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Home Studio

Making a House a Home Studio: A Guide to Voice Acting from Home

By Michael Baer | 12th November 2021

The onset of the global coronavirus pandemic forced significant changes on many industries worldwide, creating seismic shifts in how voice-over professionals work.

All major media production centres on the planet were met with the sudden inability to host talent in-studio, which meant a headlong rush to home studios.  

This was a boon for the many voices who were already happily working from professional home studios all along—their way of working was tidily aligned with the new norm. However, beyond this, countless voices needed to alter their recording process to survive the new climate. Here is my journey to build a home studio.

The Rough Idea

Well before the pandemic, I had planned on moving from my little home-based booth to a much larger room in the upstairs of my old house.  My original booth was a tidy 6' x 4' space in the basement, and as I spent more and more time there, it became clear I would need to move to a larger, daylight space with the possibility of fresh air!

And so, last year, I began to strip an upstairs room to the studs and built an acoustically isolated room that would allow me to record and mix in comfort and relative solitude.

The space itself has a generous footprint but, being an attic space in an old house meant that the ceiling height was too low. The shape is also that of a bread loaf, rather than a square or rectangular box, which actually ended up working in my favour, acoustically.  I had built my basement booth with non-parallel surfaces, meaning that I built the walls out of square with each other, by roughly 10 degrees, from front to back, side to side, and ceiling to floor.  

This helped tremendously reduce the inevitable boxiness that results from flutter echo and other nasty things that happen in a box. I built acoustic broadband absorbers to tame the box further, and the sound I achieved in there was great for the space.  My new bread loaf space uses fewer 90-degree angles in its design, so the issues that typically come with these junctures would cause me much less trouble.

The Challenge

However, my new space would need more than simple absorption and diffusion. As the room is directly exposed to the world outside, I would need to keep that world from coming in.  I would also need to control the world of my own making inside the room. 

Sound is very pushy. It causes surfaces to resonate, or oscillate, whether an eardrum or a pane of glass in a window or a wall. 

Low-frequency waves are particularly long and effective in surmounting barriers. For example, a 40 Hz wave is roughly 28 ft long and packs a punch. On the other hand, higher frequency waves are more easily reflected and lack the punching power of low frequency. However, all the frequencies which interest us are efficient in moving barriers, depending on the material of the barrier, which makes some matter better than others at resisting or passing specific frequencies.

Building for Sound Isolation

In my room design, I planned to decouple both the inside-the-house door wall (and build a double-door entry) and the window wall, which is arguably the more pressing matter. By decoupling the walls and building walls inside of the room, you are essentially building a room-within-a-room. As both of these rooms are insulated and drywalled, this enhances its ability to dampen the vigour of foreign audio. 

Building mass into your walls can further improve sound isolation. I did this on my sidewalls by adding two layers of 1/2" drywall over top of the solid wood cladding that was already there from an old renovation in the days before drywall.

The first step of my renovation was stripping off the thick, heavy painted paper applied over this cladding to form the interior room surface.  I removed this cladding to expose the open attic space; I then properly insulated the stud spaces, applied the vapour barrier, and then reapplied the 3/4" wood cladding and with drywall acousti-seal compound between all layers.  

Since the side walls and the narrow ceiling formed the inside surface of a triangular space - and therefore an air space - between the room and the outside, decoupling would be largely unnecessary.

However, I recognized that the sloped ceiling would challenge me.  As I mentioned, this attic space is a bread loaf shape, with side walls running only as high as four feet before angling off under the roof slope to the peak of the house.  This four feet or so of sloped roof would act like a drum, amplifying the rat-a-tat-tat of rain on the top.  

I live in an area that sees a fair amount of rain in winter, and it ranges from a drizzle to a heavy, lashing downpour.  It is the latter which I knew would bedevil me. Therefore, on these slopes I started with a layer of 1/8" cork underlay on top of the wood cladding, as a first line of defense against the sound of rain, then a beefier 5/8" drywall. I initially hoped that would be sufficient as I wanted to avoid the weight of all this material and the shrinking of the space height. 

However, on a good steady rain, I could still hear a light patter, so I added a second layer of drywall, this 1/2", and applied a product called Green Glue between the two layers.  This product is a stiffer compound than a standard acousti-seal product while retaining its elasticity and has worked very well.

The second building envelope breach point would be the window.  I cut a much bigger hole in my house and replaced an old single-glazed window with two new double-glazed vinyl windows, a considerable improvement.  

Although, I also built a decoupled 2x3 half wall in front of these new windows, with the intent to install two new window sashes that I would build with angled glass, yet another effective way of dealing with acoustic resonance.  These sashes would slide into the recessed pocket created when I built another 2x4 wall in front of the pocket wall.  Consequently, my window wall wound up being about ten inches thick altogether.

