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Uncommon Sense

By Liz Covart · July 06, 2020

Tips and Tricks for Recording: Sound

Ben Franklin's World 13 min read

By Liz Covart

Set up of a boom microphone with pop filter and Ben Franklin’s World design

The coronavirus pandemic has forced the world to adapt from in-person activities, such as work and school, to at-home activities. With many museums and institutions moving their public programming online and educators moving their teaching online, I’ve seen a lot of questions about mics, lighting, and sound floating around on Twitter. These are areas I know quite well as in addition to working as a historian, I’ve spent the last six years working as a full-time podcaster.

Over the next three posts, I’ll offer you tips and tricks for capturing the best audio and video for your online programs and classes. I’ll provide advice for how you can best record a virtual interview. Plus, on Thursday July 9 at 5:30 pm Eastern time, I’m offering a Zoom conversation where we can talk about your specific needs. 

Recording Environment

Have you ever heard a podcast or attended a virtual event and all you could hear was an echoey sound? Like the person was talking in a large room, all by themselves?

The reason you hear that echoey sound is because of sound reflection or reverberation. We produce sound waves when we talk. And those sound waves reflect off nearly every flat, blank surface we have in our recording space. It’s this reflection of sound waves that produces the echo.

The best rooms for recording audio will have features that absorb the sound waves we produce. This is why you may have seen pictures of Ira Glass and other radio and podcast hosts recording under blankets or in closets filled with clothes. Blankets and clothing absorb sound waves, which helps your microphone focus on capturing just the sound waves of your speech.

NPR host Ira Glass with his audio recording set up in a closet at his home.
Via @iraglass

As you think about where you will record your lectures or public programs you want to look for spaces that have a lot of sound absorbing features or a space where you can put up sound absorbing features. Rooms with lots of books and furniture are great for recording audio because books and furniture absorb reflected sound waves. If you don’t have a lot of books or furniture you can use, look for a space where you can drape quilts or heavy blankets a few inches from your walls. These heavy blankets and quilts will absorb the sound waves before they hit and reflect off of your walls.

If you have more of a budget, you might look into sound foam and sound solutions. If you go this route, I highly recommend contacting Mitch Zlotnik and his team at Audimute. This Ohio-based company really knows sound and they’ll help you work on budgets from a couple hundred dollars to several thousand dollars. Audimute is the team that designed my home and work recording studios/offices.

Images of sound-absorbing wall hangings in Liz Covart’s home
Sound-absorbent wall hangings in Liz Covart’s home studio


Generally, external microphones will record better audio than the microphone built into your computer. And corded microphones will work better than wireless microphones.

There are many external microphones you could use for your programs and classes. For example, you could use your phone headset or wireless earbuds. Or you could invest hundreds of dollars in a good standalone mic with a boom or desk stand. But for the purposes of teaching and public events, I think the best mic is a corded headset microphone.

A headset microphone is an all-in-one device. It will capture good audio, allow you to hear who you are interacting with through a headphone, and you won’t have to think about it after you put it on and move it into the right position. 

A headset microphone will free your hands and allow you to gesture move a bit as you talk. You could spend hundreds of dollars on a headset mic, but I don’t think this is a place where you should spend a lot of money (if you have a decent budget, I would spend it on sound absorption or lighting). From experience, most corded headsets in the $30-$60 range will serve you well. We send the Sennheiser PC8 headset to Ben Franklin’s World guest historians and it works great.

If you use a headset mic, be sure you place the mic boom right in front of your lips, about an inch or so away from your face. Also make sure that your mic is free from facial hair and bulky clothing to avoid rubbing and scratching sounds.

Another possibility you could turn to would be a lavalier or lav microphone. Lavs can be great, but they can also be expensive and most of the time they won’t capture the best audio for virtual events unless you buy a high-end system. The reason for this is lav mics are designed to be clipped below your head on a piece of clothing near your neck. This means the microphone is not near your mouth so these mics pick up a fair bit of the sounds around you and more of the sound reflection in your recording space. Still, if you love to move when you talk, a lavalier microphone might be a good option for you. Rode (pronounced Road) Microphones came out with an inexpensive wireless lav system called the Wireless Go.

If you prefer to use a standalone USB or XLR mic, you’ll want to make sure you have a stand or boom arm to hold your mic and possibly even a shock mount. Having a standalone mic will limit your ability to move and gesticulate when you talk. You will need to make sure you speak directly into your microphone at all times as most mics have a cardioid capture pattern. This means the mic captures the best audio when you speak directly into it. A lot of beginning podcasters like the Audio Technica ATR2100X or the Samsung Q2U. I’ve also had experience with the Rode PodMic, which also works well.

If you intend to use the Blue Yeti mic, which is a popular USB mic, be sure you set the mic to the cardioid recording pattern and that you DO NOT touch your mic while recording. The Blue Yeti is a condenser mic and it is very sensitive to noise and touch.

Regardless of what microphone you choose to use, you’ll want to be sure to use a pop filter. Pop filters are the foam coverings that go over the microphone. The purpose of a pop filter is to diffuse the air you produce from hard consonant plosives like those in “deep” and “pop” and from soft hissing sibilants like those in “sleep” and “freedom.”

The Importance of Headphones

Have you ever attended a conference call and heard what was being said repeated on a slight delay? This happens when people don’t use headphones or mute their microphone. When participants don’t use headphones, the microphone built in to their computer or smartphone pick up what comes through their computer or external speakers. When this happens, these mics rebroadcast what is being said to the entire group.

You can eliminate this repeated feedback with headphones. Plus, headphones will allow you to better hear your guests, students, or attendees and monitor how you sound.

Best Audio Recording Practices

However you record there are some tips and tricks you can use to help you record the best audio for your public programs or lectures.

  1. Turn off your mobile phone and the ringer on your landline.
  2. Close all apps and programs except for the software you need to record.
  3. Always speak directly into your microphone.
  4. Be as quiet and as still as possible while you are recording. Most microphones will pick up chair movement, paper shuffling, writing, typing, and fiddling. 
  5. If you are using a microphone attached to your corded earbuds, be sure to hold the cord about 4 inches below the mic and hold the cord away from your body at a comfortable distance. Holding your corded earbud mic away from your body will prevent rubbing noise from your clothes.

Lastly, a tip for purchasing gear. While it may be tempting to purchase microphones and headphones from Amazon, you may do a lot better price wise if you look at specialty audio/video sites like Sweetwater, Broadcaster Supply Warehouse, and B&H Audio/Video. I’ve ordered equipment from all of these sites and they have really great starter kits that will include everything you need. Plus, they have excellent customer service if you need help with set up and use.

In the next post, we’ll explore video recording and lighting. Also, on Thursday, July 9, 2020 at 5:30 pm (ET), I’ll host a live Zoom chat where we can talk about some of these tips and tricks and answer some of your specific questions about equipment and recording techniques. If you’re interested in attending this discussion, be sure you sign up here.

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