Jerry MacKaySimply...a great voice.

Gear Review - GretchKen sound booth

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It's been a little over a year since I purchased my sound booth for my home studio, so I've had plenty of time to put it through it's paces. So I thought I'd share my experience with you, in case you're thinking about picking one up for your studio. I've also included some tips to help you with your purchase.

There are quite a few companies out there that make sound booths and custom enclosures. My booth is a custom enclosure from GretchKen Industries, a company out of Oregon that produces all manner of sound enclosures and noise control products.

GretchKen booths start at a size of 4' x 4'. Other companies do make smaller booths, but I can assure you that unless you have a very limited space or are very, very thin, I wouldn't go smaller than 4x4. Once you put a computer monitor, microphone, shelf, mini fridge, and whatever else you want in there, it's gonna be cozy. Plus, smaller booths are more prone to adding a boomy quality to your VO. I would have preferred a larger size, but 4x4 was as big as my home office space would allow (without blocking a window). And don't forget, the booth has a door on it, so you need room for it to open into your space.

Tip 1: Measure twice, cut once.
Unless you've got a ton of space to work with, I'd highly recommend you create a blueprint or diagram of your space, and figure out where the booth will fit. Make sure you leave enough room for the door to open. By the way, how high is your ceiling? Make sure you've got enough height for not only the booth (mine is 7' 2") and a ventilation system (if it's mounted on top of the ceiling), but also an extra foot or two for installation. More on that later.

GretchKen sent me several diagrams of the booth, and asked me to indicate where I wanted cable ports, shelving mounts and computer monitor mounts to be installed. The mounts are simply blocks of wood covered in acoustic fabric, and you can screw your mounting brackets right into them.

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Tip 2: Plan what's in the booth
Are you putting in a computer monitor to read from? Will you need a shelf for a mouse? Are you right or left handed? How tall are you? You need to decide where to have mounting blocks installed for your hardware, and once they're in, they're in. GretchKen can put the mounting blocks most anywhere, but think carefully about where you want them. And double check your diagram. I put everything I wanted into my plans, and then realized that I had the door on the wrong side.

After ordering the booth, I had a few months to wait before it would arrive. Apparently, there's a lot of folks out there ordering sound booths before the end of the year, and most of GretchKen's booths are customized for each customer. Fortunately, I already had a homemade booth that I was using, so the wait wasn't a big deal. It also gave me the time I needed to rip out a large closet to make room for the booth (a minor detail).

Tip 3: Have a budget
Most companies selling sound booths will have a basic model, and then they'll offer add-ons and additional features. For my booth, I added a Double Deluxe sound isolation package (making it more sound proof), a larger window in the door, and a vinyl mat for the booth to sit on. There's also the matter of getting the booth to you. Shipping for mine was over $1000! Sounds expensive, but what do you expect for cross-country ground delivery of a thousand pound booth. Yeah, it's that heavy.

I spent more than I had originally planned, but I won't be buying another booth anytime soon. If you've got a limited budget, make sure that the booth you can afford will do what you need it to do. Saving one or two thousand dollars isn't worth it if your booth can't keep out the noise of trucks outside your apartment building.

Tip 4: Anybody know a structural engineer?
It was a month after I had ordered, and paid for, the booth, that something occurred to me. Is my second floor strong enough to hold a thousand pound sound booth? Especially since my wife's home office is right below mine. Yikes.

I live in a hundred year old Victorian, which is actually a good thing. It turns out, they used to build homes pretty solid back then. Two by fours were actually two inches by four inches…what a concept! And I had already planned to put the booth at the front corner of the house, where the floor would be even stronger. So after a year, the booth is still on the second floor.

But depending on where you live, you should definitely think about whether your floor is strong enough to hold it.

Tip 5: Make friends with strong people
My booth arrived in a giant crate, with a total weight of 1100 pounds. I had been told ahead of time that the shipping company could not help me unload the booth; I'd have to handle it myself. So I had a couple guys from the block on hand to help me.

