The Sound ... of Silence
Updated: Jan 16, 2019
Voiceover artists who tackle recording and production in their own home studios not only have to worry about what clients DO want to hear ... but also what they DON'T. Here are a few thoughts about silence for both creators and purchasers of voiceover work.
Talking about music, Miles Davis once said: "It's not the notes you play...it's the notes you don't play." Similarly, in voiceover production, the sounds you don't hear are just as important as those that you do.
For voiceover producers—and clients who don't have the time or budget to hire studios like the illustrious Chicago Recording Company—the quality of the silence in recordings can be just as much of an issue as the quality of the sound.
Why? Because achieving silence in a home-recording setting is really, really hard.
Most voiceover clients, including online job sites like ACX, Voicebunny, Voices.com, voice123.com, and the like, expect voice talent to be able to achieve a silence level, or "noise floor,"of around -60 dB. Getting to that level of silence is the home voiceover producer's first hurdle.
You don't realize how much ambient noise your house generates until you fire up a nice, sensitive condenser microphone. Furnaces, refrigerators, street traffic, dogs barking, jets flying overhead...it ALL gets picked up. Even the air seems to generate a low-level ambient tone that nobody wants to hear in their recordings.
The only way to truly get rid of all that noise is to seal it out. And then, once you've sealed out the external sound, you have to properly insulate the space inside to eliminate unwanted echoes and boxy-sounding low frequencies.
An entire industry has sprung up to help up-and-coming voiceover artists tackle the problem of silence. Search "soundproof voiceover studio" on YouTube, and you can spend an entire lifetime watching voiceover pros like the guy at Booth Junkie review products and share soundproofing tips. For folks who can afford the investment, Whisper Room sells high-quality, prefabricated soundproof rooms, ranging in price from $4,000 all the way up to $15,000 and beyond. For people with more time and carpentry skills than cash, Dawbox.com sells blueprints to soundproof rooms you can build yourself.
A big part of the VO production battle is keeping unwanted sounds out of your recordings. And whether you're on the production or the client side of the voiceover industry, silence is something you should be very concerned about.
Here are some tips about silence for clients looking for voiceover talent:
Ideally, you're working with a video producer, and you won't have to worry about the quality of the sound or the silence. The producer will simply present you with some samples from talent they've vetted for experience and quality. You pick the voice you like, and you're done.
But on small teams, the task of picking out the voiceover talent on a video, trade show or ad project can fall into anybody's lap. I work a lot as a copywriter, and I've had to pick voice talent on a couple of video projects I've worked on.
If you're using an online platform like Voices.com, Voice123.com, Fiverr.com, Upwork.com, Freelancer.com, etc. to find your voice talent, sound-quality levels will vary wildly. You're going to hear everything from the guy who just bought a $60 USB mic recording in his bedroom, to an award-winning actor in a $500,000 studio.
When you're listening to voiceover demos, the bare minimum you want to listen for is whether or not they've mastered the basic problem of silence. If you're listening to a demo and you're hearing background "air" noise, furnace or AC hum, electronic buzzing, room echo and the like, move on. This talent is still learning the craft, figuring out the studio, and isn't ready to deliver.
Here are some tips about silence for up-and-coming voiceover talent:
As I said earlier, attaining that noise floor is going to be one of your first hurdles. Claim a recording space in the house, preferably a closet or small bedroom, and get a lot of moving blankets. When I decided to give VO a go, I claimed a storage closet in the bottom corner of our basement. Then, I lined every inch of it with moving blankets. The walls, the floor and the ceiling. I made it into a "cocoon" of moving blankets. It was pretty cozy.
Now, this didn't block out very much outside sound. The basement location helped a little, but not much. What it did provide was a nice, padded, "dead" sound, with no room echoes. To achieve real silence, I had to turn off the furnace/ac unit in our house. Whenever a car drove by or a jet flew overhead (I live right in the flight landing path of O'Hare Airport), I'd have to stop recording. Whenever my wife ran a faucet upstairs, I had to stop recording. Whenever the dogs started barking, I had to stop recording. So, getting a good recording took a while.
If you're patient, you can create a quiet enough environment using moving blankets and other insulating items to make your first decent-quality recordings, and even make some money. In that room, I was the "voice" of my last employer, cranking out VO for a series of corporate videos. And one of my first decent-paying independent jobs was an Upwork gig recording a series of training videos for a major auto manufacturer—also in the cocoon.
Using noise reduction and other plugins available on DAW software like Audacity, Logic Pro X and Adobe Audition can be helpful if you're working in less-than optimal conditions. What I found though, is that the noise reduction in my favorite DAW, Adobe Audition, starts to take frequencies out of my voice if the background noise it's trying to scrub out is too prominent. Then my voice wouldn't sound as good. It'd often sound thinner. Then I'd find myself endlessly trying to tweak EQs, compressors, etc. to try to get my high-quality voice tone back. And the end result would start to sound too produced and "messed around with." The lesson I learned is that the quieter the recording environment (and the better your microphone...), the less fussing you have to do with the voice recording in post-production and mixing. It makes for a lot less work, and better-sounding audio.
My basement moving-blanket cocoon was a great starting setup. But to do more work, for more clients, I was going to need to achieve a more serious level of silence.
Some thoughts and tips on attaining professional-grade silence:
If you're getting serious about recording voiceover and want to compete for decent-paying work, you've got to tackle the silence problem once and for all, so you can work for hours uninterrupted.
If you've got a lot of start-up capital, you can have a studio consultant do a big-time construction/soundproofing job on a room in your house. Most at-home pros either remodel a room as a studio, invest in something like a Whisper Room, or build their own isolation booth using techniques found in DAWbox blueprints.
I was just about to build a DAWbox when I experienced somewhat of a miracle. The price on used Whisper Room that I'd been watching for months on eBay dropped dramatically, from $5,000 to a little more than what I was going to spend on DAWbox materials. I won the auction. Then I rented a U-Haul, drove the five hours to St. Louis, and picked up the Whisper Room—a 2,000-lb. stack of wall panels on a pallet. Then I drove it home.
Many of the dense, heavy, felt-covered panels weigh close to 100 pounds, and it took me three days to assemble the booth by myself. (Shout out to my buddy Randy and my neighbor Pete for helping me get the roof in place.) It was tough, but not as tough as building a DAWbox from scratch would have been for a non-handy guy like me.
Now, my silence is golden. My Whisper Room, which retails new for over $10,000, has thick, double layer walls, and an extra-silent ventilation system. I've treated the interior with acoustic insulation and studio foam panels to eliminate all echo, and to absorb troublesome bass frequencies. When I close the 125-pound door, the sounds of the outside world disappear with a "whoosh." It's a great place to record, or just sit and think. I don't have to worry about the furnace, passing traffic, airplanes and other noises mucking up my recordings. And I can record projects like audiobooks for hours at a time without interruption.
There are still plenty of things I need to learn to become a truly great professional voiceover guy. And I'm working on it. But the first and toughest hurdle wasn't creating great sound. It was making no sound at all.