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You want to record high quality vocals but like most of us you might not have the space, money or even time to build a soundproofed recording studio. Portable vocal booths were designed to help artists record on the go, even when they don’t have the money to afford a full studio.
But, do portable vocal booths work? While rarely as effective as standard recording studios, portable vocal booths can provide a decent way to capture the audio you need while on the go. Their efficiency is influenced by a wide range of factors, including:
• Quality and Design
• Nearby Environment
• Method of Usage
Learning how portable vocal booths work can help you determine whether using one is worth it for you. This guide will tell you everything you need to know about portable vocal booths, and how they can help (or hurt) your recording efforts.
Understanding The Purpose of Portable Vocal Booths
Though the name offers a lot of obvious clues as to what portable vocal booths do, the truth is that many beginning musicians don’t fully understand why people get these items for their recording studios. This leads to a lot of money wasted on equipment that doesn’t serve a desired purpose well.
The purpose of a portable vocal booth is not to give artists a standalone environment to record vocals. Rather, it’s to offer some shielding from a room’s natural acoustics and environmental noise. No vocal booth can fully replace the need for a quality recording room, so you still need to have a good environment in order to use one.
Portable vocal booths should only be purchased or used if at least one of the following things is true.
- You have a decent recording environment already
- You can’t get a full professional-grade recording booth
- You need to dampen some of your studio’s leftover noise after your studio has already been treated
- You want to record on the road
A portable vocal booth that’s used for the wrong purpose won’t work, period.
What Makes A Portable Vocal Booth Good?
How effective your vocal booth will be depends on a variety of different factors. Here’s what to watch for when trying to buy a portable vocal booth for your studio—and which factors can change based on your recording needs.
Some mobile vocal booths are only meant to have a single person inside, while others allow for larger groups. For studios that want to record live band sessions, a single-size vocal booth is not advisable. That being said, this is not the most common setup for home recording studios.
Most home studios work best with a solo booth, especially if you’re fine with recording each musical instrument individually. Solo booths are also the more cost-effective option if budgeting is an issue.
Stats And Build
Mobile vocal booths work by using screens with acoustic-blocking material to cancel out reverb and environmental noise. So, naturally, it’s important to find a booth that has high-quality screen material, lining, and thickness.
A typical portable vocal booth will have stats similar to the ones below:
- Screens made out of acoustic foam at least two inches thick.
- An outer shell made out of wood, metal, or fiberglass.
- A design that’s curved to surround the singer in at least three directions
- Capabilities that can absorb down to 150hz
Some portables are more advanced; others are a little more toned down. Some may have an adjustable microphone holder; others won’t. You will have to use some discretion to figure out what stats and materials are best for your studio’s unique purposes.
In order to understand what makes a portable vocal booth good, it’s important to understand how soundwaves move. Sound waves reflect off most solid surfaces. If you want to record crisp, noise-free tracks, the sound waves being produced need to be absorbed in order to avoid reflecting back during recording sessions.
A mobile vocal booth that isolates the singer more will usually be more effective because of this simple fact. So, a booth that only covers the singer’s front sides won’t be as good as a booth that curves around the singer’s front and sides.
Height also matters when it comes to isolation. Smaller booths can only absorb noise from so many directions. The taller the booth, the more sound waves will be absorbed.
Though they’re still rare, there are portable vocal booths that surround all four sides of a singer and can only be entered via a doorway. That being said, they might not be worth it. These models are very expensive and are often just plain excessive for most home studio purposes.
Setup and Travel-Friendliness
Setup-related details actually don’t make much of a difference when it comes to a vocal booth’s ability to absorb sound and improve recording quality. However, these details make a world of difference to musicians who want to record while they’re touring.
If you’re a touring artist, who wants to start recording tracks on the go, choosing a booth with a decent setup process is vital to your success. When choosing your setup, keep an eye on these factors to ensure you have as easy a time as possible:
• Required Tools. Do you need a full toolkit in order to assemble the booth? If so, the setup is probably more involved than it needs to be. Most booths can be set up with just your hands, or a screwdriver.
