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The awesome vocal booth you already own

Sunday, July 28th, 2013 | by


Your microphone doesn’t only hear your voice. It also hears your room.

Few things annoy me more, when listening to a podcast, voiceover, or vocal track, than a crappy-sounding room. You can’t fix a lousy room sound in the mix! That’s why professional studios usually have a vocal booth or isolation booth of some sort. It’s a room that is lined with sound-absorbing materials. A vocal booth could be anything from a closet lined with packing blankets to an engineered space that acts like a sonic black hole.

Low-cost methods can work. But, needless to say, you need a space first. Sometimes circumstances just don’t allow for a booth.

Or do they? I wonder if you’ve overlooked an excellent vocal booth that you already own?

Audio Test – The Mystery Vocal Booth

I recorded a quick voice track using an inexpensive condenser, the Studio Projects LSMStudio Projects LSM. Although the LSM has a 16-bit USB output, I used its analog output and a Mackie Onyx Blackjack 24-bit USB interface.

The first track below was recorded in my studio room, which is fairly well treated with RealTraps and Auralex absorption products. It doesn’t sound bad at all; in fact, all the podcasts I’ve guested on were recorded right here, as well as all my podcast mic shootouts [the Ultimate Podcasting Mic Shootout of broadcast dynamics, the $200 Condensers shootout, and the USB Dynamics shootout].

Voice track, treated room

… but then, this track does benefit from ~$2500 worth of acoustic treatment. It ought to sound pretty good. If you heard that track by itself, you might not notice the sound of the room at all.

Well, until you hear the same voice, the same mic, and the same interface, recorded inside my mystery vocal booth. Check out how dry and direct this sounds:

Voice track, mystery booth

This track is so much more present, more detailed, and more clear! It sounds louder, but it’s not; all the tracks on this page were RMS gain-matched.

Maybe you don’t need so much control over your room sound, but if ever you do, I’ll show you how to get it.

But first, I’m going to be a bit unfair.

Audio Torture Test – The Flutter Echo Room

Let’s pretend your recording space is not well treated. (Judging from some of the voiceovers and podcasts I’ve heard, too many are not!)

I recorded a track in the worst-sounding room in my house. It’s a 16'x14' space with a hard floor, a giant window, and apparently not enough furnishings to tame its reverb. It suffers from gruesome flutter echo (click that link to hear flutter echo slowed down to half-speed, which is the sonic equivalent of watching someone get knifed in slow motion).

Voice track, echo room

I can hear the sound of the space clearly through monitors, but for best effect, listen through headphones. Then compare it to the two previous tracks. This illustrates the value of a dead space (or, at least, a controlled space) clearly.

Your Mystery Vocal Booth, Revealed

It is a small space, lined approximately 60% with sound-absorbent foam and fabric. It has no parallel surfaces that could set up standing waves. And it is shockmounted from the floor, to prevent capture of mechanical vibrations.

Is that description not ringing any bells? I’ll give you the final clue: it’s parked in your driveway.

Yes, I’m talking about your car. Hardtop and cloth seats preferred, and a garage too. It probably sounds better than your room does.

Convenience & Alternatives

Recording in your car is not always convenient, I admit. You probably can’t stand in there, and there’s probably no room for instruments. There are a limited number of applications for which a vehicle makes a perfect isolation/vocal booth.

But, when you need that degree of isolation and control, you have it.

I would still recommend treating your room. This pays for itself in the quality of your recorded tracks, as well as the translation of your mixes. There’s really no substitute for a great-sounding room.

As an inexpensive first step toward treating your room, I’d recommend the RealTraps Portable Vocal Booth (click that link to read my review of the PVB). It puts a healthy dose of absorption immediately behind your vocal mic, giving you a significant improvement in control for a relatively low cost — certainly much cheaper than treating the whole room.

I also tend to recommend dynamic mics for most voice applications. Unless you have a trained voice, you’ll probably get better results with a dynamic microphone. (If you’re shopping, Audio-Technica has a crazy-inexpensive option in its ~$49 ATR2100-USB.)

