Mic Baffles – by Jeff Towne
It’s a charming image of DIY ingenuity: a reporter, without access to a proper sound booth, sitting in bed, a blanket over the head forming a tent to block the reverberations of the room. A microphone is in one hand, a flashlight pointed at a script in the other. Variations on this scenario abound – crouching in a closet amongst hanging clothes, spreading carpeting or a heavy towel across a desk, the mythical egg cartons stapled to the wall (which doesn’t really do much, by the way…)
It’s a fact of the independent producer’s life: professional vocal booths are expensive and take up a lot of space. But recording yourself in an untreated room often results in tracks that sound echoey, distant and unbalanced. Some acoustical mediation is often needed, but there has to be a better way than huddling under blankets.
In the last few years, a few companies have released curved or V-shaped baffles that wrap around behind a microphone, absorbing reflections and blocking sounds from the rear and sides. It’s important to note that despite some marketing hype, these are not replacements for real sound booths; a small barrier with some absorptive material can never give the same kind of isolation that sealed rooms with heavy walls and double-windows will. But these simple baffles can improve the quality of your recordings if you’re faced with an echoey room, or some kinds of background noise. These devices are more comfortable to use than a blanket over the head, and will generally sound better too, but don’t expect too much: if your recording space has a lot of background noise, these devices will not eliminate that. But they can reduce the liveness of many spaces and block some ambient sound, resulting in more professional-sounding recordings.
The company sE Electronics released the first one like this, and their Reflexion Filter Pro does a good job, but it’s large, heavy, and cumbersome. That is not a problem for a semi-permanent installation, but it’s a little clunky to set-up and take down frequently. And it’s not cheap: the “Pro” model sells for almost $300. They’ve since released a lighter and more affordable model for project studios, the PSRF, that sells for $170. It doesn’t provide quite as good a barrier as the Pro model, but still can be effective.
Not surprisingly, some other companies have made similar products. A few variations from the company called Primacoustic are especially intriguing. Their $99 VoxGuard provides a curved foam-lined baffle, built on a lightweight ABS backing, making it easier to mount on conventional mic stands than heavier versions.
At the AES, they showed a prototype of a new product, tentatively called the Podcaster, which is made up of larger flat panels which fold flat, then open out into a three-sided barrier, making for easy set-up on a desktop or tabletop. Their representatives on the show floor predicted that it would sell for about $150.
The big brother of that tri-fold screen is the cabinet-like Flexibooth. It looks a little more like a storage solution from IKEA than an acoustical product, but this sturdy box is lined with professional-level absorptive fiberglass panels. When the doors are opened, it forms a small sonic sanctuary – it’s quite remarkable how effective those materials are – the hubbub of the loud exhibit floor was dramatically reduced when I stuck my head between the splayed doors. The $400 Flexibooth is a more serious investment in more ways than one; it would be best permanently mounted to a wall, and takes up more space than the other solutions discussed here. That higher price pays off with greater noise mediation, but with the trade-off of bulk and expense.
There are a few other companies offering similar products: curved or folded panels with foam on them. It wouldn’t be too hard to build something, if you have some acoustical foam lying around, or can purchase a piece or two. But remember, these devices will reduce reflections, and block some extraneous noise, but they can’t magically erase the traffic outside your window or the barking of your neighbor’s dog. These baffles can make you sound less like you’re recording in a tile bathroom, but true soundproofing requires heavy walls, tight seams and vibration isolation. If a full isolation booth is not practical, try one of these. At least your hair will be less charged with static electricity from pulling that blanket over your head.