Friday, July 1, 2016

Creating a cheap home studio for voice acting - how I made mine

So you're ready to get this voice acting thing on the road - online or professional, it matters not in this story. You get a script, plunk down in front of your mic, record your angelic voice, hit Stop, play the audio back, and then break out into a cold sweat as you hear what sounds like three more of you speaking at once into a snowstorm while Jerry the Village Idiot runs screaming down the street.

In a moment, you realize you need a better recording space.

In this week's article, I want to talk about your physical environment and how it can make you sound better or worse. If you're worrying about me losing you with science-y mumbo-jumbo, don't worry, that confuses me too, so we'll adhere strictly to layman's terms.

First, there are a few things you should bear in mind when putting together your recording space:

- Sound absorption and sound insulation are different (sound insulation is also sometimes called sound diffusion). Absorption refers to an area's ability to dull or negate noise going into or out of the room - in other words, how "soundproof" the space is. Insulation refers to an area's ability to reduce echo. Ever been inside a totally empty room and marveled at how your voice bounces all over the place? That's because there's nothing in the room to insulate noise. Some people do use all three terms interchangeably, but just know there is a difference between soundproofing and reducing reverberation, and most products and solutions cater to one or the other.

- Materials meant for sound absorption may offer a little sound insulation as well, and vice versa, but rarely will they ever replace the other. A lot of people attempting to be helpful who otherwise don't know how sound works may suggest various products and home remedies, thinking the two factors go hand in hand, but think twice before hopping on what they're saying. Lining your walls with egg cartons does nothing for sound absorption, and from what I've heard, they may not actually do much for sound insulation, either.

- Low, bassy sounds are very hard to eliminate, even with an otherwise thoroughly sound insulated room. Outside my house, birds can chirp and people can talk loudly, but airplanes, helicopters, passing trains, and Steve Blum tend to cut right through my sound insulated booth. Mostly, I just wait for them to pass, but I still wish I wasn't located right next to a highway, a train track, and an airport (but regrettably not Steve Blum).

- It's next to impossible to truly soundproof a room so no sound goes in or out (without totally cutting off your air supply, at any rate). The closest you'll get to "soundproof" will likely set you back thousands of dollars. However, unless you live with a hibernating grizzly bear and plan on auditioning for every shonen anime hero, you also shouldn't need a soundproofed space. Good insulation is generally enough.

- The closer to the center of your house you can get your recording space, the better; it'll keep you farther from outside noises like wind, cars, and animals. Most recommend finding a walk-in closet not set along the outer wall of your house. Because it's such a comparatively small space, it'll usually require less care and precision than worrying about an entire room.

- Angular corners in your recording space are generally undesirable, creating unwanted acoustic effects. Try your best to cover them with "circular" materials to reduce the angle-ness of it all.

If this was a TV show, this would be the part where Bill Nye pops out of nowhere and shouts science at you, but the details are still a little lost on me. All I'll say for now is, if you're truly curious how the science of sound waves and absorptive materials and the like work, you should Google other sites and videos.

I'm considering doing more articles covering some of the minute details of sound insulation and recording, but I'm far from an expert in that field, so to me it would feel just a little too much like the blind leading the blind. What I can do, however, is tell you what worked for me, and what you can take away from it.
Here's my booth from a side angle:

 How far back does it go, you ask? You're looking at it.

Every other work-from-home voice actor and singer will tell you to build your booth in a walk-in closet. The closest thing I have to that is more along the lines of a "look-in-forlornly-from-a-distance" closet, and standing inside it feels strangely reminiscent of the scene in Kill Bill Vol. 2 where the Bride is buried alive, except rightside-up. Nevertheless, squishing in my 6'4" body, a chair, a small table, and recording equipment is possible.

Surprisingly, being uber-tall is not inherently a life full of puppies and roses, because the world is not designed to accommodate someone with the body dimensions of Groot.

My closet is about 2 feet wide, 3 1/2 feet long, and 8 feet tall. (It does help to have feet that are a literal foot in length. I don't have to go for the tape measure nearly so often.) The silver lining to the coffin-ness of it all is that fewer materials are needed. As of now, the floor (which is carpeted - comes in handy for sound insulation) and ceiling are untouched. The bulk of the sound insulation comes in the form of Audimute sound curtains, of which I have hung 3 from nails along the upper walls. The two hung on the sides overlap in the middle, while I hang a third over my closet door after climbing in, thereby thoroughly surrounding myself by sound curtains on all sides. Each curtain was probably about $70 apiece.

These curtains are great for my needs, though in spite of what some versions of the product may infer, they're hardly effective for "soundproofing." They do, however, offer a small amount of outside noise reduction, and by themselves, they work well for reducing reverb.

A word of caution with sound curtains like these, though: after unboxing them and hanging them up, they usually require 1-2 weeks to "air out," meaning their whole form and composition begin to change, and when that happens, your recordings from one day in the booth will sound inherently different than your recordings a day or two later. Not necessarily any better or worse, but if you're, say, recording an audiobook during that transition, listeners will easily pick up on the change in acoustics. (I had to redo an entire audiobook because of that oversight. Thankfully, it was only about two hours long.)

