I was told early on in my career, “Start at your source and work your way back,” and it’s never let me down. If I get stuck on a problem for too long, it’s usually because I’ve ignored that advice. I remember early in my career during a vocal session having a problem with a clicking sound. I changed microphones and began to work my way back, tearing the signal chain apart behind the rack cases trying to find the culprit. I was in a panic when all the while my wise recording sensei sat in the back of the room quietly chuckling to himself. “Matt, stop what you’re doing and look at the artist.” The singer was nervously playing around with a snap button on her shirt while singing...
As recording engineers, we all get wrapped up in the newest microphones, compressors, and plug-ins. The reality though is that none of it matters if your source doesn’t sound good. For the sake of this review, let’s assume we have good musicians and good instruments. The only obstacle between the source and the microphone is your room, and it’s one of the most overlooked parts of the signal chain. This is where companies like GIK Acoustics come to the rescue!
Regardless of your needs or physical limitations, chances are GIK has something for you. Ideally, we would all love to have the freedom and budget to treat our spaces floor to ceiling. Not everyone lives in that world though, especially when it all seemingly decides to shut down and come to a grinding halt almost overnight. The COVID-19 pandemic has obviously made all of us rethink our realities while figuring out how to move forward. I’m guessing a lot of people reading this are musicians having to get into recording for the first time, or engineers that can’t get into their ideal studio space right now. At the very least, you need some temporary solutions that don’t break the bank. Thankfully, GIK has their brand new and affordable VISO (short for Vocal ISOlation) Booth and their larger PIB (Portable Isolation Booth). Depending on your budget and available space, one of these could be just the ticket!
The VISO Booth is one of the smallest, most affordable offerings from GIK at just $120, and is designed with vocals in mind. Although compact, it does seem a bit larger than similar products from other companies. This was deliberate – GIK points out that many other vocal shields on the market are “too small to block a significant amount of the overall room noise and room tone.” I have a fairly well-treated larger live room, but initially, I took the VISO Booth into my studio’s lounge area to run tests. This room is pretty close to being a cube with absolutely no treatment. It’s similar in size to a bedroom or living room environment that many may be making do with during these times. Starting with some vocals, I found it did a fair job of cutting down on room reflections while bringing the voice more forward. To be fair, the lounge area is very lively, and I doubt there’s anything on the market right now that could do a better job (at its size) than the VISO Booth. The most noticeable difference to my ears was how much smoother the high frequencies came through. Not only that, but my voice seemed a little less boomy. While there was still a nice punch to it, much of the more useless low end information seemed to disappear. In my experience, you’d have to spend a lot of money for a hardware EQ or compressor/de-esser to do something that well with a smooth-sounding result. But why not start at your source and save some money?
Although the VISO Booth is designed with vocals in mind, there was nothing to stop me from using it on instruments as well. I gave it a shot on acoustic guitar, and the results were even more noticeable than they were on my vocal tests. The VISO Booth cut back room reflections significantly but more importantly tightened up the low end while smoothing out a lot of the harshness in the highs when compared to just the microphone in the room. It was almost like the difference between using a nice, clean solid-state preamp and driving an expensive tube preamp. More importantly, it was fixing some issues that I doubt could have been addressed in post with any amount of hardware or plug-ins. Once those room reflections and other artifacts are in your recordings interacting with the source, they’re not easily removed.
After some marvelous results with the VISO Booth, I pulled out two of the larger PIB panels clocking in at $325 each. Let’s just get this out of the way: If your main concern is to tackle a very live-sounding room with a lot of crazy reflection, mass is the only way to change that in my opinion. Even before I played a note or listened to the microphone, I could hear the tone and character of the room change just by moving the PIBs in. Although they fold down nicely into a corner or closet for storage, they stand over six and a half feet tall when fully expanded. Make no mistake, two of these will pretty much turn any space into a nice sized vocal booth. Unsurprisingly, the results I achieved with the PIBs were even more extreme than with the VISO Booth. Going between the mic in the empty room and a PIB panel around it almost made it sound like a different mic. Whereas the changes with the VISO Booth were subtle (and welcome), the PIB will make you rethink your microphone placement. You’re essentially transforming a space without having to make any hard commitments. You can get your tracks recorded in your living room then stash the panels in the garage before dinner. That sounds like a pretty solid selling point to the significant other or roommates!
A final concern these days is keeping products like this clean, especially if multiple performers will be using them. Thankfully, both the VISO Booth and PIB can be treated like any other furniture; simply wipe the wooden sides with a damp cloth or nonabrasive cleaner and spray the fabric sides down with a disinfectant spray. If you aren’t already doing so, I would suggest adopting this habit after every use. It’s good practice and is always better to be safe than sorry!
Both the VISO and PIB booths employ certified Greensafe ECOSE absorption material and are Class A fire rated. The PIB’s absorbers are wrapped with fabric (available in multiple colors), then covered with plates available in multiple patterns and finishes to be configured to your taste on the GIK web site at the time of purchase. These products turned out to be some of the most fundamental pieces in making my recordings sound better. If that’s not convincing enough, head to the MillSounds Studio YouTube page and search for “GIK VISO Booth and PIB Demo” <youtu.be/x9iR5BhwBC4>. You can hear all the examples written about above and decide for yourself.