Room noise—who would’ve thought it would be so controversial? Ask any post production engineer, and they’ll tell you it’s vital to communicating the realism of a scene, to covering gaps between choppy dialogue, or to give automated dialogue replacement (ADR) something like reality in the context of its often sore-thumb fakeness.
Ask a songwriter, producer, or recording engineer working from home about room noise, however, and you’re likely to hear a different tune—for it is a bane. Our homes were meant for many things—for eating, for sleeping, for hanging out with friends, family, and pets—but they were not meant for recording the cleanest possible audio. And yet, that is what many of us must do. (And for what it’s worth, many opportunities abound to record foley around the house.)
There are things you can do to mitigate the sonic signatures of your beautiful, yet terrible room. Here are a few of them.
1. Pick the best sounding room in the house
This first tip might be the most obvious, but it still bears repeating: find the best sounding room in your house and record there. But what do I mean by best? And how do you go about finding it?
Best doesn’t mean “dead,” though at home, dead usually helps. Still, you will not often find a room that is dead in and of itself. So look for ambiance that suits the need of the recording instead, because ultimately, you’re never going to pad a room in your house to the deadest possible point—not unless you seek help from an acoustician, or are one yourself. You might as well find a room whose characteristics are pleasant and work from there.
What do I mean by pleasant? I mean, as free from odious properties as possible—a room without flutter echoes, frequency buildups, and other drawbacks.
To do this, I recommend you go around your house, walk around the various rooms therein, and do the following: first, clap your hands, listening for flutter reflections. You don’t want these; they sound sort of like a spring boinging from far away, and they have an insidious way of affecting all the audio they’re mixed with.
Having identified the spot with the least possible flutter, use your voice as your next measuring stick. Say the word “haaaa!” shortly, from your chest, and with a bit of gravitas; hear how the room reacts to your voice. Walk about each room and note positions that sound the best. Take the top three contenders, and set up your recording device—say a Spire, for instance—in those very positions within those very same rooms. Now, record yourself clapping your hands once, and saying “haaaa!” again.
When you listen back to the recordings, note the fullness of the sound as it is captured, and the reflection of the room shortly thereafter. You want the fullest sound with the least noticeable amount of audible room reflections. You might have to make some compromises however. For instance, if your favorite room has a window that overlooks a noisy traffic circle, you might consider choosing your second favorite room.
2. Treat the room (if you can)
I realize that treating the room is not only an expensive endeavor—it’s a deeply unsexy one, because it requires a bit of research, and you can’t tweak or twiddle the knobs of room treatment. Still, I recommend treating the room as best you can to minimize potential issues that might earmark your recording as sounding “cheap” down the line.
As we noted above, in home scenarios it is nearly impossible to eliminate room interference entirely, which is why I’m having you find your sonically favorite room first. But once this room is selected, consider any of the following steps:
Buying acoustic treatment and placing it where you need it
Building your own out of fiberglass/rockwool, wood panels, and fabric
Paying someone to treat your home studio
MacGyvering your own solution out of whatever you have around (bookshelves for absorbers; packing blankets to tame flutter). For vocals, GRAMMY-winning recording engineer Brian Warwick suggests getting a few boom mic stands and hanging blankets behind them. This isn’t a perfect solution, but it’s better than…
Skipping this step entirely, at your peril
If you choose step five, well, it’s not impossible to deal with room issues in post. iZotope RX has helped me out of many such binds. But if you can you save yourself time and trouble in the long run by ponying a little up front for room treatment, you’ll be happier for it.
3. Unplug noisy electronics
4. Get close to the mic
Yes, there are trade-offs to getting right up in the microphone’s physical space. A bump in the low midrange comes to mind, as does a tendency to elicit plosives and sibilance. But these effects can be mitigated with EQ and careful editing, or with the use of a pop filter. Mic yourself from farther away, and the sonic signature of the room becomes married to your voice or instrument. Separating room noise from a recording, though not impossible, is usually a game of compromises; this game of compromises is somewhat avoidable with close miking.
5. Put up a baffle
If after all of this you’re still getting undesirable timbres from the room, there’s one thing you can try: baffles. Put up makeshift barriers between the microphone and your room. These can be as simple as packing blankets suspended between two boom stands, under which you record your instrument—a sort of “chuppa” for the marriage between microphone and sound-source.
You can also buy baffles from many retailers, some of which clip onto your mic stand and surround the microphone. These aren’t full iso-booths, of course, but they can get your sound about five to ten percent better, give or take.
Recording acceptably noise-free audio in your home studio is not easy, but also not impossible. With a little planning and a little research, you can drastically reduce the specter of your room. When you do, you’ll find that all the tools you have at your disposal—the EQs, the compressors, the reverbs and more—will be called upon less to correct what you’ve done, and more to accentuate the inherent virtues of your project. In other words, you’ll find yourself playing, rather than fixing—having fun, rather than cleaning up messes.