The science of acoustics is something that tends to alternately baffle and intimidate most of us. Outside of a handful of highly trained individuals, the aspects of what makes a room sound a certain way is looked upon as a sort of black art.
Performance venues and upscale recording studios routinely include acoustic designers in their construction budgets, spending considerable sums of money in pursuit of sonic perfection. But for the average musician, budgeting for acoustic treatment has traditionally ranked well below the more tangible fun stuff like instruments, mics, recording gear, plug-ins, toys and more toys.
Even if you’re at liberty to physically alter your space without incurring a landlord’s wrath, budgeting for two-by-fours, sheetrock and caulking doesn’t tend to hold the same appeal as that new channel strip plug-in or 12-string you’ve been pining for.
Fortunately, the same technological revolution that has brought multitracking into spare bedrooms and one-car garages has also created low-cost solutions for many of the common acoustical issues facing the average project studio.
Just Scratching The Surfaces
Let’s start off with a disclaimer: the purpose of this article is not to give you an education on acoustics. There are plenty of authoritative books on the subject, among them F. Alton Everest’s classic “How to Build a Small Budget Recording Studio from Scratch,” as well as a wealth of great articles and web posts.
Rather, our goal here is to talk about some of the most common issues we encounter in our musical spaces, and some of the means available to address them.
That said, let’s divide the concept of acoustic treatment into some basic categories. There’s insulation, which usually entails keeping the sounds of the outside world out, or keeping your own sounds in. Closely related is isolation – the art of keeping individual sounds from bleeding too heavily into each other.
The other challenge is a bit more subtle and has to do with how our rooms affect the sounds we’re creating in them. In any given space, the characteristics of that space have a direct effect on what we’re hearing. That’s why an instrument will sound different in a large hall than it will in a small club. It’s also the reason your mix sounds so different in your home studio than it does when you’re squirming in your chair in that A&R guy’s office.
The average home studio or rehearsal space rarely does well in addressing any of these issues. Most times we’re dealing with a spare bedroom, converted garage, basement or loft, none of which boast construction aspects that are in any way conducive to good sound. Thin, parallel walls, boxy shaped rooms, low ceilings and rattling window frames are only some of the enemies we face.
Even a few short years ago, the only way to address these issues involved massive amounts of money, materials and frustration. While the ultimate solution is still to plan and construct a purpose-built environment from the ground up, these days there are a number of ways to markedly improve your odds of making your workspace sound better without having to sell your instruments or smash your fingers.
Soundproofing & Insulation
One of the most frustrating aspects of sound is that it will go where it wants to, and find its way through any space via any available path. That’s why it’s so important (and so difficult) to block any potential points where sound can leak through. In all cases, mass is your friend – the thicker and more dense your walls are, the better they’ll be at stopping sound.
Even more effective is mass combined with air. The most common construction technique is what’s known as a “floating room,” where an entirely new set of walls, floor and ceiling are built within the existing space, detached and separated by several inches from the outside walls (and, in the case of flooring, by rubberized “floaters” that lessen the transfer of vibrations).
If you’re constructing your own space, there are companies that offer soundproofed doors and windows, as well as soundproof wall panels in pre-set or custom sizes.
Even if you don’t have the luxury of new construction, sealing areas of potential leakage in your existing structure will go a long way toward keeping the inside sounds in and outside out. For doors and window frames, look for the thickest, most dense weatherstripping that will fit in the allotted space. Use caulking to seal around areas like heating and air conditioning ducts, electrical outlet boxes, lighting fixtures, unfinished drywall joints and, if you’ve got them, tiled ceilings.
While there are countless varieties of commercially available caulks and sealants, consider a latex sealant designed for acoustical applications.
You can also accomplish a lot by adding sound blocking layers to your existing walls. Several companies offer low-vibration materials which are exceptionally dense but surprisingly thin and lightweight.