Recording on the Road

Sometimes, the best opportunities present themselves at unexpected times and in the strangest places.

Last year, I was attending a New Year’s Eve concert when one of my agents called. She apologized profusely for her timing, but a long time client really needed to know my availability. It only took a few minutes to go over my schedule. Twenty-four hours later, the job was booked; the first one of 2013.

A few days ago, I took a trip to Atlanta. I’d barely settled into my hotel room when a Polish producer contacted me. He wanted to know if I was interested in playing a part in a new video game. He sent along an audition script, and said his team would love to listen to my voice within the hour.

I enjoy creating all kinds of characters, but for some reason I haven’t broken into the wonderful world of gaming yet. This was a chance I couldn’t afford to miss.

Fortunately, I had come prepared. In less than ten minutes, I transformed my room at the Westin into a mini-recording studio.

HARLAN HOGAN’S PORTA-BOOTH®

Years ago, VO veteran Harlan Hogan had an ingenious idea. What if he were to line a collapsible Whitmor Cube with acoustic foam and place a microphone inside? Would that be enough to tame the unruly reflections of a hollow-sounding hotel room?

Even though this foam-filled contraption cannot keep unwanted noise out, placing the microphone inside a small treated space can indeed make a recording sound less boomy. In a moment I’ll share some sound samples with you.

Over the years, the Porta-Booth® has had a few incarnations, and it has found its way to roaming reporters, television commentators and traveling voice actors.

Porta-Booth Pro unfoldedI own the Porta-Booth® Plus ($189). It only weighs four and a half pounds and it comes with a free lightweight storage bag with plenty of room for a microphone, shock mount, preamp and a desk stand. The Auralex® foam lining the walls, keeps everything that’s sandwiched inside safe from the rough hands of airport handlers.

The Porta-Booth® Plus is made out of strong rip stop nylon, and has two parts: four supporting walls which are connected, and a separate back wall which can be attached with a zipper. Trust me: you won’t need instructions to put one and two together. Once you open the added two-way rear zipper, you can easily stick a shotgun mic through the slot, or a microphone cable.

Here’s another thing I like about this booth. When you’re not on the road, you can hang the strip of four connected Auralex® squares on one of the walls in your home studio for additional acoustic treatment. You can even rest these squares on your monitors to create a reflection screen.

CHALLENGES

So, is the Porta-Booth® Plus as easy to use as it is to set up? Yes and no. As with many new things in life, it takes getting used to. Let’s talk about travel first.

Harlan’s website Voiceover Essentials claims that the Porta-Booth® Plus “fits in most carry-on luggage”. Well, it definitely does not fit in a standard Samsonite carry-on upright that many people are using these days (see photos below). So, I carried the Porta-Booth® Plus separately.

I had planned on putting it in the overhead compartment, but because we were flying on a relatively small airplane, it didn’t fit and it had to be stored with other luggage. Thankfully, nothing was damaged when I got the Porta-Booth® back in Atlanta, but on the flight home, both straps of the carrying bag were ripped off, leaving four holes.

I should have read the disclaimer on Harlan’s website:

“It is not intended to be used as a travel bag and is not covered under your warranty. A heavy-duty traveling bag is under development and will be available soon!”

Without this heavy-duty traveling bag, I don’t think the Porta-Booth® Pro is ready for air travel, unless you store it in a sturdy suitcase.

INSIDE THE BOX

When I got my very first model, I thought I had to stick my head inside the Porta-Booth® to talk into the microphone. Considering the size of my head, that would have been very quite uncomfortable.

Fortunately, that’s not necessary. As long as you turn your mouth toward the grille of the mic and you stay fairly close to the booth, you should be fine.

One of the problems I did experience had to do with script placement. A paper script can block the opening of the Porta-Booth® if you hold it in your hand. Since the assembled space is quite small (16 inches high x 15 inches wide and 16 inches deep) it’s not easy to put the script inside either. Unless you bring a reading light, it’s also hard to see your lines.

The best way around this is to read your script from a Smart phone or a tablet placed inside the Porta-Booth®.

By now you’re probably wondering what Harlan’s portable recording booth sounds like. Does it deliver as promised? Allow me to first introduce the other elements in my portable recording chain.  

MICROPHONE

In my home studio I use a Microtech Gefell M903 Ts condenser microphone. It retails for $1,784.72. I don’t know about you, but I’m not comfortable taking such an expensive mic on the road. That’s why I wanted to find a sturdy replacement that wouldn’t break the bank. 

