Room Without a View

Anyone who has ever struggled to record a clean voiceover appreciates the importance of a dedicated recording space.

This month’s Sound Advice focuses on three different methods for creating an audio-friendly space – improvised booths, temporary and permanent spaces – each with their own benefits and challenges. They range from free to modestly priced, from very simple to fairly complicated. So start looking around the house for the perfect place to create your very own personal recording space.

Real Estate and Physics

A properly designed and constructed recording studio is an expensive luxury few can afford. A great deal of time, effort and funding is spent optimizing room dimensions and construction materials. Electrical and mechanical systems are isolated from the workspace. Interior design elements and furnishings are carefully selected for their acoustic and aesthetic impact. In short, neither homes nor office buildings are recording studios. But that’s where you and I work, and sometimes we need to record voices, musical instruments and even sound effects. What to do?

Don’t despair, fellow videographer, there are plenty of options for us too. In fact, there are more acoustic treatment products and information sources today than ever before. We’ll start with some simple alternatives and work our way up to more sophisticated options.

A Night at the Improv

Improvised recording spaces have been around since there were microphones to record audio. One of the simplest – and one you may already have – is a walk-in closet. Why is this so great? First, it’s located away from the main living space, minimizing the risk of interruptions. Next, there’s a door to shut out the rest of the world and a light for reading. Finally, there are rows of sound absorbers hanging from the walls. We call them clothes. If there’s carpet on the floor, consider that an extra bonus. A professional vocal booth is a quiet place that minimizes audio noise. Your improvised closet/booth won’t equal an expensive space, but it will work for most basic recording tasks.

I’ve seen and done some pretty crazy things to create quickie vocal booths. One involved standing three twin-size mattresses on end to form a “booth”. Don’t laugh, it worked pretty well, it was free and only took a couple of minutes to set up. In fact, you can use anything soft and thick as a sound absorber. You could hang blankets from light stands or clamp them through the grid of a suspended ceiling. I even draped some shag carpeting over baseboard trim scraps to form a three-sided workspace. Unfortunately, the carpet was old and musty (ugh!)

Here’s a recording challenge: you’re out on location and need to record a voice over or a quick dialog replacement. The talent can’t come back and there’s nowhere to record. Try recording in your car. Most newer vehicles have very quiet interiors. Those with cloth covered upholstery are well suited to substitute as a vocal booth. Roll up the windows, turn off the engine and you have a quick and free recording space. No, it’s not perfect, but it’s available and mobile, just in case you need to relocate to a quieter environment. On-location news crews do this all the time.

Temporary Dwellings

If you need a vocal booth on a regular basis, but have no room for a permanent solution, consider the portable variety. Clearsonic, Soundforms and others make portable sound booths that break down for easy storage or shipping. They’re not cheap, but they’re a perfect professional fix for temporary setups. If this is the kind of booth you’re looking for, but don’t have the funds, there are alternatives for creative types. We don’t have the space for construction plans, but imagine a box framed from PVC pipe, four feet square and six feet high. The walls could be either sound absorbing foam or sound blankets from Markertek. At roughly $20 each, sound blankets are a great bargain. In shooting situations you can use them for sound control.

If your isolation requirements aren’t as strict, consider a small tabletop or mic-mounted sound absorbing solution. For podcasts and other basic audio chores, try a simple baffle made from ” plywood and sound absorbing foam. Build the frame from two 24″ x 24″ squares of wood. Then glue sound absorbing foam to the surfaces. The baffle is set up as a 90-degree corner behind your microphone. Two or more of these systems would be great for recording a commentary track to go with your latest video feature. An even simpler alternative is the Aural Xpander from Auralex Acoustics. These foam baffles install behind the microphone and block stray sounds.

Permanent Fix

It’s a serious commitment, but the best way to go if you really need a permanent solution is extensive. There are plenty of tips and resources on the Internet. The Auralex Acoustics Web site has free downloadable resources in its ‘Acoustics 101″ section of its site – the perfect place to start. It explains the details of studio construction along with several insider tips and tricks. You’ll also have a permanent professional solution for recording voices, small instruments and sound effects, along with that great DIY pleasure.

Now, in your excitement to construct a vocal recording booth, don’t forget some of the creature comforts you need to treat your vocal talent properly. You have a mic, but did you remember the windscreen and a comfortable pair of headphones? An adjustable music stand is nice to hold the copy. And a bright reading light that won’t shine directly in the eyes. A couple of chilled water bottles would be nice too. Finally, if your booth isn’t air conditioned, provide a fan for circulation between takes.

Absorbing Thoughts

Look at your recording needs and decide what option is best for your productions. If you only record one voice-over a year, you don’t need a permanent structure. But if you’re recording more often, consider at least one of our simpler suggestions. Your voice recordings will be cleaner, clearer and easier to edit. Your clients will notice the difference too and you won’t have to explain the rumble of a trash truck in the background of their Alaskan Cruise video.

Contributing Editor Hal Robertson is a digital media
producer and technology consultant.