There’s a lot that goes into having an awesome home studio. You need the right equipment, you’ve got to pick out a room to put that equipment in, and you need to give that room an adequate amount of acoustic treatment.
This topic is probably one of the most overlooked aspects of setting up home studios among beginners.
Some folks think that having great equipment is all they need. While that is a vastly important step, one that’s even more important is treating your recording and production space. Honestly, you’re not even close to getting the full potential out of that fancy equipment if your untreated room is adding loads of color to the sound.
This article is designed to help you achieve better sound quality and acoustics for recording in your listening environment. Now, there’s a lot here to discuss and I advise you to take on this battle in steps. Don’t feel like you need to go out and buy up every absorption and diffusion panel you find.
We’ll get to the first steps to take shortly, but first let’s understand our overall goal here in more detail.
Why Is Acoustic Treatment Necessary?
Let’s better understand this whole concept with a basic example.
Say your home studio exists in a garage. That type of space has a ton of potential for sonic reflections. Next, imagine yourself working on a track that’s close to the mastering phase and you’re attempting some strenuous mixing.
Now, the ability to adequately execute a surgical EQ job on a track requires a sensitive ear, some quality recording gear, and a good listening environment that doesn’t add a bunch of unwanted color to your direct sound.
If you haven’t treated your garage with anything whatsoever, you’re getting an unnatural reference from your monitors. The end result is a mix that sounds off no matter what you do. This means more headaches, and more time trying to win an uphill battle.
That uphill battle is against early reflections, distortion, and unwelcome sonic coloring from your listening environment. These pests are the mortal enemy of any sound engineer or music producer.
Luckily, we have an ally in this battle, and that ally is acoustic treatment.
Treating your environment with numerous types of acoustic utilities enhances your ability to trust your ears as well as your recording and production gear. Controlling acoustics also helps you to achieve better mixes and record sounds with a more natural tone.
This whole process of acoustically controlling your studio room has a deep impact on so many aspects of your creative process. If your goal is to make your musical visions truly come to life, then this is a topic you should take very seriously.
The Difference Between Soundproofing & Treatment
This is probably the most common misconception about acoustic treatment, and it’s an understandable one. The fact of the matter is, soundproofing and treatment are both trying to accomplish entirely different things.
For instance, soundproofing is effective when trying to isolate sound from one room (or environment) from another. This is great if your studio lives in an apartment and you need to keep noise levels from bleeding out to your neighbors.
Treatment of acoustics is an attempt to control sound reflections, distortion, and all other disruptions.
Understanding the difference between these two methods is pretty important. Some folks out there might have the idea that soundproofing does the same job as treatment. In reality, overly soundproofing your room might suffocate your naturally occurring acoustics too much.
Your Invisible Enemy: Acoustic Distortion
Okay, so you’ve seen me reference distortion and early reflections a few times already. Now it’s time to dive a little deeper into what exactly you’re fighting against. In an effort to explain this loaded topic a little better, I’ll break up every type of common distortion individually.
Before that though, let’s talk about how sound travels in a room. Refer to the graphic below.
As you can see in this example of how untreated rooms would perform as a recording environment, the studio monitors are the main source of direct sound.
Direct sound (highlighted in pink) is the majority of what you hear in your stationary listening position. It’s tone is unaltered and it’s sound waves don’t interact as much with the rest of the room. Basically, direct sound is not as much of a threat, but we’ll get more into that later.
Now, take a look at those first reflections (or early reflections). This is the first line of attack from your invisible foe. These reflections are where all of the sonic alterations start to take shape.
With no acoustic panels or bass traps, these sounds project outward in all directions and bounce from surface to surface (walls, ceiling, corners, etc.) as they make their way to your listening position. As all of this is happening, the sound source is becoming more and more distorted by the millisecond.
Again, let’s imagine your studio is in a garage and you’re working on that intricate mixing job. Those early reflections, and all reflections thereafter, are giving you an inaccurate representation of the direct sound coming from your monitors. This of course leads to those headaches we talked about earlier.
