Monday, May 17, 2010

Practicing What I Preach - Home Recording

I'm asked a lot (A LOT) by beginner VO actors what they should use to record themselves at home. It was even the question I attempted to answer in the book Voice-Over Voice Actor: What It's Like Behind The Mic (I'm on page 142 btw ;-)).

Unfortunately for the people that ask me this question, there really isn't a "correct" answer. With a near infinite combination of hardware and software choices, and no two people sharing the same voice, by definition there can not be a one-size-fits-all solution. [Also on a quick tangent, I'm often nonplussed by people who get really defensive when I ask what their home space is like, or what kind of budget they need to stay under. Like I'm trying to maliciously pry into their personal lives, but I digress...]

I usually try to recommend a combination of low cost room treatment and decent mid-range gear, but SERIOUSLY stress that the recordings can only sound as good as the amount of time and practice that goes into learning how to properly use the equipment you have. Sadly even this piece of advice (which I feel is kinda common sense-y) is often met with resistance. Don't you just need a $100 USB mic and a Mac?

Well, I've recently come into an opportunity where I myself might actually need to record scratch and auditions from home, so it was time to take my own medicine! Does my advice actually hold water?

I found the quietest space in my apartment, and hung multiple packing blankets from removable hooks. The idea is to leave them in place semi-permanently, but in a pinch they'll be easy to remove. I like moving pads/packing blankets as they're ridiculously cheap, so you wont mind cutting into them or messing them up. Also I find they do a really decent job of cutting reflection when compared to even low cost acoustic foam at a fraction of the price.

Next I set up my new SM Pro Audio Mic Thing with the sides turned in pretty aggressively to form a tight space around the microphone. If my advice holds true, then the the Mic Thing should help reduce room reflections, and the packing blankets should reduce corner reflections from behind me.

The mic I have selected is my AKG C414B-XLS. Now some might say this is a cheat, as I'm recording on a $1000 microphone, but truth be told, this is a mic I have NEVER been able to use at home. It's an extremely present, accurate, and articulate mic (often used to record challenging instruments like pianos), so using one for home recording can often be a detriment if you're not in a properly treated and insulated space. [If you're really upset by this, you can also take a listen to this set up using a mid range M-Audio Solaris on my review of the SM Pro Audio Mic Thing.]

To compare this corner space, I'm going to put it up against my Zoom H4n's built in mics. Often when I do a home coaching with someone who has already purchased a USB mic, the setup I see most often is mic on a short USB cable RIGHT in front of their computer. Somehow this setup has become the new "easy" of voice over (I blame podcasting :-P). Par for the course, when I recommend NOT using this set up, getting the mic farther away from the computer, standing instead of sitting, not recording in a room with tile/hardwood floors/tons of mirrors and picture frames, I'm usually met with resistance. Since this USB "easy" set up causes me so much grief, I'm going to see if my advice is actually better. [Again, I'm VERY positive on the H4n, and I think it produces MUCH better results than any of the sub $200 USB mics I've used, when used in an appropriate space. For more info, here's my review of the Zoom H4n.]

To recap, The treated corner is using an AKG C414 plugged directly into my Zoom H4n, and the "USB" setup is me in front of my computer recording directly into the built in mics on the H4n. No editing or correcting of the audio has taken place other than to convert to 320Kbps MP3.

Let's take a listen (using headphones will provide best results)!

USB mic in front of computer:

Treated Corner:

Your thoughts?

*Special "Thank You" shout out to Mrs. Audio Guy for allowing me to (yet again) appropriate a part of our home to do this whole recording thing...


  1. Hi Juan! Sounds great! (But you'd sound great talking into a toilet paper tube.) I'd love to hear you use the USB mic in the treated corner.

  2. LOL! Thanks Amy!

    If I get a sec I'll get it hooked up. It'll easily sound A LOT better behind the screen.

    If you listen to the samples on my H4n review, you can hear what the H4n sounds like in a proper recording studio.

  3. As usual, Mrs. Audio Guy has no problems with the VO world entering the living space. :).

  4. I am just wondering, would that cost much? Because I wanted to do home recording too, but I don't know how much will it cost to have all the equipments needed.

  5. Thanks for doing a tangible test of recording situations. I'm actually surprised how little reflection I was hearing (at least through my iMac speakers) with the H4n/at the computer set-up. What was your mic position for that?

    I'm embarking on a major education content project in my studio and will be doing a lot more screen reading rather than paper. I'm trying out all sorts of positions that will be easily repeatable with six professors. My room is great, but trying to do the best job with reflection from the screen of the computer.

    My usual rig is RE20 to Mackie (not enough gain for RE20...) to mbox. I can put up an Aussie built Rode nt1a as well but often to sibilant for a less than pro (think geeky professor here) voice.

  6. Hey John,
    I agree. If you're doing that much reading in front of the computer the RE20 is probably the better choice.
    My H4n did a decent enough job out in the open like that, but it sucked up a BUNCH of room noise (like my computer fan). Your Rode will also soak all that etra noise up like a sponge. The RE20 will do a MUCH better job of rejecting sound that isn't going directly into the cartridge. It's why that mic has become a staple of radio stations and news rooms.
    The only issue with large cartridge dynamics is they do need a LOT of clean gain for VO (they're most often used on sources like kick drums), and there are few preamps under $500 that I would recommend to get the job done.

    You can try a test with the Mackie though. Don't plug in your mic, and turn the mackie gain up until you start to hear hiss, record at this level (with an RE20 you also might have to juice the low end EQ ever so slightly). When finished recording, compress about 5:1 to even out some of your peaks, then normalize to around -3. Lastly hit the audio with about -15dB of noise reduction. If that doesn't work, you're probably looking at needing a dedicated preamp, or using your Rode and not recording directly in front of your computer

  7. Sounds great but I think it's because you have a nice voice. I'd like to try something like that, It seems fun!