Portable Voice-Over Studio – What You Need to Know

Portable Voice-Over Studio – What You Need to Know

Howdy folks, it’s that time again – time for a haranguing article about audio stuff. Strap yourselves in.

Now, as we have discussed before, most voice over projects can be recorded in the comfort of your own home, without needing to spend up to $20,000 USD building a professional recording studio.

So, if you can record from home, surely you can record not at home, right?

Well, yes!

Obviously nobody is expecting you to dismantle and transport your recording booth, whether it’s homemade or a professionally built isolation booth. However, there are plenty of other options to record while you are away from home, whether you’re on holiday in a hotel room, staying with family, or any of the other reasons normal people leave their homes from time to time.

The Tech

Whether or not you need any extra audio equipment for a portable voice-over studio depends on what you already have in your regular set-up. However, you will need all the same component parts. If you plan to travel a lot, then it could influence what equipment you decide to get.

In short, you will still need: a microphone, an interface, headphones, and some sort of computer.

If you’re travelling, you’ll need portable versions of each of these. Are you getting a flight, or a train? In which case you need to be able to comfortably fit everything in your suitcase. You wouldn’t fancy lugging around a gigantic Pro-Tools HDX interface plus mixing desk, would you?

 

Microphone

Any condenser microphone is portable. They’re not that big. But do you really want to risk a £2,000 ($3,000/€2,500) Neumann U87 being confiscated by security, or your bag being lost, or just being battered around in your bag so much that something breaks? I know I wouldn’t! It would be less risky to use a low-to-mid priced microphone, such as the RØDE NT1-A for travel. If you have a U87 – keep it at home! Many people will only have a more affordable brand of microphone, so you can just take this part of your normal set-up to travel. There’s not always a need for extra equipment!

Rode NT1-A is perfect for a portable voice-over studio

The Rode NT1-A is the perfect microphone for a portable voice-over studio

Another option for travelling is a shotgun mic, like the Sennheiser MKH 416. These microphones have hypercardioid polar responses, which means they only pick up audio from directly in front of them within a very narrow range. This can be ideal for minimising background noise. Shotgun mics like this are primarily used for recording on film sets, but they can be used for VO too.

NOTE: I recommend you avoid USB microphones at all costs. While it may be easy for portability, since you can forgo the need for an interface altogether, there is a saying a wise man (me) once said:

“Getting a USB microphone will usually be a compromise on quality, leading to an increase in background noise on your recordings and less sensitivity in picking up quiet sounds.”

Such wisdom!

Anyway, the moral of the story is the antithesis of the Nike slogan: JUST DON’T DO IT.

 

Interface

Leading on from that brief intermission is consideration of the interface. As with microphones, these are generally all portable too, but it depends slightly more which one you get. A single track Behringer U-Phoria UM2 USB audio interface (£30/$39.99/€37) is more than enough inputs for voice over, and is tiny enough to fit in some large coat pockets. I wouldn’t recommend recording in a coat though. It’ll be too rustly. However, if you have something more substantial in your home studio, such as a Pro-Tools HDX interface, or a 500 series Lunchbox with a load of fancy analogue pre-amps, you will probably not want to be packing that all up and taking it with you.

It takes  a lot of time to install and cable up bigger bits of equipment, so you’ll definitely want something light and small for travel. Sticking to a one or two track USB interface is wise.

 

Headphones

Next we have the headphones. Most of you will take headphones with you while you travel. I can’t imagine how bored I would be on a flight without them. However, a lot of you will use earphones, like those that come with an iPhone, for ease of portability. As I went into more detail in my previous article about headphones, there are certain types you should generally avoid for voice-over recording and audio editing in general. These include ALL earphones, noise cancelling headphones, and wireless headphones. In the interests of portability, and the inevitably temporary nature of any travelling set-up, it is acceptable to use some of these headphones if that is all you can take. I would always recommend using decent over-ear headphones in every situation, including for non-work related stuff. I personally use my Sennheiser HD-25s for everything, including listening to music while travelling. But if you’re really short on space, the microphone, interface and computer take priority.

Sennheiser HD 25 Lite being worn in travel

Like this chap, I love my Sennheiser HD 25 Lite headphones and will wear them anywhere.

 

Laptop & software

Now. Finally, the computer. Arguably the most complicated purchasing decision you will have to make. Some of it comes down to your choice of audio recording software. But there is one key thing to consider if you want to travel: portability. I would always recommend getting a Mac over a PC for audio recording and editing purposes, for various complex reasons outlined in my separate article dedicated to the topic, but you have to also consider which type of computer to get.

