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March 21, 2020 / Randy Coppinger

Free Acoustical Improvements for Recording at Home

While our homes have not necessarily been designed to be good sounding recording spaces, there are things we can do to improve the way things sound.

What do purpose built recording spaces do so well that we may want to emulate acoustically at home? I hear these in three categories:

  1. Sound Isolation – Keeping outside sounds outside
  2. Internal Sound Reflections – Room echo, room reverb, and room resonances
  3. Background Noise – Inside noises that get picked up by microphones

I’m going to be super honest here: there isn’t much we can do for free about #1, Sound Isolation. Sorry. Now if the neighbors have a noisy dog and it doesn’t sound as loud on the other side of the house, recording in the quieter side is free. If you can ask the neighbors to keep the dog quiet and inside for a few hours while you record, you aren’t spending any money either. Unless you bribe the neighbors. Or the dog.

Voice actors have long used the Fortress of Blankets and Pillows for recording auditions at home. Because it works! Journalists recording from home know this too. Most things that are soft and fluffy to the touch are also good frictional sound absorbers, which help minimize Internal Sound Reflections (#2). But if you’re recording for hours at a time, or if you’re recording with a webcam pointed at you the whole time, you might want more than Fort Blankets.

Choose a room. The first free option to consider is which room at your home sounds better? Typically, smaller rooms with a lot of reflective surfaces, such as bathrooms, do not sound great acoustically (except for shower singing). Record you self in several different rooms, listen to your recordings, and decide which rooms sound better. There may be trade offs here, such as not wanting to setup your gear where you sleep, or being closer inside your home to the neighbor’s noisy dog, or picking up the sound of the refrigerator, etc.

Empty rooms sound terrible. Remember how awful the rooms of your home sounded when they were bare? But after moving in furniture, hanging pictures, and otherwise filling them with stuff, things sounded better? Do more of that. Bring soft, absorptive things into your recording space — the bigger the better. Hang more pictures, bring in some house plants, setup some bookshelves, and generally break up the sound as it bounces around inside your recording space. You can close drapes and blinds while you record to reduce sound reflections from glass windows. If there’s a closet full of clothes, leave the closet door open. Cloth tapestries hung on the walls sound fantastic! While it isn’t free, I built a very effective and portable recording booth at a very low cost using furniture pads (heavy blankets) that I already owned and some PVC from the hardware store.

Avoid placing microphones in the corners

Place your mic where is sounds better. Once you select a good sounding room and fill it with stuff, try recording yourself in different parts of the room. You will probably find that recording inches away from walls, the floor, or the ceiling doesn’t sound very good. The corners where these boundaries meet are typically worse sounding places to locate a microphone. Mirrors, desktops, and any large, sound reflective surface will tend to sound worse than placing your mic at a distance from these. But somewhat confusingly, sometimes the dead center of the room will present a room resonance to your mic. Resonance is when your voice stops but the sound of the room reflections continue to vibrate at a specific frequency in your voice. Moving the mic just a few inches can effectively dodge these resonances. So record yourself in different locations and decide where to place your mic based on which locations sound better.

Addressing #3 Background Noise is a bit like #1: most of the free options are not convenient. If your air conditioner makes noise that’s getting into your recordings, turn it off when you record. Any other noise makers that can be shut off, go ahead and turn them off too. Or put them in another room. You probably don’t want to turn off or move your refrigerator, in which case record in a different room. They key here is to listen to the sounds in your home that you usually ignore. Be aware which sounds are getting in your recordings and take steps to record without them.

If you have a sound booth in your home as your recording space, congratulations! You have potentially addressed all 3 acoustical issues at once — though certainly not for free. Nevertheless a booth can still have acoustical problems, especially resonance because of how small they are inside. As above, bring some soft, fluffy stuff inside. And be sure to try different positions for your microphone. Listen to how the sound of your recordings changes when you do, and keep improving the way things sound without spending any more money.

When you’ve exhausted these free resources, and if you’re still unhappy with the acoustics of your space that are getting in your recordings, consider purchasing acoustical treatment, and working with folks who can help evaluate your setup so you can spend your money well.

Happy home recording! Read more about Recording Voice Acting Remotely.

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