Audio Recording

Ever wanted to know something about working with audio i.e. sound, music, stuff you hear? Well, here’s a non-definitive but often detailed guide sharing some of the things we know that you may find useful.

The information below is a guide – opinion only. Inclusion and links in this page do not necessarily mean endorsement of any of the products, companies or any guarantee of their suitability or reliability!

1. MP3, CD, tape, vinyl etc2. Digital, analogue, studio music equipment
3. CD-Rs, mp3 and more4. Music software
5. Getting music into a computer and MIDI6. Some ways to use music
7. Some hints when producing music8. What is graphic EQ, compression, effects? Free downloads.
9. What about PA equipment and sound?10.Microphones, radio mics etc.
11. Recording sound, the options12. USB / bluetooth interfaces etc

CD, tape, vinyl, mp3/aac

There are increasing numbers of ways that audio is heard and produced on. The most common is digital audio formats like mp3, Apple’s AAC and other similar formats. These are what are used for downloading audio or music streaming services.

CD – Still a common format is CD which plays back digital sound at 44.1kHz at 16 bits. Basically the higher the bit-rate and the higher the kHz rate, the better the sound is and the nearer it is to the sound our ears hear in the world around us. When music is recorded today, it is recorded at a higher bit and sample rate than CD (eg 96kHz), and then ‘downsampled’ at the last moment to CD.

Tape – does not sound so good because it is analogue. Analogue is not as good as digital in terms of quality of sound so that’s why tapes do not sound as good as CDs. You are recording sound onto a piece of tape rather than onto a digital platform.

Vinyl –Many DJs believe that the sound created by mastering (or producing your track) to vinyl is more pure than the sound created by CDs. This is because some vinyl allows the sound to be cut ‘deep’ into it.

MP3 (or Apple’s AAC) – use compression techniques. So the sound is not necessarily as good as the same recording on CD. This is because compression means the sound is squashed and some frequencies, parts of the sound are cleverly removed to make the file size smaller. Some believe mp3s are as good quality as CD because the method of encoding (creating an mp3 file) is so sophisticated. Many would disagree saying that any compression of sound is bound to affect quality. The encoding method used by Apple and others (AAC) uses a similar process. There are debates as to what format (and the software used to encode the sound) is the best.

The advantage of mp3 is that file sizes are small (say 3.5MB – 7MB per song, as opposed to say 45mB – 70MB for a .wav or .aiff file used to burn songs to CD). MP3 players can download and upload songs from and into your PC using USB etc. MP3 players also store a lot of info (up to 40Gb = 10,000 songs) so you ain’t gonna run out of songs in a hurry! Be aware that due to the proprietary ways of encoding (Apple uses ‘AAC’, Windows uses ‘WMA’) sometimes these ‘mp3s’ don’t work on other software. So, for example, you can’t play WMA files on an iPod. But you can convert them to playable formats. Remember that different mp3 encoders have different qualities and bit-rates. Ahigher bitrate will mean a higher quality (and a larger file size). There are also different technologies used to create mp3s and some of these are of a higher quality than others.

Digital, analogue, studio music equipment

Thinking of buying some equipment on which to make music? There are many options, from digital pianos to synths to keyboards to soft synths (on you computer) to rack units to MIDI. What a minefield. Where do we start?

1. Digital Pianos. These emulate the sound of real pianos but are more portable. Many will also have extra sounds on them such as organ, strings and maybe even some styles like samba, pop, rock and so on which give you backing tracks in that music style and allow you to play along. Essential that you try these out before buying and consult. Good makes are Yamaha, Clavinova and Roland. Prices range from £600 to £6000! Essential that you get velocity sensitive keys – which means the harder you press down the key, the louder the sound!

2. Keyboards. And we’re talking two types. First there are the models you get in schools which are aimed at non-musicians and have funky features like backing tracks for different styles such as hip-hop, drum’n’bass, metal etc. These are only worth considering with a low budget, or who like 80s style cheesey backing tracks..

The main types of (semi-pro and pro) keyboards are the ones worth considering. These feature ‘sequencers’ which allow you to make music tracks by giving you lots of different sounds and parts. This makes your keyboard an all-in-one music production unit if you want it to be. Essential is the ability to change settings / record / connect via USB and play back MIDI sounds externally.

We use Nord Stage 3 (this new is just under £3000). Keyboards such as this are able to play back the varied sounds you’ll hear on worship songs / secular songs – from pads to pianos to old skool synths to synth lead sounds – see below.

