Darth Fader: Creating Your First Studio
By Darth Fader
Setting up your first studio is an exciting idea. Not as exciting as racing 74-Z speeder bikes, but fun nonetheless. My first studio was in Maul’s basement right around the time of the Imperialization. That’s where we did the first demos for Figrin D’an before he hooked up with the Modal Nodes.
Planning is an important part of creating a recording studio. Notice I said “creating” and not “building.” We’ll assume that you don’t have the budget to build a studio from scratch, which would be a discussion for another millennium. The first question you must answer is “what type of studio? “ because the function dictates the form. A mastering studio has a different purpose than a tracking room or a mixing room or an editing suite. However all of them share certain properties:
1. You need isolation from the outside world, to keep sound inside so that you don’t cause problems with the neighbors. You also want sound from the outside world kept out to avoid unwanted distraction and interference while you are working.
2. In studios where live instruments will be recorded, you need isolation between the studio (where the performers are located) and the control room (where your recording gear is located). This is important so that you hear only what is coming through the microphone(s), not sound leaking through the doorway and windows.
3. It would be a good thing if the room did not color the sound, and did not emphasize one or more frequencies over the other frequencies.
To understand what you are dealing with, I must give you a very brief lesson in science. I promise to keep it more simple than the physics of Nal Hutta. Be still and absorb so that I don’t have to put you in a Geonosian containment field.
Sound is a form of mechanical energy or vibration that transmits through just about anything (liquid, solid or gas). Sound energy can be reduced by converting it to heat or by placing barriers in the way. Low frequencies in particular produce a lot of energy at loud volumes and are more difficult to control. That’s why you can hear the thump of a gasan string drum from outside the Mos Eisley townhouse but you can’t hear the high notes from a kloo horn. High frequency sound is easier to control. The only way to stop sound from traveling from one place to another is by using mass and placing barriers (walls, floors etc) in between the sound and your neighbors. This is always expensive.
This presents problem number one when creating a studio: how we do not piss off the neighbors (and vice-versa)? It helps to start with a room that is relatively isolated, meaning it does not share a wall with the old hag next door. It would also be a good idea if it were not next to a children’s playroom or the laundry room. This is a big reason why many home studios find their way into the basement. Without need for additional (expen$ive) construction, most basements are already somewhat isolated from the rest of the world.
Some of your friends who think they know about sound might tell you that you can “sound proof” a room by lining the walls with egg cartons (um… empty egg cartons). This is not true. First of all there is rarely any room built that is “sound proof.” Second, the egg cartons will do absolutely nothing to stop sound from traveling through the walls. They may change the way sound behaves inside the room, but remember: the only way to stop sound is mass. And egg cartons have no mass. The same is true for a variety of acoustic foam, foam mattress pads or curtains: they may change the behavior of sound inside the room, but they will do absolutely nothing to keep sound from leaking out of the room. Don’t waste your credits. In some cases you may have to use another studio as a mother ship where you might record drums, electric guitars and other loud instruments. Then you can do vocals, keyboards and acoustic guitars back at your own place.
Now that we have that out of the way we will proceed under the assumption that construction and carpentry are not in the budget, but there’s a lot you can do even without a budget. Start by making sure that there are no places for sound to leak into or out of the room. The big culprits of leakage are doors and windows, since by nature they must open and close to allow air to flow through the room. Turn the lights out in your potential studio room and close the door. Can you see light leaking through the doorway? If so then sound will surely leak through. Simple foam weather stripping and a sweep at the bottom can help reduce a lot of leakage through a doorway. The type of door makes a difference. Many residential doors are hollow-core, meaning that they are made from two thin layers of wood attached to a flimsy, hollow frame. A hollow-core door will resonate just like a drum and does not provide much acoustic isolation. Solid-core doors provide much better insulation from outside sound (in fact commercial studios often use two solid-core doors glued and/or bolted together as a single massive door). Windows suffer the same fate though changing windows is also probably not in your budget. That’s why it’s important to start with a room that is “studio friendly.” It may also be helpful to choose a room that does not have a door or windows in the corners because corners are a likely place to add acoustic treatment (which we will discuss another time). If it is possible to put your studio in a location where there are empty rooms between you and the rest of the world, even better. For example if the studio shares a wall with a walk-in closet, that’s a good thing because the closet will help isolate you from noise the next room.
Try to choose a room that is rectangular and symmetrical. Rooms that are square (e.g. 8x8) are a no-no, and rooms that are the same size in all three dimensions are a sonic disaster. At the least you are looking for a room with three different dimensions, none of which are multiples of each other. For example a room that is 8x12x16 feet is not a good acoustic environment. A room with dimensions of 10x11.4x13.9 feet starts you off with fewer problems. A discussion of room modes and modal distribution is beyond the confines of our space but an internet search for “golden room ratios” will yield plenty of data. If you have a choice between a room that’s 10x10x10 or 10x11x14, then the latter gives you a head start.
Origin of Symmetry
Once you have chosen a room, you can begin to think about placing your equipment in it. Start with the speakers and your listening position: set up the speakers between the width of the room, as shown in the illustration. Avoid placing the speakers halfway between two opposing walls because that’s an area where bass response is typically poor. Also, distance of the speaker to the front wall (the front wall is the one you look at when facing the speakers) and the side walls should not be the same. In other words don’t place the speakers three feet from the front wall and three feet from the side walls. There’s an acoustic theory that goes back to Emperor Palpatine stating that the best listening position is 38% into the length of the room. This is a good starting point. After the Separatist Crisis, the Sith Lords enacted a tenet mandating that the speakers should be placed 0.276 x room width away from the side walls and 0.447 x room width from the front wall. Again this is a good starting point (note that the illustration shows the position of the left speaker. The right speaker should mirror placement of the left).
Before you move any more gear into the room you should listen to some music based on these positions and make adjustments. Use CD’s not MP3’s for listening. MP3s are not of high enough quality to make listening decisions. You are listening for consistency, where certain frequencies are not pronounced over others. Also find out how much you can move from the listening area before the sound changes dramatically (this will be important when you are working with other people). Listen to music with which you are very familiar and have heard on various systems. A somewhat more scientific approach can be taken using room analysis apps for your iPhone though their accuracy may be somewhat limited.
Speakers should be “de-coupled” from the rest of the room. This means that placing them directly on your work desk should be avoided. Invest in a set of isolation pads to place under the speakers, such as Auralex MoPADs or Recoil Stabilizers. Such iso pads prevent vibration from transmitting into the desk (and floor) where they create resonances that color your perception. In fact even if you are using speaker stands it’s a good idea to set the speakers on pads to prevent transmission from the speaker platform through the stand and into the floor.
Well, I gotta a get to a gig on Clak’dor VII. Until next time, may the force be with you.