Studio Designer | Andy Munro
Top studio designer talks to Janet Angus.
The concepts of studio design and acoustics are very difficult ones to grasp, especially when so many differing opinions exist as to what they involve.
In conversation with Janet Angus, Andy Munro explains some of the intricacies of acoustic design and outlines a few of his thoughts on both commercial and home studios.
Studio design and acoustics are much discussed topics, and they tend to cause a lot of confusion and consternation within the recording field. The studio designer is a fairly unique bird, there being only a handful of them in the world. Only by a track record of success can they prove that their ideas and designs actually work - some better than others.
Andy Munro of Munro Associates is an extremely successful young designer who is properly versed and qualified in acoustics, something which is surprisingly unusual. Unlike architects and surveyors, you are not required to produce actual qualifications of any description in order to set up shop as a studio designer.
Andy's student days consisted of approximately 18 months at Imperial College London studying mechanical engineering. After this period it was felt that his application to academic studies left something to be desired and he and the University came to an understanding. He left. It doesn't seem to have done him much harm, however.
Whilst at University he, like many others, became involved in gigs, playing guitar in a band and generally becoming very interested in the equipment. So he decided to become a recording engineer. Job applications in this area did not meet with success and in the end "I was opportunist enough to get a job with Shure as their technical correspondent, writing about their hi-fi products." Shure used to run a readers' service coupon on all their advertising and so the company was besieged with hundreds of letters every day which Andy answered. "I knew every single pickup, amplifier and you name it on the market. I used to be able to read them off in long lists!"
As his interests broadened Andy started writing for the magazine 'Beat Instrumental' about PA systems, and began to learn about studio microphones. Shure sent him to the company's Chicago headquarters for a few months, and there he attended a conference for Syn-Aud-Con (Synergy Audio Concepts). "There is no definition in an English dictionary for 'synergetic', but it is something like; 'the whole is greater than the sum of the parts'." Syn-Aud-Con was set up by a man called Don Davis who, amongst other things, practically invented equalisation: "1/3-octave EQ, believe it or not was unheard of in those days." Syn-Aud-Con conferences are very intensive and immensely technical and academic, and this one fired Andy's enthusiasm for designing. This was in 1976 and Syn-Aud-Con's ideas weren't necessarily all that different, but significantly, they were the only people who were approaching the problem academically.
Back in England Andy quickly became bored. Because the English branch of Shure did not involve any design work, but consisted purely of marketing; he started getting itchy feet, and wanted to move on to bigger things. "I had an overwhelming desire to design a recording studio. I didn't know anything about it, but being a modest sort of chap I thought 'I could do that!'." Following a year at Allen and Heath in technical marketing, he and Turnkey formulated the idea to run a design company (Turnkey 2) alongside the equipment business. The first studio Andy built was for Rick Parfitt of Status Quo in the billiards room of his Surrey residence. Theoretically this could have gone seriously wrong because you have to learn about studio acoustics in the field; there is no other way you can do it. The biggest problem was that the only correct mixing position was in the chimney, which could not be removed. "It was alright except that every time you stood up you banged your head!"
So what did the novice Mr Munro learn from this first experience? "Not to sit in chimneys when you are trying to mix. No, it sounded alright. It was a good start - building a studio of that size for someone like Status Quo. It was simple and straightforward and we didn't have any real problems."
In 1981 Andy built his first big commercial London Studio: Playground, which became known as the only place to go to record 'new wave' such-as the Cure and Siousxie and the Banshees. It was also the first studio in London to be built from scratch as a live room. "It was designed to be very bright and harsh as a kickback against all the synthesised and electronic sounds they were producing which have a tendency to sound a bit dead." The control room was a novel design and it was used as the basis for many of their subsequent projects.
"People often make the mistake of thinking they don't need or can't afford design and acoustic consultancy."
"The geometry of the room was very carefully worked out and the LEDE principle applied. I'd started developing my own techniques such as what's known as LEDE although I don't call it that." LEDE is a registered trademark of Syn-Aud-Con. "It had occurred to me quite independently that you should try to avoid lots of live reflections near the speakers. By eliminating these reflections you could keep the sound right and make the rest of the room bright."
"The first thing you do when you walk into a studio is listen to the auratones, because you hear a much better stereo image. Why? Because you are listening to the speakers direct, not the room and its reflections."
Andy has a great deal to say about studio monitoring. Even now studios are still using what are basically PA drivers in different boxes and all they sound like is big PA speakers. "They don't bear any resemblance to good quality hi-fi speakers, and that is why most producers mix on small speakers."
