What Your Recording Room Should Sound Like
In our previous articles on becoming better audiobook narrators, we talked about some of the skills you need to develop in order to sound good on the mic. All that doesn't amount to much if you're not sure what you should be listening for. The goal for this section is giving you listening examples so you can hear the differences for yourself and start gaining a working knowledge of the kind of audio you want to be producing in your studio.
I'm going to be sharing audio files to help jumpstart your ear-training and learn what your recording room should sound like.
Originally, I was also going to go into the theory of it, but in writing this article I realized that that was going to be entirely too much information for one Food for Thought. So I ended up breaking it up into two separate articles so you don't feel like you're trying to use a fire hydrant as a drinking fountain. We may still cover some theory, but the focus here will be on comparing audio samples so you can get a sense of the end goal.
As a final note, I highly recommend you listen to these samples with headphones. Most devices just don't have the kind of speaker clarity you will need to hear the differences between these samples.
Now, let's get started, shall we?
Soundproofing vs Sound Treatment
The soundproofing-sound treatment debate is an ongoing one. I can almost guarantee that, somewhere on the internet right now, two people are verbally assailing each other with, "No, you don't understands," and getting very angry about it. The core take home point for this one is this: soundproofing makes sound that's trying to come in from outside your booth quieter, and sound treatment enhances the quality of the sound in your room.
For this first audio sample, I have my washing machine and air conditioning running. This is definitely not indicative of a recording session (Please, for the love of god, turn these off before starting your recording), but it works incredibly well for this example.
Since soundproofing is the first level to getting your studio ready, I have also removed all of the sound treatment from the room. So there's going to be a lot of bass, tons of reverb, and a lot of standing waves that leave the sound 'muddy' or lacking in clarity.
I currently have the door to my studio open, such that all the sound outside can travel in easily. Now, for the second, I have the door closed. Note how you can still hear the sound from the AC and the Washer, but the total volume of it is reduced. The washer is a bit louder as it is both significantly closer and sitting on the same floor as my studio, however the sound coming from it is much quieter now too. With only closing the door and sealing out some of the noise, the audio effects should be notable to those of you listening through headphones.
While the soundproofing isn't perfect, this should give you an idea of the goals here. You want to find ways to reduce the incoming sound so that there is less to deal with in terms of extraneous noise. The better you can make the audio going into the mic, the less work you have to do to make it sellable.
Now that we've talked about reducing incoming sound, let's talk about the different options for shaping that sound. Starting with the basics, you have several tools that will be incredibly useful in the treatment of your space: diffusion, absorption, and mic placement.
Diffusion is using any of a number of different panels, appropriately called diffusers, to break up the sound waves that are bouncing around the space so that they don't create reverberations or standing waves. Generally speaking, diffusion is most useful for larger spaces like full-sized rooms (Or on the extreme end, cathedrals), so I'm going to spend the least time on this one.
I've taken all of the absorption panels, bass traps, diffusers, and acoustic clouds out of my room and closed the door. Now, as I clap, you should be able to hear the room reverberating with the sound of the clap. This is going to sound like what we colloquially call an echo, but, while similar, it's actually reverberation. Echoes are distinct repetitions of a sound bouncing off of a far away surface, where reverberation is a sound being reflected off of multiple nearby surfaces.
In the second sample, I've added my diffuser back to the wall. The change is subtle, but the reverberation is no longer quite as sharp. Since I work in a 4 foot by 4 foot studio, diffusion is going to be my least useful tool, but it helps to have on hand in case it's needed for your space.
For a small studio, this is going to be your bread and butter. Absorption panels reduce the reverberation in a small space by, you guessed it, absorbing those sound waves. There are going to be two big areas we want to focus on here. Bass, or low frequencies, and Mid-to-High frequencies.
Small rooms are incredibly good at reverberating in the bass range, so that's where we're going to start.
