Top 10 Things To Think About When Designing A Studio

If you breathe and can form a sentence, it probably hasn’t escaped you that today’s production environment is a drastic departure from what it was in the past. After nearly a quarter century of seeing the state of the art backpedal while the digital world made strides to overcome its obsession with convenience at the sacrifice of fidelity, we’ve finally come to a point where these new systems are offering unified processes in which humans can truly function creatively.

The key to all this is the “system.”

Whether it lies within the software or resides within the surrounding environment, a person’s productivity will be directly proportional to the total system with which he or she interfaces. As a result, the studio design needs to be seen as a complete system providing a total environmental solution.

The following things to think about when designing a studio represent individual aspects of this total process or system. All of these will need to be integrated into that final environmental solution. It’s a lot to think about at once. But the ultimate goal is to create an efficient and sonically accurate system from all the parts.

1. Assess Your Real Needs: Take a long, hard look at your production techniques and your desired end results to determine what you actually need in terms of facility requirements. Ask yourself, “What is my ‘system’ of production and how can the facilities be an efficient part of that system? What acoustical space will I actually need for “live” recording?

2. Develop a Concept Model: Once you know the kind of facility you need, sketch the layout of the rooms, visualizing the ergonomic characteristics such as equipment access and traffic patterns. Pay attention to sight lines for visual communication with the talent (if any). And, most importantly, create room geometries that make acoustical sense and contribute to the overall acoustical system, instead of creating spaces that require added surface treatments to fix problems afterward. This may require that you spend some time studying room modes, ratios and the effects of reflective parallel surfaces.

3. Design An Acoustical System: The perceived need for an acoustical system design has waned in some circles with the advent of lower-cost recording/production technologies that fit into increasingly smaller spaces. Unfortunately, “smaller spaces” do not bode well in the physically constant world of architectural acoustics. So it’s essential to design an acoustical system from the start rather than to apply fixes later. This can be a rather daunting task for the studio owner to tackle because of the sheer number of variables. The reverb times of each space should be predictable and calculated to be even across all bandwidths. The character or diffuse nature of the reverb and early reflections should be engineered into the system for each space and tuned to that space’s desired function.

4. Design An Isolation System: More aptly called “noise control,” isolation systems offer means of controlling sound intrusion from outside-to-inside and inside-to-outside the facility, as well as noise intrusion from mechanical systems (HVAC) and equipment-cooling fans. Noise Criteria (NC) specifications should be determined for each space and systems should be designed to meet these specifications. Digital technology has given us the capability to record with greatly increased dynamic range, but it requires the application of stringent noise-floor specifications in order to take advantage of it. Isolation systems are notorious for being the most expensive part of the studio design because of their robust construction requirements. Isolation is only achieved by a complete system of integrated components with any one omission causing the rest of the system to become ineffectual.

5. Select A Monitor System: Selecting a monitor system beforehand and designing an environmental solution around that monitoring source results in the ability to create a control room whose output translates accurately to the outside world. Determining the type of monitors and their configuration (2, 2.1, 5.1, and so on) and predicting the anticipated monitoring levels allows you to determine the control-room geometry along with the acoustical and isolation systems design requirements.

6. Design The Mechanical Systems: There’s nothing worse than a studio with insufficient cooling and ventilation. If these mechanical systems are not designed into the studio from the start, it will be studio owners’ worst nightmare for both themselves and their future clients.

A studio is not a typical environment from an air-conditioning standpoint because of sealed rooms with high BTU outputs that may require cooling even during winter months. A system must be designed that 1) meets the demand for fresh-air cooling year round, and 2) meets the noise criteria requirements by the use of silencers and/or baffled ducting. The studio designer does everyone a big favor by bringing a mechanical engineer experienced in this type of design into the project from the start.

7. Consider Future Expansion: The studio designer should always keep a eye toward the facility’s future expansion, especially when choosing a site location. The use of modular, movable isolation and modular, acoustical systems may be a very desirable solution for an owner who sees his facility moving to greener pastures at some point, or who does not want to invest heavily in leasehold improvements.

8. Be Realistic About What You Can Afford: A good studio facility design takes into considerations the real needs required to produce the desired product. However, financial constraints may require that an owner builds his facility in phases. This necessitates the drafting of a plan that prioritizes phased building according to productivity and profitability.

9. Hire an Experienced Contractor: When asked, a lot of contractors will tell you they have experience building studios and isolation systems. But beware! They are NOT experienced simply because they once put up drywall in the men’s room at the now-defunct Hit Factory. In all fairness though, contractors may try to help their clients by suggesting cost-saving materials and/or building techniques during construction. However, what starts as good intentions usually turns into disaster because the changed materials may not possess the acoustical properties specified for the system design and any changed designs may short circuit the isolation system’s decoupling properties. Remember that any one point of compromise can render the entire system ineffectual. Given all this potential for compromised end results, the studio designer should give a good hard look at the feasibility of using the prefabricated modular isolation systems that are available as an alternative to conventional construction.

10. And, Most of All, Hire an Experienced Designer or Acoustical Consultant: Like many of us, new studio owners have to wear a lot of hats. But the truth is that multi-tasking truly makes you stupid, especially when experience is the prime prerequisite for putting on certain hats. You can read all you want and be the smartest man in the universe, but, ultimately, the person who has actually sat in the chair the longest and who possesses the proper skill-set to translate experience into working models is going to have the advantage. That experience is invaluable, especially at the conceptual stage of the design. This doesn’t mean you have to hire a turnkey design/build firm. Many people don’t have the means to do this. It simply means that a little quality help or corroboration at the beginning of the process can make all the difference.