After a recent session, as we were saying our goodbyes, the voice actor asked me, “can I ask a technical question?”
He, and many others before him, wanted to know how he could improve his home studio setup. He was having some trouble getting the sound he wanted, but was left wondering if it was his mic, or the preamp, or the converter, or maybe he needed a de-esser, or could it be his cable?
He emailed later:
Oh, man. Entering into the home studio world is like crawling down a hole with no bottom. It just keeps going and gets more confusing. I’ve read so many blogs, articles and forums. I’ve watched videos ranging from some guy’s cell phone all the way to professionally produced training videos for Lynda.com. There is so much confusing science and conflicting advice out there that any confidence in my choices only lasts a short while.
Yeah, I’ve been there. Having fretted over hundreds of thousands of dollars in gear purchases and studio construction over the decades, I still sometimes find myself wondering, “will this finally get me ‘the sound?’ But, there’s also that, and this other one. And this one is just so shiny!”
It’s taken me longer than I’d like to admit to grow confident in my ears, my understanding of audio, and the recording choices I make. All the marketing, pseudoscience, subjectivity and conjecture can be overwhelming.
But confident I am—finally—and I’d like to share some simple recipes for a good home studio.
First, let’s investigate “real” studios. They can be expensive and intimidating. All the gear is gold-plated, it seems, and only the best neodymium-clad zero-oxygen copper triple-isolated quad cables are used. But half of it is a load of crap and, to an extent, selected for highly subjective or aesthetic reasons. However, there are a few key aspects of commercial studios you should strive to imitate at home:
- Real studios have great acoustics and isolation.
- Real studios pay attention to signal flow.
- Real studios are built to always be working, and have backups.
- Real studios know that “if it sounds good, it is good,” regardless of any other factor.
I’d like to point out that I didn’t mention any gear; no mics, preamplifiers, compressors, converters—nothing of the sort. While there is definitely a minimum bar to meet in choosing your equipment, gear by itself will not make yours a great home studio, particularly if your goal is to create professional-quality voice-over recordings. Still, we’ll get to some equipment recommendations in later posts. For this post, let’s go back to Number 1 on that list above, Acoustics and Isolation.
Acoustics and Isolation
The acoustic and isolating treatment of the recording space is the number one priority of the home studio builder. Provided you’ve got a microphone and recording setup, do nothing else until you’ve got the acoustic and isolation elements good enough, and then work on upgrading your equipment.
“Acoustics” are different from “isolation.” Acoustics are the quality of the sound, like perhaps the focus in a photograph. You want the subject to be the center of attention, and if there is any background, you want it to frame the subject as to enhance its artistic portrayal. Isolation is the ability to block out unwanted, extraneous sounds from your recording, which could be likened to someone photobombing a picture. No one likes to review carefully captured photos only to realize some cretin in the background has made rude gestures in most of them. Both acoustics and isolation are handled differently, with isolation being the most difficult.
For the voice artist, your goal is a clean, uncluttered capture of narration. And that’s luckily easily achieved compared to some of the types of sound environments studios try to create for recorded music. You’re going for “dead,” or a lack of any acoustic character of the room you’re in. No caverns or cathedrals, tiled bathrooms, or echoing staircases, which create reverberant acoustic environments that are often added in music production. Just your voice in a dry vacuum.
Unfortunately, a normal, untreated residential room will be replete with unwanted echoes, reflections off the floor, ceiling, walls and furniture. In addition, low frequency sounds will often slosh around in an uncontrolled room and can make the recorded sound too boomy or too thin. Or sometimes, incredibly, both.
“Echoey,” “boomy” and “thin” are not the adjectives you think of when describing a good voice-over. Certainly not professional, and barely even acceptable for auditions.
To fix this, the first place to look will be a closet, full of clothes. Climb in, close the door and start speaking. You should immediately hear the characteristic dryness of a well-damped room. All those clothes are acting as acoustic absorbers, and they are by happenstance arranged rather perfectly: lots of layers of soft, absorbent materials hung loosely with air gaps between them. No joke—you could work your entire career between a few slacks and some winter coats
Despite its acoustic properties though, closets do often lack ergonomics. They’re too tight and dark to work in comfortably, and there’s that vague smell of mothballs. So you’ll want to create a dedicated workspace that feels more comfortable, but retains the acoustic aspects of the clothes-filled closet.
