5 Audio Recording Tips – Part 2: Recording Loud and EQ

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Girl and EQ

This is Part 2 in the series 5 Audio Recording Tips For Newbieswhere I tell you about the 5 things I really wish I had known about audio when I first started recording it. This way you don't have to wait for years to find out about them! In the last (which was also the first:)) article I talked about stereo. Yes, even in this day of surround and 5.1 or 7.whatever, stereo is still very important.

In this post I want to tell you about tips 2 and 3, recording a good strong signal and understanding the seemingly baffling concept of EQ (short for "equalization" which is just about as confusing a moniker as it can be for what it describes).

2. Record As Loud As You Possibly Can

Noise, like the tools in your garage that you haven’t used since last century, will be with us always. Technically, noise is any sound in your recording OTHER than the thing you tried to record. It could be a bird outside your window, computer fans, lawnmowers, or all the electrical junk that is a fact of life when you use electric stuff. Generally speaking, the less noise, the better your recording. OK, so why do I wish someone had told me this at the beginning? I mean, it’s obvious isn’t it? As with so many things, “knowing about it” and “knowing what to do about it” do not always go hand-in-hand.

A LOT of programs are available for reducing noise in audio recordings. But the truth is, once the noise is in already in your recording, it’ll be very difficult to get rid of. Allow me to give you an example. Podcaster Pete goes to lots of trade shows and records interviews he on his iPod to publish on his website monthly. Before publishing, however, he sends his raw audio to an “audio guy” to have it turned into something publishable. But when said guy opens the audio and sees the signal on the computer, he is amazed by how quiet the recording is! It barely even registers on the playback meters. In order to even hear it at a reasonable volume, he has to increase the volume of the entire file, noise and all. Then, he hears the voices talking, but it’s on a backdrop of god-awful hiss and crackle. The only way forward now is use digital noise reduction tools to try and filter out the hiss as much as possible, which leads to a passably listen-able interview, but one that sounds a little like it was recorded underwater, a typical artifact of noise-reduction.

The bottom line is this: The best way to fight noise is to limit how much of it gets into your recording in the first place. In order to get the best quality possible when recording, make sure you feed the recorder a loud enough signal. But you have to be careful. Too loud, and you’ll get distortion; too quiet, and you’ll get too much noise.

You can only do so much to FIX a noisy recording after the fact. So what could Podcaster Pete have done to make a supremely better recording to start with? Some might say, “dude, just stop recording with that inexpensive mic going into your iPod!” Sure, he could buy a “digital field recorder” for between $200 and $400. Or he could find a way to make the recording LOUDER in the first place by feeding his iPod more signal, which is a faster and cheaper solution. My guess is that Pete wanted to avoid being TOO loud and overloading the input (a good idea!), but in doing so, he erred on the side of recording at too low a volume. THAT is almost as bad, since you have to crank the volume on both the tiny signal AND the noise in order to hear anything.

The bottom line is this: The best way to fight noise is to limit how much of it gets into your recording in the first place. In order to get the best quality possible when recording, make sure you feed the recorder a loud enough signal. But you have to be careful. Too loud, and you’ll get distortion; too quiet, and you’ll get too much noise.

3. EQ…That Thing You Never Knew Quite How To Use

graphic EQ in smile shape
Graphic EQ

Have you ever seen one of these things? They used to be common in “entertainment systems.” Right along with your CD Player, Cassette Player, Record Player, amplifier, and “tuner” (meaning…”radio”), would be this other big boxy thing with nothing but a row like 30 vertical (meaning “uppy-downy”) slider controls across the face of it. These sliders had little square button-like thingies that you could slide up or down. They usually started out in the middle (at the “zero” mark). About the only thing they seemed good for is making funny patterns, like smiley faces, or mountain ranges, by moving the sliders up or down in the right way. Besides maybe making you feel better by having your stereo “smile” at you, I really don’t think anybody ever knew what to do with one of these things. With a scary name like “graphic equalizer,” it sounded so important. It also sounded like a good name for a “rated-R” action movie, but that’s another story. Anyway, you had to make everyone think you knew why you had one, so you pretended to know what it did. But in reality, you felt safer just leaving it alone to sit there with its straight row of slider buttons right down the center, the way it was the day you brought it home because it came with all the other stuff.

You are probably familiar with some kinds of EQ without realizing it. You know those controls on your music player labeled “bass” and “treble”?” That’s a crude EQ! If your graphic EQ box had only 2 little sliders on it, it would be the same thing. One control makes the sound “bassier” (the low sounds) and the other makes the sound “treblier” (the high sounds). I always laugh when I see someone turn both controls all the way up or down. They have accomplished absolutely nothing that the volume knob wouldn’t do. If both (all) the sliders are up, you just turned the radio up. Congratulations. An EQ is only useful if you can make shapes OTHER than straight lines with the sliders.

So now you’re wondering what the heck an EQ IS good for aren’t you? Well for one thing, it turns out that our ears lie to us! Can you believe it? I know! It’s crazy, right? Every human has lying ears. I was floored when I first heard. See, it turns out that there are all kinds of sounds out there in the world that we can’t hear! As a matter of fact, MOST sounds are inaudible to humans. The only sounds humans CAN hear are those in the range between 20 hertz (abbreviated as “Hz”) and 20,000 Hz. A “hertz” is a measure of how often (or “frequently”) something shakes back and forth (or “vibrates”) in one second. Sound is just energy that makes air particles shake back-and-forth. When these air particles vibrate with a frequency of between 20 times and 20-thousand times per second, it makes a sound that is in the “range of human hearing.” Though if you’re 21 or older, good luck hearing things above 16,000 Hz;) (where the so called “teen buzz” or “mosquito frequency” lives. Confused? Ask a teenager.

That's part 2 of the series. In part 3 we'll reveal some wacky-but-true stuff about EQ.

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