Because low-frequency rumble is a common problem in less than ideal acoustic situations, my travel mic had to have a high-pass filter. Such a filter also curbs the bass-boosting proximity effect, which can easily occur when you’re getting close to the microphone. After a two-week search, I found my mic. 

Let’s listen to my two microphones. You’ll notice that they have different personalities. Which one do you like better: A or B? Can you tell which one is the Gefell?*

 

Without telling you which is which, I can reveal that my travel mic is a previously loved AKG C 3000 B. I bought it online from Guitar Center, and it cost me a whopping… $84. This thing is built like a tank, it looked like it was never used and it came with a shock mount. Listen to the sample again, and tell me if the difference in sound quality is worth $1700,72. 

PREAMPLIFIER

In order to bring a condenser microphone signal up to line level, you need a preamp. My favorite travel gadget is the MicPort Pro made by CEntrance ($149). It’s a portable preamp with a built-in 24bit/96kHz, A/D converter. It gives your mic 48V phantom power and it has a headphone amp for zero latency monitoring. It is powered from the USB port. 

It took me a while before I finally found a portable pop filter. Most of these things take up too much space and the ones with a big clamp can be heavy. On the road I use the Pop Guard made by WindTech ($29.95). It weighs almost nothing and it slides neatly over most side address microphones. 

I’m also happy with the On-Stage folding desk stand ($14.29). My AKG mic isn’t exactly light, so I had to get a reliable metal tripod stand. The die-cast clutch adjusts in height from 4.25″ – 6.75″. For the mic itself I bought a padded microphone bag ($6.99).  

FATAL MISTAKES

Three big blunders almost ruined the recording day for me. Number one: for monitoring my audio, I relied on the small earbuds that came with my iPhone 4. Amazon is selling them for $2.23 and I think they’re worth even less. Back home I immediately replaced them with the very comfortable Sennheiser PX 100-II headphones ($69.95) that can be folded up. 

Secondly, even though I had asked for a quiet hotel room away from the elevator, we ended up in a gorgeous corner unit with windows on two sides. The 14th floor view was spectacular, but so was the traffic noise that never seemed to stop. Next time, I’ll make sure to inspect the room first, before unpacking. 

To get away from the noise, I wanted to move my booth and computer as far from the windows as possible, but the quietest spot in the room had no electrical outlets that were within reach. I should have brought an extension cord, but because I hadn’t, I ended up placing everything on the desk by the window. Have a listen: 

The question is: did placing my microphone inside the Porta-Booth® Plus make a huge difference? 

The Porta-Booth® Plus definitely tamed some of the reflections, but I would be embarrassed to send this audio clip to prospective clients. With the help of some clever plug-ins and other tricks, I was able to turn the audio into this: 

Am I happy with the end result? Not really. Most of the background noise is gone, but it sounds strangely distorted. Audio engineering is part art, part science and boy, do I have a lot to learn!

SHOWING WHAT YOU’VE GOT

Every audition is an audio business card. It’s proof of the level of professionalism a client can expect from you.

You either show it, or you blow it.

Remember: most clients won’t give you a second chance to make a first impression. Not even a producer in Poland.

So, what was I to do? His animation studio was expecting my demo within the hour. 

Well, I ended up recording his audition script that day, and I used some artificial sweeteners to make it sound okay. But I told him in my email that this was recorded in a hotel room, and I sent him a demo I had recorded in my studio, so he could hear what I was capable of.

A day later, and in spite of my best efforts to come up with a decent recording on the road, I was hired.

Life can be a mysterious road trip.

Some say that it’s the destination that really matters.

How you get there, is not always important.

Live and learn, my friends. 

Live and learn. 

Paul Strikwerda ©Nethervoice

* The first microphone was the Gefell. Number two was the AKG.

PS The Porta-Booth® Plus Carry-On bag has arrived! It’s strong. It’s sturdy, and it has two side pockets for your microphone, desk stand and cables. With this addition, the Porta-Booth® Plus is now ready for the road and I can give it my unofficial seal of approval.

Porta-Booth® Plus Carry-On bag

About the author

Paul Strikwerda

is a multilingual voice-over professional, coach and writer. His blog has been voted one of the most influential voice-over blogs in the industry. He's an expert contributor to Internet Voice Coach, the Edge Studio, the International Freelancers Academy and recordinghacks.com.

