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The New & Improved Voice Over “Porta-Booth”

Quality recordings on the go and on the cheap By Harlan Hogan

Today’s voice over pro has had to adapt to a changing industry. Therefore, I’m a big proponent of setting up and using a home recording studio – even when you’re far from home – to handle my auditions and work. A decent laptop, an audio interface, and a microphone allow you to record and deliver voice tracks from almost anywhere. And with high-speed Internet readily available there’s no reason to miss sessions and auditions because you are on location or vacation, unless you choose to.

I heartily understand, respect, and secretly admire actors who can tell their clients and agents, “Don’t bother me, I’m on holiday and the only performing I’ll be doing this week is down at the pool.”

I understand, respect, and admire those actors -- but I just can’t do it. I love this work and when I spend an hour or so a day working during my vacation, I enjoy the remaining 23 hours all that much more.

Unfortunately, when you are on the road you’ll often find yourself in less than perfect recording environments, even with pro-quality recording gear. Most guest rooms, cabanas, ship cabins, and hotel rooms are OK as long as you avoid the ones adjacent to the elevators and the ice machine.

However, even a very quiet room – and this applies to homes and apartments, too -- can sound like a “big, boomy box” to your microphone, instead of the tight sound booth quality we are used to in purpose-built studios. That’s because in addition to picking up the sound of your voice directly, the microphone also “hears” the ambient sound of the entire space.
Until last year, I’d build myself a tiny little fort out of every pillow and comforter I could scrounge from housekeeping when on the road, even though my wife found my constructions less than pleasing esthetically. Then I remembered the brilliant idea of audio and video guru, Douglas Spotted Eagle, that Jeffrey P. Fisher and I described in our book, A Voice Actors Guide to Home Recording.

Douglas realized that for a microphone to sound good and tight you didn’t need to be inside a sound box – only the microphone did. So, he built a simple two foot by two foot five-sided box out of foam core, lined it with acoustic foam (often available 24” X 24” tiles), stuck his microphone inside, and spoke and sang into it. Dubbed the VO Box, the results were amazing. The sound of the recorded voice was warm, full, and resonant no matter what room it was in.

So I decided to construct a road warrior’s version a.k.a. The Harlan Hogan “Porta-Booth”

MXL 909 mic with shockmount, K&M low profile desk stand, and the new and improved Porta-Booth.

Building the booth
After a few false starts trying wood, plastic, and a flimsy ‘pop up’ mesh cube that sounded like, uh, a flimsy mesh cube, I finally hit upon the The Folding Home Box manufactured by Reisenthel. This solution had a very good sound but soon after writing about it the manufacturer stopped making it. Luckily, I discovered an even better box.

In several blind A/B comparisons this new Porta-Booth sounds even better. Better yet it is lighter, one inch larger, folds flatter and – amazingly – is half the price of my original choice! The improvement in sound is primarily because this new box has solid sides instead of the cloth sides of the home box.

The Whitmor Cube folded and un-folded

The improved Porta-Booth uses a 14” x 14” Whitmor Collapsible Cube readily available at around ten dollars from many sources including, Target and Amazon.

The box alone is just part of the story. To get the best sound, use two-inch thick ‘Pyramid’ style acoustic foam. For best results, cut the foam so there are three pieces:  one for the back wall and top and two for the sides. Cutting soft foam is harder than it might seem. If you use scissors or a mat knife, the foam compresses as you cut and you’ll get ragged edges. That won’t affect the sound or practicality of the Porta-Booth but it sure looks ugly.

Instead, cut the foam with a serrated knife. Take your time and be patient as you saw – not slice – through the foam. Of course, a professional foam cutter – a hybrid jig saw – is best for this task but financial overkill unless you already own one. Consider scrounging around garage sales and flea markets until you find an electric knife. Mine is a lovely shade of ‘Harvest Gold’ and dates back to the 1950’s. Best of all, it cuts through foam like butter, all for a two dollar investment.

Pyramid style acoustic foam panels cut to fit.

Some popular brands of foam from Sonex and Auralex are easily purchased from suppliers such as Markertek, B&H Photo, American Musical Supply, and Musician’s Friend. Ask your favorite friendly recording studio if they happen to have some scrap pieces lying around, because the foam can be your biggest expense.

For example, Auralex Studiofoam 2” Pyramids are sold in two foot by four foot panels which is perfect to make one box. It yields two 12” x 12” panels for the sides and one 23” by 14” for the top and back. The only problem is that most sources sell that particular foam in boxes of twelve for around $400! Similar-sized Sonex foam is sold in eight packs for roughly $300. You can make a lot of Porta-Booths with that much foam and it’s one of the reasons I recently started assembling ready-made booths for friends and clients.

If you use a shotgun microphone, such as the popular Sennheiser 416, you’ll want to cut a slit or a small hole in the back of the box and in the foam. This way the mic can be placed back far enough. Fortunately, the fabric on the Whitmor cube can be easily cut with a mat knife and it doesn’t fray. No sewing necessary!

The Porta-Booth shotgun mic modification


Traveling with and using the booth
The foam pieces nest together for travel. To save even more space in the suitcase, compress them with a Space Bag storage bag available at Bed Bath and Beyond, Travel Stores, or online. You roll the bag (or sit on it!) to remove the air. The foam regains its size and shape in about five minutes.

Acoustic foam pieces nested together and compressed in a Space Bag

The box will accommodate most microphones. Place the mic about 30% back from the outer edge for the best sound. Talk into the box; you don’t need to stick your head in the box. Hold your copy just slightly to one side of the Porta-Booth or inside it. If you need better visibility, use a battery-powered LED light inside. Personally, I read scripts directly off my IPhone. Unlike a laptop, it’s both silent and small enough to hold right up to the microphone inside the box. It also saves me the chore of having to find a printer at the hotel.

That’s it! The Porta-Booth is a simple, practical and inexpensive way to sound good anywhere, at home or on the road.
PS: If you do find yourself in the room from Hell, here’s a tip I learned from a movie soundman. One of the best designed acoustic spaces on earth is the modern automobile. So, if all else fails, get in that rental car and find a nice scenic rural roadside. Pull over, shush the cows – and hit record.

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Harlan Hogan is one of the most sought-after voice-over actors in the country. Based near Chicago, Illinois, Harlan Telecommutes via his digital home studio, U-47 and ISDN Telos Zephyr. He is the author of "VO: Tales and Techniques of a Voice-Over Actor" and "The Voice Actor's Guide to Home Recording" with Jeffrey Fisher. For more information about the Porta-Booth, visit www.harlanhogan.com or www.audiosmartactors.com.
Related Keywords:VO, voice over, voice-over, booth, sound booth, voice, recording, audio, microphone, portable, cheap

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