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Acoustics & Soundproofing Basics For Project Recording Studio Spaces

Low-cost solutions for many of the common acoustical issues facing the average project studio.
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Photo Credit: Studio Acoustics Berlin

If You Can’t Do The Whole Room…

For many of us, especially those who can eschew live drums, the toil and expense of insulating the entire room can be avoided by simply isolating only those elements that need it. In traditional studios, isolation booths have long been used to separate the vocalist or drummer during a live take.

While these tend to be of the permanently-constructed variety, a number of companies offer various sizes of portable, lightweight “iso-booths” that can be assembled quickly and easily when and where you need them. Alternatively, you can search the web and find plans to build your own.

Another variation on the iso-booth that has become increasingly popular is the amplifier chamber. These can vary from small, soundproofed boxes just large enough to hold your guitar amp and a mic stand, to cabinets with speaker and mic (XLR) jack built in.

Your Biggest Fan

Your computer can be one of the biggest contributors of noise in your studio space. Particularly if your room is otherwise relatively quiet, the background hum of one or more computers can adorn your delicate acoustic tracks with all the ambience of a runway at Heathrow.

If you’re reasonably computer-savvy (or know someone who is), replacing your computer’s stock fan with a whisper-silent one is a quick way to reduce the noise. Another option is to look into sound-dampening cases with quiet cooling systems, which can knock off several decibels of noise, as well as cabinets that will completely enclose your computer’s CPU.

Semi-Isolation

In many cases, complete isolation is neither necessary nor desirable. As anyone who has ever recorded a live band will tell you, a little leakage can be a good thing, adding a natural sounding element that’s sometimes lost by separating things too much. Sometimes a bit of baffling between players and/or amps is all that’s necessary to provide enough separation for a decent recording.

This is typically accomplished with a gobo, a small portable wall panel around four or five feet tall. Many people build their own, sometimes covering one side with carpet or other absorbent material, the other with a reflective surface like parquet, and putting them on wheels for easy manoeuvring. You can also find pre-manufactured versions of these, as well as transparent acrylic panels to surround the drummer but still allow for that all-important eye contact.

Sonex computer case.

Fixing The Vibe

Let’s shift gears now and talk about the other major challenge in any studio: controlling the sonic characteristics of your space. Every acoustic environment’s sound is dictated by a number of factors, including the distance between walls, the height of the ceiling, the angles at which the walls meet and the materials comprising the surfaces, not to mention the composition and placement of tables, pictures and other surfaces, furniture, curtains, etc.

For the vast majority of us, our creative environments end up being places like basement rooms, garages or second bedrooms – typically smallish boxes with parallel walls. These types of spaces tend to encourage the buildup of standing waves, resonant frequencies and other sonic anomalies that can substantially color what we’re hearing, rarely for the better. The hard surface of a side or rear wall can create reflections that can significantly change the sound of your mix.

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Step One – Identify The Problem

Many of today’s software programs offer tools to help identify some of the most common issues. Spectral analyzers, also known as Real Time Audio (RTA) meters, are basically meters that break the sound down by various frequency groups, and can tell you a lot about what your room is (or isn’t) doing to your mix.

By using a reasonably sensitive microphone in various spots throughout the room, an RTA can help to identify areas where there’s an excess buildup of certain frequencies. Some audio software applications have RTA’s built into the program. You can also get dedicated software or hardware units that can perform the same function.

One important caveat here: meters can be invaluable when used correctly, but meters don’t mix music – your ears do. Trust your ears first and foremost. Listen and compare, then use the meters to verify what you’re hearing.

Stop And Reflect

Generally, your best defence against unwanted reflections is to attack problem areas with a combination of absorption and diffusion.

Absorptive materials prevent or greatly reduce reflection, while diffusers break up the reflection, scattering the waves in a multitude of different directions and greatly lessening their impact.

Much can be accomplished using common sense and everyday materials. The rear wall of my office/project room has a large, floor-to-ceiling bookshelf, fully stocked.

Heavy carpeting and thick, theater-style curtains also work well, and you’d be surprised at the difference a strategically placed overstuffed sofa can make. But a number of commercial (and slightly less unwieldy) products are also available, including acoustic foams, fiberglass panels and blankets.

Also available are a number of diffuser products – geometrically-shaped panels and materials that, attached to your flat surfaces at strategic locations, can go a long way toward breaking up and eliminating reflections. And a number of companies offer products created of dense, uneven materials that will both absorb and diffuse sound waves, giving you the best of both worlds.

Conclusion

As I mentioned at the top of this article, the science of acoustics can be wide-ranging and confusing. While we know a lot about how sound behaves and what to expect out of a given space, there are always enough variables to keep it interesting. A new instrument, more bodies in the room, even changes in the weather….everything can influence the way things sound.

What works for one situation may not be ideal for another, and the best we can do is to try and create as neutral and objective a listening environment as possible. Arm yourself with good monitors, meters and spectral analyzers, identify and correct obvious problem areas, and listen to as many different types of music, mixes and instruments as you can. But at the end of the day the most important tools you have are your ears – if it sounds good, it probably is good.

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