How to Set Up a Home Studio (Part 7)
Studio Layout & Acoustics
PART 7: Badly positioned equipment in your home studio can mean the difference between a good working environment and a bad one. This month, David Mellor provides some useful guidelines to help make your home studio as efficient as possible.
It is calculated that the average pro recording engineer travels 1.5 miles every day, moving back and forth from one end of the mixing console to the other. He also spins around in his swivel chair a total of 180,000 degrees in the process of turning to face the effects rack. Approximately 15.5 Megajoules of energy are expended in standing up to reach the overhead-mounted outboard effects and sitting down again. Is your home studio as efficient as this?
You may think I'm exaggerating for effect, and of course I am. But I know I'm correct in saying that energy wasted on coping with an inefficient system is energy that could be put to good musical use. The average housewife - or househusband - knows full well that a kitchen needs to be well designed, otherwise most of the time spent in cooking is taken up walking from one work area to another. If the kitchen is designed so that the various pieces of equipment are in a logical sequence, then a lot of effort is saved [and you get your dinner earlier! - Ed.].
Unfortunately, there is no such thing as the perfectly designed studio; there are simply too many conflicting requirements. The BBC Radiophonic Workshop's circular studio, featured in Sound On Sound Feb '89, which I was lucky enough to see at the prototype stage, may come close - for one person operation. But they are restricted on the amount of equipment that can be accommodated, and several small mixers are used simply so that they can be arranged in an arc around the Workshop composer. Fortunately for the Radiophonic Workshop, the Yamaha DMP7 mixer fulfilled their requirement. Larger consoles just would not be able to fit into the available space.
Acoustics also play a role in studio control room layout. As you know, large hard and flat surfaces are ideal for reflecting sound. And reflected sound (specular - mirror-like - reflection as opposed to the less harmful diffuse reflection) is one thing we do not want. Pity that all those effects rack, synth control panel and mixing console surfaces produce reflections in abundance, clouding the wonderfully clear sound coming out of the monitors.
You probably eagerly scan photographs of professional studios for their design ideas and layouts - and so do I. What conclusion do you come to? If you have seen enough studios, then the only conclusion is that there are a thousand and one workable studio designs. Most of them do the job of recording music adequately, but the trade-offs have been made in different ways according to the requirements, and whims, of the studio owner and designer.
As always in this series, I am trying to present ideas which you can incorporate into your own scheme of things. In future SOS articles I shall be delving into the deeper mysteries of studio acoustics, but for now I shall attempt to keep it simple and straightforward.
If you are opening a pro studio, then you will need to engage an experienced studio designer to put together a scheme for you. Some studio owners have lived to regret the decision to go it alone! But even so, a little knowledge about acoustics is very useful, and we home studio owners normally don't have the finance to contract out the design.
It is my philosophy on studio acoustics that perfection is unattainable - which should go without saying - but that you can go a hell of a long way towards perfection for just a little time and effort. The law of diminishing returns is working in our favour, since it is at the lower end of the scale that the returns are at their highest.
Anyway, enough of the philosophy, now for the practicality. There is only one good kind of sound in a studio: a sound that emerges from the speakers, travels past the engineer's head, and then vanishes forever. Unfortunately, any type of surface will reflect sound to some degree, and sound reflections interfere with the direct sound from the speakers causing an uneven frequency response, and reverberation. The frequency response problem is obvious, why reverberation should be undesirable needs comment.
Reverberation, the 'dying away' of a sound, is natural to music. Most music is designed to be performed in a reverberant space - military band music being an obvious exception. When you make a recording, you need to be able to judge how much reverberation is on the recording. Reverberation in the control room will colour your judgement.
Another problem with reverberation in the studio control room is that the frequency response of the room itself may not be flat. More than likely, there will be more reverb at bass frequencies. This will make you think that a recording is more bassy than it actually is. What the engineer needs is to be able to judge truly the sound he is getting. He will then apply his experience to judge what the recording will sound like in a domestic listening room. (I should say that it is not a good idea to record in domestic acoustics on the grounds that a domestic setting is where the recording will be played. Typical living rooms vary considerably in their acoustic qualities. Recordings should be made in rooms which are acoustically as neutral as possible.)
