soundproofing

Equip Your Voice-Over Studio For Under A Thousand Bucks

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles 4 Comments

Rode NT1 microphone

With the midterm elections out of the way, America can finally focus on its favorite pastime. No, I’m not talking about baseball, football, or binge-watching Netflix. I’m talking about…

Shopping!

It’s one of those things I learned quickly when I entered this country as an immigrant. When America has something to celebrate, people flock to the stores.

When they wish to honor their veterans, they go shopping.

When they wish to remember those who died on the battlefield, they go shopping.

When they wish to celebrate their independence, they go shopping.

When they wish to observe Thanksgiving, Americans shop until they drop.

So, with Black Friday and the holidays around the corner, I want to talk to those of you who feel the uncontrollable urge to do some gear shopping. In fact, one of my new readers emailed me this week and said:

“I am seriously thinking about becoming a voice-over. I am starting from scratch, and if you were me, what equipment would you buy, knowing you have a limited budget?”

Here’s my response.

We don’t know one another, but I’ll assume that you have talent, training, time, and energy to pursue this career. If you’re just exploring options, I wouldn’t make a considerable investment. But if you’re really committed, I recommend you forget about the equipment for now, and focus on your recording space. A hundred-dollar microphone is going to sound better when used in a dedicated recording space, than a thousand-dollar microphone in an untreated, non-isolated space.

FLAWED FIXES

Now, there are plenty of manufacturers that are offering “easy solutions” to turn any room into a vocal booth. Remember this. You can buy all the eyeballs and acoustic shields you want, but they will never adequately isolate your microphone from annoying leaf blowers, barking pitbulls, and heavy traffic.

There are at least three proven ways to stop or reduce the transmission of sound:

• Adding mass: the heavier and thicker a wall, the better the isolation.

• Adding dampening material: absorptive material within a wall slows down the transfer of sound.

• Adding space: the further away from the sound you are, the weaker it will be.

Adding air space within a wall also helps decrease those ambient decibels.

So, take a good look at your designated recording space and at your finances, and spend at least sixty to seventy percent of your budget on your recording space. Without a quiet home studio, you won’t have the freedom to record whenever your client needs you to record, and you cannot deliver professional quality audio. Ergo: you won’t be able to compete.

THE GEAR YOU NEED

Here’s the good news: while soundproofing and acoustic treatment of a space is never cheap, getting decent gear to record with does not have to break the bank. I take it you already own a decent computer and a good monitor, so all you need is:

– a microphone, shock mount, and pop filter
– a microphone cable
– a boom arm
– an audio interface
– headphones
– monitors (speakers)
– recording/editing software

Before I give you my recommendations, please realize that the options are endless and the sky is the limit. When talking about gear, some people get on their slippery soap box telling you about must-haves and industry standards. Don’t let them intimidate or belittle you! You don’t need to spend a fortune to produce quality audio.

I’ve only picked equipment that:

– is mostly budget-friendly
– is good for voice-over applications
– has been tested by people I trust
– has had very good reviews

THE MICROPHONE

My choice of a starter microphone is the Rode NT1 Condenser. For well under three hundred dollars, Rode even includes a first-rate Rycote shock mount and a pop filter. This microphone works well for most voices, and during shootouts, it holds its own against models that cost three times as much.

I’m a big fan of the Rycote shock mounts because they work with lyres instead of elastic bands. Click here for my full review.

Rode NTG4 Shotgun Microphone

The Rode NT1 has a cardioid pickup pattern, but if you’d rather go with a tighter supercardioid pattern, I suggest you look into the Rode NTG4 shotgun microphone.  For a little over three hundred dollars, you get a mic with a 75 Hz high pass filter which is useful for reducing low-frequency rumble from HVAC systems indoors or street traffic.

For a shootout featuring the Rode NT1 and the NTG4, listen to the Pro Audio Suite podcast by clicking here.

CABLES & BOOM

Quite a few audiophiles have heated debates about cables. Some believe it doesn’t matter which cables you use because most people won’t hear the difference between a ten-dollar cable and one that sets you back several hundred dollars. I’ve worked in radio for twenty-five years of my life, and sound engineers have assured me that a quality cable does make a difference. A six-foot Mogami GOLD STUDIO-06 XLR Microphone Cable should do the trick.

