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:
Interview with Tom Day and Bryan Knisley:
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.
Interview with Arthur Noxon:
While many contemporary recording spaces are small and improvised, a lot of newer commercial rooms are very large and untamed. Many of both types of rooms are in rented or temporary locations that may change sooner than later. All of these factors make a traditional approach to acoustic construction obsolete in terms of practical use and budget.
A handful of companies like RealTraps and Acoustic Sciences Corporation have recognized the evolving need for highly functional, modular acoustic treatment. Few people have as much perspective on this shift in approach as Arthur Noxon, founder of Acoustic Sciences Corporation (ASC).
How did ASC begin? Who was your original clientele?
AN: We are the original bass trap company. Initially part of Monster Cable, we started in 1984 and became independent in 1985. We began by supplying TubeTraps to recording studios and have continued ever since.
In the early days there were no home studios, but lots of commercial studios. Over the years we have seen the huge decline in the number of commercial studios and huge increase in home studios. Our client list runs the gamut, from individual talents working out of their home, to stars like Pete Townshend, Sting, and Michael Jackson.
Initially we were the inventor and manufacturer of TubeTraps. We primarily sold them by the pallet load to the big and small recording studios. In those days studios were run by engineers who weren’t interested or swayed by marketing; only the sound mattered. Their ears would make the decision. We supplied TubeTraps without any instructions on what they did or how to use them.
The big studio engineers used them like sonic Lego’s, building sonic spaces with them and tweaking existing sonic spaces as well. We got many reports back from those early engineers and they began to become the same report.
How were those engineers using the product?
AN: What they did with TubeTraps is to create what we began to call “sonic sub spaces”. They thought of and used TubeTraps as if they were a new type of gobo. They dialed in the acoustics around the mic being used in the live room, and what they did seemed to always be the same. We named this technique of signal enhancement at the mic the QSF or Quick Sound Field.
Later, we discover that F. Alton Everest, a modern day pioneer in studio acoustics and author of the Master Handbook of Acoustics, had been advocating this exact same recording technique. He called for adding numerous lower-level early reflections of the direct signal into the acoustic pre-mix at the mic. In other words, miking a mix of direct plus early, or Haas effect, reflections (low level specular reflections that follow the direct [sound] within the range of 5 to 25ms).
We launched a special product called the StudioTrap, which was developed to accommodate setting up the QSF recording space.
Modular approaches to acoustic treatment can be ideal for today’s small studios. Do you have any other examples of these types of uses?
AN: Later we learned of another discovery involving TubeTraps, but this time it was in the control room. It was named the AttackWall, or Awall, as it is sometimes called. It is a free standing mix environment, essentially a work station that decoupled the sonic space used for mixing from the acoustics of the room; another sonic sub space.
The sad truth was that although interesting, there was no real need for these systems at that time. Little did we know back then what was soon to happen to the recording industry. The computer caused a revolution in recording. Commercial studios began closing down, being replaced by home, garage, or barn studios. It was here in this new frontier of recording studio that the QSF and AttackWall really found their place in the industry.
These products were going into very different types of rooms though, weren’t they?
AN: Along with the growth of home studios came the problems of the design of budget studios and we became intimately involved with this new acoustic venue. We developed WallDamp, a vibration-damping compound, and began designing and helping people build their studios using isolated, anti-vibration construction methods.
The great studio designers and designs were no longer useful because of the short timetable and low budget of these new rooms. Structural vibration control was as important as room acoustics. The combination of TubeTrap and the WallDamp System gave us the opportunity to deliver full bandwidth control to low cost small room studio projects.
Finally, an individual could build a room that didn’t shudder and shake, using simple construction materials and methods, along with a small investment in WallDamp. And then the room acoustics were delivered to the job site, stacked up in the corners or in the room, and mounted to the walls and ceiling. The day of guru-designed, contractor-build recording studios was over.
I can imagine that you’ve seen changes in your business similar to those that many seasoned professional audio engineers have had to adapt to.
AN: [When] the Internet showed up and the studio magazines began to die off, the new studio [acoustics] business changed into an eStudio Acoustics business where just about anybody could open up a business, needing nothing more than a marketing hook and a good website designer. The home studio acoustic market began to be recognized as an unrealized potential market.
Soon web-based marketing companies promoting studio acoustics began to appear, and [that] continues to this day, leaving the studio acoustic market glutted with so many Johnny-come-lately companies being created, grown, sold, and then going out of business, it’s actually very difficult for [an] individual to know what to do, or which way to go.
What are some common acoustic problems that you find in the typical home studio or under-designed commercial studio?
AN: The most common problem the engineers have with control rooms is that there is a suckout at some frequency or buildup at another. They run pink noise or sine sweeps and see variations in loudness. They try to EQ the room flat and it still sounds awful, they don’t know what to do next. The old joke is that, “the room is EQ’d flat and sounds like it.”
Another common problem that shows up is that the neighbors are complaining. Engineers like to mix loud sounds late at night, and sleep in during the morning hours. They like to work when everyone else is trying to relax and go to sleep.
As for me, the problems I find begin with bandwidth. Home studios store (reverberate) too much treble sound and leak too much bass sound. Their ceilings are too low. Their walls and ceiling, and often floor, vibrate too easily.
What about common problems with DIY acoustic treatment? What could be improved?
AN: Most of all, the “sound panels” that are used are too large. A big sound panel is disproportionate in a small room. It is too close and too easy to hear and distinguish. In small rooms, good acoustics is fine-grain acoustics. This means thick, long, and not very wide sound panels.
Use lots of long and narrow wide-bandwidth sound panels instead of a few huge shallow bandwidth panels. With a few big panels the usable spots in the room are few and far between, if any, and definitely only out in the middle of the room as far away from those panels as possible. With lots of slim panels, the room sounds great everywhere and you can work mics even as close at 2’ from the wall without feeling or hearing the wall.