Sleepytime New Year

Here we are in 2021. I inaugurated the New Year in bed, reading. At one point, I checked the clock, it said 12:04, I rolled over and went to sleep and woke up 10.5 hours later.

Another month, another cancer update: blood are stable, side effects are basically stable, except holy shit am I tired. I think I felt like this at the end of last fall too, so it’s not a big shocker or anything. But the way the drugs multiply my fatigue and sometimes end my days when I don’t want them to is my current biggest complaint. The hand pain no doubt contributes to it some days as well.

My 2020 was better than lots of people’s. My main affects were horror at the state of the world and gratitude for my relative privilege given what things could be like. Sometimes I was angry. Sometimes I was happy. I know people who have had people close to them die of Covid–but I’ve been lucky that way. I have plenty of friends and acquaintances who lost jobs, job opportunities, or other access to income because of Covid. It fucking sucks.

I am fortunate. I have a steady job and income, good healthcare, the ability to properly socially distance, and a good home life with Carrie and the cats. Given the alternatives, I was glad to be teaching online, and all things considered it went as well as I could have hoped for. I also learned some new skills, producing at time 2 podcasts a week for my students. I’ve been giving the old landline a good workout, and it gets me into a comfy chair, usually near a cat, and away from the screen. The other thing I got good at it not working at designated times. I took days off because I needed to for both physical and mental health. That is a skill I’ve been developing over time, but Covid forced me to really build proper boundaries around my time, lest I always be available for everything, while simultaneously trapped in my (admittedly, very comfortable) apartment.

The downsides are predictable: I miss lots of things about being able to go out in the world — friends, playing music with my two pre-pandemic bands, shopping in the neighbourhood, etc. As an academic I have lots of experience working from home but working entirely from home definitely is not for me — there were more than a few times where I felt like things were invading my domestic space that I would normally keep outside it. Boundaries are good, it turns out.

I do worry about the world that we will re-enter at the end of the pandemic, though. Not because of the “everything has changed” but because of the insufficiency of our institutions and relationships. More on that another time.

My resolution for 2020 was to “press record” more and while I did, I didn’t do it as much as I planned. It was a good musical and audio year, though. I am continuing to improve at touch guitar and synthesizer programming and after all the podcasting I am very fast in Logic. Due to Covid, Carrie and I have formed a duo and are slowly writing some songs. We have 4 fully arranged and fragments of a couple more. We had originally thought we’d try and self-record an EP over break but came to our senses and chose downtime instead, which is what I needed.

I don’t make resolutions about my academic work because I have a setup that works for me and I mostly just do it. I was on sabbatical in the winter and spring, and while I lost research and presentation travel that I badly wanted to do, but after the obligatory couple weeks going “holy shit” about the lockdown like everyone else, I realized I had a job to do, and did it. I read a lot, and finished revisions on Diminished Faculties, which should be out in fall 2021. I redesigned three courses as well. Not bad at all.

My main resolution for 2021 is to keep my music space relatively clutter free, which is to say, “ready to cook” at all times. I often write amidst piles of books and papers, and that’s productive for me, but clutter interferes with music differently when I’m working with complex setups of modules or pedals. Especially because the synth lives on a table, there were times where stuff piled up and that that kept me from playing because I’d have to clean up first. I have to treat it more like the kitchen.

I would also really like to find a writing collective to be part of again. I co-write with people all the time and love it, but I’m thinking of something like Bad Subjects where there’s an online venue (other than this blog) where I can post occasional thoughts that are substantial but not long and not necessarily scholarly. Something like The Battleground or Crooked Timber or a group blog of some sort. That said, I am not going to push it. I have to find the right people and the right organization.

Other than that, I just want to keep doing what I’m doing. I have a fantasy that I’ll get the vaccine in May and then can take most of the summer off (except for talks I agreed to give) to savour being in the world, something I haven’t done since 10th grade. Dunno how realistic it is, but a man can dream.

Iatrogenesis and Gratitude for Online Teaching

It’s been about 10 days since I spoke with my oncologist (yay, telemedicine, boo: overwork). My tumour marker is trending back down after a month back on The Drugs: just above 10. Everything else looks good. The visit to the cancer floor was par for the course. The place was more organized thanks to the private security people managing patient traffic, but the nurses doing the phlebotomy are clearly way overworked, and either burnt out or nearing it. It’s really a bummer to see. And I don’t think I can bring them anything because of Covid protocols.

