Voice Recording in the Home Studio

May 22nd, 2013 | Yowei Shaw with Jeff Towne

HomeRecording- Porta Booth with iPhone

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. Jeff Towne (JT)

From Yowei Shaw

HomeRecording-AKG-BareIt’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.

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.

Listen: Cardioid Mic in Untreated Room

2) Underneath a Blanket on the Bed

HomeRecording-Under a BlanketBefore 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.

Listen: Shotgun Mic in Untreated Room

Listen: Shotgun Mic under Blanket

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)

HomeRecording-homemade Porta BoothI 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.

HomeRecording-Storage CubeI got the Whitmore 2-Pack on Amazon for around $14.

B. Buy 2-inch thick “Pyramid” style acoustic foam.

HomeRecording-Foam PiecesCut into three pieces: one 26″ x 14″ panel for the back wall and top and two 14″ x 14″ 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.

HomeRecording-Porta BoothPut 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.

Listen: Cardioid Mic in “Porta Booth”

4) Reflection Filter

HomeRecording-MXL Reflection FilterThere 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

Listen: Cardioid Mic with MXL Reflection Filter

Listen: Cardioid Mic with MXL Reflection Filter with acoustic foam on top

5) Blanket Behind Head

HomeRecording-BlanketBehindWith 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.

Listen: Cardioid Mic with Blanket suspended behind announcer

Listen: Cardioid Mic in “Porta Booth”with Blanket suspended behind announcer

6) The Closet

HomeRecording-AKG-In ClosetI 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.

Listen: Cardioid Mic facing into closet full of clothes

7) My Final Set-up… For Now

HomeRecording-AKG in Porta Booth in front of closetThis 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!)

Listen: Cardioid Mic in “Porta Booth” with hanging clothes behind announcer

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.

HomeRecording-CubePortableThe 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


46 Comments on “Voice Recording in the Home Studio”

  • John says:

    Thanks Yowei. Nice article with some very useful information. Can’t wait to try my sound booth!

  • Flawn Williams says:

    This is a good survey of techniques for increasing the ratio of direct to reflected sound. Particularly the improvement from having absorptive material behind you as well as in front of you around the mike.

    One thing to be aware of with some of these products, like the SE Reflexion filter: not everything they do is absorption or diffusion. The SE also reflects some of the energy from your voice back at the mike, which provides some early reflections (less than a millisecond delayed) that help to mask the later reflections that come from beyond the baffle. In this regard it’s acting a little bit like a parabolic dish. Other, softer materials do less of this and rely more on absorption and diffusion to reduce the later-arriving reflections.

    • Jeff Towne says:

      Excellent point, as always, Flawn! And I agree that the SE Reflexion Filter Pro is the best-sounding of any of the solutions I tried, but it’s also pretty expensive (~$300ish). And as I mentioned in the piece, it’s pretty cumbersome to set-up and move around, so it has some down-sides. And in the end, as much as this will annoy the SE people, I found the differences to be subtle. The differences are there: there’s a more open, airy sound to the SE, compared to the foamed-up cube, but then the SE also lets in a bit more room than most of us like – the person using the SE I tested usually lays a piece of Sonex across the top of the SE Reflexion filter when tracking. And all of them sounded better with something absorptive behind the announcer. The good news is that you can improve your recordings without spending a ton of money, and you can get close to the results you get from some pre-assembled commercial products. The results will always be a little different depending on the room, and the mic and the individual voice being recorded. But yes, you might actually get some improvement by spending the money on the SE Reflexion filter, but it will be a subtle difference from some of the cheaper solutions…

  • Eliza says:

    Clever cube idea! Folding Shoji screens with blankets/quilts thrown over make a quick-to-set-up voice recording space. I found a screen with dowels for curtains, and the curtains between with a blanket thrown over seem to trap nicely.

  • Frank Pittenger says:

    Great tips. Your ideal setup produces better VO than I sometimes get as an audio post editor. Don’t forget the pop filter!

  • Larry Vaughn says:

    If you wet and freeze foam it’s easier to cut cleanly, if you use something durable enough to cut through it. What about using the back seat of a car for a studio? Lots of upholstery to absorb reflections.

    • Jeff Towne says:

      Car interiors are not terrible places to record, they actually do isolate from the outside world pretty well, carmakers work hard to reduce the amount of noise transmitted from the outside to the inside of a car. Depending on the kind of upholstery, it might be absorptive enough to reduce any echoes and reverberations. That said, recording inside a car can still result in a “roomy” sound of its own – you’ve heard it in films and TV shows – there’s a certain sound of being inside a car, a tubby, low-midrange resonance. Also, if the car in question happens to be parked in a garage, that’s one thing, but if it’s on the street, or even outside in a driveway, there’s a decent chance of getting outside noise on your recording. The car insulates pretty well, but not completely… And of course the car has to be off, so, depending on the outside weather, it can be too hot or cold. But cars are worth keeping in mind if the only alternatives are noisy or echoey spaces.