Andy started to look at alternatives and then became involved with softdome speakers. "The average large studio monitor produces 15-20% distortion and I was trying to get other manufacturers to develop speakers that would take the power without the distortion. There are now several non-horn loaded speakers on the market, including Westlake, Quested and ATC. It has taken studios four or five years to get used to the idea that their studio monitoring is basically wrong."
Andy thought that speakers should be scaled down to the size of your room, just as your console and tape machine are, and stressed the importance of finding speakers that don't excite the extreme bass.
"It is very unpredictable at low frequencies and small rooms have less room for bass absorbers. If you fix on small speakers close up, it is more accurate than on big ones which are equalised. The greatest problem is that the bass is very difficult to define because of the room's natural standing waves. All the bass tends to be around the edges of small rooms with virtually none in the middle of the room, therefore you should theoretically find a place to mix between the middle and the edge of the room."
"Don't put the speakers in the corners - it is the worst thing you can do. The sound is at best unpredictable and inaccurate. I would put them in the middle and stand at the edge. I know that that's a tremendous generalisation, but it does tend to be true."
"You can't spend too much money on your monitoring system; they must be right for the room. Your listening area must be defined and everything must be as phase linear as possible. This may mean custom building your crossover around the monitoring system. A system with a passive crossover can be optimised to suit the drivers."
"In a small room, you need to diffuse the sound rather than reflect it."
"The UREI Time Aligned monitors are getting a bit old now and are no longer state of the art, but they were very innovative when they first came out and were definitely a move in the right direction. There are a few people who can custom build your monitoring systems (such as Munro Associates). Roger Quested and Westlake are quite good, as is their design philosophy. The worst approach is the all busting big JBLs and the original Eastlakes which had enormous harmonic and phase distortion. Their sound doesn't even remotely resemble what is going down on tape."
"Manufacturers in the hi-fi industry are aware of the problems. People like KEF and BGW, but they don't understand the commercial applications of the recording studio. They think that listening at such high levels is bad for you so they won't design a product that is capable of it. They just don't realise that people want to listen at those sort of levels."
On the subject of sound level, Andy explained that you can use small speakers close up and generate sound levels comparable to those when you listen on the main monitors at 3 metres.
"Sound pressure level (SPL) falls off with the square of the distance. SPL at 2 metres would be a quarter of what it is at 1 metre in a perfect anechoic environment. In more practical terms a speaker generates 120dB at 1 metre, and listening at a normal distance of 3 metres you will only perceive SPL at say 115dB in an accurately designed room, which is comparable to the level in a small speaker at 1 metre."
"It makes quite a dramatic difference. It really becomes a question of whether to use a 100 or 250W power amp. Thus the perceived level of Auratones can compare with the main studio monitors. Of course it does vary with the acoustics of the room, but as a general design criteria, the room must have sufficient ambience to reduce the power required and also to even out the SPL in a large room."
"An LEDE room has the same SPL and sound spectrum anywhere in the back of the room. This is important because keyboards and synths are often set up at the back of the room and the players need to hear accurately what everyone else is playing. It's similar to designing a concert hall; if the hall is too dead then sound dies away. You have to maintain the energy level throughout the hall just as you do in a studio control room."
"People often make the mistake of thinking they don't need or can't afford design and acoustic consultancy, but they are able to analyse a room with extremely sophisticated measuring equipment, and describe what it is receiving and recommend the best place for the speakers and the engineer. In this simple way you can radically improve your results without having to make major changes to the acoustics of the room."
"A small room is acoustically very different anyway. In a lot of ways it is more difficult than a large room and that is why commercial studios should be as large as possible. There are many small studios in London where the acoustics are dreadful, but they can get good results because they are being sensible about how they're using it."
"The best location for a home studio is in the basement with a concrete floor."
"The worst thing you can do is to try to use EQ to correct a room. If you need EQ because the speakers have a natural bass roll-off that's a different matter, but for a 3dB boost you will need an amplifier with twice the power. I am not condemning EQ."
What recommendations would Andy give to prospective studio premises hunters? "The rooms should be as big as possible. You need space for a control room, ideally at least 30 square metres with a ceiling height of over 4 metres. Anything less than that and you will compromise the acoustics. So much music is produced actually in the control room that you need more space since all the musicians playing there must be able to hear the monitors properly."
This all sounds a bit discouraging for the home studio owner, but of course Andy is referring principally to the full blown commercial concerns. Size is really one of the main aspects of differentiation between a home studio and a commercial one.
