Sound recording is a garbage in, garbage out process. That is, the sound quality of your final product can only be as good as the quality of the sound recordings that go into the project from the start. Too often, podcasters say, “we'll fix it in post,” for things that they could correct at the start. By troubleshooting your audio issues in the recording stage, you can save a lot of time and headache afterwards.
We live in a world full of noises. Cars, HVAC systems, neighborhood dogs, lawn mowers and roosters often plague the recordist's desire for clean sound. In addition to these audible sounds, a number of electrical, telecommunications and utilitary devices can cause electromagnetic interference that affects the consistency and quality of recorded sound.
There are, of course, a number of quick-fix solutions on the market to help improve audio issues. Many of them have extremely varying levels of efficacy. Most of them remove sounds that are desirable, along with unwanted sounds. With that in mind, this audio troubleshooter guide focuses on identifying and preventing audio issues, as well as some tips for the production or post-production phases.
Audio Troubleshooting When *All* Recordings Sound Bad
If recordings from other studios, especially music or voice from professional studios sound bad on your system, the most likely culprit is your monitors. As we discussed in An Intro To Studio Monitors, a good set of monitors will have a wide, flat frequency response, and represent your audio with clarity and precision. Manufacturers often weight consumer speakers and headphones to produce what the manufacturer thinks is a more pleasing sound for the listener. This weighting can adversely affect your listening perspective when mixing, and can even make a professional mix sound off. As you're troubleshooting your audio, try listening on a different set of headphones, or monitors.
Additional considerations may include your room’s acoustics or a need to properly EQ your monitors. However, 90% of the time, a decent set of near field monitors will fix most monitoring issues.
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Dropouts during recording or playback
Typically, audio dropouts and glitches like these have a low latency buffer setting for recording or playback as the culprit. Increasing the buffer in your recording software to 512 or higher will reduce dropouts and glitches at a cost of latency, or a delay between the time you speak and you hear the audio in your headphones or monitors.
What does buffer mean? In computer terms, your input-output (I/O) buffer determines the size of the data chunks that your computer's hard drive reads from and writes to, when recording and playing back audio. A low buffer setting demands more computing cycles from your CPU.
Too low a buffer setting can cause unwanted clicking and stuttering in your audio during recording or playback. Too high, causes more latency (delay) between the time you speak and the time your monitors play back your recorded audio. On most systems, when recording without effects, a setting of 256 creates an indistinguishable delay, but can also cause clicking if your CPU is too slow, or if you are using many tracks or effects at once.
In these instances, you can use a setting of 512 or 1024, at the cost of some latency. As you're troubleshooting your audio, try different buffer settings to find what's best for you.
If you hear distortion when monitoring mics or are getting clipping in your audio recordings, the most likely culprit is your gain staging. In its simplest form, the solution is to reduce your microphone’s gain (i.e. turn down your microphone). For a deeper dive on this, see our Clipping and Gain Staging guide, as well as How to Set Levels for Recording.
Amplified self-noise somewhere in your signal flow causes hiss, most of the time. Every piece of equipment in your audio arsenal produces some hiss from self-noise. Microphones, pre-amps, effects racks and monitors are all likely culprits to check for hiss problems.
Often, proper gain staging will solve many hissing issues, along with some judicious use of gating and noise reduction. However, there are times when a piece of equipment, such as a microphone, can cause a distracting amount of hiss. Here are some options to try to eliminate hiss:
- If equipped, engage your pre-amp’s pad switch to attenuate (reduce) the hiss before the sound reaches your DAW. Alternatively, you can try using an inline XLR pad such as the Whirlwind IMP Pad or impedance matching adapter.
- Use a microphone with lower self-noise. For microphone selection basics, refer to A Beginners Guide to Microphone for Voice.
- Use a lowpass filter set to 12 kHz to reduce high-frequency hiss without adversely affecting vocal frequencies.
- Use an expander to increase the dynamics between the signal and self-noise. An expander increases your audio signal’s dynamic range. Noise gates are a type of expander.
- Use noise reduction. Be careful to set reduction to not produce artifacting or reduce the quality of desirable audio.
- As a last resort, use a noise gate. Keep in mind that hiss may still be present when speaking.
Low Frequency Rumble
Low-frequency rumble is by far the most common problem I tend to hear in podcasts. Some monitors don’t reproduce frequencies under 180 Hz well. So, sometimes this goes unnoticed until you listen on a different system. Those of us who listen with monitors that produce lower frequencies, and especially those of us who listen through systems with a subwoofer, often hear a low-frequency rumble that distracts from the material.
Typically, HVAC systems, vehicular traffic, or computer noise that vibrates through the floor or desk into the microphone, produce low-frequency rumbles. Here are some common solutions:
- Reduce air conditioning noise or shut off air conditioning and heating systems while recording. Create as silent a recording environment as you can.
- Use a high pass filter set around 80 to 120 Hz.
- Use a microphone with a high pass or a limited low-frequency response
- As a last resort, use noise reduction to eliminate rumble.
Radio Frequency Interference
Cellphones, or a distorted audio signal from a local AM radio station, can come in the form of digital clicking and distortion. Other causes of RF interference are air conditioners, microwave ovens and any electronic device like a router or computer or Bluetooth device that uses a wireless signal. Common solutions include:
- Ensure all cellular devices are off or not present in the studio when recording.
- Move routers, computers or other RF devices away from recording equipment
- Turn off wireless and Bluetooth devices
- Use an inline RF filter to attenuate signals from AM radio stations and other RF interference
Your audio equipment can pick up electromagnetic interference from power wiring. This causes one of the most common occurrences in an audio signal: hum. The interference comes in the form of a 60 Hz buzzing sound (50 Hz in Europe). Magnetic interference picked up by audio cables, and ground loops are the two most common causes. When you have two pieces of connected audio equipment attached to separate outlets with an unshared ground, that causes the magnetic interference. While troubleshooting audio, that hum might not be caused by gear, but by the outlets. Here are some methods of prevention:
- Use balanced audio cables shorter than 10 feet to connect equipment. For more information on cable management, refer to On the Care and Feeding of Cables: Don’t Cross the Streams.
- Do not use electrical ground adapters to remove a ground. In addition to noise, it presents a potential safety hazard.
- Connect equipment to same outlet that feeds power strips for your recording equipment.
- Isolate the outlet used for recording equipment. Use a separate outlet to power lights and other equipment.
- Use a ground lift or a direct box with ground lift to eliminate hum from ground loop.
- Check cables for broken shields and leads and replace or repair as necessary.
How's Your Audio Troubleshooter Checklist?
Now you have the most common types of interference in your audio signal, and what to do about them. The more you know and understand about audio issues and how to prevent them, the better your recordings can be from the start. This eliminates or reduces the need to use audio filters in post-production, that can reduce the quality of your audio!
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We've hopefully assisted you in working through any audio issues you've been having. But there's a lot more to running a podcast than the sound of the audio itself.
Inside The Podcast Host Academy we have courses on everything from interviewing to promotion and audience growth. If you're looking to take your show from decent to excellent, then we'd love to work with you there!