Intro from Jeff Towne: A common dilemma for independent producers is how to record professional-sounding narration outside of a studio. Building a sound booth means major construction: It's expensive, takes up space, and can be impractical for renters and those in a small homes. Are there affordable alternatives? Independent producer Yowei Shaw has tried a few options, and she’s found a good solution for recording her voice tracks at home.
From Yowei Shaw
It’s the middle of the night. The housemates have gone to bed. The city streets are finally quiet, save a siren or dog barking here and there… And there’s my cue! Time to huddle under a blanket and track narration on my bed.
This scenario probably sounds familiar to a lot of you out there. Maybe switch crouching under a blanket for squeezing into a closet. As much as I love regaling friends with DIY home recording tales, the truth is, it gets kind of old. I get all sweaty. It’s easy to overheat. And it’s hard to hold the mic steady, while hunched over, scrolling through the script on my iPhone, keeping an eye on recording levels, and trying to deliver the best tracks I can. Did I mention there’s a blanket on top of me during all this?
As a freelance radio producer and reporter, I don’t have regular access to a professional recording studio. I do get to use a studio when I’m reporting a story for the local NPR station, but for other programs and outlets, I’m mostly on my own for tracking.
Though I was able to find a workable way to track at home with pretty decent audio, I wanted an upgrade in both sound quality and ease of use, while still not breaking the bank. I wanted to get closer to the tight, dead sound of a studio environment. And as it turns out, I’m lucky enough to live in the same area as Transom Tools Editor Jeff Towne, who kindly agreed to stop by and help me find a better tracking solution. Here are some notes from our investigation. Hope they’re of some use.
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1) No Sound Treatment in Room
I live in a 14 ft x 11 ft room on the second floor of an old, creaky row house with hardwood floors. My bed takes up most of the room and I have a little couch and sheer curtains for the window. That’s it for soft things. To get a sense of what it normally sounds like in my room, here I am, tracking with an AKG 220 cardioid condenser mic on a mic stand on my dresser. As you can hear, the audio is echoey and my voice bounces off the walls and floors of my room — which is unacceptable audio for most tracking standards.
2) Underneath a Blanket on the Bed
Before getting my AKG Perception mic and a Focusrite Scarlett USB interface, I tracked my narration with an AudioTechnica 8035b condenser shotgun mic, recording directly into my Marantz PMD661. In this scenario, I’m huddled on my bed with the Marantz and shotgun mic, with a comforter draped over my head. Besides the hard, slightly over-focused sound of my voice from the shotgun mic, I think the audio is actually pretty good; it totally works from a sonic standpoint. But the cons still stand: too hot, dark, hard to juggle equipment, difficult to breathe and read a script, encourages bad posture, etc.
It’s important to make a distinction between soundproofing and sound treatment. Soundproofing: blocking all outside sounds from reaching your microphone, or containing the sounds you’re making, requires substantial construction. Stopping sound transmission requires a combination of mass and dead airspace, such as the double-walls and airtight seals of a conventional sound booth. But sound treatment: reducing echoes and sound reflections, is easier, and can be done on a smaller scale. In many cases, creating a small sound-treated environment around your microphone can make recording at home viable. This kind of tactic is not going to be effective if your recording space is subject to a lot of extraneous noise, or if you’re trying not to wake a sleeping baby; none of these techniques creates a silent, isolated sound chamber. But if your space is relatively quiet, though too echoey or “roomy” sounding, there are some relatively simple answers. —JT
3) Portable Vocal “Sound Booth” (i.e., Fabric Cube with Acoustic Foam)
I had heard about these small, inexpensive portable vocal recording booths and wanted to try one out, especially since you can make one for about $25 (or you can buy a pre-made version for a lot more). The proponents of the “Porta-Booth” claim that this device can make your recorded voice sound warm and full, and make your microphone sound tight, instead of picking up the ambient sound of the entire space of your room. I followed the exact instructions on Harlan Hogan’s Porta-Booth page, but here are the basic steps:
A. Buy a 14″ x 14″ collapsible fabric cube.
I got the Whitmore 2-Pack on Amazon for around $14.
B. Buy 2-inch thick “Pyramid” style acoustic foam.
Cut into three pieces: one 26″ x 12″ panel for the back wall and top and two 12″ x 12″ panels for the sides of the fabric cube. I was able to get a 2 ft by 4 ft panel of Auralex 2-inch thick pyramid foam for $20 on eBay. Cutting acoustic foam cleanly can be a challenge, but it’s simple with an inexpensive electric carving knife and not too bad with a good serrated knife.
C. Place the foam in the cube.
Put the long panel on the back wall, folding over to cover the top, then put the smaller foam panels on the sides of the fabric cube, and place your mic on a stand on the bottom of the cube, near the opening. Your head doesn’t need to be inside the booth for it to work. As long as your microphone is in the cube, and you’re speaking just outside the cube, directing your voice into the cube, you should be getting the benefits of the booth. If you want, you can cut a hole in the back of the cube to fit a mic cable through.
After trying the booth out with a few different mics, we learned that yes, the booth does help with getting rid of some of the ambient sound of the room. It’s better than no sound treatment, but the recorded voice can still sound a little echoey and boomy. But we found that a few additional tweaks to your recording space can improve things even more. And obviously, like any of the options short of building walls and isolating floors, the “Porta-Booth” can’t block hardcore sound intrusions. You’ll still hear loud traffic, sirens, dogs barking outside, and housemates flushing the toilet.
