Holiday 2012: How to Set Up a Room for Recording and Mixing

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Recording great-sounding music isn’t dependent upon having world-class preamps and a locker filled with vintage microphones, since the quality of your work isn’t directly related to the quality of your tools. Simply placing equipment in the optimal position can have a major impact on your overall sound quality. It’s vastly more important to know how to use what you have, and if you’re going to be recording and mixing music, it’s really important to set up your room properly. In this article, we’ll discuss how you can optimize your gear by making your recording space sound its best.


The Room

Rooms come in many shapes and sizes; however, some rooms are better for recording and mixing than others. When selecting a room and positioning equipment inside the room, your number-one goal is to create the most neutral listening environment possible. If you have options, it’s better to work in a rectangular room as opposed to a perfectly square room. Oddly shaped rooms can cause inconsistencies in frequency response, as can rooms with exceptionally high, low or vaulted ceilings. Rectangular rooms with average ceiling heights are preferable because you can position your loudspeakers to avoid excessive sound reflections, as well as avoid overly resonant bass frequencies. It’s possible to establish an effective sweet spot for critical listening by positioning the speakers away from a narrow wall on one end of a rectangular room. Square rooms often require more strategically placed acoustic absorption and diffusion material to balance the sound, because bass frequencies tend to be exaggerated. Sometimes it’s more advantageous to set up your equipment in the corner of a square room, as opposed to along a wall. Being in the corner can maximize the throw space in front of the speakers, and provide more diffusion behind them and to their sides.

Acoustic absorption material is used in one form or another in most recording facilities. This material should only be placed in strategic locations, not just where it looks cool. The most common places to put acoustic absorption material is on the ceiling above the loudspeakers, on the walls opposite the loudspeakers, and on the walls behind the loudspeakers. Bass traps are another variant of acoustic treatment that deter low frequencies from collecting in corners, and they are very commonly used. Bass traps like the Auralex LENRD can be purchased commercially, but they can also be made by hand. A four-inch thick material called Owens Corning 703 is often used to construct them. It’s usually a good idea to put bass traps in every corner of the room, and to concentrate your efforts on controlling the bass response in your studio before you tackle high- and mid-frequency reflections.

While some acoustic treatment can really help, it’s usually a bad idea to completely cover a room with acoustic foam and other materials. This will make the room completely dead; meaning that too many of the high frequencies will be absorbed, and your perception of the actual sound will be inaccurately skewed. That said, if your room features wood, tile or cement floors, it’s usually a good idea to cover much of it with rugs or carpeting to prevent excessive echoing. A basic rule is to cover at least half of your room with a combination of diffusion and absorption material, and leave the other half bare. The subject of room acoustics is very deep and fascinating, and it’s highly recommended that you conduct further research before you treat your space.

The Desk

Whether they are located in a professional facility or in a bedroom, most recording studio control rooms are centered around a desk, a mixing console or a flat surface of some kind. This is where you place your computer monitors, computer keyboard, mouse, control surface, audio mixer, lava lamp, etc. Because home studios are typically not very spacious, the most logical place to put your desk is often right up against a wall, so you can maximize the remaining real estate in the room. However, this is usually a really bad idea if your goal is to set up your room properly.

When you’re deciding where to set up your equipment, keep in mind that your main listening position shouldn’t be up against a wall, nor in the center of the room, but rather about 20% away from the center of the room, closer to where your loudspeakers will be placed. If you’ve ever seen the control room of a professional recording studio, you will have noticed that there is space both in front of and behind the main desk, likely positioned a few feet back from the forward facing wall. This is no accident. Your recording space, no matter what it may be, is subject to the same acoustic challenges that professional studios face. Resist the urge to position your desk flush against a wall, and instead find the spot that offers the best acoustical advantages for recording and mixing.   

The Triangle

When you get as far as setting up and positioning your studio monitors, it’s very important to arrange them so that an equilateral triangle is created between the two speakers and your head. For example, if the speakers are on either side of your desk and are positioned six feet away from one another, then your main listening position should be no more and no less than six feet from either speaker, at the apex of the triangle. Six feet of distance is just an example; however, it’s usually a bad idea to have your speakers spread extremely far apart. The speakers should always be positioned at ear level, with your ears at the midpoint between the woofers and the tweeters.

If possible, mount your studio monitors on speaker stands as opposed to placing them directly on your desk or mixing console. Some speaker stands are intentionally really heavy, and others can be filled with sand to make them heavier. The more mass a speaker stand has, the less it will resonate, and the more accurate the speakers will sound. No matter where you place your speakers, it’s important to decouple them from the surface where they sit. Decoupling is the act of adding a barrier between the speaker and the surface upon which it’s placed. A simple layer of dense foam will do the trick, and there are commercial products available for this as well, such as Auralex MoPADS. However, some reference monitors have decoupling built in, such as the Iso-Pads found on Genelec 6000 and 8000 series speakers.

Another pitfall to avoid is placing your monitors near the corners of the room. This is a bad idea because bass collects in the corners and will sound exaggerated. If you’ve been following the tips in this article closely, the corners of your studio will be filled with dense bass traps, so placing your reference monitors in the corners isn’t even an option. It’s usually a bad idea to stick anything that produces or captures sound in a corner, whether it’s an instrument, a microphone, a speaker or somebody’s ears.

The Cables

Things can get pretty complex when you’re trying to optimize the acoustics of your studio, but there’s one thing you can do that’s drop-dead simple: keep the power cables separated from your audio cables. This helps ensure that you won’t pick up any unwanted noise in your audio cabling. Although this is simple in theory, keeping all of these various cables away from each other in practice can be really challenging. Even if you’re using only one or two pieces of equipment, the cabling can still easily turn into a big, jumbled mess if you’re not careful. When you’re wiring an entire studio, the challenge is magnified greatly.

The good thing about managing your cables is that it forces you to be organized, and to really think about how your equipment is configured. It’s a lot easier to keep your power cables separated from your audio cables when you’re starting from scratch and rebuilding your studio from the ground up. Many pieces of rack gear feature the power cables on the far left side of the rear of the unit, which makes it easier to keep things separated. It’s a good idea to use Rip Ties and any other cable management tools at your disposal to help keep everything tidy as you work.

Hopefully these suggestions have given you some direction for optimizing the equipment in your studio. If you still have questions, and would appreciate the opinion of an audio expert on your personal situation, you can speak to a B&H Sales Professional at our SuperStore in New Yrok City, on the phone at 800-606-6969 or via Live Chat.

What do you think? What would you recommend that someone do to make the most of their studio? If you would like to share your thoughts, please feel free to submit a Comment, below.