Auralex

Get the boom out of the room

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Studio 21 Comments

When I decided to become a full-time voice-over artist, I made myself a promise.

I would never lose an audition because of poor audio quality.

They might not like my voice. They might not like my read, but I would not let them ditch me because I wasn’t able to deliver broadcast-ready audio. In order to get there, I needed two things:

1. A dedicated, isolated and treated recording space

2. Quality equipment 

I purposely put them in that order. You can place the best equipment in a poorly isolated and barely treated room, and you’re still going to sound like an amateur at the kitchen table. I’d rather take an affordable microphone and preamp into a (semi)-professional booth, because the end result will be much better.

So, if you’re wondering where to spend your money, buy a Studiobricks cabin, or build your own space like I did. Then we’ll talk about getting that coveted Neumann U87 Ai, okay?

I still remember the day my 7′ by 7′ recording space was finally ready. The floating studio walls consisted of multiple layers. Auralex® Mineral Fiber and Green Glue were sandwiched between several sheets of 5/8″ drywall. All the seams were caulked with SilenSeal.

Outside noise was kept at bay, but inside, the space sounded like this:

 

CHAMBER OF HORRORS

Unknowingly, I had created an echo chamber! It was an ugly beast, waiting to be tamed. Especially in small spaces with parallel walls like mine, flutter echoes can be a big problem.

The best way to kill those echoes, is to put foam or other absorbing materials on the side walls. As a rule of thumb, the smaller the space, the more acoustical treatment you’ll need. Thankfully, I had a whole bunch of Auralex® Studiofoam Wedgies left over from my previous space.

I covered parts of the wall with SoundTrax™ from NextAcoustics™ and I added four CornerBlox™ bass traps, also from NextAcoustics™. The SoundTrax™ took care of the mid- and high frequency reflections. The bass traps absorbed the lower frequencies.

If you’ve ever seen pictures of my studio, you probably know that it’s also my office. My Mac Mini, Grace Design preamp and A/D converter sit right next to me in a small cabinet. Behind me are two bookcases, and I’ve lined the backs of those cases with Sonex Mini acoustical Panels.

A DIY REFLECTION SCREEN

In spite of those panels, I felt I was still getting too much reflection from the back. I tried to remedy that by taking a room divider and placing it behind my chair. I then took an old duvet cover, a few blankets and a sleeping bag, and hung them over the divider for absorption, creating a rear reflection screen. It wasn’t pretty, but it did the trick. The boom was out of the room!

Unfortunately, my improvised contraption was heavy and unstable. It also had a life of its own. I can’t tell you how many times it decided to fall down on me, usually in the middle of a recording. Two months ago, I had had it with this thing and I started looking for a replacement.

My search lead me to GIK Acoustics, a company that is selling in the U.S. as well as in Europe. They make a wide range of high-quality acoustic panels, bass traps and diffusors.

I especially like the fact that GIK uses ECOSE® Technology in their products, a formaldehyde-free binder, based on renewable materials instead of petroleum-based chemicals. It’s used in wood based panels and glass, rock and mineral wool.

GIK makes a versatile screen panel (32″W x 72″H x 3″ thick) that seemed ideal for my booth. Audio engineers would call it a Gobo. That’s slang for a portable acoustic isolation panel. Some people believe the word “Gobo” comes from “go between.”

Being the gearhead I am, I enjoy watching these types of videos. But when I watch something that’s put together by a manufacturer, the skeptic in me always wonders: does the product actually live up to the hype? I’ll let you be the judge, because I ordered a Gobo!

First, let’s listen to something I recorded in my booth without the GIK screen panel. You might want to use your headphones for this. 

 

As you can hear, compared to the first sample, room treatment makes a huge difference. However, for me the sound wasn’t quite dry enough. You can hear a bit of reverb at the end of each sentence.  

Once the GIK panel came in, I made two modifications. I added wheels so I could easily roll the panel into position, and I added handles. That way, I wouldn’t have to touch the coffee-colored fabric while moving the panel.

Here’s me reading the same lines from my booklet “Building a Vocal Booth on a Budget,” which is available in my store. This time, the Gobo is in place. By the way, both samples were recorded in WAV-format and converted to MP3.

 

Having used the screen panel for a few weeks now, I can confirm that it absolutely delivers as promised. It’s well-made, easy to position and it comes in many colors.

REVERB ON THE ROAD 

Even though this screen panel is portable, it’s great for a studio but too big for road trips. So, what do you do when you’re fighting flutter echoes in a hotel room? Well, there’s a solution that fits into your computer. It’s a De-Verb plug-in made by SPL, which stands for Sound Performance Lab. It’s a German company.

Originally developed to shorten the sustain period for drums and guitars, I’ve found that it also works well in the vocal booth, as long as you use it wisely. Once you’ve recorded your audio, you simply select the De-Verb plug-in from the effects list. This what you’ll see:

Screen Shot 2013-04-24 at 8.22.34 PM

The left button controls the level of reverb reduction and the right one the output gain. Both can be operated with the mouse wheel. When diminishing the reverb, you also diminish the output a little bit, and that’s why it’s good to turn up the gain slightly.

Now, don’t expect this plug-in to “fix” the first bit of audio you listened to (that’s the sample I recorded before I added any treatment to my booth). It’s by no means a substitute for acoustic panels or foam. However, if you’re recording in a less than ideal setting or you like your audio “extra dry,” this will definitely add the finishing touch.

Here’s the sample I recorded without the screen panel in my studio. This time, I added a bit of De-Verb. Once again, I recommend you listen with your headphones on. You might want to start by listening to the first sample, followed by this one. That will give you a nice contrast. 

 

Perhaps you find the difference quite subtle. To me, it’s just one of those small changes that, when you add it all up, can set you apart and take your product to the next level.

But how do you know that these changes really matter? Couldn’t it just be between the ears?  

Well, in our profession everything is pretty much between the ears, isn’t it?

You’ll know you’re on the right track when nobody comments on your audio improvements, because they could not be picked up.

It comes down to this.

Bad audio is an obvious earsore.

Quality audio is blissfully inconspicuous.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice


Recording on the Road

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Gear, Studio 28 Comments

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


Building a Booth on a Budget – the booklet

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Gear, Money Matters, Studio 28 Comments

Your clients demand and deserve quality audio, but even a top of the line microphone sounds miserable in an unprofessional recording space.

Are you thinking of buying or building a voice-over booth?

Before you spend thousands of dollars, find out what your options are and why building your own studio is easier and cheaper than you may think.

I spent countless hours researching the options, materials and plans to create an affordable vocal booth that keeps the noisy neighbors out of my voice-over projects.

This 46-page booklet documents my search for silence, and it describes the science and art of soundproofing in non-technical language and with plenty of pictures.

Even though it is not intended to be the ultimate guide to home studio construction, it is packed with practical tips, ideas and resources.

This information is also useful if you want to create a quiet space for:

  • Music
  • Movies
  • Multi-media
  • Meditation

My goal was to build a solid, soundproof booth for no more than $2000. Did I make it?

There’s only one way to find out!

Download your copy today.

Once your payment clears, you will receive an email which contains the details of your purchase and the product download link.

Thanks!

Wishing you tranquil times,

Paul Strikwerda