  • Demitri Jarr says:

    Wonderful sound quality!
    Back seat of the car may work as long as it is a good car surrounding in an isolated area. Room is nice, we can always lock it and well, it is difficult to prevent to noise from the window and from the back even with the current solution.
    Anyway, I love this budget and practical solution to record sound. Sometime I just want an easy solution to record something on my phone and post it there, just for fun. Anyone know any app? The mic with the phone is generally pretty good right?

  • One trick on cutting foam is to freeze it first. Then use a sharp, serrated knife.
    Of course, that means your freezer has to be big enough to hold the foam… ;^)

    • Ooops! Just read that same tip above – sorry to be redundant.

      • Excellent round-up; thanks.

        I found it easy to cut foam with just a pair of kitchen scissors.

        I have a different question: what are you using to read a script from the iPhone? I find if I save as PDF then the text is often too small and not easy to scroll. Ideally I suppose I would make a web page and then save in Instapaper. But …

  • Yowei says:

    Hey Jeremy – that’s a really good question. Generally, I just email the script to myself as a regular doc and open it up as a word doc on my phone through email. The text is pretty small, but it’s big enough for me to read and easily scroll through. I just sent myself a pdf and opened it up on my iPhone and the text is tiny!

    I’m sure there’s a better solution to the iPhone script-reading problem, but opening as a word doc may be an improvement on the pdf for now…

  • EQUALLOUDNESS says:

    Cool post! If you use the Adobe Acrobat Reader iOS app, text viewing sizes will be less tiny. The Box and Dropbox apps also handle pdfs better than Mail.

  • neguentropie says:

    I notice that the sibilants sounds (f s ch v z j) produced harsch sounds. More with women voices.
    May be because of the mic used.
    I found that if I orient slightly the mic towards the neck of the speaker instead of her mouth, it improves greatly.

    Good tips, thank you!

  • Andy Raskin says:

    Thank you for a great piece! I’ve been using a cheap (< $100) commercial reflection filter with small pillows resting above AND below it. I didn't notice anything in the piece about the area under the mic, but in my home setup, the mic is pretty close to the desk, so I figured that the area underneath it would be an important place to add absorption. Is it?

  • Hi, all. Great article as usual for transom.org. On the iPhone reading issues, there are a few teleprompter-type apps that might work well for this purpose. That said, I haven’t used any and, so, can’t recommend any.

  • Margaret P. says:

    This post could make a great 10-minute play…

  • Great post. There’s an old and very cheap trick that works fairly well, especially if you are traveling, and maybe tracking in a hotel room. Find an umbrella. Hold it right on the top of your head, and track away. It helps break the standing wave, and gives you a bit of the cone of silence effect.

  • cece says:

    Question: Can egg trays replace the foam to create that box booth?

  • Gabriel says:

    You could just buy a MXL BCD-1 Dynamic Microphone. Will not have to sound proof the room.

    • Jeff Towne says:

      I don’t believe that there’s any microphone that completely eliminates the need for sound treatment. It would have been too long and tedious to post all the soundfiles, but we tried LOTS of different mics, with many different pick-up patterns, in Yowei’s room, with and without various treatments, and everything sounded echoey without some kind of baffling and/or absorptive materials nearby. Large diaphragm dynamic mics with a cardioid pattern, like the EV RE-20, or the Shure SM7 are very popular in radio studios for their tight pick-up patterns.The MXL BCD-1 you mentioned performs in a similar fashion. That pick-up pattern does REDUCE some sonic problems of untreated rooms, but it doesn’t eliminate the problems completely.

    • juuggernaut says:

      Being from Germany I’m partial to the Sennheiser md46 interview microphone: you can record in a bar, on the street, at demonstrations, and it’ll carry the speaker easily. I’ve used it to record myself in my basement without any sound precautions and was impressed.

  • Colin Kirkpatrick says:

    Hey,

    I’ve been looking into getting the MXL- RF100. Love the dual mounting ability, but there is not much chatter about the product. As you have one and have tested it, what are your thoughts about it? Would you recommend it?

    - Colin :)

  • Jp Kallio says:

    I used a blanket in a cardboard box in my last recording as my office room is very small and boxy. This simple trick improved the vocal sound substantially. I was looking in to buying one of the SE Electronics reflexion filters, but Now I’m thinking your box might do the job. Thanks for the great post.

  • Joey Ambrose says:

    Great post guys! I was looking at boxing out a corner of the room to create a mini sound booth, but this sure sounds like a better solution to try before spending that kind of money. What’s cool is that you took the time to post clips so we can hear the difference. Very helpful.

  • Aaron says:

    Thank you for the audio files comparing the different setups. I’m working on a sound booth for my own recordings now.

    Thanks again.

  • Tyrone Gibbs says:

    Great post. Thanks for the dimistrations. A lot of people have this problem when it comes to recording in your own home studio.

  • fattom says:

    Great post and so meaningful. Would you please get me into details what should I look at while looking for a mic for recording? What you used is so expensive ($150) and I am not planning to spend that much of money for this! So if I found something else in more reasonable price, what requirements does it have to get a good one?
    and is there something special for the speakers?

  • kenneth says:

    Can you please tell me where you got that mic stand? .

Links to “Voice Recording in the Home Studio”

Leave a Comment