Here’s something many of us wish we’d learned sooner—professional audio quality doesn’t just happen on it’s own. It takes a little bit of know-how. But it’s also a lot of fun.
You might be surprised to discover that even with the same gear, your content doesn’t immediately sound like your favorite albums, streamers or podcasts—don’t sweat it. Audio production takes practice and even the most accomplished engineers learn new skills all the time.
In this article, we’ll explain how to make your USB mic sound better with some everyday solutions to remove background noise and improve the quality of your recordings.
SELECT THE PICKUP PATTERN FOR YOUR SITUATION
Many USB condenser mics, like the Yeti, are equipped with multiple pickup patterns (also known as polar patterns) that let you select the direction in which the microphone is “listening.”
This is useful because it lets you focus on a single source or record two or more sources without using multiple microphones. Better yet, choosing the best pickup pattern for your situation can eliminate those unwanted sounds that become post-production tasks later.
Here are the Yeti’s polar patterns:
In cardioid mode, the Yeti only picks up audio from sources directly in front of the microphone, thus reducing the background noise of noisy PC fans, HVAC equipment, construction and so on. Cardioid mics are typically used for voice overs, live streams, musical instruments, singing and speech for their ability to capture clear, direct sound from a single source.
Stereo mode captures separate recordings from both sides of the mic for detailed, realistic recordings with a wide soundstage. This is perfect for driving acoustic guitar strumming, stately grand pianos, and lively percussion. With its excellent separation of sources, stereo mode is also a great choice for recording singer-songwriter duos or a soloist with accompaniment.
Omnidirectional mode records in 360 degrees for those projects where you want to capture the natural acoustics of a space, as well as the activity happening within it. Try omnidirectional mode in video production, group interviews and ensemble recording—anything from school choirs to drone metal.
In bi-directional mode, the Yeti picks up sounds from the front and back of the mic simultaneously, but furiously rejects incoming sounds at the sides of the capsule. Figure 8 has the strongest side-rejection of any polar pattern, making it ideal for one-on-one interviews or for situations where microphone bleed must be kept to a minimum, like hi-hat leakage in a snare drum mic.
USE PROPER MIC PLACEMENT
It may sound too good to be true, but one of the best ways to fix common audio problems like pops, muffled low end or too much echo is to scoot the microphone backwards or forwards a few inches.
If you’re using a desktop stand, your microphone should ideally be positioned 6-12 inches from your face and angled slightly upward.
Issues like popping and muffled low end can be fixed by simply moving the microphone away from your face. If your recordings are washed out with too many echoes, bringing the mic closer emphasizes the direct sound of your voice while tuning out the rest.
USE A POP FILTER
If you’ve ever toured your local radio station, you probably noticed the microphones have quite a bit of hardware attached. Among these is one of the most crucial pieces of gear for broadcast-quality sound: a pop filter.
A pop filter is a permeable screen that rests in front of a microphone to prevent the popping sounds caused by “P,” “B” and other consonant sounds. To learn more about pop filters, check out our article here.
TREAT YOUR ROOM TO REDUCE REFLECTIONS
If your recordings sound thin and hollow and you’re struggling to contain unruly echoes, rearranging the furniture in your room could help quiet things down.
Ideally, your workspace should face the shortest wall of the room, with the longer walls to your sides. But this isn’t always convenient, so you might need to improvise and experiment to discover what works best for your room.
If you have the space, position your workstation away from the corners of the room to prevent echo build-up and avoid placing your speakers less than three feet from the wall to reduce reflections from behind.
You might be tempted to splurge on a bundle of those wavy foam acoustic panels, but before you do, consider making a Target run. Simply redecorating the areas behind your speakers and your listening position with a couch, rug, throw pillows, curtains or a bookcase can dampen echoes enough to do the job.
USE VOCAL EFFECTS
Adding vocal effects to your tracks is the final boss in pro audio. Most streaming apps and virtually all recording software include effects like equalization (EQ), compression and expansion that give you detailed control over the audio quality until it’s just right.
Equalizers (EQ) allow you to adjust the volume of individual frequencies within a sound. Using an EQ to turn down muddy bass frequencies or a nasal-sounding midrange can compensate for undesirable room acoustics.
A compressor is an effect that automatically adjusts the volume of an audio track for a consistent level. The compressor’s threshold tells the compressor at what level it should turn down. Ratio tells the compressor how much it should turn down once the threshold is reached. Controls labeled attack and release let the compressor know how quickly it should act once the threshold is reached and how quickly (or slowly) it should return to normal. If you’re the Chris Farley type of public speaker, a compressor can help you avoid distortion while keeping a reasonable level for the viewers at home.
Finally, an expander detects when you’re not speaking and automatically turns down or mutes the microphone. This reduces background noise and is much easier than manually muting and unmuting your mic on Zoom. It works similarly to a compressor, except that expanders act when audio levels drop below the threshold, rather than cross above.
Now that you know how to make a USB mic sound better, you’ll be able to produce broadcast-quality audio for your next project at home—and who knows, maybe you’ll find something cool at Target.
For more information about mic placement and technique, check out our music blog.