January 25, 2017
The Best Audio Gear For Setting Up A Home Studio To Record Voice-Overs
For many voice talents, setting up a home studio to recording their own voice-over projects seems like a challenging task due to a lack of technical know-how.
I’ve to admit, learning something new and technical always require time and effort.
But it isn’t impossible. Think about the benefits it could bring to you as a voice talent.
You would be able to record your voice samples quickly whenever a client asks for a demo.
That would not only increases your chances of being picked for their projects, but also allow you to take on more independent voice over jobs that are out their on the internet.
Even from a studio’s perspective, we love working with voice talents who have a basic recording rig at home as well.
This could help speed up the time required on our part to pitch and demo suitable talents to our clients.
It also greatly reduces the overall turnaround time of a voice over project from casting to completion.
To get started in setting up a home recording studio for yourself, what you need are a few pieces of essential hardware like microphones, audio interfaces and preamps.
Earlier this year, a voice talent friend of mine had asked me for some recommendations in this regard. She was interested in setting up her own recording space to record voice overs from home when required.
“What the best gear I should get to deliver good quality voice overs from home?” she asked.
By “good quality”, she mean better-than-demo quality that can meet the requirements of most voice over projects.
So I did some research for her and here I would share with you a list of recommended and the most current gear you could consider if you are thinking of setting up an audio recording booth yourself.
Let’s Get Started: Understand the Basic Recording Signal Chain
Before we go into the list of recording hardware to buy, it’s important for you to know the basics of a recording signal chain.
This would help you understand the factors the influence the quality of your recording and prevent you from overspending on “frills” that do not add much bang to the bucks you would be spending.
Here’s an overview of a skeletal recording set-up or signal chain:
I’m assuming you already have a computer (a laptop is good enough too) and a nice voice to begin with, so your money would be spent on a good mic and a stable audio interface.
As for recording software, it’s okay to start with a free audio recording software like Audacity to bring down the start-up costs of your home recording studio. If you are more advanced (or as your needs grow), you can also look into Reaper.
Best Microphones for Home Recording of Voice Overs
The 2 important features you should look at when choosing a microphone for recording voice overs at home are:
- A large diaphragm condenser (with a cardioid pickup pattern)
- A microphone with low self-noise and high signal-to-noise ratio
The common problems with most voice overs files I’ve received that were recorded from home are:
- boosted bass (exaggerated low-ends); and
- high sibilance (the bright and harsh “sss” sounds).
Exaggerated bass is usually an issue of mic and mouth placement, which can be corrected once you are aware of it.
High sibilance is usually more associated with the quality of the microphone and its frequency response at high frequencies.
Most of the condenser microphones below $1000 are made in China and in fact supplied by the same few factories. So, high sibilance is a pretty common issue with most recordings these days, given the number of China-made condensers out there in the market.
What’s more, female vocals tend to have less leeway than male vocals when it comes to choosing a microphone that does not over emphasize the sibilance in their voice, so it’s good to be more careful when picking a microphone for female voices.
You can check out Youtube video reviews of different microphones, though oddly enough many microphone reviews that you can see and hear on the Internet are done by male vocalists.
In my case, as I’m picking a microphone for a female voice whom I’ve worked with for several years, I’m leaning towards microphones that are slightly darker and less hyped in the 5-7k frequencies to suit her needs.
This would works well for voice overs projects, but perhaps less so if I were picking a microphone for a female singer, in which case the “character” or “coloration” of a microphone could be an interesting factor to play with for accentuating the “voice” for a song.
I’ve organized my research of microphones around three different budget categories:
- Below $200
And based on my assumption that your first microphone should be your “workhorse” microphone or “go-to” microphone for almost all of your projects, I’ve made things easier by narrowing down to just one top microphone and two alternative choices in each category.
Entry-level Microphone Choice (Below USD$200):
(1) The Blue Microphone Spark Condenser (USD$199)
This Spark Microphone by Blue Microphones was THE microphone that ended my search of a microphone in the entry-level category below $200.
