As any studio engineer will tell you, the key to top-notch sound recording is vocal isolation. “The Rules of the Booth are simple,” they’ll say, “keep noise out and stop rebound in.” And with Steve Nallon’s thoughtfully designed Sound Studio you’re well on the way to both.
Steve’s recording studio is constructed of sound-absorbent plasterboard with an inner insulated cavity of mineral wool that together create a ‘sonic cocoon’ helping prevent extraneous disruptive noise from entering. And to reduce any internal acoustic reflection to a bare minimum inside the booth, a number of large ‘dampening panels’, each made of 7cm thick fibrous rockwool, are positioned round the walls and between these are numerous fibre glass sound stabilizers. The compacted threads of the rockwool trap those unwanted reflective sound waves and the low frequency absorption of the rigid fibre glass tiles mitigates against rebounding ‘slap echo’ thus ensuring the ideal acoustic environment for audio recording.
The Sound Booth is spacious enough for two actors to stand side by side comfortably but it’s also been designed with the option of a slide-in desk top to allow a single voice artist to sit during those long audio book recording sessions. The removable desk top has a thick covering of felt, again to help reduce vocal bounce.
For script reading there is the choice of a wooden desk stand, an adjustable laptop/tablet holder and, for performers who prefer to stand, there is the option of a tall lectern with a thick padded covering that once again avoids that unwanted reverb.
A small window lets the voice artist and operating engineer see each other for cueing purposes, or, if driving the desk alone, allows the artist to keep an eye on sound levels on the monitor screen which is mounted on a reversible arm.
The Sound Booth is fitted with a webcam and small internal speakers for internet connection via SKYPE or ZOOM. This means that throughout the session an audio producer can offer notes or give direction to the voice artist from anywhere in the world. The computer is linkable to audio interconnection streaming such as CleanFeed and Source-Connect and the Digital Audio Workstation itself, Nuendo 10, also has Connect SE capability allowing for direct on-line collaboration for compatible software systems. Alternatively, at the end of the session, a broadcast quality wav file can be sent via WeTransfer to the audio producer and editor.
The viewpoint of the webcam also offers the artist the opportunity to record the session for their own promotional purposes and the webcam shelf is big enough for the artist’s own camera or mobile phone, if that’s what is preferred. In addition to Nuendo, the studio also offers Adobe Premiere video editing capabilities, an 8ft by 10ft green screen and RØDE lapel mic.
The key point in remote recording is that even though other participating voice artists may be thousands of miles away, the ‘dampened’ or ‘near dead’ acoustics that the booth is capable of, especially with the use of the studio’s sound ‘baffle’, can that it delivers for the audio producer a clean ‘blank canvas’ recording that can then be seamlessly incorporated into the mix and modified as necessary in the final edit.
The production area is compact but comfortable and has a good sized console desk. The screen monitor with its flexible multi-directional arm allows for optimum positioning and the sound interface (Audient iD44) has dedicated talkback and two independent headphone outputs, allowing for easy communication with the voice artist.
Editing and Mastering: Monitors
Audio engineers often say that switching how you listen can give you a ‘fresh pair of ears’ and for that reason the production area offers two sets of speakers. First, at ‘ear-level’, are near-field desk monitors (Yamaha H5), carefully positioned on stands to create the best possible ‘listening triangle’ for the audio editor. Second, higher placed, are wall-mounted speakers (M-Audio BX5 D3) which are especially useful for those producers who, at the end of a long day, prefer to listen to the finished edit standing up or pacing about the room.
Editing and Mastering: Headphones
The impressive sound detail of the Mackie MC-450 open-backed headphones provided by the studio is often seen as the ‘gold standard’ for editing and mixing. The Mackie reference-grade headphones simply take critical listening to the next level. And built with comfort in mind they are ideal for those long, extended mixing sessions. The console area also offers the option of the ever reliable open-backed beyerdynamic DT 990 edition pro headphones to give that welcome extra ‘pair of ears’ for the mixing and mastering editor.
The DAW computer software is Nuendo 10 (officially licensed). Nuendo is known in the audio trade as Cubase’s ‘big brother’ as it incorporates everything Cubase has but with the addition of a fuller range of audio manipulation (including Pitch Driver and Voice Designer) plus numerous post-production effects and plug-ins. Nuendo 10 has 32 marker tracks with punch-in / punch-out recording options and its VST Connect SE 4 capability allows for on-line collaboration with compatible systems anywhere in the world. The audio software has video import and rendering and the computer also offers Adobe Premiere video editing if required.
The computer operating system is Windows 10 with specifications of 16GB RAM and Ryzen 5 3600x.
The sound interface is the sturdy metal-cased Audient iD44 with talkback facilities. The Audient iD44 has four XLR cable inputs plus several optical inputs, four line outputs for the studio speakers as well as two independent outputs for the headphones (with the option of a ‘splitter’ if more are required).