3. Synths. Very similar to keyboards but my definition of them would be more as units that enable you to shape and create sound, rather than as all-in-one music production units – so they often don’t allow you to programme a song, as sequencers would. Examples include the Yamaha MO range, the Nord Stage range, the Yamaha MS range, the Novation Supernova etc. These units create mostly dance music and urban music sounds and often have lower polyphony and no sequencer. This means they have to be used as part of a sound setup not as the only part. Again, USB connectivity is essential.

Some setups will use a keyboard to play back the main sounds with a separate synth to play back lead synth riffs.

4. Rack Units. Now far less widely used. Are synths and keyboards that come in a unit but without a keyboard. They are often connected to and controlled from keyboards by MIDI (which we’ll look at below). The advantage here is that you can buy a keyboard and lots of units rather than lots of keyboards. These are often used in studios where space is at a premium or because they play back classic sounds.

5. Soft synths live on your computer and are accessed by connecting a keyboard via MIDI or USB to your computer, or you can use your mouse and keyboard to play the sounds on the computer meaning no external units are needed. These soft synths are often used with audio editing software. Examples of soft synths can be found within Apple MainStage, Reason, Ableton Live, Logic Pro X, Cubase, ProTools. Increasingly this is what is used because the sounds can be updated more easily and software exists beyond the sound itself so you can programme the sounds directly and upload.

6. Old skool all-in-one boxes. Not just a box but a box of sounds that can create music, has a sequencer but no ‘real’ keyboard but keys that work as a keyboard would. Examples of these are usually units for creating dance music on the fly. They are very good as cheap and basic units to learn and create on. Examples are the old but pretty cool Yamaha RM1X or the Korg Electribe, still a classic.

Encoding CD-RS, mp3 and more

Increasingly computers do not come with built-in CD/DVD players but these are still useful and used by adults who don’t use downloads / streaming, or in older cars with CD units.

CD-R burning (or CD-R creating) software is freely available online. These all work in different ways and can write CD-Rs at varying speeds. If you are recording audio, it’s recommended that you don’t record on very high speeds because recording can mean the CD-R skips in many standard CD players. You can also get special audio CD-Rs to record music. Never use CD-RWs (re-writable) to record audio.

The encoding process of CD-Rs (and indeed commercial CDs) means that you must convert your audio to 16 bit 44.1kHz sound otherwise you will not be able to ‘encode’ or ‘write’ your CD-R. If you are recording several bits of audio a tip is that you use a software programme to try and get the sound level of each track at a similar level. For CD-Rs to be encoded for Windows, produce .wav files. Mac CDs need to have .aiff, .aif files (these are the same). Wav and Aiff files are simply digital files where you don’t reduce the quality of the sound.

Music software

Comes in various forms and sizes! If you want some software to easily create some dance tracks then why not go for the ejay range of software. Other software includes Fruity Loops, Propellerheads Reason, Ableton Live, Logic Pro X and Mainstage for Mac (my choice for live playing).

Apple’s bundled ‘ilife’ software called ‘Garage Band’ is increasingly very helpful for ideas or even recording. This amazing bit of kit allows you to create and record (via MIDI or audio) a great number of sounds. You can increase tempo, change the key and more on the fly. It also has some amazingly warm virtual (software based) guitar amps to allow you to plug your guitar into the Mac and then create some amazing music. I use That Worship Sounds for Logic and Mainstage.

More serious software is for semipro and pro musicians to create, edit and shape sound in a much bigger way. Low cost versions of sequencing software include the free Audacity. These allow you to get sound into your computer and then process the sound by adding basic effects, changing volume etc.

More high-end software is Cubase, Logic Pro, Pro Tools and others. There are other pieces of software you can import into all of these digital audio workstations (DAWs) to do various other tasks such as add extra sounds, ‘master’ the audio etc.

If you are looking to produce more dance / electronic music stuff then Ableton Live and Propellerheads Reason are the way to go.

Getting music into a computer and MIDI

MIDI is a way of transferring digital information between digital devices such as keyboards and computers. The cool thing about MIDI is that it can also be used to control digital devices. For example you can operate and call-up sounds from your keyboard using Logic or any other MIDI software. You can control other aspects of sound as well. An advantage is that when you record audio into your computer it takes up a lot of space. When you bring in MIDI information, the sound is not physically stored on your computer but still on the keyboard. You can also manipulate the MIDI sound. However, if you want to use effects then you have to record sound into your computer as audio.