I’m back on all my blood pressure meds and BP is stable. And all the side effects are back. I had a brutal wave of fatigue a couple weeks back, combined with stomach problems, including having to teach the big class right after having an experience that can best be described as emitting lava. I don’t recommend it, but I managed ok. This week I’ve passed out on the couch after dinner a couple times and one day this week I had to lay down for half an hour in the afternoon. I am making do and in some senses, teaching online is probably both the problem and the solution: it’s making me more tired, but at least I can crash out for a few minutes if I need to.

I think everyone is tired from online teaching (and OMG meetings–#livingatwork) this term, and in that respect I’m no different from anyone else. But it’s not just that (see: the “everyone feels that way sometimes” square in Ableist Bingo).

Ableist Bingo card featuring cliched ableist statements life “everyone feels that way sometimes” and “You don’t look sick/Disabled”) — as always, the centre space is a “free space.” Hat tip: Lena Palacios.

I am actually grateful that I started the term off the drugs, even though a vacation from them might have been more fun in the summer. I’m not sure I would have survived the first 3 weeks of term otherwise. I am mostly able to muster the energy I need to do the things I have to do, it’s the things I want to do in the interstices that are falling by the wayside. And I hate waking up after 9 or 10 hours of sleep feeling tired.

I want to write more about online teaching and will have some things to say about the mechanics of it in an upcoming post. Here it’s mostly happy stuff. I feel good about it. I am really fond of my students and am really enjoying the meetings and conversations with both undergrads and grads. I know how to make a podcast lecture now and am pretty good at it, though I will have to work on my “um”s if I ever really want to be a media personality. But the undergrads seems to like the podcasts.

The graduate seminar discussions have been great. I’m exhausted afterwards but look forward to it every single week. And I’ve been enjoying the “backchannel” on the chat. We’ve had amazing visiting speakers, and co-teaching has been a real balm for the spirit (as has working with my TAs in my undergrad class). I wish I could actually socialize with my grad students — we normally throw a potluck at the end of term — but for now we will have to contemplate Zoom Pictionary or some other social contrivance, or just leave it be.

I realize online learning hasn’t gone well for everyone (and I am just talking about the university level–I cannot imagine the struggles of primary school teachers, students, and parents). But for higher education, we have a real reason to make it work. The alternatives are bullshit Covid protocol classrooms that fail as in-person operations and expose people to unnecessary risks. I’d rather be “doing-alright-considering-the-circumstances” online that doing anything that could lead to an outbreak as infection rates are spiking here and many other places. My efforts at teaching online–including some spectacular failures, as well as the successes–have extra meaning because they are about keeping me safe, and keeping lots of other people safe. My parents had to make all sorts of sacrifices as kids living through the Great Depression. All I have to do is stay the fuck home and do my job.

Lenvima vacation review/Cancer update

So, I’m back off vacation from the drugs. I started up again Monday. And I went to the Jewish yesterday. Here’s what I can tell you after 3 weeks off the drugs:

  • The sore on my foot healed, which was the point. Carrie said my feet look good. My doctor said my foot looked good. So that worked.
  • My tumour marker went way up. September, it was .8; October it was 17.1. This isn’t any thing to be worried about (and “may even just be some secretions” <–no idea what that means) but it does suggest the drug is effectively suppressing the processes by which my cancer cells grow and that without it, they will begin to party in most unfortunate ways.
  • I gained a couple pounds. This is not a surprise. I lost my lactose intolerance, and was fully intent on enjoying pizzas, etc., while I could. Also I had my full appetite and no diarrhea for a month.
  • My blood pressure dropped.

My other side effects also pretty much disappeared. No hand pain, no foot pain, no weirdo fatigue, and I could regulate my body temperature. IT WAS GREAT. How great? It was “Dear Tripadvisor: the beaches were perfectly calm and sandy and we had them all to ourselves and the food was amazing and different every day and oh my the sunsets and the staff at the resort all mysteriously spoke English and did I mention the pool and the gift shop. Five stars!” great.*

In fact, last night when I was suddenly, inexplicably hot, Carrie had to remind me that was a side effect of the drug (sometimes I’m hot, sometimes I’m cold). This Ellen Samuels piece on “sick and well time” came out last month and more or less exactly captured the experience for me. It was miraculous to be back in my “well body” for a few weeks, and I couldn’t even fathom some of the things I had been feeling only weeks before. The extra twist for me is now in that tumour marker number: when I feel better, I am sicker. When the cancer is under better control, I feel worse. Iatrogenesis: it will fuck with you.

