Renegade Room Treatments

So you’re at the point in your recording career where you’ve plunked down all the coins needed on that great gear that promises to “capture all the subtleties and nuances of a performance.” The boxes keep showing up and, like most gear sluts, every time a new piece of gear shows up you call in your buddies to rush to your studio space so you can try out each new addition post-haste. But when you plug in that awesome new mic into that high-end boutique pre, all those “subtleties and nuances” make it glaringly apparent that your performance area just doesn’t sound that good. It’s not like you can just build another studio or spend $10,000 treating and tuning a room — so what do you do?
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DO NOTHING FIRST

Borrowing from the old medical adage: First, do no harm. Before you start assaulting your studio walls/ceilings/floors, take the time to really understand your tracking space and really pinpoint the problem areas. Unlike control room treatments (which focus mainly on creating a flat frequency response in the mix position), performance area acoustic treatments generally fall under the lines of absorption and diffusion. The prime objective is to get a nice, good sounding decay without such traits as flutter echo and slap back.

As in all scenarios, “good” is relative. The needs of your room depend on the room’s projected uses— so take some time to rough cut some tracks using the instruments, playing in the particular styles you foresee yourself most often recording in your space. It’s important that you document these experiments: Make notes of placement of sources and mics, so you can listen back to your test sessions and make some educated guesses as to where your room’s issues lie. Trust me, this will save you much more headaches than just buying some overpriced “acoustic foam” and plastering it randomly all over your room.

TESTING 1 . . . 2 . . . 3 . . .

You know you have some issues to address, but before you commit to a long-term, costly fix, I recommend trying out some cheap, temporary solutions. Drape some blankets over the wall that might be causing you trouble, or stick an overstuffed chair in a corner that gets a little weird when you’re cutting drums. Throw a rug or two down to deaden your floor somewhat if it’s a bit too live for your taste. Remember, these are just to test out your theories; they aren’t as effective as real acoustic treatments. Record with the same placements from your first test run, listen for improvements, and move these “fixes” around as you deem necessary.

WATCH AND LEARN

Phase three is to start working on implementing permanent solutions. As we’re working under the assumption that you don’t have an unlimited budget, we’ll forego instructing you to call in acoustical engineers. While the above option is great (better than doing it yourself, that’s for sure), lacking the monetary resources to call in help like a professional studio owner doesn’t mean that you can’t use your own two eyes and ears and learn from their successes.

Whenever possible, I like to learn from other people’s mistakes. For example, my little brother taught me that it’s not really a good idea to pound a nail into a spray paint can. I learned a valuable lesson from watching his mistake and watching the solution (washing his face with turpentine over and over). I encourage you to take a similar approach and study some studios in your area, taking note of materials used and methods implemented. Ask some questions: Did that area have flutter echo areas? Was that problem solved with diffusion or absorption? Take your notes and return to the home front, ready to apply the knowledge you gained to your own room.

IMPROVISE AND CUSTOMIZE

Take a cue from HGTV: Look for secondhand materials to use, and don’t be afraid to get creative in your presentation. Remember, artists tend to like recording in rooms that have vibe. Need to fix a problematic wall? Build a “shadow-box” style frame 2' wide by 4' long, slide several of those tube-shaped decorative pillows into it (couch cushions work as well), and hang it up. Not only is it effective; it’s portable and can be slid around easily to fine tune your room. You can also frame a sheet of 703 insulation, cover it with canvas, and then paint a few designs on it (Figure 1) — cool looking and functional!

Sure, absorption is easy, you say, but what about diffusion? Another thing I’ve learned from home improvement shows is that room dividers work great as diffusers. I once saw an old episode of This Old House a few years ago where they made a room divider out of 1" galvanized pipes, attached from the floor to the ceiling about every three feet. They had cut 1/4" plywood into 2' by 8' strips and weaved these strips through the vertical pipes (much like a basket weave) — all for less than $80 in material costs. Not only is that a great idea, but you could expand on it to suit your needs: Glue some soft fabric to help treat excess high frequencies, and even break out the paint brush again and customize it for your room. This will address your room’s sonic issues and make your space look unique. As said before, vibe is an important component in getting great cuts out of the band you’re tracking, so make your room look cool. It’ll make your workspace much more comfortable to be in during those 16-hour sessions that stretch through the lonely hours of the night.

THINK FLEXIBLE

Another thing to keep in mind as you start building your unique acoustic solution is that you can construct project pieces that are versatile by just changing up materials used on different surface sides. After all, if you’re like most studio owners, you work on a variety of different projects in any given month, and therefore you’ll need to liven or deaden your room a bit from project to project.

For example, if you go with the picture frame/shadow-box treatment, adding a backing layer on the opposite side of the box that is more/less absorptive than the front can give you added control over your sound. If you’re using canvas as your front, try denim on the back for more absorption, or cotton for a less absorptive side. This way, you can simply flip the panels around as needed, or even attach them to the wall via hinges or hooks (Figure 2) so you can swap textures quickly and easily.

NO SET RULES

Acoustic treatment, whether done via the DIY route or by hiring help, is all trial and error. I don’t care what anyone says: You won’t know if it works until you get it in the room and hit “record.” Even professional acoustic designers with years of experience have to experiment to get a room just right. So try, test, and improvise your way through your project (Figure 3) — a few hardware store excursions and some quality time with your power tools is all it takes to fix up a room. If you keep an open mind, and bring a good dose of that creative spirit that got you into this business in the first place, you’ll be surprised at the quality of results you can get.