What exactly constitutes a "home studio"? An in-depth guide Mar 26, 2020 23:55:50 GMT -8 Dom Dinh likes this
Post by LadyStardust on Mar 26, 2020 23:55:50 GMT -8
Note: This guide is meant for already-working voice actors who are curious about whether their existing recording setup qualifies as a proper home studio. It may be confusing or overwhelming for beginner voice actors, so we don't suggest worrying too much about this article if you're brand new to voiceover!
As of the time this article is being published, COVID-19 concerns are very high, and many studios have been forced to shut down in-person recording as a result. However, projects still do need to get done, which means voice talent who normally record the majority of their work in-person are now being asked about their remote setups and whether or not they have a “home studio”.
Some voice talent will happily assert that they have a home studio, simply because they have the ability to record from home. However, a “home studio” carries a certain connotation that is worth exploring (spoiler: a USB microphone in an untreated bedroom does not count as a home studio.)
It’s important to note that if your current work opportunities are primarily for hobby, indie or online projects, there is no big rush to spend a bunch of money to upgrade your space until you are ready both financially and career-wise. However, if you are marketing yourself to major clients as having a home studio (rather than simply "record from home capabilities"), you must be able to back that up. This guide will go into detail on what you should actually have in place if you’re looking to do home recordings that are up to a professional industry standard.
**Note: I've received word that some of the audio engineers in the Los Angeles area are also working on a home recording guide. I'll be sure to link it here as soon as it is finished!
Just because your setup is good enough for auditions doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good enough for final recordings.
For studios, agencies, and production houses that normally record all their talent in-person, audio quality isn’t a huge factor in your audition because they’ll be bringing you in anyway if you book the job. Therefore, flaws in audio are often overlooked so long as they can get a good idea of your acting and vocal sound. There are even stories of a few actors recording auditions on their cell phones, although this is definitely not ideal and should be avoided except for emergency rush auditions where there is no other option available.
But when that audio needs to be used in an actual project, the quality standards suddenly become a lot more stringent. The fact that you audition from home with a certain setup doesn’t necessarily mean it’s passable for a console video game or an animation premiering on a major streaming service. “I've often considered having a true "home studio" the ability to deliver broadcast quality audio from home,” says voice actress and audio engineer Natalie Van Sistine.
What does “broadcast quality” mean in terms of home studios?
Sometimes, just saying “home studio required” isn’t enough, as actors will still submit with audio that is full of technical flaws and unusable for final recording purposes. So some clients and casting directors will specify “BROADCAST QUALITY home studio” in an attempt to further weed out those whose setups aren’t good enough.
But what does “broadcast quality” actually mean? Generally speaking, it means your home audio should be of good enough quality to integrate relatively seamlessly into an industry-level project. Your audio must be of professional sounding quality and free of room echo/reverb/reflections, hiss, white noise, pops, huffs, clicks, peaking/clipping, and background sounds (planes, trains, neighbors, TVs, dogs, etc.) It also shouldn’t sound too unbalanced on either the high end (tinny, shrill, or "thin"-sounding) or low end (muffled, muddled or “boxy”.) “If you were to drop your audio right next to those from professional studios, would it fit in or sound out of place?” asks audio engineer and VAC member Sensy.
Your recording environment: one of the most important factors
Plenty of actors believe that if they just get a really expensive microphone, they’re good to go in terms of sound quality. However, even the best microphones can sound terrible if the recording is done in a poorly treated space. “Room echo” is one of the immediate factors that signifies a recording as not sounding professional or broadcast-quality. “I would define a treated space as one that has no obtrusive or noticeable room tone or noise, no humming, rumbling, static, and preferably no noticeably resonant frequencies in your recording,” says Natalie.
The most ideal home recording space would either be a room that is fully acoustically treated for recording, or a pre-made isolation booth (such as VocalBooth, Whisper Room, or StudioBricks.) However, these solutions are very expensive and many actors cannot afford them, especially if they are out of work due to the pandemic. So there are makeshift/DIY options you can research on the Internet involving moving blankets, foam panels, etc. These work best if you have some type of small space to record in, such as a walk-in closet.
