Audio tips from an expert

E-Learning developers often struggle with audio production.  A common question is “how do I go about creating decent quality audio on a minimal budget?”  So recently, we became acquainted with the guys from Sage Audio down in Nashville, TN and I had the opportunity to chat with Chief engineer, Steve Corrao and ask him a few questions.

Mike:  Steve, thanks for taking the time to join us and share your expertise with our readers.

Steve:  Mike, you're welcome.

Mike:  Steve, can you tell us a little bit about Sage?

Steve:  My business partner, John Baird, and I started Sage Audio in 2008. At that time we discussed moving to New York, LA, or Nashville; and decided the condensed music scene in Nashville’s Music City would be the best fit for the company.  At the time, there were very few affordable studio options for independent musicians.  Our vision was to offer professional mastering for rising artists, particularly artists that are on a budget.  It was very important to us that the talent of independent artists didn’t go unnoticed.

It’s been a great experience, not only working with Nashville artists, but working with a wide variety of artists and genres across the globe.  

Mike:  Steve, can you tell us a little bit about your career path?

Steve:  I grew up in northern Idaho, in a small town called Moscow. There wasn't much of a musical community there, so I bought a 2 track recorder and started recording local bands. In college I studied electrical engineering and found myself in need of a job so I started working at a local bar that had a sound board. I learned how to run the board, and after a few years I decided to try my hands at audio engineering. So I setup my own recording studio in Idaho until I had enough money to move.

Mike:  A lot of e-Learning developers come from more of an instructional design background and might start out at square one with audio production.  I’m guessing that you could fill a book with this type of thing, but for the beginner, what are some basic steps they can take to get decent quality audio?

Steve:  A lot of beginners try to 'fix' their recorded tracks during mixing using plug-ins and effects.  In some cases this can help, but more often than not the added processing lowers the quality of the tracks.

Creating professional sounding songs starts with recording professional sounding tracks. One of the primary reasons commercial music has that sought after sound, is due to the amount of time and energy that is put into creating pristinely recorded tracks. The ultimate goal is to record the best sounding tracks possible; if done correctly, there will be little or no need to 'fix' the tracks.

In short; if a recorded track doesn't sound professional and you find yourself trying to fix it, stop, and re-record it with a different source and/or microphone until it does sound professional.

Mike:  What are some tips for maximizing the quality of their audio knowing that they’re not on pro gear?

Steve:  One of the most basic technical steps that gets overlooked during recording is keeping levels low, especially when working digitally.  This ensures that no transients are accidentally clipped and the signal retains its original characteristics. To do this, it's a good idea to keep meters about three quarters way up the bar; the highest level should peak around -3dB.  If a track's level is getting to close to clipping, reduce it until the signal is metering below clip. 

Mike:  Steve, you mention “transients being clipped.”  Can you explain, in beginners terms, what this means?

Steve:  No Problem.  Clipping is a term used to describe what happens when the level of a signal is higher than the maximum amount allowed by the receiving equipment.  For example, if a microphone is connected to a preamplifier where the level is set to high, a signal’s transients may be ‘clipped’ (cut-off). This is usually heard as distortion and commonly referred to as a ‘harsh’ digital sound. When recording digitally it’s best to keep levels relatively low with the highest peaks around -3dB. To test a vocal level prior to recording it’s a good idea to have the vocalist sing the loudest passage of the song that will be recorded. This will reveal the highest level of the signal so it can be set appropriately.

Mike:  That’s a great tip.  What would be another area that’s important for folks to really give some attention?  

Steve:  Another commonly overlooked part of recording is choosing where to invest your time and money. Instead of spending it on quick-fix tactics or products, such as, plug-ins, software, editing 'tricks', and/or effects.  It would be better to upgrade instruments, microphones, studio acoustics, cables, and preamps; basically anything that has to do with capturing the source that's being recorded.

If upgrading equipment isn't an option, spend as much time as possible learning the equipment that you do have. Practice recording different instruments and vocals using varied techniques and equipment. Do this every day, this will help improve your recording skills and you can add equipment when you have the opportunity to.

Mike:  Steve, I noticed that when I’m recording, I have a lot of options in terms of file formats, bit rates, etc. Can you shed some light on this for me?

Steve:  These days there are an endless amount of file formats.  Regardless of what format you will be converting to, there are two main points to remember.

  • Record tracks in high resolution. Tracks recorded with 24 bits will capture more subtleties in dynamic range.
  • Avoid up-conversion or down-conversions before mixing. If you record 24 bits continue to work with 24 bits throughout the mixing process, including exporting a final mix for mastering.

Mike:  Okay, what about the person who’s wondering how to create a good recording environment?  Any tips for the beginner?

Steve:  If you don't have an acoustically tuned or isolated room to record in, try using a closet. If the walls of the closet are bare, hang blankets. The more absorptive materials that are placed in the room the more the reflections will be reduced. This can be helpful for recording vocals or any instrument that may benefit from a sound-isolated room.  Often overlooked are simple things like turning off the A/C, heater, and television.  These noises may go unnoticed during recording, but they will be amplified after the track is mixed and mastered.

Mike:  That’s awesome.  The closet.  Okay, one last question and it’s probably one of the more popular audio threads for us.  It has to do with microphones.  Your thoughts?

Steve:  In most cases a mid-priced condenser microphone or dynamic microphone will allow for a number of different ways to capture sound. The tonality and quality of the sound is greatly affected by the microphone technique used. It's best to experiment with different microphone techniques to find what a particular microphone excels at. Be aware that angling a microphone even a quarter of an inch can have a large impact on the recorded sound.  If you can only afford one microphone, a condenser mic will be your best option.

Mike:  Steve, thank you for taking the time to chat today and for sharing your insights into the audio creation process. 

Steve:  Mike, you're welcome. I’m glad to share some thoughts.  If your readers are interested in more information about choosing the right recording equipment, and details about recording techniques they can check out our blog.  It has a lot of helpful information for beginners and intermediate engineers.

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2 Comments
Edward Hoke

Hmmm...some of this information points the beginner or novice in the right direction, and that is helpful. Other items, well - not exactly. As someone that has worked in the field for 30 years, and is also an adjunct at a large film school in Chicago, I would say there are variable factors regarding the -3db "rule". Depends on where the content is intended. If online, radio, the training room on the 4th floor, car audio, etc. NTSC standards (prior to HDTV) were pretty much at -12db for most editors. Now, -6 seems to be the overall flavor in this decade. And the microphone discussion was very good, but there are other factors involved here as well. The majority of this audience - who are forced to do most things themselves - meaning buying a Pro Tools HD rig, Neumann C12 capsule (popular... Expand