Simply describing all sonic distortions as reflections doesn’t quite explain things well enough though. There are numerous levels to talk about here, but we’ll focus on the most common and most well understood.
The most fundamental way of explaining comb filtering in terms of acoustics is when direct sound frequencies interact with reflected frequencies. Those two frequencies might look to be similar if you were strictly comparing their sine waves, but those pesky reflected frequencies will inevitably be slightly delayed.
Even the most minuscule delay can cause distortions, no matter how similar their signals are. I know, earlier I said that direct sound wasn’t a threat, and it’s still not. It’s when reflected sounds start getting their sticky paws on everything that direct sound becomes a problem in your main stationary listening position.
All in all, comb filtering introduces all sorts of sonic disruptions that are very much unwelcome in any listening and recording environment. You wouldn’t want to add a flanger effect to every inch of your track, right? Well, that’s what’s happening here.
Check out this great video on comb filtering for an even more technical explanation.
For this example, think of a massive old church with a gospel choir doing their thing. If your listening position is all the way in the back on the top balcony, you’d be hearing the tail end of the frequencies that the choir is producing.
Imagine the choir abruptly stops singing all together, but you’re still hearing some audible frequencies traveling throughout the church that die out over a short period of time. Well, that right there is the definition of decay.
Decay isn’t always a bad thing, but too much of it can certainly add up pretty quickly. It’s all about finding a balance between a “live” environment and a “dead” one.
As you’ll see later on in this article, you don’t want to overdo things when controlling acoustics. Allowing a healthy amount of decay is actually ideal for your mixes because a small amount of it naturally exists in every environment in the real world.
This one is pretty straightforward. In a nutshell, flutter echo occurs when sound heavily reflects back and forth between any number of untreated parallel surfaces.
The best way to explain this is to think of a group of people playing basketball in an otherwise empty gymnasium. Now, when a player bounces the ball you’ll hear a reverberating echo of that sound bouncing off the walls for a second or more. That’s what makes up flutter echo.
Of all the acoustic distortions out there, flutter echo is one of the absolute worst. Thankfully, depending on the size of your recording studio setup, it’s pretty easy to diagnose and treat.
Some folks out there think that angled walls will do the trick, others think that diffusion panels are the answer. While those two methods might work, the most effective way of handling flutter echo is with absorbers. We’ll get to that later.
For now, check out this helpful video that debunks some common misconceptions about dealing with flutter echo.
Room Modes, Standing Waves & Low-Ends
Alright, so this is a loaded subject. What we’re talking about here is essentially sound-pressure level in a given space. Room modes/standing waves are heavily dependent on the dimensions of your studio space as well as how well-treated it is.
I’m going to leave most of this explanation to the great video below, but standing waves mainly affect low frequencies due to their incredible length.
If you’re anything like me and you’ve had trouble with bass frequencies sounding either too loud, or too quiet, chances are you’re running into an issue with your room mode and standing waves.
Overall, this particular issue lives alongside many of the other forms of acoustic distortion on this list. In fact, you could consider room modes and standing waves to be the culmination of all types of distortion.
In any regard, check out the video below that does a wonderful job of explaining all of this.
By the way, this channel has quite a few videos that cover this topic very well. I highly recommend checking out everything these guys have to offer if you’re keen on learning more about standing waves, achieving better bass frequencies in smaller rooms, and a whole lot more!
Where To Start Treating Your Studio
Now that we understand our enemy a little better and we’ve taken an in-depth look at all the forms of sonic distortion, it’s time to strategize our defense.
I want to stress the fact that you don’t necessarily have to do all of your treatment at once, but there is a good baseline to follow at the beginning. Again, we’ve referenced early reflections a lot in this article. The reason for that is because that’s what needs to be dealt with first and foremost.
So how do you deal with first reflections you ask? Well, it all starts with treating the main surfaces of your studio environment with broadband absorber acoustic panels. Basically, your first step is to absorb as much distortion as possible, especially if you have a small studio.