Another thing is General Midi (GM). These sounds are standard on most computers and keyboards and include a range of sounds like drums, piano and more. Although not great, these sounds can be very useful and are used to play back General Midi files which you may have come across (also known as SMF files, standard midi files). SMFs are songs people have written using the GM sounds. For example, someone may have remixed a Matt Redman or Graham Kendrick song on GM. You can either buy or download it, then play it back on your PC or save it to disk and put it into your keyboard then play it back from there. When loaded into your keyboard, because the basis of the song is there, you can adjust the GM sounds to create your own ‘remix’ of the song. This depends on how the MIDI file was saved. It is not always possible 

To get MIDI into your computer you will obviously need a MIDI connector. The main way is by getting what’s called a ‘system compliant’ USB-MIDI keyboard which should be just about every keyboard available. This is a keyboard that you plug into your computer and the MIDI signals are sent up and down the USB cable into and back from your computer. No other ‘drivers’ (software that allows the keyboard to work with your computer) are needed. Try M-Audio among other companies for this. MIDI keyboards offer varied options form basic to more advanced MIDI. All keyboards are now USB based.

MIDI transmits info between your keyboard and your computer. If you have a pro keyboard, you can record your MIDI information to your PC. This way of doing MIDI means that instead of saving audio files to your computer (which takes up space), you can just save information such as what sound the computer should play back, how and when (taking up much less space!!). If you are using your MIDI keyboard to access soft synths (sotware synths that live on your computer) then it is much easier to play back sounds rather than manually clicking on virtual notes on a virtual (computer based) keyboard via your mouse!

Another use for MIDI is for control of aspects of your music production. MIDI can control volume, pan (left or right speaker), the position of data sliders (which affect the sounds on your keyboard) and more. A common use in studios is to control and communicate with outboard (not software) digital mixing desks such as Steinberg’s Houston interface.

Getting audio into your computer is different. If you have a Mac you get a high quality stereo in and out connector built in. Basic interfaces allow you to record a couple of channels and often have a mic (XLR) specific channel.

If you need to get more than one input at a time, get specialised audio interfaces (eg from MOTU) which will enable you to record multiple tracks at once. 

Some ways to use music

1. Get clips of preachers and edit them to get the essential points.

2. Get clips of speakers and put music under them to create a good atmosphere. You can always do this live

3. Produce your own tunes and get them to sound semi-professional4. Remix Christian songs and then use them for worship with the young people. I’ve done hundreds of worship songs, either copying the originals or remixing them with dance music, breakbeat, trance, ambient, hip-hop, funky, Caribbean, rock remixes.

5. Empower your young people to both learn about using music software, and get them to produce their own music, record it and put it onto CD. Do this with your own music.

6. Do music and then put this over a video you have produced with the young people

7. Sync music and video together so that one compliments another. Do a song with lyrics and get the video to reflect the lyrics (we’ve done this with a remix of Slim Shady by Eminem). You can also do lip sync videos.

Some hints when producing music

1. Listen to professional recordings in the style of music you are producing in. How do they do it? On programmes like Logic Pro X you can use a ‘match EQ’ function which also copies the EQ patterns of commercial songs and allows you to copy that for your own song.

2. Use sounds that compliment each other and use different parts of the sound frequency and range. So a frequency range is the ‘bass to the treble’ sounds. Imagine a long line from left to right with the bass on the left and the sparkly high pitched sounds on the right. You don’t want everything to the left or to the right! When using EQ it’s usually better to cut rather than add EQ to something and usually sparingly.

3. Use panning (left and right) to help sounds stand out in a mix and give a stereo feel.

4. Poor equipment and poor recordings can’t be rectified by high quality software and mastering. Record things until they are as high quality as you can make them.

5. Thinks about levels of sound – how loud each track is. Mix them in as you would like, as feels right and as the professionals do.

6. Listen to your music on as many different mediums as possible, home stereo, car stereo, PA etc. to make sure the levels are correct

7. Listen for any clicks, pops, hisses, especially if you have recorded vocals then get rid of them!

8. Use graphic EQ, compression carefully on each track and then on the finished track if needed.

9. Try to avoid the sound being ‘muddy’ i.e. with little clarity – too much reverb can cause this.

10. Mix live instrumentation with sampled and electronic sound.

11. To make digital sound become less digital, to expand the mix and to make tracks stand out, think about using effects such as delay, reverb, compression, chorus, detune etc.