It’s dumb, but it works.

Some of you are probably tempted to write comments to tell me what a remarkably stupid idea it is to suggest recording voice tracks in a car.

But you can’t deny the effect.

If you take just one thing away from this article, let it be this: Listen to your room. And then fix it.

Posted in Podcasting, voiceover | 27 Comments »




27 Responses to “The awesome vocal booth you already own”

  1. christopher winter

    July 28th, 2013 at 2:16 pm

    Although I agree on your recordings, I do not have a similar results.

    I have a small car and its quite the opposite. Its by no means as reverberant as some rooms but it is very boxy and rather horrible sounding. It sounds as if I’m trapped in a closet, you know its dampened by the clothes (or carseats/carpet) but there is still a sense of “small roomy” sound.

    If I need a quick DIY booth I go for the much more cooler “building a fort out of bedsheets and pillows” method.

    P.S. My garage is solid concrete all over…

  2. matthew mcglynn

    July 28th, 2013 at 3:25 pm

    @christopher, kudos to you for trying it, and for listening!

    The last time I built a fort out of bedsheets was a disaster. I was on the road, with no mic stands. I ended up squatting next to the bed, holding the comforter over my head with one arm and the mic with another. It sounded OK, but I would have had an easier time in the car.

  3. Adam

    July 28th, 2013 at 5:53 pm

    I recommend recording in cars all the time when I am mixing a movie that needs an ADR line, especially off-camera. I simply ask the actor to record a handful of takes at different intensities with their iPhone, or a Zoom. The back seat usually is better because you avoid the front windshield reflections.

    Also – when I’ve helped friends with their podcasts, I notice most people use a desk stand, which puts the mic only a few inches above the table surface. This causes severe comb filtering right in the midrange frequencies. Simply raising the mic up with a taller stand, or putting a paint can under the mic stand works well. An alternative is to place a thick fabric, like bunched up fleece or a bunched up sweatshirt on the table in front of the mic. Even cutting two peaks from a 1-foot wide piece of Auralex and placing that on the table a few inches in front of the mic kills the comb filter causing reflections.

    Play around and see how much better things can sound!

  4. Adam Sullivan

    July 29th, 2013 at 10:56 am

    I’ve mused on the sonic benefits of the automobile many times myself. Not only in the regard you’re speaking of, but also in terms of the ubiquitous “why does my voice always sound so much better when I’m signing in my car?” comment.

    Obviously there are lots of other mitigating circumstances to be considered (you’re singing over someone else’s vocal track, you’re not singing into a dynamically-sensitive mic, your skull resonates pleasingly, etc) but there’s no doubt that all of those sonic benefits that Matt mentioned are in play as well.

    And any engineer who’s been at it a while will tell you that a properly-mixed album’s not done until it “passes the car test.” Ostensibly this is an exercise in how well your mix holds up in a less-than-ideal environment, but I would argue that it’s a pretty great one. Road/engine noise and less-than ideal speaker choices (and car doors as speaker cabinets) make this statement far less than totally accurate, but it’s still a really essential test of an album’s polish.

  5. Jon Buscall

    July 30th, 2013 at 12:37 pm

    Awesome tests! I’ve been playing with a portable booth but find it difficult to use when recording a podcast because I need access to my screen / notes.

    I’m at the point though of creating a dedicated room because here in Sweden our houses are all wooden floors and massive glass windows. The room noise drives me crazy.

  6. matthew mcglynn

    July 30th, 2013 at 1:55 pm

    Jon, if a dedicated room is too big a stretch, you could drape heavy blankets over boom stands (with the arm at 90 degrees to the base), creating lightweight gobos, during recording.

    I can definitely hear the room in your voice tracks.

    It is good to see that you have some decent microphones to work with:
    http://jontusmedia.com/which-microphone-should-i-use-for-podcasting/

    As Adam Kagan suggested in a previous comment, reducing reflections in the immediate vicinity of the microphone could help, too. Make sure to angle the mic so that your computer screen is in the mic’s null point.

