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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > July/August 2022

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Vol. 42 No. 6 — July/August 2022
FEATURE

Purrfessional-Quality Audio Recording on a Shoestring Budget
by Sarah Kantor


Despite early skepticism about this out-of-the-booth solution—mostly because they’re made of cat beds—these DIY recording cubes have been a successful solution.
Every library wants its patrons to use its specialized resources. But what happens when those unique resources can no longer meet user demand? This article discusses how the UTC (University of Tennessee–Chattanooga) Library Studio supplemented its popular audio suite by creating portable recording cubes with simple and inexpensive materials.

About the Audio Suite

UTC’s library has been lending basic digital media equipment, including Zoom H1 audio recorders, for some time. The need was anticipated when the library started plans for a new building that would best serve the modern college student, featuring a dedicated digital media space. The UTC Library Studio was part of the new 180,000-square-foot building that opened in January 2015, and it quickly became a popular campus location due to the equipment, software, and creative support from the staff. The studio has several specialized spaces for digital media creation, including an audio recording suite. It is now an integral part of UTC, supporting multimedia assignments across disciplines, as well as creative projects by student organizations and campus offices.

The UTC Library Studio’s audio suite is available only by reservation and can be used for up to 3 hours at a time. Its use throughout the semester tends to come in waves, and demand can easily exceed capacity during midterms and finals when projects are due. Even during less-busy periods, the audio suite is used frequently by students, faculty members, and staffers to record podcasts, music, and voiceovers.

By the 2018–2019 academic year, Library Studio team members were looking to supplement the existing audio suite, but physical expansion was not an option. Adding a second audio suite would require taking away other necessary rooms such as staff offices or student study rooms. These spaces also have at least one glass wall, making them less than ideal for a recording space without requiring renovations. Library Studio workers had initially identified WhisperRoom sound isolation booths as a way to meet the growing demand for the audio suite. While WhisperRooms would require fewer permanent changes to the building than converting a room into a soundproof recording space, they would still require the floor space of a room, without the accessibility of a normal room. They also cost thousands of dollars each and would likely have the same availability problems as the audio suite.

One of the cat beds turned recording booths from the UTC Library StudioThe Search for Cheap, Portable, and Sturdy

Each year, Library Studio staffers compile an equipment wish list to add to the studio collection should funding come available. In 2019, I learned that a WhisperRoom was on the list but was unlikely to be purchased. I decided to look for alternatives that would be inexpensive, portable, and sturdy enough to withstand frequent checkouts. I started by researching commercially available microphone shields, but they were not compatible with our existing collection. These shields would not serve the needs of the majority of our patrons, who are beginners at digital media creation and prefer plug-and-play equipment that requires minimal setup and expertise.

Recognizing that commercial products were unlikely to meet our needs, I required a solution that would fit into our budget, be sturdy and portable enough for repeated use and travel, and need as little setup as possible. I was inspired by a 2013 post about recording in less-than-ideal environments on Transom, a website by Atlantic Public Radio that offers resources and workshops for independent podcasters and radio workers (transom.org/2013/voice-recording-in-the-home-studio). So, I looked for DIY options.

In the post, Yowei Shaw tested several DIY setups for recording radio-quality pieces in a bedroom without sound treatments, ultimately creating a portable sound booth out of a collapsible fabric storage cube and acoustic foam. A blog post from Montana Public Radio discusses a similar DIY setup made out of a cardboard box and mattress foam and used by Corin Cates-Carney (mtpr.org/inside-mtpr/2016-01-14/tricks-of-the-trade-radios-surprising-low-tech-tools). Shaw’s portable sound booth is designed to be taken apart for storage and travel, while Cates-Carney’s version turns a car trunk into a traveling recording booth. The idea for the recording cube was there, but neither of these models would work for our collection. Our version would need to stay in one piece, both to stand up to regular wear and tear and to prevent lost components.

Building the Recording Cube

Using Shaw’s Transom post as a starting point, I looked for sturdier substitutes to fabric storage bins, eventually finding a cat bed on Amazon. Although the cat bed is collapsible, it is constructed of particle board, which provides more structure and durability than a fabric bin. The 15"x15"x17" object comes with two cat beds: one inside the cube and another on the removable top. The cube has a large entry hole on one side for a cat to enter or where the user can place a microphone. This cat bed met all of my basic requirements with few alterations needed for it to become a portable recording cube.