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Gear, Studio

28 Responses to Recording on the Road

  1. Paul Strikwerda

    If you’re looking for dead silence, I guess a cemetery is the place to be.

  2. Rebecca Michaels Haugh aka LoveThatRebecca

    I am cracking up that Lisa Rice drives to cemeteries to have a ‘quiet’ place for the interior car recordings!!! That’s awesome. So far for me I can’t handle the constraint of the porta size, but I SO appreciate this experience written out all the way. I have had lots of travel situations, and I do the best I can with a little portable auralex and pillows and duvets! I used to make tents inside as a little kid anyway – some things don’t change!! Thanks Paul, great stuff.

  3. Paul Strikwerda

    Hi Scott, the view was indeed spectacular, but I’ll take a nature scene any day. I did close the thick curtains behind me as I was recording, but it wasn’t enough to curb the ambient noise. Next time I might go under the covers…

  4. Scott Burns

    Excellent article Paul! (And what a view!)

    I love your attention to detail, this was a great tutorial on road recording.

    One thing that has been pointed out to me is that despite talking into a protected microphone such as the HH Porta-booth is that you still need to isolate the space behind you. I would love to see pictures of everyone’s solution to that! Reminds me of building forts out of my parents sofa cushions…

    Scott

  5. Karol Walkowski

    Michelle. Of course there’s nothing wrong with the cowboys. I actually like country and western and I’m very fond of those hard working and honest people. Perhaps I’ve used this comparison in the same, slightly careless way as Paul did referring to Polish producers ;)
    It isn’t about cowboys not having ear for the music, but more about the “Yeehaw!” school of voice-over recording.
    Regards from snowy Warsaw :)

  6. Dan Friedman

    Great article Paul! Lots of great comments too.

  7. Michelle Armeneau

    Enjoyed your article! And excellent comments, too. I’m taking notes.

    I’m trying not to react to the ‘cowboy’ comment…I married a cowboy, a singing cowboy, and he has a great ear for sound and nice equipment LOL

  8. Paul Strikwerda

    Hi Toni, I’ve spent a lot of money in my life and I never regret a single penny spent on travel. Thanks to television, the Internet and smart phones, many of us have become observers instead of partakers. Some people feel no urge to go out and explore anymore. What a shame!

    I love being away from home and discover new destinations. However, I don’t like to combine work with leisure. My trip to Atlanta taught me a lot. I thought I was well-prepared, but I almost blew the audition due to technical problems. Hopefully you’re not going to make my mistakes. Safe travels!

  9. Toni Orans

    Great blog Paul ~ really appreciate all your comments/observations and references ~ am working towards being able to ‘record on the road’ as well, since being on the road is one of my passions – still a ways to go (no pun intended!) as for having my ‘set-up’ together, but all the above really helps! I actually use a home made portable booth which I constructed out of a canvas laundry collapsible cube and some foam. However, due to the fact that my RØDE NT1-A mic wouldn’t properly fit in the cube, my partner constructed a heavy duty stand for the cube to sit on so that it would add another 6″ or so to the bottom, allowing for the mic stand to have some space. Then, we cut a hole in the bottom of the cube for the stand to come thru – making this all very NON-portable as a result! But then I guess it’s really not the right mic for this application either. Wow, so much to get together, huh? Thanks again for all the great info/suggestions!

  10. Paul Strikwerda

    Hi Lisa, the car is one of the best environments to record in, outside of your studio. It’s amazing how much thought the engineers of modern automobiles have put into soundproofing. How do you like the pocket sound booth? The idea is similar to Harlan’s contraption, but it seems easier to carry and at $42.47 it is much cheaper.

  11. Paul Strikwerda

    I can assure you that I didn’t mean to denigrate your fellow-countrymen, Karol. The sentence you’re referring to was just a bridge to link the beginning of my article to the conclusion. As you have noted, there are high-quality studios one both sides of the Atlantic, and establishments that are not so reputable.

  12. Karol Walkowski

    Paul, I am sorry for my outburst… I’m usually not too touchy, but I still think that “most clients won’t give you a second chance to make a first impression. Not even a producer in Poland.” seems a little rude as it would suggest we know nothing about the sound quality. Well, majority of recording engineers in Poland hold master’s degrees in audio engineering from either polytechnic or college of art. Most of the studios I know are pretty expensively geared with all what’s important to record, mix and master a good audio.
    There are some cr*py and cheap studios of course, but I know there are some “cowboys” in US and Western Europe too ;)

  13. Lisa Rice

    Great article, Paul. I recently bought a Pocket Sound Booth (http://www.pocketsoundbooth.com) and have paired it with my MicPort Pro. A suitable combination so far.