The winning factor with Spark is the “boutique” appeal long associated with Blue Microphones.
While you may not have the need to appeal to any visiting clients to your home studio with your microphone choice, but picture this:
An Instagram pic of you recording into a cool-looking microphone like Spark, with a “funny” head and orange-is-the-new-black microphone body.
You basically pre-sell your voice to clients looking for that little bit of “uniqueness” of a voice representing their brand.
And I think you would feel pretty “hippy” recording into a microphone like Spark too.
There’s no compromise in the audio quality with Spark either, just simply because it looks cool.
My personal experience with Blue Microphones is enough to suggest that you would be able to achieve a high quality recording using Spark.
Here’s a video that puts the Spark alongside the legendary U87 and the Mkh 416 for comparison. Hear it for yourself.
Okay, if “orange” is not your thing, here are two other microphones in this price category that you can go for as alternatives:
(2) sE Electronics X1 (XLR version, not the USB version)
The sE Electronics X1 is the entry level microphone in the series of microphones made by sE Electronics from China.
The lyra-style shockmount and metal pop filter that are included in this vocal pack at $199 makes it a worthwhile buy as these two accessories can help you reduce unwanted pops and thuds in your recording.
(3) Audio-Technica 2035 Large Diaphragm
Audio-Technica microphones generally have low self-noise, and the AT2035 is a popular choice for the budget-conscious. It’s surprising flat and should work well with most female voices.
Semi-Professional Microphone Choices (USD$200-$500):
This is a pretty “congested” price range where condenser microphones are concerned.
You certainly wont won’t be short of choices. Yet, it’s hard to pick a clear winner, as the microphones in this price range are predominantly using similarly Chinese-made diaphragms like the entry-level microphones I’ve picked earlier.
The extra bucks you would pay in this category do not translate proportionately to an increase in quality. But you do get some extra features like multi-pattern pickups, or free shockmount and pop filter.
Microphones in this category tend to differentiate themselves by the unique “coloration” of their frequency responses, especially in terms of variation in the high frequency range above 5khz.
Based on what I’ve heard and seen of their published specs, some microphones in this price category have pretty unique presence peaks and bumps in the highs.
For female vocalists, it’s usually advisable to try the microphones to see how you voice takes to the microphones. Presence peaks in the microphones are not necessarily a bad thing if it complements with your voice to create a unique audio flavor.
If it’s not possible to audition different microphones before buying, then it may be safer to go with microphones that are “flatter” in terms of frequency response.
These microphones are sometimes deemed to be “dull” and “boring”, because they seemed less hyped to the ears on the first hearing.
I’ve seen the Rode NT1A being recommended quite a fair bit online. But it was another Rode microphone that caught my attention in this price category.
(1) Rode NT1 (2014-or-after model)
My top recommended choice here would be this new 2014 model of Rode NT1.
It is less sibilant that the popular Rode NT1A, and works quite well on female vocals. Unlike many large-diaphragm microphones with fairly dramatic presence peaks, the Rode NT1 has only a slight hint of a broad hump around 7kHz.
You can hear a female voice sample put up by Elle Hermansen (singer / songwriter / voice over artist) here. The self-noise is also pretty low for this microphone, which would give you cleaner recordings.
There’s also a Rode NT1 Kit version for just $20 more that comes with a Rycote Lyra shockmount and a metallic pop filter, making it a very attractive package to get as your first workhorse microphone for voice overs.
There are two other alternatives microphones with similar low self-noise that you can also consider at this price category:
(2) The Audio Technica AT 4040 Condenser Microphone
The AT4040 microphone has a slight presence bump at the 5khz area, which may or may not work in your favor. If you have a chance of trying the microphone out, it would be a good idea.