12. Try not to take one beat and simply loop it through a track. If you do this, remove parts of the drum beats at specific moments (perhaps before going into a chorus).

13. Think about how to build a track up so not everything kicks in at once.

14. Beef up bass drums and bass guitar by the two instruments ‘locking in’ together.

15. When using vocals a common technique is to have the same vocal panned both hard left and hard right on 2 separate tracks. Or overlay the 1 vocal sound onto 2 tracks to give more body. Or get the artist to record the same part twice and pan one mix left and one right. These kinds of techniques are also used on guitars, (especially acoustic ones) to bring real stereo feeling to the sound. Or use stereo spreader software.

16. Don’t just use the in-built keyboard sounds, tweak them and make them your own, distinctive sounds.

17. Using compression on bass guitars and drums gives a lot of ‘punch’. Vocals need compression. Look around online or use our guide to show the best settings for each instrument but don’t use too much!

18. Use reverb and chorus to add a bit of sparkle to your tune. Vocals should always have some reverb – the backing vocals should have more reverb than the lead vocal to help them ‘sit’ further ‘back’ in the mix (so they don’t sound as loud).

19. A good mic is essential. Use a recording type mic rather than a live stage mic (the basic Rode diaphragm micss are good). You will also need a standmount to clip the special mic clip onto the mic. These mics are sensitive so handle with care!

20. If two sounds seem to ‘clash’ in a mix (eg bass drum and bass guitar) then add a little bit of reverb to one of the sounds or a tiny amount of delay. This should help a little. 

Pray before you start!

What is Graphic EQ, Compression, Effects?

Graphic EQ – this is about the sound spectrum that you hear in music and the world around you. At its most simple it’s about bass, mid and treble. Most stereos and car stereos now have graphic EQs built in. These change the sound by altering different frequencies. It is important in studio and live sound for various reasons…

Studio sound – EQ alters the dynamics of an individual sound. It can add more bass or add more sparkle to the treble, without making it too harsh. It can reduce the muddiness of a mix, help eliminate the pop on a mic or subharmonic sound that isn’t necessary etc. It can also help certain parts ‘stand out’ in a mix. You can make vocals sound different, bring them to the front or rear of a mix. By recording instruments and vocals, and boosting or cutting around certain frequencies, you make sounds more clear. There are 2 types of eq – regular graphic EQs and parametric EQs. Parametric EQs are better and more advanced. When using other effects, use EQ first.

Live sound – much of the above is true for live sound. The other advantage of having a 31-band graphic EQ for live sound is the ability to get rid of feedback noise. What you do is create feedback by speaking into a mic (for example) then turning up the sound until it feeds back. As it feeds back, you cut out frequencies one by one until you get rid of the feedback. Don’t cut too many frequencies as you’ll lose the dynamic of sound. Cutting out feedback means the PA can go louder without feedback.

Examples of EQ-ing

Drag or copy the image below to your device or read on for the tips…

Cutting at 150Hz-300Hz (or up to 800HZ) may cut out muddiness from a mix. To give the mix more sparkle, boost at around 6kHz, 8kHz or 10kHz. Some pop producers give songs a big cut in EQ around 400Hz-4kHz. You can cut around here and increase around 4-8KHz to sometimes increase what’s called the ‘perceived loudness’ of a track.

Cut all the EQ on tracks below 25Hz to eliminate these deep sounds you can’t hear. This can act as a boost to bass. You can use a high pass filter to do this. This is essential on professional recordings.

Equally you can cut the higher frequencies on bassier instruments so they don’t take up ‘space’ in the mix – allowing more ‘space’ for instruments operating at those frequencies!

A kick drum ‘punch’ is around the 60-100Hz range. Cut between 200 to 2000 Hz if you find it’s a bit muddy. Snare drums have their depth around 150-400Hz with the 400-800 MHz range where you find the muddiness. With both snare and kick, around 2000 – 5000 is where you find the ‘thwack’ sound. Cut toms in and around 100 to 300 Hz if they’re too boomy.

Bass guitars and kick drums often share the same ‘EQ’ space, so find the sweet spots of each and then do a boost of EQ on one and a cut of EQ on the other in the same frequency (e.g. 100 Hz). The fundamentals and bass of bass guitar are around 50-180Hz. Around 180 – 300 Hz you can cut a bass if too boomy.

