Does a Home Music Studio Need a Vocal Booth?

When you feel like it’s time you want to improve the quality of your sound by investing some more money in better equipment, it’s often hard to know where to start. 

Does a Home Music Studio Need a Vocal Booth? The need for a vocal booth in your home setup is often unnecessary. Most home music setups don’t provide the space to isolate a section for a properly treated vocal booth. Great sound recordings can be accomplished in a room that has been sound treated at a fraction of the cost. 

Options such as a mounted reflection filter or treating certain spots of your room with alternative materials to acoustic foam (including just simple sheets or comforters), you can get a great quality sounding recording while saving money. Below I will go into more detail on how your room interacts and affects your vocals and the variety of options that are available to provide you the exact quality you’re looking for without the need for a full-on vocal booth.

How a Microphone Works

Before we go into how specifically your room impacts your vocal recording, it’s good to start at the source: how a microphone works.

Essentially, all microphones operate the same way: they contain a diaphragm inside their case, which captures the vibrations in the air such as your voice and any other noise and converts it into an electrical current that is sent to a source for amplification (monitors, speakers, or your DAW).

There are two distinct types of microphones:

  1. Dynamic microphones are rugged, durable types of microphones that require no power to operate and are often used for live performances. This is because they are not as sensitive as condenser microphones to decibel level and higher frequencies, so they are better suited for the often loud environments of a live setting.
  2. Condenser microphones are the type of microphone you will often find in a recording studio setting. They are much more sensitive to more distant sounds and higher frequencies, so they can better capture the range of the human voice but they require more isolation from other noises and unwanted sounds. They also require +48V phantom power to operate, which is provided through an audio interface or pre-amp.

While it is definitely possible to use a dynamic microphone to capture a good vocal take in a recording studio, it is generally much more common to use condenser microphones for vocal recording.

There are a great number of affordable condenser microphones, generally known as “starter” microphones, that produce wonderful recordings without any treating done to your space.

These include the Audio-Technica AT2020 or the Rode NT1-A (which I have and still often use for my demos and some final tracks).

It is also important to have the following things if they did not come included with the microphone, but they generally are included in the package:

  • Pop Filter – A pop filter goes in front of the microphone to reduce the impact of any “plosives”, or hard p, t, k, d, g, and b sounds that produce an unwanted ‘pop’ sound in your vocal recording if they are too loud. A trained vocalist will learn to reduce the impact of these plosive sounds as much as possible anyway, but it is still very good to reduce any unwanted pushes of air towards the microphone.
  • Shock mount – A shock mount suspends the microphone in the air so that it does not pick up any low-frequency rumbles that may vibrate up through the microphone stand from the ground. They may be so low that you cannot hear them, but they can make the vocals sound muddy and less clear, even if you simply EQ out all of the low frequencies. Again, most microphones come with a shock mount and pop filter anyway, so you do not need to think about investing more money into getting these.
  • Audio Interface – An audio interface will not come with the microphone, and will generally cost as much if not more than the microphone itself, but they are required for the mic to function because they provide phantom power. There are simple phantom power supply boxes that can around $25-40$, but they generally do not have the USB adapter to connect the microphone to your DAW. A simple 2-input, 2-output audio interfaces such as the Scarlett 2i2, Steinberg ur22, or Avid Mbox provide you with an affordable interface that allows you to easily control the levels of your input, monitors, and headphones.

A good thing to be aware of when recording vocals is how the distance between the vocalist and the microphone can impact the recording.

If you record vocals 12 inches away from the mic versus 1 inch away from the mic, obviously the recording 1 inch away will be louder.

However, even if the vocalist was able to match the level of their own vocals by singing louder at 12 inches versus singing quieter at 1 inch away, there will still be a noticeably different sound in the recordings.

The closer vocals will sound ‘boxier’, meaning that the microphone captured more air pressure from your voice and they can be too harsh in the 1-2 kHz range as well as the 7-8 kHz range, which leads to sibilance.

Sibilance is the hissing sound produced by harsh ’s’ sounds that can be very discomforting to the ear if they are too loud in the vocal recording.

Often, recording vocals too close will require a lot of corrective EQing to make usable. On the other hand, recording vocals too far away will produce a very thin sounding vocal, and you may find that you didn’t capture enough of the depth or detail in the voice of the artist.

The easy fix is to literally find somewhere in the middle – anywhere from 6-12 inches away from the microphone is generally a good distance.

How Your Room Affects Your Recording

Now let’s bring your room into the mix of vocal recording to see how it can impact your vocal takes.

In a simple explanation, all surfaces reflect sound. It depends on their positioning to the sound source and the material that they are made out of that determine how much they can reflect back into the microphone and affect the actual vocal take.

