By James Woodard
Nov 24, 2017
As a listener, it may seem like an episode of Cyber Talk Radio (CTR) would be an easy thing to pull off. Get two people in a room, talk about cyber stuff, slap on a theme song and upload it, right? Well, there’s a lot more involved in creating an episode of CTR than that. With this blog (and its sequels), we will dive into my process of creating an episode of CTR.
Tracking can seemingly be the “easy” part of the process, but it can be very easy to make some painful mistakes that will haunt your working process forever. First, you need an isolated environment. Here at CTR, we use our conference room that has been minimally sound treated with foam on each wall. A heavy shag carpet is also very helpful if you have wood or concrete floors. While you don’t need something as hardcore as an isolation booth, it’s critical to “deaden” the room as much as possible so the voices you are recording don’t bounce around the room and create echo and reverb. You want your signal to be as “dry” as possible, with as little outside noise being picked up as you can.
Now, in terms of recording the human voice, there are countless microphones available for the pro audio consumer. You can spend as little as $20, or spend hundreds and hundreds of dollars on vintage ribbon mics and the like. At CTR, we have gone with fairly modest and inexpensive solutions. If we are recording in our studio, we use MXL 990 condenser microphones. These microphones are extremely sensitive and sound excellent for the human voice (modders love them too, if you aren’t afraid of a soldering iron). They can also be found for under $100 each secondhand, if you are a bargain shopper. If we are recording remotely in a setting with a lot of background noise, the MXL condensers are much too sensitive for this type of application. For these types of situations, we use the tried-and-true Shure SM-58. It’s the classic vocal microphone used by everyone from henry Rollins to Barack Obama. The design has barely changed in the past 50 years, simply because it doesn’t need to. The SM-58 is the workhorse of the pro audio industry.
One challenge of recording the human voice is, well, the human you are recording! A lot of people, understandably, get the dreaded “red light fever,” where once you start recording they clam up, talk very quietly, or speak with a very awkward cadence, even if they were talking just fine before you hit the record button. This is why it’s critical to make a guest feel at home as possible, so the guest can loosen up and just have a fruitful conversation. Another issue is projection and proximity to the microphone. This is a critical thing to recognize early on so you aren’t fighting an uphill battle in the editing and mixing stage. This may sound simple, but it is critical. You want your guest to be as close to the microphone as comfortable, so the majority of the sound being picked up by the microphone is the voice, not the air conditioning in the room, or the construction on the street, or the clinking of the coffee mug on the table, or the people talking in the next room. You have to be vigilant and watch and listen to your guests, because some will naturally want to move a lot, or talk past the mic instead of into it, etc. Gauging their natural voice volume and adjusting the gain on the preamp either during sound check or within the first minute or so of the recording is critical. If you crank the preamp it is likely that the audio will peak, and you will have nasty clipping on your recording that is near-impossible to remove, but if the preamp gain is too low, your signal to noise ratio will be off and your audio track will have a bunch of nasty background noise you have to deal with later.
In terms of an audio interface, I use the Roland Octa Capture USB interface for Cyber Talk Radio. The amount of I/O on this tiny box is mind blowing. I can’t think of a situation, at least for our show, where we would need anything else in terms of an audio interface. I run a headphone amplifier (Focusrite) off of the headphone out of the Octa Capture so Bret Piatt, CTR Host, and his guests can monitor themselves when being interviewed.
We record from the Octa Capture directly into my favorite digital audio workstation (DAW), Reaper. Reaper is a fantastic DAW that is also considerably inexpensive. It is also very guitarist-friendly (this is how I became familiar with it). Also, if you are strapped for cash, the trial period is infinite. So you can essentially use it for free indefinitely if you don’t mind being bothered by notifications every time you launch it.
While the interview is happening, I will make marks on the DAW’s timeline for mistakes, awkward pauses, mulligans, and any other mistakes on the fly. This will help a ton when it comes to the editing process.
With the correct gear setup, all you need is a host with a voice and some interesting guests, and you are off to the races! In Part II of this blog series, I will jump into the mixing and editing and noise reduction processes that I use for the show.