Lesson 80

Room Layout

I’m just gonna go over some principles of room layout. There’s a lot of different room shapes and sizes, so rather than going over each as a separate scenario, I’ll just explain the some good techniques to know, wether you are designing a studio from scratch, or working with an existing space.

The room layout has a HUGE impact on the sound quality, and if you know what you are doing, there are things that you can do to make almost any room sound better. 

Generally, the larger the room, the better it is. And smaller rooms need more absorption, to make them sound bigger. This is because a larger room gives the Sound waves more room to disperse, and not build up on top of each other. In a smaller room, the sound bounces off the walls, and each bounce is blended in with the sound from all the other bounces. For high frequencies this is fine, but low and mid range frequencies become muddy. For more information about this, check out lesson 1.3.11, summing frequencies and the blind spot in the ear.
Also, it will be worth checking out lesson 1.17 on room treatment, because it goes hand in hand with room layout.

The main problem is the reflections of bass frequencies, which cause these frequencies to accumulate, and the goal of room treatment is to alleviate these, as well as alleviate standing waves. The challenge is that bass frequencies are also the hardest to absorb. You need thicker panels, and more of them.

Standing waves are very common, and are problematic for a studio. Since sound waves are just like water waves, they have a length from the top peak to the bottom crest, and this length can be measured. When there are 2 parallel walls, inevetibly there will be a specific frequency that the wavelength matches the distance between the walls, and this sound will just bounce back and forth, as well as multiples of the wavelength. We want to avoid this, and therefore avoid parallel walls, and avoid a flat ceiling that is parallel to the floor.

If you have enough space, you can build a wall over top of an existing wall, and angle the drywall sheets. 
an arched or vaulted ceiling is also helpful.

One of my favourite techniques to make a small room behave bigger acoustically is to actually make it bigger acoustically. If there is an adjacent room, or closet that doesn’t need to be acoustically isolated, remove the drywall, fill the wall with rockwool, or roxul safe n sound insulation, and cover the wall with fabric. This way you can still have the wall there, but the sound waves will be partly absorbed as they pass through the insulation, and the room behind acts as a big bass trap. Same can be done with a ceiling if there is an attic or unused space above. 

Another important factor is where in the room you and your main monitors are located. Now, this is more theoretical than practical, because in my experience in various studios, I don’t find this to make a big difference, because in reality sound just bounces around all over the place, but in theory, when sound waves can be perfectly controlled and manipulated, such as in this diagram, it actually makes sense. 
So it’s the rule of having your listening position a third of the way between the 2 farthest walls. The way the waves bounce, this will place you in the most ideal spot to avoid being in a valley or a peak. This only applies if your front and back walls are parallel, such as a rectangular room. In this case, if there is an optimal spot, I guess that’s where it would be, but don’t expect this 1 technique to solve your acoustic problems and bring about world peace. Room treatment and non parallel surfaces and a larger space will get you farther ahead.

One way to think about your room is if you removed the ceiling, and Niagara Falls was pouring into the room. Does the water have somewhere to escape? An open door will help.. but it’s not enough. 

So with room acoustics, if you are in a small room, opening a door will help. Especially if the door is in a corner.. it will basically act as a big bass trap. But think about rushing water... the more the water can exit the room, the more sound can exit the room... which relates to better acoustics. 

If you really want to know how your room is impacting your sound, choose a song that you have heard many times, and you know exactly how it sounds in your space through your speakers. Ideally, choose a song that you mixed. Then disconnect the speakers and hook them up outside. Listen to the song again. Now... you’re really hearing the song, without any influence from room acoustics. I bet you’ll be surprised 

Most professional studios will have a separate room for recording, called the live room, and a room where the engineer sits and does the mixing and controls everything, called the control room. These 2 rooms are usually adjacent and have a big window so you can see into the neighbouring room. The advantage of this setup is that the engineer has his or her own space, and is free to move around, make noise, have a conversation, and and the artist can’t really see what’s on the computer screen. But just because most studios are set up like this, doesn’t mean you have to as well. Acoustically, one big space is better than 2 small spaces, and having a 1 room setup also provides a faster and more efficient workflow.... you just have to be dead quiet while the artist is recording. 

How much treatment is the right amount of treatment? Well... that depends. And when I say treatment.. I mean absorption, especially low frequency.

The trade off is that too much treatment sounds dead, lame, and unexciting. Too little treatment suffers from comb filtering, and muddinness and is echoey. The right balance is somewhere in between. The smaller the room, the more I lean towards dead, because the acoustic problems are just so bad that I want to alleviate them as much as possible.
A larger room will have less inherent acoustical problems, and therefore you can have less treatment to take advantage of the natural reverb that maks pretty much everything sound better.

It also depends on whether you want to prioritize mixing and mastering, or recording in the space. For recording, some natural reverb is nice. For mixing and mastering, I prefer the space to be as dead as possible. When mixing and mastering in a space that has natural reverb, that reverb will mask subtle things like the release settings on a compressor, or parts that are clashing just a little bit. Natural reverb will also mask how much added reverb you are adding to a part, or the whole song. As you dial in more and more reverb... you can’t even hear it until you pass the threshold of the room reverb, and that’s your starting point where you add a bit more reverb until there’s just a dash of it, but by then it’s too much. The right amount of reverb is inaudible because the natural room reverb is masking it. In section 4.1.1 I talk about how mixing a song is like cleaning your kitchen. So with all these subtle things mucking up your mix... your kitchen is a mess... which means your mix is a mess and you won’t be able to clean it up because you can’t hear what needs to be fixed.