Acoustic guitars can be cut (when playing with a full band) in the 100-200Hz area and below as they can muddy the mix. The 200-400 Hz range can generally be left with some small boosts in the 2000 Hz / 7000 Hz to add some sparkle.

Electric guitars can often be left pretty flat when doing the EQ. All the lower end (sub frequencies) can be cut completely with a high pass filter. The main part of an electric lives from 150 Hz to 1000Hz. The 1000 – 2000 Hz area can be cut a bit with some ‘air’ added at the high end of the EQ if wanted.

Pianos / organs / synths have varied EQ. In worship these are often played with one instrument, so get your keyboard player to play back all the sounds they are likely to use. Make sure that any bassy sounds (often found on organs or even pads) don’t clash with the bass, so you may need to cut anywhere from the 80 to 500 Hz frequency.

Vocals are unique to each person and to the mic they are using. You may find a Shure SM58 works fine for one person, the SM58 beta for another and a Sennheiser mic for someone else. Often singers carry their own preferred mic (also means only their ‘spit’ is on there!)

In terms of vocal EQ, you can cut everything below at least 100 Hz. You may also need some cuts up to 500 Hz on a speaking mic as this is where the ‘pops’ are often found. Around 1000 Hz is where you may need to boost to get the singer to ‘stand out’ or around 3000 Hz to add presence. To help reduce sibilance (the ‘ssss’ sound on vocals), cut around 4-8Hz, depending on the singer’s or speaker’s voice.

Overall, use EQ sparingly.

Compression – this is about what it says, compressing the sound, reducing the difference between the loud and soft parts of a song. There are many benefits to compression. The ‘tight’ bass drum or bass sound you hear on all tunes is partly through excellent compression. It gives a punch to sound. Compression is also essential on vocals to maintain a consistency in volume of sound and to aid the overall vocal sound. Compression will aid in levels as evening up the overall levels of the song means you can boost the volume further, to maximise the sound, without distorting the song.

Basic idea is a ratio of say 2:1 will compress the signal to twice the input signal. The threshold setting is the level at which compression kicks in (so -19db will allow more sound through than -3db). The attack is how quickly the compression acts on the signal so if it’s 0ms or automatic it will be almost instant. The release (also called decay) is how quickly the settings are released from the initial action on the signal. So, a faster setting will mean the compression decays quickly, 10ms will allow a little bit of time before the compression is released. Hope that makes sense! 

Easy compression settings

For brief help, compress drum tracks at ratios of 5:1 to 8:1, set attack to 5ms, release (decay) to 10ms and the threshold at around -15 to -19db. For vocals compress at say 4:1 (though you may go higher with the compression ratio), set the threshold at around -3db (though you can increase this) and attack and release to automatic or lowest setting. For the whole track try ratio 2:1, attack and release at fastest/auto and the threshold at -5db to -9db. If you want to only use compression over the whole track, not individual tracks. Just experiment and see. 

Other Effects – to add a bit of sparkle, experiment with effects, especially if you have a software based system. Use reverb on vocals (always, to some extent) to give presence. Not too much else the mix becomes muddy. You can also add reverb to a whole mix of a song (to all the tracks) to give it life. Adding chorus can also do this. If you want to cut EQ on part of a track that is ‘muddy’ use a good graphic EQ – then if you have the tool, boost the frequency that’s been cut with reverb. So, you cut (reduce) EQ at say 400Hz – 2 KHz. Then add some EQ at 400Hz – 2KHz.

Other good tools are multiband compression, stereo/aural exciters and various mastering effects to give your mix that more professional sound. If you are serious about mastering (producing ‘finished’ tracks) then seriously consider mastering hardware devices or software plug-ins from Waves (http://www.waves.com) etc. All these are expensive but expand and excite the sound amazingly. They also maximise the ‘perceived loudeness’ of a song. So if you put a professionally mixed sound against your well-recorded mix you’ll find your song sounds a little less bright and not as loud.

What about PA equipment and sound?

Need to buy some PA (public address) equipment to add volume to your work or to enable you to have a band etc? Here’s some tips, tricks, hints and ideas for you..

For more on choosing a PA and setting up a PA, click on the left menu for our specific guide or click here… 

A PA setup will include 2 speakers, a power amp (to power the speakers), a mixer (to allow you to input lots of channels of sound and instruments) and the connecting leads. It may also include sub-bass speakers, graphic EQ, effects units, speaker stands and foldback monitors (the things on the front of stages that allow artists to hear themselves and the music).

