Recording from a 'Home Studio'? Essential Advice
We're all 'socially distancing' or 'in lockdown' and as many recording studios are closed, are looking for ways to keep working. One solution is to be able to record from home – to create a ‘home studio’.
It is comparatively easy and cheap to set up something that will allow you to record auditions and even do podcasts, but if you’re serious about working from a personal studio in the long term then this advice will help you create a really useful recording space in your own home.
There is no quick way to build a quality personal studio, it will take time, application, a little learning and a financial investment if you want to develop a recording space that meets the technical quality demanded by production companies, producers of e-learning projects, commercials, video games, animation and audiobook publishers (all the various types of voice work that actors regularly record in professional studios). The wonderful thing about going down this route is that though you’ll probably start out with something pretty straightforward, as long as you get the basics right, you can improve and upgrade as time goes by. If a personal studio is something you’ll use in future, then it really is worthwhile creating a good recording space and equipping it with a kit that you’re absolutely confident in - go for the quick and easy option and you'll be constrantly frustrated as you get over the novelty and start to hear the flaws..
If you are constantly worrying whether the technical quality of your work is good enough, then that stops you giving your best performance. If you invest wisely, you’ll gain an ‘added extra’ that will stand you in good stead, and perhaps open up other avenues of work for you, well into the future.
WHAT CONSTITUES A GOOD 'HOME STUDIO'?
Not all 'home studios' are equal. Producers, publishers, radio stations, production houses, video companies, video game and animation producers and creators, audiobook publishers, marketing companies – anyone who hires professional voices, has exacting standards. They also have their own reputations to consider and no matter how good you are at the creative stuff, if your recording doesn’t meet their requirements, they simply won’t hire you!
Many full time voice actors have built or purchased an 'isolation booth'. There is a wide range of commercially produced isolation booths available – familiar names include ‘Studio bricks’, ‘Kube’, ‘ISOvoxbooth’, ‘Vocal Booth’, Acoustic Cabin’, ‘Whisper Room’ and so on – prices start at around £3.000. You can also build a DIY recording booth from scratch and there are numerous guides online on how to build one. Neither of these is a quick fix however.
Commercial isolation booths are expensive – and heavy: some require a surveyor’s report if installation is above ground floor level or on a wooden floor with a void (or indeed an apartment or another room) beneath – and they’re not instant. Order one today and it will be at least six weeks before it’s delivered, possibly a great deal longer as demand is at hit highest, then you have to erect it and acoustically treat it; by which time, social distancing and business opening restrictions may be beginning to ease and things may be getting back to normal.
I suspect what most people are looking for at this point is information to help to create a recording space at home that will enable you to record and deliver a product you can be proud of. So let’s look at some quicker and cheaper solutions while trying to keep the quality as high as possible.
THE MINIMUM REQUIREMENTS
You will need a quiet, acoustically treated recording space that has some isolation from external noise (from outside the house) and noise from inside the house as well. Get the space right and you will save you (and your editor) hours of work in trying to remove noise and interference.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION ...
The first thing is to find the quietest place in your home. Not the smallest nor the easiest place to work in necessarily but the quietest. Ideally you need to use the room that is furthest away from traffic which is also well away from household noise sources: things like central heating boilers, fridges, freezers, burglar alarm panels and heating or air-conditioning units.
A basement room or cellar, or even a semi-basement often works well. Being at least partially below ground level, such areas have a large amount of natural insulation; though central heating boilers and freezers, as well as people moving around in the rooms overhead can be an issue. Under-stair spaces can work well too, though again, movement in the rest of the house may create problems. Even a walk-in wardrobe has potential as the location for a home studio. Use your imagination and you’ll be surprised at the areas that suggest themselves.
The space you choose needs to be large enough to comfortably house you, your microphone and microphone stand, and a covered worktop or table for your computer monitor, keyboard and mouse, papers, notes and all the other bits and bobs that you will need around you. You will also need either a music or copy stand of some kind if you’re reading from paper, or somewhere to rest your tablet, Kindle or I-pad if you’re reading digitally. Even if you normally stand to do voice work, audiobooks and other long form projects involve much longer periods in front of the mic so for comfort you will probably need space for a chair or stool as well.
The space you’re working in will need some kind of acoustic treatment, so choosing a space that is small enough to enable you to achieve a good sound without spending a vast amount of money is the best bet. If you have no option but to work in a larger room then you will need to investigate ways to partition off some space using screens or some kind of room divider, so that you can reduce the size of the space you’re recording in otherwise you will struggle to produce a high quality sound.
Noise is your enemy! There are four sources of noise that you will need to deal with.
