Voice-over Recording Studio Tips
Think how your voice sounds to you when you're in the bathroom or shower. Lots of reverberation, yes? That's because all the sound waves are bouncing back to you after hitting the bare tiled or glass walls in the room. If you were in a room that, instead of hard bare walls had lots of cushions, duvets or foam, it would sound totally different - there would be no echo or reverb as these soft surfaces absorb the sound waves and very little bounces of them. If you go into your loft, it may sound pretty dead acoustically because there's lots of stuff and aren't any parallel walls. The sound recordist Ty Ford says "Don't use a lot of foam on the walls. Go for a balance of diffusion (irregular surfaces) and absorption (foam). Too much foam in a room sounds overly dead and spongy." However, many voice-over artists have wall-to-wall acoustic foam tiles in their booth.
For 18 years I had 9 foam acoustic tiles 40x40cm and 5cm deep to deaden the sound in my studio / office where I recorded because the resonance from the walls was noticable on recordings. On other walls I have shelves with objects on - which aren't deliberately there, but do help diffuse the sound. I try to record in small spaces - i.e. not in the middle of a large room, but in a constructed 'corner' where I can control the surface acoustics more. So I have a large floor standing acoustic screen 1.5m tall by 1m across (pictured left, next to a door to show scale) which I can pull towards me in one corner of my studio / office so that it creates a smaller acoustically treated space which gives a more deadened sound than without it. If I had the space, I would have invested in a 'room within a room' acoustically isolated booth which would not only have created a great recording environment in acoustic terms, but would have also isolated any extraneous sounds from outside. I've used them in the past and always found them to be excellent acoustic environments. I also have a desire to go to sleep in one. I'd have loved to had one when I lived next door to noisy neighbours!
In summer 2018 I purchased 12 large Primacoustics Broadway Broadband and Control acoustic panels from Studiospares to mount on the ceiling and walls of my studio. Instead of the dark grey foam tiles mentioned above, they are a light beige fabric. They are all 2" thick, and the largest panels are 48” x 24”. I have two of these large panels on the ceiling and two on the wall. I also have 8 column panels which are 48” x 12” - four on the ceiling and four on the wall . I also have a single 24” square.
Seven of these panels are mounted to the wall, but six are mounted to the ceiling which, as in most rooms (including yours?) is a large area without anything on it to absorb sound and prevent reverb. In all photos of broadcast studios, the ceiling is almost entirely covered by these panels.
The air gap behind the panel for the batons of wood is proven to aid lower frequency absorbtion as opposed to mounting 'flush' with the ceiling/wall.
I now use the grey acoustic foam panels below the desk line, out of sight, to absorb sounds of computers, etc.
I have a motorised desk that moves up and down at the touch of a button, so I record voice-overs standing up and therefore in a smaller volume of space in the corner of my studio, with the corner being covered in acoustic panels. Standing up is also better as your diaphragm is not contorted.
The manufacturer of the panels, Primacoustics, suggests only 45% coverage is needed for VO booths and is described as "dark". Photos on the Primacoustics' website show almost total ceiling coverage in broadcast radio studios, despite their stating 35% coverage is sufficient for on-air broadcast studios.
Ten years prior, I purchased an SE Electronics Reflexion Filter after reading a number of reviews praising it. It was okay - maybe I need to play with it more, but you still need some sound absorbtion behind you when recording as I discovered. I was thinking it'd be an instant fix for recording quick voice-over sessions with a condenser mic, but alas I didn't feel that. Eventually, after a lot of tests and contradictory to the reviews I'd read, I decided I wasn't very impressed by it, so sold it on. I've seen some more recent advancements in this field, with round shaped acoustic 'nests' that your microphone sits in which seem most intriguing (the "Kaotica Eyeball").
I've used a Mackie 1202 VLZ Pro since 2001 which I decided on primarily due to the incredible low noise pre amps (although now other brands make unbelievably cheap mixers with the same low noise levels - amazing!). I had used a green coloured Joe Meek VC3Q which I found impractically noisy (loads of hiss) when used with the comparatively silent AKG C414 for voice work. The Mackie has 4 mic pre-amps, so I could practically leave all my favourite voice mics plugged in and correctly EQed all the time. Their user manual is well and humourously written too.