I've left my diffusion panel up on the wall, but haven't yet put my bass traps and mid-to-high range absorption panels back up. Note that the sound is resonant in the deeper frequencies, leaving it sounding muddy and thick.
Now, listen to what the room sounds like once I've put up the bass traps. While there is still plenty of reverb, the sound of the voice is more natural, and you can hear more of the mid-range frequencies that are present in the range we humans speak in.
Mid-to-High Range Absorption Panels
Now that we've cleaned up the bass end of the sound, let's take a look at the mid-to-high end. The mid-range frequencies are where the bulk of human speech exists, so it's super important that these are clean and clear.
Once again building up our audio environment, I've left the bass traps and the diffusion panel up, but haven't yet mounted my mid-to-high range absorption panels so that we can compare the sound profile. Pay attention to the reverb here. It isn't unpleasant sounding, but it is certainly noticeable. Your goal here is that everyone listening forgets that you're in your recording room, so noticeable is bad.
Now compare that to the sound when we have mounted the acoustic panels. Cleaner, clearer and less reverb. It's important to note that each step doesn't make an enormous change. We're looking at getting a little closer every time, but by the end of the process, you should have clean audio that focuses on the voice instead of the room.
Now this one is much more specific. Some spaces benefit from this, some don't. Essentially, an acoustic cloud is an absorption panel that hangs from the ceiling, and absorbs errant noise that is reflecting off of it. Often, the ceiling is where you would hang a diffusion panel, but for a smaller space like mine, I've found that an acoustic cloud works better for my purposes.
Once again, listen to the reverb in the mid-to-high range without mounting the acoustic cloud.
Now, after mounting the acoustic cloud, listen how that last little bit of reverb has been cleaned up, and you're left focusing on the voice, rather than hearing the reverb and the sound of the room.
Direct vs Indirect Sound
The last thing I want to hit before we wrap up is direct vs indirect sound. Positioning yourself correctly when you're in front of the mic is super important. If you're too close, you're going to change the sound of your audio (proximity effect if you're using a condenser microphone, plus clicks and pops regardless of the mic type). If you're too far away, the mic is going to pick up the sound as it reflects off the walls and panels instead of it coming straight out of the source (you!). So let's train our ears to listen to those cases:
In the first example, I'm too close to the mic. Notice that the mic is picking up all of my p's, t's, and s's, as well as making my voice sound deeper and more resonant (This is the proximity effect I was talking about).
In the next example, I'm too far away from the mic. The sound coming into the mic sounds like I'm speaking into a cardboard box; tons of reverb and "boxiness".
In this final example, I'm standing with my mouth about six inches away from the microphone. This is a good sweet spot that leaves the sound clear and crisp, and lets all that wonderful sound treatment you've put up do its job.
To be clear, I haven't changed anything else about this room. All of the sound treatment we did in the previous steps is still up, but the difference in sound is pretty incredible. Take a listen one more time:
Three deathly screams froze the thieves. (I read this three times in the recording)
That's a Wrap
That's it for this week. We talked about how the different audio treatment options effect the audio quality, and gave you a chance to listen for yourself to determine how it effects the sound. Just as a final opportunity to train your ear, I'm going to read a three sentence story in three progressive environments, starting at bass traps, and progressing to a completely treated room. Try to listen for the change in sound, so you can better understand what you might need when we progress to your sound treatment options next week:
It was only a simple band he had found as he wandered the black depths. Returned from the darkness, he curved by the warm fire that filled the dwarven mine with topaz tongues and onyx smoke. As the light flickered at the edges of that sparkling ring, a longing grew, hissing unquestioning from his lips, "Mine, my own, my precious."
That's it! Keep working on your projects, and get yourself to where you can start to hear how the sound reacts to your space. Next week, we're talking treatment options!
I do my best to read every comment posted, so if you have an idea about any new topics of discussion or have questions about the article, definitely post them below and I'll do my best to get to them quickly!