Life goes on all around you; nowhere is silent, not even the depths of the countryside. It may be comparatively quiet in rural areas, but birdsong and the wind blowing through the trees are just as intrusive and irritating as passing traffic and barking dogs.
We become so accustomed to the noises around us every day that we become immune, but once you step in front of a microphone and start trying to record, those noises, to which you have previously been oblivious, will suddenly become noticeable and extremely irritating. Even in the quietest area of the house, there will always be periods when external noise can be heard, which is why it is so important that you listen … really listen … at different times of the day when choosing which room to record in.
Total soundproofing is nigh on impossible – so if there are particularly noisy period, you just have to work around them. Planning ahead will allow you to optimise your recording time and to take a break when the external noises are at their worst. However, there will be some noises that will prevent you from working … there’s that horrible moment when you’re mid recording and your neighbour suddenly decides to mow the lawn or starts a major DIY project. The council may decide to dig up the road outside your house, things do get in the way … but one advantage of working from home is that you can always work the night shift if you really need to!
NOISE FROM INSIDE
The second issue you have to deal with are the noises that your house makes. Every home has electrical equipment which may be running in standby, switching on and off automatically, or just simply being used. There will be a central heating boiler, a water heater, water pipes expand and contract, floorboards creaking randomly as room temperatures change; then there are radiators and thermostats switching off and on, fridges and freezers, those in sunnier climes may have air conditioning or a ventilation system. Not least of these electrical noises is the computer you’re working with.
You can deal with some of these noises by just turning off the offending bits of equipment while you’re recording or moving your microphone further away from whatever is causing the problem. However, it is virtually impossible to remove all noise sources. Sound will almost certainly filter through from other rooms as well … and not just from those in your own home, but from adjoining properties. This is especially a problem if you live in a semi-detached house or a terrace or of course, in an apartment or flat when you may have people living not only adjacent to you but also above and below. The term ‘noisy neighbours’ takes on a whole new meaning when you’re recording!
Total soundproofing is virtually impossible to achieve in any studio. When I’ve worked in professional recording studios with the most fantastic isolation and room treatment, aeroplanes and heavy lorries still force recording to stop – and don’t fall for the advertisements online selling ‘soundproofing acoustic foam’ – there is no such thing. The best you can achieve is isolation from sound and sound damping using acoustic treatment.
A LITTLE BIT OF SOUND SCIENCE
Sound waves move just as waves in water move. When a sound wave hits a hard surface some of the sound will bounce off that surface and travel back in the opposite direction.
When a sound wave meets and couples with a similar sound wave travelling in the opposite direction, this causes that particular sound frequency (wave) to have a higher peak and a deeper valley. This has the same result as turning up the volume for just that particular frequency (increasing its ‘AMPLITUDE’). In other words, the particular frequency where the waves meet and reverberate around becomes too loud when compared with the volume of the other sound waves. These coupled waves produce different types of resonance in your space; these resonating frequencies are called
‘STANDING WAVES’. When you’re recording through a sensitive microphone, even though you may not hear that noise in real time when you’re actually speaking, a keen ear (and an audio engineer) will be able to hear it (and indeed see it) as a distortion of your recorded sound.
Basically the limit of human hearing is between 20 Hz and 20,000 Hz (or 20 KHz), and the ideal acoustic environment for recording audio has an equal balance to all the frequencies across this entire range. Too much volume at one frequency or another is uncomfortable and even unpleasant. Too high a level in the bass or low to mid-range frequencies makes the voice sound muddy and lacking in clarity and at the other end of the spectrum, too much high frequency sound makes the voice sound too crisp and harsh.
If you’re creating a recording space within a larger room either by curtaining off or using screens to make a smaller area, or if you have the option of building an isolation booth of some kind, then there is a theory that the ideal space should be of a size where one dimension is not related to, or divisible by another ... So a room that is 8ft x 9ft x 12ft would be preferable to a room that is 6ft x 8ft x 12ft. The reason given for this is this: in the first example, one of the numbers is an odd number and none is divisible by another. However, in the second set of numbers, all are divisible by two, and one is half of another number – and when it comes to sound waves, the maths makes a difference apparently.
Of course, room size may not be something you can correct - your home is already built, but don’t panic. You can make any space sound better … some may just take a bit more effort than others.
WHAT IS MEANT BY 'ROOM TONE'?
Every room has its own sound. Your recording space, even if apparently very quiet with little extraneous noise, will have its own ambient noise - its unique ‘room tone’. Your room may also have an echo and reverberation that is unique to that room. Clap your hands inside your recording space and listen for an echo or reverberation. Hum up and down the scale slowly and listen to see if there is a resonance, especially on the lower notes. These reverberations are caused by sound waves bouncing off reflective surfaces.
