Date: Sun Mar 4, 2001 11:22 pm
Subject: A re-think on acoustics - long posting
Some of you may have seen some pictures of the studio I am building at
the moment, where - especially the control room ? things look somewhat
?different?. As I am just writing an article for a pro audio magazine
on studio construction / acoustic treatment,
I thought you might be interested in an explanation of ?the reasons
why?. Here is a brief version of the article; sorry it is so long,
it?s a brief version ? really!
I have over the last 30 odd years worked in many studios, on both
sides of the Atlantic. In addition I have done a lot of
troubleshooting for studios as well as studio design firms / builders.
As a result I have formed a number of conclusions, as well as a whole
lot of likes and dislikes (a whole bunch of the latter!).
Now, finally, I am building a place for myself. The reasons? 1). I?m
sick of traveling around. 2). I would like to work in a place where I
have everything I need, the equipment of my choice. 3). One of my main
hates ? ?gotta finish this project ?coz we?ve must be out of this
studio in 2 weeks?. 4). I would like to create an environment where
artists (and me) feel at home, a place that inspires creativity.
Starting with one of my dislikes. Most studios, especially those build
in the last 20 years, have been build to a set of defined design
principles. Nothing wrong with that, especially when it comes to
control rooms. A dead end ? live end room build to set principles of
delay, diffusion and absorbsion works ? often, not always (surround
sound requires a re-think there). But, tracking rooms?.., these used
to be BIG. Often just because more people used to play live in a
studio, and there were a bunch of recording with real orchestras. Any
of you who have ever recorded in a big tracking room (if it was a good
one), will know that it simply is the most wonderful way to record.
Want it to sound smaller? Use some baffles. Want it bigger sounding?
baffles gone and your room mikes sound wonderful. The difference?
natural sound which is pleasing and easy on the ears. Now most
tracking rooms are small, dead and horrible. Hey! we can add anything
you like artificially!!
So, my priority was to find a building with plenty of space,
especially with plenty of height, in which we could get the sounds we
wanted by good microphone placement. Also, a strong preference for a
building without to many square angles, to avoid standing waves
requiring plenty of acoustic treatment. My favorite studios all have
rooms like this ? plenty of ceiling height, uneven surfaces etc. (The
Church, Manor Studio, Abbey Road, Record Plant, Island). After a long
search we found what we thought was the ideal place, a 1 acre property
with a house, a large ?Dutch barn? a smaller barn, a cottage and 2
workshop / sheds. This suited our needs 100%, it allows us to have
one large tracking room, 2 control rooms and a writer / composer room,
all linked to a central machine room.
One thing I noticed over the years. When spending long hours in a
studios, I get headaches quite often. Not a good thing if you?re
trying to be creative. First I thought it was the sound and/or the
work. But then, I didn?t get headaches if I worked at home on music
for equally long hours? So I started taking mental notes. In some
studios, like Virgin?s old Manor House in the UK, I simply never had a
headache. There were other places I worked with the same thing ? no
headache. And then there were places where I always had a headache
(sometimes it could have been the people I worked with :>). What was
the difference? Over time I managed to narrow it down to two main
Air. Bad air conditioning systems. They suck! Most systems do not
pull any fresh air from outside. You?re in what is basically a sealed
space with a bunch of people, breathing the same air for hours. When
it finally dawned on me that air might have something to do with
headaches and lack of energy (duh!!), I asked a friend of mine, a
professor at Loughborough University, to come and do some analyses as
a student project. The results were scary. The one place they
measured had no fresh air intake at all, the air quality was so bad
that he stated ?everyone in there should have gotten ill? The second
place was one which, so I?d been told, had a fresh air intake on the
ventilation system, but definitely a studio where I felt bad if I
spend more than 6 hours at the time. Here the air was even worse. My
friend didn?t understand this; so 2 students went back and did some
more research. The ?fresh air? intake was in the attic, where the
blower was placed. This place was quite damp, and filled with mold
and fungi. The system was therefore blowing spores around the whole
Having done the above, I started looking at other options. There were
many places with good ventilation, but where I still didn?t ?feel
well?. After a couple of years I found the answer, the acoustic
treatment. The more chemically manufactured products in a studio, the
worse I felt. Please note ? I didn?t just go on my own experiences.
Some research into foams, composites etc. Man! Most of that stuff has
some crap in it! The problem is that it doesn?t measure it in great
quantities; it releases ?things? over a long period of time, sometimes
for the lifespan of the product. Nice things, like formaldehyde and
such beauties. The lesser amount of such materials in a studio, the
better I felt after long days / hours. Another lesson learned.