If you are in a large room, like a church hall or an empty warehouse, you may notice the reverberation or echoes in your voice. This is the result of your voice bouncing around all of the walls and producing an effect based literally on how much time it takes to bounce around each wall and how reflective the walls are.

A small room, such as a closet, won’t produce the same type of reverb as the sound doesn’t take as much time to bounce around, but if the walls are reflective then they will still produce a type of close reverb. In general, you may notice a slight echo or reverb in your home recording studio because untreated walls are made of drywall and are very conducive to reflecting sound.

I’ve been saying the words “treated” and any of its variations a lot. Basically, sound treating or acoustic treating is the process of controlling as much of the sound reflection in a room as possible by absorbing the very unwanted reflections and diffusing others.

This process is done by placing foam panels on specific parts of the wall that serve the purposes of either absorbing any reflection of sound that hits it or diffusing it in another direction. The reason for diffusion is that you do not want a completely dead sounding room that has absolutely no reflection, as this can deter the character of your vocals even in the mixing process.

Sound treatment differs from soundproofing, as soundproofing is a much more hardline process of trying to eliminate any sounds that may come through the walls of the room.

This is a rather expensive process as it involves insulating the walls with dense materials that block out external sounds as well as sealing any holes and gaps in windows or doors. This would be useful if you, for instance, have noisy housemates that do not care about your recording processes.

Either way, it is important to know that sound treatment and soundproofing do two different things: sound treatment allows you to control the sounds produced in the room while soundproofing tries to eliminate any sounds produced outside of the room.

Different Types Of Vocal Setups

Before you decide what option you want to pursue to optimize your vocal setup in your home studio, it is imperative that you are aware of how your room interacts with your microphone.

Do a couple vocal takes in different parts of the room and get a sense of how different walls and positions reflect the sound differently. My basement is a long hall type of room, which would not normally be ideal for recording vocals without proper treatment.

However, due to the carpeting and the positions of my microphone in relation to the walls, I am happy with the sound character of my room even without any treatment. If I feel it is necessary to get a vocal take with some more deadness, i.e. if I am recording a more intimate sounding vocal or a podcast type of vocal, then I will simply put a heavy sheet over the wall in front of the microphone as that will take care of a majority of the reflection.

Another easy solution to deal with a fair amount of reflections is a reflection filter, which is essentially a curved piece of foam that goes behind your microphone and surrounds it in a semi-circle fashion to eliminate as much reflection coming from the circumference of the filter.

If you are not happy with the way your room reflects sounds, then there are a variety of options to consider.

If you were thinking of sectioning off a part of your room or use an available closet and convert it into a vocal booth by installing foam panels all around, just be aware of the size of the room that you are limiting yourself to. You may notice that professional recording studios often have large rooms for their vocals because, for one, they may be used for other recordings such as choirs or instrument sections such as quartets, and also because a good amount of space is often needed to capture the character of a good vocal.

As mentioned earlier, you probably need at least 6-12 inches between the vocalist and the microphone to get a good take, so if the space you are considering does not provide this amount of space then it is probably not recommended as it will be too small.

Also, a good thing to make note of is the level of comfortability one can feel in a vocal booth. If they are too small, the vocalist might feel too confined or claustrophobic to produce a good vocal take.

As much as you need to keep in mind how the room affects the recording, you should also consider how the room affects the comfort of the vocalist because that can often be much more important than the technical aspects.

Often, because home recording setups are not the most generous in free space, the room should just be used as efficiently as possible as a whole to capture the best vocals.

You can rearrange the furniture in your room to diffuse and reflect sound as you may require, and you can even buy some acoustic foam or wool panels if necessary to absorb any tricky reflective spots.

Corners of walls can be the most problematic spots as they trap and reflect unwanted bass sounds. As a result, you can easily purchase a few bass traps as well, which are specifically designed foam panels that will absorb the bass in these corners. With the regular square panels, you can simply move them as you see fit for a recording, or find the trouble spots in your room and place them there.

It really all depends on your needs and goals.

If you have the intention of turning your home recording studio into one that you can charge people to record out of, then you probably want to invest in the more expensive acoustic foam panels for the look of professionalism as well as the guarantee that you are treating your room with the best product available.

However, if you are working on a budget, there are always a number of options available to ensure that you are producing good quality on any level, from free (blankets and sheets can easily do the trick), to $100-$200 (reflection filter or a few foam panels and bass traps), to upwards of $1000-$10000 (creating a full vocal isolation booth).

Personally, in any studio I work out of, I always prefer recording vocals in the mixing room rather than the vocal booth that they have, because those rooms are often treated themselves and I am happier with the character of the sound I get in there. Just remember, a vocal booth is not needed if you simply want to feel like you are legitimizing your home recording setup, because a great song can be produced out of any room with the right priorities in mind.

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