When recording of course, you're generally not looking at room tone in isolation, but getting the room tone to a low enough level without echo or reverberaton with input levels that are appropriate for the voice as well is a vitally important first step. Unfortunately, the minimalism of today’s décor and interior design does not create the ideal acoustics for a recording studio, so in order to reduce the problems your recording space needs some help.
Damping down at least some of the reverberations in a room can often be done pretty simply but you can give yourself a head start by locating yourself in a soft room rather than a hard one to begin with. It is much easier to reduce reverberation in an area that is carpeted, or has at least a selection of rugs rather than a room with a floor of bare wood or tiles. A room with curtains at the windows rather than blinds and which has some soft furnishings such as squishy chairs or sofas and shelves filled with books is preferable to a room with lots of hard reflective surfaces.
Any flat, sound reflective surfaces in the room need to be covered by something soft and absorbent when you’re recording. Moving-blankets (readily available on Ebay and Amazon) are a very popular solution because of their availability and low cost. Many are made from recycled denim, which is a very good sound-damping material particularly over the lower frequencies.
Frequencies within different ranges cause different problems and require different solutions; as most home studios are not set up in absolutely perfect conditions, every recording space needs from some acoustic treatment. Others will need quite a lot of help to achieve a good sound.
LARGE ROOM PROBLEMS.
Large rooms can cause even greater problems, so if your only option is to work in a large room, you need to find a way to reduce the size of the space you’re working in. The easiest way to do this is by partitioning off a section of the room by using a folding screen.
You can achieve better results if you’re happy to try a bit of DIY. A very easy way to create a partition this is to make a sturdy frame – a little like a large old-fashioned clothes horse (either made of wood or PVC) and then to drape moving-blankets or duvets over the frame. If you’re feeling a little more adventurous, you could make a double sided frame that has chicken wire to stretched over the open areas, that can be filled in with recycled denim or mineral wool insulation (also known as rock wool), which is then draped over the top with additional moving blankets or a duvet. The density of the insulation material can be very helpful in reducing any deep booming room resonance.
SMALL ROOM PROBLEMS
Small spaces may have different, but equally problematical sound issues: even in a small area, you will need to soften the room as much as possible by adding a carpet or rugs, heavy curtains at the windows, book cases full of books, and a covering for tables or desks. All of these will help to reduce sound wave reflection.
SOUNDPROOFING & ACOUSTIC TREATMENT
Acoustic treatment and soundproofing are two totally different things. Soundproofing is almost impossible to achieve in a home environment without investing a significant amount of money. Even isolation booths only reduce external sound levels, they don't remove it altogether - so unless you want to go into floating floors, double or even triple layer insulation with secondary walls and ceilings we'll ignore soundproofing. It really isn't realistically achievable in a home environment. What you're hoping to achieve is maximum isolation from noise coming from outside and inside the rest of the house, this is why location is so important - and why cupboards inder the stairs and basements are such a popular choice!
So once you've chosen your 'as quiet as possible' space, then you'll almost certainly need to 'treat' that space with some acoustic treatment to dampen down the ‘liveliness’ or ‘boominess’ of a room. You do this by reducing the reverberation at specific frequencies that are causing the problem by the judicious placement of your acoustic treatment.
In addition to using what you have around the home to assist with the acoustics of your space, you may also need to invest in some ‘ACOUSTIC TILES’. Acoustic tiles are frequently mislabelled (particularly in the UK) as ‘soundproofing foam’ or ‘soundproofing tiles’. They do not ‘soundproof’ so don’t be misled and expect them to deal with noise coming from outside your recording space – they just can’t do it.
Acoustic tiles come in different shapes and sizes – and of different quality. Egg box or zig-zag shaped tiles are the most readily available – and go for the best quality you can. Thicker denser foam, with a more defined shape is going to work much better than thin cheap foam tiles, and because they work better you’re likely to need fewer of them to achieve the required effect. Buying cheap products is often a false economy. They aren't perfect however, and even with high quality acoustic tiles, you may still have low-end resonance in your room.
All frequencies tend to couple and link up when bouncing into corners, but the coupling of bass frequencies is a particular problem. When working in a small room there is likely to be an issue with some low-end booming resonance that needs to be dealt with.
Try talking in a low/deep tone of voice or humming. Does this produce an more audible resonance? If so, you will need something to absorb this low-end sound. A full bookshelf or some hefty furniture can help a little with this problem, but you will probably need to purchase (or build) specially designed foam blocks called ‘BASS TRAPS’. These are large blocks of either very dense foam or some other insulation material and are often triangular in shape. Bass traps are designed to be placed so that they absorb sound in corners, so you would place them where there is a right angle; for example, in corners, where the ceiling meets the walls, or the walls meet the floor. If you’re looking for a quick solution, bundle some moving blankets into the corners. Failing that a rolled up duvet, or some pillow in the corners will help.
