home recordings

Building a Home Studio: Focus on acoustics and get the most of your home recordings

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Physical and acoustical limitations in the space where you record can have an impact on the sound of your recordings. Parallel walls, cramped square rooms, or loud appliances can quickly ruin any home recording.

Many of us have the gear to make our own home recordings, but often physical and/or acoustical limitations in the space where we record have an impact on the sound of our recordings. Parallel walls, cramped square rooms, or loud appliances can quickly ruin any home recording. If you are contemplating improving your garage, attic, basement, spare bedroom, or loft into a home studio to make better recordings, how do you go about it?

Mixing Board
Spence Burton's home studio breaks convention by locating the mixing position in the corner of his basement.

While there is no one recipe, there are lessons to be learned from those that have already built a successful home recording studio. Songwriter/guitarist Spence Burton, who lives in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., converted part of the basement of his family home into a functional project studio by having a clear vision of what he hoped to accomplish. He also sought expert advice as to how he might make the most of his space with a modest investment.

The idea: converting space for a project studio
“I started recording in the ’70s and ’80s, using a Teac 3340, which was then the state of the art in home studio recording – four tracks on ¼” tape,” says Spence. “I also worked for a while at Wally Heider Recording in LA, so I got to learn about professional recording. I kept active doing some recording throughout the years.”

In 2006, Spence started thinking about converting a portion of his house to use for home recording. The house has a roughly 25’ x 25’ basement, which includes the laundry, an oil furnace, and a water pump – not to mention tools, sports equipment, and the rest of a family’s collection of regularly used items stored in the various closets around the basement’s perimeter.

Having worked in professional studios, Spence realized that trying to duplicate the level of sound isolation in a pro studio was overkill, not to mention unaffordable. “I decided right away that I was never going to track bands in my home studio, instead I’d be doing more singer/songwriter type recording work. So I didn’t need the extra money to put in double doors or create a great deal of isolation from the upstairs living spaces. Instead, I used regular drywall and packed the spaces with some extra fiberglass insulation. I can’t turn up the amps late at night, but it was a reasonable compromise.”

As a result, the costs to soundproof his studio were modest, mostly related to sound treatment materials in the corner where his studio is set up, with some extra fiberglass added behind the sheetrock to dampen the resonance. Another refinement was to hire an electrician to wire master On/Off switches with status lights for the oil furnace and water pump adjacent to the studio. “It would be expensive to try to sonically isolate these pumps, so I just added the cut-off switches and turn them off when I am tracking,” explains Spence.

Floor Plan
Floor plan sketch Spence made and sent to his acoustical consultant. Initially, he planned to locate the studio monitors on the right hand wall just below the water pump closet.

Acoustics and professional advice
As he was laying out the studio floor plan in his mind, Spence favored putting the mixing position along the longest open wall adjacent to the water pump closet to get the widest spread between the speakers. “Based on my own experience in professional studios and training as an engineer, this seemed to make the most sense. But I got in touch with Nick Colleran and Joe Horner at Acoustics First, a company that provides acoustical panels and sound isolation products located in Richmond, VA, and after looking over the floor plan for my basement, Nick and Joe made the suggestion to put the mix position in the corner, so the monitors would be firing diagonally across the basement at the corner of the furnace room. They pointed out that this would help to diffuse the sound in every direction except straight back at the mix position. Any other position would result in the sound traveling 15 or 20 feet and hitting a parallel wall, they said. At first, I thought they were crazy, as that was something I would have never considered. But the more we talked about it, the more I believed it could work. And it did, brilliantly, in large part because of the diffusion patterns and the low end bass trapping provided by the closets.”

 

Front Before View
This is the "before" view in the basement corner where the mixing position would be placed.
Front View after
This is the same area after Spence had installed the sound treatments to the walls and ceiling adjacent to the mix position.

From the outset, Spence had been drawn to the larger space afforded by the basement, “since so many of the small home studios I’ve had before never sounded right on the low end of the frequency range.” In part, this is due to the fact that low frequency sound needs dedicated absorbers so as not to overwhelm the rest of the frequencies (a problem made even greater in smaller-sized rooms). As Spence discovered, his basement closets “made great natural bass absorbers, since the low frequencies go into the closets around the sliding doors and don’t come out.” Using his closets saved him the expense of having to build dedicated bass traps. He can also fine tune the response by varying how far open one or more of the sliding doors are or by how many clothes are hanging in any one!

