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Acoustics & Studio Design 101

Female audio engineer working at console in acoustic settings.One of the most often glossed-over aspects of recording is room acoustics and sound design. Every space has its own sound, and some places have iconic reputations based off of their room acoustics. In early recording studios, acoustical sound design was a happy accident. Now, there is enough information available to take a thoughtful approach to design to achieve fantastic results in almost any space. Even more exciting, a sound designer can actually interact and manipulate the space in any recording environment to create dynamic and textured recorded tracks.

Examples of Historical Room Acoustics & Studio Design

Some well-known recording environments of all time look very small and to a non-creative eye, while others were massive structures. What ties them together is the consideration the space’s unique properties. This helps by finding ways to incorporate the room acoustics to make what have become legendary recording tracks.

Most of the iconic hit songs from the Motown era were recorded using a space in a house’s converted garage. This studio (now a museum) at 2648 W. Grand Blvd was nicknamed Hitsville U.S.A for all the hit recordings that were made there. Record-makers all over the world envied the unique sonic space that Motown sides cut, especially the very particular echo on those recordings. This echo was achieved by taking advantage of the room acoustics of the attic of the building, utilizing it as an echo chamber. To capture the sound, a line from the mixing console ran to a speaker in the attic. Then the affected audio was picked up by a mic and run back into the return of the console. That is a big proponent to why others could not duplicate the Motown sound back then. Along with all the talent involved in making the recordings, there wasn’t another setting that sounded like that converted garage and no one else was using that attic for echo.

An example on the opposite side of the spectrum to Motown’s small garage recording space would be Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in New Jersey. This studio, where many classic jazz albums dropped, had a 40-foot wooden vaulted ceiling. The ceiling contributed to the particular sound that was achieved there.

Designing A Space to Achieve Creative Results

An important consideration when preparing a space for recordings is to remember that the space is a creative environment. Whatever change needed to maximize creativity in the studio’s development should be of paramount importance. Definitely follow established set-up guidelines to some degree but trust your ears and your heart in tweaking things until they please you.

There are many factors that affect the unique sonic quality of your recording space. When it comes to mic placement, don’t be afraid to get physical when getting to know your space. Hanging microphones from the ceiling, in a high corner of the room, pointed up against a wall (or away from), and testing different results with your mic pointed directly towards your sound source (testing at various increments of distance, from half an inch all the way up to the length of the entire recording space), can give you lots of ideas about how to set your space up to achieve the sounds you want.

Use creativity to capture natural reverb sounds. Bathrooms, stairwells, empty rooms with concrete or wood floors, all can have their natural reverb. All it takes is a speaker in the reverberating area where you are playing the track you want affected. Place a diaphragm mic or mics to pick up the reverb sound going into the return, and monitor the results. Your room treatment will alter how the sound reflects. Be sure to experiment with your recording gear and acoustic treatments.

Controlling Your Environment

Unless you have a naturally dead room, you should consider your space’s sound reflection when setting up your recording area. The most common way to do this is to acoustically treat your recording area. You may set up foam panels along the walls and vocal booth to absorb unwanted sound. You can go for a mixture of treated and untreated areas, but to prevent unwanted reflections you will need to isolate.

One way of combining acoustically dead and reflective areas is to use diffusers. These look something like if a chessboard had a bit of cavity in each square.

Along with diffusers, other important ways to treat a room include bass traps and acoustic panels. Acoustic panels help absorb mid/high range frequencies and bass traps absorb the lowest frequencies. An ideal and simple way to determine how much treatment you will need is to clap around the room. Wherever you hear an unpleasant ringing sound, you will likely need more treatment. Where you hear a pleasant reverberated sound, you will likely need less.

Blankets, comforters, cushions, and mattresses can prepare a space for recording if you are on a budget. Any of these things will absorb some of the sound, it will take some testing and ingenuity. You will however want to budget for at least some of the professional-grade options.

Moving Forward

While this primer can get you on your feet, nothing can take the place of real-world application. Testing recording environments and bouncing ideas off peers and instructors can make a huge difference. This can help take a lot of guesswork out of the process when trying to achieve particular results. Whatever your recording goals, formal learning, experimentation, and hours of solo projects can help get you there.

Did learning about room acoustics and studio design interest you? The audio production and engineering program  at the Institute of Production and Recording is an occupational degree program designed to train producer engineers who are entrepreneurs, musically and technically creative, and proficient in modern recording technology and technique. Throughout the program, students work on hands-on exercises and real-world studio projects that enable them to apply their knowledge and refine their skills.

At the end of the audio production and engineering program, each student presents a portfolio — a selection of his or her best work to date. This serves as a demo reel for potential employers and clients — an audio resume with professional content that highlights the graduate’s talent and skill.

Contact us today to learn more about the audio production and engineering program and starting a rewarding career in the music industry.