How to Fix the Sound in Your Self-Tape Studio
The critical components of an actor's self-tape setup are lighting, framing, and sound. Pretty much anything else can be forgiven but these can instantly break your audition. You may know that your sound can improve but... how do I fix echo in my self-tape studio? What is absorption vs diffusion? How can I reduce outside noise?
You don't have to be an expert on sound in order to control it in your space. Below, I'll get into common pitfalls, easy tweaks, and some recommendations to get you moving forward.
Why is there an echo in my space?
Echoes are formed when flat, hard surfaces are across from each other. Think of your typical "shoebox" style room where there are 4 walls at 90 degree angles and a low ceiling. This space is the birthplace of echo.
Imagine a billiard ball bouncing off several walls before it finally loses momentum and stops. Now picture your voice as hundreds of billiard balls, all bouncing off the walls simultaneously. This is how your voice turns into an echo and can ultimately be distracting to your audition, when all of those echoes come back and are recorded by your camera's microphone.
How can I control the echo in my room?
If the birth of an echo is a flat, hard surface, then the first step to controlling the echo is to introduce soft and/or non-flat surfaces.
The two ways to do this are through absorption and diffusion.
Absorption literally absorbs the frequencies of the sound and traps them, so that they can't bounce around. Since we're just dealing with the human voice and not worrying about lower frequencies, most soft surfaces will help you.
A plush comforter hung on a wall (moving blankets work, too)
A spare mattress against a wall
A carpet or a rug under the actor and microphone
Relocate, if necessary, into a smaller room with a closeable door and more controllable surface area of walls and ceiling
Any of these solutions will help. Depending on your budget and your goals, you may want to consider building or buying a professional solution.
Here is a video I made (very quickly) detailing how to build 2'x4' absorption panels using materials found at most home improvement and crafting stores.
Diffusion is when you scatter, or diffuse, the sound so that it breaks up into multiple, less powerful, frequencies and bounces less. Think back to the billiard balls. If 4 balls hit a spot that scatters them and sends them in different directions, it's less likely that those frequencies will make their way back to the microphone.
Again, with the human voice, basically, anything that breaks up the flatt walls will help
A bookshelf loaded with lots of differently-sized books or knick knacks
Decorating with furnitures and wall decorations
Any non-flat surfaces to break up the monotony of the walls
Ideally, your room will be a combination of absorption and diffusion. Think about going into a walk-in closet and how 'dead' it sounds in there. Great for a VoiceOver Studio, but not good for a self-tape space. Keep some life in the room, just try to get rid of the extra echoes.
Addressing noise from outside
The main culprits for noise bleeding into your space come from doors and windows. If you can find a solution for covering those while taping, you'll notice a significant reduction in outside noise.
Hang absorption panels over (or put eggshell foam inside) the window jamb(s) when recording
Install a door seal kit around the outside of the door(s)
If necessary, relocate to an interior space or a space on the second floor, further away from outside noise
Still treat the inside of the room with absorption and diffusion. This way, if sounds does make its way in, it will be controlled and less distracting
Tech to help with sound
If you've tried everything and still feel there's ambient noise or that the focus is still not on you, consider investing in a microphone. A simple shotgun mic should do the trick: it only picks up sound directly in front of it, effectively "blocking" a lot of the other sound in the room. This way, you are the main focus and everything else fades away. Another option is a lapel mic but, personally, I prefer the shotgun to anything worn on the actor. Wires make movement more problematic and they usually don't sound as good as hearing the room.
Make sure your reader is 1) standing away from the camera/mic and 2) speaking more softly than you. This is not their audition. We want to hear you and focus on you. A distracting reader can be just as bad as an uncontrolled space.
Lastly, keep this in mind: In a well-controlled space, you'll be able to keep your voice intimate and grounded... especially the closer you get to the camera. If you're in a scene moving in for a moment, allow your breath and voice to be reflected in that. No need to get closer and keep your volume up.
When you're on set, you'll have a lapel mic, a boom mic, and a team of highly trailed sound experts helping you capture your best performance. It usually helps to start thinking of that beforehand... don't be any louder than you need to be for the moment and, if you have the right setup, you can practically whisper and we'll still hear every thought.
Good sound is crucial to your self-tape. If you think you can improve, start with the simpler steps above. Play around, think outside the box. If those don't help, then consider making an investment by building/buying your own panels and/or buying a shotgun microphone. You (and casting) will be glad you did.
Jordan Woods-Robinson is an Actor and Head Honcho at Book From Tape Acting Studios in Orlando, FL. He challenges his actors to harness impulse as a tool, to trust their guts, to work on their feet, to break rules, and, overall, to make bold choices that make a lasting impression through tape. Email Jordan