Do you want to make a comedy album? Are you just staring at your computer, microphone, joke book, and list of album titles but have no idea what to do next? Well, I just finished making a comedy album myself. I wrote, recorded, edited, and produced live stand-up as well as “studio” recorded audio sketches. If you’re interested in putting together an album yourself, I think you can do it. Sure producing a show, polishing your material, and editing an album can be intimidating, but let me put you at ease with what I learned.
Now, there’s no one way to make an album. With free audio editing software (Audacity), a little bit of patience as you use Google and YouTube to teach yourself editing, a hundred dollar mic, and someone who knows how to plug a soundboard feed into a laptop, and maybe some blankets to make a home sound booth you could bang out a low-frills album. I made a couple upgrades to that set-up, here are my tips:
1. Decide you want to make a comedy album.
My brain shoots out ideas like buckshot: stand-up bits, sketch ideas, kooky characters. Having done improv, sketch, and stand-up over the last several years, I felt that creatively I had a lot of loose ends. Most creative types I know have a common problem: lack of focus. Grouping everything into one goal was really liberating and made me more relaxed. But maybe you want to make a movie or write a novel.
Here’s why I wanted to make a comedy album out of all my zany ideas:
- I’ve always been a fan of podcasts, audio books, comedy albums, and radio sketches.
- Audio is easy to enjoy, you can do something else while listening (commuting, wasting away the hours at your boring temp job, scouring pots, playing with the cat).
- It’s easier to record yourself playing multiple characters on audio than on video.
- Sound effects are cool.
- Live Stand-Up seems more intimate recorded as audio compared to watching some awkward man walk back and forth on stage.
- Making a movie would take like a year or something (Whoops! That’s how long my album took).
2. Raise support for your project.
Whether just spreading the word to all your friends to gather a little moral support, asking for money, or both–telling people about your project will help define what exactly you want to do.
3. Gather material.
- I put together 45 minutes of stand-up for my “live recordings.” Overall, I had around an hour of stand-up bits (not all of them gems) from doing open mics for around a year and a half. Having more than you need will help you in the editing phase, but don’t overdo it. There’s nothing better than recording a tight set.
- For the “studio recorded sketches,” I went through my files checking out sketches I wrote for old National Sketch Writing Months, sketch writing classes, and old shows/videos. I also wrote a few new ones and improvised a couple while recording.
- Hit the open mics, comedy shows, and whatever other outlet you have. Record your sets. You might notice some sets work better in five minute sets as opposed to part of a 45 minute show. I sure did.
- Don’t think you have enough stage experience to make a comedian album? Neither did Bob Newhart but the Button Down Mind of Bob Newhart was a huge success in the early 1960s.
4. Gather Equipment
Recording live stand-up and making a studio at home to record things requires a few items. Some don’t have much flexibility (microphone) and some you can get a little creative (Sound Booths).
If you’re shopping around and reading reviews of mics, interfaces, recorders, etc. you’ll notice the overall consensus is the more expensive the better the quality. I bought a couple mics on the “low-end” of quality and they each ran about $100-$200. If you record in a space that already has a recording set-up or have a pal, I’d make use of some friendly favors. If you’re new to audio, don’t be intimidated. You might want to start off by noticing the brand-name of mics at open mics and listening to how they sound. For “studio recorded sketches,” you might want to check out some podcasts. If you hear one with a good sound, ask the podcaster about their mic and set up.
Eqipment for Recording Live Stand-Up:
- Stage Mic (I used a Shure SM58 which could also double as a studio mic for the budget conscious). You can probably get a bargain SM58 on Craigslist. I chose the SM58 because I had heard it was a good, durable mic.
- Windscreen/Pop Filter for stage mic to reduce loud popping sounds from plosives (The SM58 has a metal windscreen as part of the mic, but I noticed I was still popping plosives, so I put another screen over it).
- 2 (or more) Mics on the audience. I used a couple of condenser mics.
- Multitrack recorder (I used a BOSS BR-800) to record the stage mic and audience mic as separate tracks. This item is very important, recording the different mics on different tracks will produce a better recording and give you much more flexibility when editing. You may be tempted just to record straight on to your laptop. You could use a line from the soundboard for the stage mic, a USB interface such as the M-Audio Mobilepre hooked up to audience mics, and an audio editing program such as Audacity to record the whole show. But what happens if your computer crashes? What happens if your computer crashes during your best joke? What if you’re only recording one show?! I say use a device dedicated to recording.