(3) The SE Electronics sE2200a II C Large Diaphragm Cardioid Microphone
The sE2000a II, which is somewhat flat and less colored like the other microphones I’ve recommended here in this category, also comes with a very useful lyra-style shockmount and metallic pop filter that save you a bit of money on accessories.
Home-Professional Microphone Choices (USD$500-$1000):
There are not many voice talents who would go for a microphone above $500 as their first microphone purchase.
Still, there are a few who prefer to invest in a top-grade microphone right from the start to avoid spending more on upgrades down the road.
There’s no upper limit in terms of how high the price can go for professional-grade microphones. Most professional studios would have premium microphones like the Neumann U 87 for vocal recording, but that would likely be too much of an investment even for the most serious voice over talent.
Thus, I’ve decided to limit my search to microphones in the $500-$1000 range for this category.
My top choice in this category is:
(1) Audio-Technica AT4047/SV Cardioid Condenser Microphone
The AT 4047/SV is a clear winner in this prize category after I auditioned it on a female voice alongside some other microphones at the Audio Technica HQ recently.
This microphone represents one of the best vocal microphones in the Audio-Technica lineup. It was designed based on vintage microphone technology similar to the old FET studio microphone circuitry, and hence there are many comparison of its audio quality to the classic Neumann microphones.
In a blind test conducted by Matthew McGlynn at recordinghacks.com, the AT4047 came out tops against the expensive Neumann U87 for a number of people.
I would say the AT 4047/SV is quite under-rated and represents a big-value buy for a microphone in the sub-$1000 category that sounded like something costing much more.
(2) AKG Pro Audio C414 XLII Vocal Condenser Microphone
The AKG C414 is one of the most versatile high-quality microphones for any studio in terms of the different applications and sound sources you can use it on.
In comparison, the AT 4047/SV is a dedicated vocal microphone with a cardioid-only pickup pattern that works well for voice overs, while the multi-pattern pickups and pad switches on the AKG C414 allows you to record on a variety of sound source.
I’ve been using the AKG C414 on snares, drums overheads and stereo room microphones with great results.
Its low self-noise (6db) and high signal-to-noise ratio (88) are the most impressive amongst the microphones recommended here. And given its illustrious history as a professional studio microphone, this is probably the multi-pattern microphone to consider if you have plans to expand beyond your home voice over recording space in the near future.
The Best Condenser Microphone for You?
The best microphone for you as a voice over talent working from home really depends on your budget and your voice.
It’s always safer to try out the microphones if you can, especially for female voice overs given that the female voice tends to be more “picky” on the type of condenser microphones that do not overhype the harshness.
If testing out the microphones before purchase is not possible, I believe the microphones that I have narrowed down and recommended to you here would give you the best value for your money for your chosen price categories.
The microphones here all use the XLR cable for connection. Whilst there is a whole range of USB microphones on the market currently, I do not recommend using them for recording.
Reason being, USB microphones have potential latency issues during recording (where the recorded signal comes back to your ears with too long a delay and affects your performance).
Also, they rely on the computer soundcard to convert the analog signals from the microphone into digital signals. The native soundcards on most computers would be below par for quality AD (analog-to-digital) conversion.
Hence if you are looking for better-than-demo quality for your voiceovers, you have to get an XLR microphone and pair it with a good audio interface to get decent AD conversion.
Which Audio Interface to Get for Home Recording?
An audio interface is the device that help takes the voice signals from the microphone, converts them into digital bits and sends them to the computer software (or DAW, digital audio workstation) to be recorded into audio files.
Most audio interfaces have preamps in-built, so for a home recording setup, there is no great need for a start to invest in a separate pre-amp. A good preamp however usually sounds better than the in-built preamps of audio interfaces, so it’s something to keep in mind for future upgrades.
