Room Tuning With Russ Berger

Controlling the sound of a room is no mean feat. But when it comes to setting up a high-quality commercial, home or broadcast studio, you almost certainly need to turn to the pros.

Since I have a personal home studio that varies in use from 5.1 mixes to composing for TV, I thought it would be interesting to pose some questions to Russ Berger, an award-winning designer whose team’s completed over 2500 studio-related projects, and his crew, on how to improve my sound space. Long-time friend and design engineer Vincent Miraglia was kind enough to do a scale drawing of the room, shoot some video and pictures, and send it down to RBDG for analysis. Aside from that, I just wanted to pick Russ’ brain about the oft-neglected arcana of acoustical design.

Has your work changed in the face of The Amazing and Incredible Shrinking Studio?

Russ Berger: With the cost of GOOD gear dropping to a point that’s affordable for the consumer-level musician, there’s been an influx of individuals that are beginning to see that spare bedroom or garage as a perfect spot for a studio. Gone are the days of the $40,000 tape machine or even the $20,000 Pro Tools setup. Today you can get a great mic for under $200, an interface, computer, and controller, and enough plug-ins to make you dizzy for under $3,000.

As for the room, it’s the one variable that will never change. A 12'x10' bedroom 30 years ago sounds just as bad as a 12'x10' bedroom does today. Is the “shrinking” studio a good thing? Sonically, no; creatively, yes! Is it here to stay? You bet.

But to get to your question, “how does our work change with the integration of the shrinking studio?” It hasn’t. We approach the small room with the same attention and objectives as we do the larger rooms. The fundamental difference is the level of compromise with which the owner is willing to live. A small room will never sound as good as a larger room, no matter how many plug-ins and outboard gear you throw at it. And we understand the compromise and have realistic expectations about the things that can be done to drastically improve the acoustical quality of your small room.

So we use physics to help us create a bit of magic. When we look at a small room, we step back and take in the big picture. We look to adjoining spaces, overhead spaces, anything that might provide us with a little space that we can leverage.

You can realize the value of having an adjoining ambient space by walking into your bedroom, closing the door, and clapping your hands. Now, open the bedroom door to the hallway and do the same. Do you hear the difference? Do you hear the nice reverberant tail coming from the next room? It is on this premise that we designed a product that we implement quite often, the pArtScience SpaceCoupler. This device not only allows us to leverage the adjacent space as the open door did, it also excites the sound waves in a way that produces a very nice round ambience to a small room. That being said, the number one most important thing in approaching the design of a small room will be in your understanding what it is and what it is not.

OK, well what’s the most common problem in smaller studios today?

RB: The most common problem in smaller studios is low-end reproduction. You can count on anything below 400Hz to be completely unreliable. A certain amount of space is needed for the low-frequency sound waves to develop. We advise the client that the mid to low end will always be problematic. And the situation can be helped by the intentional placement of bass traps, and other acoustical treatments. Just know there is no magic bullet and the burden will fall on the engineer to overcome this weakness.

Do you notice less outboard gear in recent designs?

RB: Absolutely. Racks are big, equipment is costly, and it consumes a lot of real estate in an already small room. Plug-in algorithms are getting better and better and will continue to find favor among the home studio engineer.

Are more home studios integrating surround setups, and what design considerations come into play?

RB: 5.1 is here to stay. Even when designing a control room primarily used for stereo, we design it ready for 5.1 — even 7.1. You may not be mixing 5.1 now, but chances are you will be within a few years.

The surround sound setup design is not all that different from a left/right setup. Considerations to keep in mind are: left to right symmetry, monitor placement, and mix position. I would suggest starting with identical monitors at ear level with minimal reflective surfaces between you and the speakers.

Does the increasing number of computer screens cause additional problems?

RB: Yes, anything that sits between the listener and the sound source is going to cause a problem. We like to incorporate projectors and acoustically transparent screens. This allows you to place the center channel right behind the screen and the problem is solved. You now have ample space to tile all your windows and nothing stands between you and your sound monitors. Be sure to listen to the projector before you buy. Nowadays, you can usually find ones that are relatively quiet. If a projector is not in your budget, take great care to place the video monitors in a way that does not impede your ability to hear what’s coming from your speakers, and limit your monitor count to two if at all possible.

OK, let’s get it over with: pitch me on your new acoustical product dealie with Auralex.

RB: Well, we wanted products that work well and look great, hence the name pArtScience: part Art, part Science. The SpaceArray is a simple diffusor that works much like any other diffusor, though it’s special in the quality of construction, materials, cost, and the absence of strong visual patterning.

The SpaceCoupler, however, is an entirely new product to the market. It’s based on a technique we’ve been using for over 20 years in our studio designs. It allows you to borrow the volume from another room, closet, or even the space above a grid ceiling. What it can do to the sound of the room is exciting, literally. It also has great applications in auditoriums and restaurants. Though we have not done it, it can even be stacked three high and built into a bedroom or closet door.

So, after looking at the specs of my room, what do you think needs the most attention?

RB: I’m not sure if it requires the most attention, but let’s take your mix position as a starting point. Right now your LCR monitors sit between a door on one side and a wall on the other. The door will cause a problem because of the fact that it will go diaphragmatic at certain frequencies. This will cause a few decibels of variance at those frequencies from left to right, resulting in a poor stereo image. We’re going to flip the mix position to put the wall with the window to your left. You have 128" between the wall and the door at your current mix position. In order to add symmetry between the monitors, we want to build a new wall 128" from your outside wall, perpendicular to the rear wall. This new wall will extend out a few feet and will provide a perfect space for some of your noisier rack gear. Your racks now will fit just between the existing wall of the closet and the new wall coming off the rear wall. Keeping in mind the resale value of your property, the basic objective will be, for all practical purposes, extending the closet out the 27.75" to make it flush with the inside wall. There are some other benefits to this arrangement that will become evident as we get further into the project. See, we have a simple palette from which to work and now we’re ready to paint.