It’s easy to approach vocal, and voice recording, with the wrong frame of mind.
You throw a mic up as normal, set the levels and do a quick recording. Everything sounds okay, so you record the main take. It doesn’t sound amazing, but you’re bored of setting up stuff and want to crack on with the recording.
Who cares, you can fix it in post, right.
This is the attitude that separates the amateurs from the professionals.
You need to spend more of your time on room and mic setup when you record voice. This applies to recording anything—but especially so with voice.
Most people hear the human voice every day; you’ve been hearing it your whole life.
As soon as you start to mess with a voice recording too much, it starts to sound unnatural. Fixing it in post with EQ and other effects might seem the easiest option—but it’s also the worst. There are many elements that contribute to a brilliant voice or vocal recording. Equalization is only one of the last steps in the much bigger picture.
When you focus your time on recording technique and improving room acoustics, everything afterwards becomes easy. You only need to use EQ to remove the nasty stuff and exaggerate the good stuff.
Don’t let those words scare you—room acoustics.
You don’t need to be a scientist to use acoustics to your advantage. And you don’t need to be a physicist to make your room sound better—and therefore improve your voice and vocal recordings.
In this two-part tutorial I will provide you with a basic understanding of room acoustics. Then, armed with that knowledge, I'll give you some ideas of how you could treat your room—for free—and create your very own DIY vocal booth.
No previous knowledge is required. You don’t even need to spend any money on acoustic treatment. You can use stuff lying around your home to great effect.
Room Acoustics Made Easy
The study of room acoustics looks into the way that sound reacts with the environment around us. Sound reflects off hard flat surfaces in a similar manner to light reflecting off a mirror.
I'll the example of somebody standing in the middle of a room and talking. The bulk of the sound emits from your mouth when you talk. But sound also resonates from your head and chest at all angles.
In a room with flat, reflective walls the sound will bounce at the first point that it hits the wall. Depending on the angle, the sound could then travel to another wall and reflect again. This would happen several times until the sound runs out of energy and is no longer audible.
The most problematic sound waves are the ones that reflect straight back into our ears or the microphone from the wall. These are called early reflections.
Watch this video to see an animated sequence of these events. Notice how four of the red arrows bounce straight back into the centre of the room.
Problematic Early Reflections
Now imagine if you were positioned close to a wall rather than in the middle of the room. Those direct early reflections would have a shorter distance to travel, therefore conserving more energy and loudness.
This loud reflection would sound like a very quick echo—a replication of every word you speak or sing at a very slight delay. This has a negative impact on the intelligibility of your recording.
Where possible, position your desk or recording location in the middle of the room, or as far away from the nearest wall as possible.
The more hard surfaces there are in the room, the more energy the sound waves will retain as they bounce around the room.
Go into the bathroom and start singing or speaking loudly. Note how you can clearly hear the reverberation of the sound in the room. Clap your hands and listen to how the sound bounces around and fades away. Although the sound of a clap is almost instant—this is called an impulse sound—you can still hear it bouncing around the environment afterwards.
This is what is commonly referred to as reverb.
Now go into a room with lots of soft furnishings, such as a carpeted living room or bedroom. Do the same thing—sing or speak loudly and clap your hands. Note how there is less reverb. The sound doesn’t bounce around as much. This is because the soft furnishings absorb the sound waves, to a certain extent, rather than reflecting them.
Excessive reverb can quickly ruin a voice over or spoken word recording. It makes the voice harder to understand and more irritating to listen to. A dry voice over sounds more professional and intimate.
When it comes to recording sung vocals, a small room sound instantly makes a track sound amateur. It gives way that it was recorded at home in an untreated enrivonrment. It’s easier to mould a dry vocal in to your track with artificial reverb in a DAW.
For this reason many people prefer to record vocals in a vocal booth—a small room that has little or no reverb.
I’m not a huge fan or vocal booths that are too dead. It removes some of the excitement of the vocal and removes too much high frequency content. Use a room that suits the recording. Sometimes a live room sounds better, sometimes a vocal booth.
It would be difficult to achieve a completely dead sound in a home studio without building a proper vocal booth. Instead, aim to reduce reverb as much as possible—there should still be enough liveliness from the room to stop the recording from becoming too dead.
In the next part of this series, I'll tell about the best materials and placement for DIY acoustic treatment.