ASMR PRODUCTION: Choosing a Microphone with Softlygaloshes and Violet’s Voice

Among self-financed professionals (i.e. all of you content creators), pre-production/creating a plan is arguably the most neglected step of the process. It’s particularly regrettable because planning is the least expensive part of any creative process, and the one that offers the greatest return on investment…by far.

The catch is that planning is also the stage that often requires the most experience to execute well. True, there are exceptions; many novices have created amazing work through countless hours of trial and error. Neither quick nor efficient, it can work, and be a great learning experience. It could even lead to a truly compelling creation.

The best bet for successfully executing a great creation, on time and within your budget is to have attempted dozens of successful and failed projects; you come away with firsthand knowledge of what truly works and what doesn’t.

In hindsight, from everything I’ve ever learned about planning seems to prove:

“Failing to plan is planning to fail.”*

(*Bad clichés are coined for a reason.)

Planning: What & Why

Planning begins with someone…well…wanting to create something. But it also entails filtering through ideas, and fine-tuning a structure before creating and releasing something to your audience.

Often, new content creators step in front of their camera lens and microphone, only to discover that, under the microscope of high-def playback, their video plays like a middle-school theatre production (no hate-mail; I was both a middle school Theatre Arts and Language Arts teacher for many years!)

Even for those who plan to produce themselves, strictly defining even the simplest pre-production phase is essential in maintaining momentum on any creative project.

For the more ambitious, who choose to work with well-established video producers who have helped others like you be successful, be prepared to spend some major cash.

But for the majority of you, who are doing this independently, good planning barely costs a thing! And it’s worth it’s weight in gold.

Bring in Help Early On

During the planning phase is when the advice of an experienced professional (an expert in a particular area) is the least expensive, and the most valuable.

A combination of talent, skill, and experience is far more helpful than a roomful of great gadgets; a solid plan is always more cost-effective than trial with lots of error. That’s why plans and people are still valuable and even more essential today, an age when the cost of a basic audio/video recording setup is at an all-time low. But, for those who don’t rely on creating content for a living, being smart about investments you make will always pay off.

Even the most successful and experienced content creators don’t necessarily have expert-level knowledge on every facet of audio/video gear, software, technique. But their success is often at least partly based on finding others (experts) to be valuable resources for achieving success.

With that said, I’ll share two recent experiences I’ve had with assisting two of the most successful content creators within the ASMR community today. I choose the word “successful” in that both have created consistently high quality and thoughtful content, both have built a solid core audience, and both seem to have very high expectations of themselves.

Softlygaloshes (Bekah Smith)

Near the end of July this year, I received an email from the thoroughly talented creator, Bekah “Softlygaloshes” Smith. Initially, I assumed the email was about the fact that I hadn’t submitted an article for ASMRYouReady in a while…which would have been totally justified, procrastinator that I can be. To my surprise, it was an email with some questions about audio equipment she was looking to upgrade, and she was seeking advice and guidance.

Part of me was thinking, “Here’s a creator that I admire, who has consistently made top-quality video content, and she’s asking me for advice. Whaaa???”

Shortly thereafter, the teacher in me responded, “Successful people become so by partnering with those from whom they can learn something new.” Here is some of our email conversation as it went along:

Hey Howard!

I was looking into getting a new microphone for ASMR and I was looking at the Zoom H5 portable recorder.

It says that the attachment it comes with has “x/y stereo.” I looked up what that was, and so I get the basic basic concept, but in a practical sense… will it be able to have the effect I want?

I want to be able to…have it feel like it’s close in the viewer’s ear. I want the left and right audio output not to be entirely separated, like, you can still hear the other side faintly in the other ear. But I want it to be much more exclusive than my current Tascam DR-05 provides.

With my Tascam, the sound doesn’t feel very close to the ear, and it doesn’t feel very LEFT and RIGHT, but more like, front left and front right.

I used to use the internal mic on my camera, but it has this whirring noise that came up as the camera warmed up, and also has an insane amount of white noise. But what people liked about it is that when I got up close to the ear, it felt PRETTY CLOSE.

…I want to have a mic that will sound very close to the ear…and will have a decent stereo sound. The internal microphone on my camera is stereo…the Tascam has two omnidirectional mics.

Any idea if the Zoom H5 will do that? (Also keep in mind, my budget is near its fullest at that Zoom.)

Since I was a bit swamped with completing some client mixes with tight deadlines, I responded quickly and confidently, to ensure Bekah understood my acknowledging her request, and my time frame for follow through (aside from email, we’ve never actually met – so this was a big risk on her part).

