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How to Record a Spoken Word Album on the Cheap

How to Record a Spoken Word Album on the Cheap

It probably conjures up images of off-time poets and beret-wearing beatniks, but the spoken word genre has very quietly come a long way since the days of bongos and acid-soaked political discourse.

With the rise of podcasting and internet radio, there's never been greater demand for the human voice, and as more people move beyond the conventional straight-talk of online talk shows and into a more artistic presentation of their words, conversations, and ideas, it's become more fashionable and viable to commit the spoken word to record both for posterity and for repeated listening.

Unlike a typical broadcast, crafting a proper recording of dialogue, recital, or readings requires slightly more technical intervention to ensure a lasting and repeatedly listenable end result. The focus on vocal delivery, often unaccompanied, complicates the process considerably but luckily doesn't have to mean breaking the bank. The key determinant to the process and cost associated with a spoken word album is whether the vocals will be accompanied by some sort of ambient or instrumental tracks, or whether they will stand on their own. In either case, the single most important element of your entire recording rig will be the microphone and preamp combination the vocals run through, as the vocals should be the star here. Most professional studios use something along the lines of a Neve preamp and Neumann microphone, but those configurations can run into the tens of thousands of dollars. What's more, that's not including the additional console, processors, and performance space which can literally cost millions of dollars just to rent.

For most performers, simpler and cheaper solutions are needed, and luckily modern technology has not left human voice capture behind. Possibilities range almost endlessly in price and complexity, but a few cheaper combinations should prove more than capable. For the absolute bare-bones, rock bottom, shoestring performers, it's possible to forego almost all of the expense associated with recording. Using the sound card in your home computer along with a freeware recording package such as Audacity, along with a cheap computer mic from any of the major electronics retailers, the whole process can be completed for under five dollars. Keep in mind that, although highly capable and fully-featured, Audacity lacks many of the high-end reverb and echo tweaks that create the warmth and fullness of vocal recordings captured by professionals. Also keep in mind that standard computer sound cards and five dollar microphones have an extremely high level of built-in noise and signal distortion, and will seriously hamper your recording's fidelity - a problem which will only be magnified if there's no musical accompaniment to at least mask some of the background noise picked up by the mic.

A slight upgrade that (hopefully) won't destroy your bank account is to go with a low-end single-channel preamp and condenser mic combination. The Shure SM57 and SM58 have become among the de facto standards for all manner of vocal recording due to their high dynamic range and low signal distortion, and can be found for around a hundred dollars new or around fifty used. Many preamps require a professional-grade sound card to fully capitalize on their signal strength and range, but it's possible to get around this by using a USB-based preamp instead. Single-channel USB preamps, such as the Audio Buddy by M-Audio or the MXL Mic Mate, are available used for under fifty dollars, and will increase the quality of your recorded sound exponentially.

The blessing and the curse of employing a more sensitive microphone is that you are now more capable of capturing a fuller range of sound, but that your rig is now also more sensitive to ambient noise coming from the space or room you're recording in. In some cases, this may be advantageous, such as recording in a city against a backdrop of faint traffic noise or outdoors with a subtle nature soundtrack, but in most cases the goal is for the words to stand on their own, and this is where you'll really need to get creative. While it's entirely possible to build a soundproof iso (short for isolation) booth, this requires a significant amount of time, carpentry skill, and cash outlay for soundproofing materials to build what is essentially an entire self-contained room. The next-best option then is to experiment with recording in different rooms of your home and seeing how their sizes and shapes affect your raw recordings; while it's true you can try to "fix it in the mix," all the free software in the world won't make up for poor tracking.

First things first, you'll need to eliminate as much background noise as possible. Fans, heating and air conditioning units should be shut off entirely, as should any audible clocks. You'll also want to have your microphone as far away from your computer as possible so as to avoid adding hard drive or fan noise to your tracks. Unless ambient sounds from the outside world are desired, all windows and doors should be shut and sealed. And while this may sound like a cool idea, it's important to keep in mind there will be huge inconsistencies in the ambient noise unless you manage to record everything in one take.

With your recording space now as quiet as possible, it's time to start exploring your options. A common substitute for a full iso booth (although one not recommended for claustrophobes) is to use a standard-size closet, as the closeness of the walls creates a natural reverb effect. The smaller recording space also minimizes the possibility of noise created by simply moving around. It may sound odd, but bathrooms are another common improvised vocal booth. The thicker materials in wall and shower construction create a much darker, denser reverb effect that may work better for your project - just don't even think about turning on the water.

This raises another important point to keep in mind: because it is only vocals carrying this recording, it is of the utmost importance to be conscious of the things like breathing, coughing, scratching, et cetera, that your body does naturally. Your recording software will allow you all the editing capabilities in the world, so there's no reason to worry about starting lines or sentences over, or pausing mid-paragraph or mid-stanza to let the body right itself. Bear in mind that you'll need to maintain a consistent distance from the microphone, and that you'll also want to record elements of the same track or piece in a relatively close timeframe to each other, as these will at least ensure the "sound" of the room remains the same; it may not be flawless, but consistency will go a long way in making your words more listenable.

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