-Frank Costanza (Seinfeld)
As technology marches ever onward, gadgets becoming smaller, more inexpensive, increasingly user-friendly, and more easily available, our world and it’s human-created and maintained infrastructure do not keep up. Without infinite money and/or time, will we ever be able to solve all the truly “first-world” audio issues that arise? Think about it like this: you might purchase the most advanced home theater system on the planet, connected with gold-plated cabling, frequency response like no other, including a subwoofer with enough wattage to shatter windows miles away. However, you’re still plugging it all into a socket connected to your apartment’s decades-old electrical system, connected by cloth-insulated copper wiring, that connects to a cable from your building to a wooden pole outside, which coincidentally, disconnects power when the wind gusts too much. So, now what?
In short, unless you’ve got the wherewithal and the ability to change everything connecting your sockets to cleaner, uninterruptible energy (home power plant?), there’s only so much you can do. Yes, that’s an extreme example; I make it to illustrate a point that there are some realistic things you can try to make what you have operate to it’s full potential, rather than throwing up your hands and shouting about how much your situation sucks (now that’s the ‘first world’ of ‘first world’ problems). There are lots of ideas you can try to improve your situation. Some will work, others won’t. But if it’s really important to you, try it…OR get help from a friend or someone (like me!) who might be really knowledgeable about these issues. No, I won’t visit your home to rewire everything, but I will offer suggestions that might improve the quality of your content.
Over the last year, I’ve written a few articles for ASMRYouReady, including one where I had the chance to guide a couple of truly talented content creators through the myriad landscape of audio production and gear. I had another recent opportunity that I’d like to share here (a big “Thank You” to the talented Bekah “softlygaloshes” Smith for allowing me to use our conversation as the focus of this article!)
Bekah had recently purchased a new, high quality, audio recorder. She was testing it, putting it through its paces in her space, but faced some noise issues while attempting to use microphones along with the set that came with the unit. After contacting me, I researched her gear, then shared the following exchange of ideas:
My first message:
“In looking at the 2 capsules that come with the Zoom H6, it would seem that the best option would be the M/S (Mid Side capsule) to capture something as close to a naturally occurring binaural sound. But setting the mic up is key to this working, at least by Zoom’s description.
In order to test this out. set up the mic so it is perfectly perpendicular to the ground, not tilted; rather directly facing you (the sound source). Again, don’t tilt it towards you or the capsules ability won’t be apparent. When the mic is perfectly perpendicular, it should look like this:
This is how the capsule should look when you’re recording to get the most ideal stereo/binaural spread. “H6 Mic” image published with reuse license from manufacturer. Red text ©2017 Machine Room® Studio
This mic head has 2 capsules inside; the one marked “mid” is a unidirectional mic, which picks up best from directly in front; audio signal will slowly decrease as you move to one side or the other. The right-left capsule is a bi-directional (figure-8) mic. These will pick up best directly in front, with the strongest rejection on it’s sides. Meaning, if you were facing straight on to either the left or right side of the capsule, and moved towards the mid side, you would lose most of the audio being picked up on the sides (most, but not all). So moving to one side or the other would definitely give you the response of talking or whispering into someone’s ear. And moving from one side, through to the “mid”, then to the other side, would definitely give you the most natural binaural-like sound for your video.
You had mentioned to me, a while back, wanting to create sound as if you were behind someone, with their head pointed away from you. As the mid only picks up signal in front, and not from the back (where the recording unit is), you’d most likely be getting most of your audio signal, albeit lower volume signal, from the bidirectional (left-right) capsule. A good way to test and possibly improve this (and you’d be off-camera for these kinds of shots anyway), would be to stand behind the mic, so you were facing it from the recorder [unit] side, opposite the capsule side. Then, lean forward a bit, so your head is over the recorder. My thinking is that you’d get some residual audio picked up from the front (mid) mic, and a bit more from the left-right capsule; but you’d be physically closer to the mic capsules and more likely generate louder signal without having to raise your voice, or make level changes later in Audacity, which would just invite more noise to your recording.
