A A couple of years ago, I was in a fight with an airing cupboard.
I needed to record audio for a fiction podcast, but instead of being in a recording studio, I was in a house. Not even mine. Looking for possibilities to create a temporary home studio which didn’t involve any ankles in my throat, the airing cupboard spoke to me.
It was a five shelf business with assigned spaces for towels (bathing), towels (beach), sheets, duvets, duvet covers, blankets, pillows, pillowcases, owls, wheat, sphagnum moss, and other soft household necessities. But what it boasted in thread count, it lacked in obvious places to set up audio equipment.
After many experiments, I stopped at an imperfect solution. It involved an audio setup which, I am sorry to report, dangled.
Acting in audio is a dangerous and thrilling career which guarantees being invited to parties. For those of us privileged to do so, here are a few ideas which compare favourably to me trying to perform text while slowly swaying in time to a suspended microphone.
There are two major pieces of equipment to consider when working with microphones. One is the microphone, the other is yourself. Mic technique is the relationship between the two. Let’s start with you, specifically your voice.
Food and Drink
Various foods and drinks will affect the stickiness of your mouth. If you’ve got a session coming up on mic, the night before say goodbye to milk products, caffeine, alcohol and chocolate. Drink water. Drink more water. Keep drinking water. If you want variety, consider the delights of hot water.
Taking care of mouth tackiness helps to avoid more work for the person later editing your audio. While tools now are better than before at finding and eliminating clicking and spluttering, as actors it is our aim to give that editor the cleanest possible takes to start with.
Famously, a tart green apple will help soak up a bit of that mouth sound if you’re having a particularly troubling day but don’t rely on these. Come in prepped.
One caveat: sometimes things are out of our control. Sometimes we forget. Sometimes we’re offered a yoghurt by a smiling stranger at the last set of traffic lights before work and are too nervous to decline. Sometimes your personal dietary requirements conflict with your professional ones. Do what you can, drink lots of water, and if worried speak to your producer. Letting perfectionism tense you up will only hurt your voice.
Which brings me to:
A Vocal Warm-up
I like the Voice Coach app from Yvonne Morley but there are tons more teachers, books, websites and videos on the subject. If you don’t have a vocal warmup in your arsenal, get one.
Come to the mic relaxed and warm, ready for work. You might be there for eight hours so be kind to yourself.
Speaking of which:
You will do a volume check before recording. You may well be asked to go as loud as you intend to go. If you’re not sure, have a scan through the scene to see if there are any shouty bits and then use one of those to go louder than normal speaking volume. But keep yourself supported and on-breath. Doing a day’s recording on a strained voice is no fun for you or your colleagues.
To that end, be mindful of roles which have lots of shouty bits or other elements that risk vocal strain. Think soldiers in the middle combat shouting ‘Fire!’ a lot, or strange creature grunts. Even if your vocal health is impeccable, it is common to save these takes for the end of the recording session. Do not be afraid to ask your producer to do this.
At the Mic
You and Your Microphone
Let’s say you’re working from home, not an external studio. You have a setup which might involve blankets and towels or it might involve acoustic foam and bass traps. You have secured your microphone in a non-dangling position. You have not tripped over the XLR cable and broken your nose. Congratulations.
Determine your microphone’s polar pattern. This is the direction in which it picks up audio. You want it to be in the cardioid (heart shaped) pattern, unless otherwise directed. A cardioid pattern reaches out in the shape of a heart, allowing you to stand directly in front or slightly to the side. But do stand in front. If you don’t know and have lost the box, Google your mic. If it’s quite a nice mic, it might record in several patterns in which case there will be some kind of switch on it to move between them.
Now determine your attitude to having a chair. If standing is an option, take it. If standing is not an option, don’t sweat it (see above about tension). If your character is sitting, you may well want to consider sitting because the way a person breathes when they’re sat is different to how they breathe when they’re stood. However, be wary of characters who jump in and out of their seats. Constantly adjusting your mic height is impractical.
Somewhere between you and your microphone, there should be a pop shield. When you make plosive sounds (the consonants p, b, t, d, k and g in English), a little more air than usual escapes your mouth. This can cause a popping noise to register. The pop shield does what it says on the tin.
Where to Be
Place yourself 15 to 30 cm from the mic – that’s somewhere between the length of a school ruler that fits in your pencil case and one that has to go in your bag. Some say you should stand a crooked arm away from the mic. For others, it’s the length of your extended thumb and little finger when you’re making a landline phone shape with your hand. Find whatever system works for you and then let your producer adjust you in the sound checks.
Your microphone needs electricity. Your audio interface – the box your XLR cables plugs into that then plugs into your computer – generally provides it. It is commonly switched on via a button marked +48V. Check your interface’s manual if you can’t find it. If you’re like me, about once a month you’ll panic that your microphone isn’t recording anything then realise that you haven’t switched on phantom power. After you’ve had a panic, sit down (see vocal tension). After you’ve fallen on the floor, reconsider the chair (see chairs).
