Friday, January 10, 2014

Five Easy Ways to Improve Your Audio Recordings

I'd like to start by confessing that I am a huge audio quality offender, but I'm trying to reform. I've recorded hundreds of podcasts and videocasts, and have cheerfully distributed them, thinking that pops, stumbles, background noise, and long pauses did not matter. After all, they were just going to be listened to via smartphone from a podcast or cloud-hosted file (SoundCloud or YouTube, for example) -- do not spontaneity and authenticity trump quality?

The short answer is, "No." Of course, over-editing and over-rehearsing can certainly diminish the user / listener experience. But, straining to hear a voice though the sound of a gale-force wind, or listening to awkward pauses, stumbles, and verbal tics will frustrate the listener to the point that they may not listen to the entire production, even if it's 30 seconds long.

Use audio recording and editing software for good results. 
Here are five tips to dramatically improve your audio recordings, whether they are stand-alones, or are combined with video or presentation slideshows.

1.  Don't use the internal microphone on your computer or smartphone. If you're using your laptop, plug in a separate microphone -- perhaps a headset with microphone.  If you're using a tablet or smartphone (for the times you're "in the wild" and want to capture an event), please use an external hand-held microphone with windscreen. Be sure to check to make sure that your software is not defaulting back to the internal microphone. Some programs such as Camtasia seem to do that often, and it seems only to happen when you've had a perfect take.

2.  Invest in a headset microphone that puts money into the microphone and not just the headset. Gaming headsets are notorious for having wonderful headsets so that you can listen to all the game's music and sound effects, but they have the equivalent of a 4-dollar condenser microphone mounted into the swivel. Check into the specifications before you buy. Be prepared to pay more than $20.

3.  Record (if possible) using a computer (or in some rare cases, a tablet) that allows you to adjust your settings and then to save as a project that you can then encode and export into different types of files (.wav, .mp3, etc.). Make sure you have enough space and speed: 2 GB of RAM and 2 GHz coprocessor). You will have more of an opportunity to control and edit your audio.

4.  Use an audio editing program that has a number of effects, which include noise reduction, amplification, declipping, and more. Learn how to remove peaks, amplify, remove silence, and level your tracks, and to avoid clipping. Here's a great tutorial: (thanks to

5.  Avoid editing and re-editing, and then re-saving copies of an mp3 file. If possible go back to the original recording and make all your changes from the original recording, rather than a processed copy of a processed copy of a processed copy.

View of Audacity while recording
Some of these tips seem almost laughably simple, but (I'm not laughing now!) -- I cheerfully disregarded them, since I assumed that no one would be listening on anything more than the most lightweight sort of smartphone and earbuds.

As technology advances and quality -- not just in the recording but also in the listening -- improves, it's becoming more important to take your skills to the next level. It's not too difficult once you've mastered the five basic tips, and you'll produce a much more agreeable sound.

I'm not where I'd like to be yet, but I'm working hard on taking my skills to the next level. I've invested in better equipment, and I'm working with

Recommended Audio Recording / Editing Software

open source audio recording and editing software
Audacity Open Source Audio Recording and Editing Software

* Free and open source
* Very flexible
* Easy to use
* Easy to edit files
* Expanded and constantly expanding set of effects (including noise reduction and amplification)

Fairly steep learning curve: Not all the settings are easy to find, and while there is quite a bit of support material on the web and in Audacity's website, it's scattered and not completely easy to find. If  is very worthwhile to take an online course that walks you through Audacity.

Creating mp3 files:  In order to convert to mp3, you have to download a LAME encoder program. The one that is most widely available for free can be downloaded from website that contains all sorts of extraneous links designed to entice you to purchase video editors or download personal projects (here's the link I'm referring to: It's a mine field, but if you can make your way through it, you'll have the software you need.

Achieving precise volume levels:  If you're trying to hit a specific volume level in decibels, you're out of luck with  Audacity. The task is further complicated by the fact that the wave forms and volume levels will be different on every computer. There are a few programs / plug-ins that you can use, but they're hard to find. Here's one: mp3gain:


I hope that this has been helpful.

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