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Q. Should I build a vocal booth?

By Hugh Robjohns

I've recently upgraded my recording system. Unfortunately the improvements in the signal chain have highlighted more and more the sound of the room I'm in. The other night I tried singing under a couple of futons with really good results. With a touch of reverb the vocal sits in the mix much better and the fans on the computer are no longer heard. Alas, I can't play the guitar under there, so I was thinking of building a small booth, say 3 x 5 x 7 feet, and hanging the futons on the walls to create a deader environment in which to track. Some degree of soundproofing is a bonus, but my main aim is a more neutral acoustic to take and treat with effects. Will I just be swapping one duff sound for another?

SOS Forum Post

Technical Editor Hugh Robjohns replies: I'd advise against building another small boxy room, and instead, sort out your existing room to provide a better acoustic for recording and monitoring. Building a good-sounding booth is far from trivial, especially when the booth will have fairly small dimensions, and you are more likely to end up with a worse-sounding recording space than you started with!

Placing a piece of hardboard on the floor between the guitar and microphone can improve the sound of your guitar recordings.Placing a piece of hardboard on the floor between the guitar and microphone can improve the sound of your guitar recordings.If you feel the need to do some woodwork, I'd recommend making a sound-reducing box to put the computer in to help control the fan and drive noise. You will then be free to apply suitable acoustic treatment to the room as a whole, to make it sound much better, both for recording and monitoring. This approach would be far more cost-effective overall, and a lot more pleasant to work in!

For the computer box, you'll need to design something that allows access to the CD tray, power switch and so on — perhaps through a front door — and has an orifice through which the various cables can exit. You'll also have to ensure that a sufficient volume of cooling air can flow in and out, but by designing the case so that air flows around a labyrinth which is well damped acoustically, you should be able to reduce the computer noise substantially.

As for the room, the ideal is to treat it so that reverberation is well controlled and even at all frequencies, and standing waves are minimised. This will require a combination of bass trapping, absorption and possibly even some diffusers — check out the web sites of the usual suppliers, as well as archived articles on the SOS web site for ideas. Most suppliers offer a free planning service too. Beware, though, that inappropriate or excessive foam treatment on its own will soak up the high and mid-frequencies, but will do little to control the lower frequencies, resulting in a boxy-sounding space.

A handy, quick and cheap solution for recording vocals is to temporarily hang duvets (or futons) close to a rear and side wall, to form a well damped corner. Stand with your back to the corner, a couple of feet out, and place your (cardioid) vocal microphone so that it is 'looking' into the corner. That way, the dead side of the mic is facing the room and will therefore tend to ignore most of the reflections, room ambience and hopefully even the computer noise. The duvets or futons in the corner will prevent the room sound from being reflected back into the front of the mic, and the result should be a reasonably good-quality, dry vocal track.

You can try the same basic technique for recording your acoustic guitar, although in this case it is often useful to deliberately encourage some early reflections by placing a sheet of hardboard (or similar) on the floor between mic and guitar. Arrange the duvets or futons in a semicircle behind you to prevent room reflections from heading back into the front of the mic again.

These kinds of problems and solutions tend to feature heavily in our Studio SOS series, so keep an eye out for ideas that you might be able to apply to your own situation. 

Published May 2004