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How to solve common recording problems
Properly recording audio requires plenty of forethought and picking the right microphone is just the tip of the iceberg. You have to consider how uneditable common recording problems might arise. Whether you’re frustrated by those loud pop sounds that ruin your recording or notice dramatic bass increases at random intervals, we’re here to help solve the most egregious recording issues.
Editor’s note: this article was updated on April 19, 2022, to add a table of contents and FAQs.
Do you need a pop filter to record clean audio?
Pop filters can be good at reducing the effect of plosives and fricatives, which are pop and hiss sounds. Plosives have much to do with pressure and how air expulsion from your mouth impacts the microphone. Put your palm parallel to your mouth and say “papaya.” You should feel two bursts of air hit your palm as you enunciate the letter “P.” If you were to replace your hand with a microphone and record the sound, two spikes would show up in an audio editor.
Fricatives act a little differently. These sibilant sounds form when the tip of the tongue pulls toward the roof of the mouth and air is forced out. A good example of this is the word “check.” Generally speaking, s, z, sh, and zh phonemes all produce sibilant noises.
Demo of plosives:
Demo of fricatives:
While the presence of plosives and fricatives is aggravating, one preemptive measure can be made to avoid them altogether: get a pop filter. For $10 or less, this is a cost-effective solution that affords immediate results.
These can be mounted onto a desk or mic stand in a matter of seconds and work exactly as the name implies. The filter’s screen takes the brunt of the air escaping your mouth, so the pop is practically inaudible upon reaching the microphone.
Where should you place a mic to avoid the proximity effect?
The proximity effect is one of the most common recording problems that plague at-home and studio artists alike. It occurs as you speak closer to the mic, low-frequency sounds increase in volume. While this isn’t as detrimental to conference calls, it can negatively impact professional recordings—forcing you to spend more time processing your audio track. Some mics, like the venerable Shure SM58, minimize bass response to counteract the proximity effect.
An easy way to neutralize this effect is by speaking at a consistent distance from the microphone—six inches is a good rule of thumb. When recording, try not to sway too far toward or away from the mic. If all else fails, you can apply and tweak a high-pass filter in Audacity, or your digital audio workstation (DAW) of choice.
What’s more, make sure you’re speaking into the correct side of the microphone. This sounds silly but some mics, like the Blue Ember, require you to place the capsule even and parallel to your mouth, rather than speaking directly into the top of the grill. Proper microphone placement can greatly improve clarity and minimize distortion.
How can you prevent wind and cable noise when recording?
If you’re recording outside, your greatest enemy is the wind. Waiting out the weather is an option, but an unpredictable and inefficient one. Instead, you’re better off getting a dead cat. Don’t worry, it’s not as horrific as it sounds. The unfortunately-named dead cats are fuzzy windscreens with an acoustic foam interior. Sure, they won’t block out hurricane-level winds, but you should avoid recording in extreme conditions anyway.
Cable noise is another salient issue that you’re bound to run into. Depending on the type of recording you’re doing, there are a few solutions. If you’re conducting an interview with a lavalier microphone, you can run the wire under the subject’s shirt and use a little tape to keep it in place.
Your recording environment should be as controlled and quiet as possible.
For those who record from a studio, you may find your feet kicking against the wires. To prevent damage to your equipment and cable-knocking noises in your recording, get gaffers tape and run the excess cables along the floor. That way, you won’t be able to knock the cables around and your studio remains hazard-free.
Additionally, whether you record inside or outside, a good shock mount is a must. These reduce micro-vibrations. If you’re walking and recording this is imperative for a shotgun mic. Likewise, if you’re in the studio and speak with your hands. I’m guilty of doing so and often bump my desk which then jostles the boom mic. Yes, this leads to many re-recordings.
Does your microphone need external power?
Certain microphones require phantom power, which is just external juice to properly power the microphone. Most specification sheets denote whether or not a mic needs external power. In the case of condenser microphones, phantom power works two-fold: it drives the mic and polarizes the internal transducer. It’s an easy fix, as most audio interfaces include a phantom power toggle. You can even grab a separate preamp, which is a compact solution.
What is phase invert, and can it solve recording problems?
Do your drums sound kind of inaccurate, weak, or otherwise lacking something? You probably need to reverse the polarity on at least one drum track. You’ll find that switching the polarity (or inverting the phase—basically, the same thing) may improve the sound drastically.
A good rule of thumb is that if you’re miking the side of a drum that isn’t being struck, you probably need to reverse polarity. You can find reverse polarity switches on most audio interfaces, or in the mixer section of your DAW. Try it and see.
What’s the best way to treat a room for studio recording?
Depending on where you’re recording, your microphone may register outside noises and room echoes. While not everyone can afford to professionally soundproof their rooms, there are some affordable fixes available. You could invest in foam panels and bass traps but remember that this will only minimally improve the environment. If you really want to acoustically treat a room, you’re going to have to invest a lot of time and money into a long-term project.
Even though proper recording technique is often learned by means of trial and error, this guide should help you avoid the most common recording problems. There’s plenty to be aware of when recording people, too. If you’re not sure where to start, be sure to check out our best podcasting and YouTube microphone picks.
Frequently asked questions on how to solve recording problems
Whether you ought to use a condenser mic or a dynamic mic depends on many factors. For every rule of thumb, you can find exceptions, for instance, many vocalists use condenser microphones in the studio because these capture details extremely well. On the other hand, there’s the exception being the Shure SM7b, a very popular dynamic microphone that has been used to record singers too. If you plan on doing live performance, go with a dynamic mic.
If you’re recording quiet sound sources and you want to fully capture the nuances and the room tone, pick a condenser. Finally, if it’s a podcast you’re recording, you can make either type work, but if you’re in the same room as your companions and miking several people, pay attention to polarity and proximity effect to keep your audio clean.
Unless your current cables are fully busted, buying so-called better cables will have little to no effect on your audio quality. Check out our coat hanger experiment as evidence. There are better upgrades you can make, rather than spending on pricey cables, like buy a nicer microphone, or work on mixing techniques with what you have.