Let’s start small. Most microphones used for voice work have a cardioid pattern, The word takes its root from the Greek for “heart,” like “cardiologist” does, and means that the microphone “hears” in a heart-shaped pattern:
Cardioid Pickup Pattern
This heart-shaped response pattern causes a cardioid microphone to be most sensitive to things in front of it, less sensitive to sounds at the sides, and least sensitive to sounds coming from behind. Assuming you know which side of your microphone is the front, we can use this pattern to our advantage.
Grab some soft blankets, a duvet, or anything else you think might replicate the soft and absorbent qualities we found in the closet. Find a solid corner in your room and nail, tack, glue or prop up the absorbing materials to both walls of the corner. Place your mic so that its front is facing the corner, and the back is out to the open room. The mic will be “hearing” the corner most, and not the rest of the room.
Even better, hang the blankets some space away from the wall. This way, any soundwaves that do escape through the blankets will have to travel through a bit of air before hitting the reflective wall and bouncing all the way back to your microphone—a lot of work for air molecules to accomplish.
All this can sound much better than the bare room, but we can do more. Next, let’s drape a blanket around the top, sides, and back of the microphone to even further attenuate room reflections. You’ll need a frame of some sort to do this properly. It could be some quickly nailed together 2x4s or PVC piping fitted together in a small cage tall enough to surround the microphone and leave about 9-12 inches of space all around.
This is the basic premise of acoustic treatment: stop unwanted reflections from entering the microphone by absorbing them before they can bounce back and into the recorded signal. Absorb that energy with soft, fibrous material in as many thick, loose layers as possible.
Clothes and blankets can work well, but there are other materials with better absorbing characteristics. As you get more serious, or if you grow tired of sagging blankets on your wall, you’ll want to construct something more permanent and effective. In a later post, I’ll provide plans for more permanent treatment—the very same we used in the construction of our studio’s booths.
For now though, we’ll turn our attention to:
Stop and listen a bit to the room you’re in. If I quit typing for a moment and listen critically to the sounds in my home office, I can hear:
- The refrigerator
- Rain drops from the gutter
- My computer’s fans
- The cat grooming himself two rooms away
- A bird
- A plane
- A few errant clicks and pops that I can’t quite place
And I don’t have the heat or air conditioning on, which would have drowned out a lot of it. None of these (especially the HVAC) belong in a voice recording; they’re pollutants.
Preventing these sounds from getting into your recording is going to be tough. There is simply no fast, easy or inexpensive way to achieve isolation from the noises of the outside world. The heart of the problem is that air, the main medium of sound, will find any available way to get around, over, under or through an obstacle. Worse than that, sound that hits a barrier will also make that barrier vibrate, and those vibrations will cause the air on the other side to vibrate, which is how sound transmits through solid objects. The only solution is a massive and airtight room, and that’s expensive in cost and effort.
Until you’re ready for that expense, you’ll have to make do. Find a windowless room. Record in the early mornings, late evenings, or whenever your home is at its most quiet, free from the traffic and bustle of your neighbors and family. Turn off everything you can that makes a noise: the HVAC, the fridge (don’t forget to turn it back on afterwards!), and any other appliances that might be wheezing, chattering, whining or clicking. Place your computer in another room, or cover it with a blanket (providing some airflow) to muffle its fan and disk noises. Put towels under the door and shut it.
But these are all stop-gap measures, so in a DIY, unisolated recording environment, it is crucial to be mindful of the noise around you as you record. Did a plane just fly overhead? Redo the take. A car with a booming radio drive by? Rerecord. Always be aware of your surroundings—because the microphone definitely will be.
That’s about all you can do until you’re ready to commit to some serious expense and construction. When that time comes, look for a future post in which I detail how we achieved isolation at our studios, and how you can do the same in your home.
In the next post, we’ll look at signal flow, a critical piece of knowledge that helps separate professionals from amateurs.