What follows was written many years ago and it might be an idea to skip to reading the 2018 update.
These USB digital converters that take your microphone signal and put it straight into the computer are ok, but you really need to EQ (equalise) the lows, mids and highs of the mic signal to make it sound as nice as possible before you record your voice. You can adjust it in 'post' (ie in your sound editing software) but I think it's nice to hear it in real-time in your headphones while you're recording. You can take the output signal from your mixer and use a USB digital converter thing to put it into your PC without having a snazzy soundcard in it, but when you play it back you may not hear the full tonal quality (because you've got a basic soundcard still).
To give a more 'commercial' sound to the end-user of my voice tracks, I used a Behringer Composer Pro MDX2200 compresser, limiter, expander, gate, toaster, teasmaid, etc. It worked great - for the price it was really amazing. (past tense edited in here - it worked for about 14 years but one channel started sounding distorted so I bought a replacement updated version - the MDX2600 - which was not as good by a long way and I would not recommend). I cannot stress enough how important the 'gate' function is - it's an absolute must if you are recording your voice in a place with extraneous noise (ie a home studio). It automatically mutes the microphone when you are not speaking, so there's no rumble or PC hum when you're pausing even for a split second to breathe between words or sentences. You set the threshold yourself so that it doesn't sound clipped. Gates are available on other processors, but I would never buy anything without one now. Now discontinued, the MDX2200's replacement is the Behringer Composer PRO-XL MDX2600 which has even more features including a de-esser, dynamic enhancer and tube emulator. However, I have personally found that the gate is far too 'choppy', cutting off the end of words with a quiet ending, and there is no longer the control knob to adjust it to have greater sensitivity as you could with the MDX2200. Pressing the 'Release' button doesn't mute the signal quick enough and you hear whirring PCs for less than a second before it fades it down. My unit also seems to 'pump' the fan sound when I'm not speaking, which is just weird and I don't use it anymore. So as there are other units out there I investigated then purchased the dbx 166xs, which is a gate, compressor and limiter. I have so far found it excellent - definitely comparable to the MDX2200, with the two gate knobs for control, but I think a better compressor function. I seem to have to increase the output gain control on the 166xs more than the MDX2200 by about +9db, and I've found it's possibly not as 'quiet' as the Behringer, in that there's a barely noticable hum/buzz on the recording which I would need to gate using the editing software. So I am now (in 2017 - see 2018 update!) using a dbx 166xs Compressor/Limiter/Gate unit which is better.
I'm not into knob twiddling enough to have enjoyed setting up the ADR F756R Vocal Stresser which I had bought from a local FM radio station and they'd used since the late '70s as the main processor for their on-air output, so I sold it on eBay. The station engineer later told me that they were a bit annoyed because upon reflection they said it was the best sound processor they'd had in over 25 years and hadn't found anything that came close to it since - oops! The station has closed now, but I'm certain this did not have anything to do with it...! From what I've read, you'd need to be a fully qualified sound engineer to know how to set one up properly, and may have to replace all the many capacitors in it due to its age.
As an aside, I am a great fan of voice-recognition software, and as I've mentioned on previous pages which mics I use for this, I thought I'd add here that I use a Behringer Xenyx 502 mixer to give the mic adequate gain and a little EQ before going into the PC's soundcard. Alas, this particular mixer model does not have phantom power so I would always suggest you buy one that does so you've always got the ability to use condenser mics if you wish. This was my mistake.2018 UPDATE - IMPORTANT UPDATE ON PROCESSING
Full time voice-over artists will have ISDN lines, essentially digital telephone lines which allow you to 'appear' live in a recording studio or production house anywhere in the world in digital clarity. They are by no means cheap to install or keep going. The cost per minute, per ISDN line is 50p, and you need 2 lines - so a 15 minute session (although it's the production company who would dial in to you) would cost around £7.50 in call costs. To convert your gloriously retro analogue audio into digital to be sent down these ISDN lines, you need an ISDN codec. This not only sends your audio signal from your mixer to the production studio, but also allows you to hear them (just like a phone) so that they can direct you and tell you when they're ready to record. A popular codec is the Prima LT, which is nice and easy to use and is very high quality (although the price is over £2,000). There are now pieces of software available that do the same as the hardware but for around half the price, and AudioTX is a popular version. ISDN lines give a VO cudos because they are expensive things to have, show you're serious and allow real-time 'live' directing from the session producer that recording a WAV or MP3 in your own time does not. I suppose these days you could simply record the session as a WAV and just Skype with the studio so they hear what you're recording, then send them the WAV when the session is finished. Certainly cheaper than ISDN lines, which I think might be a bit old hat now anyway, since the time of writing this article originally.