I do not feel bad about going back on the drugs. I understand this is the deal, and in fact, there was a point in September where Carrie was suggesting things with cheese on them and I was like “nah, I’ve had enough.” It’s always hard for me to tell if I really get something emotionally (as opposed to intellectually) but in this case, I think I do.

Speaking of things I don’t feel as bad about as I should, let’s talk about Montreal’s code red (which puts us in semi-lockdown. So I’m at the Jewish yesterday for my bloods. First, the difference from last time: there is a private security guard directing traffic on the cancer floor. Here is a sentence I never in my life though I would type: I am so happy they hired a private security firm. There was just one guy, but he was well-trained, seemed to understand that he was working to help the nurses, and made an effort to put patients at ease, keep track of whose turn it was, etc. But when people got agitated, which started more or less the moment I got off the elevator (in point of fact, I couldn’t exit the elevator right away because of people just sort of standing where they shouldn’t have been), he organized people and was the person whose job it was to tell people what to do even if they didn’t want to hear it. Better him than the nurses. So that part is good. They still need more people working in the blood centre but there’s no place to put them.

But everyone is supposed to wear a mask the minute they walk into the Jewish. The. number. of. noses. I. saw. was. not. good. The minute they were past the entryway where you get checked, people were pulling out their noses. ON THE ELEVATOR IN A SMALL ENCLOSED SPACE. WTAF? People pulling off their masks to talk loudly to someone across the hall. Again, WTAF? This is so not cool! It’s a hospital! Staff are risking their lives to help you, have some basic consideration! Just because you’re old or have cancer doesn’t mean you don’t owe others some basic decency. I’m not usually a scold-people-on-social-media type but I am honestly beside myself about the level of disregard for others on display.

So if people can’t get it right in a hospital setting with clear instructions and staff everywhere modelling proper behaviour, it’s no wonder Montreal is going into semi-lockdown for the next 28 days. No social gatherings of any kind. Though apparently you can still go shopping (?) and children in schools don’t have to wear masks (?). You can get an on-the-spot fine $1000 ($1500 with “service fees”) for being out in the park with people not in your household. This is a drag, especially because I’ve been able to enjoy a few outdoor gatherings with people at a safe distance (though I also attended two events where people did not keep a safe distance–the temptation to be near people is strong, I get it) and outdoor band practice has been a wonderful consolation for not being able to play indoors. But I understand why it’s happening.

As a friend put it to me, “I do not get the problems white people have with masks.”

Some other tidbits:

  • My oncologist is still optimistic about vaccines starting to be available in the spring, and thinks that not everyone will need to get it in order for it to be effective (this part I honestly do not understand, but am sharing since presumably he’s in the loop).
  • I’ll be back to phone appointments for awhile
  • We both expect my tumour marker to go back down now that I’m back on the drugs. Nobody is particularly worried.

*Your obligatory footnote: going off the drugs coincided with the ramp up of online teaching. Which was insanely hard. And coming off sabbatical is always an escape-velocity kind of thing. So it’s not that I wasn’t tired but it was a different kind of tired than fatigue. I asked Carrie about it and she said with the fatigue my personality recedes. When I was tired, I just acted sleepy. So there you go.

Here’s why online teaching is sort of like chaos right now

I just got a query from a student reporter, who asked, “did McGill provide professors with enough Zoom training this summer?”

I can only imagine what students are seeing!

The institution provided a lot of training.  So much so that by mid summer I was “webinar-ed out.” Specifically, credit must go to Teaching & Learning Services, who really rose to the occasion.  (And if I didn’t think they’d done a good job, I promise I would tell you.  I’m not shy about criticizing the university.)

BUT, there are a number of other factors contributing to difficulties right now:

1. Zoom wasn’t designed as a teaching tool.  It still isn’t, and some basic things (like the TAs and I going from group to group in our meeting yesterday) involve workarounds, and that is according to Zoom’s own manual!  Keep in mind that in March, the company wasn’t any more prepared to deal with the pandemic than any other institution.  They basically got lucky because their interface happened to handle group meetings a little differently than (eg) Skype, Microsoft Teams, and other options.  6 months sounds like a long time but it’s not when you’re talking about the sheer scale of the undertaking.  On the first day of class at many US institutions (10 days before we started) Zoom crashed.  