Audio engineer and VAC moderator Arthur Tisseront has a great thread here detailing materials you can use for a DIY booth:
You may have seen products that claim to diminish room echo, such as reflection shields that attach to the microphone stand, a semi-enclosed box meant to contain the microphone, or the Kaotica Eyeball. “While isolation filters can help, they should not be the final solution to treating the space around. Ideally, you'll also want to treat the others areas where reverb is possible, such as the ceiling, the floor, and behind you,” says Don Coyle. A reflection filter can play a part in the overall treatment of a space, but it’s not going to be a magic solution to getting rid of reverb.
In order to have a proper home studio, you need a professional-quality microphone. Large-diaphragm condenser microphones are most commonly used for voiceover recording, although there are a few other types (such as certain models of shotgun microphones) favored by the community. There isn’t truly a one-size-fits-all “best microphone” to use, as everyone will have different preferences as to what sound best suits their voice and the space they’re recording in.
Your microphone should connect via an XLR cable to your preamp or interface. While USB mics (such as the very common Blue Yeti or AT2020 USB) are fine for entry-level recording such as podcasts, YouTube videos, hobby and some indie projects, they’re not ideal for professional-level recording. If you are planning to do broadcast-quality work from home, it’s a good idea to consider upgrading as soon as you are able to. Here is a thread with some more info on the difference between USB and XLR microphones.
If you’re looking to upgrade your microphone, do research and read reviews. A few examples of popular/trusted brands for voiceover microphones include Neumann, Rode, Sennheiser, AKG, Studio Projects, Audiotechnica, Blue, etc. There are certainly other options available, but going with a relatively known model can also potentially make it easier for the mix engineer to EQ your voice. Since you will probably be asked what microphone you use as part of your home recording specs, studios also like to see something they’re familiar with.
While you don’t necessarily need to spend thousands of dollars on a microphone, a great one is still not going to come cheap. Sensy offers the following advice: “If you’ve already taken care of your room acoustics, noise, and distortion, the final key to the puzzle is your mic. $40-100 microphones are not going to be able to stack up to more expensive options because the components inside cheaper mics just aren’t that good. To really be able to deliver “broadcast ready” audio, I would consider saving up and spending just a bit more on the microphone if you can afford it.”
Mic technique and positioning
Some actors have a well-treated space and a great microphone, but their audio is still unusable due to proper mic technique! For example, they record way too close to the microphone resulting in constant “wind” from pops or breath huffs. “I realized that a lot of my bad mic technique at home came from leaning in close to the mic to avoid creating room tone,” says Natalie.
You don’t want to record so far back that you pick up the sound of the room or lose the quality of your voice, but standing slightly off-axis and using a pop filter will minimize a lot of these problems. “I want to emphasize off axis recording because it seems like a lot of people don't do that and it makes things so easy,” says Arthur. “Every mic has a "sweet spot" that you'll need to find. Start around 6 inches/2 fists/hang ten away from the mic.”
It’s also important to keep your distance from the mic consistent, as how close or far back you are can make a noticeable difference in the sound. Make an “X” on the floor with painter's tape if you have trouble with this. Also, unless you’re working on something that requires a very conversational sound or you need to sit for medical reasons, you should always record standing when possible. If you stand when recording in studio, but sit when recording at home, you might be surprised at the difference in the support and energy of your reads.
And finally, this should go without saying, but be sure you’re using a proper shock mount/clip and microphone stand. You want the microphone to be able to be held at a static position without any interference.
A pair of high-quality, over-the-ear headphones are essential for voiceover recording. You should not be listening to your playback on earbuds, or - even worse - laptop speakers! - as you won’t be able to catch nuances or imperfections in the recording. Something might sound totally fine on a low-quality speaker but have a huge glaring flaw when played back in a studio setting.
It’s also a good idea to get headphones that are designed for studio monitoring, not for listening to music. Headphones that are meant to make your music sound good may have “bass boost” type of features that aren’t giving an accurate representation of what your audio actually sounds like, and especially if you plan on doing your own processing afterward, it’s important to use headphones with a more neutral sound to accurately reproduce playback.
While studio monitor speakers are also a viable option for mixing, you’ll still want a good pair of headphones on hand for when you’re doing a live-directed call with a client. Otherwise, they’d have to mute themselves every single time you record a line and you’d risk having the sound bleed through.
Keep an eye on your levels
You’ll want to pay attention to the levels on your waveform when recording to make sure they are neither too loud nor too soft. Adjust the gain on your interface accordingly as needed—for instance, you’ll need to turn it up if you have a whispered line, and turn it down if you have a shouted line. If the gain is set too high and the recording “peaks”, that line then becomes unusable and you will need to re-record.
