Fix your recording space
Continuing with the 10 things you need to know when starting out in voiceover.
Number 3: Fix your recording space. In the first of these series of blogs, I mentioned that you must train your ear. Once you have started to really hear what good quality audio sounds like, it is time to take a good hard look at your recording space. If you’ve been doing your research, you should already know what every sound engineer says about a VO’s home set-up: The quality of your recording space is far more important than the quality of your microphone.
Creating a recording space can be daunting. There is so much information out there. Do you buy a Studio Bricks easy to build studio? Can you convert a closet into a studio? Is a PVC pipe structure with moving blankets acceptable?
The first thing we need to do is stop sound reflections. Sound waves are pesky little blighters. Once they leave your mouth, they bounce around hard surfaces like punk rockers in a mosh pit. And once they have finished bumping into each other they return to the microphone and introduce reverb. This gives an echo sound to your recording which makes the audio, well, pretty much useless. It is extremely difficult to remove reverb from the recording in post-production – which is just a fancy name for after the audio has been recorded.
“Stop talking and give me an example” I hear some of you say. Well, although that is slightly rude and bit pushy, I agree with you. The best way to learn in my opinion is by hearing examples. And it just so happens that GIK Acoustics have an excellent webpage to help explain. Here is audio of an untreated rectangular room which has unwanted reverb.
Here is the audio of the same room which has been treated with acoustic panels.
Hopefully, it is very easy for you to hear the huge difference between the two and that the room treated with sound panels sounds so much better. The untreated rooms audio is useless.
The object of the panels is absorption and diffusion. These are just fancy words that mean they are trying to stop the sound waves from bouncing back into the microphone. This can also be accomplished with acoustic foam from a supplier like Auralex. This site also has a great deal of info on acoustic treatment. But please remember. Not all foam is created equal. Acoustic foam is specifically designed to absorb sound. Packing foam may look similar but does not absorb sound anywhere near as well as acoustic foam. And let’s bust the myth right now. Any acoustic foam or panel does not provide much sound proofing. It only absorbs the sound waves bouncing around in the room. It will NOT keep outside sound from getting in.
Ok, so if I am going with panels, how many do I need. There is a huge swath of information on the web about this subject, but I think the best site is Acoustimac. It has a handy-dandy room calculator that gives you a rough idea of how many panels you need for certain room sizes. The next issue with your panels is where do you place them. Once again there is lots of info on this. A good example is Primacoustics. This layout is more for listening and I would prefer to see some treatment on the back walls and corners also. In truth, some of the placement is down to trial and error and what sounds best for your environment. And that can be fun. Finding the sweet spot can be very satisfying.
So, I think I know how many panels and where. Is that all I need? Well, unfortunately not. That will make your audio sound amazing when there is no noise anywhere near your room. You don’t want the local gardening crew to interrupt your session! If you are using a condenser microphone (if you’re not – you probably should be) you will quickly find out that they are extremely sensitive little blighters. This is where your noise floor comes in. This gets a little complicated so hold on to your hats. Every room as ambient noise (except for an anechoic chamber). This is just a sum of all noise in that particular environment. It could be electric humming, air conditioners, road noise from far away, birds, fans and much, much more. Even the electrical noise caused by your recording equipment adds to the noise floor. The problem with sound is that it is extremely hard to stop leaking through things. In fact, it is very similar to water in that respect. The goal is stop as much of this unwanted noise getting to the microphone and into your recording.
Let’s complicate things a bit more. The gain setting on your audio interface affects the amount of room tone that is picked up in your recording. It is called the signal to noise ratio (more info here). The easiest way to think about it is this: If you turn the gain on your interface nearly all the way down you will pick up very little room tone. Unfortunately, this will mean that you will have to speak very loudly and close to the mic to hear your voice at a suitable level. If you turn your gain all the way up, you will pick up a lot of room tone, but you will have to speak very quietly and further away from the mic to stop the waveform peaking above 0dB and distorting. There will be a sweet spot for your set up and that will be different for everybody.
So how do I reduce my actual noise floor? This is the hardest part of a home studio set up. Sound proofing is expensive and complicated. Stopping noise from entering a room is difficult. Let’s imagine you could submerge a closet into a swimming pool. Do you think the walls and door would prevent water from getting in? Nope. Water would get under the door, through cracks and seep through the drywall. Noise is the same. The best way to stop the outside world getting into your recording is by adding mass and filling any gaps. 42 West have a good article on that as do our friends over at Sweetwater. Mass helps stop sound waves from getting through a wall. Filling the gaps prevents the sound waves having an easy path into your room. The best solution is building a room within a room and isolating the floor from the actual floor. It may be best to speak to a contactor about this option.
But I don’t do DIY! There are other options. Buying a purpose-built booth is the easiest way to go but they are usually expensive. Anywhere between $5,000 to $20,000 depending on size and options. There are many variations out there and many considerations when buying a booth: Size. You need it to fit into your house but also be big enough to allow you room to move and be comfortable in the booth.
Weight. You need to make sure if you are putting your room upstairs that your floor is strong to hold it. Booths are very heavy!
Isolation Rating. This will be listed by most booth manufacturers and is the amount of noise in decibels that the booth isolates. Bear in mind that this will be at certain mid-range frequencies and no booth will give 100% isolation. Here are some specs from the web for the two top brands:
Studio Bricks = Average of 45dB
Whisper Room = Average of 30dB
You’ve gotta be comfortable! People often forget that the space that you record in needs to be comfortable. You need room to move around a little, gesture with your arms. Be able to back off the mic if necessary. You are going to spend a lot of time in your booth and you want it to be an enjoyable experience. Crouching under a comforter and not being able to move because the mic will pick up you are rubbing against the material is no fun. So, make sure you plan your space to be as open as freeing as possible. Even the lighting has huge effect. If you can build a booth to allow daylight in, that is a huge bonus! This will allow you to perform with much more freedom and will really improve your read.
This is just the start of the subject! I am not an audio engineer. I am not a soundproofing engineer. What I have learned has been from trial and error over the last 7 years. There is so much you can find out by searching the internet. What I have provided is just the basics. Do your research. Get with a good audio engineer and ask their advice. Once again, Jordan Reynolds, Tim Tippets, Uncle Roy, George Whittam, Rob Bee and many more will be happy to help you. It may be daunting, but if you want a successful VO career, you must be able to provide professional audio to your client. That is your product. And if your product is defective – why would people buy it?