2. No amount of training or practice can fully prepare anyone for dealing with a new technical or social arrangement.   It’s like performing on a musical instrument or playing a sport.  There’s practice, and then there’s the heat of performance.  I’ve been putting some part of my courses online since the 1990s (back then you had to hand-code a course website), and I have never worked harder to get my courses up and running than this term.  

3. Now scale that up to a whole big university, and add in wide range of technical skill-levels and literacies among faculty.

So if the students are looking for someone to blame, I’d blame the virus first.  Covid cost everyone something.  If our main complaint is about some rocky first classes, we should count ourselves fortunate.  

That said, I would expect things to smooth out in a couple weeks as people get used to it.*

EDIT: Also, people should feel free to complain to their friends and loved ones! The rule in our home is we can complain about anything we want whenever we want if it makes us feel better.

*One thing I didn’t say in the reply that I wish I did was that faculty are also people, and if you’ve got care responsibilities, it’s really hard to do a full-time job at home on top of that right now. Also, we should just expect stuff to go wrong. It will!

Cancer update: an unexpected vacation

Last week I had my monthly meeting with my oncologist. I would have written sooner but HOLY SHIT ONLINE TEACHING IS A LOT OF WORK. Also I spent the weekend building a bed and wiring up a pedalboard (unfinished business from the summer). So here we are.

Everything is going well. My tumour marker is nice and low, my blood pressures are stable, and I totally forgot we didn’t get my neck scan results last month. Turns out they were fine too.

Getting my bloods done was a thing, though. I went in to the Jewish General Wednesday morning and the cancer centre was a zoo. Or rather, there were 2-3 nurses working for drawing bloods, social distancing rules in place, and a lot of unruly and angry elderly people. The patients were overwhelmingly white. Two of the nurses were black. At one point there was a woman who was refusing to move. People were crowding the door, and “taking a tone” with the nurses like they were slacking. I can’t believe the amount of rudeness and outright hostility they are having to put up with. They are doing their jobs well and carefully. I understand people have appointments and everything is behind schedule, but if I’ve figured out that if your bloods are delayed at the Jewish, your doctor is too, surely the other patients can as well. I was not sure how to intervene but if it happens next time I’m there (my October blood appointment is at 9am so I imagine it could well go down like that) I will need a plan in place. All I did this time was tell the nurses I appreciated them and was sorry for all the BS they had to put up with. But it was a really racist scene.

The big cancer news is I’m on a vacation from Lenvima for the next couple weeks. I have a sore on my foot that will not heal. So the idea is that I’m doing well enough to go off the drug for as long as it takes to heal. Then I’ll go back on. I’ve been off since Friday night. I already had to go off one of my blood pressure meds as I was getting super dizzy Saturday while building the bed (Carrie wound up having to do more bending because I kept almost falling over). My digestion is changing as well–for the better. Tonight I ate a salad and…so far so good. And my foot isn’t all healed but I went for a walk tonight without taping it up and there was no pain, so it’s already better. My hands also feel better, though they’re still a bit sensitive. But I played bass for a few minutes today sans gloves and…my hands didn’t mind.

I’m curious what else I’ll notice going off it. I’d been wondering how I was ever going to get to eat a pizza (you know, the kind with mozzarella) again. Well, I think soon I’ll be able to once my stomach repopulates its biome. That’s probably not how stomachs work but whatever, you get the point.

I’m rooting for my foot to heal, but perhaps not so fast I don’t get to optimum pizza readiness. I think I’ll also get some ice cream while I’m at it.

Recording Your Lectures #4: techniques

This is the fourth in my series of posts on how to record your lectures.

Tl;dr: a little focused practice up front will help a lot: spend some time experimenting with positioning the microphone, and how you address it. Record a bunch of short takes saying the same 1-2 sentences and then listen and see what sounds best. Develop a performance style and persona matched to the medium.

The first instalment tells you to use a quilt or moving blanket. This is the most important thing in terms of sound quality for your students.

The second instalment tells you to record in shorter segments and not obsess over what you’ve recorded. This is the most important thing in terms of preserving your time and sanity.

You can skip the third post–don’t get hung up on the technical part of it unless you are really into that stuff.

The third instalment tells you what gear to buy if that quilt or blanket, your laptop, and your existing headphones aren’t enough (NB: do not listen or edit over bluetooth).

This final instalment deals with some of the points of performance and technique. Once you have the moving blanket or quilt hanging up behind you, you can skip to this instalment with not much trouble.