Now you know the problems, what are the solutions? Well the simplest solution, which will go a long way towards improving your recordings - while not solving all the problems mentioned above - is having carpet on the floor and thick curtaining on the walls. By 'thick', I mean thick material and enough of it to hang in very loose folds. Thick velour curtaining hung with a 50% drape (that means twice as much width of material as the width of the wall) will absorb around half of the sound energy that falls upon it. At low frequencies it doesn't work quite as well, but it will definitely have a beneficial effect. If you can't afford velour, use two thicknesses of cheaper material. Try and buy material with a soft, rather than a smooth, surface. And if you aim to get the stuff from a jumble sale, watch out for those grannies with the sharp elbows!
If you want to go further, then Rockwool is the stuff. It is a fibrous mineral material that builders use for heat insulation. It is also very good for absorbing sound, and pro studios use it by the truckload. It needs to be supported by a timber frame and covered with material (usually hessian), but it will absorb nearly 90% of the sound that hits it, and work reasonably well at lower frequencies too.
I know the question you are asking. Why is he talking about absorbing sound when a lot of studios are going for 'live' (non-absorbent) rooms and spaces? The answer is that, in the home studio, you are likely to get a better result.
Reverberation may be beneficial. It certainly will be in the recording area, and a little will help in the control room too. It certainly works better in large rooms rather than small domestic ones. But the one thing reverberation must be is diffused. As an example, consider the difference between a mirror and a sheet of white paper. They both reflect most of the light that falls on them, but the mirror reflects in straight lines, forming an image, whereas the paper scatters the light in all directions. It is the same with sound, but direct reflections have the undesirable interference effect that I mentioned earlier. Diffuse reflections do not. The trouble is that it is not so easy to diffuse sound properly as it is to absorb it. Sound can have long wavelengths, so for a surface to be acoustically rough (as the paper is optically) it needs to have roughness with large dimensions. The difficulties involved definitely point the home recordist in the direction of absorption.
Before we start to get some gear into the room, let's cover the basics. The real fundamental factor is that you have to have two loudspeakers to hear the music in stereo, and you have to be there to do the listening. Too simple? Not really, because this is the foundation from which everything else will grow. Figure 1 shows the relative positioning.
Remembering your school maths, you will recognise this as an equilateral triangle. This gives the best compromise between width of the stereo image, and localisation of panned instruments. If you don't believe me - and there is no written law to say that you have to have things this way - then try it out, preferably in your, by now, acoustically 'dry' room. Come to your own conclusions, write them down, and then you can base the rest of your design on your idea of the best speaker orientation, not somebody else's.
Next, put the speakers into your room. Not literally, but on a diagram so that you can think through the whole design before you start making up fancy speaker stands. The speakers will need to be positioned so that they sit symmetrically between the walls of the room, otherwise the stereo image will be distorted. Normally they are positioned against one wall, but there is no reason why they couldn't be on opposite sides of a diagonal in a square room - at the expense of some wasted space.
Speakers are sensitive to how close they are positioned to reflecting surfaces. The problem is that all loudspeakers tend to radiate sound in all directions - omnidirectionally - at low frequencies. This sound reflects from nearby boundaries and, if the boundary is within half a sound wavelength at some audio frequency, then all frequencies lower than this will tend to be boosted. It may sound like a good idea to get an extra bass boost for nothing, but it usually has the result of making the speaker sound 'boomy'. You would tend to compensate for this by putting less bass on your recordings. Most hi-fi speakers are designed to operate in 'free field' conditions and need to be positioned as far away from walls as the available space will allow. Some studio monitors are designed to be mounted on a boundary, or inset into it; but not those in the typical home studio price bracket.
So the conclusion on speaker positioning is: mount them symmetrically as far away from the walls as space will allow. Don't forget that the floor and the ceiling are boundaries too. Mount the speakers halfway between for good results. When you have a paper design, go into the room with CD player, amp and speakers and try it out. Spend time achieving the right speaker positioning and the right listening position.