It’s better to err on the lower side when it comes to gain - you can always increase the volume in post - but you don’t want it to be so low that you hear background noise once the volume is raised afterwards. Play around with your levels and find the sweet spot (be sure to leave enough headroom for any later processing - for example, if the peaks of your audio are constantly hitting -1, it’s too high.) “The way I do it at the studio is perform how you will for the duration of that recording and set the gain so it hits -6 max,” says Sensy.
Duffy Weber of Hula-Cow Studios has an article that explains more about gain here: voiceacting.boards.net/thread/1434/tech-tutorial-gain-volume-knob
Raw vs Processed
Studios now forced into moving to remote records during the quarantine period have been asking actors to send a sample of their home audio. Generally, they want raw, unprocessed audio unless otherwise specified.
Many of us do some type of processing in order to make our audio sound great - for example, noise reduction, noise gate, compression, EQ, de-esser, etc. But some clients will want the audio delivered either completely raw, or with minor cleanup edits but no processing, so that their mix engineers can do the work to make all the actors sound uniform. (Some actors also go way overboard on the compression to where the sound “punches you in the face” like one of those car-salesman radio ads, and that sound isn’t always favored in more cinematic projects.)
“Ideally you want to do as little processing in your audio as possible,” says Taneko. “I've received tons of abhorrently processed audio files to edit many times while the unprocessed sounded fine, but people just end up having this borderline panic that they need to process stuff. […] Besides, maybe the engineer has access to better cleanup tools than you.”
If your equipment and/or recording space is slightly sub-par, you may be used to doing lots of post-processing in order to make your audio sound good enough to be used in final recordings. It’s best to have a good foundation right from the source so that any processing is meant to enhance, rather than fix, your audio. But if you’re just working with what you’ve got at the moment, consider sending in two versions of the same example file: one completely raw, and one with your normal processing. This way they can see that (for example) that constant low hiss in the background can easily be filtered out if needed.
Relying on noise reduction to fix your issues also isn’t ideal in the long-term. “If you noise reduce at the beginning, the engineer has to EQ, compress, and do all sorts of processing. Even if it's not apparent at the beginning, it'll be way more pronounced in the end,” says Sensy.
Be honest about your space
If a studio or client asks for your home recording specs as a substitute for in-studio recording, resist the urge to oversell yourself. Be honest if there are any difficulties you anticipate facing so that they may prepare accordingly. In the midst of a global health crisis, these companies realize that not everyone is going to have a perfect home setup, but the more information they have, the better they can analyze what will need to be done in post to take care of your audio.
When asked for specs, you'll generally want to give a brief description of your recording space, along with the brand and model of microphone and preamp you use and how you are able to connect for a session (Skype, SourceConnect Now, SourceConnect Standard, ISDN, etc - note that ISDN is slowly being phased out in favor of SourceConnect.) A raw audio sample will also do a lot of the explaining for you. It is possible their engineers may want you to make minor adjustments to your setup and/or technique---if this is the case, the more information they have on what you've got to work with, the better.
FREE programs/services you should have easy access to
Skype - While many of the younger generation especially favors Discord, Skype is still in use by a good number of clients for live direction and projects that require video playback. It’s a good idea to have a Skype account at the ready for clients who may request it.
Zoom - Zoom is a videoconferencing application that is also sometimes used for clients to provide live direction and/or play video. “[Zoom] maintains audio quality without dropping out or roboting like Discord does,” says Cressie.
SourceConnect Now - Used for remote recording sessions. This is the free version of SourceConnect and it is browser-based (note that you will need Google Chrome in order to use it.)
Dropbox, GoogleDrive, WeTransfer - Most clients will want the final recordings sent as uncompressed WAV files, which can be too large to send in a regular e-mail program. Use a free file-sharing service such as one of the ones listed when you need to send large deliverables to a client.
Big list of downloadable plug-ins for Audacity with descriptions of what they do
51 free VST plug-ins for vocals (if you want to get really fancy)
VoiceOver Collective Home Studio Guide
And as always, the #audio-and-tech channel is always open in our Discord server if you need to ask questions about your setup!
All the guides and resources on this forum are provided on a volunteer basis. However, if you found them helpful, please consider buying me a coffee!