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DIY recording studio

So, last year I recorded the audiobook of John Pivovarnick’s novel, Tales from the Back of a Bus. Aside from being a great read, it was a lot of fun to do, but recording it presented technical challenges, like how the hell do I record a whole audiobook??

Here’s how I answered that question.

Booking time in a profession recording studio was out of the question. Pivovarnick’s a cheapskate, and no mistake. Also, I didn’t know anyone from whom to “borrow” a studio setup, or even just the equipment. So, I went the do-it-yourself route.

Wild Sound

I have office space at home, small, with a door that closes tightly, two windows and a closet in which to hide skeletons and stuff. The goal of studio space is to provide almost softened, almost dead sound. The first thing they tell you when you look into home recording is to cut down on hard surfaces that will reflect sound–like hardwood and windows.

The room already had an area rug [also a fluffy dog bed] and futon to absorb some sound. The desk itself is a piece of plywood wrapped in upholstery fabric, so that was good, too. The windows were the main issue.

I’m not a fan of curtains because I like all the light I can get [I’m part plant, I think], so I just had those ubiquitous white vinyl blinds. There had been shades, but those were long gone. Only their weirdo hardware remained on the window frame.

The first thing I tried was two couch throws for the windows–the microfiber kind you can get at Ikea for cheap. They were okay at dampening the sound but fell off regularly [the cats helped], so bordered on useless.

Moving pads to block sound-reflective window surfaces.

I looked into light and sound blocking “blackout curtains,” something they make for vampires and other people who sleep during the day, I guess. They ranged in price from $20 to $40 a pair [so, x2 for two windows] plus another $30 x2 for hanging hardware and curtain rods. That was a little too spendy to justify, what with my natural dislike of curtains and all.

Instead, I opted for quilted moving pads for soundproofing. Over the windows, I hung them with these clever carabiner clips hooked over the existing window shade hardware–easy to hang and remove, for the sake of light. Over the office and closet doors, I used the same carabiner clips with screw-in cup hooks screwed into the jambs [so, I could have called this section The Silence of the Jambs].

[I am so sorry about that.]

For my metal filing cabinet, neodymium magnet hooks for hanging the pads [I didn’t need clips, the magnets were strong enough by themselves].

Mister Microphone

With the broad strokes of quieting the room taken care of, next came the microphone. After some experience setting one up for Paul Sorvino’s home studio a few years back [long story, don’t ask], I opted for a Yeti Microphone, pop filter, and noise-canceling headphones [because as much as you may hate to, you have to listen to yourself to edit and master the final recording].

Blue Yeti microphone

The Yeti has great specs while being moderately priced. I won’t bore you with all the geeky details, but the long and short of it is the Yeti is a great condenser mic that has multiple recording patterns that allow you to control the direction from which the microphone picks up sound–which makes it flexible and useful for various styles of recording. You would use the cardioid setting to record yourself, bidirectional to record two people on either side of the microphone [for a podcast, say], with the option for stereo or omnidirectional recording in reserve for other uses [music and a group meeting, say, respectively].

Further, it’s a USB microphone, so it plugs right into a USB port on your computer and you can get right to work–you don’t have to get a pre-amp and other expensive hardware that you probably don’t need for recording auditions and simple voice overs.

The cardioid setting directs the mic at you in a heart-shaped pattern ❤ with the Yeti at the notch of the heart, and you at the point, and the condenser picks up primarily the sound in that heart-shaped zone around the head of the microphone, making you the center of attention. However, it will still pick up sound from the two lobes of the heart pointed away from you. You don’t want that. To eliminate, or at least suppress most of that other sound, built a little cabinet for the microphone to live in.

Built” is a little self-aggrandizing, but “assembled from other pre-made parts” was too clunky to use. “I glued some shit together is more accurate,” but, well, shitty. Anyway, I glued some shit together.

With the lid on, but it’s removable.

I started with a plastic file storage box to hold the microphone. Then I got the cheapest memory foam twin-sized mattress pad I could find, measured the interior walls of the box, and cut pieces of the foam to match. I used Gorilla Glue to attach the foam to the inside of the box, leaving the bottom piece for last.

For the bottom piece, I traced the Yeti’s base in the center of the foam and then cut that out before gluing that final piece in place–that way the microphone sits on the sturdy plastic and there’s no risk of microphone wobble, or worse, tipping while you’re in the heat of the moment.

If you’re lazy like me…

Rough measure the inside of the box. Cut out the pieces, then dry fit them so you can trim and snip and make them fit before making a permanent commitment with glue.

Me, a lazy person
Stores nicely out of the way

Finally, you need software to record, edit, and process your recordings into professional sounding .mp3 files for uploading and/or emailing. All the initial research I did had a boner for Avid Pro Tools Software, which I found kind of spendy at $99 to $600. I went for Audacity, pro-quality, free, and open source. I figured if the need arose, I could always spend the money on Pro Tools later.

Once you have everything assembled, hooked up, and installed, you get to fart around* with your set up. Record stuff, process it, see what makes you sound your best. Make sure you’ve eliminated sources of noise.

Now, the headphones I ordered were Bluetooth, so I could listen to, and edit my recordings before final processing. If you like, you can get wired headphones, and plug them into the Yeti so you can monitor the sound as you record. You may find it helpful. The few times I tried it, I found it disorienting and disturbing. Likewise listening to the audio by way of options in the Audacity software.

After several trials, I settled on just listening after the fact. If you suspect you screwed something up while recording, just stop speaking, take a beat, then read that part again. You can edit out the screw-up during the editing process.

[Trust me, you become intimately familiar with every gross wet, sticky, or dry sound your mouth can make. I got to the point where I could recognize them just by looking at the waveform on the screen. It is an educational experience.]

When I was testing, I got an annoying hum in the background. I thought it might be the computer’s cooling fans, so I covered it with one of those moving pads. Still there. I tried hooking up the microphone to my laptop, which was much quieter and easier to move far away. Still a hum.

Turned out, it was the microphone itself. I sent it in for warranty repair. Blue, the company that makes the Yeti microphone, has a crackerjack customer service team. The recording, editing, and producing process is another kettle of fish. If there’s interest, maybe I’ll write that up, too.

Anyway, enough about me. What about you? What do you think about me? Here’s the final product, the Audible sample. Judge the results for yourself.

Tales from the Back of a Bus, retail sample.

Thanks for reading!


Other sources of noise are harder to locate and eliminate.

You can pick up your Audible copy of Tales from the Back of a Bus [for free if you start an Audible trial], or from iTunes if you prefer. Those who still like the feel of actual books in your hands can order a paperback here or ask for it at your favorite indie bookstore!

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