- Monitor head phones – Whoever does the actual recording needs to have a decent pair of over the ear headphones. These also come in handy during editing. This is the set I got: Audio-Technica ATH-M30. They work great and are much more comfortable than earbuds.
- Extra Cables and adapters – XLR cables for the mics and RCA stereo cables, 1/4 inch stereo cables, and miniplug (3.5 mm) cables and adapters for connecting to pre-amps and multitrack recorder. Possible adapters include miniplug (3.5 mm) to 1/4 inch for headphones to your multitrack recorder, 1/4 inch to RCA stereo plugs for connecting soundboards, pre-amps, and whatever else you got. Figure out the equipment you’re going to use, then get the cables. There’s a million ways to connect everything.
- Mic Stand – Most venues will have one of these and they’re fairly easy to find in stores, on the internet, and even on the curb when people throw away their dreams.
- Bottle of Water – Take a sip of water during your show. I forgot to do this and started to sound like a parched chain smoking Tina Yothers by the end of my set.
- Portable Recorder to record open mic sets and to use in home “studio” recording. I used a Zoom H4N. The Zoom H4N also works as a multitrack recorder. In theory you should be able to hook a mic via a stereo miniplug jack and two xlr-1/4 inch jacks. I couldn’t get the miniplug jack or the 1/4 inch jacks to work right for this purpose. But the Zoom has two great condenser mics that could work if you just plugged the stage mic into one of the XLR jacks (it might be a tight squeeze).
Equipment for Recording ”Studio” Sketches:
- 1 or More Condenser Mics (depending on whether you’ll be recording with other performers)
I mostly used an AT3035 condenser mic but I also got a used AT2020 for back-up (it was missing the shock mount, so I got a Samson SP01 Spider Mount which worked fine for both the AT3035 or AT2020). Eeveryone told me condensers are better for recording the voice. Condensers are very sensitive to ambient sounds and probably won’t be good for live performance and recording out of a sound booth.
- A Sound Booth
- Your booth doesn’t have to eliminate all outside sound, but should eliminate any reverb or any other indicators that your recording in a room. I used two “booths”, Sound Booth 1, a mattress fort, and Sound Booth 2, a closet with a bunch of blankets lining the walls. You’ll find various (many hilarious) tutorials on how to build sound booths on the web. Use your imagination. Couch cushions and blankets might do the job. You probably already have stuff at home that you can repurpose to make the walls a little softer so the sound doesn’t bounce off as hard. The type of sound booth you need might also depend on what kind of microphone you use. Expensive condenser mics can pick up a lot of room noise, whereas dynamic mics like the popular SM58 are a little more focussed.
- Here are the sound booths I made:
- 5 Twin Mattresses/box springs/bed sized pieces of wood or foam
- 4 mattresses/similar items made 4 walls
- Drape a fleece blanket over the top
- Plop the fifth bed shaped item on top as a roof
- Place another blanket on the “roof”
- Hang a comforter or blanket against the “walls”
- Hang a light. I used one of those utility lights with a clamp.
- Fleece Blankets
- Clamps to hold together blankets and mattresses if need be.
- Extension cord
- mic stand
Sound Booth 2
- Find a closet, preferably one in the middle of a floor, not near stairs or windows.
- Hang a a series of blankets until all walls are covered with blankets
- I tied a bunch of extenstion cords around the closet, via coat hangers that were on the wall, and hung the blankets with clothespins and clamps.
- Put a piece of carpeting on the floor
- You might need some kind of soft material dampen reverb from the ceiling. I clamped a stretched out towel overhead, kind of like a second roof.
Other Sound Booth Ideas:
- A closet full of clothes can muffle the reverb of walls as well as dampen any outside noise.
- The inside of a parked car – The soft interior of a car can also make a good sound and keep out unwanted noise.
- Just record from under a blanket – The cheapest and easiest solution, just find a nice fluffy comforter.
- I’ve heard some people like the Port-a-Booth, essentially a box in which you stick your head an microphone.
5. How to record your live Stand-Up Show
- Rent a space to record – I used UNDER St. Marks, a black box theater that was in the basement of a building. For recording a live show you want some ambient sounds to give it that “comedy club” feel, but I was looking for a space without any noise from other shows, loud music next door, and bar patrons playing pool.
