James Lindenschmidt is General Manager of RealTraps, where he handles the day-to-day operations outside of the factory. He has been listening to, playing, and recording music for 30 years, since he was a child. His degree is in philosophy.
“As the number of large, commercial recording facilities grows smaller and smaller, and with the remarkable availability of affordable recording gear, the number of people producing music in project studios grows every day. Many of us make music in spare bedrooms, basements, garages,or even office buildings – spaces that were not designed and built from the ground up to sound good, but rather were built using simple geometric shapes and standard construction techniques.
Many people working in such spaces invest in the best gear they can afford, yet overlook the importance of good room acoustics. For instance, I speak to clients every day who are frustrated by their mixing experience. They get their gear up and running, and then spend hours meticulously tweaking a mix to sound good in their room, only to be dejected when they play their mixes back in the car or on another system and the bass is completely wrong, either way too flabby and dominant or too anemic and thin. Others spend a lot of time panning and doing EQ adjustments in the critical mid range frequencies, and have to make large changes such as boosting an EQ by 3dB (or even 6dB or more) in order to begin to hear a difference. After they have spent a long time tweaking, everything sounds so much different and unnatural that a great mix seems impossible. They get frustrated, and begin to doubt themselves and their ability to get a great mix.
However, once these clients implement an intelligent acoustic treatment strategy, they realize that the problems they experienced all along were caused by poor room acoustics. Learning to mix is hard, and without an accurate listening environment it is nearly impossible. At the very least it will be much more frustrating to learn how to mix – and later to get great mixes quickly and efficiently – without a decent set of monitors and a good room treatment strategy.
The same story is true for recording music in untreated rooms. I remember years ago when I was learning how to record, getting caught up in the seemingly endless cycle of gear upgrades, thinking that was a path to a professional result. While I am a fan of quality gear and always recommend using the best gear available to you, I quickly learned that the quality of the gear used is less important than I had thought. The first time I installed treatment into one of my recording rooms – simple broadband absorption – and recorded drums, I knew within a few seconds of playback that I’d finally found the missing piece in my recording puzzle. The tracks sounded more “pro” than anything I’d done in the past. This experience showed me that the sound of the room itself is extremely important, probably even more important than the quality of the gear used (provided a basic minimum standard of low-noise, low-distortion specs common in prosumer gear nowadays).
In fact, I’d put the quality of gear 4th in the list of most important factors in producing good recordings. The sound of the room itself and engineering technique fight it out for 2nd and 3rd place. Knowing that the sound in the room is right, and capturing that sound in a way that flatters the song, is what these 2 aspects are about, and they go hand-in-hand. A good engineer always takes the sound of the room into account. Yet far and away the most important factor in making a good recording is – and will always be – a compelling performance. Without that, one cannot create a recording that will command the listener to pay attention.
So given the importance of a good-sounding room in the recording “equation,” how does one achieve a better-sounding room? The remainder of this article will address practical strategies for solving the acoustics problems most of us will face when producing music in small rooms built using standard construction techniques.
The first step is to set up the room correctly, to maximize the sonic potential of the room. In a mixing or mastering room, it is important to make the room as symmetrical as possible, particularly from the listening position forward. Symmetry helps to ensure that you hear a balanced stereo image and soundstage, and will help with panning tracks and balancing mixes more easily.
It is also important that neither the listening position nor the speakers are placed in a null point in the room. All rooms will show a jagged frequency response, with high peaks (+6dB or more) and deep nulls (typically more than -30dB) throughout the bass region. To make things worse, each point in the room has its own unique frequency response. It is important to make sure you aren’t sitting in a null point, such as the exact center of the room. If you don’t avoid a null it will make it impossible to hear the bass adequately, resulting in mixes where the low end is way off. For details on this strategy, including the “38% rule” and how to test for peaks and nulls, I refer you to How To Set Up A Room on the RealTraps website.
Lastly, if you do any tracking in the room you may want to find a “sweet spot” in the room for tracking. For instance, if you are an acoustic guitarist, you can walk around the room while playing your guitar, listening for places in the room where the sound “comes alive” and is pleasing. You can do the same while singing if you are a vocalist, or if you are a drummer you can move the floor tom (to excite the low end) and the snare around, to see where they sound good. Later, we will look at spot treatments in the room to maximize sound quality for these recording zones, but we will begin with the single most important treatment strategy you can implement in a small room.