Improving The Sound Of Your Room - Part 1
These days it seems that nearly everyone has some sort of recording ability in their home, but that doesn’t mean the space you use actually sounds good. In this series, we’ll look at how to improve your listening environment for a lot less money that you’d think was possible. In Part 1, we’ll look at the major considerations and concerns that everyone building a studio faces, and sometimes overlooks.
Before you begin to swing a hammer or set your credit card down to buy materials, it’s a good idea to take a look at what you’re trying to do and analyze your needs. It’s very easy to overlook a number of critical items that at the very least can bug you later, or at most impair your ability to mix or record music.
Also available in this series:
- Improving The Sound Of Your Room - Part 1
- Improving The Sound Of Your Room - Part 2
- Improving The Sound Of Your Room - Part 3
Most studios start off the same way. Usually it begins with some equipment haphazardly thrown into an extra bedroom, office, garage, basement or living room, but sooner or later that environment eventually needs to be turned into a space with improved acoustic accuracy. Although you must work within the limitations of your budget, you can build a very effective listening area without having to sell your soul to afford it. Let’s look at some of the major issues to consider before any room alterations begin.
Isolation is one of the major concerns of most personal facilities and unfortunately, it’s also one of the most expensive to implement, especially if the structure of the space already exists (it’s a lot cheaper if you’re starting off with just a shell). Is it important that you keep the outside noise from leaking inside? Is it important that you keep the sound you’re making from leaking outside? What kind of material are the walls made out of? Is there a window or a door that’s the problem? These are all questions that need to be answered as early in the design process as possible.
The size of a room matters a great deal in the ultimate acoustic outcome of a room. In general, the larger the room, the easier it is to work with. Usually bedrooms or offices are very small with low ceilings, which calls for a lot of trapping, and that makes the room even smaller. And of course, for a tracking room it’s common sense that the more bodies that need to be in the room, the larger it must be. While 50 square feet per person might be comfortable, you might be able to get by with as little as 20, as long as you keep it clutter free.
The ideal shape for any listening room is rectangular, and as you’ll see in a future article in this series, there’s even a specific formula for the best dimensions. That being said, many times the existing room is closer to a square, or even worse, a cube, which makes it very difficult to obtain satisfactory sonic results because the dimensions are not acoustically friendly.
Any room gets more complicated if it’s meant to serve a dual purpose, which in this case means adding an area for live tracking. Even if this only means recording vocals, a singer with iron pipes can be every bit as annoying to your neighbors as a blasting Marshall. If you decide you need to overdub loud vocals, guitar amps, horns or even certain types of percussion, you might consider constructing a vocal booth or even springing for a prefab vocal booth.
The more bodies you get in a room, the more you need to think about heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC). The more isolated the room is, the faster it will heat up with those musician’s bodies in motion. At the very least, you have to exchange the air in the room frequently to keep everyone from passing out. Fresh air is very important! Luckily, this is less expensive to do than ever, but it’s still may be the biggest expense of the project.
Most Commonly Overlooked
There are a number of items that are frequently overlooked when building a studio, regardless of whether it’s for personal or commercial use. Let’s look at the 5 main issues.
1) Problem Neighbors
All studios have to appease the neighbors in order to exist. It only takes one disgruntled neighbor to complain about noise coming from your studio late at night and you can be shut down! That said, there are two types of problem neighbors; the ones that can’t stand any noise at all, and the ones that make a lot of noise themselves.
Many times the neighbors aren’t as concerned about the noise coming from the studio as they are of the noise generated by musicians and clients coming and going. Car doors slamming, car alarms blaring, and lots of loud talk late at night are always going to get your neighbors attention. The best thing is to ask everyone using your studio to be sure to stay as quiet as they can when arriving or leaving, then remind them with multiple signs both inside and outside the building.
If the studio is located in an industrial location, sometimes a neighbor performs an operation in the course of their business that can be a major disruption. As an example, a friend of mine built a very nice commercial facility (Fleetwood Mac and The Killers were among his clients) in the middle of an industrial park. Just about the time they were finishing construction, a huge low frequency thud began to occur at intervals throughout the day which stopped any recording in its tracks. After some investigation, they found out that the metal shop across the way just installed a massive new stamper that made the earth shake every time it did what stampers do. My friend’s only recourse was to pay to install an isolation pad for the machine, which cost about $2,000 US. That was expensive, but it was the only way his studio could continue as a viable entity.
The moral here is to choose your space wisely if it’s not going to be in your home. Research your neighbors, the truck traffic and air traffic patterns (especially helicopters, which are the worst for noise), and make sure there are no upcoming major construction projects like a new road or new skyscraper planned for the neighborhood.
One of the most overlooked areas in any kind of a studio, regardless of the size, is storage. You may think you won’t need much more than a closet, but you will accumulate gear of all types (like that guitar amp that a client refuses to pick up, a new studio drum kit, or dozens of hard drives) as time goes on. That means that the more storage space you have, the more you’ll tend to use it. The best thing is to plan ahead for your needs and build it into your studio design right at the beginning.
3) The Lounge
While a lounge is a nice touch but not absolutely necessary for a personal facility, it’s essential for a commercial studio. Even for a personal studio, having a place where you or your mates can chill for a bit can be a boon to creativity. The lounge is a chill place when a player is burned out; it’s a holding pen for players waiting for their turn to put down their parts; it’s a party room for the entourage that keeps them out of the control room; and it’s as necessary as every other piece of the studio. As a result, the lounge, or at the least a small area where the clients can relax away from the studio, should be included in your design plans right from the beginning and not treated as an afterthought. This is assuming that you’ll have people other than yourself using the place, of course.
Like storage, the larger the lounge, the better. While it might seem like wasted space, you can bet that it will always be used, even if only as a place to keep guitar and road cases out of the way. And for those dates when the artist brings his entire family, it’s a priceless asset.
The amenities of the lounge can mean a lot to a client. A coffee machine and a television are givens for any studio, but many high-end facilities also offer high-end amenities like video games, a foosball or pool table, fruit and snacks, and a stocked refrigerator. Howie Schwartz of the famed Howard Schwartz Recording Services in New York City (which had 16 studios working at its peak!) once said that the most important piece of equipment in his complex was his cappuccino machine, since clients would take regular 20 minute breaks to make themselves a cup - all billable! You don’t need a cappuccino machine to get the same results; any video game console or computer will do the same thing.
Don’t underestimate the value of client comfort and services, since money spent in this area can easily overcome deficiencies elsewhere.
5) The Bathroom
The bathroom is also something that requires some thought. A low-flow toilet and pipes that don’t knock when the water is run in the washbasin are almost mandatory in a commercial facility, but a new looking bathroom with a fresh smell goes a long way, especially with the female clients.
Now that you’ve looked at a few of the considerations and concerns regarding personal studio construction, your idea of what you want or need probably has changed. That’s a good thing, because now you most certainly have a more realistic vision of what you’re studio will be like, and you can now get to building. In Part 2 of the series, we’ll look at the toughest studio nut to crack - isolation.
Some of the above material comes from my book The Studio Builder’s Handbook (written with Dennis Moody). You can read excerpts at bobbyowsinski.com.