Why Vocal Booths Make Vocals Sound BadJan 08, 2024
You read that right, vocal booth, the hallmark of any legitimate studio actually are bad for vocals. How you ask? In this article I will dive deep into the science, cite multiple reputable books and teach you what a vocal booth is really for.
1) What Are Vocal Booths Used For?
To record vocals, right? No, they are used to separate the singer from the band when live tracking. Our modern notion of sticking singers in a dead small claustrophobic room with a terrible foldback system (headphone system) is not how final vocals are supposed to be recorded. Don't believe me?
Richard Hilton who has recorded Diana Ross, Michael Bolton, SImon Le Bon, Tina Arena and many others will record the final vocals in the control room. Everyone wears headphones and can easily communicate and the room itself is way better sounding than a booth (more on that to come)(“RealTraps - Vocal Booths”). Moreover, some producers will even play the music softly over the speakers and forgo headphones all together to get a great vocal recording.
Another thing to realize is that professional "vocal booths" actually are usually live rooms or fairly large neutral rooms. When you see an artist through the glass in a mulit-million dollar studio they are usually in a fairly large space, and if not it is to the deficit of the acoustics. Let's talk more about that.
2) Small Rooms Do Not Sound Good
Physics cannot be changed. Small rooms, no matter how much acoustic treatment you put in them will always sound worse than a large room. Why? The first reason is that small rooms cannot support the massive wave lengths of low frequencies. This leads to the bass frequencies getting trapped (especially when the room is soundproof). This leads to a boomy boxing sounding room. You can add as much fiberglass panelling as you like, but those will not fix the low end. Bass traps, sure they can help a little, but they are not very effective below 100 Hz.
Here is what the Master Handbook of Acoustics says about small vocal booths: "provide very little low frequency absorption. Thus important voice frequencies may be overly absorbed, whereas low frequency room modes are untreated" (Everest and Pohlmann, 480). The smaller rooms make it impossible to absorb low frequencies because you don't have the space for true low frequency absorption, plus room modes occur higher up in the frequency spectrum which means the bottom end of voices will ring out more than the higher end of the voice leading to a boomier and boxier vocal tone. You can spend $10,000 on your vocal chain, but if you record it in a bad sounding room then the vocal will always sound cheap.
Just to drive this point home, here is an excerpt from Recording Studio Design by Philip Newell:
"Simple attempts at absorption by placing of acoustically absorbent tiles on the walls and ceiling will not suffice. These will tend to absorb the higher frequencies but leave the lower-mid and low frequency modes largely untouched, yielding a room with a heavily coloured ambience which will lack life and add a thickness to the sound, robbing it of much clarity" (Philip Richard Newell, 153).
This is the argument against vocal booths and really small rooms in general. This is not to say you should never use a vocal booth. If you are tracking live bands then vocal booth are a useful for isolating the vocalist from the band. However, for most situations vocals should be tracked in a larger room. This could be the control room or a live room in a large studio.
Everest, Frederick A., and Ken C. Pohlmann. “Acoustics of Audio/Video Rooms.” Master Handbook of Acoustics, McGraw-Hill, New York, 2015.
Philip Richard Newell. Recording Studio Design. New York ; London, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2017.
“RealTraps - Vocal Booths.” Realtraps.com, realtraps.com/art_booth.htm. Accessed 2 Jan. 2024.
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