A good option to consider is using WiFi mixers from Mackie or by Behringer. These will allow you to use an iPad as your mixing desk and come with effects. They are slightly more pricey than a regular mixer but gives you the flexibility to move around the room and do the sound via iPad over WiFi (a WiFi signal that is put out by the desk and doesn’t rely on you having a general WiFi signal).

For your speakers, don’t scrimp on quality. If speakers are cheap it’s because they’re nasty! Prices will be higher for better quality electronics. Smaller speakers won’t generally sound as good as bigegr units (which allow the sound more ‘room’. Consider makes such as Mackie, Yamaha, RCA, EV, DB Technologies, JBL etc. Powered speakers are simpler to use (you don’t need a power amp) but will be heavier.

If using passive speakers, you’ll need something to power them. Always get a decent power amp that will give you more power than your speakers handle, but one that has a cutoff should things start to clip and get too loud. This is to make your sound as efficient as possible and in case you want to add sub-bass speakers that will also need powering.

Mixer – A high recommendation is the outstanding and very high quality Mackie, Soundcraft or Allen & Heath if you have lots of dosh. Behringer do a wide range of products, mainly copies of other products. For occasional use, Behringer can be cost effective but reliability on many Behringer products is a real issue (their Wifi range excepted). A more expensive option is to go for a digital mixer (better sound quality and more options). Consider getting one with effectrs built in to use reverb with vocals especially.

Foldback monitors are also a great idea – or in-ear units. Without these, the artist on stage can find it very difficult to hear the sound as the main PA speakers should always be positioned in front of them to minimize feedback. (You can use in-ear monitoring instead but it’s expensive!) Speaker stands can help – get ones with pins to lock the speaker stands to keep them safe from falling. Graphic EQs are a good idea – get stereo 31 band ones – again, they are commonly available. Behringer do a wide range of well-priced products to help you with live sound. Separate effects/reverb, noise gates or compression unit(s) also make a significant difference.

When using a mixer, make sure you get the input levels into the mixer at their optimum point and then leave space on the mixer faders for the ability to increase the sound if need be. Try to keep levels under the red lights on the mixer. Having a mixer with sub-groups can help. These are useful for example if you have 2 bands say on at different times. Instead of turning down all the faders belonging to that band, you assign the faders at a sub-group and then turn down the subgroup faders. Easy!

Cables – Get the very cables and leads that you can. Remember that Jack leads lose quality over lengths of 10m and will be subject to potential radio interference. Using balanced jack leads (as opposed to the cheaper ‘unbalanced’ leads), or preferably XLR leads will solve this problem. But don’t scrimp on your costs. With home hi-fi, it’s recommended that at least 10% of the budget goes to cables. The minimum is same for your PA. You will save yourself a lot of time and trouble if you buy quality cables.

Try to use right lengths of cables – not too short so there is stretch and that it becomes dangerous and a trip hazard. But not too long!

Microphones, radio mics etc.

Like everything, buying a mic involves getting what you pay for! You pay cheap you get nasty! You pay good you get quality! My recommendation is the Shure SM58 microphone for most stage and vocal usages (or the more pricey SM58 Beta). They both have a great sound, is used by many professionals and most importantly is got a rugged construction. The varied Sennheiser ‘E’ range is also very good (the high end of this range out-performs the SM58 but is more expensive).

There are many different kinds of microphone ‘patterns’ (the patterns of sound the mic picks up). First there is an omnidirectional mic. As the name suggests, the ‘omni’ means ‘all’ so the mic will pickup sounds from all sides of the microphone. Obviously, these will pick up lots of other sounds around the mic that you may not want (called ‘ambient noise’).

There are other mics called ‘unidirectional’ mics. These come in different shapes and forms (called ‘cardioid’, ‘supercardioid’ or ‘hypercardioid’). Unirectional means that the mic only picks up sound from specific directions. So, unlike the omnidirectional mics, the unidirectional mics will not pick up sound coming from ‘behind’ the mic, but only the immediate area in front of the singer’s mouth. The main ones are called ‘cardioid’ mics (such as the very good and very famous Shure SM58). These reject a lot of the other sound from around the mic (unwanted sound coming into a mic from other sound sources is called ‘bleed’). The supercardioid and hypercardioid mics are much better where there are lots of other instruments or sound sources, as they have a much ‘tighter’ (narrower) pick up pattern. This means that even less other sounds can ‘bleed’ through into the mic. 