Factors to consider when buying an audio interface would be:
- Number of I/O (inputs and outputs) – For voice over recording purposes, you basically just need one XLR input for your microphone, a pair of headphones outputs and a pair of Outs for monitoring speakers. It is good to have a few more input if you dabble in music projects or are potentially recording podcasts where you might need a second or third microphone for your guests;
- Quality of the Preamps – how clean and distortion-free they are; whether they have enough gain to drive your microphone
- Quality of the AD (Analog-to-Digital Conversion)
I know picking the right microphone is hard, so I’ll make the selection of an audio interface easier for you.
~ Are you a PC or Mac User? ~
For PC users, buying an audio interface is sometimes a bit of a gamble, because you would not know how well the drivers on your PC system work with your audio interface…
Until you actually set it up for recording.
The different combinations of motherboard, processor, graphics card in every PC system can result in varying degrees of latency or instability that makes recording almost impossible.
It can get very frustrating for you as a voice over artist. The last thing you want is to waste unnecessary time troubleshooting your setup for recording. You just want an audio interface that you can plug-n-play without much issue.
So, if you are a PC user, I would recommend using a RME interface like the RME Babyface or RME UCX shown above to save yourself from unnecessary headaches.
RME has the most stable drivers bar none. I’ve been using RME interfaces since day 1 and the studio has cycled through various PC upgrades without any drivers incompatibility issues.
Just google for “audio interface drivers issues” and you will see the potential issues you will encounter with other audio interfaces.
I’m not suggesting you will face issues with other audio interfaces for sure on a PC system, but it is a risk for you to consider when purchasing an audio interface without a chance to test it out and where money-back returns are not possible.
RME interfaces are pricey though, but I highly value the stability of my recording system over anything else. For the time it saves me from troubleshooting, I do see RME interfaces as a bargain.
RME interfaces also excel in terms of AD conversion. The only drawback would be their preamps. The preamps are clean and useable, but are usually not the best I’ve heard, in terms of bringing out a nice image of the recorded voice, when compared to other audio interfaces.
Now, if you are a Mac user, you have the benefit of having a bigger range of audio interfaces to choose from without worrying about driver stability issues.
Looking at the quality of the in-built preamps, my top choice of audio interface for a Mac user would be USB audio interfaces produced by Audient.
(2) Audient Audio Interfaces: iD4, iD14 and iD22
Audient has three audio interfaces in its line-up: iD4, iD14 and iD22 which all use the same type of Class A preamps you would find on big console recording boards produced by Audient.
The main difference amongst the three audio interfaces is the number of inputs and outputs you can have on each.
For the most basic purpose of voice over recording, you would need only one XLR mic input, one headphones output and ideally a pair of monitoring speakers output. An Audient iD4 USB audio interface with would suit this usage just fine.
The Audient iD14 presents a good upgrade in audio quality in that it uses Burr Brown Converters in its hardware. It also offers you an extra XLR mic input and ADAT expansion, which may prove useful in to you in the future should you move beyond basic voice over projects.
Now, for stylish factor and convenience for the Mac user, you can also consider the:
The Apogee ONE is a nice surprise package because of its stylish form factor and its in-built microphone.
This makes it a handy audio interface to carry around even when you are travelling.
Your voice over projects do not have to stop even when you are holidaying. And you can even keep your delicate condenser microphone at home and use the in-built microphone instead for recording.
According to the respected Paul White from SoundonSound magazine, the audio quality of the mic on the Apogee ONE is comparable to a SE Gemini II microphone that costs around USD $1500.
This model of Apogee ONE also allows you to plug directly into a iPad or iPhone for recording, so you can even ditch your laptop at home.
I hope this latest list of microphones and audio interfaces of 2017 for home voice over recording is useful to you if you are currently doing your research on setting up a home recording studio rig for yourself.
There are just a few more peripherals like headphones, pop filter and microphone stand to complete your whole setup.
Once you assembled these essential equipment, you are ready to rock-n-roll your voice over artiste career!
Adrian Ng is a sound creative and founder of Backbeat Studios. He helps video creatives, marketers and online learning producers to create solid audio content that keeps clients happy and returning always.
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