Another possible way to experiment with this would be to add another mic, running into one of the XLR connections on the recording unit. This could be a mic you already own, like your old Tascam. You could set that mic up on a regular mic stand directly behind the Zoom recording unit. But, instead of facing it towards your voice, set it up so the mic is straight up and down, with the capsules pointing up. (Was it the DR 05 or DR 03 you had with the two capsules pointed outwards?) Setting up that mic so it’s facing upwards would “widen” the left-right field you are recording, enabling your voice to sound as if it’s still coming from behind someone, but with just enough of a boost to make it audibly better. And the cool thing is, with a separate mic signal coming into Audacity, you could play with adjusting the playback level of what you recorded to see what sounds most natural, along with the signal from your Zoom. Since I’m more of a visual person, I created the following image to show what I mean:
Mic placement can solve a myriad of issues“Mic placement” image ©2017 Machine Room® Studio
(Sorry about the “stock” image, but it was the most innocuous I could find on a quick search.) So I would suggest attempting these ideas and see what you can come up with, playing with the audio levels and such in Audacity. And maybe test it “audio only” first, just to see if the concept works (just listening on headphones with your eyes closed, or facing a set of stereo speakers, with your eyes closed, and hear what it sounds like to you. If these don’t work, no worries; I’ll experiment with some mics in my studio over the weekend and see if I can get something towards what you’re going after, using a similar mic setup as yours. We’ll find a way to make it work. I’ll help you find it, I promise. You have my word.”
“Thank you! This is all useful! I just bought myself a pair of RODE NT1A’s and I have some more questions? I notice that there is much more white noise than with the Zoom H6 on its own (using the Zoom as the recorder in this setup) and there’s this sort of high pitched frequency in the background. Maybe my power cables were too close to the XLR cables? How do I lower white noise so that it’s not so troublesome? I really liked with the Zoom H6 that it had so little white noise and bg noise. I might end up returning the RODEs if this is an issue :/”
I decided to create some visuals as I’m a very visual learner myself, leading to my next email. Admittedly, I’ve seen similar visuals used to explain this same idea, so it’s not completely original.
“White noise, or hiss, seems to suggest that there is nothing wrong in the room; rather, it may be the impedance of the mic (it’s output level) was too low for the impedance of the XLR connection/microphone preamp (input level).
All microphones, even ones similarly made, can have a wide range of impedance. Think of it this way:
“Train on a bridge” photo used by permission under Creative Commons license. All text created by Machine Room® Studio
So there is your microphone, attached to the back of the train (signal path/cable) about to connect to it’s destination (mic preamp/XLR connector). Imagine that instead of a train, it was a railway hand car:
“Railway hand car” photo used by permission under Creative Commons license.
It would still be able to make the journey (the signal would get to the mic preamp) but imagine how “tired” and weak-sounding the audio signal would be when it arrived.
The RODE NT1-A is spec’d at having an output impedance of 100 ohms. The XLR connectors on your ZOOM H6 are minimum rated at 1800 ohms. Usually the ratio you want to shoot for between mic and preamp is 10:1, where your preamps input impedance is around 10x the output impedance of your mic’s output. With the RODE at only 100 ohms out, the ZOOM is perceiving that as a fairly weak signal, which probably led to you increasing the input gain [level or volume] on the ZOOM to compensate – hence, the “hiss” or white noise.
If and when you decide to look for additional mics, you’ll want to read the specs on any mic you’re considering to see if it has an output at a 10:1 ratio to your recorder [for your H6, 180 ohms or greater]. Also, since these types of mics [large diaphragm condenser] use phantom power, verify that you selected the correct power level (I’m guessing 48v). The ZOOM H6 has 3 levels options of power to select (12, 24, and 48v). I’m not aware of any similar microphones with output impedance that high. Most dynamic mics, though, average an output closer to 150 ohms, which would make for a better signal to reach the ZOOM’s preamp.
Now all this is math – which may not be the reality of your situation. It might have been the cabling issue you mentioned (audio and power cables near each other) or the power supplied from a wall outlet is full of EMI/RF (electromagnetic/radio frequency) interference, or the mic cable itself had a flaw. There are many things that can cause noise, so it’s near impossible to diagnose without having access to the gear. If I did, I’d most likely try the following solutions:
1) Swap out the mic cable
2) Plug a different mic into the same cable
3) Power cycle the ZOOM (with everything unplugged).
