Sound Track: Studio Sound

Studio. The word brings to mind many images–expensive lights in an overhead grid, massive audio and video consoles, chromakey walls and headset-clad engineers. You know–the big time.

Truth be known, none of those things really define what a studio is. A studio is simply any space dedicated to shooting video on a somewhat regular basis. A studio could be a spare bedroom that does double-duty as the spouse’s sewing room, half of a two-car garage, or one corner of an empty warehouse. If it’s an indoor space that your tripod, some video lights and a few dusty silk plants call home, it’s a studio.

If you have a place you regularly shoot video, you’ve probably put plenty of thought into its visual appearance. But what about how your studio sounds? This month, we’ll explore some ways to make sure where you shoot sounds as good as it looks.

Don’t have a space dedicated to video? Read on anyway, and you’ll pick up plenty of tips you can apply to most any indoor shoot.

Acoustic Control

The acoustic properties of your room make a big difference to how your videos sound. Rooms where sound is free to reflect and bounce around make for bad-sounding video. Rooms with little bounce or reverb are generally much better for shooting video.

Why does the room matter? Consider a person speaking to the camera indoors. If the speaker’s voice bounces around too much, a fair amount of reflected sound finds its way into the mike. This delayed sound mixes with the direct sound to make the speaker’s voice seem distant and indistinct. Intelligibility goes down the tubes and the resulting audio lacks that up-front, powerful sound we’re after.

Objects that absorb and scatter sound are the keys to a good-sounding room. This explains why the average living room–complete with fluffy couches and thick carpet–is great for recording audio. Sofas, recliners and carpet are like black holes for sound, absorbing the acoustic energy before it has a chance to bounce away.

In contrast, four bare walls and a concrete floor are a recipe for audio disaster. Sound really has a good time in empty rooms, bouncing around freely off the bare reflective surfaces. Record audio in a room like this, and it will sound as if your studio was in a dumpster.

To tame the acoustics of a room, you need to absorb some of the bouncing sound. Carpet will help a great deal, as will smaller rugs scattered across the floor. Sliding a futon or couch into your shooting space will usually make a noticeable difference right off the bat. Objects that break up and scatter the sound waves also help. Bookshelves are good at scattering sound, as are chairs and cabinets and boxes.

To do it right, you can build simple, inexpensive sound-absorbing panels to hang on your walls. Construct a frame of 1-by-6 or 1-by-8 lumber, add a few firring strips as crossbraces and cover the frame with cheap muslin fabric. Fill the inside with strips of insulation to match the depth of the frame. Drive two screws into studs in the wall and hang the panel like you would a heavy picture frame. Scatter these panels across one-third to one-half of your wall area and you can make virtually any room suitable for shooting video. See Figure 1 for more details.

Incoming!

Cleaning up the acoustics of your shooting space is half the battle. The other half is making sure sounds coming from outside the room aren’t ransacking your audio. Keeping external noises out isn’t as easy as improving your room’s acoustics but there are several things you can do to reduce competing sound.

The first is to realize that where air moves freely, sound moves freely. If a window doesn’t seal fully, even a tiny slit will be enough to let a great deal of outside sound in. The large crack under an interior door is also great for letting sound pass unhindered.

Making a room more airtight is the goal. Caulk any cracks you can find around windows. Add weatherstripping to a window if it won’t close tightly. Put a sealing threshold beneath an interior door and weatherstrip the edges. At the very least, roll up a towel and place it along the door to seal the crack.

Even when sealed well, windows and lightweight doors allow a lot of sound to pass through. If you can replace a skinned door with a solid door, you’ll reduce sound transmission a great deal. If all that’s between your studio and a noisy street is a leaky old window, you may want to consider closing it off completely with a 2-by-4 frame and fiberglass insulation. If you seal your room up tight and outside sounds are still a problem, you may need to find a different place to shoot.

If you get your shooting space sounding good, you’ll have a lot more flexibility in where you put your microphones. With less competing noise and ambience, you can back your mikes off a bit and still have crisp, clear sound. That makes life easier for you and your talent alike.

Studio Miking

Beyond allowing you to do some sound treatments of the room itself, a studio offers several other benefits. Because it’s a known room that you have control over, you can refine your audio recording approach until you get the sound you’re after. Contrast this with shooting "in the field," where most everything is an unknown until you actually begin shooting.

The studio environment gives you complete control over the mikes you use and where you put them. You can customize your mike placement to match the type of shooting you do, and enjoy consistent audio every time.

Say you regularly shoot an interview-type segment with two people, two chairs and an end table. There are several permanent miking possibilities at your disposal, besides the obvious choice of a pair of lavalier mikes.

The first would be to hide a mike behind the coffee table at a point midway between the two people. You could aim a directional mike at an imaginary point between them, or use an omnidirectional mike to pick up everything in the immediate area. You could also devote an inexpensive, wired boundary mike to this setup by taping it to the back of the end table.

Carefully positioned, a small object on the end table could conceal a lavalier mike pointing back at the talent from on top of the table. This effectively turns the whole tabletop into a boundary microphone, giving you even pickup of everything above the table.

With your set set, so to speak, you can explore even more creative miking options. You’ve probably seen mikes hanging from church ceilings to pick up the choir. You can do the same thing above your set. Hang a directional mike from the ceiling a few feet in front of your talent on string or light wire. Run the wire up from one wall, through a hook, across the ceiling, through another hook and down to the mike. This arrangement allows you to adjust the height of the mike, or pull it up out of the way. Set another hook back several feet for the mike cable.

Simpler and nearly as effective is hanging the mike straight down a foot or two in front of your talent. A directional mike is best for rejecting other sounds, but it won’t be pointing directly at your talent’s mouths. This can make for a slightly duller sound. An omnidirectional mike may give you a crisper sound, but will pick up more competing noises.

It’s Your World

What else can you do to make your studio a great place to record? Build your own "On Air" light and position it outside your studio. Flip it on when you’re taping, and you’ll eliminate some of those poorly timed intrusions.

Eliminate clutter by buying cables long enough to wire-tie together and run along the walls of your studio. Better yet, buy an all-in-one cable called a "snake." Used primarily in live sound applications, a snake will cleanly carry multiple microphone signals on one large cable. You can buy a snake to carry anywhere from four to 32 microphone signals, and the cost is usually less than the same number of long mike cables.

Once you take control of your shooting space, there’s no limit to what you can do. With a little effort and some creative thought, you can have a studio that looks–and sounds–just like the ones the pros use.

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