Your audio journey – Part 2 – Recording space

Welcome to the start of the audio journey.

While many would consider the microphone to be the most important element of a voice-over or voice acting business, or a podcast recording there is one thing that can ruin the audio quality from even the best and most expensive microphones and that’s your recording space. With that said that’s where we’ll start the journey.

The first and most important thing to consider is noise! You want your recording space to be as quiet as possible, free from outside and inside noise. Microphones, particularly condenser microphones are very sensitive and can pick and record every sound audible.

Now you may be lucky in that you have access to a professional studio in which case you may well be sorted. It may be that you do a Saturday show at your local radio station and can use the production studio before or after your show to record. That’s great but with a caveat. The voice-over world is often time-specific and most clients placing orders will want to know your turn around. They need to know how quickly from them placing the order they’ll have their audio back to them. You may get a request on Monday morning asking if you can handle a 24 hour turn around for a piece of audio and in that case, if your Saturdays at the radio station is your recording solution, you’d need a back-up plan.

It may be that you live alone in a house located in the middle of nowhere with a spare bedroom so you can set up that spare bedroom as a recording space with virtually no noise to consider.

It may be that you live in a flat in the middle of town with the hustle and bustle of town life going on right outside your window. It may be your neighbour is fanatical about their lawn and is out mowing it regularly every single day in the summer. Perhaps you live next to a main road, maybe under a flight path. If any of these describe your scenario then you have to carefully consider the choice your recording space.

It goes without saying you want to choose the quietest place in your living arrangements as your recording space. Sound proofing (not to be confused with sound treatment) could be an option but it’s not a cheap option as it’s basically building a totally isolated room within a room and you can imagine the cost that comes with!

There are solutions on the market such as Whisper Rooms which are particularly popular among voice over artists and actors. These are essentially booths available in varying sizes that you can go on to sound treat which provide some degree of sound isolation of both the sound you don’t want getting into your booth and, for those living around you, the sound you’re working with from getting out your booth. These aren’t cheap, nor essential for the beginner in voiceover.

Over the next few posts in this series I’ll also be covering equipment that you’ll either want or need and this is another thing to take into consideration when selecting your recording space. You’ll need to have space to set up the equipment you need and somewhere to have your copy in an easy to read place. In terms of space it may not be essential to get all your equipment into your recording space and it may be that you have a small dedicated booth or area to record in with the remainder of your equipment set up in another area to post-process your audio.

Before committing to any “permanent” decisions I’d recommend following through this blog series and deciding on the equipment you want before making hard to change decisions about your recording space selection so you know that you’ll have enough space to accommodate the equipment you need.

I’ve heard of voice-over artists producing okay quality audio by recording in their cupboard/wardrobe/closet! You may laugh but sometimes such a space can make an ideal recording space based on the sound absorption properties of the contents of the closest!

That brings us on to the next consideration and that’s room acoustics. Every room has acoustic properties, these depend on the make up of and contents in the space. Remember the last time you decorated your spare room and emptied it before starting to decorate and then noticed the echo you get when you talk in that room? That’s the room’s acoustic properties and for a voice-over artist these are incredibly important considerations.

This would be better done with a microphone set up and a pair of headphones on but stand, or sit, in the space you are considering as your recording space and clap. Do you hear an echo? If you do that’s what we call room reflections and for voice-over artists these are undesirable. A bit of reverb added to a sweeper or DJ drop can make it sound so much better but as an audio producer you want the decision to add reverb to any production to be your decision in post-processing and not recorded into the audio. While it’s easy to add reverb to a recorded voice it’s virtually impossible to eradicate reverb, even using the technology available in 2019, without compromising the quality of the voice recording.

I’m not an audio engineer, I am a self-taught audio producer, so I can’t explain in engineering terms room reflections but I’ll try my best to simplify the issue.

As a voice-over artist you want to have a relationship with your microphone where you give your voice to the microphone and the microphone records your voice into your DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) or audio recorder. But the nature of sound waves is that they instantly disperse so as you talk into your microphone some sound will get past the microphone. The majority of the soundwaves of your voice are projected forward and hopefully into your microphone but by the nature of sound waves some will escape either side of the microphone and hit the back wall, some will travel sideways at angles and hit side walls. In an untreated room these will start to bounce around the room, what we call room reflections.

So far, we don’t have a problem with these room reflections but what happens next is where the problem occurs. The audio that’s hit the back wall will naturally bounce back but you may say, if using a cardiod pattern mic (we’ll discuss this later but it’s the most common), the rear side of the microphone is the least sensitive and that’s true. But, those reflections are now travelling back towards you and eventually will reach the back wall of your recording space where they’ll hit and bouce back again. By now these reflections have become trouble because they are heading straight back to the sensitive side of your microphone and will (especially if using a condenser mic) be picked up and recorded.