The definition of the word 'acoustics' is a subject which causes a lot of confusion. "A big problem we have is people not knowing the difference between soundproofing and acoustics. Soundproofing is a structural thing and it is also probably the largest single problem facing the owner of a home studio. You can improve your sound isolation by floating the floor and walls and suspending the ceiling, but even that isn't as straightforward as it sounds. Most people do it incorrectly and it doesn't work; sometimes it will make matters worse. The floating floor is a mechanically tuned device which has a certain resonance. If you get the wrong one you just make the problem worse than it was before. Isolation at very low frequencies needs a structure which is usually too heavy for most domestic premises. The best location for a home studio therefore is in the basement with a concrete floor."
Having established that acoustics does not mean soundproofing there is still room for clarification.
"Most people think of acoustics in terms of absorbing and reflecting, but in a small room you need to diffuse the sound rather than reflect it; scatter rather than bounce. There is a new product on the market invented by Manfred Schroeder which is a system of tuned diffusers which increase ambience without making it any livelier. Making a small room live results simply in making it sound like a bathroom - the sound just bounces around; a properly designed room would just sound brighter. The system works by means of a series of tuned slats which act as a natural transducer by scattering the sound."
Andy went on to discuss the requirements for a studio recording area. "A fully commercial studio needs lots of isolation rooms with different acoustical properties. We built a studio for Aosis, which is quite small with small rooms that are tailor made for medium budget album production work. The studio area needs to have a flexible floor area more than anything else."
Andy has designed studios of all shapes and sizes all over the world, but the studios do tend to fall into two categories: top end production facilities which are almost invariably equipped with Solid State Logic, or studios that are specialised to such an extent that they don't need an SSL to get work (or else they re not trying to attract that kind of business).
"Digital studio equipment will produce different acoustic requirements."
A current project is at Roundhouse Studios in London where an enormous studio is constructed at the back of the existing premises, and this will involve a fairly conventional control room, but with a very large studio for orchestral work. Other specialities include Videosonic in Camden who are geared up for video post-production with full 48-track audio facility and 1" video (as opposed to U-matics). All these studios have completely different design requirements.
"The building and designing of a studio involves 20% studio design and 80% architecture but many people don't realise this. We offer a complete building design service and act as architects working for the client, and the builder is appointed because he is the most suitable and appropriate for a given job. Other consultancy services tend to have packages which you can take or leave regardless of what is actually required. We try to design with the budget in mind and we can do this to suit almost anyone. We are not snobbish, although we refuse to compromise the acoustics or aesthetics, and we will turn work down if it doesn't allow for creative freedom. We turn down as many projects as we take on."
"It is very important to have a good relationship with your client because the building of a studio can take anything up to a year to do. Virtually every studio is different and we can offer a very wide range of projects."
"Small studios feel that they can't afford a studio designer, but it is perfectly possible to have a few days consultancy even if the full architectural services are beyond your budget. If you relate the cost of a studio design to the cost of the equipment it's nothing. And, unlike equipment, you can't take a room back if you don't like it. We operate a measuring and analysis service and you can have just one day's consultancy and ascertain what actually is wrong in the room."
"We are now using the Tecron Analyser which is the first computer to be tailor-made for measuring an acoustic environment. It is very powerful and can perform functions that were previously either impossible or at least difficult and time-consuming."
Using time delay spectrometry the Tecron can measure a series of reflections in the room. It spaces out the waves and shows you what sort of distance the reflection is coming from. By a process of elimination you can then discover what it is that's reflecting the sound and do something about it. It's also capable of many other complex measurements.
The area of acoustic design is mostly enshrouded in mystery, although hopefully some of the mist will have cleared from your eyes. If, however, you are seriously interested in finding out more about it, it seems you are more or less out of luck. The sparse literature which is available for the most part is so over-simplified that it has a negative effect and becomes probably more misleading than educational.
It's a difficult subject to put into words. Perhaps acousticians such as Andy should be encouraged to try to put pen to paper. Somebody must be able to, and it is clear that there is a large demand for more information.
Apart from harbouring a fond desire to be invited to build the Andy Munro answer to concert halls, Munro Associates will probably eventually diversify out of the small recording industry. Having got to grips with studios' present requirements, they are enjoying the lull before the digital storm, when studio design will again be required to change.
"Digital studio equipment will produce different acoustic requirements, such as lower distortion and more extended frequency response on the monitors, something which very few control rooms and monitor system designs can cater for. We recently built a control room like that for Puk Studios in Denmark. The monitoring system is 5-way and it is flat down to 15Hz which is about as low as you can get, but it did take a very big room - 80 square metres in fact. Very few existing London control rooms could do that."
Munro Associates are at (Contact Details).
Interview by Janet Angus