The initial critical zones you need to treat are:
- Walls – focus on parallel walls the most to kill any flutter echo that might occur.
- Ceiling – no need to go crazy here, but treating your ceiling helps to control decay time.
- Corners – otherwise known as “bass magnets.” Corners really need attention as quickly as possible.
- Studio Desk – the wall behind your desk should be treated fairly well. Also, isolation pads for your studio monitors are a must.
All of this is to say that you can go a long way with just a few minor treatments. Let’s take a look at how our room in the graphic from earlier reacts to sound with even this small level of treatment on the critical zones.
As you can see, those early reflections aren’t bouncing off the walls and altering the sound of those monitors as much. This is exactly what we’re looking for.
Measure Your Room
There’s another step you can take in your early ventures of controlling sonic distortions in your room. I will say that you shouldn’t think of these tools as the answer to all your problems, but they’re useful in their own way.
These software tools are used to measure your room via sound waves. As we learned earlier, room modes and standing waves are dependent on the dimensions of your studio space. Those two forms of distortion is where these tools come in handy.
AcourateDRC is a paid tool that does it’s job quite well.
Room EQ Wizard is a free room measuring tool, and the more popular option.
I will say it again, don’t rely too heavily on these tools, they’re simply meant to give you a good reference point.
Sound Absorption vs. Sound Diffusion
Before we get into some next level treatment strategies, I want to clarify the difference between absorption and diffusion. My main point throughout this section is that diffusion is a step you should wait to take until later on, but it is very useful in its own right.
Sound absorption is meant to actively remove reflections in order to create a “dead zone” (more on that later).
Conversely, sound diffusion is meant to actively deflect sound and spread those frequencies evenly across a given environment.
Diffusion is a very expensive endeavor to take on, hence why I recommend it for later on when you’re ready. It does make for excellent acoustics in a listening and recording environment, but it’s not necessary early on. Absorb those reflections and take it from there.
Advanced Treatment Methods
I know that some of you are itching to know what to do after these basic first treatments. Let’s get into some more advanced tactics to take as you progress on your treatment journey.
Live End Dead End (LEDE)
LEDE is an acoustic treatment concept with a storied history, particularly for control rooms. That doesn’t mean you can’t use this method in a home studio though. While I wouldn’t recommend going down this route if your room is tiny, it’s effective for most mid-to-large-sized studios.
The concept is simple: heavily treat one end of the room (where your studio desk is) with broadband absorbers to create a dead zone around your monitors. The live end of the room (where vocal or instrument recordings occur) is treated with diffusion acoustic panels for ambience.
To further clarify, the live end of your studio is where all of your different microphones live.
This is where you record vocals with your studio mic, and where you record instruments like drums with overhead drum mics or guitars with high SPL dynamic mics.
That’s where the name comes from. Now, let’s break down the two ends of the room and how to treat them in a little more detail.
Dead End Treatment is the fundamentals of all the other methods of treatment that we’ve already covered.
Throwing some broadband absorbers on your parallel walls and the wall behind your studio desk. A good rule of thumb there is to cover 22-30% of the main wall behind your desk, focusing on the small area behind your monitors.
Stick some bass traps in the corners for bass frequencies. Put some isolation pads underneath your studio monitors. Treat the ceiling directly above your desk for high frequencies. You get the idea.
The main idea is to heavily control sonic distortions around the area where the intricate work happens.
Live End Treatment is a tad bit more complicated because it requires a level of finesse. Your main goal on this side of the studio is to create an ambient environment for recording. This helps to achieve a “natural” sound to your recordings.
The only thing you need to do over here is to put up some diffusion acoustic panels and some bass traps in all corners of the room. Now, diffusion panels can cost a pretty penny, so there are plenty of other ways to diffuse sound.
