Soundproofing the Skype Studio

Fortunately, the soundproofing and sound-sculpting materials work and work quite well. The room is now virtually silent and I've been able to get excellent recording and broadcast sound quality.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

All projects: DIY-IT Project Guide This project: Build your own, broadcast-quality Skype Studio

"So, I don't know if you know it or not, but it's really noisy in there." Those were the first words out of the mouth of the painter I'd hired to paint the green screen wall in my new studio.

I'd just driven over to pay a visit to the contractors working on the house I'd bought the previous month. The building had a very strong shell, but it needed a lot of work. My favorite feature, though, was the small room we'd allocated to be my studio, the space where I'd do all my webcasts and video interviews.

The three or four times I'd been to the house before, the neighborhood was really quiet. We didn't know too much about who our neighbors were, but it was a bedroom community, and -- at least until now -- seemed very quiet.

My response was bafflement. I thought he was talking about the air conditioner or something. So, when I said, "Well, we're getting the current AC system replaced. The one that came with the house is in really bad shape, and the new one should be much quieter."

The man actually looked at me with pity in his eyes. "It's not the AC. Actually, that doesn't work at all," he said. "There's this lady, and she's always screaming at her kids."

Uh. Oh.

I was committed. We'd bought the house. We were getting set to move in, and I had to be able to do my webcasts from that space. In fact, before we were even willing to make an offer on the place, I had broadband installed, just to make sure I could work successfully from our new home.

And, now, it looked like it was all going to come unravelled because a neighbor I hadn't yet met couldn't control her kids (or her mouth).

But I was a resourceful guy. I also had a secret weapon and a superpower. To the Internet! To the Google! Away!

Okay, so maybe having access to Google isn't exactly a superpower, but with enough diligence, phone calling, question asking, and research, you can find almost anything. I found a solution to my neighbor and her five (yep, I found out she had five!!) kids: soundproofing.

There are actually two different aspects of sound wave management in a studio: sound blocking and sound sculpting. I'd been expecting to deal with the sound sculpting problem, which is where the challenge is to get the best quality sound into the microphone.

But my new problem was blocking sounds.

And for this, I found a bizarre, but amazingly well informed Web site called Soundproof Cow. Yeah, I'm not sure why bovines were in the equation, but hey, it's a good resource. I called up the company and explained to the guy there my mommy problem. He recommended I install a soundproofing material on the inside wall of the studio.

You can put soundproofing insulation in the walls and ceiling, but the architecture of this room wouldn't support that because I wanted to soundproof an exterior wall, rather than one built somewhere in the middle of the building.

What I settled on was a material they call Quiet Barrier. This stuff feels like sheets of very heavy rubber, but it turns out to be a highly insulated specialty material. It's also very heavy.

My contractor applied it to the drywall by peeling back one side and sticking it to the drywall. One important note: once this stuff goes up, it doesn't come back down without destroying the drywall. It's permanent. If I ever wanted to turn the room back from a studio, I'm going to have to rebuild the walls this stuff is on.

The way Quiet Barrier works is that it reflects sound waves. Sound coming in from the outside hits the barrier material and is reflected back out. Unfortunately, sound inside the studio hits the other side of the material and is reflected back into the studio. This provided a very reflective sounding space, and that, too, needed work.

We solved the inside sound reflection problem by placing a row of bookshelves right in front of the Quiet Barrier material. Because the books and the bookshelves are somewhat haphazard from sound reflectivity point of view, the reflections of the Quiet Barrier were successfully absorbed and dissipated before they made it onto my recordings or into the webcasts.

I did run into one other nasty reflection problem, which didn't seem to be too troubling for the video interviews, but turned out to be problematic for the audio quality in the webcasts. My green screen is a painted wall, and that entire painted wall makes a very nice, reflective surface for sound.

When doing webcasts, I had to muffle that reflectivity. I wanted my voice, as it was picked up on the other end, to have a rich, rather than a sharp tone.

The Soundproof Cow folks helped there as well. I bought two convoluted acoustic foam panels for a little over a hundred bucks. Rather than permanently mount these to the walls, I hang them from the room's rigging during webcasts. You can see an example of that in the picture on the right.

They're a little bulky to store (about the size of a large speaker, when rolled up), but they work exceptionally well to absorb and sculpt the sound that goes out through my mic in radio interviews and webcasts.

Overall, my neighbor cost me about $500 in soundproofing materials and probably another $150 in labor. But, as we all know, there's no way any sort of persuasion or negotiation is going to convince a mom with five kids to keep her voice down.

Fortunately, the soundproofing and sound-sculpting materials work and work quite well. The room is now virtually silent and I've been able to get excellent recording and broadcast sound quality.

This article is a continuation of our DIY-IT Skype Studio series. Here's what's already been published on our DIY-IT Skype Studio series:

Editorial standards