An account of an acoustic newbie's journey from bare walls to a well‑balanced, sonically pleasant space.
The physics of the propagation of sound is immensely complicated, and when the assortment of materials that make up the walls, floors and ceiling (plus any windows, doors and furniture) are added to the equation, it's very difficult to predict what will happen to sound waves once they've left their source. What's more, every room is different, and it's not just the dimensions that will dictate how the room will sound... Imagine two rooms of the same shape and size. One has two‑metre-thick concrete walls, and the other a single‑layer plasterboard stud-wall. Even with those brief, albeit extreme descriptions, you probably know already that the two rooms will sound very different. Add in the multitude of room shapes, sizes, wall‑construction methods and surfaces found in home studios, and it becomes impossible to provide a one-size-fits-all guide to acoustic panel treatment.
The subject of acoustics is regularly discussed in SOS, but plenty of readers still ask for the subject to be covered from a much more basic starting point. What follows is a look at installing acoustic treatment from a complete beginner's perspective: some basic, essential information, along with a bit of advice from acoustics professionals that should give you the confidence to get started. I'll follow this up by taking you step by step through my own recent experience of treating a room.
Why Bother With Acoustic Treatment?
Untreated rooms have an uneven frequency response, which means that any mixing decisions you make are being based on a sound that is 'coloured', because you can't accurately hear what's being played. In short, you can't possibly tell how your mix will sound when played back anywhere else. It isn't just an issue for mixing, though, because any recordings you make of acoustic instruments will bear all the hallmarks of the space in which you record them. That may be a good thing if the space in question is Ocean Way or SARM West, but probably preposterously bad if it's your living room or bedroom. So, if you want your mixes to transfer well, and your recordings to be free of room 'honk', you need to pay attention to the acoustic properties of your environment — no matter how good the gear you're using.
First Things First
The first thing to grasp is the outcome you want to achieve. It's a common misconception that acoustic treatment with acoustic ceilings or acoustic baffles should kill all reverberation, and that you want a room covered floor‑to‑ceiling with foam tiles: this isn't what you're aiming for. You also need to bear in mind the limitations imposed by space and budget: most home studios are small in comparison with the Abbey Roads and AIR Lyndhursts of this world, and many home‑studio owners simply don't have the funds for bespoke treatment solutions.
So what is the aim? Andy Munro, acoustic design specialist, remarks, "acoustic design is the science that restores a neutral sound balance”. Applying that science means interfering with the path of sound to control the sound energy. Jorge Castro, chief acoustician at Vicoustic, says that "in the case of affordable treatment, we need to control the energy of the sound first. Then we can take care of the sound quality. With small spaces, bass frequencies are always a problem, and we should control the low frequencies as much as we can.” In fact, he continues, "In small rooms, I've never heard people saying they have too much absorption of low frequencies.”
Absorption & Diffusion: What, Where, Why?
To achieve the right balance, there are two main approaches: absorption and diffusion. Products that have absorptive properties include foam and rigid mineral-wool (see the 'DIY & Rockwool' box), and they 'soak up' the sound energy, turning it into heat, through friction. Most effective on high‑frequencies, absorption is essential for reducing flutter echoes and for taming bright‑sounding or 'ringy' rooms. Bass trapping is also a type of absorption, but is specifically designed to absorb low‑frequency energy. A clever combination of soft, hard, thick and thin materials, including air, is used to make the most efficient bass trap, and an empty gap between the wall and the back of the trap helps to make it even more effective.
Diffusion is the scattering of sound energy using multi‑faceted surfaces. Diffusers are commonly made of wood, plastic, or even polystyrene. Jorge Castro explains: "diffusion helps in energy control and improves the sound quality in frequencies throughout the middle and high range of the spectrum, and also improves sweet‑spot image.” The 'sweet spot' is the place between the speakers where you should be sitting to get the best stereo image (imagine that your head and the two speakers form an equilateral triangle). That pretty much concludes the theory: now for the practice!