How to Not Bother Your Family

On the other side of the keeping-the-world-out coin is the equally desirable goal of keeping the inside from getting out.  One would think this latter is the natural result of the former, but when it comes to low frequency, I was concerned with my wife and family being bombarded in the kitchen below with the muffled bomb boom of whatever I might be doing.  

So, I pulled up the flooring and old subfloor, knowing there was no insulation there, insulated it, then laid down new sheeting, plus a layer of 1/4 inch cork and a new bamboo floor.  This will help keep the peace (as will the double door entry).

Taming the Sound Inside

Inside the room, there are two primary considerations when dealing with sound for purposes of recording voice-over, and both of them resolutely refuse to take a back seat to the other. And rightly so. These are the absorption and diffusion of acoustic energy.

When you place a microphone in a room and stir the air with spoken words, with acoustic energy, you're entering a whole new dimension. If sound waves were visible to the naked eye and frequencies were colours, I imagine the room might look like Jackson Pollock went berserk. We want to restore some semblance of form and structure to the canvas and produce an intelligible sound painting. 

To deal in sound is to deal in math. For such an emotive and powerful force, sound comes down to numbers, calculations, frequency, and amplitude. Controlling and shaping both of those things is the objective. They are the twin towers of radio:  Amplitude Modulation (AM) and Frequency Modulation (FM). There are mathematical considerations in all of this beyond the scope of the article. Still, any absorption you can mount on the wall, in conjunction with corner bass traps, will help tame the reflective sound inside your space.

Absorbers and Diffusors

It is common to build bass traps to be placed in the corners and at the junctions of two right-angle surfaces, such as a ceiling and wall. These can be easily constructed using basic wood 1x2 and sound insulation such as Roxul Safe n' sound. Wrapped in fabric, they can be fixed in place.

The general rule on bass traps, or any absorber is that the bigger it is, the thicker, the denser, the lower will be the trapped frequency.  This is a rudimentary description but is generally accurate, regardless.  My triangular bass traps are roughly 12" on each side and standoff by about 4 inches from the corner.

Additionally, I built absorption panels with the same material. I mounted them with simple L brackets off my wall, standing off the wall about 3 inches, the same thickness as the pieces of insulation. This will increase the co-efficient of the panel, meaning simply that it'll absorb more of the stuff you want to be absorbed. 

Think of a sound wave passing through your panel, out the back and through more air, striking the wall and reflecting into the panel for another short soak. Anytime a sound wave passes through the air, there is energy loss, so it all adds up. I also provided extra airspace when mounting my thin acoustic tiles to the slope and ceiling, using a T-pin to stand them off, equal to their thickness, about a quarter inch.  

The second complementary piece is diffusion, in which irregular shapes will reflect and scatter sound waves across the frequency spectrum. Diffusion is a challenging area of acoustics, and opinions are almost as divergent as the sound waves themselves.

Much will depend on your room. For example, in my little basement booth, it was far less critical than absorption to reduce boxiness. Although as this new room is much larger, diffusion is more important to consider, so I built several different diffusers and played with positioning. There are practical examples of everyday diffusion in most rooms, particularly bookshelves with their array of differently sized books, and therefore staggered depths and widths, but purists might argue against this.

It doesn't hurt to think about this, even if it's divisive, so I included various diffusive entities; it's better safe than sorry!

Here Endeth the Lesson

As mentioned, there are a lot of equations involved in acoustics, and in an ideal world, one would control the math to know exactly how big that absorber should be to manage a specific problem frequency. We would be given easy answers on where to place it, how big your glass should be in an iso-booth, what the angle, etc.—in other words, we would use math to design the space and use math to create diffusers and absorbers and their placement. However, it is rarely so simple when trying to carve out a recording space in our homes, so we don't often have the luxury of mathematical precision.

We take simple steps, apply some fundamentals where we can, and remember that we're not mixing or recording either a jazz quartet or rock band in our studio; dealing with a significantly increased range of frequencies and advanced acoustic problems – we work in voice-over.  Cleanly and quietly in voice-over. 

There's not been a lot of good to result from the pandemic, but in our little world of voice-over, it has meant that the humble home studio now has a seat at the table of the bigger players, and now is the time to go all-in on ensuring that it can remain there. If you want to see the cards I was playing in building my studio at home, you can find them on my YouTube channel, in which I documented the entire journey from gutting the space to the first recording.

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Michael Baer

Michael Baer

Michael is a voice talent with a deep background in sound for TV and Film. He is also a curious type and likes to look into the variety of boxes provided by working in voice-over. He putters around in woodworking, plays as much hockey as he can, and dreams of flying once again in a Spitfire

About Author

Michael Baer

Michael Baer

Michael is a voice talent with a deep background in sound for TV and Film. He is also a curious type and likes to look into the variety of boxes provided by working in voice-over. He putters around in woodworking, plays as much hockey as he can, and dreams of flying once again in a Spitfire