Ergonomics for Engineering Autonomy: Seven Studio Design Solutions for the Self

“A man’s reach should exceed his grasp.” —Robert Browning Robert Browning may have been a great poet, but he would have worn himself out in the studio. Thirty years ago, recording studios were designed around a substantially different workflow dynamic than music commonly uses today. Multiple people were dedicated to specific tasks — engineering, producing, assisting, playing instruments, and so on. Digital-era music productions will see its citizens wearing two or more (or all) of those hats simultaneously, as well as a few new job descriptions, like programmer and network engineer.

Despite such a sea of change in how we work, the kinds of places in which we work haven’t changed as much. Perhaps it’s a longing for the old shoebox studios designs of decades ago, which produced so much of the music we still listen to. More likely, though, as change comes slowly on all fronts, digital may have come to dominate the technology but we often still find we work with vintage ergonomics.

Seven of sound’s best studio designers run into this all the time, and here they recall some of their ergonomic challenges and solutions in ways that can apply to many recording scenarios.


When designer Fran Manzella, owner of FM Design Ltd. in New York, met 2Hard Records owner and Sean Paul producer Jeremy Harding at the space that would soon be his studio in Kingston, Jamaica, Manzella knew that ergonomics would be a meaningful factor in accommodating the six-foot, four-inch Harding. Just as important as size, though, was dimension. The available space was 30 feet wide; nearly three times that of its depth. The dimensions indicated a long work surface centered on the console. However, like many producer/engineers now, Harding likes to work alone, doing his own programming and playing while he engineers. Asking a really big guy to have to move between workstations is not efficient — or particularly smart, for that matter. A conventional solution would be a U-shaped work area; however, that would have wasted much of the space on either side of the room.

The solution was to build a work surface with pivoting wings. With the 24-fader Digidesign D-Command console as the center point, Manzella loaded Harding’s MIDI and keyboard gear on one wing and positioned outboard equipment and patch bays on the other. When Harding works alone, he pulls the wings in close to his chair and can simply pivot himself to face whichever bank of gear he needs, without moving far from the speakers’ sweet spot or the console. When the studio has musicians, artists, and others in it, all working at various positions, the work surface is swung open and everyone has plenty of elbow room.

“A key point is to connect the cabling harnesses at the pivot point, as well,” says Manzella. “That way, the cable lengths from there to the equipment never vary.”


Todd Beeten, owner of Sound Construction & Supply in Nashville, plays the angles. When he built studios at Soundtracks in New York and Clint Black’s home in Nashville, he factored the angles of virtually everything into both his acoustical and ergonomic calculations. “A Neve console has 14° of elevation [from front to back] — that’s no accident,” he says, underscoring how well-thought-out many classic pieces of gear are. Newer mixers tend to lie flatter, such as the 4° of rake on the Digidesign Pro Control mixer. Beeten’s response is to increase the rake implicitly in the furniture he builds to hold mixers. Black’s mixing surface has an additional 3° of rake built in, giving the mixer surface a total of 7°. This also has a subtle but perceptible and positive effect on reach and the ability to visually check metering and other cues.

Good ergonomics requires three-dimensional thinking, Beeten stresses. “The world isn’t flat and neither is your work area,” he says. Elevation considerations go beyond the console and extend to speaker and outboard placement. One of the byproducts of the proliferation of digital technology is work-area clutter — even some desktop video editing stations now routinely have two flat-screen monitors. This, says Beeten, compels the entire body to constantly adjust itself within the space, which in turn distorts the relationship between the aim (thus, the accuracy) of the monitors and the listener. Beeten is a builder with a high level of acoustical awareness, and as such seems more willing than more traditional acoustically-oriented studio designers to propose compromises between ergonomics and sonic perfection. He suggests flexible armature supports for monitors that allow them to be adjusted quickly according to the user’s position in the workspace. “Bring the monitors to you rather than adapting your physical position to accommodate them,” he says. “You’ll last longer.”

“Digital may dominate the technology, but we often still find we work with vintage ergonomics.”


Stevie Wonder’s ability to navigate a recording studio without sight is legendary, but music sets no boundaries on physical limitations. That’s why studio designer Steve Durr has built facilities for two wheelchair-bound studio owners so far. Both Dockside Studios in Lafayette, LA, and On Fire Productions in Raleigh-Durham, NC, have mobility-impaired owners. The solutions are to provide for a larger turning area within the workspace for wheelchairs, larger entry portals between rooms, completely flat floors and lowered heights on work surfaces — but not too much lower.

“One thing these kinds of clients have in common is that they are adamant that any accommodation of their situation not impede how anyone else uses the studio,” says Durr. This entails compromise, and as in a chess game, every move produces a new situation. Durr will keep sofitted speakers at the same height, but will lower their aim slightly. That generally means more high-frequency energy will hit the rear of the console (which has already been moved further forward than usual to allow wheelchair access), necessitating an absorptive baffle, composed of Owens Corning 703 fiberglass batting material and 1¼4" pegboard, that extends to the finished floor on that aspect of the console.

The console is lowered from the standard 32 inches from floor to bottom of the work surface, and gauging the drop is generally a matter of two to three inches, a compromise between the seated stature of those in wheelchairs and the standard height.

“Acoustics always seeks perfection; ergonomics acknowledges the reality that because people are involved, you’re not gonna get it,” says Durr. “That’s why everything has to be a common-sense compromise to each unique situation.”