Ideally, you'd hang the curtains about two inches from the walls, but if I did that there wouldn't be a closet anymore. They lie pretty flat on my walls, but they still work well. Your mileage may vary.

Let's take a closer look from a different angle.

Where's all the fancy equipment, you ask? Again...

Yes, it's a little bit DIY.

I can't fit my music stand that I bought specifically to, you know, be a music stand, so I make up for it by leaning my iPad, which I read my scripts on, on top of two thick books, then slip my DS of all things in front of it to prevent it from falling down. (Incidentally, the two books are an ESV study bible and an anthology of Ian Fleming's James Bond stories. The DS is a clunky red first-generation. I love it still.) The table is, as you can see, of the small wooden variety and just barely fits the dimensions of my coffin/closet.

(You know what? I think I just found the name for the Death Cubicle's successor. Why did it take me six months? The Coffin. If you deny that's catchy, you're a freaking liar.)

I do my actual recording on Audacity on my laptop. A USB 2.0-USB 3.0 cord connects my interface to my laptop by snaking under my closed closet door, where my laptop sits pretty on my side table so the fan noise doesn't reach my microphone.

As of now, there is no true light source in my booth. I rely on the light from my iPad to illuminate my surroundings, lest I feel even more like the Bride being buried alive. I'm aware that continued exposure to such a precarious light source will probably result in my eyes eventually bugging out of my head like Cohaagen from the end of Total Recall, but they don't cause me any pain at the moment. I will look into a more stable light source in the future. In your case, make sure your light source doesn't produce any noise (fluorescent light bulbs are infamous for doing this) or generate too much heat (DIY vocal booths like mine tend to heat up easily). In spacious, well-ventilated booths, I know some people use a medley of lava lamps, which sounds awesome but is out of the question for me right now.

My equipment, if you're interested, is this:

Microphone: Sennheiser Mk. 4 (about $300)
Pop filter: Windtech Popguard (about $20)
Interface: Scarlett Focusrite 2i2 (about $200)
Headphones: Sennheiser HD 280 Pro (about $100 value)
Microphone boom arm: Rode PSA1 (about $100, though I could swear I got it for much less. Also the O in "Rode" actually has one of the cool Nordic lines going through it, but I don't know how to write that)

Here's my booth from another angle.

Yes, that really is as far back as it goes. Remember, 6'4".

I wouldn't call my booth truly "finished," as there are eventually things I want to do to make it better, but it's served me through numerous jobs without any complaints from clients.

Acoustically, my booth is pretty great. It does tend to heat up if I spend too long in it; the heat becomes noticeable after about an hour, uncomfortable after maybe two or three, especially if I happen to be playing any loud or emotional roles, so I may occasionally break just to cool off. Air flow isn't much of a concern, thankfully. Being in a closet and surrounded by thick sound curtains, it does block some outside noise, but strong winds (about 25 mph and above), heavy rain, and anything bassy tend to cut through pretty easily. If the weather's foul, I wait for a better time to record. If it's a temporary bass source like a plane, I wait it out. If it's the neighbor mowing his lawn, I murder him and dispose of his body in a trash compactor. You know, usual voice actor home life.

All in all, a setup like this may be a great way for you to get started if you're really looking for an acoustically-treated space to record in. Depending on the size of your closet/small room, you may need 3-5 of these curtains to fully envelope your space. You may also consider investing in some acoustic foam panels to cover the ceiling, or perhaps some thicker rugs or carpeting for the floor. If whatever you record on is quiet enough and you have enough space, you can take it in with you to have more control over your recording. I have to hit Record outside my booth, literally climb into it, set up the curtains, and trust that everything's going alright on the other side, a process that usually takes 1-2 minutes. I don't like it, but that's where I am so far. It's certainly possible, but if you can find a way around it, take it.

Let me know what you think of my setup, how it compares to yours, how I might improve mine (because really, I'm all ears here), and if you've learned anything from this. Take a moment and fill out that little email form down below, because if you liked what you read here, you'll like what's coming down the road, and that email form gives you quick, easy access to it every week. Thanks for your consideration here, and I'll write to you next week. (I would say "see you," but that would imply I know where you live, which is a creepy notion. So I'll write to you.)


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  2. How to write Ø or ø on Windows:
    Ø: hold ALT, type 0216 on Numpad, release ALT
    ø: hold ALT, type 0248 on Numpad, release ALT
    On a Mac (which I don't have), I've heard it's Option+O or Shift+Option+O, whatever that means

  3. Øh, that's really gøød to knøw. Thank yøu før yøur wørds øf wisdøm!

    1. Yøu're welcøme! I learned tø type it since I'm using a RØDE NT1A. And thank you for this very informative article. I personally record in a storage room with a full coat rack and bookshelves which provides insulation and saves money, though it annoys my family when I'm shouting lines. My setup (mic, cable, shock mount, stand, homemade shield, headphones) cost about $200 thanks to scrounging online for good deals. In the future, I'm hoping to build a soundproof booth once I have all the measurements and materials figured out.