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A well-designed room can make the difference between smooth sailing and major headaches down the road. With today’s technology, it doesn’t take thousands of dollars to get the gear needed to set up your home audio studio. Here are a few things (six steps) you should know before you start so that you can spare yourself some months of frustration and get it right from the very beginning.
In the average household, you may have a selection of rooms to choose from. If you have only one option, that choice is simple. Choosing a room is more about avoiding bad qualities than choosing a room with good qualities. Some things to avoid are a cramped space, because the general rule of thumb is the bigger the room, the better. This also provides you with more space for multiple musicians and more space for your ever-growing collection of gear and instruments. So, be smart and choose the bigger room because it will work best for you in the long run.
We sometimes forget how much noise is around us every day, but once you hear it through a microphone, all that noise is magnified one hundred times, and more, in some situations. Here are some sources to look for and avoid: cars, neighbors, plumbing, birds, crickets, wind, rain, and even room air conditioners and generators. All of these common sources of noise can ruin your recordings easily, so pay close attention to which rooms are the worst noise offenders and choose the quietest one with the fewest neighbors. Furthermore, you will want a silent space where you can make as much noise as you want, any time of the day or night. Although some soundproofing may be required for you to create a useable workspace, the process of soundproofing a room is accomplished using a combination of four tactics such as adding mass, damping, decoupling, and filling air gaps. When a room is perfectly soundproofed, outside noises stay outside and don’t disturb your sessions, and inside noises stay inside and don’t disturb your neighbors.
For your recording room, hard flooring, such as concrete, tile, or hardwood, is ideal. Carpeted rooms often cause problems down the road because studios usually get a lot of foot traffic and carpet wears out quickly. In addition, carpet absorbs high frequencies but not the low ones, which negatively affects room acoustics. You can always lay down a small carpet or area rug for your drum kit to prevent it from sliding. The other issue to look out for is excessive foot noise, especially from the upstairs floors. If possible, choose a downstairs room instead.
A bedroom in a typical family home has poor acoustics for a studio—in the worst way. Bedrooms are small, with a low ceiling, and parallel walls are made of drywall. A large room with high ceilings, asymmetrical walls, and lots of irregular surfaces is the best, but chances are you will not find a room like that in a typical home. The pro studios have them only because they spend thousands of dollars to design them, so you will have to make a compromise and choose your best option. Then don’t look back.
Before we can start adding new things into the room, it is best to start by taking everything that we don’t need out of the room. If the room doubles as a bedroom, living room, etc., you may not be able to clear it out completely. Anything that can be removed should be removed.
The fact is that without acoustic treatment, good recordings are virtually impossible, and many beginners skip this part either out of ignorance or a lack of money, and regret it later. The first things to purchase are your bass traps. There are two types to choose from, either porous absorbers or resonant absorbers.
Porous absorbers are really like the first line of defense when tackling general problems with room acoustics. They can be made from acoustic foam, fiberglass, or Rockwool and are extremely effective at taming common problems such as room modes, standing waves, flutter echo, and speaker-boundary interference response. They are very effective because they offer excellent broadband absorption, meaning they work well across the entire frequency spectrum. Yet despite their versatility, porous absorbers have one big flaw. They can’t absorb the lowest bass frequencies unless they’re built super-thick or spaced far off the wall. The reason is that they can only work effectively where a sound wave is at maximum velocity, which in your room is 1/4-wavelength from the wall. A 100 Hz wave is 11.3' long, so its point of maximum velocity is 2.8' off the wall.
Resonant absorbers are like tuned traps and do the opposite by zeroing in on specific problems with bass frequencies and ignoring everything in the mid/upper range. Resonant absorbers work best up against the wall where the sound waves collide because that’s where the pressure is highest. This works great because it means that they occupy far less space in the room. There are two types you should get to know: Helmholtz resonators, which absorb bass frequencies through a small port in an air-tight cavity, and Diaphragmatic absorbers, which neutralize bass frequencies with a vibrating panel or membrane.
In most pro studios, porous and diaphragmatic absorbers work as a team and simply adjust the ratio, so you can control the type of acoustics you want. A drier “studio sound” can be achieved with lots of porous absorption, or an ambient “live sound” can be achieved with less porous absorption and more diaphragmatic absorbers.
The next step is to purchase some acoustic panels and diffusers. There are several manufacturers that also offer packages that come with everything you would need. Bass traps usually go in the corners of the room because this is where those long-bass waves usually hang out. Acoustic panels and diffusers can be purchased to help balance the reflections from surfaces, too. Diffusers usually break the sound wave up so it doesn’t reflect from a flat-wall surface.
Despite the fact that, even though acoustic treatment is perhaps the most essential element for recording good sound, for a small bedroom studio, which only records vocals, etc., the time and cost required to build a vocal booth is more than most people would want to invest. The quick and easy shortcut is to purchase a reflection filter, which I recommend.
Pro studios have the luxury of multiple rooms for multiple tasks; however, in your studio everything will be happening in one room and your setup will be different. There are no set rules for this part, so you may have to do some experimenting to find an arrangement that you like. In general, the idea is to have two areas set up, such as a desk/mixing area for the engineer and a recording area for the musicians. If you are recording others, then arrange the two areas so that each person has their own space to work in. If it’s just you, then the areas must be combined in a way that allows you to multitask without running back and forth.
For the recording area, you will need a single mic stand, a quiet chair, and whatever mic/DI boxes/electronic instruments you use the most. For the desk area, a simple desk will do for now. Arrange your computer, interface, mixer, and other gear. For your studio monitors, there’s a right way to do it and a million wrong ways. On the whole, your head should form an equilateral triangle with your monitors.
Once you have decided on the ways to implement the steps I have outlined above, you’re finished. How you arrange your gear is almost entirely up to you. Experiment and develop a workflow, and over time it will evolve into a setup that feels comfortable to you. The most important thing is that your studio will sound great from the beginning. So start cranking out those tunes.