4) Reflection Filter
There are several commercial products on the market these days that work in the same way as the collapsible cube: by absorbing and blocking audio reflections right around the microphone. These “reflection filters” have the advantage of being pre-built, looking professional, mounting directly onto a microphone stand, and providing a solid mount for your mic. The downsides are that they can be heavy, cumbersome, less collapsible, and more expensive than the homemade cube.
We also discovered that most reflection filters did not have any absorptive material positioned above the microphone like the “Porta-Booth”cube does. A piece of foam laid across the top usually improved the sound. There is variation in the performance of the various reflection filters: the most effective is probably the first model to gain attention, the “Reflexion Filter Pro” made by SE Electronics. It has a combination of metal, fabric and airspace that is very effective, but it’s large, heavy, and expensive. There are other versions that mimic the Reflexion Filter’s design, and others that share the curved shape but that are basically just acoustic foam on a plastic backing. Those simpler baffles are not quite as effective, but they’re lighter and cheaper.
We tested the MXL RF-100, which shares some structural similarities with the SE Electronics devices, but is a little more affordable. SE Electronics makes some more affordable models too, and Auralex, Cascade, MXL and other companies have gotten in the game as well. Our tests indicated that the home-built cube was as effective as most of the commercially-produced baffles, but it’s a little trickier to get in an ideal position. If you need something that mounts to a mic stand, or has a more professional appearance, you might want to purchase one of these mic baffles. —JT
5) Blanket Behind Head
With both the cube and the MXL mic baffle, there still was some room echo, and this was where we made probably our most exciting discovery. Jeff tried holding a blanket behind me, standing about a foot behind where I was sitting, and the sound got much tighter and less echoey. We tried this with and without the “porta-booth” and found that the booth + blanket option sounded the best. Of course, having someone stand behind you holding a blanket is not really practical, but if you can drape a heavy blanket or comforter over a clothesline, or a garment rack, or some other tall structure, and position it a few feet behind you, you can improve your sonic environment significantly.
6) The Closet
I have a tiny closet in my bedroom, the kind you can’t comfortably climb inside, close the door, and record your tracks. Believe me, I’ve tried. However, Jeff and I wanted to see if the hanging clothes in my closet would work the same or better than a blanket. I tried sitting on the floor, facing out of the closet, the clothes behind me, like the blanket had been. I think the results are pretty similar to having a blanket suspended behind me — it probably comes down to which set-up is easier to do in your room. Do you have a trusty friend to hold a blanket behind you every time you track? Can you hang a blanket easily on a clothesline or hooks in your room? Do you have enough clothes in your closet? You may not have to sit on the floor to try this closet option, but I do, because I can’t even fit a chair in the closet — the door only opens part way before it bangs into the couch.
7) My Final Set-up… For Now
This is the set-up I’ve decided to use for tracking from now on. Here I am, sitting on the floor of my closet, facing the room and talking into the cube, which I’ve placed on a little table that also has enough room for my laptop and USB interface. Of course, there are other options that can also work great, but since I already have a closet that sounds as good as the blanket option, I decided to work with that, rather than find a way to hang my blanket up. (Plus, during the winter, I need all the blankets on my bed!)
If you listen closely, there’s still a low rumble in the audio (because of my house, because of the city, both?), but that can be mitigated with EQ, I’m told…
Yes — the ventilation noise in many buildings, traffic sounds, and other vibration-based noises can be very hard to block, even with professionally-built sound booths, but you can reduce the problem by using a low-cut (or “high-pass”) filter. Your microphone may have a switch that does this, or you can use EQ when you mix. -JT
I feel like this is definitely an upgrade from my original blanket-over-my-head set-up. I can breathe easily and sit up straight. I have light and room to record directly into my computer. I’m not sweating as much. I can easily grab a drink of water.
The whole thing is easy to put up and take down. The fabric cube and acoustic foam doesn’t take up much space; I can even pack it into a shopping bag to take somewhere else if I need to. And most importantly – it sounds good! It may not be the same as an actual sound booth, but I think the audio is tighter and less tinny than under the blanket on a bed.
Some other things to consider: the most popular announce mics tend to have a cardioid pick-up pattern. That makes the mic more sensitive at its front, and much less sensitive around the sides and back. Using a mic with this pattern, along with placing sound-absorbing material around the sides and back by using a mic baffle or the fabric cube, will reduce the echoey reflections that reach the mic.
A mic with an omnidirectional pick-up pattern is likely to still record too much room sound, even with these treatments. At the other extreme, a shotgun mic can be too focused, and sound sharp or hollow, compared to a mic with a wider cardioid pattern.
Also, make sure the microphone is placed far enough back into the baffle or cube. You don’t need to get your head all the way inside the device, but part of the way these devices work is for the sound-absorptive material to catch your voice rather than having it bounce around the room, so talk INTO the baffle, not past it. And get close to the mic – not so close that you get over-boomy or start popping your P’s – but close enough that your direct voice sound is much more present than any remaining echoes or reflections.
Again, these sound treatments are not the same thing as a full-on sound booth, but they can provide a viable alternative for recording at home, when space, and money, is at a premium. —JT