By turning your hotel room into a project studio, you can deliver broadcast-quality VO tracks when you travel.
For those of us who make our livings doing voiceover (VO) work, leaving home needn’t mean losing work. In fact, a VO talent with a basic understanding of acoustics can use a laptop computer, a portable interface, and a small studio microphone to deliver broadcast-quality voiceover tracks from just about anywhere in the world. My wife and I both work in the industry, and record mainly in our home studio in São Paulo, Brazil, and at production houses in the region. But we spend a lot of time on the road as well — as an American expat, I make a point of returning home at least once a year.
A trip to the USA in March this year took us both to the VO Atlanta voiceover conference in Georgia, and then to the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival of film, technology and music in Texas, before we visited family and friends in California. That’s a lot of time to take off work when you freelance, so for three weeks we exchanged our home studio for a portable studio that we wheeled around in a carry-on suitcase.
During the three weeks we spent away from our home studio, we gave voice to dozens of audio projects: an in-flight safety announcement for a major airline, a national TV campaign for a furniture and home accessories retailer, corporate videos for companies in and out of Brazil, and case studies for advertising agencies, to name a few. Each project posed unique challenges, but we managed to deliver with speed and quality in every case.
In this month’s Session Notes, then, I want to take you through how we approached our work on this trip, as well as teasing out a few lessons for you (and for us!). Before I do, by way of background, it’s worth mentioning that, compared with music production, voiceover work has some specific recording requirements and aesthetics — you can find out more about that in my two-part SOS feature on recording professional voiceovers at home (http://sosm.ag/sos-0611-voiceover and http://sosm.ag/sos-0711-voiceover).
Carry-on baggage policies vary from airline to airline and country to country, so if you want to make sure your gear always stays close at hand, make sure you verify carrier regulations before catching your flight. For our trip to VO Atlanta and SXSW, we packed a Neumann TLM 102 large-diaphragm condenser microphone and an Apogee MiC USB microphone that I used with my iPhone. We brought along an iPad from which to read scripts, a MacBook Pro running Adobe Audition CC for recording and editing the audio, and a Mac Mini, which we connected to hotel TVs with an HDMI cable, to act as a second workstation. We also took a Universal Audio Apollo Twin Duo audio interface, a pair of Sennheiser HD 380 Pro headphones, WindTech PopGard 2000 and Sterling Audio PF1 pop filters, a Proline PLDMS1 desktop microphone stand, a Sterling Audio UMS Utility Microphone Shield, and a 20-foot XLR cable — that would give us the freedom to record and edit across the room from our vocal booth.
Making hotel reservations early is an important first step to building your project studio on the road, especially if you’re attending a convention or a festival. We booked our hotels four months in advance and opted for rooms with two queen-size beds instead of a single king, because that would allow us to erect a ‘mattress pyramid’ over the space between the beds, if required. In theory this creates a spacious voiceover booth, though in practice it’s very much a last-resort — you never know what you’re going to find when you flip up a hotel mattress!
Over the phone or on a web site, I explained our unique situation to hotel staff and made some special requests. Hotels will usually do their best to help you out if you mention you’ll be recording voiceover in one of their rooms — for all they know, you might be a famous YouTuber! What requests did I make? For starters, at each hotel, I asked for a room far from the elevators and at the end of a hallway, which would limit foot traffic outside our door. I also asked for a room facing away from the highway, the hotel pool, or any other obvious sources of noise, and for a room on a high floor — in fact, on the top floor, if possible. “What about rooftop machinery?” I hear you ask. Well, in my experience, loud upstairs neighbours tend to cause far more trouble than rumbling air conditioners. Finally, I confirmed that the room would have both a safe and Wi-Fi access to the Internet.
As soon as we checked into each hotel, I took a moment to study our new recording space. How quiet was the room? Could we switch off the refrigerator and central air-con if needed? Did outside noise bleed through the windows and walls? In other words, just how low could I get the noise floor for our recordings? Then, I walked around each room clapping my hands and grunting like an ape to get a notion of acoustics. Which part of the room was the least resonant? Could the closet serve as a kind of booth, or would we be better putting a luggage rack, ironing board, sofa cushions, or chair on top of a desk or bed? Were there plenty of pillows and blankets to deaden the space around the mic? Did the room have a remote control for the TV (not just for the cable box) so I could adjust the screen settings and use the TV as a computer monitor? If a room didn’t pass my inspection, I’d get keys to look at one or two more options before unpacking our gear.We spent five nights at the Airport Marriott hotel in Atlanta. The voiceover conference took place inside the hotel’s convention centre, so it made sense to stay there, despite the air traffic overhead. We were relieved to learn that the room had thick, triple-paned windows to keep out jet noise! But still there were other challenges, not least the carpetless floor, a buzzing refrigerator and a droning central air conditioning system...