    Note too that the PR40’s null is _not_ at 180 degrees; that mic is essentially hypercardioid, with the deepest null at 135 degrees:
    http://recordinghacks.com/2011/06/02/ultimate-podcast-mic-shootout/#rj

  7. Allen Cavedo

    August 3rd, 2013 at 11:39 am

    I have used my walk-in closet packed on 3 walls with hanging clothes. It is more like an anechoic chamber than a treated room, but with careful use of a convolution reverb it does well.

  8. jp

    August 23rd, 2013 at 6:43 pm

    Somehow, I intuitively knew recording in the car would work out. Must have been all those car commercials about the quiet ride. Besides, it was either that, or a highly reflective room with wood floors, bare walls, and mic mounted on a wooden desk top.

    Bottom line. I hopped in the back seat of a late model Volkswagen Jetta, used the drop down arm rest, and spoke into the built-in mics of a Zoom H4n for the voice over that was due to my client overnight. — Mission Accomplished.

    Sure, I know I what I used, and was equally shocked when the client LOVED the piece. (Of course, I did also use a music bed below it, but that was as requested).

    Great article. Thanks!

  9. Mixed for many years

    August 24th, 2013 at 8:24 am

    Here is a new product I discovered that will solve many of your room problems easily and not cost a fortune. My room was the dreaded rectangle, four paralell walls and eight foot ceilings. Not only did I have flutter, the low end built up as well. I bought one package of these down sloping panels and turned my room into a nice smooth sounding space.
    I really didnt expect the low end to be tamed as well as it was.
    This is worth checking out. I got mine at just under $600.00 from a new
    dealer.
    http://www.acousticsinabox.com/Down_Sloping_Wall_System.html

  10. Skuli Gautason

    August 25th, 2013 at 10:54 am

    Whenever I have to rig up a recording booth out of nothing I’ll raise a few beds up vertically. Ideally four as to build a room within the room. It is then possible to lay a mattress on top and even underneath. Usually works quite well.
    Thanks for good article and all the useful tips in this thread!

  11. lou

    August 30th, 2013 at 5:13 pm

    I produce a weekly radio program for public radio stations (NOT a podcast), usually recorded in a friend’s dining room, or other random location since they lost their home and studio. We have settled on using earclip mics, such as the ones from microphonemadness.com or PylePro. Since they are located right by the mouth, they can sound very good.

    We also use a 10 band narrow notch filter (Waves Q10) to reduce room resonances with narrow filters around a Q of 100 and it cleans it up nicely!

    The ear mics allow far more flexibility and clarity, and the ones around $129 and even the $25 Pyles actually work very well.

    Another good tip is the Auralex type foam which can be glued to pegboard material from any hardware store and hung on small nails or mic stands wherever you need them.

  12. Paul

    August 31st, 2013 at 2:05 pm

    Brilliant… low tech and some common sense often win the war against evil audio conundrums! The industry would like to throw money at it, we don’t all have that 5+ figure budget. It’s most enjoyable when someone comes up with a basic and simple solution! Yes, choice of cars / interiors would be crucial. Wouldn’t be hard to look through old road tests in Car and Driver or Road and Track to find those buggies that have the quietest interiors. Though you might be a redneck if you use vehicle seats for your sitting room, they do absorb a tremendous amount of audio with their thick foam and durable upholstery , may be a good addition to the studio, pretty comfortable too on long trips… could headliners be cut to make absorptive panels, you may have started something!

  13. Mick Hargreaves

    September 2nd, 2013 at 9:42 am

    Ben Vaughn beat us all to it by about 17 years…. recorded a whole record in his car.

