Not My Normal Topic – Better Audio Part 1

Stepping aside from my normal topics to post about a question I was recently asked. The topic was audio equipment and process for YouTube videos. Audio is another science. It presents challenges that catch my interest in much the same way IT does.

Listen closely to the next show you watch. Pay attention to the environment the recorded voices are in. You’ll see that excellent vocal recording is captured and produced in many different settings. Then try to get a decent recording from your desk. There is a lot of science and skill in this detail.

There are two recordings in this post. First conveying how to improve live audio for situations like Zoom. Second conveying how to improve audio for content posted on platforms like YouTube. This is a two part series, I’ve included four recordings in total, each with a different improvement detail. I’ve left some of my past mistakes in the first three. The final recoding in Part two has everything put together.

[Bad EQ, bad level production. Bad EQ is just bad EQ. Level production is ignored on this recording. What’s right: Free noise remover plugin.]

Over the years, I’ve wasted a lot of time and money trying to find the ‘good enough’ setup for myself (You can walk down my audio equipment/process memory lane by just listening to my various YouTube videos over time). This video post covers what I’ve settled on and how I set it up. Spoiler, don’t use a noise/expander gate for noise removal (It’s ok to use a very lightly applied noise gate to tame breaths and mouth clicks, but not the right choice for removing background and line noise).

The biggest mistake I made with live audio was to purchase a DBX 286s hardware sound strip. It all started with my first USB mic that picked up every noise in a one mile radius. I figured I needed a noise gate. Looked high and low, and ended up with the DBX 286s.. It’s ok, but it also comes with a lot of downsides that I won’t get into. There is now a DBX 286s competitor from Behringer, called the  Ultravoice UV1. It has some improvements over the DBX, but also some of the same downsides. First tip, don’t start buying more hardware to solve a problem software can. You’ll save a lot of money, room space, and headaches.

A DAW with some free plugins and software virtualized audio paths will give you better results than any consumer grade hardware. For using a DAW in your real-time audio chain, I will focus on low/zero latency plugins. For processing/normalizing a recorded audio track, we’ll look at some additional plugins.

Think of there being three options to capture your voice for purposes like live streams, podcasts, or YouTube. I think it helps to think of your audio options in a similar way you’d approach photography technology.

  1. You can shell out a lot of money to create a recording studio (Akin to creating your own darkroom photo processing setup)
  2. You can rely on a noise gate (Akin to using a Kodak Instamatic)
  3. You could leverage software to process your audio for both real-time and recorded (Akin to a nice digital full-frame DSLR)

A DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) enables you to process audio in the same way you would with hardware, and improves ‘less than great recording environments’. For live/real-time needs, we need to focus on using low/zero latency processing. For recorded audio purposes, like YouTube, you can apply additional processing to improve your results. The good news is that with live needs (Like Zoom), we can rely on some of the additional processing those platforms provide.

I have been embarrassingly lazy in paying attention to audio detail in the  past. It makes a big difference to the perceived quality of things like YouTube video. The above video I uploaded came in around -7 dB on YouTube. If I were processing the video beyond de-noise (For more than real-time audio), I would raise the volume metered as close to  to -14 dB LUFS as possible before uploading. I’ve added a second video to compare a YouTube upload with volume level adjusted, as well as with processing on and off. For the recording above, I am showing a setup for live audio to Zoom. Zoom will raise any low level audio for you (YouTube does not).

I think the above recording emphasizes the value of using proper audio processing capabilities when posting to a repo like YouTube. The recording above was with a $450 EV RE20 microphone. The recording below is using a $15 mic and sounds better (It sounds worse in some ways, check out Part two of this series for more on that). I see a lot of people using multi-thousand dollar audio setups and sounding about the same as just using their laptop mic.

This one actually came out a little hot. I was hitting my limiter and causing some distortion at the loudest points. Even though YouTube sees it as being below the LUFs value of -14. This is the important part of getting compression and makeup gain right, covered in next post).

[Bad level based on clipping. Not enough headroom available to compress and gain. What’s right: Free noise remover plugin, better level, but not properly processed.]

Here is a sample equipment list for a budget setup (Pricing at time of post). These are not ‘affiliate links’, I receive no money from them.

For a microphone, the QTX M-158 is a ‘good enough’ mic for the home office setup. QTX makes a lot of Shure knockoffs and this one is a knockoff of the Shure BETA 58A. Nowhere near the noise rejection as the Shure, but same all metal construction and pretty decent sound. This mic is designed for vocals and is a great fit for voice application. It is small and doesn’t take up a lot of desk space.

For an XLR mic, you’ll need an audio interface (The thing that amplifies the mic signal and then converts to USB). There are plenty of audio interfaces to choose from, but the Focusrite Scarlett Solo 3rd Gen is a ‘good enough’ (Slightly more than good enough) option.

You’ll need an XLR cable to connect the mic to the audio interface and a mic stand for your desk.

Grand total of $162 ($120 of that is the audio interface, but this is not a place you want to skimp). A little more than a USB mic. And you could get by just fine with a USB mic, but with this setup you’re able to upgrade your mic without having to spend another 100-200 dollars on the next greatest USB mic release. You also get the option of using a dynamic mic instead of a condenser, which has some advantage in this use case (The vast majority of USB mics are condensers. I don’t know if this the reason, but I presume because they are not susceptible to EMI like dynamic mics, And thus, manufacturers of mics aimed at the average home user decide to do with condenser. But, a condenser mic is way more sensitive than a dynamic. So, room noise is a bigger problem. Dynamic mics require noise removal, and I figure adding that to the onboard circuitry of a consumer USB mic is too expensive. So manufactures decided to lean into condensers. A dynamic mic picks up more line noise, a condenser picks up more room noise. I will pick dynamic with line noise cancelation over condenser  all day) .

QTX M-158 – $15.55

Focusrite Scarlett Solo 3rd Gen – $119.99

XLR Cable – $10.79

Mic Stand – $15.85