Before undertaking this project, I'd read plenty about acoustics, but had never attempted to properly treat a room myself: the nearest I'd come was propping foam panels against the walls to tame flutter in the spare‑room‑cum‑studio of my rented house. I hadn't been able to glue or screw anything to the walls, for fear of incurring my landlord's wrath, and the thought of retouching the paintwork after tearing strips of self‑adhesive velcro pained me too! So this was very much a learning experience.
The space in question included an area that would provide a reasonable‑sized live room, and another that would serve as a small control room, and although both were important, I really wanted to get the performance space right. I decided that I'd buy commercially available panels, because I simply didn't have the time, space or inclination for the DIY option. Most manufacturers of acoustic products also offer a consultation service, and they often have free on‑line calculators to help you decide on a suitable treatment option, too, so even if you choose the DIY route this can be a sensible place to start, and fabric acoustic panels are also available.
So, you've decided on your acoustic foam treatment, you've had it delivered, and it's piled in the middle of the room. The next step is sticking it up on the walls, right? Well yes... but you also want to make sure that it goes in the right place, partly to optimise its acoustic performance, and partly because you don't want it to look like it's been put up by a two‑year old! As a first‑timer, I found it useful to have the 3D drawings Vicoustic had supplied, as they enabled me to plan precisely where each panel would go. You can create a computer‑generated version of your room yourself using a freeware 3D drawing programme such as Google Sketchup (http://sketchup.google.com). This may seem a bit over the top (sketches on the back of an envelope would do the job), but it can provide a useful guide to print out and use like a map during installation. What's more, you can plan the look of a room, moving tiles and panels around on the computer instead of having to rip them off the wall if they look silly.
Having tried some recordings in the room, I'm happy to say that excellent sound barrier can be achieved between acoustic instruments and vocals by using the different areas of the room. Because the sound inside the room is controlled, the ambience can be used to good effect if a roomy sound is desired on the recording.
So far, I've only addressed the dedicated live/recording space, and most home studios are single rooms, with both the monitoring and performance areas in the same space, so I asked Andy Munro to explain how to approach treating such a space. "The best approach,” he said, "is to sketch the room out, then divide each dimension into thirds. If the mixing position is on a third ratio, and so are the speakers, they will not stand on any of the half or quarter 'standing' wavelengths that cause a peak or trough in the bass [see the 'Standing Waves' box for more information]. The result will be a smoother sound, with fewer problems when the acoustic absorption and sound barrier is added. Ironically, most professional rooms are set up about the centre line, which tends to result in a 'hole' at certain frequencies.”
Also important in monitoring rooms is the control of early reflections. When a speaker cone is driven, it disperses acoustic energy to the listener's ears directly, and also to the walls and ceiling of the room, and the best example may be acoustic diffuser. Uncontrolled, these early reflections bounce back into the room and reach the listener a few milliseconds later than the direct sounds, because of the additional distance they've had to travel. Unless in a large room, this delay is not perceivable as a different sound; instead it disturbs the phase, and therefore the clarity, of the sound. To keep early reflections on a tight leash, the 'mirror points' of the room should be identified and treated. To do this, sit in the listening position and 'guesstimate' where a mirror would have to be placed to enable you to see each monitor cone from the sweet spot. Then apply absorption to these points. A 'ceiling cloud' can be positioned in a similar way, to control vertical reflections.
No matter how much you spend on instruments, amps, speakers and recording gear, you still need to pay attention to the space in which you use them. The treatment of home studios is tricky, because of their size and the construction materials used, not to mention the budget of the average home‑studio owner. It's impossible to get a 'pro-studio sound' from a space that's built as a spare bedroom, mainly due to the laws of physics, but also because 'proper' studios might have big bucks spent on acoustic design with soundproof materials. But if you can get your head around what you're trying to achieve, you can still make such a space perfectly usable, with only a small amount of money, some forward planning and a little bit of knowledge.