Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Answers to Questions

One person who asked for advice on home studios is responding to me via email, which is why you don't see her comments on this blog. That's OK. She asked a few questions I thought I should post here for everyone's benefit.

The Audix OM3 is a good choice, but don't pay too much for it. Comparison shop against the Shure SM58 for the best price. Since bands and major road tours order SM58's by the dozen, Shure can afford to sell them at lower prices. And CAD wants to undercut Shure, so there's a real bazaar going on for handheld dynamics. Take advantage of the free market.

You'll want a some kind of pop filter. Ask for a windscreen when you buy the mic. If possible, you want one made for that mic. Although they cost more, it's worth it. If there isn't a custom muff, a generic will do. Quick lesson:

Windscreen: aka "mic condom" fits over the mic itself. They tend to "warm" the sound. The way to go for most dynamic handhelds, since you want to get close.

Pop Filter: an annoying screen that is attached to the boom stand and held in front of the mic. Some are nylon, others are metal. They are more sonically transparent than windscreens and have no effect on the mic's frequency response. One pop filter can serve all your mics. Highly recommended for touchy condensers, and a must for ribbons. See the photo of Don LaFontaine.

Blast Filter: the internal screen built into a mic by the maker. Some are quite good. Most are not enough for close vocal work. Fancypants boutique mics barely put one on, that's why you can see the capsule through the screen from across the room. My Trion 7000 basically has a metal grid around it to protect the innards and that's all.

I recommend a good solid boom stand because it'll let you put the mic right where you want it. Quality stands won't tip over easily. Straight stands can be hard to position around a music stand, and I tend to to step on the feet while working, which creates rumble and knocking in the recording. Table stands can pick up rumble from the table, but they're nice if you have limited space.

Handheld dynamics roll off the low end of their frequency response usually at about 80 Hz. That means the mic itself is designed to ignore the sub-sonic rumbles of being handled on stage, and the thunderclaps of dancing and cavorting about on stage - another reason they make a good choice as a first mic. You shouldn't have to worry about shock mounting one of these as long you stand still while working.

I do like the so-called shock mount clips that come in the box with some mics. They hold the mic with a tight grip. Don't rely on just gravity to hold your mic in the clip. Quick-release clam-type clips are great on stage, but not very secure. If you start collecting mics, you'll find yourself leaving the mic on the mount it came with, and unscrewing the mount from the stand when you want to switch mics.

My friend has a friend in Scotland with a Numark DJ mixer. I'm not familiar with the Numark mixer, but it's certainly worth a try. Dynamic mics work well with DJ mixers. Put on the headphones, turn off the speakers, and turn up the mic pot all the way without a mic connected to the back. You'll her some hiss come up, but if you get a lot of hiss, you might want to do some more shopping. At normal operating levels, the mixer should not add hiss to your sound. If you are buying the one from your friend in Scotland, make darn sure it can operate on US voltage. 115-125 volts at 60 Hz.

High strung studio condenser mics don't usually get on well with DJ mixers because
A: no phantom power
B: the mic exceeds the limitations of the printed circuit preamp built into most of these mixers.

Trying to use a ribbon mic with a mixer preamp will make you babble and drool until the men in the clean white coats come to take you away.

There's no such thing as a stupid question when it comes to mic cables. While there are variations in how the connectors lock, the XLR connector is an international standard. Ask the dude at the music store for mic cable, and you'll get the right stuff. Any dynamic mic made since approx 1960 uses the same pins for the same thing. The Audix safely fits into the international standard. If it clicks, it fits.

Some fancypants condenser tube mics use special cables. Another reason we'll steer clear of those for now. Vintage mics made before Rock and Roll may have different polarity or different connectors, and we won't even try to start on impedance matching those mics. Keep it simple in the beginning, and you'll get good results.

And yes, I have seen supposedly pro gear with incompatible XLR connectors. A certain audio board at a certain civic center I know has XLR "line out" connectors that are not standard, thus rendering all output from that board out of phase with a certain television station's equipment. You have no idea how fun it can be to build a phase reversing 3-conductor cable connection in less than a half-hour.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Right Mic

My wife pointed out that in last week's post I never really got around to recommending a particular microphone for the starter studio. Maybe indirectly I did, but I covered lot of ground on the entire studio last time, so this time let's just talk mics and get specific.

The Starter Mic: Less Than $200.

There are dozens of brands making - or rebranding - hundreds of models of microphones for vocal use. That's far too many to choose from. That's the bad news. The good news is that there are a lot of pros out there with years of experience to guide you, either in person or via the web. Now, some of these guys are blowhards with a severe case of Mic Envy, but even those guys wouldn't spend their hard-earned money on a tube condenser if it didn't make them sound good. So, don't just listen to my advice; check around and get as many points of view as you can. You can learn something from any one of us.