At home, the thing you will interact with most after the microphone is the GAIN dial. It is on your audio interface or, with some newer microphones, the mic itself. This records the level at which your voice is directed into the interface. Before a recording session, it’s a good idea to open an audio interface and check your levels. There is a range of opinions on where to aim for but if you look for something in the range of -24dB to -12dB, your producer can then redirect you to the production’s standard.
The next battle is with your noise floor. This is the level of background noise, room tone, fridge song, universe hum, and other unsettling forces making their quiet way into your recording. Keep it as low as possible, under -60dB. If you can’t get the balance right (your voice to the noise floor), either you need to be closer to the mic or you need to improve your sound treatment.
Once you are recording, hopefully you can leave the GAIN dial as it is. However, sometimes we need to be a bit louder or a bit softer. Unless you want to hear the room itself, favour changing the GAIN dial over moving your head. Remember where it was before and then change it back. Change it in small increments. A little goes a long way.
Sampling Rate and Bit Depth
When your voice is recorded digitally, the computer converts it into information it can read and replay. It does this by chopping up your voice into fine slices, similar to how film is recorded as a series of photographs. The slices (e.g. the photos) are called samples and the speed at which it slices is the sampling rate. Each sample can be set to capture different levels of detail. In our film analogy, we might compare it to how much colour is in each image. The detail a sample captures is called the bit depth.
Most of the time you will be recording at a rate of 44.1kHz or 48kHz and a bit depth of 16 bit. Your production should send you this information ahead of time if you are recording yourself. Some microphones require specific software to change the settings. If you’ve got it all set up nicely but still sound like you’re talking out of a lung, check whether your mic has any extras to download.
Working with Other Actors
You and Your Colleagues
Remember how a cardioid microphone pattern extends to the sides? This allows more than one actor on the mic if they stand next to each other. If you are sharing the mic with one or more actors and can’t get close enough, stand around it near enough that you can take a little step forward in on your line, then step back out to let the next actor in. There’s a rhythm to this dance. You’ll pick it up.
Standing next to each other leads to an interesting challenge, and that challenge is called ‘acting’. In an ideal environment, we have full freedom to look our scene partner squarely in the eye as much as we need to. The more we stare at our script, the more we run the danger of sounding like we’re reading. But if we’re standing next to our scene partner and keep swivelling our heads every few seconds, the microphone will lose us.
Find a balance that allows you to be in the moment with your scene partner as well as clearly picked up by the mic. Positioning your body at a slight inward angle can help. If in doubt, check in with your producer. If you and your fellow actors have never worked on a single mic before, it’s worth having a practice to get the idea.
Speaking of being in the moment, it can happen that we get very wrapped up in a scene and start our line before our scene partner has finished theirs. This is not a crime. People do talk like that, therefore it is an option for actors (unless your director tells you it isn’t in which case, thank you director! That’s useful to know). However, if you’re sharing a mic try to make sure there are at least one or two clean takes of every line to help the edit.
Either you will be recording all your dialogue alone, or alone with a producer, or multiple actors and the producer will be on the call.
In this case, you might have the gift of having your colleagues on video. Use it. Organise your screen so that you can see them as well as your script. If you are able, position your webcam to show your face clearly. If you are not in a scene, mute your microphone. Be as present as your character.
Working with Yourself
Big Breaths and Whistling
Please do breathe. Normally and well supported. It may be that you have to take a big breath or exhale loudly in a way that you just know will be picked up too loudly. A little turn of the head on your breath will help. Similarly, if you need to whistle, do it at an angle so that you’re not directly blowing on the pop shield.
Speaking of extraneous noises, sometimes you will be given a paper script. Paper scripts rustle. You can mitigate this by scrunching up your script into a ball and then flattening it out. It will rustle less. However, you now have an uneven piece of paper and if you’ve got loads of these, they get everywhere and you’ll spend the session picking them up from the floor screaming ‘sorry!’ at whoever is nearest. For a longer script, learn to turn pages extremely gingerly. Or use a tablet. If you don’t yet have a favourite PDF annotator app, oh boy have I got an obsession for you.
This medium allows for both the largeness of stage and the small intensity of camera work. If you see lots of exclamation marks after your line, think about going quieter rather than louder. If you speak very closely to the microphone, the proximity effect will boost the bass notes in your voice and give a direct-to-audience voice-in-the-head feeling. This isn’t needed for everything, but it’s pretty cool.
Speaking of proximity, sometimes you will record the blocking live rather than have it all done in the edit. In these cases, arriving in a scene can be achieved by a little turn of the head into the microphone on your line. Distance will sound further than it is in recording so if your character is in the next room, you will probably be only a few steps away.
Audio plays weird mind games. That’s why it’s fun! Take advantage whatever your setup, even if you’re in an airing cupboard.