For single track audio recording for VO, an average, low-priced PC laptop will be perfectly suitable. A Macbook will be considerably more expensive, but it gives you reliability and scalability that a cheap PC laptop would not. If you are planning on travelling a lot, you need to be agile in your recording set-up (this could also apply not permanent home set-ups, such as recording in different rooms in your house), then you would be best getting a laptop even if a desktop normally provides more power for the same cost.

There are other options, such as the Zoom H6, which is a portable recorder. However, these are costly to the extent that you may as well get a cheap PC laptop and a free DAW. The audio recorders also don’t have audio editing capabilities, so you won’t be able to fully deliver a project with this. You’ll also still need a computer of some sort to send the files to anyone! These are options, but aren’t really recommended or any more convenient than those already outlined.

Audio Editing Laptop

You can’t beat the portability of a laptop. Invest in a quality machine and it will last years.

Quick recap

You need:

  • a decent, but not super pricey microphone (along with a mic stand and pops shield, as usual)
  • a 1 or 2 track audio interface
  • a decent set of headphones (preferably), or at least earphones
  • a laptop

But what about the recording environment? Well, I’m glad you asked. This requires its own section and here it is.

 

The Recording Environment

You may be thinking, “how can a recording environment be portable”? Well, that’s a not entirely unreasonable thing to think, but it’s really beside the point. Of course you can’t transport a recording environment. That’d be ridiculous. The point is: it is possible to create a decent recording environment wherever you may find yourself, and there’s a few things you need to consider to achieve this.

First up: location. If you’re on holiday, then you need to find somewhere quiet to record. This may be tricky if you’re on the ground floor in a hotel room, but try and find the quietest bit (even if it may be the bathroom!), shut the windows, and do your best. If it is impossible to find a quiet environment wherever you are, whether it’s in your hotel room or somewhere else, then you cannot record there. Never accept a job saying you are able to record without checking the locations suitability first.

Once you’ve sorted out your location, you need to consider the acoustic treatment, or sound quality.

You naturally won’t have as much control over it as you would in your professionally setup home studio, but the principles of acoustic treatment basics still apply wherever you may be. There’s not really any need to bring acoustic foam panels around with you, as you can’t exactly stick them on the walls in your friend’s house, or a hotel. However, some basic sound absorption from duvets and pillows will work perfectly well. The old reliable SE Reflexion filter will often be good enough, if you’re in a room that’s not too reverberant, but remember that the gap at the top at bottom of these filters still leaves room for reflections. If you’re in the bathroom, for example, because it’s the most isolated area of the house or hotel room, the reflections from tiles can cause unpleasant reflections to be recorded. Just hanging a duvet over your head, keeping very still, and taking regular breaks if you get too hot, can be a huge help!

TOP TIP: hanging a large diaphragm condenser microphone upside down, over the top of something like the SE Reflexion Filter can reduce the ceiling reflections, and mean you just have to have a rug on the floor (or record on a thickly carpeted surface) underneath to reduce the other vertical reverberance. This is because the body of the microphone absorbs many of the reflections before it gets to the diaphragm which picks up the recording. The video linked below shows how it’s done:

The other thing to consider is ensuring you maintain the correct microphone technique. This underlies everything in all recordings, and is just as important here. You may have to be even more careful of the distance between yourself and the microphone if you are in an unfamiliar environment.

Some voice actors have suggested recording in their car as an ad-hoc environment. While the sound quality (more on that below) of a car may be alright, due to it’s lack of flat, reflective interior surfaces, there’s no space to stand up, and your equipment will all have to be close together. Where will power come from? You’ll have to rely on your laptop battery. Your laptop will also have to be in the car with you, and the fan will inevitably be very noisy. There’s no point having an environment that blocks all outside noise if there’s noise inside it anyway! Your microphone technique will also suffer as a result of being unable to stand. Recording in a car is not recommended.

Quick Recap

So for the environment you really need to consider:

  • quiet location in the room/building
  • acoustic treatment of some sort (get creative!)
  • microphone technique

If you follow these points when recording remotely, then you can do it cheaply and effectively with much of the same equipment you’d use in your home studio! Being available at all times can hugely increase the amount of voice over work you receive and ensure you don’t miss a lucrative opportunity. Creating a “travel VO kit” is strongly recommended.


More useful articles by Alex:

Everything you need to deck out your home studio professionally, whatever your budget.

 

Featured picture is of Syrian voice actor, Aghyad.