Different sound frequency waves have different properties meaning they travel at different rates. It could be that you end up with low, mid and high frequencies all bouncing around your recording space and hitting the sensitive side of the microphone all at different times. So then you’d have your original voice recorded following by the reflections recorded as well created an unwanted reverb. This all happens within milliseconds but it’s enough to create that unwanted reverb.

As an experienced audio producer there’s a lot that I can “fix” in post production but there’s a rule in voice over and indeed podcasting, the more you can get right at source (ie recording) the less you have to work on post-production. While I can easily work on levels, equalisation, compression and adding effects in post-processing, trying to remove unwanted reverb is a thankless task as even the best plug-ins only achieve this by affecting the quality of the voice.

In general empty rooms with lots of hard surfaces will have worse acoustic properties as sound can bounce easily around these rooms. Conversely rooms filled with soft furnishings such as beds and sofas will have better acoustic properties. Hardwood flooring vs carpet is another consideration as carpet absorbs stray sound waves better than shiny hardwood flooring.

You’ll be lucky if you find a perfect recording space in terms of acoustics but the goal is to find the best space available and this is where a clothes closet may be an option as the clothes hanging in that closet will provide a lot of absorption of those stray sound waves I wrote about and if they get trapped in the clothes they are unlikely to get back to the back wall and then re-appear at the sensitive side of the microphone. Your closet may work okay in terms of acoustics but think in terms of practicality of getting in your equipment, youself and your copy in an accessible place.

If you’re processing your recorded audio using monitors (speakers) you’ll also need to treat what’s called the point of first reflection otherwise perfect audio could end up sounding like it’s imperferct and full of room reflections due to the sound from the speakers reflecting around the room and hitting your ears at different times.

Now when you have considered and finalised your recording space, based on consideration of the above, and you know what equipment you’ll be using and need to accommodate (hence why you may want to come back to this and re-read after finishing the series) you can think about sound treatment.

Most people will associate sound treatment with soundproofing but the two are very different. Soundproofing builds an isolated room within a room which may still need sound treatment. Sound treatment won’t give you soundproofing but it will help deal with those room reflections which you want to keep out your audio.

I’ll be covering microphones in the next section of this series but for the purposes of treating your recording space, there are essentially two types of microphone, either condenser or dynamic. If you’re podcasting and your space isn’t perfect acoustically and you don’t want to, or it’s impractical to sound treat the space, then a dynamic mic is for you. These reject room reflections better than condenser mics. Condenser mics are far more sensitive than dynamic mics and consequently often have a wider range of frequency pick up giving a richer, warmer, more complete sound. But in exchange for that they do also pick up room reflections meaning you will need sound treatment.

Earlier on I wrote about a whisper room and whether you are considering one of those (or an alternative booth) or whether you’re setting up in a quiet area of your house you’ll have to consider sound treatment. The traditional way is to use acoustic foam tiles. These come in different styles and different colours and essentially stick to the walls. They either defuse or disrupt the sound so the reflections are either stopped or broken up to a degree where they are no longer problematic.

It’s unlikely you’ll need to treat the whole room but as a minimum you’ll want to treat the wall in front of where you’re recording to stop audio bouncing back from it and the back wall behind where you’re recording as that’s where the dangerous reflections emanate from that will get back into the sensitive side of the microphone. You most probably will need to partially treat the side walls too. Sometimes a towel laid out on the table you’re using can also be a help to break up sound reflecting over that hard surface.

Some voice-over artists claim they’ve had success using foam mattress toppers but in truth it’s just not thick enough to really absorb or defuse these unwanted sound waves. Others have built their own sound treatment panels using fibreglass panels, such as Owens Corning, and covering them for aesthetics and of course to keep the fibreglass particles safely trapped inside the cover. This is available in various thicknesses and you’ll get what you pay for. The thinner you go the less likely it will be at being effective for your purposes.

Finally, some have had success and get decent audio using moving blankets. These are cheap and available on Amazon and if your room acoustics aren’t too bad well placed moving blankets may get you to a situation where you can record good quality audio in your recording space.

Now if you’re recording a podcast for a hobby it may be that you can record at your kitchen table if you can get a long enough period of quiet arranged using a good quality dynamic microphone and you’ll get good quality audio for a podcast. But if you’re planning on recording voice over professionally I’m afraid the above sound treatment is probably going to be essential.

It goes without saying you’ll want to consider comfort. If you’re just recording a quick DJ drop then comfort won’t be of that much importance but if you’re sitting to record an audiobook, a training video narration, or even a series of shorter voice-overs such as commercials you may be in your booth or recording space for some time so consider the length of time you expect to be spending there and your standards of comfort.

I hope this has been of some help to you in choosing your recording space. As I said it’s arguably the most important choice you’ll make hence why I’ve covered it first but it’s also dependent on the equipment you get and that’s why I’ve suggested you come back and read this section again later. Next time I’m looking at microphone choices.