4) Test all the cables with a cable tester (really cheap, and really useful – I think I paid around $30 for mine that tests like a million different types, including usb and other computer cables [https://goo.gl/ARpW5H])
5) Plug the same mic and cable into each of the four inputs
6) If you are able, borrow someone else’s mic preamp and plug the mic and cable into that
These really boring tests would either rule out or diagnose that the problem was with the cable, the connection at the recorder, or with the mic itself. Usually, the majority issues arise from cables, which are the cheapest things to replace.
The ZOOM H6 gets really good reviews in all the audio online mags, whether using the included mics or other mics connected via the XLR inputs. The one complaint I did read most frequently was about the display – users wrote that it’s difficult to adjust phantom power, and other options, as the menus are cumbersome to navigate. So, if you haven’t returned the mics yet, it might be worth checking to see if:
-phantom power was selected correctly
-the cable works (meaning, it passes signal)
-you have the H6’s input levels set correctly for the RODE (again, I understand the display is a bit of a bear to read and navigate).
That’s my input for what it’s worth. As an aside, as she uses an H6 as well, Miniyu ASMR uses small diaphragm condenser mics, in a stereo pair, for most of her videos. Small condenser mics (sdcs) overall have higher impedance outputs (the RODE M5, for example, has an output impedance of 200 ohms). So a matched pair of sdc mics may end up being a better choice going forward. Again, they’re all different too, so check the specs; but they might be a better choice for what you want to accomplish.”
“I will read all of this a bit later, but I wanted to let you know I’m
going to keep the RODE mics and work on soundproofing the room better!”
My next message:
“I can help you with that too, as there are tons of low cost/free ways to do it. If you need some guidance, just send me the specs of the room where you’ll be working, including doors, windows, etc., and I can give you some really easy ideas.
Here’s a DIY idea from Lifehacker to get you thinking about ideas for inexpensive sound control. http://lifehacker.com/old-towels-are-the-best-material-for-cheap-diy-sound-ab-1785114646 ”
“I was unable to get a satisfactory stereo sound with the H6 [alone], which is why I bought the RODEs. I messed with the settings on the H6 and the following things seemed to help recording with the Rodes based on additional advice I received in combination with yours!
1. Plugged in the XY attachment to the H6 when recording with the RODEs.
2. I bought a stereo bar to set the RODEs in a more natural stereo position, and this also helped with having the mics close but the XLR cables could also be more easily separated and managed. This also helped me to get closer to the mics, which helped reduce white noise since I was recording more closely.
3. I changed the settings I was using on the Audacity noise removal.
4. I messed around with the gain settings on the H6 through trial and error.
5. I had messed around with compression settings on the H6 which helped in some ways, but since then I’ve been able to take them off.
6. I stopped obsessing over the tiniest bit of white noise when I realized it really wasn’t showing up after rendering the video and uploading. Editing in Adobe Premiere Pro often makes the white noise louder when editing than it did in Audacity, and that worries me sometimes. But it doesn’t sound that way once it’s gone through the whole process of getting the video online.”
“I am using the H6 to plug the RODEs in. The Tascam does not have XLR ports or anything like that. But I still have it to use for certain videos.
And thank you! The RODEs are great. With the stereo bar though, they are a bit heavy on [the mic stand]. The two stands that came with the Rodes either were crappy, or I broke them possibly by over-tightening and then adjusting without loosening first (dumb mistake). So for now, I can only make them stand so high. I sit in a low chair and have to lean forward a bit and angle the camera up a bit. That’s the setup for the last few videos, if you can tell. I hope to get some new mic stands at some point so I can actually bring them up to a high point again. It’s just that with two RODEs on a slightly unstable stereo bar on one mic stand that wasn’t great to start with means I can’t raise them up high like I want to. They’re find when they’re on one stand each, but this way is a bit less flexible. But worth it for the sound experience :)”
Great ideas – testing out what you have, trying different setups, trying to solve your own audio problems. Truly empowering! This is exactly the kind of thing that all content creators should be doing on a regular basis. If you don’t know, find help. Also, try stuff out on your own. If you’re reasonably careful, nothing will blow up; the worst thing that happens is your solution doesn’t work.
