I was recently invited to visit a small commercial studio to give my opinion on how it was currently set up. I thought I’d share my experience and findings with you in the hope that it will reinforce some of the information I’ve posted so far.
The wrong way
I’ll address the issues I see with each image in turn. As you’ve no doubt read all of my previous posts, every one, try and guess what’s wrong with each image to see if you’ve learnt anything. OK, the image on the far left puts the engineer in a poor position (acoustically speaking). First of all, the left monitor speaker has an office divider on its far side. This will stop reflections from the side wall, but being so close, it can harm the stereo imaging. The other issue here is that the listening position is forced out of the equilateral triangle (see post on monitor placement). The right monitor speaker has the same proximity problem on its far side, but this time, it’s a thin reflective surface that will not only bounce everything back, but the thin metal panels on rack units will also resonate when hit by low frequencies. Your speakers should be an equal distance from side walls, and if you look at the third image – it’s obvious why the desk has been shifted up against the opposite wall (and I think the studio owner has sandwiched it between the divider and rack to address the symmetry problem), but this solution is worst than having to breathe in to access the booth. The other problem with image number one is that the monitors are also behind the iMac, so a lot of the sound is being immediately reflected off the back of the computer. The second image shows the wall opposite the speakers line of fire. Note that there is no acoustic treatment whatsoever…this is not an ideal space acoustically.
Last, but not least, is the vocal/drum booth. This is an impressive DIY booth with all the boxes ticked in terms of design, but I fear that some of the understanding behind why its construction needed to follow certain guidelines has been overlooked. The walls are adorned with acoustic treatment, the window has a 3 inch gap between panes, the walls and ceiling are decoupled from the outer shell (and this gap is stuffed with rock wool), and there’s a fantastic ventilation system. However, when I first saw this booth, I immediately noticed a fluorescent tube light. No! There shouldn’t be a fluorescent tube light within several miles of a recording studio (read my ‘Electrical disturbances’ post for more info). I was ready to lay in to the ventilation system too, but everything external to the booth had been sealed in sound-proofed, baffled boxes – good work. Aside from the light, the booth was almost perfect…but then I spoke. There was a huge boomy echo of low frequency – it sounded like I had my head in a cardboard box. So all this fantastic by-the-book work had gone into the creation of this booth (and a fair bit of time and money too), and it had the exact opposite effect of a vocal booth. My opinion? Rip it down, get a reflection screen, and use the whole room. Can the booth be fixed? Well, removing some of the acoustic foam would help, as all the high frequencies are currently being absorbed, while the low frequencies are left rampant. This is where the boominess comes in. Maybe by installing removable reflective panels to put more of the high frequencies back into the booth, the frequencies would balance out to create a more natural sound. It would take a lot of effort and trial and error to correct the problems with the booth, and just for the sake of having it – I wouldn’t bother.
The right way
This studio has got it right (in my opinion). Let’s take a look.
The first image shows the speakers in the dead-centre of the wall, firing down the length of the room. There is acoustic curtaining to the sides of the speakers, acoustic treatment behind the speakers (although this is less of an issue with front-firing bass ports found on these KRK speakers), and acoustic treatment above the listening position. The speakers are off the desk and sat on good quality, heavy speaker stands. You can also see that the rack is not in the way of sound dispersing from the driver of the speaker. A KRK Ergo system is in use to tidy up anything that acoustic treatment has missed. And don’t worry about the obvious issue of mirrored tiles behind the monitors, this has been addressed and causes no issues…surprisingly enough. The second image shows the opposite wall. There is acoustic curtaining over the solid, reflective surfaces at the sides of the main storage unit, and a large CD collection (which provides diffraction – eliminating strong directional reflections), although there are currently too many CDs in there and it doesn’t work (the studio owner assures me that this is a temporary solution to store CDs from another rack that had broken). There is also acoustic treatment above the drum kit. In the third image is the live room, where most of the recording is done. The acoustic panels can be moved around, and there is plenty of the room left uncovered to provide a nice lively quality, rather than an over-treated deadness.
So, with a little thought and planning, there’s no need to go overboard. The room(s) you have designated for your recording studio may sound great with a little treatment, and by placing equipment in the right spots.
Here’s how I would change the studio I visited for the better (forgive the crude diagram):
Yes, I have removed the vocal/drum booth as it was unnecessary, and it broke the room up into an unmanageable shape. This time, I have treated the room with acoustic tiles (far less expensive than the booth, which was full of acoustic foam anyway), including bass traps in the corners of the wall facing the speakers. Now the desk and speakers sit in the middle of the wall, so the speakers are the same distance from the side walls, (which are made from the same material – brick) and firing down the length of the room. This also leaves enough space for the speakers to be put on stands, and form a nice equilateral triangle with the listening position. In my opinion, the rack should be cut down to make two smaller racks (come to think of it, it may have been two small racks stacked on top of each other), which can be slid in under each side of the desk, keeping them away from the speakers. There is acoustic tiling on the rear wall and on the ceiling above the listening position. Vocals and drums can now be recorded in an open, treated space, with no boominess and a little usable liveliness. Of course there are now more noise issues, but as the studio employs the use of an electronic drum kit fed into software drum samples, it’s not going to be something that will draw the neighbours into a court battle.