Over the years, I have spent more time scratching my head over equipment layout than any other problem in my home studio. The trouble is that there seems to be no ideal solution for one person studio operation. Bear in mind that the engineer/musician is operating a mixing console, keyboard, synth modules, effects, multitrack, stereo tape recorder, sequencer and probably a few other things at the same time. 'At the same time' is the key phrase, because apart from the stereo tape recorder used for the final mix, all of the other equipment is in use all the time. You end up bobbing about from one piece of equipment to another. At the end of a day's recording I often find my knees aching from squatting down in front of the effects rack for too long (and yes, I do put my most used equipment nearer the top).
Still, many of my own problems are a result of - for a variety of reasons - having to have a very compact set up. Let me imagine a home studio owner who can dedicate a whole room to recording and to nothing else. What layout problems will this recordist face?
The first problem is whether you have your master keyboard or your mixing console in front of the speakers. Of course, pro studios always have the console in front of the speakers, because that is where the engineer sits. The keyboard player can go somewhere else, to a less than optimum listening position. When you are the engineer and the keyboard player, you have a dilemma: do you have the best quality sound when you are track-laying, or when you are mixing. For many people, mixing will win out. But there are advantages the other way. For one thing, it is much more inspirational to hear the best quality sound from the optimum listening position whilst recording.
OK. Let's say you have opted to have the mixing console in front of the speakers. Now where do you put the keyboard? To the left of the console? To the right? In parallel with it so you have to turn right round to play? I'll go for the left position, at right angles to the console. I choose this option because it gives me easy access to the input channels of the console, which are conventionally situated on the left side, and they will be in use together with the keyboard as the recording progresses. The sequencer will go nicely above the keyboard.
Next comes the expander rack, assuming you have a few synth expander modules. This has to be very close to the keyboard. If you need to edit the sounds as the recording progresses - and let's assume that as a Sound On Sound reader you are an adventurous swashbuckling recordist - you will need to be able to plonk the keys with one hand while you tweak the expander with the other. There is no substitute for having these two within an armspan! If this is so obvious, why do people have set-ups where it can't be done?
The armspan factor dictates that the expander rack is facing the monitors. It is probably a good idea to look at Figure 2 now. I haven't shown it in the diagram, but the expander modules need to be at keyboard height or above. It is no use having to bend down to get at awkward-to-adjust machinery. Place things like power amps and other equipment that you can set and forget at the bottom of your racks. (Sounds like a good place for Canford Audio's rack-mounted fridge - you'll remember it when you need it.) The right-hand side of the console is still vacant, so it looks like a place for the effects rack and patchbay. Once again, this should be positioned at a height where you will not have to bend down. The patchbay should be the lowest thing in the rack. Why? Because the patch cords will droop all over the other equipment if it isn't.
When you have decided on the layout and have a pretty good idea of how you want things operationally, it's a good idea to go back and consider the arrangement acoustically. Remember that the hard flat surfaces of the equipment cause the kind of reflections that we don't want.
Since we can't make the equipment absorbent, the only option we have is to make sure that the reflections don't go anywhere harmful, ie. into your ears. If you draw a precisely dimensioned diagram, you can draw in the path followed by the direct sound coming from the speakers. Remember that sound reflects at the same angle at which it strikes a surface and you will be able to draw the pattern of reflections. Are any of them hitting the engineer's ears? If so, then angle the equipment so that the reflections aim into a more remote part of the studio. This is not audio black magic but a way of fine-tuning the sound of a room by very simple methods - and you can't say that it costs any money to consider how your equipment is angled.
By now, as long as your mixing console isn't too wide, you should have a system which you can operate without leaving your comfortable seat. I haven't included the possible positioning of the multitrack recorder, but it could be worked into the set-up quite easily. Alternatively, you could put your hand in your pocket and buy a remote control for your tape machine. (Why don't they come with infra-red remotes like TVs and videos? And why doesn't someone invent a MIDI remote?) If the layout I have devised doesn't suit your studio arrangements, then I hope that the procedure I have followed, considering how the acoustics and the different pieces of equipment interact, will help you work out your own layout plans more easily.
Next month I shall be examining in more detail some of the points raised so far by this series.
Feature by David Mellor
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