“Yeah – [usually] when a company includes free stands or cables, they send bottom consumer grade stuff. For not a lot of money, the stands I swear by for most applications are available at any Guitar Center. They’re by a company called DR, and they’re all in one, highly adjustable, and really clamp down tight. I think a basic stand is more than other ones online, but they’ll last a long time. Maybe $40 – $50 per stand, but if you have Guitar Center near you, you can try it out and see what you think. They also do manufacture shorter stands that are similarly built if you want to record down on the floor but find the regular stand awkward. They’re built the same as the tall ones, but only max out around maybe 3′ tall or so. I think those are under $30 so they might be a good solution too.
Now all the info you shared makes sense. The RODEs with the H6 – nice pairing. Really a pro setup. You could actually record a ton of stuff with that set up – even remote locations would work well too – like maybe actually camping for another Camping Crush?????”
Her most recent response:
“That’s good to know that it wasn’t me, that they’re just cheap quality. Especially because it was weirdly cheaper to buy the package with the stands than without by a few dollars. But I’ll look into a new stand. It’d be cool to have them go from floor level up to standing if needed. Or would it be more realistic to buy two different kinds?”
My most recent message:
“You can use a standard height music stand for anything. Generally, as long as you consider gravity versus the base of the stand, you’ll be fine. That said, if you can swing a standard one and a shorter one, you’ll find uses for both. I tend to use the shorter stands for miking a kick drum or an amp on the ground. Otherwise I use standard height mic stands. I’ve attached three photos I took to show you; one standard mic stand at standing height, one shorter one with the same mic, and the third showing the taller stand set up with a mic at the lower height. I left the desk chair and guitar stand in for some perspective of scale.
Standard Mic Stand at standing heightAbove “standard mic stand” image ©2017 by Machine Room® Studio
Short Mic Stand with the same mic (for scale)Above “short mic stand” image ©2017 by Machine Room® Studio
Standard Mic Stand set at a lower heightAbove “short and tall”mic stand image ©2017 by Machine Room® Studio
In general you can use standard height mic stands for anything. I’ll use the shorter ones when I need more space to move things around as I can set up taller stands around and over it. For your setup, one or two standard good quality stands are the way to go. In general I don’t skimp to save money on mic stands, cables, mic clips – anything I use with that frequency needs to withstand abuse so I’m not replacing stuff all the time.
Aside from DR, other brands where you’ll not have to worry about quality would be K&M (pricey), Gator (mid-priced), Atlas (very pricey), and some of the Ultimate Support line (very affordable). I’d stay away from any store brand/off brand stuff.”
Did this solve the issue? For now, but like all great exchanges, it will become part of a longer, ongoing, mutually beneficial conversation, where she and I can jump back in at anytime. As she has continued to create stellar content, she obviously figured out what was best for her situation and made it work. I don’t know if she was able to arrange her space in any way to reduce or eliminate any of the external noise issues with which she had to contend. If she does, she knows that she has at least one reliable resource she can trust. The point is that she’s trying until she finds a solution that works for creating her content, in her space, with her particular surroundings and gear, and her measure of success. Your results may vary.
In hindsight, this article is less about audio; rather, more about the choices we all face in approaching problems in our lives. Sometimes stubbornness wins out, as you dig your heels in until you find a solution. Other times, you might choose to flail your arms in helplessness, and allow your problem to thrive and perhaps birth offspring. Most importantly, though, is understanding that if you choose to solve a problem, you might need help. Know who you can trust and rely on for whatever guidance you might need. Know that as strong-willed and independent as you might be, you cannot solve everything on your own. With the almost consistent chaos that is our world, it’s reassuring to know that there are those around who actually want to help. I’m one of them; yet I’m only one of many. Reach out – you might be surprised at how easy the solution might be.
Howard Rabach, producer – musician
Machine Room© Studio