If you’ve ever recorded audio, the first thing you will have noticed is that compared to commercial CDs for example, it sounds pretty quiet. No matter what you do with the volume, it just doesn’t come close or worse still, starts clipping (exceeding the audio ceiling of 0dB) and so distorts horribly.
So how do you get your audio in-line with the rest of the market?
Well, one option is to hire out Abbey Road Studios. The other, perhaps more realistic option, is to employ some of the tricks of the trade to help get that recording up to scratch – because although you might not have the same expensive high-end equipment available as a top notch studio, you can still get great results for free or very little outlay.
NB – these tips are specifically for spoken word recordings, since that’s the majority of audio we get asked to master at Creative Cats. However, the same principals apply to most recorded audio.
Step 1 – Gear
You need a nice clean recording – eliminate as much background noise as possible. That very slight noise from the fan in your computer, creak from your chair, or general room ambience might not be noticeable at first, but when you start mastering the sound file later it’s going to become a real nuisance. Use a dedicated microphone instead of the one built in to your computer, and make sure you’re close enough to make your voice clear without pops or hisses. You could also invest in a pop guard for very little money.
Step 2 – Recording
There’s plenty of options when it comes to software for recording, some of them free. It really depends on your needs. Recording a single source for a podcast or audio book means a multitrack virtual studio is going to be largely wasted. The best free option for just recording your voice in our opinion is Audacity, but a quick Google search will give you quite a few alternatives.
Step 3 – Mastering
Now that you’ve got your recording, it’s time to start polishing it. The main tools you’ll want to employ here are EQ, compression, and limiting (all available within Audacity). So what do they do?
Just like the equalizer on a stereo or computer, EQ involves adjusting the frequencies of a recording to eliminate or reduce unwanted sounds and make desired frequencies more prominent. So as an example you could safely remove frequencies under 60Hz as it’s not likely there’ll be anything useful that low.
As you might expect, compressors squash the sound, meaning sudden peaks in sound can be tamed and the gain can then be increased further. All compressors have varying features, but the essentials to play with are threshold (the volume of the input before compression is applied), ratio (the amount of compression applied), attack (how soon after crossing the threshold the signal is compressed), and release (how soon after passing below the threshold the signal is no longer compressed).
Limiters are similar to compressors, but rather than compressing a signal that goes over a specified threshold they use high compression ratios to prevent a signal going over a specified output level, therefore preventing clipping.
So you can see that by removing unwanted frequencies, compressing the sound, and limiting the output, you can vastly improve the quality and overall volume of your audio.