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?
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.
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.”
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!
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.”
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.
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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