Before view
This is the "before" view diagonally opposite the mix position. Note the varied angles and the recessed closets.
Back View after
The same area diagonally across from the mix position after completion. Furnishings add additional diffusion and absorption.

Another aid in keeping costs manageable, Spence learned, is that Acoustics First occasionally declares a “clean out the warehouse” month and offers lightly-used sample sound absorption panels at a discount. Spence used these to fine-tune the corner of the room and ceiling around his mix position, arguably the most critical spot in any home recording studio.

“I started with a plan drawn up by Nick and Joe at Acoustics First, based on a six-foot equilateral triangle: representing the distance between the left and right speaker’s tweeters and the same six-foot distance from each tweeter to where I would sit when mixing. Six feet was about as big as we could get without pushing the mix position too far toward the back of the room.”

To provide the proper absorption and diffusion at the mixing position, Nick and Joe had Spence place a 4’ x 8’ acoustical panel, diagonally across the 90-degree corner where he mixes. “It’s two inches thick and I packed the area behind it with fiberglass for additional low-end absorption,” he explains. Then, he put two more fabric-covered 2’ x 4’ absorption panels (the wine-colored panels) on either side of the larger corner panel. Next to these, he stacked two 2’ x 2’ diffuser panels, which look like mini white pyramid clusters, which help to diffuse the early reflections between the studio monitor and the listening position. This results in a much clearer sound. Outside of the white diffusers, he put one more pair of pink-hued 2’ x 4’ absorption panels.

Effective wall treatments are not all that is required to create a good mixing environment, the ceiling must also be treated to manage early reflections. Nick and Joe’s plan called for Spence to use another 4’ x 8’ panel to deaden the ceiling, but this time canted at an angle to create a wideband mid-range absorber. He then added some triangular absorbers to widen coverage of the area where early reflections could muddy the sound. “These help control the phase in the mid- to high-frequencies so you’re only hearing what comes from the monitors, not a reflection that gets there milliseconds later and causes phase cancellations. So with that, in conjunction with the closet bass traps and the pyramid diffusers behind the monitors, I ended up with a pretty accurate listening environment.”

KEF Q-60 coaxial stereo monitor
The KEF Q-60 coaxial stereo monitor system provide Spence with a sound that he knows and trusts for his mixes.

Another key to having a home studio that is an acoustically true listening environment is to have a good quality pair of speakers that you know the sound of. Spence harkens back his experience working at the legendary Wally Heider’s, when coaxial speakers, such as UREI 811 and 813s offered a time-aligned speaker that provided more accuracy than the traditional separate woofer and tweeter set up.

Simply put, coaxial speakers allow the low and high frequency sounds reproduced by the monitor to reach the listener’s ear at the same time, reducing the “smear” that may occur with some two-and three-way systems. They also usually offer superior off-axis response. Spence has a pair of KEF Q-60 monitors he’s had for years. “To my ear, coaxial speakers straighten out the phase problems inherent in non-coax monitors, so I find my mixes are more accurate and translate better as a result. KEFs are probably the most affordable coax monitors out there.”

Checking the results
To check the accuracy of his room, Spence enlisted the help of two friends, one of whom owns a top-flight professional recording studio and the second, a high-end audiophile with an amazing component home stereo system featuring individual components from Mark Levinson and Infinity. As Spence kept his friends updated on his home studio’s evolution, they hit on the idea of a sort of progressive listening party to compare the three listening environments.

“We each picked two cuts that we knew very well, and made a six-song compilation disc. We started at the pro studio, with their high end Blue Sky monitoring system, then went to my audiophile friend’s home, and ended up at my house. I was surprised by how similar all six tracks were sounding in my basement studio compared to the other very expensive rooms and gear.

“There was a difference in the amount of detail audible on the higher end systems compared to my sub-$1,000 speakers, but I knew that my modest home studio was working when what all three of us heard in their rooms sounded pretty much the same in mine. Based on the amount of time and money I was willing to invest, I’m very happy with the results and I continue to double check my mixes at my friend’s studio, and they keep sounding accurate to what I intended, which is important.

