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October 1, 2000

Max-WallSo you put together a nifty little personal studio in your extra bedroom. You have a nice new mixer, a great recorder, some slammin' monitors, expensive microphones, and numerous racks of other stuff. Everything is hooked up and running when you realize that you're facing some problems.

You notice that your oh-so-sensitive condenser mic picks up every little sound in the room - as well as the sound of the room itself - and all the sounds are bad. At least you think they are, but you can't be sure because the sound of your monitors changes radically as you move about in the room. You complete some mixes, only to find that they sound completely different when played back on other people's speakers.

You don't have thousands of dollars to spend on a full-blown acoustic-treatment system, and you couldn't install one anyway because you rent the house and can't permanently affix materials to the walls and ceiling. Egad! What are you going to do?

Enter the ingenious Auralex Acoustics Max-Wall modular acoustic environment ($349).

Max-Wall SmartMax is an acronym for Mobile Absorptive eXpandable, and the Max-Wall acoustic-treatment system is both mobile and modular. By mounting 48-by-20-by-4.375-inch absorbent panels on easily movable tripod stands, Auralex has created one of those solutions that should have been obvious to everyone all along.

Each Max-Wall panel has a hole that runs through it from top to bottom, enabling you to place the panel over the stand. A stand can take up to three panels. Once you've positioned the panels at the desired height, you keep the stack in place by attaching a clamp to the stand just below the lowest panel.

Additionally, each panel has a 20-inch "male" molding on one side as well as a 20-inch "female" molding on the other, both covered with squared-off end caps. When you remove the caps, you can connect adjacent panels to form longer panels (8 feet, 12 feet, 16 feet, and so on). A flexible component next to the center hole allows you to bend individual panels at a 45-degree angle to form corner panels.

You can place the panels around a mixing area to form a tight acoustic space. Set them against one or more walls for general sound control, or use them to create a pseudo-isolation booth for recording acoustic instruments or vocals.

An optional window unit ($99) is available for the latter application; it contains a 12-by-18-inch Plexiglas window and can be used with a gooseneck microphone attachment, making it a key component in an ad hoc vocal booth.

Sold by the box, Max-Wall comes with four panels and two tripod stands. The stands, which resemble microphone stands, come with 18-inch extensions for raising really high Max-Walls.

Absorb ThisI requested three Max-Wall boxes, so I received 12 panels and 6 stands. The easy-to-follow instructions made setting up the stands and sliding the panels over them a piece of cake. I quickly had four stacks of three panels. I put one stack directly behind the table holding my mixer, monitors, and some outboard gear. I placed the others on my right, my left, and behind me, creating a square-shaped space about eight feet across.

This arrangement essentially engulfed the monitoring and mixing area and resulted in too much absorption. The panels sucked all of the life - actually, the highs and high-mids - out of the recordings played. Although the idea of an acoustically dead room holds a certain theoretical appeal, it proved unworkable in practice.

I moved the panels around and received the best results from a square arrangement about 14 feet across, with fairly large spaces between the panels. The Max-Walls work very well, and a little bit of absorption goes a long way. This setup gave me the ideal balance of live and dead characteristics that I needed.

I also used three stacks of panels to form a recording space. They provided a surprising amount of sound insulation (keeping out unwanted noises) and damped the reflections of the instruments I recorded, channeling their sound directly into the microphone. I also found that by placing a single panel over a window, I could significantly reduce the ambient sound in the room. Now that's absorption!

LowdownIf you can relate to any of the problems I mentioned in the opening paragraphs, you owe it to yourself to check out the Max-Wall. While you're at it, look into the stand-mounted versions of Auralex's Lenrd (Low-End Node Reduction Device) bass traps ($319 for a box of four). They'll help you keep the other end of the aural spectrum under control. Who knows, Max and Lenrd may just become your new sound guys.

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