Home Studio Step 2: The Microphone

Ask 5 voiceover artists what microphone you should use, and you’ll get five different answers – and then they’ll start arguing with each other about which person is right.

To say that this topic brings out some passionate responses is an understatement.

Buy a microphone that you can afford that makes you sound good. That’s it. That’s the answer.

This means you have to try out a bunch of mics. Good microphones aren’t cheap, so you need to try out other people’s mics.

I know from experience that my voice sounds good on a Newmann U87. Would I love to have one in my studio? Oh yeah. Do I have $3200 to spend on a microphone? Nope. That remains my aspirational microphone. I also like the way I sound on a BCM104, but that mic would set me back a grand.

I know from experience that my voice sounds good on a Sennheiser MKH 416. This is also the mic that Joe Cipriano recommends, and of all the VO artists I know, this is their go-to mic. This mic costs about $1000, but if you know where to shop you can get it around $800. This is a shotgun mic, usually used in film and TV to be held overhead out of the shot. What VO artists like to do is still have it come in overhead but work it at close range. Since the pattern is so tight on the microphone, it rejects a lot of unwanted sounds and just gets your voice, which makes it ideal for a home studio. It forgives a lot of sins in your room. When I started building my studio in the middle of the pandemic, I thought long and hard about buying one until I determined that I was happy with a less expensive mic. I want to wait until I have some more paying gigs before I drop that type of coin on a mic.

The two microphones you find most often in radio stations are the Shure SM-7B and the ElectroVoice RE-20. These are dynamic microphones, meaning they do not need 48 volts of phantom power as the condenser mics that I have mentioned up to this point. Of these two, I prefer the Shure, but this is one of those Coke and Pepsi kind of battles. If you like the RE-20, I’m not going to hate you for it. Both mics are around $400. EV has a new model called the RE-320 that goes for $250; the primary difference is it has a brighter sound to it. The last thing my voice needs is more high end so I didn’t consider the RE-320 even though it was in the price range I was looking in, but your mileage may vary.

What I ended up with was a condenser mic that’s used by a lot of musicians: the AKG P220. I feel just as happy with my vocals on this mic as I am with more expensive ones, and the mic only set me back $150 with shipping. Be aware that this mic really needs a pop filter; it will catch every plosive in your voice (the distortion you get when P and B sounds hit the mic). A Stedman PS101 pop filter will set you back $30-60 depending upon where you shop.

I still have the AKG, but my daily driver is an Audio Technica AT4040. Like the AKG it’s a large diaphragm condenser mic; I got it from a VO friend who upgraded to the Sennheiser MKH416. On my voice, the AT4040 and AKG P220 are very similar, but there’s a tad more warmth on the Audio Technica, which works well with my voice.

The dbx286s, racked up in my studio.

The key piece of gear in my audio chain is a voice processor. I use a dbx 286s. This is a preamp, compressor/limiter, de-esser, and noise gate. Here’s why you need these things:

A preamplifier raises the microphone level to line level so you can feed it into your computer. (Don’t know what mic level and line level mean? The folks at Shure have an article for that.) The compressor/limiter reduces dynamic range, which helps keep your vocals up front in the mix. The de-esser reduces distorted s sounds. The noise gate helps keep background noise out of the recording.

While most digital audio workstations have plug-ins for compression and such, I prefer using outboard equipment. First of all, it’s what I’m used to. Secondly, while I have a room with some acoustical treatment, it’s not completely soundproof, so the noise gate keeps the sound of the air conditioner or cars outside my window from getting into the recording, and that’s something that a plug-in can’t fix.

If I wanted to spend more money I would have bought an Aphex Channel because it’s digital, but honestly, I’m happy with how I sound on the dbx and have no regrets about buying it. It’s a solid piece of gear.

Home Studio Step 1: Acoustics

Let’s get a few things straight: Putting foam on the walls does NOT soundproof a room.

Soundproofing is difficult and rather expensive. Either you are building a heavily insulated booth in your room or you are tearing your house down to the studs and adding insulation and special windows if you want something that’s soundproofed.

What is more practical and accessible is acoustic treatments to deaden your room. If you can clap your hands and hear an echo, that’s a “live” room. The less echo, the more you have deadened the sound. Sound bounces off of hard surfaces and is absorbed by soft ones. Fabric is your friend!

tip: if you need to record something and you’re away from home, ask to borrow a walk-in closet. Close the door, and record. All that clothing will help you make an amazing recording.

Since the only space I had was a corner (boo!) I positioned my work space so the foam contains my voice.

Acoustic foam is usually cut either with triangular ridges or an eggcrate design. When the sound waves hit the foam, what isn’t absorbed will bounce, but since it’s angled, it’s going to either bounce into another part of the foam or at least bounce away from you. Either way it helps you get echo-free audio.

If you can, put foam panels on all sides of you, including above.

If that’s not practical, at least put foam on the wall ahead of where you are speaking. Every room is different, so try different combinations of placements before making any permanent installation.

You don’t need to cover the entire room in foam, although many people do. A few rows of foam on the walls ahead, to the side, behind, and above you is usually enough to knock echoes down.

In my room, since the space available to me is a corner, I arranged my workspace so I’m talking into the corner (which is usually not a good idea) but the foam contains my voice in the area and keeps it from bouncing back so it works. Again, every room has its own peculiarities, so experiment until you find the sound that you like.

Building The Digital Palace

Back in the 90s when the internet meant dialup, I rented a room from a guy who worked at an Intel plant. He was trying to get an ISDN line put it for internet, and I was discussing it with the general manager of the radio station that I worked for.

John Davis

“ISDN? Damn. Sounds like the digital palace.”

He was always a man who could coin a phrase, and it’s been bouncing around in my head while constructing my home studio.

Towards the end of March 2020, as everything shut down for the COVID-19 pandemic, I found myself needing to create a space at home to get work done. I’ve been the technical support manager for an audio console company for close to 20 years, and last year I added sales duties for that company. I’ve also been on the radio in Houston a couple days a week for the past 17 years or so. Now, with the need to do both of these things from home for possibly an extended period, it was time to build the digital palace.

The Building Blocks

The guts of the home office were here, just in pieces. Two years ago, my wife and I founded LFD Agency, LLC for Laura’s Public Relations agency, LFD Communications. That meant we already had all of the home office infrastructure already in place – internet access and IP phones were not a problem.

When we got married, we had a home office upstairs with a couple of desks. As that room became her full-time workplace, I still had a desk there, but it wouldn’t be a great place to work. It’s really hard for two people to be on different phone/Skype/Zoom/Teams/Webex calls in a 10 x 10 room at the same time. So when I first moved my office home, I took up residence at the dining room table.

Good luck reading copy with a blanket over your head.

While that logistically worked because we weren’t interfering with each others’ work, it couldn’t be a permanent solution. The ceiling, walls, and window in the dining room created an echo chamber, and I needed to do a radio show. I tried using a foam baffle and blanket forts, but it it didn’t sound great. Plus at some point we’d want to have dinner in that room again.

So it was time for a change. We have a craft room that goes largely unused, with a bed that neither of us could remember anyone sleeping on while we have been married. The bed was going to come out, a new desk going in, and the Digital Palace was about to come to life.

I realize that what I have built here is complete overkill. But there is a method to my madness. My job is to help people buy and set up networked audio equipment. Why would I put a Mackie in the corner, especially when I know Audio over IP and having a bunch of AoIP gear at home would mean that I could test new products as we developed them. Let’s build.