A few months ago, Anthony Nocentino discussed his Pluralsight setup. I decided that this was a good time to take advantage of a friend’s knowledge and upgrade my system.

Obligatory Warnings

Before I get into the setup, I have to lay out some warnings. You get two classes of obligatory warning here: first, that I am no expert at this; and second, that you almost certainly don’t need this.

I Barely Know What I’m Doing

I am by no stretch of the imagination an audio engineer. I talked to Anthony, asked him a bunch of dumb questions, and did some follow-up research on how it all works. I got this to work, but I couldn’t tell you much about hardware alternatives to the components I bought.

This hardware (at least until we talk speakers) is the same as what Anthony recommended, but any dumb things I say are my own doing, not his fault.

You (Probably) Don’t Need This

To get the sticker shock out of the way, the whole setup costs over $1000. If you make a living with your voice, then it’s absolutely worth the money. I have enough course development and training work that I do that it’s worth the money for me to sound as good as I can. You don’t need this level of equipment for day-to-day office communication. You probably don’t even need this level of equipment to record a good-sounding course. I used a Blue Yeti for a few years and have hundreds of hours of recorded content with that.

But that said, considering that I don’t have a professional recording studio or anything like that, the sound quality is way better than what I had before.

The Equipment

First up is the microphone. I went with the Shure SM7B microphone. This dynamic microphone has been around for decades in recording studios and it is great at capturing voice without picking up a lot of external noise. The reason for this is that you need to provide 60dB of gain before it registers anything. Mitch Gallagher from Sweetwater has a great product demonstration.

In order to provide gain, I have two devices. The first is a Cloud Microphones Cloudlifter CL-1. This gives you 25dB of gain off the bat and requires nothing other than that you plug the microphone into it. Note that we still need 35dB of gain.

That’s where the dbx 286s Microphone Preamp comes in. I bought the version with microphone XLR connectors. To give you an idea of size, this is a 1u rack-mount box, about 20″ long and 6″ deep. This is a professional-grade pre-amp and satisfies my need for bells and whistles. It also provides you up to 60dB of gain, so technically you can get all of the gain that you need out of this one device. That said, I like having the Cloudlifter as well—that way, I have the 286s turned up about 70% of the way and still have plenty of room in the event that I needed it. This preamp also requires external power, so be sure you have an electrical outlet available for it.

Next up, I need a place to put the microphone. The Rode PSA 1 boom arm does a fantastic job of holding my microphone and swiveling silently. When I need to speak, I can rotate the microphone in, and when I don’t, it swings off to the side. I can re-position the microphone when I’m sitting or standing and know that it’s going nowhere. The only downside to going this route is that desk vibrations can make their way to the microphone, so try not to bang the desk as often as I do. You could alternatively use a freestanding microphone stand, though I don’t have any specific recommendations there.

The microphone takes a connector type called XLR. You’re probably going to need a few cables for that. I use a 6-foot XLR cable to connect from my microphone to the Cloudlifter. I’ve found that gives me plenty of room to rotate the microphone any way I choose and hide the Cloudlifter behind my Desklab monitor. From there, I have a 3-foot XLR cable which connects the Cloudlifter to the pre-amp.

Now we have noise making its way from the microphone into a pre-amp, where it becomes loud noise. Joe Gilder has a great video explaining why you want a pre-amp. But that doesn’t get us to the computer, as there’s no USB output or anything on the pre-amp. That’s where the Focusrite Scarlett Solo comes in. The Solo works really well with a pre-amp. Note that it does have the ability to provide gain (something like 30dB, I believe), but I don’t use it for that. It serves one purpose in life: to get audio from my microphone to my PC. It has one USB out to do that job.

To connect the pre-amp to the Solo, you’ll need one TRS to XLR cable. The pre-amp outputs are all TRS and the Scarlett Solo specifically needs XLR. There are other products in the Scarlett line which accept TRS, but don’t try it with the Solo. The TRS input for the Solo is specifically for instruments, not voice.

Now that we’ve driven ourselves into the poorhouse, let’s set this all up.

The Setup

Hooking up the SM7B to the Rode arm is pretty easy—connect the mounting bracket to the microphone, making sure that the XLR out is pointing up, like so.

Did I try mounting it the other way first? You’d better believe it! Also, shout out to SQL Saturday Chicago 2016—I still use your power brick on a daily basis.

Why have the XLR out point up? Well, that way, the cable stays out of the way of the boom arm. Also, note that the SM7B comes with two windscreens: the normal-sized one and the plus-sized one. You’re supposed to remove the normal-sized windscreen if you want to put the plus-sized one on, but because I’m lazy a dummy positively in need of plosive protection, I put the plus-sized windscreen on top of the normal one. It’s a really tight fit but it just barely works without tearing anything.