It's my opinion that anyone starting their own studio should buy a dynamic vocal mic like the Shure SM58. Alternatives include the CAD D189, the Audix OM3, or comparable mics offered by Audio Technica, AKG, ElectroVoice, and any brand that sells PROFESSIONAL GRADE mics. If you've been in broadcasting or advertising for a few years, you might qualifiy for skipping straight to the Less Than $1000 level. "I've been pounding out the spots on an RE20 for years, dude. I got skills." True, but I'd still suggest a handheld on a good quality boom stand for your studio even if you can afford the RE20. Here's why:

The mics I mentioned are road-worthy hammers, built to take the punishment dished out by musicians on tour, in clubs, and even on The Tonight Show. Museum pieces like Paul McCartney, David Bowie, and Elton John have been signing into SM58's for decades. Lather on the duct tape and Roger Daltrey can play bolo with one all night. These mics can be dropped, stepped on, sneezed on, barfed on, held in a toilet, (Liar by Three Dog Night) run over by the tour bus, and still sound great. If they an take all that, I'm thinking your Golden Retreiver cheweing on it won't put you out of business. We're talking bulletproof mics, here.

Second, these mics are available in your hometown. Chances are, if you walk into your neighborhood music store and ask for a Shure SM58, the dude behind the counter will hand it right to you. Or, he'll point out one of the equivelents I mentioned with a sale price. (CAD's are the Hyundai's of microphones: cheap, but reliable.) If your 3 year-old knocks over the stand and the mic is, against all odds, actually knocked out out of commission, you can easily replace it, without going bankrupt or waiting a week for delivery.

Third, even if you hit the Powerball, or Uncle Willie dies and leaves you his vintage Neumann U47 with the correct tube, you'll still want that hundred dollar high ball. Because the world is filled with Golden Retreivers and 3 year-olds, you'll keep the Neumann in its box when danger lurks.

And fourth, the shallow pickup pattern of these mics will make up for your lousy studio acoustics. Sure, you could buy a nice Audio Technica studio condenser for under $200, and get nice recordings of your room ringing, your neighbor's lawn mower, an ant walking on a cotton ball, and anything else that wants to compete with your voice. It's uncanny how the fire department knows when you hit the record button and sends every piece of equipment they have down your street.

Next post: the upgrade mic.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

There's Nothing Like Home Cookin'

By coincidence, I've had several people ask me lately about my home recording studio. Since the advent of the internet as a means of sending professional quality audio to practically anywhere around the world, home studios have been springing up all over the place. Radio jocks who were prone to building something at home anyway, now find a practical use for all their junk. VO artists can work at home and get more done by spending less time driving from one client to another. Snowstorm? Mudslides? Alien invasion? No problem.

But what is involved in building a home studio? Do you need to hire a professional to acoustically deaden the room? How much should you spend on a microphone? Do you need a mixer, or just a preamp? And do you even need a preamp? How do I get my cats to stop playing with the mic cords? ARRRGH!
Dig that crazy pop filter. Frank Sinatra during a '50's era Capital session working with a classic Neumann U47 with a homemade pop filter taped on. See, even the Chairman of the Board needed duct tape engineering. Ring-a-ding-ding.

I ended up sending a very elaborate email to a friend about all this, and I thought I should post it here as well to help anyone else who might have these questions. So, sit back and enjoy.

I wish a had a digital camera to take a photo of this office, but all my money goes into this office. That's the thing about home studios. It's always something. You would be appalled at the ceiling that was damaged by a leak last year. The floor is littered with books other junk that has nowhere else to go. And there's a cat sleeping in my chair in the corner. On certain days I record things in between "panic barks" from the dogs next door. One day I had to wait a few hours until the city finished cutting down a tree on the next block. It's never perfect, but the convenience of a home studio outweighs the drawbacks. When gas hit $4, I was living high on the hog.

The Late Great Don LaFontaine used a Manley reference condenser in his home studio. He made millions voicing movie trailers. He needed it to pay for that mic.

My equipment is very basic, as the studio has to pay for itself in billing. If were pulling in $2,000 a month, I'd spring for a Neumann U87, because the mic would pay for itself within a few months.

The U87. $3,800 last time I checked. And I check often. Forgive me, Father, for I have coveted my neighbor's microphone.

BUT, in order to get the most out of that mic, I need an ART MPA Gold Preamp 'cause I want to be able to use my ribbons. And so on... So, I keep things simple.

My current go-to mic for spots and high energy stuff is a CAD D189.
It's a dynamic road mic that compares well to the Sure SM58, the industry standard for that type. In fact, it's a little too hot. (a preamp issue) so I put a windscreen on it and work it close. A dynamic mic will sound great this way. Between the close miking and the hypercardiod pattern, the room echo is almost gone. The mic is held in its shock mount clip on a boom stand.

