The Art of Monitoring
There’s an interesting psychological experiment you can try if you ever record someone and have control over their monitoring feed. Have them speak into a microphone, then give them a pair of headphones and make sure they can hear their microphone feed at a comfortable level. Have them talk or sing as normal so they’re consistently making a sound. Slowly turn up the headphone volume, and they’ll likely begin moving away from the microphone. Gradually turn down their headphones and they’ll likely move closer to the microphone. If you make the headphone adjustments very slowly and the person is inexperienced with recording, he or she will often be completely unaware of their movement as you adjust their headphone gain.
I’ve seen expert musicians, completely inexperienced in recording put on headphones in a recording studio, then unconsciously move their bodies to contour the sound captured on the microphone. Experienced musicians are hyper-aware of their sound and tone, so they’ll tend to move themselves to suit the recording. More than any piece of equipment, hypersensitivity to sound and tone is the biggest missing component from those new to audio recording. This is why monitoring and critical listening are essential for quality recordings.
As an exercise, practice speaking into a microphone and listen to your own voice in the mic at a fairly loud, but comfortable level. Focus exclusively on the audio tone, and adjust your distance, angle, and height relative to the microphone to find the best clearest, most crisp tone you can achieve. Make exaggerated movements to accentuate obvious contrasts in tone, and eventually, you’ll find the sweet spot where your voice sounds the best it can. Once you’ve found the perfect tone and position, you may find that the headphone level is louder or quieter, depending on whether or not you’ve moved closer or farther from the mic. Keeping yourself in the sweet spot, re-adjust the headphone level to where it should be; loud, but comfortable.
It’s important to keep the headphones somewhat loud as to hear every nuance of the recording, such as breaths, lip sounds, or friction from clothing. Ideally, the sound of the microphone should almost entirely drown out the acoustics of your own voice resonating in your head. This way, you’ll be able to hear things like extraneous noises from your environment in real-time and be able to correct them before recording.