The mid and high range frequencies that cause a tinny or harsh sound can generally be treated by using acoustic foam tiles. Acoustic tiles come in various thicknesses (from one to three inches thick) and also in various designs. They are made out of fairly dense foam and are flat on one side for sticking to the wall, and have a pattern on the other side; the pattern may be zigzags, pyramids or a kind of dimpled egg-box-shaped pattern. Using a spray-on adhesive or double sided tape, you attach them to the wall, normally at head level, where needed to help reduce the amount of bouncing around that your unruly sound waves are doing and also to absorb and dampen sound at specific frequencies. If you have a long expanse of flat wall on either side of your recording space, then the foam tiles should be ‘staggered’ and if you’re using zigzag design tiles, they should be alternated so that the zigzags point in opposite directions.
Don’t fix anything permanently until you’ve tested the space and recorded some tracks … you will almost certainly have to move things around to get the best possible results.
Fixing things to walls can be a problem if you live in rented accommodation, and if you're setting up in an area of a room that is used by other people, you may want to avoid sticking bits of really rather ugly foam to the walls, so a solution could be to use tall screens with the foam tiles glued to the inside of the screen; the more decorative side of the same screens also hide your working area from the rest of your room.
If you don’t yet have any recording software or equipment, this is when you go shopping, because before committing yourself and finalising your choice of home recording space, you need to get your equipment set up so that you can record some test tracks, play them back to yourself, then adjust everything till you get a sound quality you’re happy with.
The sky is the limit when it comes to buying for a home studio. You can spend literally thousands of pounds – but remember, buying a Steinway doesn't turn you into a concert pianist – any more than buying a Neumann mic will turn you into a great narrator!
If your recording environment is noisy or has a lot of echo or low frequency reverberation, no matter what microphone and interface you invest in, you will run into problems. Spend time on getting your recording space as good as it can be! No matter how much you spend on equipment and software, no matter how adept you are at editing and what editing tools you have, it’s always better to remove problems at their source rather than trying to fix them in editing. So getting your sound quality clear and clean as it goes into the mic is the best way forward.
A COMPUTER: You obviously need a computer with recording/editing software (also known as a DAW (digital audio workstation) installed; preferably that offers punch and roll (also known as rock and roll) recording capability.
Most computers have fans to cool the processor and other internal components.
Standard hard drives also create noise as they spin to read and write data. A SOLID STATE DRIVE (SSD) will eliminate the hard drive sound and provides much better performance, but be warned, the fan noise will remain when the computer is working hard and will be clearly audible. Laptops in general are noisier than desktops.
To solve the issue of noise coming from your computer (and more particularly from a laptop) and being picked up by the mic, you will need to isolate your computer. The best way to do this is to move it into a separate room, or build some type of enclosure for it (though do be careful not to make it too air-tight as it could cause your computer to become damaged due to overheating).
If this is not possible, you should move your computer as far away as possible from the microphone. You will then need an extra-long cable for your monitor and either a ‘wireless’ or ‘Bluetooth’ keyboard and mouse or a long USB cable extension. If you're recording into a laptop, you'll have to purchase a secondary monitor and connect it to your laptop so that you can see the screen inside the booth.
When you need to run a long cable into your recording space, make sure that the long cable you run is the XLR from your microphone as a long USB cable can introduce distortion into the audio (the spec on USB 2.0 is that cables should be no longer than 5m – though even shorter lengths can cause problems with some microphones). Because an XLR cable is ‘balanced’ it will cancel noise and can be VERY long distances without any audible signal degradation. If you record onto a laptop, you will also need to set up a remote monitor using an HDMI cable.
Using a mobile phone or even the built in voice recording software on your computer may be OK for recording a quick audition in an emergency or even a podcast, but really won't cut the mustard for 'work'.
Most audio software has Mac and Windows compatible versions – Sound Forge Pro has a version for Mac, but is very much a reduced version and not nearly as good as the full Pro 13 version for Windows.
There are reported issues with Catalina being incompatible with some software so beware – you may have to downgrade your OS to Mojave if you use a Mac.
RECORDING SOFTWARE OR DAW: I know lots of you will have the free software Audacity; in my opinion, there are better options, particularly for Audiobooks. Two excellent free software packages are Ocenaudio or Studio One Prime by Pre Sonus, both of which have built in punch and roll (rock and roll) recording.