Who says China can't build something right?

You gotta have a boom to position the mic where you want and reduce rumble. Spring for a good boom stand now, so you'll be ready when you screw on that two pound studio mic in a year or two.

Don't skimp on the mic cable. Get 22 gauge or better. If you start getting police calls on your recordings, mic cables and connectors are your first suspect.

Yes, there are mics that connect straight to your computer via the USB port. These are called, believe it or not, USB Mics. They are condensers powered by the USB port. The Samson is probably the best you'll find. Personally, I'm not sold on them. They can be noisy, as they are intended for podcasting or quick and dirty rough tracking. (The real advantage is using one with your laptop on the tour bus.) But I won't hold it against anybody for trying one.

If you're in a hurry, and all you have is a laptop, a podcaster kit like this one from Samson is a cute little outfit. But you'll want to upgrade soon.

In my opinion, you want a mic that can be plugged into PROFESSIONAL grade equipment. For the same money, you can buy a CAD D189 like mine and use it with any preamp or mixer on the face of the earth.

Yes, a preamp makes a difference. I started out with an old Shure PA type rig, the kind you'd find broadcasting high school football games. It died. My emergency fix right now is a Radio Shack 4-channel mixer, and it sucks. (Sorry Tandy. But, you guys are great for consumer grade stuff, or if I need a mic cord RIGHT NOW!) I just put in an order for an ART Tube that'll let me select the impedance for my new Trion 7000 ribbon mic. Lesson learned: don't try to cheat by skimping on the preamp.

This little gem will warm up my mics, as well as my studio in the winter.
If you were doing a radio show live, or recording a 50's-60's Boss Radio style show, you would need a mixer, turntables, etc. Otherwise paste it together in a digital audio work station (DAWS) which is how everybody does everything nowadays. I'd go with a good preamp rather than a mixer. The big market pros turn up their noses at mixer in-board preamps. Snobs.

Computers: you want a desktop, in case you decide to upgrade the soundcard. My Gateway came with a B+ card that gives me a noise floor of about 110db. That would be unacceptable in a pro recording studio, but it works for a voice track. The good news is just about any brand name computer these days can handle audio editing without breaking a sweat. Just make sure you have "line in" and "line out" jacks on the back. Don't use the mic jack on the computer. It's a noisy, nasty thing that will send noise back into your pro mic. (It'll destroy a ribbon.) This jack is for toy mics. Put a piece of tape over it and forget it.

How much memory? As much as you can afford. How much hard drive? Same answer. Buy memory sticks for backups and use them often. Archive stuff you want to get off the hard drive with the CD-ROM burner.

Of course, you want good headphones and/or speakers.

High-speed internet is a must.

Anti Virus Software: Avoid Norton. Norton refuses to obey your commands and starts a full scan right in the middle of a project, locking up your editor for minutes at a time. I use AVG's free version. Works great.

DAWS: Try Audacity. I love it. It's free, and it doesn't crash. This is "open source" software, which means it's free and legal, but you can make a contribution if you want. You can also hack in and change the code, if you're into that. Let's see, hundreds of dollars for a DAWS, or a free app that'll do everything. You do the math.

If you must pay for one, DAWS fans come in two religions: The Adobe "Cool Edit" folks, and the Sound Forge folks. Usually, if you love one, you despise the other. If you've been using one at a radio station and you like it, stick with it. My only advice is steer clear of old versions of "Cool Edit" that tend to crash.

All DAWS create a mountain of files that form the giant squid from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea when you save a session. That's where your hard drive goes. Get organized from the start. Name your sessions in a logic you understand and stick with it. Set up a regimen of deleting old sessions after you've archived it. I save sessions for six months on hard drive before they go bye-bye.

Studio Acoustics: This is the part that will test your nerves. You don't need to spend hundreds on fancy foam or carpet on the walls. Grab some carpet cutouts at the bargain store. Use heavy curtains on the walls. Or, stick the mic in a closet full of clothes. Furniture helps. I just bought a decorative screen at Hobby Lobby for about $50. Throw a blanket over it and I've got a sound baffling. I still need to deaden this room more, so the work continues.

Well, there you are. That's a lot in one sitting, so let me know if you have any questions. Oh, and about those
ribbon mics I keep mentioning. You have to love them to put up with them. Don't get into a big hurry to upgrade to "boutique" mics or something expensive. VO guys tend to get into Mic Envy competitions. My wife says she knows what that vintage RCA 44 is really representing. But to misquote Freud, sometimes a microphone is just a microphone.