Years ago, I used to have to record the voice sessions onto Minidiscs first then record them from MD to the PC to edit. This was very time consuming - essentially doubling the length of 'real' time it took to record a session, but my old PC was just so noisy it was impractical to record a voice track while it was on in the same room, especially before I'd discovered gates. I have since had Fujitsu Siemens and Acer PCs, the latter being very quiet indeed. I've always liked Minidiscs since I purchased the MZ-R3 in 1996 (right). I was a real Minidisc advocate, especially as it was competing with the DCC (effectively digital cassette tapes) at the time in a VHS vs Betamax style battle. My original portable MZR3 doesn't work anymore now. My new portable is the MZ-R37 (pictured right). The LP2 and LP4 recording modes of MD recorders today are incredible - you'd be hard pushed to notice any difference. I've found so many uses for my minidisc recorders that I'm tempted to buy some spares in case they ever stop manufacturing them! I already have hundreds of blank discs from a clearance sale item in Sainsburys (5 for £1). I tend not to record voice tracks onto them now unless the client requests it. I'll be totally honest here, they never have.
Digital Recording Workstations
I bought the Tascam DP-02CF Portastudio, which is a digital multi-track recorder, recording audio onto a removable compact flash memory card. The idea was that I could record voice tracks whilst my PC was switched off, and so have even quieter recordings with the more sensitive mics I have. After a day of playing, I decided it wasn't for me. There's no denying it looks like a very nice piece of kit, but I think a band or musician would have much more use for it that me. My main nag is that when you record a voice track, you then have to 'bounce' it in real time to create a WAV file on the compact flash card to be able to edit on the PC later. Perfect for mixing down songs with multiple tracks, but when it's just recording one track with a mic it doubles the amount of time spent recording, as you're listening to the entire session again. Without this snag, I would have kept it. I still had the mic going through the Mackie mixer and Behringer Composer Pro before the signal going into the Portastudio - I need the gate function on the Behringer - can't live without it now. You can change the frequency range that the high and low EQ pots adjust, which is a nice touch. However, this could only be done in the bounce stage, so you can't hear in real-time what effects any EQ change has on the live recording. If the buttons were soft-touch rubber/silicon instead of the loud 'click' type ones that it had, it would have felt like a higher quality product. I didn't get too much into it after realising the bounce problem, but I can imagine a band or a composer loving this kit. I was going to buy the Tascam DR-07 portable recorder (pictured right), but wasn't sure if it was too flimsy and light with no XLR input or faders so went for the DP-02CF which looks like it meant business more. I sold my Portastudio to a nice musician in Battersea. I'm not sure whether I deleted the audio I'd recorded onto it, which may have included me swearing about the usability of said Portastudio. I'll never know!
It's no longer multi-track tape or DAT - computers, hard disk or even solid state recorders are now the norm for recording audio in studios. Thankfully, in recent years, manufacturers are becoming aware that even domestic PC users don't like the sound of a large cooling fan humming constantly in their studies or living rooms. This is beneficial to voice-over artists or podcasters because it brings very quiet computers into the reach of everyone - they used to cost a fortune! In theory, you can still spend money on having a silent customised PC built, with a fanless power supply and solid state hard drive (SSD), doing away with fans and whirring noises altogether. So far, I've gone half-way and installed a fan-less power supply in my PC. To get it out of the way, I do not like Apple Macs. They are too expensive.
Do not underestimate the difference a sound card has on your recordings. I once connected my voice-over recording equipment to a different computer and tried recording with the same software and equipment but it sounded awful. The only difference was that I was using the on-board soundcard that is built-in to the computer. I transfered my sound card over and it was great again.