Blue Compass Premium Boom Arm

As long as you’re not in the habit of pounding on your desk, I recommend getting the Blue Compass Premium Tube-Style Broadcast Boom Arm.  What I like about this arm is the minimalistic design with internal springs and hidden channel cable management. It’s compatible with all standard shock mounts, and costs about one hundred dollars.

AUDIO INTERFACE

So why would you need an audio interface? Well, an audio interface is the hardware that connects your microphone and other audio gear to your computer. A typical audio interface converts analog signals into digital audio information that your computer can process. If I were starting out as a voice-over, I’d choose the Audient iD4.

Audient iD4

I’ve reviewed its bigger brother the iD22 and it’s the interface I still use in my studio. The portable but sturdy iD4 has the same stellar and super clean preamps that will give you a low noise floor. It works with both Macs and PC’s, and for two hundred bucks it’s a no-brainer.

CANS

Next on the list are studio headphones. Not all heads are shaped the same, and what might be a good fit for my impressive noggin, may not work for you. Over the years I’ve tried Sony cans, Audio Technica, and Sennheiser. I finally found a pair I can wear for hours. It’s the Beyerdynamic DT 880 Premium Edition 250 Ohm Over-Ear-Stereo Headphones.

Beyerdynamic DT 880 Premium Edition 250 Ohm Over-Ear-Stereo Headphones

Beyerdynamic DT 880

Even though they look huge and bulky, they’re extremely light and comfortable, and come with a straight cord instead of a coiled cable. I hate coiled cables because they add weight and always seem to wrap around things. You will be able to find cheaper headphones than these semi-open Beyerdynamics, but not ones that hug your ears like teddy bears.

STUDIO SPEAKERS & SOFTWARE

Last on my hardware list is a set of studio monitors. At less than one hundred dollars per speaker, the Presonus Eris E5 ticks all the right boxes. Click here for my story on monitor selection. My Nethervoice studio monitors rest at ear height on speaker stands like these. You’ll also need two XLR Female to 1/4-Inch TRS Male Cables like these from Monoprice.

And what about recording software?

By far the cheapest audio editor costs… nothing. It works across all platforms, it’s got a fully featured spectrogram, and it even allows punch and roll. The name? Ocenaudio.

Well, there you have it. For less than a thousand bucks you’re all set!

Now, do your duty as a patriotic American, and go shopping!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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My Studio Secrets Revealed

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Studio 11 Comments

Almost every week colleagues and clients ask me about my voice-over studio. I’m proud of it and I am always happy to answer questions such as:

  • Did you buy prefab or did you build it yourself?
  • What’s your audio chain?
  • Why did you pick this particular preamp?
  • What audio editing software do you use?

You should know that I don’t consider myself to be an expert on booth-building or gear selection, but years of hands-on experience and the advice from friends like Dan Lenard, George Whittam, Dan Friedman and Mel Allen has given me a pretty good idea of how to spend my dollars wisely.

When it comes to investing in my business, I am guided by a few, simple principles:

  • A professional career requires professional gear.
  • Keep costs down and bring revenue up.
  • If you don’t invest, you can’t grow.
  • Every investment is a calculated risk that should pay for itself many times over.
  • The growth of your business determines and justifies the amount you invest.
  • Every investment must have long-term benefits.
  • Smart spending = smart saving.
  • Learn from the best and don’t reinvent the wheel.

Today I’ll take you on a tour of my studio and I’ll tell you what choices I have made and why. Please keep in mind that what works for me might not work in your situation, but you never know.

When reading the info below as well as the next story about my professional gear, remember this: my voice is for hire but my opinion is not for sale. I did not receive or solicit compensation for featuring the products I am using.

With that out of the way, why not start with the space I spend most of my time in:

The Nethervoice-over Booth

If you take your profession seriously, you need a quiet, dedicated recording space. Period.

Noise pollution is everywhere and it is on the rise! I was sick of having to interrupt my sessions just because my neighbors decided to try out their new leaf blowers and weed wackers.

The most expensive equipment sounds terrible in an untreated, non-isolated room. More and more clients are rightfully demanding recordings free of rumble, hiss and reverberations.

After a year of comparison shopping and studying soundproofing principles, I was ready to create my own recording area. I designed a seven-by-seven foot isolated room in my basement for under $2000, which I helped build with my two bare left hands.

