Why do the radio folks sound so much better?

We've all dialed up the radio star blaring through the car speakers, or tuned into NPR to hear the host almost speaking directly into our ears. Whether it’s Howard Stern or Ira Glass, there's that extra something something that seems to make their audio sound WAY better than ours. So what is it?

Well, there is the voice training, the high-end microphone, the awesome sound proofed studio, producer, and post production engineers. But if we can put all that aside for a moment, there is a part of the chain not mentioned here and often overlooked.

Whether you use a mixer, an analog/digital interface, or or any type of USB microphone, there is a built-in component that affects the volume (or gain) of the microphone's signal. This is called the preamplifier. Now for most this is simply a knob you turn to make the microphone "louder". For those with a bit more audio engineering background, it's a chance to manipulate and enhance the sound of your voice before it gets recorded.

 

The dbx® 286s microphone preamplifier.

Enter the secret weapon of broadcasters and savvy podcasters alike - dbx® 286s. There are dozens of great 'preamps' out there, ranging anywhere from $60 to multiple thousands. In today’s example, I’m looking specifically at an industry favorite, the dbx® 286s.

From the manufacturer’s literature: The dbx® 286s is a full featured Channel Strip Processor that delivers a studio quality microphone/instrument preamplifier and four processors that can be used independently or in any combination. Why mic up vocals and instruments through a noisy, blurry mixer? The sonically pristine dbx® 286s Mic Preamp has all the features you need, including wide-ranging input gain control, switchable +48V phantom power, and an 80Hz high-pass filter to remove low frequency hum, rumble or wind.

This sub $200 unit resides, for most, between the microphone and the analog to digital audio interface. For example, my signal chain is as follows: Shure SM7B Microphone > dbx® 286s > Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 > MacBook Pro. Notice that I have the preamp “driving” the microphone as well as preprocessing the signal ahead of converting it to digital audio for the computer.

Now this is where the unit really shines. Not only does the preamplifier sound great, it has plenty of juice to feed the gain-hungry SM7B. After the preamp, the signal is passed to the patented dbx OverEasy® compressor. Here we can really accomplish that “in your face” FM broadcast DJ sound, or dial it back to a warm, smooth NPR style close-mic compression. Next in the chain is a de-esser and enhancer. These controls (used sparingly) can round off the sharp edges of the signal, add a bit of ‘oomph’ to the bottom end, and a bit of sparkle to the top frequencies. Now that we have a big fat, warm signal, it’s time to kill some noise. The expander/gate is a powerful tool to tame the worst rooms. I personally use it two-fold: 1) as a noise gate to mute the channel when there is low or no input (in between speaking); 2) to cut off the echo of my given recording room. Last is the output before sending the signal via ¼ “ to the Focusrite.

Did I lose you? Not to worry. I’ll be showing you how to adjust all these yummy knobs in Part 2, so check back in a few weeks. For now, let your geek flags fly and know that there is a lot of power and sonic goodness in a small package, at a very reasonable price.

 

Don’t put the cart before the horse.

If you’re currently on a low-end microphone, like the Audio-Technica ATR2100 or another dynamic cardioid you picked up for under $100, a preamplifier might not be the best, next equipment investment. Stepping up your microphone quality first is a better way to go.

Consider podcaster favorites like the Shure SM7B or the Heil PR40 as the front of your signal chain. Either of these professional grade microphones connected directly to a nice USB interface such as the Focusrite 2i2, will give you incredibly improved sound over your USB microphone. See here, Podfly client and Podcast Producers co-host, Jessica Rhode’s new set up.

She went from the ATR2100 to the Heil PR40 and Focusrite preamp, and the difference is very noticeable.

So, the first step might be looking at getting a better microphone first. However, at $200 for this preamp, maybe you deserve to take the credit card out for a spin and get both. Hey, you’re worth it.

The sound quality of my podcast sounds so much better with the Heil PR40. The ATR2100 was a great mic, but a year and a half into my podcasting journey, the time came to up-level my game. I noticed that with the ATR2100, while my sound was clear, there was a bit of distortion in comparison to the Heil PR40, with which the sound is crystal clear
— Jessica Rhodes, Interview Connections/The Podcast Producers

 

It’s still all about the instrument (your voice).

Have you ever heard the phrase “you can’t polish a turd”? Crude, but true. This applies very well in the audio industry. There has always been a misconception in the record industry that studios somehow can magically make bad singers sound good. There must be some fancy equipment, computer software, and a little bit of fairy dust up the engineer’s sleeve that can make anyone instantly sound like Celine Dion. Not true.

Yes, there are ways to correct pitch and enhance aspects of the voice. But there is no “talent” switch, and definitely no “make me sound amazing” knob. All this incredible technology is designed to elevate the quality of something that is good in the first place.

Have you ever met someone and their voice simply floored you? They start speaking and immediately something in you says, “wow, you have a great voice!” Well, that’s not coming out of a $200 preamplifier.

Remember that upgrading your equipment can improve your audio quality. It cannot, sadly, improve your voice. That said, you wanna be sure to be making this purchase to improve what's already good, rather than try and fix what might be broken.

 



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