ROOM ACOUSTICS IN DEPTH
Computer Music|October 2021
We’ve just looked at some DIY acoustic solutions. Now some simpler and more ‘pro’ routes to turn your abode into a studio

While we’ve just covered some acoustic basics and DIY options in our main How To Build A Home Studio feature (from p18), room acoustics is such an important subject that it deserves its own, more in-depth piece – and other solutions. That’s simply because the space you play and record in will play a key role in the sound of your projects, but this fact is often overlooked by budding music producers, especially those more accustomed to making music using virtual instruments and pre-recorded samples. And if you’re planning to bring anyone else into the equation, they’ll probably benefit from having a few square feet to perform in.

With spaces come acoustics, and that means ambience, reverb, echo and general sound reflections, all of which will colour the sound. This isn’t a big deal if you like to get up close and personal with your favourite mic. But move that mic back a bit and the room and instrument will begin to combine to form the overall sound picture, and at this stage you’ll want that room to enhance, rather than detract from, the sound.

Needless to say, the variables are endless and the science behind it all can be complex. If you take a look at pictures of a pro studio you’ll see all sorts of acoustic techniques at work in any one room, and there are plenty of underlying factors, such as room dimensions and building structure, that influence the sound of the space as well.

Even so, one thing you may spot is that studio control rooms often have a lot more acoustic treatment than the recording or ‘live’ spaces (yes, the clue is in the name). That’s because control rooms are designed to create a flat frequency response for wide-ranging monitoring levels at a specific listening or ‘sweet’ spot. Live spaces, on the other hand, are usually designed to offer a combination of ambient reverb, surface reflective sound, atmosphere and space for a few or many more performers.

This may seem like pie in the sky territory as you approach a vocal recording in a small room that also doubles as your control room, office or even bedroom, but the distinction is important. The bottom line is, all spaces have their uses. In a typical house you’ll find everything from dead bedrooms to lively tiled bathrooms, and reverberant hallways to wooden-floored living rooms. So before you even start thinking about treating or modifying your spaces, listen to how they sound in the first place.

Acoustics primer

OK, here’s the science. Acoustics revolves around sound waves. A sound wave is simultaneously a longitudinal and compression wave and it needs some kind of medium to travel in, such as air or water. Without this (in a vacuum) it won’t get very far, and as you probably already know, in space, no one can hear you scream.

The wave itself has typical wave-like properties, including amplitude (loudness) and frequency (pitch). When you ‘hear’ the wave, it vibrates your eardrum, and this is transferred via the middle ear to the cochlea and then the auditory nerve. Just as with other nerve stimuli, the brain then interprets that information (eg, ‘that’s not in tune’). Average human hearing is limited to frequencies in the range 20Hz to 20kHz, but instruments and recording gear can easily operate beyond these limits.

So far so good, but things are complicated by the way the sound travels around a room. When it hits a surface, some of the sound energy is lost through a process of absorption (and typically converted to heat and vibration), but most of it is reflected, so that it continues its journey until it hits another surface.

The problem is, our ears (as well as microphones) will ‘hear’ a sound source directly, and from a number of these reflections. Early reflections could arrive around the same time as the direct sound, sounding like a bunch of quick short delays, while others may be far more scrambled or diffused with a much longer ‘feedback’ (reverberant field). It’s the combination of these reflections that gives a space its acoustic character, and this can vary from amazing (a church) to pretty unpleasant (a tiled bathroom).

Treatment and design

Theory is one thing, but we all know that in practice we can produce music in even the most unusual spaces. What this inevitably means is that there’s plenty of room for trial and error and making it up as you go along. But empowering though that undoubtedly is, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel, so here’s some practical advice for treating your own space.

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