Personally, I used a Creative Sound Blaster Audigy 2 which was well priced and did all I needed. They aren't manufactured any more, but a good spec sound card will make a difference - maybe even something like the Creative Sound BlasterX AE-5. I have tried other slightly cheaper sound cards in other computers since then, and I was rather surprised at the difference in audio quality that I noticed.
Cables & Headphones
I soldered my own 3 pin XLR cables using Neutrik jacks and Van Damme LC-OFC quad microphone low-noise screened cable. I enjoy soldering and find it rewarding. XLR plugs are a bugger to solder because you need a total of 4 hands to do it, so be warned!
I used to use 8 ohm Beyer DT100 headphones, and sometimes Sennheiser HD 480-13 II / 600Rs, although the Sennheisers aren't closed so if I got too close to the mic is sometimes fedback if I'm having a 'deaf day' with the volume up too high. I then used a pair of Audio Technica ATH-M40fs - they really are superb but the foam ear pads have started to perish with age. I now use a pair of Sony MDR-7506 (what a catchy model name!) which are one of the more popular pairs aside from Beyer. If only headphones all came with the velour style pad - too many pairs of headphones with plastic leatherette pads (or whatever it's called) have perished on me simply through use and it's a real pest. Indeed, the leatherette has split and is leaving black bits all over everything when you handle them. I've also noticed it's quite easy to get flesh from your hands caught in the mechanism of these headphones, which when nipped is really painful and can draw blood!
In late 2016 I was at Heathrow Airport and tried on some Bose QuietComfort 25 noise cancelling headphones. I'd first tried Bose noise cancelling headphones when they released their first pair back in about 2000. The noise cancelling really works and the result is quite striking. Whilst I was standing in the airport shop, it suddenly dawned on me that perhaps these headphones could be used when recording voice-overs to give a more ‘pure’ sound by cancelling out my voice from being heard as much in my ears, so that theoretically I would hear more of the actual sound signal being recorded and monitored than any sound from my voice in the studio. So I bought a pair when I got back home. They were by no means cheap at £230.
Plugging them into my amplifier, or home hi-fi gave an incredible earth hum, predominantly in the right ear. Disappointing. Bose suggested I buy an earth hum remover, but this had no effect. Plugging the headphones into my Blackberry mobile phone, laptop or my WiFi radio (which is mains powered) there was no earth hum. However, after speaking with Bose they explained how amplifiers that are mains powered often give this hum because they are grounded via mains power, and more to the point, these Bose headphones are not designed for use with mains powered audio equipment! They are specifically for Samsung/Android mobile phones and portable audio equipment (despite various comments on the dealer's website (Amazon) of how people have used them successfully with their home hi-fi). The headphones have a 4 contact 2.5mm very thin socket into which you plug the cable which has an in-line microphone and volume control on the cable, and the 3.5mm jack on the other end is also 4 point and is what you plug into the audio source. They are battery-powered, but as with many Bose items, switching the noise cancelling on puts the input audio signal through what can only be described as a Bose equalisation/exciter circuit, which changes the frequency response of the input audio to sound a bit brighter. It works well with Bose speakers -- I have a few Bose 102C equalisation units myself around the house, and they do improve the sound of Bose speakers by EQing the bass and treble, boosting them. Sadly, this equalisation only emphasised the earth hum making it even louder. So alas the experiment failed completely, I had to return them, and I'm now back to using the Sony headphones again.
The padding in the earpads of headphones does tend to perish over time. Why manufacturers are insistent on using the horrendous plastic leatherette material must surely be a decision based entirely on cost. I have found that it is fairly inexpensive to replace these with superior velour replacement pads in various colours, and it's not too difficult to fit these. This then gives life to the old headphones that may look a bit yucky.
This may potentially be going off topic a little. For many years I used a wireless headset to take phone calls on my landline so that I have both hands free to type instructions from the caller or to look for something or whatever.
One night I had been watching numerous videos on the excellent California Aircheck YouTube channel which documents American radio personalities in action on video in their studios throughout the decades. Other DJs can purchase the videos to see how it is done in other markets, or to see what it's like to be in the studio where one of their heroes or legends of radio is doing his or her magic.