    “Rambler ’65” (Rhino)

  14. Justin

    September 11th, 2013 at 11:41 am

    Yes, I was thinking of this the other day when I was singing in my car. It’s soooo dead in there…now all I need to do is clean my truck

  15. Ken Gregg

    October 31st, 2013 at 12:44 pm

    Great suggestions! Several years ago, I built one of the Harlan Hogan Porta-Booths (described in http://harlanhogan.com/portaboothArticle.shtml ) for just a few bucks, and it has worked well for me. It’s portable (folds flat) and has proven to be durable. By ensuring that what’s behind my head (i.e., facing the mic in the box opening) is something soft (clothing, bedspread, etc.), I get a detailed, clear sound, and don’t hear room noise.

  16. George Whittam

    October 31st, 2013 at 1:50 pm

    My client Joe Cipriano has recorded promos for FOX from the back of a car on numerous occasions, sometimes streaming live with Source Connect via an LTE modem. Totally agree with this take on practical VO recording techniques. People pay me good money to teach them how to do just this! RealTraps is the real deal, very well made, high quality products. Investigating the Down Sloping concept, very interesting take and would be brilliant in larger spaces (no room for that in a closet, though). A surprisingly good sounding VO Mic is the AT875R, for the cost it’s very hard to match and the bass roll-off helps small space recordings big time.

  17. Dave W

    December 30th, 2013 at 9:16 am

    Wow… So dry! Admittedly it sounds the eq is WAY bumped in the mids… Not sure if it’s the mic or my cans. It sounds nice and dry, but a little too close, though. I’ll definitely consider this method.

  18. ream

    January 27th, 2014 at 7:09 pm

    Holy shoot!

    I’ve heard about it… a million times but was afraid that it would sound like a closet. I’m gonna have to try it tomorrow!

    Any tips on what type of car it was, if you were on the back seat, how high the mic was, did you keep it in the center of the car or with one of the front seats in front acting like a reflection filter?

  19. matthew mcglynn

    January 27th, 2014 at 8:12 pm

    @ream, I was sitting in the back seat of a fairly solid 4-door with cloth seats. My test was very casual. I didn’t A/B test a bunch of mics or positions. I just climbed in the back seat, held the mic by hand, and recorded. You heard the result. I think it sounds pretty good.

  20. Dave Angell

    March 10th, 2014 at 9:07 pm

    In a pinch while traveling and visiting my brother, I used my bro’s travel trailer. Curtains, foam seats, carpeting….it actually sounded rather good and I was not getting any outside noise either. I was using a Microtech Gefell MT71S recording into a lap top using thru a CEntrance MicPort Pro.

  21. Bebe Ruhi

    September 10th, 2014 at 1:47 pm

    This is great website and this is a cool post. I love the audio demonstrations. I unfortunately don’t have a car, but this was still interesting.

  22. Pablo

    September 24th, 2014 at 7:34 pm

    I’ve have done it many times in my Camry 2004, and is perfect!.
    But, you have to watch what Lionel Richie did, to record Shania’s voice for their version of “Endless Love”, on a vacation house at the Bahamas.. Simple and portable. (Search YouTube for Endless Love – Recording Session).

  23. Johnathan Clayborn

    April 8th, 2015 at 8:46 am

    Awesome tip! I’ve got a new mic being delivered today and I’m excited to try it out, but I don’t have a dedicated room, only a small portable box. As another commentator said, I was going to use a walk-in closet lined with clothes to isolate the sound, but I will certainly try out both of my vehicles and see which sounds better.

  24. Nooks

    May 6th, 2015 at 10:10 am

    Wish I could do this, but honestly for tracking singing vocals it would be very bad for the singer to be in that position.

  25. John Bruce Anderson

    March 5th, 2016 at 2:30 pm

    So how do you deal with the engine and tire noise? 😛 😉

  26. matthew mcglynn

    March 8th, 2016 at 8:00 pm

    @John – Don’t Voice And Drive! [tm]

  27. Terry Lynch

    March 17th, 2016 at 4:43 pm

    I’ve never recorded in my car but I will take my laptop and do my final eq and levels tweaking in each of my cars. It’s the best place that I’ve found to really get a handle on the low end. My space has a lot of issues but my car always sounds the same.

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