    I don’t travel often but have found that recording in my car works well. Believe it or not, I usually pull into a local, public cemetery or park. They provide a quiet place for sessions on-the-go.

  14. Paul Strikwerda

    This particular design has many versions. There’s the version you mentioned, there’s a noise-cancelling version and there’s a headset with control buttons for iPods, iPads and iPhones. All these models have different price tags. With these light weight cans there’s always a trade-off. They aren’t as voluminous as my semi-open AKG K240′s, but they are easy to carry and don’t take up much space. Yes, there’s definitely some leakage, but in my experience, the leakage doesn’t reach the microphone. I don’t have small ears, and for me, closed ear headphones tend to get uncomfortable rather quickly. To me, these Sennheisers are a compromise, but compared to my home studio, so is my entire travel set-up.

  15. Tom Test

    Hmmmm. It seems that their are BOTH open-ear AND closed ear versions of these headphones! Paul, the link you gave to B&H shows the open-ear version. But on Amazon, I found this: http://www.amazon.com/Sennheiser-PX-200-II-Headphones/dp/B002VPDOHS/ref=wl_mb_hu_m_4_dp which is the same model number, but these are closed ear phones (and $20 more).

  16. Tom Test

    Paul, I have a question about those Sennheiser PX 100-II headphones you recommend. Since they are an open-back design, is leakage an issue? I am concerned about your mic picking up the sound from your headphones, since they are not the type that encloses your ear.

  17. Tom Test

    First off, I am SO relieved to find that you are back online, Paul! Phew!

    Your article is timely, as I am about to go on vacation for a week away myself. I’ve had success the past few years with the following set-up: AT2050 (a multi-pattern version of the 2035), MicPort Pro, good quality earbuds for monitoring (though I’ll take a long look at the set you bought), into a netbook running Sound Forge Studio. I set up a bunch of heavy blankets and towels in a walk-in closet, and It was “good enough” to satisfy a Fortune 500 client for a non-broadcast narration. But not quite good enough for me.

    I now have a Focusrite iTrack Solo (better quality control than the MicPortPro, it’ll also work with an iPad!), a Sennheiser 416 I got on eBay for $600 like new (I agree with you about being nervous to travel with expensive gear) and the same PortaBooth Plus as you have. Sadly, I’m still not quite satisfied. The sound I’m getting using the booth sounds boxy and dull to me. I’m still playing with it and perhaps I’ll find a way to overcome this issue.

    I have used the PortaBooth *PRO* which sounded MUCH better than the smaller square booths (it has more of a “flower-cup” sort of shape. But frankly it is too big to do air travel with in my experience (I have a petite wife and an 8 yr old daughter, so I have to lug around quite a lot.

    I think if you are driving, the PortaBooth Pro with your setup would work very well, since I think your current booth is the weak link in your travel chain. For my upcoming trip, I’m leaving my PortaBooth Plus at home, and will rely on rigging up the closet with blankets and towels as I did successfully before. I haven’t given up on the Portabooth Plus yet, but my hopes are not high that it will be my ultimate solution.

    Finally, I think the e100S would be a great travel mic except for the fact that – for me at least – its bulk and weight make it impractical to carry when traveling by air.

  18. Paul Strikwerda

    Rick, the Shure PG42 USB was also on my list and I did check it out. However, I already own a MicPort Pro which turns any standard microphone into USB mic. Also, no one could beat the $84 I paid for the AKG.

    There’s also a USB version of the famous Audio-Technica AT2020. At $149 it seems to be a pretty good deal.

  19. Paul Strikwerda

    Thanks everyone, for coming back to this article after my website was down for about 24 hours. I never found out what caused it to be unavailable, and I’m tremendously relieved that it’s up and running again.

    I love all the low-tech recording solutions people are offering. Next time I might just jump under the duvet cover in my hotel room and fall asleep while doing an audition. I have played with the idea of getting a short shotgun mic instead of the AKG, and I might very well get one. On the other hand, I’m not a frequent traveler anymore. On some trips I purposely leave my gear at home. I love my job but my life doesn’t revolve around work.

