loaded on your computer. It's free, it works for both Windows and Mac, and it's awesome. To turn your wav file into an mp3, go to the library section of iTunes on the upper left hand corner. Click File > Add file to library, and then retrieve the wav file of your final project. Once you've found it, you will see it in your library, ready to go. I would listen to it to assure that it sounds good after you've exported it from audacity. Next Click Edit > Preferences, the Advanced tab and then the Importing tab. Once there you will see a Menu that says Import Using, make sure you select MP3 Encoder. For Setting put Custom. A new window will open up and with it a whole new series of options: for Sample Rate set it at 44.100 kHz, for Channels set it at Mono and then press Ok. Now go back to the library, Right Click your finished Wav file and select Convert Selection to MP3. A new file with the exact same name as your wav file will appear and that is your brand spanking new mp3. You'll notice that the file size has been drastically reduced and this is good, because now people will be more likely to download it. You are now ready to release your recordings to the world!


    Much of the work described here can only be mastered by doing it over and over. I can promise that the more you do it, the more the process will become like riding a bike and the more you'll feel the need to go to the next level. After awhile you'll want to upgrade your microphone, look into other sound editing programs and maybe even encode your mp3's in stereo! All of this fun stuff will come in time, for now master the basics and enjoy yourself. Once you've overcome the mental obstacles that come with learning the basic tools of the trade, you can get to the fun stuff of making your voice heard. I hope I've been helpful in getting you on board. After a little practice, you'll be ready to contribute your talent to an audience that's starving for something new and exciting.

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