The PSA 1 boom arm comes with two mounting options: a clamp you can attach to your desk or a separate mounting bolt you can use if you drill a hole in your desk. I used the clamp option. You then pop the boom arm into the insert on the top of the clamp and it all just works.

From there, you can see the 6′ XLR cable which feeds out of the microphone. It goes into the Cloudlifter like so.

Left: microphone output. Right: output to pre-amp.

The Cloudlifter is incredibly simple to use, as there are no knobs, switches, or ambiguities. There’s one XLR in, into which you plug the other end of the microphone cable. There is one XLR out, into which you plug a separate XLR cable. That separate XLR cable goes into the MIC INPUT line on the pre-amp. Then, plug your TRS to XLR cable into the OUTPUT connection on the pre-amp. The XLR end of that cable plugs into the front of the Scarlett Solo.

I wish it plugged into the back.

Finally, plug the USB-C connector into the Scarlett Solo and have that go to your PC. I have it feeding into my monitor, as it has several USB inputs.

Now let’s talk about pre-amp settings.

Pre-Amp Settings

I’ll start with the easy ones: the Scarlett Solo. Turn everything down to the bottom setting. If you have a Cloudlifter and a high-end pre-amp, you neither need nor want the Scarlett Solo adding anything to the mix.

Now let’s talk about the dbx286s. There are some really good YouTube videos covering setup. I learned a lot from Geeky Nerdy Techy about settings, and in watching that as well as a few other videos, the most important thing I learned is that you have to experiment with the device to figure out what the best settings are. Here are my settings, but again, yours would almost certainly differ.

  • Mic Pre-Amp Line: +45dB. Along with the Cloudlifter, that’s a total of +70dB, but I balance it out later.
  • 48V Phantom Power ON. The SM7B is a passive microphone and shouldn’t require power, but I’ve found that with this particular pre-amp, I have to turn on phantom power to get it to work.
  • 80Hz High-Pass OFF.
  • Process Bypass OFF. Turning this off means that you bypass everything that the pre-amp does.
  • Compressor: Drive at ~3.75 and Density at ~2.5. As Shane mentions in the video above, “Compression brings up the quiet parts and it also brings down the loudest parts.”
  • De-Esser: Frequency at ~5k Hz, Threshold at ~2.5.
  • Enhancer: LF Detail: ~3.5, HF Detail ~3.5. This adds bass.
  • Expander/Gate: Threshold around -22.5, Ratio: 2/1. This removes a lot of external noises. I’ve had airplanes fly overhead and thunderstorms rage on outside my open window, and with my settings, I don’t hear them on the recording.
  • Output: -12dB. Having this number be below 0dB reduces the chances that we end up clipping at the pre-amp level. Also note that this reduction of 12dB does cancel out the 10dB extra that I add between the Cloudlifter and Line.

To figure out what the best settings are for you, start recording. If you use the dbx286s, you can use the Level indicator. You want to be solidly in the green with the occasional yellow. Then, the Scarlett Solo has its own color indicator on your audio quality. That should normally light up as a green ring around the gain dial, though seeing it flash to yellow sometimes is fine. You don’t want to have it go into the red frequently on either the pre-amp or the Scarlett Solo, as then you’ll start clipping and audio quality gets terrible.

The Speakers

As you can see from the photos, I had a fairly cheap PC speaker set from Logitech. After upgrading the audio quality, I decided to upgrade my speakers as well to make sure I got the audio settings exactly right. I hate wearing headphones when recording or training—gotta make sure the hair looks nice at all—so speaker quality is critical for me, but again, you almost certainly don’t need this.

I landed on the Audioengine A5+ Plus Wireless Speaker pair. The wired speaker version is a lot cheaper, but I wanted Bluetooth capabilities for phones and other devices. Along with this, I bought desktop speaker stands. Surprisingly, they improve the audio quality a lot.

I also purchased an SVS SB-1000 subwoofer. Overkill? Yeah, maybe, but it’s a beautiful thing. Also, if you go with this route, you’ll want some new footpads for the subwoofer. The SVS SoundPath Subwoofer Isolation System works like a charm. Finally, you’ll need an RCA cable to connect from the subwoofer to the speakers. These plug into IN (white-ringed cable) and LFE (red-ringed cable) on the subwoofer and Output R (red-ringed cable) and L (white-ringed cable).

Some Alternatives

If you’re pretty new to recording, check out the Blue Yeti microphone. The Blue Yeti Nano may also be really good, though I haven’t tried it. If you need something to walk around with, you can find adequate lapel microphones for $20-40. If you just need something for conference calls, the Jabra Speak is good, though try to find it on sale.

Conclusion

Dear Mr. or Ms. IRS person, I definitely need all of this equipment in order to do my job.

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