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5 Tips to Record Professional-Quality Voice Over at Home

by Nick Messitte, iZotope Contributor July 6, 2020
Learn how to capture professional-quality VO from home.

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Whether you’re an actor, podcaster, streamer, or spoken word artist of any sort, it’s important to have solutions to the many challenges recording from home poses. All of us want to achieve results so good, so polished that no one could tell we recorded in our bedrooms. But how?

In the video below, re-recording mixer and engineer Alex Knickerbocker breaks down the process of recording VO at home.

After watching the video, keep scrolling for five additional tips to help achieve a professional-quality VO recording at home—including room treatment, signal flow, mic technique, and more.

1. Room treatment matters

How have you treated your room?

Room treatment is very, very important. It might not be the sexiest thing to spend your money on, but I firmly believe it’s the single most important expense for achieving a quality sound at home.

It doesn’t matter if you use a cheap USB mic, an SM57 into a pro-sumer interface, or an expensive mic plugged into a boutique preamp that feeds a mastering-grade converter. If you don’t have a room that is quiet and free from unwanted frequency buildups, you’re not going to get a good result.

Yes, you must treat the space. How you do this is dependent on the space you’re using for recording, as well as your chosen profession.

Recording with a lot of emotion? Give yourself room

Are you an actor or book narrator? Emoting is key in these jobs, and so is an environment free from room noise. Consider treating a whole room, rather than a closet or small section, so you are able to emote freely without bumping into the walls. Personally, I’ve had good results implementing the techniques at the beginning of this article, which also has further resources for room treatment ideas. If you’re going for an all-in-one, purchasable solution, I’d choose something like a Whisper Room over an Isovox.

Recording for radio or podcasts? Consider a smaller space

Conversely, if you are a podcast presenter, a smaller environment may work better, and may be more cost-effective. The method of sitting in a walk-in closet and ensconcing yourself between thick duvet covers mounted over mic stands can be somewhat effective in treating high-frequency and midrange-frequency issues. Just make sure you have enough room and light to read your copy. 

As for podcasters, the setup depends on the nature of your product. If it’s a one-person podcast, you’re more akin to a radio presenter, and you can deaden a smaller space accordingly. If it’s a two-way setup, you’ll need more room to maneuver, which means you’ll probably need to go with the actor/narrator approach.

Twitch streamers probably have it the worst (as in, the most complicated) because streaming usually involves a video component to consider when creating a recording setup.

2. It’s never as quiet as you think

Silence is golden

All the treatment in the world won’t matter if your room isn’t quiet. What do I mean by quiet? Quiet means free from noise that comes from machines, the outside world, and other people. But tuning out the outside world can be a matter of exorbitant expense. Often, professional studios are built with floated floors, walls, and ceilings to mitigate the outside world. 

Here, seek a compromise: perhaps a walk-in closet really would shut out the street noise, and maybe it’s worth it, even though it doesn’t have as good of a sound as a different room in the house.

Minimize the noise within your control. If your fridge makes noise, unplug it for the duration of the recording. Likely, you’ll have to forgo the air conditioner. Often the mic can pick up the sound of your computer. Here, longer cable runs from the studio machine might be necessary, or, if you don’t have space, you might need to purchase a hard disk recorder and plug your mic into that.

For actors, narrators, and radio presenters, quietude is especially key, so you must do whatever you can to minimize machine noise. Podcasters have some leeway: nobody is going to judge Marc Maron or Chapo Trap House on their room noise. Streamers are more in control of any music bed that underpins their video. If there is a music bed or the underlying sound of a video game in your stream, you can have leeway to be a little noisier, so long as you can mask the noisiness with your existing soundbed.

Note: If you encounter a scenario where avoiding noise is impossible, try the various noise treatment modules of RX 7!

3. In all signal paths, go for transparency over color

When it comes to gear, the goal is not mojo or warmth, but cleanliness—a low signal-to-noise ratio and a clear/present sound are more valuable to the production than all the harmonic saturation in the world.

Priorities are also different when it comes to your high end: a vocal with soaring trebles may be perfect for an RnB recording, but for an audiobook, a podcast, a commercial voice over, and other similar media, trebles need not be so awe-inspiring. High, whispery tones can become distracting and hard to listen to in a spoken word context. You’ll notice this if you ever compare a podcast recording against a vocal in a piece of music.

Here I’d like to highlight the signal path iZotope included in their at-home recording device, Spire Studio.