…[later] tonight, I’ll have some time to critically listen to [the linked content you sent] and see what differences I can discern. I already downloaded the specs from the Zoom H5 so I can compare everything. I’ll be back in touch soon…

As she was counting on me to offer some direction and guidance, and that her viewers have come to expect high quality work, I worked to offer thorough and accurate research. My response is summarized to keep you readers from nodding off:

It’s hard to say if he Zoom will meet your goal of sounding “closer” or more intimate. What I can tell you is that the mics on these two units are very different.

…the one thing I also noticed is that due to this design, the Zoom’s mics will be quite a bit more sensitive than the Tascam mics… The filtering and editing abilities between these two units is really no comparison; the Zoom H5 is markedly better.

…I believe you’ll get better quality recordings with the Zoom. Whether that will translate into what you said you wanted from a new recorder will likely take some experimenting. …it’ll take time figuring out…to get the best quality “close-up” intimate sound you want, without all the [other] issues.

Then I thought I should balance what I offered with feedback from others who’ve actually had first-hand, real-world experiences:

…reviews that I read agree that the standard x/y that comes with the unit is the best…that Zoom offers; it uses the identical mics to the more expensive H6 model. …with it’s additional mic inputs, you could [create] some really innovative kinds of recording.

I had to make sure Bekah understood my perspective versus the information I provided. I let her know that, although I am quite knowledgeable in the field of audio production, I had never used this particular type of recording device. With that disclaimer, we continued:

With having two unidirectional mics, would that still create the surround sound effect? Like if I were to walk around the mic, would you be able to tell where I was? Would a scalp massage sound realistic?

At this point, I “geeked out” a little, but wanted to be sure I explained my ideas thoroughly without sounding pretentious; Bekah was, after all, looking to make an important decision, directly impacting her ability to continue to create already high quality content.

I think it will work well because of the X/Y pattern. So the polar patterns overlap.

In the picture titled “cardioid” …the pickup pattern rejects] most audio from the rear, and some from the sides. However, with the X/Y [mic], …two…patterns overlap each other…giving a much wider pickup pattern, with a smaller rejection space in the rear. As you move…your voice will come more into focus…

The more I think about it, having it..,at a 45 degree angle upwards towards you, would enable you to have the sound be more realistic. …think about [watching] a singer in front of a mic on a stand; usually, the mic [is] at an angle, upwards towards the mouth, so it picks up the voice and not the [unwanted sounds].

Bekah concluded with the suggestion to write this very article!

Oh wow! Great! Thank you!

I had a thought — My questions are probably questions other people would want to know, and the mics I’m using are within a lot of people’s price range. It could also encourage other people to message you with questions about their own mic choices.

Yes – all Bekah’s idea; I take no credit. Sly way of getting her question answered, and getting me to write an article (overdue as it might be)! Well played, Bekah.

Violet’s Voice

At the end of September, I read a Facebook post from another of my all-time-favorite content creators, Violet’s Voice. After an extended absence, Violet was eager to get back into production again, but was frustrated with her audio gear. This time, I took the plunge and sent her a message; I explained that I wasn’t some random creepy dude, by unashamedly name-dropping/self-promoting a bit:

Just saw your post about watching condenser mic reviews…I’ve been writing a series of articles for ASMRYouReady (the site run by Bekah Smith – Softlygaloshes) that is exclusively about audio production for ASMRtists. I run a recording studio, and am a session musician in my area, so sound is what I do. I’d be happy to offer any information that I can about something you’re looking to purchase. Please message me if I can be of any assistance.

A short time later, her response:

Hey Howard! I’d love your advice, although I won’t promise to take it. One of my vices is not listening to the wise, haha.

Basically I’d like two microphones that I can use. XLR, ideally, as I always use an H4N. Thoughts? My goal was to stay within the 200 USD range for both.

I began with more questions (how dare I!)

I guess I’d first ask why; is there something that your current mics cannot do that you’re trying to achieve with a new mic?

Violet’s reply:

The mics I used in my studio videos aren’t my own, I borrowed them! And the ones I have now have lots of feedback. There’s a hum. I have phantom power to them (which I believe they need). And my H4N has stereo but not enough to create a “binaural” effect

So I’d like two mics that won’t pick up too much background noise.

I then confirmed my understanding of what Violet wanted to accomplish. It’s something I do with my clients, well before planning any work sessions. It allows them to focus more on their creativity, feeling confident that the nitpicky details are in good hands.

Got it. If I remember from one of your older videos, you used a pair of Shure SM27s, which are large diaphragm condenser mics. [author’s note – yes, I am that nerdy to notice details like this] Their pickup pattern is fairly large – cardioid I believe – so strongest signal up front, weaker on the sides, weakest on the back. I have some lists I had put together for an article I wrote a few months ago that focused on how to choose the best mic for your content creation and so forth. I’ll skim through my notes from that and send a follow up message to you by tomorrow, as I’m running out to a rehearsal.

