As high-quality audio gear becomes ever more affordable, software emulations nip at the heels of some of the most coveted audio hardware, and much of the basic knowledge of the audio field becomes widely disseminated through the web, professional studios still offer more than a few major benefits.
The first among them is the skill and experience of their engineers. But not far behind is the quality of their rooms. There’s no easier place to make good mix choices than a well-tuned listening environment, and no better place to do a performance justice than a comfortable and well-balanced live room.
If you are building or upgrading an existing studio, it’s always always a good idea to set aside ample resources for room treatment and construction, as good tuning can improve the sound of any microphone and the accuracy of any set of speakers.
Meanwhile, in an acoustically neglected rooms, the nicest of mics can sound like rickety imitations, and the best of speakers are plagued with all sorts of misleading resonances and smeared imaging issues.
One of the best ways to make sure you get the most out of your studio is to find other spaces that you admire in your price range, find out what contractor or acoustician contributed to the design and construction, and enlist their help.
Of course, not every production room can justify the budget for an elite acoustic designer or luxurious wood-paneled construction. But any room, from a converted den to a full-time commercial space can benefit from some strategic treatment.
For anywhere from a few hundred dollars on up, it’s more than possible to make real improvements to a studio or listening space that may outshine any high-end gear purchase.
Before you continue on, know that acoustic treatment is not the same thing as soundproofing. It is intended to improve the quality of sound inside your room – not to stop it from getting in and out. If you’re curious about soundproofing, see our recent article Soundproofing the Small Studio. But if you’re ready to take your recording or mix room to the next level, read on.
Where to Start: Speaker Placement
The first thing to consider in any listening room is monitor placement. If your more concerned about a live room, once we get past this section, all the essential information remains the same.
If you’re dealing with a rectangular room, as most small studio owners are, it’s often easiest to get good results by setting up your room longways, so that your front and back walls are as far from one another as possible.
This is because rectangular rooms tend to have the biggest bass problems at about the halfway point of a room, as well as near your back wall, far from the speakers. Although it’s certainly possible to set up a room so that it’s oriented to be wide rather than deep, you may find it more difficult to create a wide sweet spot without incorporating plenty of extra treatment and creative design solutions.
Veteran studio designer Wes Lachot, who helped develop the rooms at Manifold Recording and the new Strange Weather Recording, has been credited with popularizing the “38% Rule.” More than a hard-and-fast law of physics, it’s a general rule of thumb that suggests most rooms will have a fairly well-balanced listening spot just over a third of the way in from the front or back wall.
If you’re just setting up a new room (or questioning your existing layout) this can be a good place to start. Once you select a starting point some of the most often-repeated advice in the studio world is to set up your speakers so that they form an equilateral triangle – where the distance between the speakers is equal to the distance from either speaker to your head when you’re in the listening position.
But don’t just trust this 38% figure blindly. Move around the room while listening to low-end focused music that you are familiar with in order to find a spot that seems the most even, and adjust your speaker placement again if needed It’s advisable to do this before installing any acoustic treatment panels, as they may mask problem areas, which can end up netting you less bang for your buck in the end.