Acoustic Treatment for Small Studios (Pt. 1)
Whether you’re a self-recording hobbyist or a professional mixing engineer, studio work is about making decisions. If the room you’re making decisions in isn’t a reliable listening environment, then the decisions you’re making won’t be reliable either.
Luckily there is a community of experienced acousticians, design consultants, and studio contractors dedicated to providing specialized services to musicians and engineers, in studios large and small. This article compiles some thoughts from two such studio acoustics professionals:
Tom Day began working on studio design projects in the late 1980s with a friend who had recently opened a consulting firm in Los Angeles. In a couple of years, they built a series of musicians’ studios within, and outside of, the constraints of zoning and code in L.A.’s complex, competitive, and restrictive collection of communities.
In 2001 Tom restarted his business, Wirebender Audio Systems, to provide a variety of services to studios and other customers. He has provided consulting for project studio designs, college studio facilities, industrial and business-space noise control, and a couple of industrial products that required noise output reduction analysis.
Bryan Knisley has been providing custom studio design and contractor services for 12 years. His company, North Orbit, serves a wide range of home, project, and commercial studio clients. Most of the people Bryan works for are musicians or studio owners working in the commercial music industry.
In addition to studio projects, Bryan works on a wide range of commercial and residential sound control projects. He also helps test various products and designs at Orfield Labs, an acoustic laboratory in Minneapolis.
What is the most common acoustic problem you find in the typical home studio or under-designed commercial studio?
Tom: Too much emphasis on reverberation treatment before creating reasonable noise isolation. If the room isn’t quiet, reverberation and reflection problems may not be the biggest problem in the room design. Absorption provides little-to-no value if you are bothering your neighbors, or if outside noises are finding their way into your recordings.
Bryan: I would have to say that most often I find speaker placements and/or mix positions that need to be adjusted before room treatments even start going in. Nearfield monitors are often way too far apart, too close to a front wall, or the engineer is seated too far forward or back for the particular room.
Subwoofers are often right up against a wall, or stuck in a corner. That will excite the existing room modes even more and enhance low frequency problems. Most home or project studios are small, and the fundamental axial mode frequencies are easily reproduced by a subwoofer (or any monitor with a low enough frequency range). For example, a 12-foot wide room has a fundamental axial mode of about 46.5Hz.
What is the most common room treatment question you hear from home studio clients?
Bryan: “How can I treat my low frequency problems so my mixes will translate better?”
Tom: “How do I keep from irritating my neighbors when I’m recording drums?” Next would be, “How do I do all of that [the answers to the first question] cheaply?”
In your experience, are there any particular elements of a typical small studio treatment project that lend themselves to a DIY approach?
Tom: Absolutely. With reasonable knowledge, decent construction skills, patience, a critical eye to detail, and time, I think building a decent small studio space [yourself] is incredibly practical.
Bryan: Yes! Absorption panels are fairly easy to make, and a great place to start. Diffusers, bass traps, resonators, etc. are all very fun to make, and you’ll learn a ton along the way.
Unfortunately, you’ll probably make a ton of mistakes as well. Asking around and finding someone experienced who’s ‘been there and done that’ to come to your space for an hour is probably money and time better spent! I’m very much a DIY guy, but I’m lucky to have worked with very knowledgeable folks over the years and continue to learn new things every day.
A lot of beginning engineers, and even some working engineers and studio owners, dismiss the importance of detailed room treatment, or delay it because of expense. How would your simplest argument against those attitudes go?
Bryan: Unless you’re mixing with headphones, your room is coloring what you hear. You can spend a truckload of money and chase an “ideal” room forever, but with good ears and some effective room treatments you can make a huge improvement in your mixing and/or listening environment. When it sounds good, it’s fun to go to work.
Tom: There is, of course, a return-on-investment to be considered with any expense. However, a well done acoustic treatment can be reasonably priced and can make the difference between a workable space and a constant fight to figure out what is coming out of the monitors.
When room resonances, isolation problems (and the resulting signal-to-noise/dynamic range capabilities of the studio), and reverberant character of the room are appropriate for the work being done, the client can get a lot more work done in less time with more confidence. If the room in question is used for music performance, competent acoustic treatment will make the difference between a recording that sounds professionally done, and one done in a closet.
Sometimes a visit from an acoustic designer can provide useful DIY tips so the client can do the work on a tight budget and get a reasonably professional result.
For more on acoustic treatment and design, check out this article by Ethan Winer.
Share your own thoughts on acoustic treatment for small studios in the comments below and stay tuned for part II coming soon!