Q It Up: Room Noise: How Do You Deal With It?

Q-It-Up-Logo-sep95Q It Up: Not every studio has the luxury of an isolated sound booth for recording voice tracks. If you’re one of the unfortunate who has the talent’s microphone in the same room with the recording equipment, what do you do to reduce the room noise? Do you use a noise gate? What are the settings? Do you use acoustic material around the microphone, perhaps some portable acoustic walls? Describe your setup. Please include any other tips you might have for recording the cleanest, most noise-free voice tracks in your studio.

Dave Foxx [foxx[at]z100.com], Z100 Radio, New York: Ah, room noise—the bane of any serious recording engineer. While a noise gate can help some, and a noise reduction system, like DNR (Dynamic Noise Reduction - a ProTools plug-in) can help even more, nothing beats a really quiet, almost anechoic room with a good mic and pre-amp. Unfortunately, this is radio, and the present climate in the broadcasting business seldom leaves room for such a “luxury.”

One would think that at Z100, arguably one of the biggest stations in the world, we would have the best of the best, and in most things we do, but this ain’t one, gang. Our mics hang right over the console, just like most other radio stations. So, we DO have to take special measures.

The first is microphone placement and pickup pattern. I use a butterfly pattern (the little sideways eight) which really damps the signal from the sides of the mic in a much more narrow pattern than cardioid or super-cardioid ever would. As long as the noisy gear is on a ninety-degree angle to the pattern, we lose something like 75 to 80 percent of the noise. Usually, what with music and effects in the mix, this is sufficient.

There are times though, when the voice is hanging out there, and we have to resort to DNR, then a gate. I use DNR first because it removes noise in a uniform manner rather than adjusting the gain, which tends to clip the attack and decay, making it sound artificial. This can reduce noise quite a bit, sometimes enough to move on from there, depending on the mic technique the voice talent uses. One has to be cautious with DNR because using too steep a reduction can cause digital artifacts that make the voice sound worse than hearing noise ever was.

If it’s STILL not enough, I’ll resort to a gate. By this time, I usually have the noise floor down to around -55db, so I’ll set the threshold at -52db or so, fastest attack available, and a decay set at around 100ms just to help smooth it out. Honestly, if you don’t have the noise gone by then, you might as well just add a music bed...or talk the boss into that announce booth.

Pete Jensen [PETEJ[at]kxly.com]: Clean? Noise-free? HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! WOOOO! That’s a good one! HOHOHOHO, you’re crackin’ me up here! We can see the noise floor on the monitor! We’ve done spots with jackhammers in the background! We can hear people talking in the hallway outside the studio!

Seriously, we are in the process of constructing new studios, thus the jackhammers (and saws, which, by the way, are really loud), and the plan is to isolate all the drives in a separate, ventilated area; and we are indeed building an isolation booth. Our budget won’t allow for state of the art, but at the very least, we are hoping we won’t see the noise floor on the monitors anymore!

Craig Jackman [craigj[at]canada.com], CHEZ, Ottawa, Canada: I’ve had the pleasure of both situations—having the voice talent in-studio with me, and having an isolated booth. To minimize noise with the talent in with me, I do several things. First, I try to position as many noisy things as I can in one area. This allows me to position the mic so that the null in the pattern faces the noise. Second, I use acoustic foam treatments where I can so that the room doesn’t sound like a tin can—not enough to make the room completely dead, just enough to take the ring out. Third, make sure you don’t move or squeak your chair. Also, breathe quietly, and don’t rattle papers or clear your throat. Lastly, make sure that your voice talent uses proper mic technique to make the most of their read.

Craig Debolt [CRAIGMARYD [at]aol.com], WROQ/WTPT, Greenville/Spartanburg, SC: Aside from those who are lucky enough to be in a union situation, I believe in most radio studios, the mics are in the room with the producer. I use the Yamaha SPX1000 with an edited compressor routine. I have the noise gate set to 1.5 expanded ratio, and that does the trick. Most of our “noisy” computer fans, etc. are housed in cabinets that limit their room noise. Windscreens over the RE-20s help to reduce the lighter noise. And, there’s not enough Sonic foam on the planet to keep from hearing our afternoon lady screaming down the hall!