In January 2020, I created a prototype as a proof of concept using eggshell foam left over from lining equipment kits. By placing the foam in a U shape inside the cat bed and putting the lid on upside down, we had a portable recording cube that was sturdy enough for circulation at a fraction of the cost of similar commercial options. After constructing this initial recording cube, we realized that it needed a handle to make it easier to carry and eliminate the need for a carrying bag.

At the same time, COVID-19 began to spread. In March 2020, UTC’s library closed to the public. We reopened at limited capacity for the fall 2020 semester, and it became clear that the recording cubes were even more important than they were pre-pandemic. For the 2020–2021 academic year, the Library Studio’s audio suite was only available for one reservation per day. The suite was quarantined for 3 days between reservations to allow for respiratory droplets to fall and the COVID-19 virus to become less infectious. We ordered materials for additional recording cubes and had three portable cubes to add to Library Studio’s circulating collection in January 2021.

Reception

These DIY portable recording cubes have been a part of our circulating collection for more than a year now and have been well-received by patrons. They came in particularly handy when our audio suite and equipment were quarantined due to COVID-19 safety precautions. Although the cubes also had to be quarantined for 3 days between uses, having three meant that there was typically at least one available when the audio suite was closed.

Sine we eased our COVID restrictions, a core group of our users have continued to use the recording cubes, as they allow patrons to record audio based on their schedule and workflow. The cubes are particularly good (and popular) for solo recording, such as voiceovers for videos and presentations, keeping the audio suite free for group recording. They have also been used by the staffers at UTC’s student radio station, the Perch. The outreach director at the Perch used a cube to record song dedications in the busy university center as part of a fundraiser for the station. She reported that the cube offered great sound quality and even drew additional participants because of the novelty of speaking into it.

Conclusion

So far, the handmade portable recording cubes at the UTC Library Studio have proven themselves worth both the money and time involved in building them. They were designed to supplement the use of our audio suite, not replace it, and have served this purpose well. The three cubes have circulated a combined 24 times between Jan. 1, 2021, and Feb. 28, 2022. Each recording cube cost $45.02 in materials and took about 15 minutes to construct. In 13 months, each recording cube has had a cost per use of only $5.63, which will decrease with continued use. Despite early skepticism about this out-of-the-booth solution—mostly because they’re made of cat beds—these DIY recording cubes have been a successful solution and addition to our lending collection.

How to Turn Cat Beds Into Portable Recording Booths

Constructing the Cube

  • Gather the materials: a cat bed or sturdy box, foam, and handles (if the box does not come with handles). You may need screws or nuts and bolts, a screwdriver to attach the handles, glue, and a knife with a serrated edge to cut the foam.
  • Set up the cat bed, leaving the lid off the top. If you are using a box that does not have an opening, you may want to cut a hole in one side of the box for speaking into the microphone. Make sure to cover any sharp edges.
  • Add the handles to your cube. The handles I used came with small screws, but I used a slightly longer screw to attach it to the cube and a nut to keep the screw from pulling out of the cube.
  • Measure the inside of the box or cat bed, and cut your foam. You can use one long piece of foam that will curve around the inside of your recording cube. Our cat bed has an interior measurement of about 14"x14"; the foam piece is about 35". You may also need a second piece of foam to treat the top of the box. The cat bed we used already had cushioning and did not require a second piece of foam.
  • Place the foam inside the cube, softening corners as much as possible. The foam in the original prototype was glued to the inside of the cube, but this is not recommended. The foam should stay in place without glue. Gluing the foam to the box will make it hard to replace the handles or foam if needed. The foam in the subsequent recording cubes is not glued in, and we have had no problems with it coming loose.
  • Attach the lid. The lid on our cat beds is placed upside down so that the thick sides of the bed on top ensure a tight fit while providing sound treatment for the recording cube. I glued the lids into the cat beds with a combination of fabric glue (for long-term hold) and hot glue (for immediate hold). The lids on our recording cubes are glued in so that everything stays in one piece, but this may not be necessary if your cubes will not be circulating.

Supply List

A tutorial is available at guides.lib.utc.edu/at-home-recording-studio.  

An Expedient and Perfect Solution

These cat beds turned recording booths were just the trick during COVID restrictions. Easy to make, portable, and reusable, they were lent out to students and staffers who were working on audiovisual assignments. Shown in the images are (top to bottom) the author and University of Tennessee–Chattanooga students Justin Turner and Dominique Molina recording voiceover narrations.


Sarah KantorSarah Kantor (sarah-kantor@utc.edu) is a studio librarian at the University of Tennessee–Chattanooga. She has a background in community radio and DIY media, which she brings to her work in digital media.