    Karol, I have no idea what “rude remark” you’re referring to. If something I said rubbed you the wrong way, I apologize. I can humbly and in all modesty assure you that I don’t suffer from a superiority complex toward Polish producers. There’s an award-winning animator from Poland in my home town. His name is Maciek Albrecht and this is his website: http://magikworld.com

  20. Rick Lance

    Thanks for the hands-on report from your Atlanta trip!

    Fist off, I heard very little difference between the fist take and second take of your first demo. A bit more depth to the second one. But not $1700.00 dollars worth. Nice comparison. But if I buy a Gefell while I automatically stat having to speak in Dutch or German or… whatever?

    Sounds like you dealt with the traffic noise well. Your final result was better but as you said still a bit hollow. I assume you tried to EQ some of that out of there. But I know that’s limiting. Good idea, however, to send him a sample of your studio sound. Congrats on getting that gig!

    Just to pass on some info… I’ve tried out several USB mics.. older and newer ones. I settled on a great mike that George Whittam loves too. The Shure PG42 USB. It’s got a great clean bottom end and mids and a clear high… very smooth! Just a certain kind of Shure sound I got used to singing through for years. It’s got a pad switch, low pass switch, gain, switch, headphone jack with volume and monitor controls and shock mount. And it’s heavy and built for the road. Comes in an aluminum case
    for $199.00 at Amazon right now. http://www.amazon.com/Shure-PG42-USB-Vocal-Microphone/dp/B001U1IVBI

  21. Krystal Barnes

    …one more thing…I liked the sound of the AKG mic the best. ;)

  22. Krystal Barnes

    This blog post was very helpful. Thank you!

  23. Joe Van Riper

    Excellent article, Paul! Love your attention to detail in explaining your development process. I, too, built a home-grown version of the Porta-Booth but didn’t care for the rather muffled quality it gave my VOs. So I wound up learning a lot about noise gates, EQ filters, and other arcane (and tedious) technical engineering tricks. Still not ideal, but a lot cleaner. And I travel with a beat-up Neumann TLM-103 that still sounds great, so I have good stuff to work with. I need to get a Senny shotgun, though, to kill a lot of ambient noise. Final desperation act: Record in the car, parked in a quiet lot, if I have to!

  24. Karol Walkowski

    Your piece about on-the-road recording was very interesting and pleasurable for me to read until your rude remark about Polish producers. If it makes you feel little more superior, you’re right! So… We happily use karaoke microphones for all studio recordings (from voice-over to jazz bands recording), cheap hi-fi speakers for monitoring, Audacity is considered the best DAW because is free. You see, if we use cheap equipment, we don’t have to steal it like we normally do with Dutch cars and jobs. Groeten en prettige avond!

  25. Moe Rock

    Great article Paul!! Great timing as i’m trying to put together a travel kit by June and the numorous choices are giving me NIGHTMARES!!! Chuck what mic do you use on the road?

  26. Matt Forrest

    Thanks for the review, Paul! I’ve read similar experiences, but did not know that it can open up to be used as additional acoustical treatment. I have read that if there is sound dampening behind you – say, curtains or such, that it has a drastic improvement on reducing ambient sound. I also wonder what the audio quality would be like if you used your E100-s? With the super-cardiod pattern and hi-pass filter, it might keep that outside noise down to a minimum. Thanks, as always, for sharing your experience!

  27. Geof Bush

    I constructed an early version of Harlan’s booth and have taken it on trips. It works well, though will never replace the studio. I put the foam in a vacuum storage bag and squeeze the air out to save space. It takes about a half hour for the foam to “reconstitute” itself, even after being stored for a long period of time.

    One advantage I do have is that I am a corporate pilot, so baggage storage is not a problem as it could be on an airline.

  28. Chuck Davis

    Great article as always Paul! I’ve done an awful lot of recording on the road myself. In spare bedrooms in Wales to hotel rooms in LA, Atlanta, NYC, Charlotte, Ventura, Harrisburg and most recently, a hotel room in Savannah, GA with 14-foot ceilings!

    My “acoustic treatment”? Four fluffy pillows on the desk behind my Macbook, mic and Mbox…and a big fluffy bath towel as a tent over my head. Works beautifully…and requires no packing!

    I got the bath towel trick from Joe Cipriano who used the same trick while we were recording the intro’s for last years finals of “America’s Got Talent”.

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