The main studio microphone is the Peluso 22 47, styled after the legendary Neumann U-47 made famous, of course, by its appearance on several Frank Sinatra album covers during the singer’s many years at Capitol Records. The Peluso is a large, high performing diaphragm condenser microphone with a CE-6072A glass triode, 9 switchable Polar patterns and dedicated power supply. The Peluso 22 47 has a strong reputation among professional audio engineers for its smooth warmth and depth which makes it ideal for broadcast, narration and voice-overs. The studio also has the option of the ever popular Warm Audio WA87.
Sound travels about 1130 feet per second which means a sound wave can bounce back and forth between two walls roughly 60 times a second. And in a six sided cubical that’s a lot of bounces. Thousands, in fact, and in every direction. This is a real nightmare for the sound engineer because unstopped these sound waves will simply keep re-entering the microphone creating what is known as ‘flutter echo’ and it’s these ‘long decay’ reverberations that can make your audio sound ‘muddy’ and ‘boxy’, or worse ‘boingy’ and ‘zingy’. And it’s in this context that an audio engineer may well refer to a room as being very ‘lively’. An added problem is that the sound resonance created in an average sized isolation cubical – usually four or five feet square – is between 200Hz and 400Hz and it is these frequencies that are particularly difficult to eradicate. Foam insulation is completely ineffective as it only controls frequencies above 400Hz and that’s why the Sound Isolation Booth primarily uses fibre glass Primacoustic panels as these are specifically designed for treating and mitigating those irksome interfering low frequencies. Yet human beings are, historically speaking, not that long out of hard stone caves and so we are not used to a totally sound absorbent room. Too ‘dry’ a recording with no reverb at all and the human voice will sound unnatural, as if somehow disconnected and disembodied – or as one sound engineer memorably put it, “You don’t want people to think you live inside a marshmallow!” What’s required is Tonal Balance for it’s important to keep some natural room dynamic. And for that reason the booth uses a variety of diffusing and dampening panels made of diverse materials and fabrics and why too these panels have differing levels and depths with some hard surface gaps left in between. The Sound Isolation Booth then has been designed to give a clean, raw signal that keeps a balance of frequencies familiar to the human ear and yet at the same time reduces that distracting reverb to the bare minimum.
The studio offers the choice of two extra sound conditioners. This first is a half cylindrical ‘sound baffle’ (the sE Electronics Reflexion Filter Pro) and, the second, a specially designed 90cm x 180cm ‘acoustic blanket’ with a NRC rating (Noise Reduction Coefficient) of 0.8, resulting in approximately 80% sound absorption. The multi-positional sound baffle and flexible shape of the acoustic blanket allows the audio producer to make subtle alterations to the recording environment, thus opening up the possibilities of different dramatic moods and changes of atmospheres. The baffle is especially useful in creating a feeling of intimacy and closeness and the wide spread of sound blanket, particularly when the booth is in sitting mode, allows the actor to be more vocally unrestrained.
There is a pair of Yamaha H5 reference studio monitors on stands behind the console desk. With a reputation for a crystal clear sound, these classic Yamaha near-field speakers come with a good balance of a tight base, strong mids and just the right amount of highs. Plus the Yamaha H5 with its 5 inch woofer has been demonstrated to be perfect for smaller rooms. A second option is the set of the wall-mounted M-Audio BX5 D3 speakers, known for their uncompromising audio fidelity. Both sets of speakers sit on monitor insulation pads to dampen unwanted vibration. The studio monitors are powered by an independent distribution board (Furman M-10x E series power conditioner) and a second board serves the computer, interface and the Peluso 22 47 microphone, thus reducing the potential of electromagnetic interference from power surges and electrical spikes.
The console area has several sets of open-backed headphones for monitoring, editing and mixing (it is recommended that these are used during recording rather than the reference speakers so as to avoid any ‘sound spill’ into the booth). The Mackie MC-450 is known for its exceptional clarity and accuracy (high headroom 42mm drivers delivering pristine audio from 20Hz to 20kHz) and the beyerdynamic DT 990 edition pro with its extended frequency response of 5Hz to 35kHz offers impressive highs backed up by a powerful low-end. The studio also offers two further beyerdynamic DT 990 headphones for producers and guest listeners. In the isolation booth itself there are two pairs of closed-backed beyerdynamic 770 pro headphones which not only offer exceptional sound quality but are also very light and so very comfortable to wear during those long sessions.
The Sound Studio is in Steve Nallon’s private residence situated in a quiet road in north London that has no parking restrictions or permits. The area is well served by excellent public transport and the nearest tube is High Barnet which is just a short walk away. The Spires shopping centre is nearby and has various amenities, including numerous cafes and restaurants. The Sound Studio room itself has a homely atmosphere and offers a friendly working environment for any actor, engineer or producer.