This Pandemic is driving everyone nuts, including professional actors who can no longer work in the jobs that allowed them to continue to pursue acting (e.g., restaurants). It’s time to think about setting up a home recording studio.
The pandemic isn’t all bad news for actors: while some work has dried up, there is plenty of work to be had online. Although most of this work is non-union, some agents are opening up their rosters and taking on actors who have good voice acting booths to record from. Some of these agents have access to union breakdowns.
While having a voice over studio was optional (sort of) before the pandemic, it certainly isn’t now. From now on, it will be impossible to work as a voice actor without a good voice over booth.
I’ve written a book on the topic of voice over studios that addresses how to think about sound, basic recording and editing tips, standard file formats and specs and more.
In the meantime, here are a few basics to help you get started in the right direction.
Set Up a Home Recording Studio for Voice Acting
First off, you’ll need a very quiet space to record in. This is unavoidable. Whenever I move, quietness is the first thing on my list of priorities. If you don’t have a quiet space, you’ll either need to build a structure or booth to isolate yourself from noise sources in your environment or pick another space. Otherwise you’ll be frustrated as a way of life and life is just too short for that.
One quick way to determine whether you can use a space is to listen carefully: what do you hear?
If you hear temporary noises (lawn mower, ambulance, airplane), you might be able to record around these (you’ll pause when you hear a noise). If you hear continuous noise however (clearly audible traffic) and it’s unmistakably present, you’ll probably need to build a structure or booth.
Acoustics vs Soundproofing
Acoustics are all about how sound travels within your space. You will (in 99% of cases) have to improve acoustics before working in any space. This means you’ll either have to eliminate echo or reverberation (this sounds like you’re in a box or tin can) that’s so typical of small spaces. Luckily, improving acoustics is usually easy and pretty cheap.
Sound proofing is all about eliminating outside noises from penetrating into your space. The best way to soundproof is to build a small structure like an iso-booth (short for isolation booth). This can be as light or heavy duty as you want. The more noises you have to deal with, the thicker the isolation will need to be. This process can get expensive, especially if you aren’t the DIY builder type. Many booths can be found online and assembled at home, but they aren’t cheap.
Microphone placement has a role to play in acoustics as well. Believe it or not, I once had an audio engineer come to my house because I felt like my space sounded “boxy”. He literally moved my microphone a few inches by switching my desk microphone stand to a boom arm type of stand. I’ve recorded TV campaigns weekly in the studio ever since.
Voice Acting Equipment (pssst…Acoustics are more important)
The one thing actors always ask me about is gear. I can assure you that focusing on improving your acoustics and sound proofing are better investments than buying an expensive microphone.
The most compliments I ever got about my voice was when I was using a hand-me-down drum microphone from my mentor. My current Neumann U-87 has never garnered as many compliments.
That said, you’ll need:
- Computer (Mac or PC);
- Audio interface (external);
- Stand alone preamp (optional);
- Condenser microphone with an XLR connection (no USB mics);
- Professional headphones (earbuds or noise cancellation won’t do);
- Pop filter (preferably metal, unless you’re on the go in which case you may forego it completely);
- Recording/Editing Software;
- Connectivity software like Skype, WhatsApp, etc.;
- Studio-to-studio connectivity software like Source Connect, IPDTL, etc. (optional).;
- Various cables like USB, XLR (these have a three-pronged end), ¼ inch cables, and RCA’s;
- Microphone stand (boom arm, desk stand, floor stand, etc.);
And whatever you do, make sure you can try out the gear and return it if you don’t like it. Until you try it, it’s difficult to know what will work best for you. If you’re ordering from Amazon right now, stick to vendors who will allow returns.
Recording & Editing Software for Voice Overs
My recommendation is to keep it simple and to download a trial version of the recording program you’re interested in learning.
You can use:
- Audacity (free, but doesn’t work on recently updated computers);
- TwistedWave (Mac);
- Amadeus Pro (Mac); and
- Adobe Audition (Mac or Windows).
My personal favorite is Adobe Audition. It’s comprehensive, will allow you to create your own demos and give you the ability to get rid of tiny intricate mouth noises when you need to. The next best bet is Amadeus Pro. Audacity and TwistedWave are much more limited, but if you’re on a budget, you can start with those. I would steer clear from Pro Tools or Logic (unless you’re a musician and know your way around). Garage Band won’t allow you to record at higher sample rates than 44,100kHz and 16 bit so this is less than ideal for broadcast jobs. Even if you aren’t recording broadcast jobs, virtually every producer wants their voice over files in higher quality formats (48,000 kHz and 24 bit). For more about audio specifications and files formats, read Recording & Editing Voice Overs.
If you have the technical skills to use a Word document, I assure you that you can learn to edit audio, especially in the programs I list here. It’s not nearly as complicated as it seems.
The basic functions you’ll use are:
- Record audio from a microphone feed;
- Playback the recorded audio;
- Save files in .mp3 and .wav audio formats;
- Convert files in sample rates from 8000 kHz to 48,000 kHz and 8 to 24-bit rates.
- Copy and paste sections of a recording;
- Undo and redo functions;
- Heal/Repair small mouth noises;
- Normalize sound;
- Equalize sound;
- Use visual markers to find an area of a recording at a glance;
- Save and label audio files.
For audio editing tips, read Recording & Editing Voice Overs.
Voice Over Recording Levels
One the most important things you’ll do in audio is set the recording level on your audio interface or stand alone preamp correctly. I go over this in detail in my book, but there is a speaking level you want to stick to, and then you can move it slightly down (for when you speak louder) and up (when you are speaking more intimately). If you use a stand alone preamp and aren’t sure how to get the most out of it, be sure to read my blog about recording equipment.
One way to figure out if you’ve got it right is to use a dB meter. All recording programs have one, so set your levels somewhere between -18dB and -6dB. If you go higher than this, you’ll peak and sound distorted (making the files unusable). If your level is set too low, you’ll have to amplify your recording digitally, and your files may also end up sounding distorted.
The key here will be to make sure you can tell the difference between the volume level for your headphones and the level for the audio interface. Your device level is usually called “gain”.
My Voice Over Studio
People often ask about my own set up, so here it is: I use an iso-booth I’ve built (5 feet by 5, and 6 feet high). I’ve installed an exterior grade door and a double pane window (I was tired of being enclosed with no natural light for hours on end every day). My computer and screen sit outside the studio on a desk in front of my window (I’ve drilled hole in the bottom to put wires through so they can be powered) to avoid introducing any noises in the booth.
Apogee Duet sound card;
Grace Design 101 stand alone preamp;
Neumann u87 microphone;
Beyer Dynamics Headphones;
Phone patch or Skype;
Adobe Audition (software).
If you want to learn more, read my voice over books and other blogs about recording voice overs from home (featured below).
Want some VO advice you can hang your hat on and act on TODAY? Don’t do it alone, piggy back on my success by joining my “Everyday VO” newsletter here to get exclusive tips from me, so you can do VO the Clever Way, Right Away. My name is Lili Wexu. I’m an actress, a voice talent and an author. To learn how to make $$$ in VO, read my e-books about Voice Acting & Announcing.