“I’ve since added a Tannoy TS-8 subwoofer and PreSonus Central Station master speaker control so I’ve got a fuller range speaker system. Looking back, I couldn’t have come up with my current studio without the innovative advice and help I got from the guys at Acoustics First, since they got me thinking outside the box and really helped me keep my budget in control,” Spence concludes.

If you are looking for a successful recipe for a home studio acoustical upgrade, keep Spence’s three keys in mind:

1) Have a realistic goal – don’t try to build a professional-level studio in your extra bedroom.

2) After looking at various solutions, develop and stick to a budget that you can afford that addresses low end absorption, early reflections, and back wall diffusion as best you can.

3) Consult with an acoustical expert to make sure whatever you do will actually improve your acoustical environment and not make it worse.

If you follow these guidelines, you’re likely to end up with an acoustical environment that actually helps the sound of your recordings, rather than harms it.

Story Links
Acoustics First offer a wide variety of solutions for home studio acoustical problems.
Wikipedia article on Bass Traps.
The Master Handbook of Acoustics by F. Alton Everest – a classic book that provides the science behind acoustical phenomenon.
Acoustics 101 by Auralex founder Eric T. Smith – a great overview from the ground up on acoustical considerations for any recording musician.
Coaxial Speaker Primer – a short Wikipedia article that explains the concepts behind coaxial speakers such as the KEF Q60 and UREI monitors.

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19 thoughts on “Building a Home Studio: Focus on acoustics and get the most of your home recordings

  1. For the budget minded (like myself), I had great success in my last home studio by hanging moving blankets along the walls. I bought a bunch from a local Harbor Freight store, and deadened my entire room for less than $50. Between that and the carpeted floor, it was like the inside of a pillow in there…just the way I like it. You don’t have to spend thousands of dollars to get reasonably good results from a home project studio.

  2. It’s all about their techniques and you can get the sound you want from
    recording if you know how to work it! If you are planning on mixing your own
    music, get a good set of monitors. Those are your ears. The closer you can get
    to the actual signal that was recorded, the better your decisions are going to
    be when mixing. You won’t be surprised to hear that the shape and furnishings
    of a room can affect the way things sound. These effects can easily happen in a
    subtle way in your studio, causing inaccuracies in the sound from the monitors.
    When you record or mix you adjust the music till it is right in your control
    room, but when you play the tape in a neutral environment the sound is
    overcompensated and strange.

     

  3. To Whom:

    IN the past 20 years, I have probably assembled 20 corner project rooms just liket the one shown.
    Suggest you contact Acoustic Sciences Corp.  They are in Eugene Oregon.
    They began this business in 1982. One of the Webs is Tubetraps.com
    My Co is Acoustic Sciences of California.  I started in 1983. 
    By the way, Art Noxon is a real Acoustician not an Aoustic Consultant like me.
    I first met Hidley in the late 1960s.  He was a maintainance man for the Record Plant
    in Sausalito.  By the way, the Plant was built by Dave Mancini.  later on he built the Devonshire Studio in
    North Hollywood/Studio City.                                                                            
    Another Acoustician which should be considered is Vinent VanHaf.  He’s also the real macoy.

  4. I ain’t buyin’ it. Those monitors are converging at a point about 2 feet in front of the guy’s ‘mixing’ position.
    That’s ridiculous. They sould be converging slightly behind his sitting position. The way it’s set up now he’s mixing in the backwash of the convergence point. There’s no way his room sounds ‘almost as good’ as a pro room. If anything, the fact that the demo they tried out in all 3 rooms sounded similar, is a credit to the mastering engineers that worked on the songs they listened to.  Who cares what kind of reflections you’re getting 25 feet behind you in a controll room. Just put some sound absorption back there. Spence was right in the first place and should have gone with his intuition. That’s the first thing you have to learn how to do if you want to suceed in the creative arts. Randy Green, Randy’s Recording.

