As a followup to Fred’s 2019 Podtales workshop on mic technique, here follows a bunch of resources and examples to help illustrate the microphone choices one faces when recording audio drama.
It was an honor to have Dagaz Media be invited to the inaugural Podtales conference in Boston to offer a workshop on microphone technique. Our goal with the workshop was to bring some gear into the room and illustrate that microphone choices are the audio fiction equivalent of paint brushes, or camera lenses. Microphones all have unique properties and there rarely is a ‘wrong’ choice — just different choices that vary depending on the context, resources available to the creator, and subject matter / tone of their piece.
Too often, I see creators whose mic choices are limited to the most basic USB audio interfaces… And while that’s an OK way to get started, I would like to encourage us all to dream bigger, and also make the argument that it’s really not cost-prohibitive to try out some more interesting ways to record (e.g. YES while you can spend $2,500 on mics in a heartbeat, you can also record stereo and binaural with rigs that are well under $500, with incredible results).
I have been blessed with the opportunity to work with some extremely kind, generous, and amazingly talented mentors in the audio fiction space and seen that there is no wrong way to do any of this, just a myriad selection of RIGHT ways. You can record on location. You can record in the studio – with actors looking at each other… Or not. Or even, dare I say it, when actors aren’t in the same place at the same time (though I personally dislike this approach to recording, I think it’s possible to execute well especially if you put some work into ensuring there is some modicum of consistency across recording environments and record the actors in real-time together).
This piece is not intended to be an exhaustive breakdown of every kind of way that an audio drama can be recorded, but more to illustrate from how moving beyond basic functional recording setup allows us to think about mic technique as a creative tool to employ, rather than technical obstacle to overcome.
High-level, we explore three different ways to record a show:
- Multiple mono mics – the most obvious and classic way to record an ensemble cast in studio.
- X-Y stereo mic – the “BBC way” and also a great way to record on-location.
- Binaural stereo mic – this so-called “3d audio” method dates back 50+ years but still sounds incredibly immersive and convincing… on headphones.
Shout out to Dagaz Media
You’ll see me jump around a lot between I/me and We/our in this piece. The workshop at Podtales was sponsored by Dagaz Media, which is the parent audio company formed by me and audio co-conspirator and dear friend, William (Bill) Dufris, as Dagaz Media. Bill was not able to make it to Boston for our workshop due to medical reasons, but he generously lent a bunch of microphones from his studio so that we could pull the workshop off, and also has been instrumental in iterating on the various recording methods over the years we’ve worked together — Locke & Key, The Dark Tome, The X-Files, Expeditionary Force: Homefront. When you see we/our I’m talking about the results of my professional collaboration with Bill / Dagaz Media, when you see I/me it’s a Fred Greenhalgh personal opinion… And if the two occasionally seem to bleed into each other, it’s only because Bill is such a close collaborator it’s hard to tell who is who and which is which sometimes!
There is quite a lot to dig into here beyond just a blog entry and some clips. We decided to ‘open source’ one of the original session files from Dark Tome as well as all providing the raw audio from Podtales, so you can really get a sense of how the cake is baked!
See this Dropbox folder to download the resource kit: http://bit.ly/podtales-workshop
- Script – Sample scene from The Dark Tome, Season 2, Episode 9 (DT S2E9)
- ProTools Session including PodTales recordings as well as stem tracks from the original scene in DT S2E9
- ProTools Session from the original scene in DT S2E9
- Raw audio for all of the above so you can play around with the raw audio even if you don’t have ProTools
- Final mix of the sample scene from DTS2E9
Also see this supplementary video where Fred walks you through what’s in the resource kit!
In-depth breakdown of the various mic’ing techniques and why I chose to illustrate them for PodTales:
Multiple Mono Mics (RØDE NTG-2)
Perhaps the most obvious way to record a group of actors is to give each actor their own microphone and have them read their lines into it. Within this model there are still about a bazillion decisions to be made… e.g. shotgun vs. cardioid microphones, how do you orient the actors in the space with one another, or even do you try and break the actors apart entirely (e.g. Big Finish for all of their dramas records in a unique studio where actors have their own booths).
My personal take is that it’s really nice for actors to have sightline with one another so that they can see and respond to the other actors within a scene. We like to get the actors to physically act out a performance as much as possible – so even though movement is limited by this approach (e.g. if actors wander off-mic that’s generally a problem) we still want to see them express some of the physical aspects of their performance even when stationary so that the sense of movement is captured. We also generally instruct actors to continue to be ‘in the scene’ even when they don’t have lines… e.g. there will be little bits of reactions, overlaps, etc. when an actor is still in the scene and hearing another person’s lines, even if something isn’t scripted. These noises risk sounding campy so you also need to temper that with the direction ‘less is more.’
From a technical perspective, what you get are nice clean tracks which you can do a lot with in post. You can orient and re-orient actors in the stereo field using stereo panning or even binaural plugins. You can also much more easily splice together parts of takes, so if an actor fluffed their line in one take, you might be able to fix it with another take. Also, especially if you use a tight shotgun mic with limited room pickup pattern, you can endure slightly less ideal recording conditions since the mics may forgive a boxier or boomier room.
Anyhoo, here’s our cast running through this Dark Tome scene on multiple mono Mics:
Pros of Multi-Mic:
- Most flexibility in post-production.
- Lots of choices… shotgun, cardioid, etc. and price points for various mics starting at ~$50/each up till.. a shocking amount of $$/each 🙂
Cons of Multi-Mic:
- For all but the simplest of shows, you’ll need a more complex audio interface than a simple 2-channel rig. Possibly a mixer mixed down to stereo, or even better, a rack piece of equipment with 4+ inputs and multitrack recording.