The preamps are fashioned by Michael Grace, a designer well-known for his ability to secure a transparent signal chain. The clarity and pristine nature of these preamps shine. Here is an example I recorded with Jesse Willard, who was mic'd on an SM57 going through a Spire, while I was mic’d with a much more expensive microphone in a treated room:

Spire Studio Comparison

All of this is to show off the importance of a clean signal path when capturing a vocal for voice overs. If you’re looking for a new bit of kit for this purpose, you’d do well going for an interface known for its transparent signal path, rather than for something vibey.

Infographic for recording signal flow
The typical signal flow when recording

For actors and narrators, the signal path you choose should be both easy to set up and transparent in sound. Your choices depend on the factors we’ve already covered. Working alone in a treated room with quiet gear? A quality USB microphone could be all you need. Working with others in a treated room with quiet gear? An audio interface with enough channels to accommodate the number of microphones you’ll need is your best bet.

Microphone choice matters

You might do better to eschew the fancy large diagram condenser mics often used in recording singing, and to utilize the broadcast dynamic microphones typically reserved for speech. The Shure SM7b or the EV RE20 are stalwart mics for this purpose. Your setup here should follow the same considerations no matter your project: the room, the quietude of machinery, and number of people being recorded. 

Streamers, however, might want to consider the aesthetics: if you want a more clear and present sound, the mic will be right in the shot, right in your face. If you don’t want the mic in the shot, you can pull it further back, but you will pick up more room tone, and you’d do well to make sure your room is treated and quiet. 

4. Hone your mic technique

Mic technique is always important, but when the vocal is the only thing on display, the technique is even more important. You want a full and healthy sound without any faults from bad cables, overt sibilance, or distracting plosives. Here are three tips:

  1. I recommend investing in a windscreen for your microphone. Some engineers don’t use a windscreen when recording sung vocals, because it can soften the high-end. I don’t find that to be a hindrance in voice-over recording.
  2. Your biggest obstacle when recording vocals in a treated room at home will be minimizing the audible effects of the location. Not room noise, per se, but room ambience. Even a well-treated bedroom or living room can add ambiance to signal. So, use close-mic techniques to your advantage.
  3. A lot of broadcast dynamic microphones operate in a cardioid polar pattern. Many condensers do as well. If you can, try a cardioid pattern first, and speak anywhere between four and six inches away from the capsule, as this will help you overpower the room.

To demonstrate this last point, here is my voice in a treated home-studio room, using a USB microphone plugged into a laptop, recorded about 12 inches away from the capsule.

12 Inches

This is my voice in the same room, about six inches from the capsule.

6 Inches

Finally, this is what it sounds like when I speak about three inches away from the capsule.

3 Inches

You’ll note there are positive and negative aspects to each of the closer examples, so try to find the best compromise that works for you. You’ll find that if you speak directly into the mic (on-axis), you might hear unwanted high-frequency harshness or sibilance. It might be aggravating whenever you say a word with the letter S or F in it.

You can experiment in tamping down sibilance in the recording stage. Simply repeat the word “sibilance” into a mic while moving around the capsule, going from addressing the mic dead-on straight (on-axis), or address the capsule diagonally (off-axis). The optimal position will be one where you don’t lose too much presence, but you aren’t ripping your ears off with sibilance.

Sibilance

5. Consider investing in audio restoration software

Even in the most treated rooms, you can run into issues that would demand audio repair software like RX 7. A burst of low end could ruin the best, liveliest take. De-plosive would fix this in a second. Maybe you forgot to eat your apple (to reduce mouth noises), or you just drank a big ole glass of water; you’d want Mouth De-click to get that out.

In home environments with bespoke treatment, you’re apt to run into sonic irregularities sometimes, so it’s good to have software such as RX7 to fall back on. Actors and narrators can de-noise their environments within reason, or even reduce the amount of apparent reverb, to make their takes fit better in the finished product. Podcasters won’t have to retake entire conversations because of one fiddly bit of audio. Streamers can open their music beds in RX, open Music Rebalance, and reduce the vocal melody in their soundbed, so they’re not competing with another vocal. The uses for this software are endless and often quite necessary, especially when recording at home.

Bonus pro tip: Capture dedicated room noise at the end of your recordings 

Always record room tone around your takes, even if it’s only ten seconds of relative silence. That way, you’ll be able to feed RX audio to help it learn what to fix. Use this room tone when implementing De-Noise (Spectral or Voice), or Ambience Match

The takeaways

That about does it for tips on recording professional quality voice over at home—at least for the space we have here. I’ll leave you with one last plea to treat your room: it really makes a difference; it is more than half the battle.

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