The refrigerator could be unplugged, but there was no way to switch off the air vents. Since the hotel was fully booked and as other rooms would likely present similar problems, we set up our booth in a closet, which was close to the door and far from the vents by the windows. We hung jackets inside the closet, tucked a pillow in the corner behind the mic, and connected a small reflection filter to the mic stand. We also suspended a sleeping bag across the room’s entrance hall, using nylon straps and hangers with clips. This improvised ‘gobo’ would help to tame reflections and attenuate noise from the vents. In Adobe Audition, I set a high-pass filter at 80Hz and used iZotope RX5’s DeNoise feature to give our voiceover tracks a few more decibels of dynamic range.
At our hotel in Austin, where we spent a full week, we took a similar approach. The AT&T Conference Hotel sits on the edge of the University of Texas, so I imagined it would be quieter than the airport hotel. However, despite making an early reservation and sending our list of special requests, we got stuck in a room overlooking a construction site — you need a pretty loud musical bed to mask the sound of a jack hammer! Much to our relief, although the hotel was at maximum occupancy for SXSW, the front desk staff found an unoccupied room in a separate wing of the hotel. There, we set up our gear in a large closet, draping our sleeping bag over the open doors on each side to act as an absorbent fourth wall. We also took advantage of the room’s broadband Wi-Fi signal and big TV screen to set up a second workstation with our Mac Mini, using an ironing board as an improvised desk.
The final leg of our trip, in California, demanded a bit more ingenuity, since we drove from city to city and didn’t always have time to set up a well-built recording space. We rented a mid-sized SUV in Los Angeles to act as a mobile booth, and we spent a night in Santa Monica with our Brazilian friends Eduardo and Bia, who moved to the United States a few years ago and who also work in voiceover. They’ve repurposed the closet of their main bedroom into a voiceover booth, adding Auralex panels to the walls and ceilings and recording with a Shure SM7B, an Apollo Twin and a MacBook Pro with Adobe Audition CC. Dynamic mics such as the Shure SM7B and the ElectroVoice RE20 are popular in home voiceover studios, but I find them a little bulky to take on the road.
In addition to Adobe Audition CC and Twisted Wave, I often used iZotope RX5 on the road. If you need to reduce background noise and mouth crackle, this software does magic (and the newest version, RX6, which I’ve not yet grabbed, introduced a stand-alone feature called Mouth De-click.) I also had Plugin Alliance’s SPL De-Verb installed, just in case we had to record in a highly reflective environment, but I rarely needed it. Instead, when away from our hotel room, we’d find a way to record in our rental car, in somebody’s closet, or in any quiet and relatively reverb-free space that was available. In situations like these, we recorded with our Apogee MiC, using the Twisted Wave app installed on my iPhone. Twisted Wave has basic editing features, so I could upload edited tracks to Dropbox without a laptop or Adobe Audition CC.
I recorded all our tracks as 48kHz, 16-bit, mono, uncompressed PCM audio files and, unless a client requested something different, that’s how I uploaded them. I would sometimes do some light processing (for instance, a high-pass filter and a touch of noise reduction) before sending tracks to ad agencies or to end clients directly. But if the track was for a production house, I’d do little more than delete mistakes before uploading the unprocessed audio file.
When working with a sound engineer, consider including a description of your gear and a photo of your booth with the link to your file. Also, give the engineer a few seconds of room tone at the start of the recording. Set your levels, hit record and sit silently for a moment so the engineer will have a clean noise print of your recording environment. This will come in handy for noise-reduction algorithms, or for adding silence between sections of speech. (Complete silence in a voiceover track can sound unnatural, especially if the track was recorded in a non-studio environment — cutting and pasting ‘room tone’ generally works far better than muting intervals or using a noise gate.)
On the topic of recording and editing, bear in mind two final considerations. First, even though it’s important to let the sound engineer know you’re recording on the road, you don’t need to tell the end client. During our trip, we had a producer and his client on the same Skype conference call. Prior to this session, the producer asked us not to mention we were recording in a hotel. He trusted that we’d send him broadcast-quality audio, but was worried that his client wouldn’t be so understanding. Second, when recording a job at your home studio before a trip, consider using the same mic that you will be taking on the road, or at least set up your ‘road mic’ next to your studio microphone and record the job with both. This way, if you need to deliver retakes from the road, you won’t have to record the script all over again, and the retakes will sound much closer to the original recording.
Before wrapping up, it’s worth saying a few words about how Comando S Áudio, a production house in São Paulo, processed and mixed one of the voiceover tracks we recorded and delivered during our trip — I’ll use a TV commercial for SBP mosquito repellent as a case study. My wife Simone recorded this voiceover inside the spacious closet of a quiet top-floor suite at La Quinta Inn in Paso Robles, California. It was one of our better hotel booths and the track sounded great. A few days later, however, we got a call from Comando S Áudio: they needed a line correction. We were in Santa Barbara, having lunch at the house of friends, so we excused ourselves from the table to set up and record in their bedroom, placing our TLM 102 on top of their bed. The small room was quiet and the bed itself, plus a dresser stacked with books, kept the space relatively reverb free, so we didn’t need any pillows or cushions. Simone took care to match the volume and tone of the original recording and she matched her distance from the microphone as well.