One way is to use a bookshelf, but make sure to place books in there in a jagged pattern. A second option is to hang some guitars or decorations in a coordinated manner. Don’t feel the need to throw an arm and a leg at some diffusion acoustic panels. There are a lot of fun and creative ways to create ambience in your room.
Overall, LEDE is a classic method used by many studioheads, audiophiles, and professional sound engineers over the years. This is about as complete as it gets when it comes to acoustic treatment in a studio.
Coupling & Decoupling
If you’ve ever watched a speaker produce sound, I’m sure you’ve noticed the vibrations that occur on the speaker membrane. The issue that arises from these vibrations is that if your speaker enclosure isn’t properly controlled, you get some sonic inaccuracies and occasional rattles.
There are two ways to handle this problem.
Firstly, the most common method is decoupling. This method attempts to reduce the severity of vibrations from bass frequencies between your floor and your speakers via damping pads. These devices act almost the same as absorbers, and they’re ideal for most floor and speaker types out there.
The second method is a little more nuanced. Coupling is used to try and join your speakers with your floor with such tools as speaker spikes. This method is more ideal for dense floors like concrete which is seldomly seen in home studios.
All in all, coupling and decoupling is the route to go if you feel like going the extra mile. It’s not the most necessary thing to do, but depending on the room where your studio lives, it can make a difference.
Taking Care Of Those Pesky Low Frequencies
No matter what studio environment you have you’ll inevitably have corners. As I said earlier, corners are bass magnets. Standing waves love to live in the corners of your room, and if left untreated, you’ll be hard-pressed to get your bass mixes to sound right.
Low frequencies are probably the most annoying to control and deal with. Broadband absorbers aren’t even close to being enough. The only way to go about this is by using bass traps in all corners of your room.
There are a few different types of bass traps out there. Some of them are better for strictly absorbing low frequencies, other bass traps have the ability to handle a broader range of high frequencies.
I briefly mentioned this earlier, but the back wall on the live end of your room most definitely needs bass traps. The last thing you want is low frequencies interfering with your sensitive vocal or instrument recordings.
Bass traps are an incredibly important piece of the acoustic treatment army, and they should not be overlooked. Believe me, if you’re a producer who loves using 808’s, you’ll notice a massive difference in your mixes with some bass traps thrown up in all four corners of your listening environment.
Finding A Balance
The key to tending to your studio acoustics is not to overdo it! Let me tell you, it’s definitely easy to go a little overboard with acoustic panels, bass traps, and diffusion panels.
You don’t want to completely drown out all of the nuances of your listening environment. Again, your goal is to control, not kill all of those naturally occurring sonic reflections.
You want to find that sweet spot between having an environment that’s great for mixing and recording and an area that leaves some breathing room for creating music.
One of the most beneficial first steps you can take is to use whatever tools you have at your disposal to evaluate the state of your studio environment. Determine the size of your room by physically measuring it, and sonically measuring it with one of the software tools from earlier in this article.
Next, take note of the materials that your room is made of. For example, whether or not the floor is wood, stone, or carpet. Make some adjustments if necessary. A lot of this is dependent on where exactly your studio lives, so it’s worth spending some time to take some meticulous notes on these factors.
Lastly, it might be beneficial to research some ways to treat your room acoustics with some DIY methods. You can make your own absorbing and diffusion acoustic panels at home with a handful of materials including dense foam.
This could be a great way for you to learn what’s too much (and what’s not enough) before dropping a boatload of cash on a bunch of high-end, pre-manufactured utilities.
If you consider yourself to be somewhat of a crafty person, you can make this a really fun project to take on.
So, you know your enemy. You know the enemy’s plan of attack. You also have your own strategies of defense. Luckily, this is a battle that can be won over a period of time, so there’s no huge rush.
That being said, if you’re desperate for better mixes and a more enjoyable experience in your home studio, there’s no better time to get started than right now!
Acoustic treatment doesn’t have to be a stressful or overwhelming endeavor for you. Each and every piece you add helps to create a better environment for your inspirations. As far as I see it, that’s something to be excited about.