There was no way to get the crate off the truck, so I grabbed some wire cutters and a crowbar and opened it up on the truck. The floor, ceiling, and four walls came off one at a time. They're definitely manageable for two people, but they're big and awkward to carry. Good thing my office is on the second floor! The wall with the door is the most awkward, because the door is attached and doesn't have a door knob on it. So if you tilt the wall the wrong way, the door will swing open.

We got everything up without any major catastrophes, but I did put a nice ding in the ceiling going up the stairs (I still gotta fix that someday). And don't forget to have a plan for the crate…the shipping company won't take it with them. It's made of plywood and two by fours…I took mine apart and threw the wood behind the garage to be thrown away another day.

Tip 6: Installation is simple…but not easy
Remember those strong people who helped unload the booth. You'll need twice as many to install it. The GretchKen is actually pretty simple to install. You put the floor piece down, which has four tracks in it to hold the walls. You then lift up the first wall piece and put it in the track. While someone holds that wall so it doesn't fall, two other people put the second wall in place. Then, a plastic sleeve connects the two walls, holding them together. When those are together, you do the same for the other two walls.

Finally, the hard part. You have to lift the ceiling panel up and over the four walls, and drop it down on top of them. And remember, the booth is over seven feet tall. Plus, my ceiling panel had the ventilation system on it, making it even heavier (who's stupid idea was it to put it there…oh wait, mine). I had a few sleepless nights wondering if I would have enough room to get the ceiling panel over the walls without going through the ceiling in my office (turns out, I did).

I had one guy at each corner, while I was inside the booth lifting the panel from the middle. You have to drop the panel, which has tracks in it, so that each track falls on top of each wall. When you're inside the booth, you can't see the tracks very well because it's dark and acoustic foam blocks your view of them. So you'll lower and raise the ceiling at least 8 times until you line it up properly, at which point it drops right in place. Still, the whole thing came together in about an hour.

So, how is it?

Great! I don't miss the days when I had to stop in the middle of a recording session and wait for a truck to drive by, for my neighbor to finish mowing the lawn, or for that dog to just shut up and eat something. It's not completely sound proof (I don't think any company makes a booth that's completely sound proof), but it takes something as loud as a low-flying MercyFlight helicopter to stop a recording session for a minute or so. It's also more prone to pick up low frequency sounds, such as the sub woofer from the downstairs entertainment system. I can simply ask my wife to turn it down while I'm recording, but if your downstairs neighbors host a weekly dubstep jam session (is there such a thing???), you might want to ask your sales rep about what your booth can and can't block out before you plunk down your hard earned cash.

The GretchKen booth comes with a very quiet ventilation system that is mounted on either the outside wall or ceiling. You don’t need to turn it on to breathe, and I usually leave it off. But in the summer months, I’ll turn it on if I’m reading a longer script (the booth will warm up quite a bit).

As for the sound in the booth, I'm very happy with the results. I spent a lot of time playing with mic positions, because your voice will sound different depending on where you stand. If you have a computer monitor directly in front, try angling it slightly left or right (your voice will actually bounce off the monitor and back into the mic, giving it a different sound). Bass is going to be your main issue. You're in a very small space, which will emphasize the lower end. So you may need to adjust some EQ settings to offset things.

Conclusion
Is it worth the investment? Absolutely…as long as you've got the business to pay for it. I worked for years with a DIY booth I constructed in a corner of my office made from Auralex and some curtains. It was a pain dealing with the outside noise, but it was inexpensive and it worked. So you don't have to have a custom sound booth to do professional narration.

Unless you've got money to burn, I'd recommend you wait on a booth until you're making enough money to pay for it. At that point, a sound booth is a great investment, and it will bring down your overall taxable profits. Plus, I can always sell the booth when I convert the basement into my new production facility (I still have to figure out where the 4K screening room and jacuzzi will go…decisions, decisions).