Fabricio Mary, the Comando S Áudio sound engineer who mixed the commercial, later sent me an explanation of the steps he took when processing our tracks. For the first recording in Paso Robles, he used Avid’s EQ III parametric equaliser to clean up the low end and reduce problematic resonance by running Simone’s voiceover through a high-pass and low-shelf filter set at 240Hz and narrow Q notch filters set at 240Hz, at the harmonic of 480Hz, and again at 900Hz. Then he added brightness and compensated for a dip in the TLM 102’s frequency response by bringing up the region between 4.5 and 8 kHz. Fabricio didn’t use any noise-reduction or de-reverb plug-ins, but he did point out to us that the hotel-booth recording would have benefitted from an extra pillow on each side of the mic.
Regarding the line correction we sent a few days later from Santa Barbara, Fabricio didn’t boost the high-end frequencies, but he did keep the high-pass, low-shelf and Q notch filters in place to attenuate resonance and match the tone. He also ran the second recording through a decrackler to clean up some mouth noise. With the volumes matched, the takes blended nicely together and the line correction was imperceptible in the commercial that aired. You can listen to our raw files and to Fabricio’s processed track here: http://sosm.ag/sos-1217-media, and you can watch the result at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=KtxmCsF-ExE.
As high-end gear gets cheaper and smaller, it has become easier and easier for the professionals of our industry to work remotely — whether from a home studio, a hotel room or a rental car. So, if you’re a VO talent who likes to travel, why not pack your gear and book your rooms? After all, one of the perks of working in voiceover is that your instrument is easy to carry when you hit the road!
While attending VO Atlanta, Simone and I met voiceover superstar Joe Cipriano, who does promos for comedy shows like The Simpsons, Two And A Half Men and Mike And Molly on the Fox and CBS networks, and does in-show announcing for top-rated shows like the Emmy Awards, the Grammy Awards and America’s Got Talent. Joe often records on the road and he generously shared his insights with me for SOS readers.
Joe: “I try to limit the amount of equipment I take with me when I travel, so it takes up as little space as possible in my carry-on and when I set up to work. I use a MacBook Air as the heart of my remote recording studio. I take a Sennheiser MKH-416 microphone with me, with an audio cable to connect the mic to the interface. My interface for getting in and out of the MacBook Air is an Apollo Twin Solo, which connects to my laptop via Thunderbolt. Previously, I was using a USB interface, but found that using the Apollo Twin Solo frees up a USB port on the computer and allows for all sorts of sound treatment via the Universal Audio device and plug-ins. I also bring low-profile ear buds made by 1MORE. I use Pro Tools to record and edit, both in my studio at home and on the laptop when I’m away. So, it’s important to have that extra USB port free for the iLok that holds the Pro Tools license; I would have a problem if it wasn’t for the Thunderbolt interface.
“As far as where to set up, I use various methods. In a room, I’ll usually put a towel down on top of a desk or bureau. I place a luggage rack or an ironing board on top of the towel to be used as infrastructure for my makeshift voiceover booth. I drape whatever is there in the room, such as a blanket, over the top of the luggage rack or ironing board, ensuring that three sides are covered. Then I set up pillows inside this ‘fort’ that I’ve built, and I place the microphone, laptop and interface on the table top inside. I call it a MacGyver Studio, because I use whatever is available in the room to make the studio.
“When all else fails, the back seat of an automobile makes a good recording studio. Just think of how tight the doors of a car sound when you close them — that seal helps block out sounds and makes for a pretty good acoustic environment.
"I’ve done this many times on road trips, and one time travelling to a voiceover conference, when I needed to do an urgent voiceover session because the client was on a tight deadline. I arrived via airplane at Columbus, Ohio, and was picked up by my friend AJ McKay. I told him we needed to find a relatively quiet place to park, so I could do a live session back to CBS in Los Angeles. As we pulled over into a quiet parking lot, and as I was setting up, suddenly it began raining. It wasn’t just raining, it was coming down in buckets, and the sound of the downpour hitting the roof and windshield of the automobile was deafening. My friend was a quick thinker, and he found a petrol station that had a covered roof over the area where you pump the gas. As soon as we pulled under that roof, the rain stopped pelting the car and I was able to hook up to the studio in LA live. The recording session went without a hitch. And when the client asked what studio I was working in, I told them it was a little place in Ohio called the Chevy Studio.”
I spoke with JJ Jurgens, Creative Director for CBS Daytime On-Air Promotion, about voiceover tracks recorded on the road. I wanted to get a feel for whether networks are bothered by the idea of the talent working while they travel, and what the implications are if they’re unable to work when they’re away.
JJ: “In the past, VO talent used to come into CBS and do their sessions in-house. That is not the norm any more. Almost all our sessions are done via ISDN or Source-Connect, which makes it easy for talent to travel. If they take their road gear and can connect with us for sessions, we don’t look to hire replacements for them while they’re gone. Usually their agent will give us a travel schedule, letting us know the hours when the talent won’t be able to connect, like while on an airplane, and we work around this schedule. If we need a read done and the talent doesn’t have a travel kit or isn’t able to go into a studio to record while travelling, in this case we would have to turn to other talent because, unfortunately, in the promo world, we must get spots out so quickly that we don’t have time to wait for the talent to return.”