There are if course other recording software options: There are the paid for versions of Studio One, Sound Forge from Magix (see note above) Adobe Audition which is a subscription based software, Pro-Tools, Reaper, Logic and no doubt many more that I have never tried.
For information, I used Audacity (for about a week – I found it unresponsive and clunky), Adobe Audition, (when you could still purchase it), Sound Forge Pro 12 (when I had a Windows machine) Pro Tools (which I hated) and Ocenaudio when I needed something quickly when I switched from a PC to a Mac for recording. I now use Studio One Artist (a steep learning curve, but well worth the effort – absolutely the best recording software I have come across). I also have iZotope RX7 Advanced for editing.
A MICROPHONE: The recommended type of microphone for voice work is a LARGE DIAPHRAGM CONDENSER (LDC) microphone. You’ll also need a compatible shock mount or cradle, a mic stand and a pop screen. Check out Rode NT1 (not the NT1A) or NT2. SE has some good budget models, as do Audio Technica and AKG. As a starting point, you’ll probably be looking at a price of around £250.00. A USB microphone may be OK for podcasting and auditions, but many have a lot of self-noise, and the better ones will not be a lot cheaper than a LDC mic, so what is the point in making things more difficult for yourself?
AN AUDIO INTERFACE: All condenser microphones require phantom power so you’ll also need a suitable AUDIO INTERFACE that supplies phantom power (48V POWER) to your microphone. Check out Focusrite Scarlett models, M-Box and Audient ID models: all have the basic requirements with input for two microphones and output for headphones and speakers, which is all you’ll need. The entry level models have no direct power supply, but rely on a USB power via your computer, or you can go up a level and get a powered interface (e.g. Audient ID14 or Scarlett 6i6). A powered interface uses mains power though they still connect to your computer via a USB cable, but you’re less likely to experience digital dropout and clicks if your computer is struggling.
A condenser microphone cannot work independently just by plugging it into the computer or into the mains – it requires PHANTOM POWER (48V POWER) which comes from the interface/pre-amp. Not all preamps provide phantom power, so check carefully before you buy. If you purchase a preamp that doesn’t you’ll also need to buy an interface which adds to the expense.
You don’t need anything very complex: look for a single or dual channel interface with a built in pre-amp that offers enough gain (the amplification of a signal by a pre-amp is called ‘GAIN’ and the amount of gain a pre-amp can provide depends on the specification of that particular piece of gear), with a clean, crisp signal and an adjustable output to your headphones.
As with microphones, you generally get what you pay for, but it really is better to spend a couple of hundred pounds on a straightforward but high quality item that is well made and has fewer options than to go for an all-singing, all-dancing model with a load of options that you really won’t need.
Some interface/preamp combinations have all kinds of processing options and look more like a mixing board with all kinds of filters and EQ options. The problem is that any processing done via an interface is impossible to undo; if all those sliders, knobs and buttons are not set up perfectly, they can cause far more problems than they’re worth; particularly in the hands of someone who is not quite sure of what they’re doing.
You certainly don’t ever need a mixer/mixing desk for audiobooks. Most publishers and production houses request audiobook files are delivered as raw, digitally unprocessed audio – and if you do have a mixer or plugins with any presets (such as gating or compression) that you use for VO work, I advise you to disable them for audiobook recording unless instructed otherwise by the publisher or producer, or with the express details provided by an audio engineer working for that publisher or producer.
CABLES: You’ll also need cables to link your microphone to your interface – normally XLR to XLR balanced microphone cables. An XLR fitting is a type of electrical connector used in professional audio. The connections are circular in design and most XLR cables have three pins on each end, one male and one female. These are usually supplied with the microphone.
HEADPHONES: In order to monitor your audio, and certainly for editing, you need to hear it at a high quality and in great details, so you need headphones. You need headphones that are designed for the job, so over the ear, professional studio headphones rather than headphones that are designed for music listening, as these are ‘tuned’ to improve the music listening experience and thus can give you a false picture of what you are hearing when using them for voice work. Also avoid noise cancelling headphones. If there is noise bleeding in from outside your recording space, you need to hear it!
EXTENSION CABLES: If your computer or laptop are not in the same space as your microphone, you’ll need USB and HDMI cables to connect everything up. USB and HDMI cables have a maximum recommended length. Using a USB cable that is longer than the recommended length – or that is plugged into a multi way hub can result in degradation of the signal. In the case of an audio interface, this could have a detrimental effect on your audio signal.
EXTRA ESSENTIALS: You’ll need a music or copy stand for your printed text, or a tablet, Kindle or I-pad for reading PDF text versions of the text. Whatever you’re reading from