The entire process is documented in a 46-page booklet called “Building a Vocal Booth on a Budget,” and over a hundred colleagues have used my plan or parts of it with great success.

Foam Alone

Once my vocal booth was built, the sounds of the outside world were kept pretty much at bay. However, the acoustics were worse than in my bathroom because the space was not yet treated with dampening materials.

Many companies sell so-called “soundproofing foam” and that’s just ludicrous. Foam does not soundproof a room. It absorbs and diffuses sound waves, which reduces slap and flutter echos.

To tame these echos, I spent $118 on a Small Studio Starter Kit made by Next Acoustics. It contains twelve 2 inch SoundTrax™ panels and 4 CornerBlox™ bass traps. It didn’t only look cool, it immediately absorbed most of the sound waves bouncing up and down the walls and ceiling. But I had more up my sleeve.

Freecycle.org

Freecycle is a worldwide network of people who are giving and getting things for free in their towns. Not junk, but good stuff that would otherwise end up in landfills. I found 10 Sonox acoustic miniPanels on Freecycle, as well as a rug and two bookcases. I also added four huge floor pillows from my attic to reduce even more reverb.

Last but not least, I added some leftover Auralex foam from my old recording space and put it on opposite walls and the ceiling. Yes, it’s a bit of a mishmash, but I think my clients care more about the way my studio sounds than about the way it looks. Listen to the difference:


Remember that the hard surface of a desk or music stand can cause unwanted reflections too. That was certainly the case with my desk which is in part made of glass. Luckily, I found a fleece dog bed that just happened to be a perfect fit.

What about ergonomics?

Ergonomics is the study of designing equipment and devices that fit the human body, its movements, and its cognitive abilities. Because I spend many hours a day in my studio, I wanted to create a healthy set-up for the mind and for the body.

The following question always pops up on various voice-over forums:

“Do you record standing up or sitting down?”

I can honestly answer that question with a resounding “Yes”! You can’t really see it, but I’m sitting on an adjustable kneeling chair. These types of chairs were first developed in the seventies in my neck of the woods: Northern Europe.

The kneeling chair promotes a healthier body posture, allowing your back to straighten. This relieves compression of the spine as well as tension in the lower back and leg muscles.

It also allows the diaphragm to move freely, and this promotes better breathing and blood circulation.

Most people need some time to adapt to this new kneeling position because they’ve been sitting like a sack of potatoes for years. The body has to build up the core muscles in the lower back, but once you have that strength going, you will never want to go back to a regular office chair. It helped me get rid of the pain in my lower back.

Should you decide to invest in a kneeling chair, you’ll discover that there are many poorly made products on the market that barely have any padding. As in voice-overs, you get what you pay for. My kneeling chair came all the way from New Zealand. It arrived within a week and I paid about $450 including shipping.

Preventing RSI

After one particularly long editing session, my right hand, arm and shoulder were protesting loudly and painfully. My neck wasn’t too happy either and my eyes were burning after staring at the monitor for so long. It lasted for a couple of days and it felt like the beginnings of repetitive strain injury.

One of the best ways to prevent that from happening is to move regularly. More and more research is coming out, pointing to the fact that a sedentary lifestyle is dangerous.

I also bought five things that have made my studio life a lot easier.

  • An adjustable, ergonomic arm rest
  • A computer monitor arm putting the screen at eye level.
  • Anti-glare computer glasses to reduce eyestrain. I’m wearing them in the pictures.
  • An ergonomic mouse and mouse pad

Here’s the disclaimer: if life at the editing desk is getting uncomfortable, it may be wise to talk to your doctor. There might be things going on that go beyond quick fixes and fancy chairs.

See the light

Lighting can affect someone’s mood (that’s why there’s heliotherapy). Personally, I prefer a warmly lit workplace and I’m not a big fan of those bright halogen lamps. They often buzz and that’s a no-no in a studio. Some energy-saving bulbs produce a high-pitched screech.

The one lamp I knew I had to have is a Himalayan salt lamp. Not only does it emit a very soothing light, some people believe that when heated up, the salt crystals actually purify and ionize the air, especially around electronic equipment. True or not, I just love the warm, comforting glow in my studio.

What about gear?

Next time I will show you what type of audio equipment I use to record and monitor my voice-overs with.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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