Microphone technique is a huge topic and something a topic covered at length by professional singers, voice-over artists, engineers, and producers. Your goal in recording your voice is to produce something phonogenic, to use a term from Michel Chion. Ideally your voice recordings are “pleasing to hear,” which means they conform to the conventions of recorded voices. Do not confuse this with how your voice sounds in the room or in your head. Think of your voice more like clay you are moulding.

Step 1: make your space: microphone placement, room setup and level setting.

Close the windows, the door and turn off the fan. If you can. Make your space quiet, but don’t spend time worrying about incidental sounds from partners, pets or children–it’s not worth it–except the partner should not be having a loud conversation in the same room as you’re recording.

Once you have some absorption up behind you, you need to experiment with where the mic is relative to your mouth. Plan on spending an hour on this and then never thinking about it for the rest of the term.

A condenser mic, like the Blue Yeti that I recommended in my last post, can sit happily on your desk facing in your general direction. Probably 1-2 feet is a good range, and you don’t want it pointing exactly at your mouth. Try aiming it at your forehead, your nose, your chin, and your throat. If you aim at your mouth, aim for the side of the mouth. Then record a sentence and see which is most pleasing. You’re looking for clarity of speech, not too much sizzle, and not much room echo at all. Go listen to a CBC or NPR interview as a reference.

Whatever you do, never aim the mic directly at your mouth. The reason for this is simple: if you are going head on into the mic, it will overemphasize all sorts of mouth sounds. Plosives, which are the little explosive puffs of air that occur when you say “plosives” can boom; sibilance — the ssssss and ttttt sounds — get extra sizzly. Breath sounds get louder (great if you’re PJ Harvey but not if you’re trying to tell your students about a term that will be on the exam). If you find an ideal position but still have too much plosive sound, you can use a pop filter, or make a DIY one.

If you’re using a dynamic mic, like the SM7 I use, you want to get closer in. You can get right up to it, though I still some prefer a distance of a couple inches. Getting too close to any mic will produce a proximity effect, which is cool for that FM “voice of god” sound but might well be too much for most usage. It will also emphasize mouth sounds.

Also, if you are recording into a program that gives you a measurement of how loud your voice is coming in, I recommend coming in around -15db for your maximum levels. Note on loudness measurements: 0db is as loud as the medium will take, so all levels are measured in negative numbers: -10db is louder than -20db.

Step 2: technique. This is a bit more advanced but easy to grasp.

Baseline: Set yourself up in a steady position. Most profs will record sitting down but in most cases you’ll get more vocal power if you do it standing up. (With my paralyzed vocal cord, this is no longer the case for me, so YMMV). Once you have your position, that’s your baseline. When recording singers, I always put a book on the floor so they know where their start position is. Bonus: I try and pick an appropriate book.

Move as you get louder and quieter: You can change the sound and volume of your voice by moving. To produce an even sound, move back a little when you are louder, and move in closer when you are quieter. This produces the effect of dynamics but keeps the volume more constant, which is what listeners expect when they are listening to recorded voices. This makes lots of sense for rock singing, but a good lecture also has dynamics. You’ll want to practice this trick: ultimately, you want places to move to that also sound good (see step #1) so that you’re not, for instance, adding a bunch of sibilance as you edge in on the mic.

Step 3: performance (and media theory 101 applied to online teaching)–reinvent your persona

I’ve spend the summer listening to my prof friends complain about going online to teach their courses, losing the live interaction of the lecture hall or the seminar room. I’m right there with you. But your goal should not to be to reproduce the live lecture experience in a recording. Your goal should be to play to the features of the recording. This is media theory 101, but also good pedagogy.

The theatre is closed for Covid. I always think of lecturing as a performance. Many profs have stories of running into students somewhere around town, and the students essentially shocked to discover we exist outside the classroom. We are characters, whether we want to be or not. In a live lecture hall, we are doing something like theatre. I embrace this, all the way down to the stunts I pull to get my students attention, like staging a live dialogue in order to show how the conventions of shot-countershot editing work, or bringing in a bunch of flags and setting up a semaphoric telegraph to show that you don’t even need electricity for near-instantaneous communication. In the lecture hall, I address my students as a collective. When I say “you,” I mean “you all”–the second person plural. And of course I can also read the room. That’s not going to work in a recorded lecture.

