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Setting Up & Perfecting Your Voiceover Studio

Sound Engineer & Audio Consultant Tim Sutton talks us through the principals of the ideal VO studio

With the software and hardware available for recording audio these days being so familiar and affordable, the old prohibitive barriers are gone, and a home studio is generally now within everyone’s reach.

This change has been happening for a long time, and as a sound engineer & audio consultant who has worked in the post production industry for over 21 years I believe that so long as you follow advice and understand the capabilities and limitations of what you’re prepared (and can afford) to implement, then there’s no reason why most voiceover artists cannot have a great sounding home set-up from which to record themselves.

So here I offer some simple, practical considerations when setting something up for the first time, with some ideas for affordable solutions to give you good sounding results.

The first thing I always offer and what I consider to be so important, is an initial consultation – a chat – to talk through what it is that a client wants, or thinks they want. After a recent consultation my client emailed to say ‘It cleared a lot of the fog for me!’ And often, talking through your needs can be the most important stage of the process. Be realistic about the work you currently do and how much work you think you will end up doing from home. Be realistic about the space you have and be honest about your budget.

Most people to begin with are likely to be doing auditions for online casting sites such as VoicesUK; how many depends upon how much effort (and subscription cost) they’re prepared to put in. But often most people would prefer to start cautious with a home set-up and see how it goes, and then perhaps invest more later on if their voiceover career takes off.

For the room itself we have to think about 2 things; the prevention of noise egress and ingress (isolation) and how the room sounds (acoustics).

Isolation
Noise egress – that’s the sound going out – in this situation we can ignore that. For your home set-up you’ll be talking, maybe shouting if the script calls for it. But I doubt your neighbours will hear!

Noise ingress – now that’s the sound coming into your room from outside. If it affects your ability to record a clean voiceover and ends up being audible on the recorded take, then that’s no good. So it’s incredibly important. But often in a home set-up it’s not actually as problematic as you might imagine, (usually it’s the room acoustics that are the more crucial of the two).

Take a recent consultation that I did. My client lived on a busy London road, in a 1 bed flat. The only realistic place she thought for the voiceover ‘Booth’ would be the living room. But that faced the main road. But she had a small hallway in the centre of the flat. Perfect. We did a simple test – closed all the windows, closed all the curtains, (every little bit helps) and then went into the hallway and closed the doors.

The noise level dropped considerably because we had external walls, air space within the rooms that surrounded us, more walls and then us in the hall. Now here’s where being realistic comes in again. During rush hour of course we could still hear some traffic, and a police siren is always going to be audible. But for most of the day the noise level in that space was very low – I know because I measured it! With a longer mic cable to reach to the hall, some absorption panels, (I’ll cover those later) and the additional use of some plug-ins on the record channel to help filter out the minimal unwanted traffic rumble that did get through, my client ended up with a perfectly clean recording, with no unwanted external noise.

Many domestic dwellings are already fairly quiet, (just not consistently) and if you’re recording from home, very often you have the luxury to some extent of picking your record time. Maybe you can wait till your neighbour has finished mowing the lawn, or in my client’s case anytime after about 9:30am and before about 4:30pm. Might sound a pain, but again, the reality is for her it works fine and at her stage of career is preferable and considerably cheaper than attempting any better solution.

Acoustics
Good acoustics will not impair our recorded sound quality and what we are considering here are the results of the behaviour of the sound waves created by you reading your script aloud. It concerns the sound reflections from the walls, floor, ceiling and other surfaces, along with the absorption of sound at those surfaces.

For our home voiceover set-up we are mostly concerned with Reverberation time. This is the time it takes the sound to ‘die out’ after the sound source (your voice) has stopped. Reflections from surfaces will increase this. Professional voiceover Booths are essentially ‘dead’ rooms – a very short reverberation time, so we want to try and mimic that as best we can in our home set-up, as it is one of the most obvious differences between a ‘pro’ record and a ‘home’ record.

It is the volume of the room and the total amount of sound absorption that defines the reverberation time. So we use sound absorbing materials to control the acoustics, i.e. the reverberation time. Simply put we are looking to surround the mic and you with material with good absorption properties.

To put it in context, the typical reverberation time of a large cathedral might be 5secs, an average living room around 0.5 seconds and for a ‘pro’ voiceover Booth we’re looking for 0.15seconds or below..

Duvets or thick curtains. Yep they work and people use them. Sit under them, hang them from walls, or over mic stands to create a tent, (like when you were small!) Not practical for everyday use, but then being realistic again, if you’re only doing a voiceover demo now and again, why not?

There are curved ‘vocal shields’ you can buy. If you’re looking for a portable recording set-up, (perhaps you don’t want to miss out on a voiceover whilst on holiday…) then they could be an option. But generally they don’t offer enough protection from those reflections that we’re trying to minimise. Generally the more we can surround the mic with absorbing material the better.

Next up are acoustic tiles, readily available from any online supplier such as Studio Spares. For only a couple of hundred pounds you can fashion a very acceptable voiceover booth. Get practical – maybe you have an old wardrobe in that spare room.

Cover the inside including doors totally in tiles and hey presto – an instant open out booth. Otherwise you can use the two walls of a corner with the wardrobe pushed up to create an additional ‘side’ wall, or if you’re fine with some simple DIY, construct an additional plasterboard or MDF side.

Again, cover those surfaces with tiles and you have a ‘booth’. And don’t forget to cover above the microphone as well! The downside is that those tiles often look a bit naff, unless you go for the nicer more expensive ones. Plus you might not fancy sticking them to your walls. Additionally the results you will achieve cannot really be tested until you’ve done it!

Other options, a touch more expensive, include free-standing movable panels. You’ll need at least 3 – left side, front and right side and then additionally something on top – another panel or maybe pull out the duvet again! These are great in domestic settings where there isn’t the space to have a permanent structure. Both GIK Acoustics and Sorber make some good options. The other advantage of panels is that you can experiment with the best position in the room for them.

Anyone with a bit more acoustic knowledge will understand I have simplified my description and there’s more to acoustics than just the above. When I come in and help someone set something up, as well as using my ears I’m also taking measurements on software to help optimise the acoustics of the room. For example the angle of the panels in the room and also their distance from the walls can all help or hinder your overall acoustic result.

Finally, for a bit more money you could go for something like a fold out free-standing booth/screen – again GIK Acoustics do a couple of options. Advantages here again are that it is easily movable and also much nicer looking than many of the cheaper acoustic tiles.

In all the above examples, thick carpet or an additional rug below the Microphone is essential and if you can hang something behind you, (pull out the duvet again) even better!

Remember though, none of the above will have little or no effect on isolation, it is simply about sound absorption.

One final thing that I recommend doing is getting hold of a ‘raw’ (no processing applied) recording that you’ve done in a ‘pro’ studio and then doing a listening test to compare it to what you are achieving at home. I find this is a great way to help confirm that your set-up is, (hopefully) up to scratch!


Tim Sutton is a Sound Engineer & Audio Consultant who has worked in the Post Production industry for over 21 years. He offers specialist advice and training in studio design, specification and management. Much of his work involves helping individuals set-up and run their own home studios. You can find out more from his website here. He is also a voiceover artist with a VoicesUK showcase here.

Welcome to the VoicesUK blog. Here we explore all facets of the amazing world that is the voiceover industry. We feature guest authors on topics such as how to get started, what equipment is best for your recordings, how to find clients and how to best show off your skills on VoicesUK. To join our family of British voiceover artists please click here. Audition our voices for free by clicking here.