Now you might think that the above gave me a first class dislike of
modern acoustic treatment materials. Well, not really. Its there to
do a job, right? A chainsaw makes a rotten noise; you still use the
thing if you need to. It isn?t the above that makes me dislike foams
and composite panels to that degree, it just emphasized my dislike of
What are the other reasons? In my opinion they are used too much,
sometimes the material does not need to be there in such quantities,
sometimes they are used to mask faults in design which should have
been addressed in the construction stage. Why? You might think I?m
crazy in stating this but; I think they sound REALLY BAD!
How on earth did I reach that conclusion? I have been lucky in that
from a very early age, 15 years to be precise, I started touring,
first as a musician, than as a front-of-house engineer, this in
addition to working in studios. It taught me a lot about acoustics, I
leaned to listen to rooms, from clubs to theaters, from concert halls
to sports arenas and football stadiums. In the early ?70?s, in
addition to listening, I had to add science to it and started taking
measurements, as well as listening. The reason? Quadraphonics. For
about 5 years I toured with some gigantic live quad systems. The
combination of ears and science taught me a whole lot, especially the
effect of different structures and materials on sound.
Sometime people thought I was quite mad, when for instance I pointed
short and long throw midrange horns in all sorts of weird directions,
everywhere but directed towards the audience. Until they heard the
result ? and then they really didn?t understand it anymore. I found
that, where a building had a particular strong reflective surface, one
that effected the PA?s sound in a bad way, I could use that surface to
become the main source of the sound and improve overall sound quality
and dispersion dramatically. The key lessons I learned from all this
Resonance, in particular resonance with some damping, is something you
can use to your advantage. Vibration on the other hand is bad.
Natural materials, like wood and stone, sound infinitely better then
any ?man-made? materials.
Positioning sound generating equipment ?to suit a space? is a major
factor in getting good sound.
Back to the studio
Go into almost any new(ish) studio, be it a home studio, or a
full-blown commercial one. What do you see? Man made panels, foam,
and fibers, covered in nylon or acrylic materials. These panels and
materials work, no question about it ? just look at all the test
reports and all the scientific data. Got some flutter here? This
piece of foam will suck it right out. Some standing waves? Cover the
wall with acoustic panels. But one thing seems to have been
forgotten; IT DOES NOT SOUND GOOD ANYMORE!
Then why is it used all the time? Is it cheap? In my (not so humble,
I?m an opinionated bastard) opinion it is a cheap fix, considered
difficult to screw up. Hold on, did I say cheap fix? Well, that is
another thing, cheap it is certainly not. Apart from that, think
about the effects on your health? If you want to be creative you have
to feel good!
If you are thinking of building a studio, whatever size it may be,
think before you build. There is a lot you can do with natural
materials, like wood, stone, slate etc. It is cheaper, stronger,
sounds better, feels better and is better for your health. Study
things like Helmholz resonators. It is so easy to put a sheet of ply
on a frame, and it does the same job as buying an expensive trap, or
covering a wall with horrible looking pieces of foam.
Need absorbsion and / or diffusion? Nothing on this planet works and
sounds as good as straw. Cloth covering? Jute / Burlap is still
unbeatable, because it is a natural, uneven fiber, we just bought the
?minimum order? quantity from an importer, 150 feet of the stuff for
$140,00, enough to do the whole studio. Use natural dyes and color it
anyway you like. Consider using tongue-and groove wood, looks good,
sounds good, the grooves get rid of flutter and standing waves if you
apply the planks in a pattern suitable to the room.
Don?t get me wrong, I?m not saying never use any modern materials,
they do their job. If you do use them, use them sparingly and with
much thought. Visit some lumber yards, stone masons and building
suppliers, look at all the natural materials available, and ask
yourself if there is an alternative to using foams and composites.
As I am building our own place, I finally had the chance to put my
money where my mouth is. We just finished doing the first sound tests
in the control room, which has timber walls, straw panels and plywood
covered resonating panels. After that, two engineers with ?good ears?
and myself went to 2 established commercial studios with renowned
control rooms and monitor systems, armed with three tracks of high
definition audio and a top DA converter, played the tracks and
returned to our new place. The difference was quite amazing, with the
new control room scoring hands down. The new room sounded clearer,
tighter, we could only describe it as more accurate, a higher
definition of what really was on the tracks.
Perhaps we need to rethink the way we use acoustic materials and the
way we build / design studio space?
Hope you find the above usefull, comments welcome, and remember, I
told you I?m an opinionated bastard. Comments welcome :>)