- The amount of ‘stuff’ in the way can inhibit performer’s ability to interact with others and get in the way of creating a real human moment.
- More time involved in post-production because you need to make a bunch of decisions about how a scene will lay out and how to work performances into the stereo field.
Stereo (X-Y) Mic (RØDE NT-4)
Another way of recording actors in studio, or on location, is to enter the world of stereo. Many BBC dramas are recorded this way, and… actually for masterful effect see this clip of Dirk Maggs producing a scene for Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy where you see both multi-mic and stereo mic technique used in a single clip: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p061m3yq
The advantage of Stereo is multi-fold.
First, you can start working with staging actors and action. i.e. a scene involves two actors grappling with one another, you can actually have them doing that. It also works really well when you have a whole crowd of voices and you want to convey that sense of breadth and depth in a scene. Actors coming in/off mic almost always sounds more convincing when recorded in stereo than when you try to achieve that effect in post.
Of course, to suggest that ‘stereo’ is a single thing, is completely incorrect. There are myriad ways to record stereo tracks and pros and cons for each respective technique. For purposes of this workshop, I chose to use the RODE NT-4 microphone, a rather unique microphone that offers X-Y stereo recording in a matched pair mounted onto a single body microphone.
The RODE NT-4 is a workhorse of a microphone… I’ve used it extensively mostly for location recording, going back to the very first we did (Dark Passenger) and then for Waiting for a Window and The Troll of Stony Brook before going on to use it for Seasons 1 and 2 of The Cleansed.
While a relatively bulky mic, the RODE NT-4 sounds delightful and can be utterly convincing on location. Its bulk, however, does make it a bit more clunky to carry around and more subject to handling noise than our current rig, the Sanken CSS-5. In studio, of course, this is not so much an issue!
There is a whole workshop just on effectively using stereo — e.g. mono compatibility, X-Y vs. M-S vs. ORTF vs. other methods, mic placement, etc. — but in short this can be a really interesting way to get convincing, life-like performances captured with an economy of effort IF you have great source material to begin with.
It should be noted that several common prosumer recorders– The Zoom H1n, H2n, H4n, H5, and H6 for example — ship with X-Y stereo recording built-in mics out of the box.
Pros of Stereo Recording:
- Actors can move around and be more ‘present’ in a scene
- Mic, if mounted to boom pole, doesn’t have to remain in a fixed location
- Incredibly convincing if brought on location
Cons of stereo recording:
- Fewer options in post – e.g. how you stage a scene, you’ve essentially committed to that placement in post
- More difficult to splice takes together
- Captures a bit more of the room sound, which may be desirable in location recordings but unwanted in studio recordings
Binaural Mic (3Dio)
Binaural recording is a specific method of stereo recording deserving of its own section because of its novelty and unique opportunities for creative expression.
A binaural recording is stereo – two mic capsules – but the unique part about it is that the mic capsules are omni-directional, and placed in a dummy head or similar housing that mimics the human ear canal. The magic trick accomplished by recording in this manner, is that recordings that are captured in binaural, when played back in stereo, using headphones, will sound 3-dimensional.
It’s a little hard to really convey what it means to hear in 3-dimensions using only two channels (Left and Right) so you best listen on to the following clips to see what I’m talking about. Or, to really freak yourself out, check out this production of STICKS by ZBS which was recorded in Binaural.
If the results of Binaural are so cool, why isn’t it more common?
Well, the trouble with this form of recording is that as soon as the mix is played back on loudspeakers (rather than headphones), the 3d effect is completely eliminated. Worse, because of the sonic phenomenon called ‘feathering,’ there is phase cancellation of the stereo playback which results in dialogue and other effects sounding kind of weird. So, what is a gorgeous, beautiful, and immersive mix on headphones, can end up sending like crap when played back on speakers. Bummer!
As mentioned above, there have been some really interesting experiments with 3d audio over the years (Stephen King’s THE MIST in 3d sound by ZBS is a classic!!!) but because of the desire for mixes to sound OK on speakers, and no practical way to offer separate mixes for separate contexts, it’s remained a fairly fringe recording technique… though it’s currently enjoying a bit of a resurgence. Check out works by The Truth and The Owl Field.
While the mic used in this demo is fairly price ($1,299) you can get more affordable earbud-style binaural mics if you just want to play around. What happens if you hang out in the subway with binaural mics in your ears instead of earbuds? What crazy weird things might you hear in the woods, or on the beach?
Pros of Binaural recording:
- 3dimensional effect not achievable with other forms of recording
Cons of Binaural recording:
- Weird things happen when played back on stereo
Getting Weird with Binaural
To speak to the ‘let’s try some weird stuff’ side of this all, let’s talk about how you do creative things with mic placement… as in this idea that KC Wayland had us try out at Podtales!
Here, we took the binaural mic, spun it around and around and around in circles while KC chanted in Latin. Ummmm yeah… you just gotta kinda hear it for yourself!
*** NOTE: As we said above, this effect only really works well on headphones, ideally high-quality ones in a quiet environment. This is NOT the average listening environment of today’s podcast listener, but dangit, can’t audiophiles get stuff made for them, too?!?! ***
Go forth, make cool stuff, and let me know how it pans out!!! And don’t miss the Dropbox full of goodies for digging deeper into this, link back at the top.
I even included the entire mix of the original Dark Tome episode, inclusive of sound design and music mix, which gives you an idea how one of my finished shows comes together (this one has a hybrid of field-recorded primary dialogue that dissolves into studio recordings when we transition from our world to hell through a demonic portal).
Original Release Mix of this Sample Scene:
Don’t forget to jump over to Dropbox and grab the resource kit that goes with this, so you can hear all the differences in clips yourself, and even better, break apart the ProTools session and see how one of these shows is made!
Dropbox link: http://bit.ly/podtales-workshop