• Setup Time. Mobile vocal booths have a wide range of different setup times. It’s not uncommon to hear about booths that have setup times ranging from 30 minutes to two hours. Rapid setup is usually ideal for travellers, especially if you are alright with a lighter rig.
• Size. Though a larger portable vocal booth can absorb some extra reverb, you have to find a happy medium between coverage and the amount of space it takes up while on the road. A giant, difficult to unload vocal booth will be more of a burden than a blessing on the road.
• Weight. A heavy mobile vocal booth may have better absorption, but it also can be a nightmare to lift. There are plenty of lightweight options on the market today, so if you’re looking to travel, try to keep your boot under 40 pounds.
Types of Portable Vocal Booths
If you want to get very technical with it, there are three different types of mobile vocal booths you can choose from. Each has its own size and utility. This will give you a quick understanding of each type.
• Vocal Shields. Sometimes, you don’t need to be totally surrounded in order to get good results. Vocal shields are small “booths” that put an absorbent sound barrier behind the microphone and in front of the singer’s face.
These don’t fully surround the singer’s sides, but that’s okay. They are just meant to be a small reverb barrier for your microphone rather than a full sound-containing booth. Vocal shields are best used in small studios.
• Vocal Booths. Actual vocal booths, also known as standard or “full size” booths, span the front, left, and right sides of the singer. They can be short to full body length, and are meant to act as a more intense form of reverb absorption. These vocal booths can be used both on the road and in medium-to-large studios.
• Vocal Chambers. If you’re not too concerned about the portability aspect and have a crew to set up your booth, you may want to look into vocal chambers. These are walk-in booths that are divided from the rest of the world by four walls. They can cause a little comb filtering but are generally designed for optimal recording acoustics.
The sheer size of these booths makes them difficult to bring on the road, but some are very mobile. The big perk of a walk-in is that they can reduce an unusually high percentage of all background noise—sometimes, over 80 percent.
This category of portable vocal booths is not the standard and should be treated as an exception to most booth use rules. Because they’re pretty much built as walk-in rooms of their own, vocal chambers are ideal for background noise reduction and are considered to be as close to a separate studio as possible.
When Portable Vocal Booths Can Work Well
It’s important to recognize that mobile vocal booths are just like any other recording equipment you can buy. The booth can work for you and improve your quality as long as you are using them with the right purpose in mind and are aware of what they can and can’t do.
There are definitely some situations that are more booth-friendly. The following situations are good indicators that adding a portable vocal booth to your toolkit will yield spectacular results:
Improving Your Home Studio Sound
The best reason to buy a portable vocal booth is that you want to record crisper vocals at home, but need to get rid of some of the extra reverb and noise when you record. How effective the booth will still hinge on how well-made your recording studio is.
To get the best results from a recording booth in your studio, you should make sure the following steps have been taken to prep your area (where possible):
• Your walls are treated. Treating your walls with the right amount of acoustic padding helps absorb errant noise and improves the sound balance in your recording. If you have to choose between treating your room walls and buying a vocal booth, opt for the wall treatments.
• Your area is sectioned off and clean if your studio doesn’t take up the whole room. Vocal booths are a good choice if your home recording studio only takes up a portion of a room. This is because a home vocal booth isolates your voice from the rest of the room, which, in turn, delivers less reverb and less chance of lopsided sound reflections.
• If your studio is a full room, the layout isn’t cluttered. Clutter makes it hard to determine where sound waves will reverberate. Try to avoid having anything inside your studio aside from the recording equipment. A clean studio is a happy studio!
• The area you chose to record in has minimal background noise. It’s no joke; trying to record in a building surrounded by noise is seriously difficult. Every noise that leaks in from outside of your room is a noise that will later need to be edited out. Try to pick the quietest room possible!
Doing Mobile Recordings
Well, you had to expect this, right? Mobile vocal booths are designed to be portable for a reason, after all. Portable vocal booths were originally made as a way to offer somewhat workable environments for artists who needed to record while on tour.