Recorded lectures are not theatre. They are more relatives of radio, podcasting, or an old school land line phone call. So for me, that means the “you” I address is a collective of singular individuals. I will say the same thing to everyone, but everyone will listen separately; they will hear my speech as if it were addressed to them personally. So in practice, that means less of the theatrics and melodrama and bigness of the lecture hall, and more the intimacy of the radio or podcast persona.

So you need to find models that work for you. Take some time and listen to some spoken performances–radio shows, podcasts, radio theatre, spoken word, poetry (though watch out for “poet voice”–don’t do that), sound art, whatever, and see what grabs your attention as the kind of role you want to perform for your students.

Step 4: get used to being a personality

This is not the classroom. People are generally shy about hearing their own voices recorded until they are used to it. I don’t have any great advice here except that it’s normal to feel creeped out by the sound of your own recorded voice. The thing is, what others hear sounds nothing like the voice in your head. So do your best to ignore that and instead think of the recording of your voice as a mix of that sonic clay I discussed in steps 1 and 2, and the persona I’m telling you to construct in step 3.

Step 4.5 [Edit]: On the Facebook thread discussing this, Bob Fink (musicologist at UCLA) pointed out that even though he does not normally write out his lectures, he does write out his recorded lectures so he can focus on performance. And avoid tangents. Dan Ryan, (sociologist at U of Toronto) chimed in to say the same thing and added these helpful links on how to write for radio. Thanks to both of them. I have no tried this but I think I will go for a little more structure.

Step 5: editing and mixing (most people should skip this part)

This is a whole advanced topic. As I mentioned in my 2nd post on the topic, it’s better to record short bits and then edit them together, rather than a long bit all in one take. Editing them together and keeping a consistent volume should be enough for most people.

I’m going to skip the primer on signal processing, but for the nerds, here’s a little more detail on what I do for myself. Absolutely none of this is necessary for a decent sounding lecture.

–downward expansion: because of the paralyzed vocal cord and a bit of asthma, I’m a loud breather on mic. An expander makes the breaths quieter than the speech and makes my voice sound more, well, abstract. And it’s preferable to a noise gate which gets rid of the breathing entirely, and therefore makes me sound like an android.

–about 2db compression on the peaks, medium attack with the equivalent makeup gain (more radio-like).

–a little EQ, sharp high pass around 80-100hz, boost for clarity and presence (again, 1-2db). Exact frequencies depend on the mic, and my SM7 has an on-mic mid boost I use.

And that’s it, though I will be using lots of other sounds in my podcasts for students, and some of those will be processed.

I will leave you this handy guide should you require more advice on signal processing (not mine, just a meme I like):

Recording Your Lectures 3: Gear! Gear! Gear!

The #1 question I am getting from people is a variation of “what do I need to buy to record my lectures?”

This is actually mostly the wrong question, but it is a question people have, so let’s answer it.

The first thing you probably need is a moving blanket or thick quilt, as explained in the first post of this series. Canadian Tire sells moving blankets for $20. That is the single most important thing you can buy to improve the sound of your lectures. I am not kidding.

The second post in my series is here. It tells you to make shorter recordings and not to listen to them all the way through once you know what you are doing.

In this post, I’ll deal with hardware and software, and give simple and slightly more complex solutions.

In what may be the final post in this series next week, I’ll talk about recording techniques.

The tl;dr is the simple solution below. I already told you what to buy if you’re going to only buy one thing, which is a moving blanket (or maybe you have a nice quilt you don’t mind hanging up?). You don’t absolutely need to buy anything to make a decent podcast for your students. You just need to record it well. But for those who want to know more….

What you need:

Technically, nothing other than the blanket and some headphones or earbuds. Your computer has a built in mic and you have probably been listening to people talk into built in mics all summer. Is it good enough? You tell me. Often you get a ton of room echo (a well-positioned moving blanket helps a lot with this), and the mic picks up all sorts of other noises. I think most people’s Zoom presentations using built in mics in untreated rooms sound like ass. But sometimes they sound fine. Will you sound fine? Try making a recording and find out.

So if you don’t want to use the built in mic, then you need

  1. a way to get sound–specifically, your voice and not a ton of other sounds–into the computer.
  2. A way for you to hear what you are doing.
  3. A way to edit that sound.
  4. ***And, this is shockingly important for how little attention anyone pays, you really really want to hear a bit of your own voice as it goes into the computer.*** People talk a lot about eye strain and Zoom fatigue, but without hearing a bit of your own voice on the way in, it is very likely that you’ve been yelling at your computer all day every day for those epic Zoom meetings. Yelling makes most people tired eventually.