The need to put a lot of stuff in a small space and still make it workable is a common project studio quandary. When John Storyk saw the attic space that composer/producer Scott Freiman had for his Second Act Studios in upstate New York, he realized that quite a task lay ahead. “We quickly realized that there would be a challenge to meld the attic space’s architecture with a very intense ergonomic requirement and still have for the necessary acoustic specifications,” he explains.

Freiman’s requirements, like those of many composer/engineers, called for both a keyboard composing area as well as a surround sound recording and mixing position, facing a small instrument live room. Additionally, he needed a large writing and work surface and if all of this was not enough, he wanted to take advantage of a spectacular view.

“Acoustics always seeks perfection; ergonomics acknowledges that you’re not gonna get it.”

“Many studio configurations with this requirement will have U-shaped layouts,” Storyk says, “but these traditional configurations would not work for Scott — there were simply too many [discrete] surfaces.”

The key component to the ultimate solution, says Storyk, was developing the geometry that allowed the main listening monitors for the composing station to become the rear surround monitors in the mixing position. The third position — his writing surface (mostly for large music and scores, and sometimes an additional keyboard) — became the “bridge” between the composing and mixing stations, which were positioned 180° opposite to each other. It’s also from this position that he can look out over the Hudson River.


Designer Mark Genfan of Acoustic Spaces in Austin, Texas, scans his ergonomic eye across a design looking for ways to combine functions where possible and feasible. A good example of an outcome is at the new post house Frames Per Second in Dallas. There, large diffusers make up a booth wall, with drawers inset in the bottom of the array and a video monitor set in the array, at eye level. The quintessential piece, though, is the application of RPG diffusers to the doors of the studio’s microphone closet. “As there is never enough storage in a studio, and wall space is at a premium, many times we have combined a closet or storage unit with a custom exterior surface of diffuser,” says Genfan. “Since we like to have some diffuse surfaces in a recording room, applying RPG Flutterfree, with a very thin profile, to the doors of a mic closet can make it look cool and be the start of a larger diffuse wall area.”

It’s best to find these opportunities early on. “When we’re in the initial design phase of a facility, we ask our clients to look at the plan or 3D rendering and visualize every task and action in a work day,” Genfan explains. “If they go through this exercise, we can find ways of simplifying and optimizing their chores, by strategic placement, by combining functions where possible, and often getting a good custom wood or metal worker to fabricate what we need.”

One point to be aware of, though, is the need to test the integrity of these multi-function assemblies. A diffuser’s purpose is undermined if it’s attached to an unstable surface. A door, for instance, can resonate or rattle. In the process of ringing out the room, you can check for these issues by running a steady stream of pink noise down to 20Hz, listening for vibrations and rattles, or hitting assemblies such as this one with blasts from an amplified kick drum through a speaker.


Designer David Frangioni has seen the trends of more complex multi-purpose studios and one-person operations in small spaces converge in recent years. At one of these, a private facility in South Florida, the user needed to be able to access a video editing system using Apple’s Final Cut Pro, a large Pro Tools system, and an array of instruments including keyboards and drum machines, and move among them seamlessly.

“Customizing a workspace for your own particular needs can’t help but improve the outcome of your sessions.”

This project also added another increasingly common challenge. “You could describe this client as ‘technical, but not a technician,’” Frangioni says, a description that could define much of the project studio cohort as digital systems become more sophisticated and numerous. This required a solution that would allow the client to access easily an array of gear set up in a highly personalized configuration, yet would still be “neutral” enough for any outside engineer to come in and feel immediately comfortable.

The answer lay in a combination of a patch bay that acts as a locus for all audio, video, and MIDI systems that normals key components for the owner but gives other engineers lots of flexibility (a layout that puts all of the equipment into a 270° in-the-round arrangement and all within reach from a central Aeron chair), and the inclusion of a Lexicon MC-12 surround audio processor.

That last idea is particularly noteworthy. The surround processor is used like a powerful matrix, allowing macros of the video and audio equipment to be pulled and routed to the main monitors in the center of the layout. “We used the Lexicon as a high-resolution processor and digital audio-video switcher,” explains Frangioni, who regularly uses surround processors in the upscale home theater systems he designs. “He can have any setup he wants as a preset, such as a CD player and an instrument to play along with. We were able to simplify the access to the equipment using a piece of gear not usually used in a recording studio.”

Indeed, that’s using a box to think outside the box.


Speaking of boxes, Rascal Flatts’ bassist Jay DeMarcus was planning on turning what had been a walk-in closet in his Nashville home into a small office, as it was located directly off of where the control room would be. Studio designer Carl Tatz instead saw an opportunity to add to the studio’s productivity by making it into a programming suite. At seven-by-nine feet, the space is relatively tight, but by soffiting the Dynaudio M-1s speakers into the Masonite-covered 3/4" plywood and positioning a pair of NHT U-1 subs on the floor beneath the built-in marble work surface, a closet became an acoustically valid alternate workplace. Soundproofing with Owens Corning 703 batting material provided diffusion and absorption, which allows the programmer to work without interacting acoustically with the rest of the studio. Instead of trying to float the entire floor, the subs were placed on individual sand-filled plenums, minimizing mechanical coupling with the rest of the room. A wireless keyboard and mouse for the Apple computer on the counter completes what Tatz calls “a little miracle.”

Customizing a workspace so that it fits your own particular needs can’t help but improve the outcome of your sessions. Adopting an ergonomic mindset, taking into account the way you do work as opposed to adhering to theories about how you should work, minimizes the obstacles between your ideas and the execution thereof. We all know that modern gear is a powerful toolset for musician/engineers — but without a logical and efficient layout, it can become powerfully cumbersome.