    1. Hi Randy ~ this is Jeff Kain, Lance’s band mate from Myrckwoode back in the day. I read your review and enjoyed your input. I have a project studio here in New England and never forgot about sending you some of my recordings. I just got very busy with our children, so it went waaaay to the back burner. I have been getting back into my music. I wish you well and miss all the music we made. Best, Jeff 

      1. Hi Jeff, good to hear from you. You guys had a great band with Myrckwoode. Let me hear what you’re doing these days when you get around to it. Thanks. Randy

  5. I am a musician/engineer and have built many home studios and like most musicians I also have much experience in the construction industry! If you want to sound-proof efficiently and cheaply, cover your walls with “Celotex” also sometimes actually called “sound-board”. You can find it at Home Depot for about 6 or 7 bucks a sheet (4’x8′). Its very light weight and very sound absorbent and even paintable.. I have found that it has great acoustical qualities because it is absorbent but also reflective enough that your room doesn’t sound like a pillow. If you are renting (and creative) it is possible to put it up with little damage to existing walls.
      When I have the space (and the budget) I try to make the wall that I face a “live” wall (hard reflective surface). The wall behind me is my soft wall. Usually carpeted or foam covered. The side walls have usually remained just painted sound-board. Of course I am describing a one-room home studio. If you are in need of iso-booths those are pretty easy to make. Just take two sheets of 3/4″ plywood. Cover both sides with sound-board. connect both pieces with hinges. You may need to cut them to length depending on your ceiling height. But you can designate a corner of the room and your hinged partition would be the other two sides of your iso-booth. Hope this helps somebody on a budget. I guarantee you’ll be pleased with the results.

  6. I purchased a Tascam 8-track recorder to record Roland eletronic drums, electric guitars and guitar bass.  The recorder is so amazing that we recorded everything plugged directly to the recorder, so no acoustic foams or walls were needed.  Even the vocals were recorded this way and the sound that we reached is way better than many professional recordings I’ve heard.  It is no perfect in any way, and sure there are a lot better recordings, but it is really cost effective and the sound surprisingly is great!

    1. Congratz on the Tascam. Recording direct is great, but unless you do something to the room you are recording in, your vocals will always start with that room sound. This could be cool, but you lose flexibility. Also, most of the sound treatment is to help you monitor more effectively. It is important to listen to an accurate mix that will translate well to anything your future fans will be using to play your mixes on. A ‘god’ room will help you do that (as will good monitors, etc)

      1. oh…and the reason your electronic drums sound so good is that they were recorded in a high-end studio with lots of room treatment.  They spent the money, so you don’t have to!  (At least for your drums)   

        😉

  7. Though I appreciate these good points and free advice, I’m on a rock-bottom budget.  I abandoned any concern for appearance and used “retired” bed linens to line my walls (fastened with thumb tacks, etc).  My goal was a nearly “dead” room, so I could control by FX only.  I get most of the same results as rooms with expensive paneling.    

    1. Key to sound “proofing” or “isolation” is a combination of MASS and AIRSPACE between that MASS.   Just doing staggered studs will not cut it….   Just using homosote under your sheet rock will not do it all either.  Think in layers of airspace and mass. 

      As far as sound “dampening” or control you can use things like carpet or acoustic foam.  There is cheap acoustic foam out there available from companies like markertek.  Another very affordable and sometimes free option for helping reflections on floors or walls are CARPET SAMPLES.  Often you can get these for free or a couple of bucks each.  And they actually look very cool all patchwork style on a wall…. 

      1. Also forgot to mention – using old bed eggcrate foam works great on walls but generally looks hideous.  But….all you need is some nice fabric to cover it and some staples or tacks to tack it down over the foam.  Looks great then….

  8. Another thought on a possible fundamental flaw in this plan: if you are working in a space that requires a water pump, wouldn’t this mean you have (or are prone to) water in the room, and therefore high humidity? And if you have high humidity, wouldn’t you get mold, especially with all that foam? How would humidity, et al., affect the equipment?

  9. Another thought on a possible fundamental flaw in this plan: if you are working in a space that requires a water pump, wouldn’t this mean you have (or are prone to) water in the room, and therefore high humidity? And if you have high humidity, wouldn’t you get mold, especially with all that foam? How would humidity, et al., affect the equipment?

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