Donnie Marion [dmarion[at]104 krbe.com]: I have the microphones in the studio—AT4033 AudioTechnica mics. The noisiest things in the studio are the computers and hard drives. The AC vent used to be a problem, but somehow (I’ve forgotten—9 1/2 years in one room is a long time), I don’t hear that noise anymore. Each mic is fed into its own Symetrix 528E Voice Processor. I’ve set the ‘Downward Expander’ section for my mic (nearest all the noise) so that the expander threshold is zero. I got to this setting by putting on my headphones, opening the mic, and as I began to read, I set the input to a point where the clip light came on. Then I backed off until the light stopped coming on. Then I stopped talking and turned the downward expander knob until the room noise went away, almost. It was set at zero. The talent mic is further away from the noise (by almost 4 feet) and is set up the same way, except the downward expander knob is set to about 3 o’clock. For the most part, that keeps the room noise out of the voice tracks.

Ric Gonzalez [Ric.Gonzalez[at]cox .com], CBI/San Antonio: The first station I ever worked for was in a small Texas town. We had two prod rooms and no voice booth. We also never had a client come in and voice a spot, and every jock was capable of being his/her own producer. But in today’s larger markets, you have certain talents, as per their contract, that cannot touch a board. These jocks have to be produced. You need a voice booth for this. Also, most times, these days, you seldom have a sales rep or sales manager try to discourage a client from being his/her own voice talent. You need a booth for this. We have 3 Orban Audicy equipped prod rooms and are working on our 4th. Each of the three studios is connected to a voice booth. I don’t take this for granted. I realize I am very lucky. But, I wonder how many OMs and PDs read this publication and don’t realize that if you are going to agree to an air personality’s request that he or she not “physically” do production then you are going to need a voice booth. The same applies to sales managers. If you are going to have clients and agencies come in and record, then you are creating the need for a voice booth. If you create the need, then it is up to you to work it in your capital expenditure budget.

Ok, now that I got that off my chest. Let me say that occasionally we experience noise problems in a prod room (not the voice booths.) This is usually because there are so many computers in a production room these days. All your hear are PC fans and motors. We are working on setting the hard drives for the Orbans in a separate room. But until then, cutting back on the compression and using the gate does help a bit. This would only work with a trained talent and not a client or so called “actor” the agency brought in. They speak too low and have no microphone technique. While this won’t totally eliminate all the noise, it can help when you have to produce that morning guy or gal.

Jeff Berlin [jberlin[at]jberlin.com], WXKS Boston, MA: Before I bought a WhisperRoom sound isolation enclosure, I used to turn off every piece of equipment that had a fan running, then record to DAT. This meant pulling the plug on the computer, hard drive, expansion chassis, Denon CD players, cart machines—and sometimes I’d even go to the circuit breakers and kill the ventilation. If the voice track wasn’t critical, I’d simply block the noise of the computer with foam and position the mic facing away from the computer noise.

Steele, Jack [jacks[at]amfm.com], Clear Channel/Birmingham, AL: We’ve got three rooms, and right now one is set up for two voices or an engineer/board op and one other voice. We’ve gotten corp. approval for the set up of a fourth room, which will be a glorified dub center. We’ll stick an RE-20 in there perhaps for voices we don’t need or want in the other room. We use a Symetrix 528E processor, which if you use two mics has a button to eliminate the hollow/room echo effect. We do have extensive acoustic material on the walls of all prod rooms, and those eliminate the room sound well enough for now.