Here’s what I offered:

…there are two different things at play. First, you want good quality, affordable microphones to use in either stereo or binaural recording…and you have noise issues. Let me deal with these things one at a time (noise will be in a follow up message a little later today, so this doesn’t become too unwieldy).

Microphones: you wanted to find a pair of microphones, for $200 for the pair? If so, there’s little new out there even worth considering. On the used market, however, you can find some amazing deals – I’ve included links…for basic information. If you decide to look for used prices, I’ve got some online store recommendations…

What I looked for were affordable (around $200 or less each) large diaphragm condenser microphones, widely used among both recording studios, and by those who might do voice-over work (as most of your content will be spoken-word related.) …most of the information expressed [in reviews] is really subjective…

I continued with detailed information about mic options that I believed would best fit Violet’s requirements and budget. She suggested a mic used by one of her favorite content creators…(so cool to have worlds colliding in this way!), presenting a great way to illustrate how a tool that works for one situation might not be the answer for another!

I looked at the Blue Spark mics- I believe they’re what Maria uses! I like the quality of her sound very much…the AT2035s seem interesting to me as well. Thank you for your frankly amazing reviews!

My response:

You mentioned that the microphones you currently used were making noise, and picking up unwanted “environmental” noise while recording.

Can you tell me a little about the space you [use for] recording? There might be some easy and free/cheap solutions depending on…the cause…send me whatever details you think might be important…

Here’s what I learned about Violet’s recording space:

It’s…a bedroom. I have a vent but we never run the air. [My] mic just has this constant bass hum.

I’m giving it phantom power but it’s not good. You can hear it unfiltered in the suit fitting video I did a long time ago.

Just reeeeeally loud

And my (summarized, but thorough) reply:

Hum through phantom power? …it might be…standard RF interference you get with power through [residential] outlets…it might be a ground issue. I wonder if either the microphone…or the Zoom recorder might have a switch labeled “Ground Lift” somewhere.

When I record someone’s guitar amplifier, I also run a separate direct line…to get a clean, unamplified signal. The connection is made with a DI box, which routes

. …it has a Ground Lift switch as, depending on what’s connected to it, there might be a loud hum (like what you were experiencing) and ‘lifting’ the ground disables that hum.

The other thing you might want to check is it battery powered or using a “wall wart” power supply? And which mic model are you using? I can compare the specs on the H4N you mentioned to the power…specs are on the mic you are using…

I learned that Violet is using wall outlet power, she has the same noise issues whether in this location or her prior recording locations, her current mics were not very good quality, and were hardwired to their cables. I offered suggestions for better ways to deal with poor residential power, and ways to protect her equipment from power-related damage.

Violet replied later:

Still no conclusions. Lol. Going to review your suggestions tonight and hopefully make a decision! I’m considering these as well — your thoughts? Ahhh see now i’m preferring the Audio Technica models you suggested [1] [2] [3].

Either way, cannot thank you enough for all your help with this; I felt totally lost and you gave me such great options

To which I responded with my thoughts on the mic she considered:

I like Blue mics in general. The quality overall is stellar, the sound you can conjure is very even — very little “coloration” which, for what you do, is a good thing…my only hesitation would be that FOCUS button. Cool in concept, but seems a little gimmicky…in the right applications, it probably works great.

I then “reeled” her in with the intentions for my greater purpose…I can be so terribly devious!

I’m glad for your feedback on this, as this is exactly why I started writing for (Bekah’s site). I eventually want to create a resource for all current, and aspiring-to-be, content creators to access information…[to] make solid decisions, without having to rely on whatever’s trendy at the moment. …it’s a big deal and a big expense to take a chance on [buying audio gear] when you’re really treading into areas that [seem] quite foreign.

Hook, line and sinker!

Absolutely! Could I write you some kind of like testimonial or something for your site? I’d love to thank you somehow!

And this is how Violet’s story became a part of this article:

Actually, what I’d prefer, if it’s OK with you, is to include some of our interaction as part of my next article – I did something similar with Bekah [and she suggested the article idea]. Frankly, with the respect and admiration you both have as content creators, it would be a slam-dunk article overall.

We then exchanged some other ideas about mic cables, where to get the best deals when making these purchases, and similar things.

Where do I go from here?

Full disclosure time: in watching many newer ASMRtists initial attempts at video content, perhaps the most stated reason for creating was their way to “give back” to the community that both helped and embraced them. I wanted to find some way to “give back” as well, but in a way where I felt the most confident to have the best impact. I’m hoping that I can continue to act as a resource for Bekah and Violet, other creators, and those aspiring to do the same.

Before planning this next project, if you need any similar guidance, or know someone who would benefit from it, I’ve offered my contact information at the end of this article. Finally, if you have any thoughts or ideas on how to turn this idea into a more tangible concept, I’d love to hear from you. Happy creating everyone!

Howard Rabach

Machine Room Studio

(703) 930-6705 (cell/texts)