It suddenly dawned on me whilst watching a video of Rick Party on WGCI in Chicago from 1994 that when he took off-air phone calls from listeners that were recorded to be edited and played back on air that he didn't wear headphones and was listening to the callers through the studio speakers. Yet he was talking to the callers through the main on-air microphone. It was effectively a speakerphone but routed through the main desk. When these calls were played back on the air, there was no hint of echo or feedback or any interference on the recording of the call that had just taken place - the caller audio was perfect. It suddenly dawned on me how great life would be to take phone calls through such a setup - the world's best audio quality speakerphone!
I immediately realised what the purpose of telephone balance units, a.k.a. TBUs, was. I'd heard the term for years, but never thought about them nor how they work, having assumed you always had to wear headphones to use them. They are quite incredible units with very advanced circuitry. It effectively cancels out the audio from the person calling you that is coming out of your speakers that is being picked up by the microphone that you are talking to the caller through. The caller doesn't hear their own voice echoing round your studio as the TBU circuitry cancels it out, and the audio of the caller coming through your speakers doesn't have your voice mixed with it. I immediately bought four units plus a spare - one for each of my incoming phone lines.
Sadly, the original units are slightly less popular now as everything moves to VoIP, but I still have two plain old telephone landlines and two VoIP lines and these TBUs do work on both, despite my TBU units being about 15 years old. They aren't the very latest version but rather the previous version of the current model. The latest version is probably a bit more souped up to deal with the longer delays of VoIP calls. I sent all of them to Sonifex, the manufacturer, to be serviced who were very helpful indeed and great to work with. I also built a desktop remote control for the units reusing some expensive Swiss made illuminated push buttons I had salvaged from some old Sonifex tape cartridge players from my local radio station. The other day I saw an air check video of the late-night phone in presenter on this station using the cart machines that these buttons are from which are now on my desk - full circle!
I've taken thousands of phone calls on these units from customers who have no idea whatsoever of the setup that I'm talking to them through, with their voice going through a mixing desk and coming out at some volume through the large monitor speakers, and that I'm talking to them through either a Sennheiser MD431 or Neumann TLM 103 microphone. I've asked friends how I sound and they always tell me it's incredibly clear and strong - better than a phone handset! I can EQ the caller's voice to make it clearer, or turn the level up or down if they are quiet talkers or shouters. Theoretically it would also be very easy to record or log these phone calls where the caller's voice could be in channel one of the stereo recording and my voice could be in channel two. I've been in on some horrendous conference calls over the years with groups in bare, echoey, reverb filled rooms and it's not easy to hear anything that is being said. If only they knew of the TBU - a low cost set-up would immediately improve the call clarity (although not the echoey rooms people seem oblivious to).
I suppose if I was linking this to a voice-over or podcast studio set-up advice, or even a small radio station, the TBU would be very useful if you wanted a client to hear the voice-over session live and be able to talk to you and give you direction on the delivery (which can be fatal!). Or you could have guests on your podcast interviewed over the phone. Arguably both of these applications are a little defunct with Skype these days. But for a radio station, I think they would still be absolutely useful. Not everyone has Skype.
I'm adding this section because I had a quick browse through the web and saw lots of audio supply companies selling 'podcaster packages' of equipment that were TOTAL OVERKILL and quite frankly a waste of your hard-earned money! Kits included mixing desks for 8x microphones - crazy.
Below I list the essential equipment you'll need to record your voice onto your PC so that it sounds nice and professional. Do these new USB mics work? I don't know, I've not tried them, but you don't get much control over the sound tone with them - no EQ, no gate, no limiter, no compressor. Yes, you can do all that in software, but I prefer to hear it LIVE. From the price, I'd assume they won't sound super-fantastic.
Here are the basics that you'll need to be in control of recording your voice onto a PC:
Here's my studio chain from 2001 to 2017:
Here's my studio chain from 2018 onwards:
My Current Equipment List
Microphones: (letter/number in brackets, see photo above)
Audio Technica BPHS1 headset with mic (1)
I have previously owned, used and sold:
Watch (and hear) the late great Don LaFontaine
talk about doing movie trailer voice-overs
Updated - Tue, 29/03/22
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