When Acoustic Treatment Doesn’t Matter

[Editor’s Note: this is a guest post by Joe Gilder of HomeStudioCorner.com]

Do you ever hang around popular recording forums? Have you ever noticed that no matter what question people ask, the answer is always “You need to treat your room.”

It’s almost comical. Somebody asks, “I’m just getting into recording for the first time, what microphone would you suggest.” Then people come out of nowhere, saying asinine statements like “You shouldn’t even look at microphones until you’ve treated your room. Acoustic treatment is more important than food or oxygen.” : )

Don’t get me wrong, a great-sounding room is an invaluable tool to have in your arsenal, but it’s just one piece of the puzzle.

Do I always use acoustic treatment?

If I’m recording in my studio, the answer is usually yes. I do most of the recording in my home studio in one room. Like most home studio folks, that one room is my control room, tracking room, and vocal booth.

My studio is treated with a decent amount of acoustic foam and bass traps. However, when I’m recording on location, at someone’s house, or maybe a church, I don’t always use treatment. Sometimes it’s just not possible. Sometimes it’s just not necessary. More on that below.

Loud Sources

If you’re recording really loud sources like a crankin’ guitar amp or a trumpet, the need for acoustic treatment kinda goes out the window. Sure, you don’t want your room to be super echo-y, but you don’t need it to be dead quiet and perfectly flat either.

Those loud sources are so much louder than any lingering reflections that chances are you won’t hear the difference, especially if you’re recording in a fairly small environment. (If you’re in a huge warehouse…well…that’s a different story, but why are you in a huge warehouse? Kinda shady!

Sometimes I’ll throw my guitar amp in the bedroom next to my studio. There’s no treatment in there, but I’m just capturing the amp, from a couple inches away, with a dynamic mic. And it sounds great.

A Room Full of Stuff

I was engineering a vocal session for a producer here in Nashville. She just wanted me to bring my gear to her house and set up in the spare bedroom.

I was hesitant. After all, my studio is nice and treated. How would we ever get a professional sound in a room that doesn’t have any Auralex in it?

Answer: it sounds great. As it turns out, the bedroom we were in had a lot of stuff in it:

    • The bed took up most of the room (great for absorption and bass trapping).
    • The window had blinds on it (great for diffusion).
    • The walls had paintings on them, and there was a big dresser taking up the remaining bare wall (again, lots of diffusion happening).

I opened the small closet, hung a blanket on the clothes hanging there, then placed the mic a few feet in front of the closet, facing the blanket. The vocalist stood right there in front of the closet door. The blanket absorbed anything that might have bounced off the wall behind her, and the rest of the room had a nice, smooth sound to it.

The verdict? The vocals sounded great.

Conclusion

Don’t take this article the wrong way. I’m not saying you don’t need acoustic treatment, especially if you’re doing a lot of mixing. but remember that it is possible to get great-sounding recordings in a less-than-perfect room.

You’ve just got to… wait for it… use your EARS! Hey, I think somebody created an app that helps you train your ears, right? : )

What do you think? Agree? Disagree? Got a cool story? Leave a comment below. Thanks!

Joe Gilder

Joe Gilder is a Nashville-based producer/engineer. He runs the popular recording website HomeStudioCorner.com.
  • http://www.weiss-sound.com Matthew Weiss

    Room treatment is application specific. For mixing it’s necessary. For tracking – it depends on the sound you want. Small rooms with stone walls do nice things for electric guitar tones. With drums, trashy rooms can sound great. For vocals, tight and dry is good, but if you can commit to a room sound, go for it.

    Also the degree of absorption vs. diffusion, and where it is placed will make a huge difference. Just scattering foam randomly won’t help without luck.

    Room treatment is VERY important, but not the be all end all – and it’s not as simple as either having treatment or not having treatment.

    Nice article.

    • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

      Yeah, you’re absolutely right. Acoustic treatment is much more of a science than an art. But a lot of people get hung up on thinking that ONLY acoustic treatment products can acoustically treat the room. Not always the case!

      Thanks Matthew. Nice to meet you. Killer website.

  • http://www.noisekiller.co.uk/ jason @ soundproofing

    As you say Joe, acoustics are specific to the sound required. Look at where some of the greats have recorded: corridors, toilets, roofs etc.
    I agree that if a quieter tone is required it’s a lot more important but feel is so much more of a concern for me personally.
    What FEELS right IS right!

  • http://diyrecordingequipment.com Peterson

    Hey Joe, totally agree with you on most points, however this one sets off some alarm bells:

    “If you’re recording really loud sources like a crankin’ guitar amp or a trumpet, the need for acoustic treatment kinda goes out the window. Sure, you don’t want your room to be super echo-y, but you don’t need it to be dead quiet and perfectly flat either.”

    Don’t the problems of room nodes, standing waves, etc. scale in proportion to the volume? That is, you can’t crank up all the way and “override” the problems in the room’s frequency response. I have heard people justify forgoing treating their room with arguments similar to this, and I wonder if it’s truly valid.

    • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

      You’re probably right, but in actual practice I haven’t heard any issues.

    • http://www.weiss-sound.com Matthew Weiss

      With guitars, particularly distorted electrics, it’s more about the sustain and the dense harmonics. The actual room reflections become masked by the heavily compressed harmonically dense sound. It’s still in there, but it’s harder for the ear to identify unless you can A/B the same guitar and amp in different rooms.

      However, the standing waves don’t change – but keep in mind standing waves create tonal variance across the room. If you find a spot where the amp sounds good, and stick a mic right up on the grill, the standing waves aren’t so much an issue. Unless, you are playing across a wide range of octaves – then you may find the room creating inconsistencies in the tone (or in volume if the standing waves are really big).

  • http://www.simple-home-recording-studio.com/ Martin Rodys

    That’s a great post. For those of you who want to expand their knowledge about proper acoustic treatment for your studio I recommend Ethan Winer’s website, the info there is lengthy but very useful.

  • http://www.LifesOnTheLine.com Ray Sr

    This info is very misleading, especially to a beginner who wants pro results. Recording in an untreated environment will give you amateur results.

    • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

      Thanks for the comment Ray!

      You wrote, “Recording in an untreated environment will give you amateur results.”

      I personally don’t like to make huge blanket statements like that, because I’ve found that to be not true at all. Not sure if you read the entire article, but I mentioned the vocal session I had in an untreated room. Those vocals turned out amazing. Both producer and artist loved them.

      But I’m certainly not saying we shouldn’t place a HUGE importance on acoustic treatment. As I wrote in the article: “Don’t take this article the wrong way. I’m not saying you don’t need acoustic treatment, especially if you’re doing a lot of mixing. but remember that it is possible to get great-sounding recordings in a less-than-perfect room.”

      Perhaps you haven’t had good experiences in an untreated room, but many of us have.

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  • Daniel

    If you know your room and how it sounds then you can still get good results without treatment. That being said, it’s still incredibly important for me to have an accurate reference. I wouldn’t advise someone drop a bunch of coin on acoustic treatment who is just starting out. My advice would be to learn a little about the science of acoustics and come up with some creative ways to deal with the problems that are occurring in your space.

  • alexandre boratto

    Acoustic issues are being dealt with simplistic, acoustic foams are more effective above the mids, serious problems in the low end need some work on the geometry and dimensions of your studio. Transients have great influence on sound quality and also depend on the geometry and other factors.

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