Mark Planiden [mark[at]chetradio .com], CHET FM, Chetwynd, BC, Canada: I used to use Goldwave as a DAW. It had a pretty good noise reduction filter preset into it. Run the voice through it and it sounded decent on most mid range voices. Bassier voices didn’t do so well. We use Cool Edit Pro now, and it has a more configurable noise reduction filter (as I’m sure you’re aware), but I have yet to find a really good setting. I use it occasionally. We use a cheap mic that looks like a Shure SM-58, but isn’t. I can’t remember the name on it. It doesn’t pick up a whole lot of noise (as much as some other mics we’ve tried). I try to shut down as many things as I can in the room—fans, monitors, anything electric. That seems to help a bit (duh). Also, I’ve found that even if the room is a little noisy, it depends on where the mic is placed. Sometimes there are holes where it won’t hear the room noise so much. Finally, the better the talent knows how to talk into a mic, the better the S/N ratio and the better it sounds. If you can keep the mic fader low and the talent is loud, then all the power to ya. If noise is recorded, and it can’t be filtered out with a DAW or other equipment, find the right music bed and hope it covers it up.

Thanks for the opportunity to be a part of the magazine, rather than just a subscriber.

Don Elliot [voiceovers[at]earthlink.net]: In the production room designated as “A”, there are 3 announce mikes, two across the table facing AWAY from the fan noise, maybe 12 feet from the nearest fan, and it is quite satisfactory. When I went to work there, I drilled a hole into the adjacent news booth wall, epoxied it, and rigged a Sennheiser 416 on a wall mount boom to save floor space. (My competitive mike of choice; I carry one in my pants at all times.) This gets me an iso booth for free—speakerphone as intercom, or wear headphones. I prefer working in the booth. I can back off from the mike further, and it can still sound like I’m whispering in her ear in a queen-size bed—more on that in a minute. (The mike, not HER).

My home studio is another matter. I use the gating on the 528 mike processor, and it is sweet. Although you can hear it drop out on the trailing end of words when you wear headphones, it is unnoticeable on speakers, and I ALWAYS get comments about the “acoustics” (actually lack of...) of my “booth” and how quiet it is. Then, it is necessary to add a little natural room reverb. I like the large plate and large room sound of the SawPro effect, but not so it’s really audible. It’s just enough so that if you turn it OFF, you’ll notice how dead the mike is. I hope you understand. I use Aphex the same way. If you can really hear it, it’s too much. But do an A-B after a few seconds of hearing it ON, and you’ll notice a difference.

I like a little “air” around the voice, so it makes my settings very difficult to get just right, but the dividends in the payoff are stunning and unbeatable! Just MAYBE (ha) you’ve heard that “disc-jockey” sound with the mike halfway up the nostrils, with every breath, every mouth click, every p-pop that happens amplified a few million times over. Gee, so we wonder why jocks don’t get national voiceover jobs. Part of it is not being able to read, but the dead giveaway is the jock-mike sound. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, listen to Howard Stern’s mike sound. This is cool for what he’s doing, but there is too much emphasis on it. The game is that he wants the most presence, and the other mikes in the room might as well be telephones or pea-shooters by comparison. Sorry Howard, I’m not pickin’ on you. I know that game; it’s cool. It’s a “king of the hill” sound, and I agree with that philosophy for what you’re doing there, but it’s the best example I can show for what I’m describing on the commercial end of things to NOT do in this arena.

So, that’s the benefit of a booth.

I just did the post on a wedding video for Hollywood starlet Alison Sweeney, and needed to mike a v/o and a grand piano in a living room that was like a live cave. If you are faced with that kind of acoustic, throw in a piece of overstuffed furniture, some pillows, curtains, and whatever else will soak up sound for the occasion.

But in an area YOU control in your own digs, if you have the choice of foam or barriers, gobos, panels, or whatever, use the 4" foam, NOT the 1 or 2". Why? Because if you use the small foam, that soaks up all the highs. Simple math will tell you what’s left—a lotta bass. It’s the same as taking a graphic EQ and boosting the tubby reverb low end—it gets muddy. But if you take 4" foam, it rolls off a little more meat below 500 Hz, and that will make your ears a lot happier in making a nicer, flatter room to work in that won’t over-color the mike sound.