The reason why it is important to avoid ‘bleed’ from one sound source into another is twofold: firstly, it can cause feedback (the high screeching, whistling sound), and secondly, if you are recording or wanting a high quality sound, it keeps each sound ‘clean’ and free from other ‘ambient’ noise. 

Within these mics listed above, there are basic microphone ‘transducer’ types: dynamic and condenser. A ‘transducer’ is the way that a microphone works to pick up the sound. Don’t worry about how these work. However, dynamic mics are much better for live work with vocals and big sounds. Like the SM58, they are rugged and can take a lot of knocks and keep on working! Condenser mics are more sensitive, and need something called ‘phantom’ power to work. These can be found on mixer desks and will need to be switched to ‘on’ for a condenser mic to work.

The larger diaphragm condenser mics are the ones you find in recording studios. These provide very real and excellent upgrades in sound for singers and for instruments. These are the mics you see ‘popstars’ and recording artists using in studios – and are more expensive and better quality. These give a wider, more balanced dynamic range and give a warmer sound generally than stage mics which are designed to ‘cut through’ the frequencies at a live gig.

Bear in mind the SM58 is what’s called a ‘dynamic cardioid’ mic which means it picks up sound near the mic only. Other vocal mics are what’s called ‘hyper-cardioid’ which means that you need to be nearer still to the mic. The advantage with these is that because you sing nearer to the mic, you give off and get less feedback.

Other mics you may see are ‘gooseneck’ mics (the twisty ones you see in traditional pulpits), ‘rifle’ or ‘shotgun’ mics which point towards a subject and mostly shut-out extraneous sound to the left and right (for example say you were filming and recording an owl up a tree and wanted to hear only the owl. Take note these do not ‘fire’ the sound forward, they are just direction specific), and ‘boundary’ mics, which you can put on the floor and it picks up the sound from around it (these are of course omnidirectional and usually fairly average quality).

Radio Mics come in varied formats. There is a ‘free frequency’ range of UHF mics which operate (as of March 2019) in the 863 – 865 MHz range. This is a free to use frequency range but it therefore means other people may be using that frequency range so you may get some weird noises or feedback! There is also a 2.4GHz range of mics which is also free but this is the range that bluetooth devices use, mobile data uses and some WiFi networks use.

You can then get wireless mics in frequency ranges for static venues and ranges where your mic isn’t just used in one venue. These are paid-for frequencies that you can choose (if using in varied venues) or can be given (if in a fixed venue). For both, you must legally register the mic and then pay a license fee to OFCOM yearly or bi-annually.

Then your options are handheld mics, lapel mics or headset mics – depending on your needs. If you do get a headset mic, go for an unobtrusive ‘skin coloured’ headset.

Quality makes include Shure, Sennheiser and Audio-Technica.

Recording sound, the options

There are 2 options when recording. Do you want to record everything onto one track or do you want the ability to record individual tracks so you can edit the sound levels at a later stage? The second process is what’s used to get live recordings at big worship events. The process usually involves going away and editing, adding, even replacing sound.

To record live, either use a laptop or a hard disk recorder (or both!) If recording multi-track you’ll need a specialist audio unit (such as from MOTU) or you can also use mixers. Many mixers now have USB which is able to record multiple tracks to your DAW (on your laptop) simultaneously.

The advantage of recording sound live properly is that you can record individual channels. So, for example, you have a band with drums, 2 guitars, 1 bass and 2 singers. Each of those will have an individual ‘channel’ on the mixer. So, you would need a recording unit that would have at least 10 channels on it. Each of those 10 channels would have given you the ability to independently record each channel. This would enable you to change the levels, the EQ and the overall sound on the recording, once you had recorded the sound. 

Sound and USB / bluetooth / wireless connectivity

At my church, both the sound and the words are controlled via an iPad which connects to the mixer / projector wirelessly.

The outstanding Mackie (and the less but cheap Behringer) both produce mixers that can be controlled wirelessly by an iPad. This gives the operator the ability to be anywhere in the room and doesn’t limit them to sitting behind a PA desk! This also frees up space in the room (no laptop or computer needed for words either).

If you are considering buying a PA for live sound in a church context, this is increasingly an option to consider.

I also run a bluetooth speaker in smaller venues to keep music going while I turn off the main speakers and pack down!

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