An open letter to those wishing to provide recorded work for Audacious
Dear eager and brave applicants,
My name is Armand (Mandy) and I’ve been doing this stuff for a while now. Both poetry and audio engineering. I haven’t been published as yet, nor have I won any awards for my writing, so I’m not here to tell you how to go about that side of the craft. I do however have a Diploma in Sound Production and have recorded, mixed and mastered a variety of audio work that encompasses podcasts, music, film & TV, and of course spoken word.
Some of you may have noticed that one of the most recent projects I was involved with happened to be the Melbourne Spoken Word audio compilation ‘Audacious – Issue 1’.
When it comes to us audio engineers, there is a common myth that we are magicians of sound and can make any piece sparkle. I wish I could say this was true, but even we and our (usually) trusty technology have our limitations. A number of you wishing to provide your work to MSW may be a little fresh to the process of recording. Firstly, it’s wonderful and exciting to see how many people out there want to give it a go. I say go for it, learn, embrace, conquer! However, do bear in mind, with the ease of access to in-built microphones on computers and devices, bargain bin recording home studios and free downloadable studio software – there comes the trade off of poor sound quality. Don’t let that turn you off, if you are on a stringent budget. There are a few diamonds in the rough to be found. I’ll get on to where to find them later.
Over the near 8 years that I’ve been involved in this, I have been provided a wealth of material. Some glorious snippets, some bat shit crazy stuff with talking dolls, deep creepy breathing and distorted glockenspiels played with drum sticks wrapped in condoms. And then there are those really taxing tracks containing all manner of: squelch, hiss, microphone feedback, jarring room reverb, passing cars, rattling cutlery and a whole bunch of SNAP, CRACKLE & POP (Please don’t sue me Kelloggs). And you know before you even turn a knob or press a button – that the best outcome is going to be pretty yuck. There is a saying in the industry, which is “you can’t polish a turd”. That has nothing to do with the actual artistry of the work submitted. It’s purely about the way in which it has been captured. Which is a great shame because it pays such a disservice to the artist.
So in the interest of helping you get the best possible recording, and helping you and many a sound producer retain their sanity, I present…
MANDY’S GOLDEN RULES OF SOUND RECORDING!
Setting up your environment for recording
Obviously not everyone can pay for studio time or for the materials to replicate a studio atmosphere. But you can do a few simple things to get something that a mastering engineer can make sparkle.
Get to know peak times in your neighbourhood. School traffic, garbage collection, bus/train schedules, people mowing lawns etc… This allows you to plan your recording around them so that those nasty external artefacts don’t bleed into your mix.
Make a vocal booth. Do you have a thick blanket and a table you can comfortably sit beneath? Drape the blanket over the table so that on all sides the edges of it are hitting the floor. Then get in there with your microphone. Congratulations! You have yourself a humble vocal booth. I know, this sounds totally stupid. But most poets I know don’t tend to live in mansions, theatres or cathedrals which give beautiful natural resonance. So unless you are a member of the clergy, or plan on buddying up with ol’ uncle Hef, this is your most viable strategy. It’s going to kill a lot of that small to mid sized room reverb that can often cause background buzz and make you sound tinny and pinchy. It’s harsh to the ears and best to avoid. Plus, us engineers have software that can replicate a much nicer reverb that can sound more natural and pleasing.
Make a pop filter. Proper studio ones look like this and can be a little pricey. So head to your wardrobe, grab a coat hanger and bend it into a circle. Then get the cheapest pair of pantyhose you can find (I tend to go for the ones with the air hostesses on the box because I have dreams of being a pilot). And put that metal circle inside the panty hose. Then just make sure it’s about 10 centimetres in front of the mic when it comes time to record. You can hold it or just duct tape it to the desk. This evens out the vocal sound.
Microphone & Tech/Software Technique
I can’t stress this enough. Don’t hold the microphone. Use a tripod, even a small desk based one the size of a tea pot. For live purposes it’s very different, and you will see highly trained vocalists pushing and pulling the microphone from their faces depending on the dynamics of their performance. And even that takes a shit load of practice. But recording is an entirely different beast and when you’ve got all that poet energy coursing through you – you may not realise it, but there is a subconscious tendency to “get more intimate with the microphone”. Which makes for some serious plosives and sibilance and clipping. And when that happens the integrity of your vocal content will have been permanently degraded.
Plosives = ‘P’ and ‘B’ sounds
Sibilance = ‘S’, ‘Sh’, ‘Ch’ and ‘T’ sounds
Clipping = When the volume of the signal goes over the peak level and begins to distort/crackle
Take a couple of steps back from the microphone. This gives you the freedom to be physical, really get into your piece. And if there are moments where you may roar and scream and bellow it will reduce the likelihood of clipping.
If you make a mistake, take a moment. Take a breath and say that line again then continue on. Remember it’s not live, take advantage of that. Gaps can be removed and us engineers can maintain the flow of your piece. But if you power through and there isn’t a second version for us to use, then the mistake has to stay for the sake of continuity.
Don’t be afraid to record yourself quietly. If you have a way of viewing the recording level on the screen then you already have the upper hand. Usually some green and red lights will be displayed by your recording software that show if the microphone’s signal is above or below the limit while you speak. It’s perfectly okay to remain well under. If what you captured sounds very quiet on your end we can always boost it on ours. But if it’s too loud to begin with – game over. We can clean it up to some extent, but still it’s at the sacrifice of audio integrity.
In conclusion my brethren with pens, pads, microphones, bullhorns and voices. Remember that your speech is one of the mightiest weapons you can ever possess, so aim to pay it and your creations justice. A chef doesn’t enter the kitchen with blunt knives. A diver does not reach the reefs with oxygen tanks saying ‘empty’. So believe in yourself and your work enough to prepare it as best you can. Let it shine in the way it best deserves. Because I will too, if you let me.
With love and blessings for your artistry to flow and be well received,
Mandy Petit xoxo