Your holiday vacation to scenic Elizabeth, N.J. left you with hours of spellbinding footage: the tempest of turnpikes and toll booths, and the razzle-dazzle of refineries. Your video is so vibrant you can almost smell the air. You’ve edited the visuals of your masterpiece, and now it’s time to add some narration.
You know how to set up a mike, and you know what buttons to push to dub in a sound track, and you may even have a mixer permitting you to combine music and sound effects with your voiceover. But where do you go to voice your little script? The kitchen, with its refrigerator motor cycling on and off? The office, with the telephone ringing and the kids clamoring to use the computer? The basement is pretty quiet, except for the furnace that sounds like a space shuttle when it fires up. And, even if you send the family to McDonald’s and turn off the phones, heat and other noisemakers, you still end up with an echo-filled, hollow sound that reeks of amateurism.
You need a sound booth, a place impervious to outside noises, but with the acoustical treatment to reduce the echoes made inside. And while you’re at it, a little ventilation, some light and a place to sit might be nice.
But who wants to build a regulation sound booth for just one production? (Some of you would, I’m sure, convert your entire home to a sound and video stage, if it weren’t for that unenlightened family that lives with you.) Is there a way to create an announce booth for occasional use, one that is easy and cheap to build, doesn’t require much space, and can be set up and removed easily? Yes, there is, and there are several ways to do it.
The Instant, Portable, Ever-Present Sound Booth
If all you need is a quiet place to record narration, then here’s a tip. Do your voiceover in a mid-sized or luxury automobile. Closing the windows seals out most of the exterior noise. If your neighborhood is too noisy, drive to a quiet one, or to an empty parking lot. Parking the car in your garage provides even more silence.
Regarding interior echoes, the auto manufacturers have spent millions designing quiet car interiors. Most echoes are absorbed, and those sounds that hit the front and rear windows are reflected harmlessly downward. With a judiciously positioned omnidirectional microphone, you can capture the conversation of one to four people clearly. A single narrator can use the dashboard or glove compartment to hold notes, while a lavalier microphone efficiently picks up the sound. In a pinch, you could even use the camcorder’s microphone, if you positioned it close enough to you. It is easy to get plenty of light for reading your script. Seats are included, and often more comfortable than you’ll find in a million-dollar sound studio.
Here’s an extra bonus. If you don’t have a mixer, and want to include background music, guess what’s sitting there in the dash? A cassette or CD player with a volume control easily within reach (for those who must act as their own sound engineers). Who could ask for more?
One note of caution: Do not run the car engine in the garage at the same time you narrate. Your recitation could end in resuscitation.
Adapting a Room
Maybe the car idea is too funky for you, or you don’t relish explaining to your neighbors or to security what you were doing in the condo parking lot. Let’s try some in-the-home solutions.
First, find the quietest room in the house, or one that can be made quiet by temporarily turning off electrical appliances. Basements usually work well, because the cement walls stop most sounds and the dirt on the other side keeps pretty quiet. Footsteps overhead may be a problem, however, if you lack carpeting or have a pogo stick marathon occurring upstairs.
Attics are good sound booths, because family footsteps are muffled on the floor below. A vaulted ceiling would deflect echoes nicely, as would the attic’s bare rafters and exposed fiberglass insulation. Extreme temperatures may be a problem, and the roar of air traffic may penetrate the roof easily.
If you pick some other room in the house, make it one with an acoustical ceiling, a carpeted floor, soft furniture and heavy draperies to reduce sound reflections. The bigger the room, the weaker the sound reflections will be. Try to position yourself far from the walls, but not exactly equidistant from any two walls. In other words, be near the center, but a little off-center in the room. If you don’t have such a room, but have frequent need for one, you could appoint one room in your house with these features, making that room do double duty as perhaps your recreation room and as your sound stage.
Maybe heavy curtains and acoustical wall treatments seem inappropriate for an office, bedroom or garage. Here’s a solution: Put unobtrusive hooks in the corners of the room and, when you want to use it as a sound studio, run a clothesline through the hooks. Next, hang blankets, curtain material or even garments on clothes hangers from the line to act as temporary acoustical treatment. No kidding; clothes on hangers work marvelously. I recall once having to shoot an instructional video in a hospital room with hard walls and windows that echoed like a gym shower room. We found some rope, zigzagged it across the room and in front of the walls, and then hung doctors’ lab coats everywhere. We silenced the room, but all the doctors found themselves making rounds in their street clothes for the next hour.
The Portable Sound Booth
You can buy a professional, three-sided, 3.5-by-3.5-by-6.5-foot collapsible sound booth from Markertek Video Supply (www.markertek.com) for about $600. Or, you can just buy two-inch thick acoustical honeycomb foam panels in gray or blue for $20 to $30 per 54-by-54-inch sheet and build your own. Sonex (www.silentsource.com) is another manufacturer of foam panels. Its 2-by-2-foot panels cost $75 to $100 for four.
You could also create something yourself. Consider gluing egg cartons to 1/4-inch plywood, asking your local grocer for the discarded foam liners from his apple or orange crates or covering plywood with plush carpeting. If you ripple the carpeting into 2-inch bends, it will further reduce reverberation.
A small, simple, portable sound booth that you can put on a desk or table, could consist of two 2-by-2-foot panels joined along one side (like a book). Stand it up, opened halfway, and set your microphone on a stand (or prop your camcorder on a whipped cream tub) inside the enclosure. Try to have the quiet, non-reverberating part of the room to your back as you face the "open book." The little booth will repress sounds and cancel echoes from in front of you, while your body and the quiet wall behind you limit the noise from the opposite direction.
For added quietude, you could lay another panel over the top of the "open book" to create a roof, and throw some carpet or foam on the table to reduce sound reflections from below.
After all is said and done, you should end up with clear, crisp voiceovers without interference from household noises and room reverberations. Now, just spend a few minutes to make sure that your narration is worthy of all your sound-booth sanctuary efforts.