- Recruit an audience – When does it get easy? I emailed everyone I knew individually, gave away tickets, free drinks, and flyered on the street. I was skeptical about flyering but it brought in two people who laughed (before they left half way through). I think a shotgun blast of strategies works best for gathering an audience. It probably pays to hire someone to promote your show. And remember you’re not trying to make money from show tickets, you want people laughing on your comedy album.
- Hire a crew – What better way to guarantee an audience than to have a large crew? That was my theory. I had an audio tech to record the show, a stage manager to communicate to me when to start the show, someone working box office, a videographer, and a fire guard (required by the theater).
- Book a host and another act - Not only will having other performers give your show a little polish, maybe they’ll draw an audience. However, don’t let your show go too long. People don’t really laugh as much after 90 minutes.
- Get comfortable with your set – Don’t overdo it, but get it on its legs before you record.
- Practice using the microphone that you are planning to record the show(s) – Get a feel for how far you need to hold the mic to get a good sound, if plosives pop, and if the connection goes in and out (as do many old comedy club mics).
- Record more than one show.
- Record in stereo, using a multi-track recorder: use one track for the stage mic, and two tracks on the audience. I mentioned this above but it can really make your recording sound nice if all the mics are on separate tracks and not mixed on the spot.
Stay tuned for part 2 where I reveal my editing secrets and more! Have any questions? Feel free to drop a comment below. If you want to check out my finished album, ALL THAT IS HOLY, check it out here.
I’m starting this story in what I hope to be close to the end, but it might also be the middle, or much to my chagrin, nearing the finale of the first chapter.
One day, I checked out kickstarter.com after I kept hearing people talk about how it was a great way to fund projects. There were all the fun things people were raising money to produce. I wanted to make something too! There were a lot of short films, movies, Fringe Festival shows, and novels. I wanted to do something different. I had been doing open mics for around a year or more. I had been doing improv and sketch for quite a bit more than that. I had a bunch of audio equipment that I had been gathering for some sort of unproduced podcast. I thought, I’ve always enjoyed listening to comedy albums, why not make one of my own? I could use some of my stand-up, sketches, and kooky characters.
A year has passed. My Kickstarter campaign* was a success, thanks to a generous conglomerate of friends, parents, and college professors. I have produced two live stand-up shows which were recorded on a multi-track recorder (thanks Bro), capturing both the stage mic and two mics on the audience which creates a cool stereo effect. I’ve also recorded a bunch of sketches, which is basically me talking to myself in a couple of make-shift home studios: one in a mattress fort on Staten Island and the other in a blanket lined closet (it dampens the echo-y sound–or reverb–of the close space) located in sunny Los Angeles. I’ve scoured the internet for low cost sound effects (thanks soundsnap.com) to dress up my sketches in some sort of cinematic soundscape. I’m getting close to completing this thing.
All that remains is the editing. And mixing.
I hate it so.
I’ve been editing and mixing (messing up) the tracks for a while. Maybe since June. In between, recording sketches, and getting adjusted to Los Angeles. I am just now starting over after I realized I didn’t know what I was doing and doing more harm than comedy. It’s not that bad, just time consuming and tedious. Basically, I was overdoing things. Adding too much compression, playing with too many plugins. I noticed this hum in one of the tracks and all my playing around had made things worse. I had meant to go back to my ”source file” which was just an edited version of the tracks before anything was “made amazing” by my self teaching a skill others take years to master. But I realized I had played with the source file I cut the clips out of before I edited them. Furthermore, my “source file” had been corrupted and huge chunks were missing (thanks, Audacity).
So now, its back to the original recordings of the two shows (and maybe the sketches–that is going to be a pain) and re-editing. It’s all part of the learning curve, but its frustrating learning the less you do and more subtly you do it, the better the result. I do think this “second pass” will make the album better. I’m noticing smoother ways to edit things than I did the first time as well as couple “hilarious gems” that I excluded. And I could always take it to a mastering house or some dude, but its fun putting it all together myself.
The big thing I am learning is that you can look at all the settings and set them according to things you read but the main tools you should use when working on audio are your ears. Which seems obvious but when you’re working with a computer screen the whole time you kind of forget which sense should remain in charge. Stay tuned!
*If you have questions on how to run a Kickstarter Campaign, feel free to ask. I’ll give this advice: A lot of people send mass e-mails. I realized that I don’t really read these when people send them to me. So, my strategy was to write up a mass e-mail blurb but I personalized each email with a note. Each email was sent individually with the program Email Merge X which I had hoped made my “campaign” seem less impersonal as 99.5% of my emails seem these days.