This? I don't need this. I bought because it was on sale. Yeah.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Delays, Delays, Delays

The groundhog saw his shadow, which means four more months of PSA's pounding on you to prepare for digital TV.

The cutoff date for analog TV has been moved back to June 12, which means you have more time to go digital. This is good news for procrastinators, since you now have until June 11 to apply for a converter box coupon and then complain to your congressman you'll be left "in the dark" when American TV goes digital. You'll overload the coupon distribution system again, Obama will cave, and we'll have astronauts walking on Mars before my station can finally shut down that 1979 RCA Power Hog 6000 rattling along in the transmitter room. Thanks.

Local TV stations needed an extension of the deadline like they needed another Rosie O'Donnel variety show. Budgets had been set, plans drawn, tower crews scheduled, all based on the assumption that they could shut down their analog transmitters by February 17. One station I know in Dayton will have to shut off the analog on the original date whether anybody likes it or not. Before they can install the permanent digital transmitter antenna on their tower, they have to remove the old analog antenna. And they can't remove the old analog antenna if they have to keep it on the air. So, if you ever want to watch CBS in Dayton, Ohio, stop messing around and let us do our jobs!

Local stations aren't the only ones taking it up the shoot with this extension. Networks hedged their bets that February would be a ratings dog due to the switchover and, in some cases, wandering channels in certain cities. (Some TV stations are running their digital signals on temporary low-power channels until they can the *@&% analog off their permanent and original channel.) Thinking ahead, the networks persuaded the ratings company Nielson to move the ratings period or "Sweeps" from February to March. So, this year, we have a March Sweeps. This extended the season for many of our favorites programs, thus costing the networks more money to keep the reruns from hitting until April, and even then jumping back in with original episodes for the May Sweeps. And now the switchover isn't happening until June. It's enough to make a network executive seriously consider going into Public Television.

But on the bright side, this is all good for the viewers. Fewer reruns, more time to shop for a new TV, and maybe the prices of those TV's will drop even lower before the cutoff.

In the meantime, maybe they can get that Oxyclean guy to do the DTV conversion PSA's. Maybe Billy Mays can motivate the procrastinators into making the switch. Or they'll just turn off the TV and watch Hulu.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Not Bowled Over... No. Bowling For Ad Dollars... Dammit, I Can't Think of a Clever Superbowl Media Reference Title That Hasn't Been Used

Folks, here's the thing: if you were expecting a review of the Superbowl ads, that ain't gonna happen. Because this year all the good stuff happened between the commercials.

First, the game itself was a barn burner. A spectacular superhuman winning play in the last seconds pretty much sums up the excitement level of the game. You may not be a Steelers fan, but you have to admit they had to fight for that Lombardi Trophy. And the review rules actually added to the drama.

But wait, there's more. The halftime show didn't suck. Springsteen and the E-Street Band played the songs that rocked the house. The national anthem wasn't an embarrassment. Nor was Faith Hill singing America. I wouldn't mind if all those performers returned to do it again next year.

NBC put their Sunday Night Football experience to work for a near flawless broadcast, at least during the game. I avoided the pre-game tripe, where I'm sure all did not go as planned all the time. The Peacock managed not to embarrass itself too much with cheesy promos for its prime time programming. Oh, they tried. The "Feelin' Alright" number teetered on the brink. At least they didn't flog Heroes quite as bad as they did the now forgotten My Own Worst Enemy during the Beijing Olympics. But it is way too obvious NBC owes its soul to Steve Carell. The hour-long Office that ran after the game started off LOL hilarious, but seemed to run out of steam by the time the overdue local news came on. Stick to the half-hour format, guys.

Speaking of something outstaying its welcome, the horse trailer "player of the game" bit has had its day, guys. I don't get it, I don't know why their putting photos on the side of a horse trailer, nobody's ever explained it to me, and I don't think anybody else gets it either, including John Madden. The horse whinny sound effect is just annoying. Just tell us somebody's the player of the game with computer graphics and let us go home.

With all this actual football content going on, there was scant little time left for watching commercials. Besides, the ad agencies seemed to be very aware that in this economy, a 3 million dollar 30-second spot had better get results. We can't afford artsy or beguiling. We need to move the merchandise. Thus, car ads looked pretty much the way car ads look any other time. Beer ads made me laugh the same way they did during the playoffs. And no amount of production values or Danica Patrick will explain to me just what the hell a is, and no I'm not logging on, as something tells me this website will infect my computer with enough adware, spyware, and scamware to send me spam until I'm in my grave, ensuring that I'll get junk emails for lower mortgages and a bigger penis well into my afterlife. No thank you.

Years from now, whenever Superbowl XLIII is mentioned, I'll be talking about the game.

And the Doritos crystal ball crotch shot. Now that's comedy.