Trying to record on the go without a vocal booth rarely ever goes over well. The audio tends to be gritty, noisy, or just plain distorted. A mobile vocal booth is the least you can do to ensure your recording sessions have a clean, professional sound to them.
How Well Do Mobile Vocal Booths Work?
Now that you know a little bit about when to use vocal booths and what you should look for, it’s about time to get to the real meat of the question. So, how well do they actually work?
Noticeable Improvement In-Studio Recording Results
When portable vocal booths are used in typical home studio setups, many recording artists will notice a marked improvement when it comes to clarity, crispness, and reverb reduction.
For musicians, this translates into more professional-sounding tracks. For sound engineers, this means fewer headaches during the post-production phase. Overall, this alone makes vocal booths a good purchase idea for serious recording artists.
Science And Stats Behind Vocal Booths
Statistically, there have been some studies involving the effectiveness of vocal booths. These studies revealed that how effective vocal booths are depended on the aspect of recording that you’re looking at. Here are the stats SoundOnSound revealed about three industry-standard, non-walk-in vocal booths:
• They’re ineffective at drowning out background noise. A look at three different models revealed an average attenuation in background noise of only 1.6 decibels. The amount of background noise covered up also varied based on frequency.
• They are very effective at reducing room reflections. If you’re looking to reduce the amount of reverb you receive from a room, you’ll be happy to know that all mobile vocal booths that were tested by SOS reduced reflections significantly. Reflection protection ranged from 2.5 dB to 8 dB on a broadband spectrum.
• Mobile vocal booths do have a tendency to add coloration to tone. Unfortunately, the downside of portable vocal booths’ designs is that they tend to reflect noise back at the singer in small amounts. This leads to a slight tone coloration in recordings, one that was notably measured across all tested booth models in SOS’s studies.
The overall verdict of SoundOnSound’s study was that portable vocal booths are really only part of the answer to getting crisp vocals. They offer decent, quantifiable results when it comes to absorption, but they still need to be bolstered by other environment-tuning tools in order to deliver near-perfect results.
How Having Vocal Booths Affects Your Music Networking
There’s another way that owning a portable vocal booth can affect your music career, and it actually has to deal with your networking. Believe it or not, there are a lot of music professionals who tend to keep an eye out for artists who have a well-equipped home studio.
Owning a mobile vocal booth is a subtle way of showing other artists who are visiting your studio how serious you are about recording. It shows that you’re actively investing in your music career and that you’re already thinking about how you’ll keep recording while on tour.
Even if you don’t use your vocal booth on a regular basis, having one definitely sends a good message to people who matter. And, you never know. You might be able to make connections with other professionals by simply letting them borrow it when they hit the road.
Will A Vocal Booth Improve The Quality Of Recordings?
If you’re looking for a clean recording session with a professional-level quality to it, then the answer is “yes” in most situations involving vocals and live studio session tapings. The way they absorb reverb, improve sound balance, and absorb background noise makes them vital to getting the crisp sound professional studios have while you’re at home or on the road.
However, if you are still fairly new to doing your own recording sessions at home, a portable vocal booth isn’t totally necessary. People who are just starting to build up a home studio might do better saving up for other equipment or working to get their DAW setup better.
That being said, if you can’t afford a mobile vocal booth or a vocal shield, it’s not the end of the world. The quality of your track will still be relatively decent as long as you record it correctly and edit it well.
How Much Does A Good Portable Vocal Booth Cost?
The price of a decent vocal booth can vary greatly depending on a variety of factors, including type, size, and proven sound absorption stats. That being said, this is a relatively inexpensive piece of equipment to buy when compared to other items like microphones, software kits, or even a good amp.
A top-of-the-line portable vocal booth can cost upwards of $1,000 dollars. This would include all the “bells and whistles” of a good studio booth, plus a nice carrying case. Most upscale vocal booths with mobile qualities will range from $300 to $500 in price.