What’s wrong with the built-in mic?

Maybe nothing. You could do ok with a moving blanket and the built in mic.

But everyone I’ve spoken with who has used an external mic for recording has said they think their voice sounds better. There are a lot of reasons for this, but let’s just say that while the computer microphone is a miracle of miniaturization, there are some compromises there because it’s right next to a loud environment (the inside of the computer) and doesn’t know where sound is coming from.

What’s wrong with the mic on my Apple wired earbuds?

See above, plus that awful scratching sound when it rubs up against your clothes. If you’re going to wear a mic, there are better options.

A Caveat

I am going to recommend specific products. We are living in an age where the cheapest stuff outperforms equipment I used in actual studios in the 1990s. There are a gazillion good options. I’m just saying these will work. I’ll explain what I use at the bottom.

The simplest solution

After acquiring your moving blanket or quilt (I AM NOT GOING TO STOP HAMMERING THIS POINT), you could invest in a simple all-in one solution plus a set of headphones. There are lots of good options but the one I’m recommending is the Blue Yeti Nano. It’s an all-in-one microphone and audio interface (the microphone converts sound into electricity, the audio interface converts electricity into a data stream). Want an even cheaper solution? The Shure MV-5 costs less, but I haven’t heard it or used it.

I recommend it for several reasons:

  1. It is dead simple to use.
  2. It sounds good enough. People argue about sound all day every day on the internet. Trust me, it’s good enough. Carrie just got one and we put it through its paces no undergrads are going to complain about the sound quality of her lectures.
  3. It plugs into your computer and doesn’t required special software to run.
  4. It comes with a stand.
  5. You can hear your own voice as you speak into it if you plug in the headphones I am recommending.
  6. It is recommended by speech therapists.
  7. The Yeti also has a lot of cool accessories. I recommend a broadcast arm. I have one attached to my desk, which means when I’m not using the mic, I just push it out of my way.

A couple things to know about the Yeti. You can turn your voice on or off in your own headphones by pressing the button on the front. You want it on. There is a button on the back that lets you choose a circle or a tiny heart shaped thing. Choose the heart shaped thing. That button is a pattern selection. The circle is an omni pattern which means the mic picks up everything coming from every direction. You don’t want that. The other pattern is called cardioid (cardio–heart) and picks up mostly what’s in front of the mic. If you aim it at yourself correctly, that’s you, and behind you is the blanket you’ve hung up, which means less reflected sound goes into the mic.

The Yeti has a couple downsides: it’s a newish product so its durability is in question. And it’s a condenser mic, which I consider a liability for most people recording at home. More on that in a moment.

You also need a decent pair of headphones. There are three important things in headphones for this applications:

  1. They are comfortable on your head.
  2. They are closed-back. Open-back headphones leak a lot of sound, like when you can hear the music pouring out of someone’s headphone on the metro. You want less leakage. BUT open-backed headphones are less hard on your ears, so for Zooms or everyday listening if you’re not sharing space with someone close by, they’re a better option.
  3. They must not be wireless. You need to plug them in. Bluetooth introduces latency which means you will hear your voice some time after you speak. This is an incredibly psychedelic effect but not great for when you want to deliver a lecture.

The Audio Technica ATM-H50X is a good choice in the $100+ range (they are “studio quality” and are actually found in actual studios sometimes), but really any headphone that doesn’t leak and is reliable will do. Just look for “closed back” and make sure they’re comfortable to wear.

A More Complex But Better Solution

The Yeti suffers from one problem. It is too sensitive for most home environments. Manufacturers sell things with specifications, and with flash, so something that sounds clear and bright in the store may be too good when you get it home. And some people read frequency responses and think that bigger is always better. (I know a scholar who has debunked theories of sound fidelity, but let’s leave that aside).

So if you’re comfortable with a little more tech, I have another recommendation.