The Owens-Corning 900 series fiberglass panels are really cool and have a coefficient of absorption over twice that of foam, and you can buy enough to do a wall (8' x 15') for around $60. Call or email me if you can’t find a distributor. A local place here will UPS it. Then, just stretch cloth over it and staple it. Cover that with some furring strips if it’s a showplace. The cloth should be acoustically transparent. To test for that, hold a piece up to your ear and LISTEN thru it! Then blow through it. If it passes that test, and your wallet can handle it, then you’re on the plus side in the decorator end as well! Fabric isn’t cheap. I was paying $30/yd. When Westlake Audio built my first studio in the ‘80s. (I had more money then!). When they wouldn’t tell me who the mill was where they got their fabric, I went into their trash one Friday night and learned their supplier: Solar Mills in Chicago—$2.95/sq. yd. And YOU can buy it there for that price too. They do the supplying to the car manufacturers for grille cloth, as well as the major studio construction contractors. Y’all owe me one for that one! (I take my steak medium well and only if it’s corn-fed—once a year on a trip, otherwise, I’m nearly a vegan.) By the way, I’m no handyman either; I hate power tools. If I can do it, you can too. And put the savings into your “funny-money “ rat hole.

Tom Richards Voiceovers [TomRVO[at] email.msn.com]: Good question for those of us with a project studio. I have two noise sources: my PC and my room. The PC’s fan makes noise, and the room has reflections. I handle it with sound treatment and software. My system is goofy, but effective. I have a sheet of egg shell-type treatment that’s around 10 x 4 feet, and when it’s time to record, I wrap it around my chair in a circle, drop my mic over the top, and huddle in my little cocoon. Voila! No noise, either from the PC or the room. But just to be extra sure, I use Sonic Foundry’s Noise Reduction 2.0 plug-in, which has saved my butt more times than I can convey. First,  I record the ambient noise. Then I fire up NR and “tell” it that it’s seeing noise that I want to remove by, say, 12 db—essentially, it’s a noise print. Then, whenever I want to make things nice and quiet, I just “subtract” the noise print from my file, and I’m good to go. You have to be careful not to be too greedy, because if you throw it too far, NR can wreck your file. But once you learn its limits, it’s a powerful tool. And getting there’s half the fun, isn’t it?

Johnny George [JG[at]johnnygeorge. com], Susquehanna Indianapolis: Fortunately, our computers and other noisy items are isolated under and enclosed within our furniture that houses my setup in my Imaging studio. I do use a gate on the mic with a very slow gate as to not pop in and out. However, since most all of my work incorporates background music, effects etc., this has never been a major topic of concern. Both my room and the other “production” studios have engineered acoustic tiles on the walls and ceiling. However, if you are offering to install an isolated booth in any of our studios - let’s talk!

Dean Tyler [Deansvoice[at]aol.com], WYPT/Voice & Vision Productions, Ft. Myers, FL: My mics are in my studio. So with a combination of Aurelex sound proofing on the walls, my mics set up away from my computer tower, settings on a variety of mic processors, and if needed, some adjustments on the voice tracks after they have been laid down in SawPro or Cool Edit Pro, I have had little or no trouble with noise on straight voice tracks. I did at one point take some extra Aurelex panels I had and built a “house” that covered my computer tower to keep the noise down, but I have since built a new, quieter computer and given the “house” to my 11 month old daughter to play in!

Adam Garey [gareyport[at]hot mail.com], KMET-AM, Banning, CA: For time’s sake and to avoid pulling out vital hair from my brain, I think it makes best sense to bring the noise to zilch before I even record. Sure, you can use anti-noise hardware and software, but if you 1) want to save the time of adjusting and readjusting and 2) do not have such gear, then get in a small room. I record in a trailer, and the production table is in a compact area. Right now, the main use I have is straight voice. So I use FUNNELING! The old fashioned-way still works and saves time. I just keep my copy shielding my voice path toward the mic and voila! Sure, it makes sense to be comfortable when you voice your own stuff and let the knobs and levels clean you up, but I have learned it is like painting a house. The more precautions and prep you do before your recording, the better the result. I have worked in a totally carpeted room minus the ceiling and had great results. Keep the phones out.

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