You don’t have to shell out too much money in order to hear a notable improvement in your recordings, though. At the lower end of the scale, vocal shields range from a very reasonable $80 to approximately $150.
Can I DIY my Own Portable Vocal Booth?
If you’re very low on money, you might be able to make your own vocal shield by gluing acoustic foam onto a tri-fold plastic board. This would cost under $80, but it most likely would not yield the same results as a professionally made booth.
This DIY version might be able to absorb some errant sound waves, but it’s not going to be amazing at it. It’s better not to waste acoustic foam on these kinds of pet projects. You’re better off saving up for a good booth or shield, then splurging when you have the funds ready.
Are There Any Situations Where Portable Vocal Booths Aren’t Worth It?
As we discussed in the last session, a portable vocal booth is not (and never will be) a substitute for a fully-equipped, professional-grade recording environment. You need to start out with a recording studio that’s at least somewhat manageable.
You still need the basics in order to get a better sound from a booth. If any of the following things are true, then using a portable vocal booth is not going to be of much help:
• Your recording environment is filled with background noise. If you have a serious background noise problem, recording a crisp track is not going to happen. Even if you have a top tier vocal booth, the background noise will end up leaking into your track.
• You’re recording outside. Don’t ask why, but some recording artists actually do try this. Why? I don’t know. It’s not a good idea at all. Recording outdoors turns using a vocal booth into a moot point.
• The recording equipment you’re using is terrible. A vocal booth cannot make up for a low-quality mic, nor can it make up for other forms of faulty studio equipment. If your other equipment is broken, you need to fix it or replace it in order to get good results.
• The booth is too small to fit a live group in, and you still want to record the group. It’s better to record each piece separately using the vocal booth, then stack the audio together. Trying to fit a bunch of people behind a tiny screen will just make everyone feel cramped!
• The studio in question is unusually small, and you have a booth that is too large for its size. For the most part, adding a vocal booth can be a great way to improve studio quality. However, if you have a very small studio room, a full-sized booth can cause comb filtering.
If you’re working with a smaller room, you should probably buy a vocal shield instead of a booth. You need a little space for sound waves to travel, you know!
How to Improve Recording Results Done in Portable Vocal Booths
Having a portable vocal booth is great, as is having a good recording environment. To get an optimal result while you record, there are other little tips and tricks you can use that don’t have anything to do with your studio’s surroundings. These tips, in particular, lead to great results:
• Use the right microphone. Sound techs note that using a cardioid pickup microphone is a better choice than an omnidirectional mic when using a vocal booth. This is because cardioid pickups are designed to work with the directional setup most vocal booths have due to their single-direction intake. Omnidirectional mics, on the other hand, are more likely to pick up reflections from the vocal shield.
• Place a broadband absorber behind the singer. Though this is not always doable, you should try to make it happen any time you’re using a vocal booth with three-direction “walls.” The absorber behind you will reduce reverb that the booth itself may be unable to absorb.
• Remember to position your microphone properly. Mic positioning still matters, even if you have a high-end portable vocal booth. Make sure that your microphone is pointed towards you and is positioned at the optimal distance for recording before you start singing.
• Always use an EQU edit on your track. Even the cleanest vocal recording will still have a little “fuzz” once in a while. There isn’t a recording artist alive that can’t be made better through the use of digital editing software. There just isn’t a studio that can offer up perfectly clean vocals, so be prepared to run it through some software.
• Practice, practice, practice. Just like with any other piece of studio equipment, it takes a little time and practice to figure out your own sweet spot with a vocal booth. So, don’t get discouraged if the first time you use your booth doesn’t turn out well. Keep practicing setup and recording sessions. You’ll eventually find your groove.
If you are just looking to reduce a bit of echo in your home studio and don’t want to spend a huge amount of money then I recommend getting a vocal shield. This won’t be the perfect solution as mentioned in this article but it should help.
The Monoprice isolation shield is a great option for well under $100 and won’t take up a lot of space in your studio. It has high quality foam but with some ventilation to allow some airflow through the back. This is important because you don’t want a completely muffled sound when recording vocals.