  1. A broadcast arm. I like and use the K&M 23850, which also comes with an XLR microphone cable (XLR is just a standard, like USB–it’s defined by the shape of the plug and the type of signal it carries). Alternatively you could buy a desktop mic stand and an XLR cable long enough to get from your mic to your audio interface.
  2. An audio interface with an XLR input and a microphone pre-amplifier. The dead simplest one is the Shure X2U, but it’s actually not handy to have all your controls attached to the mic. On the plus side, you can plug it right into the mic and no longer need an XLR cable. But, I recommend the Focusrite Scarlett Solo. It’s nice to have the controls on your desk. And trust me, it’s good enough for recording your lectures. Hell, you could make a record with it if you wanted to and if people are complaining about your analog-to-digital conversion, your problem is the music, not the analog-to-digital conversion. Another inexpensive option is the Audient ID4.
  3. A good dynamic microphone. The Blue Yeti Nano is a condenser mic, as is the element in most computers. These have extended sensitivity and high end, which are great for some applications but not others. It is not as well publicized as it should be, but fancy studio condenser mics often sound worse in home recording setups than cheaper mics. Dynamic mics are less sensitive and have less of a frequency range. For recording lectures at home this is a actually good thing. It will make your voice sound more polished and radio-like. The can’t fail recommendation 99 times out of 100 is the Shure SM-58, which is used on stages all over the world and which could be used as a hammer and then returned to its mic duties and would probably still work (DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME). There are cheaper clones but I don’t know which ones are good. Jentery Sayers just mentioned the also-not-too-expensive Rode PodMic, and he knows a thing or two about audio so I trust his recommendation. If you want the full on radio sound, the Electro-Voice RE-20 and Shure SM-7B are found in studios all over the world. If you get in close, these mics can give you that “voice of god” sound — works for men and women. However, they have switches and stuff on them and are a little more complicated. BUT good dynamic mics are hard to break, and so you can just mess around with them. Another option some people use is a clip-on lavalier mic (a “lapel mic”), but I haven’t, so I’m not going to cover those except to say that if you go this route, watch out for shirt noise.
  4. You still need some headphones.

So in this setup, which is more like what a studio uses, your mic turns sound into electricity, which goes down the XLR cable, then the preamp gives it some more juice, then the interface turns it into data. So you’ve disaggregated the parts of the Yeti Nano into a bunch of different things. This gives you more control, though.

The payoff for the setup is that you will get a better sound in most cases for home recording. The downside is it’s more complex. You now have to learn a mic, a preamp, and an interface. It’s easy but it’s learning.

If you’re new to this, I recommend the SM58 because it’s cheaper and will sound good 99 times out of 100. Beyond that it’s sort of like recommending nail polish colours (a newfound interest of mine) or neckties or something. It makes an aesthetic difference but people have different opinions.


If you are using PowerPoint, you can just record your audio right onto the slides. This is the easiest solution.

If you want an audio editor, Audacity is free and not too hard to learn. There are lots of tutorials. It’s really no harder to edit sound than a word processor document. I teach it to my undergrads and have them making wacky sound art in less than a single 80 minute class session.

If you want easy to use audio-editing for podcasting, Rogue Amoeba has a good suite: Audio Hijack lets you record sound from anywhere on the internet, Fission lets you edit different kinds of audio together, and if you want to get super clever, there’s always Farrago for a soundboard.

There are tons of other good options, and even video programs like Camtasia have audio editing.

What about a camera and what’s this I keep hearing about light rings?

I am so not your guy on this question. But: if you’re recording into a laptop, raise it up so you’re not shooting from below (that’s how they shoot the “bad guy” in Hollywood movies) and use some good light on your face. Carrie and I got cheap Logitech light rings for our faces, though they are supposedly problematic for glasses. But since I’m not setting up a full lighting rig to record audio podcasts, it’ll do.

What I use: I have an actual home studio. We record and mix actual music and sound art sometimes. So I have a lot of choice. I love the SM7 on my voice for the voice-of-god effect. This summer for Zooms I have been using a Shure KSM-32 condenser mic, which I just told you not to use, but I’m good at this sound recording thing and it has a couple advantages I like (and they are used for some well known podcasts). My interface is an RME Babyface, which is a very fancy version of what the Focurite Scarlett does for more money (though it’s 2 models ago so you can pick them up used cheap–they sound amazing but the software is, ah, not intuitive). I use the K&M broadcast arm and move the mic back and forth every day and smile doing it. For software, I haven’t decided, but probably Ableton Live, which is made for electronic musicians but has lots of power for instantly editing lots of sound together. I know it really well. I also know Apple Logic well; it might also be good for my purposes. I would also like to be able to insert chapters into my audio so students can find stuff quickly, and so if I can do it with either of those programs, I will probably pick that one. For recording I use the ATH-M50 headphones, though for everyday use and critical listening I use Sennheiser HD600s. Open backed headphones are great for listening and not as hard on your ears.

My final instalment on performance is here. This is highly recommended.