Go Big Or Go Home – Do You Really Need A Big Room For A Recording Studio?
"As big as possible ." This is normally the answer you get from professionals when asked what the ideal room size for your recording studio should be. Then they may continue with, "Preferably at least 16 X 20 feet for the studio." And for good measure some might add, "and then for the recording booth..." By now you're not even listening anymore. Your throat already started closing up as you are still trying to digest the first dimensions mentioned. Relax, you don't need such a large space.
But make no mistake, the space in which you are going to perform your recording is not only very important, but essential to determine and sort out first. (Before even thinking about the equipment you are going to purchase for your home recording studio.)
Yes, a big room is optimal for the best acoustics, and having a a separate "live room" and "recording booth" is also ideal. But remember you are building a home recording studio, not a professional commercial recording studio. In order to better understand the reasoning behind promoting bigger rooms and separate control rooms, we need to look at how sound behaves, especially in the confined spaces of a room.
Sound And How It Behaves In Confined Spaces
The first important thing to remember, is that sound travels. From the moment sound is produced by your vocal cords or any instrument, it travels outwards in the form of sound waves. If unobstructed these waves will continue to travel over space, contentiously getting weaker until the strength of the wave is so weak, it is not audible anymore.
Sound waves travel far though, and except if you're recording outdoors in a an open field, its bound to hit an obstacle, in most recording scenarios, a solid wall. Whenever sound hits a solid hard object, it gets reflected back, causing reverberation (an echo) that easily gets picked up by a microphone.
Especially in a square room, sound bounces of walls and not only reaches all the way back to the microphone but clash with other sound waves bouncing off opposite walls and the ceiling as well. To complicate things even further, in a small room the sound waves didn't travel far enough to loose enough of its strength to not produce a strong reverberation.
You can now imagine the amount of "dirty" unintended noise the microphone will pick up apart from the intended sound directed at the microphone.
This is the exact reason why recording studios are made as large as practically possible with higher ceilings and not in a rectangular shape. The bigger space allows the sound waves to travel further and loose some of its strength before its gets reflected. Not having directly opposing walls stops the sounds waves from bouncing off the walls and colliding directly with each other.
Obviously recording studios have more than just space and specially shaped walls to help it produce the best possible sound. Acoustic treatment is extensively used throughout a recording studio, and we will address this very important subject shortly.
What It Means For The Home Studio
Hopefully sound, the way it travels and interact with objects will make more sense now, as will the reason why big rooms with non-angular walls are preferred for professional studios.
Unfortunately, as a home recording artist, you are pretty much stuck with the house or apartment you live in. (Except if you have an unlimited budget from The Lottery you recently won.) You may not even have a separate spare room available to convert into a recording studio.
Luckily, you are part of the majority of home recording enthusiasts and artists worldwide. And the good news is that there is solution for you, no matter what your limitations.
The Best Solution For Your Needs
As a beginner on a tight budget you are most probably faced with one of two scenarios:
- No additional space in a large open space
- Access to a separate room in house or apartment.
Making Space In An Open Plan Setup
As mentioned earlier in this and in other articles, having a completely separate room to control your environment would be ideal. Not all people have that luxury however, and many are limited to one larger open area like a studio apartment.
There is a solution however, if you are willing to make some space for your recording setup. It is actually not hard to set up, as long as you are able to make room for it.
What you are going to need is:
- a minimum amount of open floor space, preferably no less than 9 X 9 feet.
- Uncarpeted piece of floor (preferably wooden, tiles or concrete).
- Pair of "sound blankets" to cordon your space off and prevent reverberation.
Now let me start off by stating the obvious. This is a very limited space, and is suited primarily for vocal work or the addition of maybe one instrument like an acoustic guitar.
The first thing you need to do, is find a space in the room big enough to accommodate your recording space. A corner of the room, flanked by solid walls will be ideal. The walls will not only help isolate you from the rest of the room, but provide more consistent sound. (A window will not only react differently to sound, but also potentially allow background noise to filter through to the recording space.)
Make sure the space is completely cleared of all objects, furniture etc. This way you make sure you have complete control of how you set up your space for optimal acoustic sound reproduction. (Obviously this also leaves the necessary space to set up your desk and audio recording equipment.)
Lastly, you need to use the sound blankets to completely close off the remaining open space of your recording setup, providing you with a private cubicle. Sound blankets are made of special material to absorb and not reflect sound. It will also help to stop external sounds from the rest of the room to penetrate the recording studio. (Make sure the blankets reach all the way from the ceiling to the floor.)
I mentioned additional acoustic treatment to studios earlier on in the article. Due to the small size of your makeshift studio within a large room, with the addition of sound blankets on two of the four corners, the need for additional acoustic treatment is basically eliminated. The limited space in such a small setup also make it difficult and impractical to add. In the next section however, the use of acoustic material definitely comes into play.
Using A Separate Room As A Recording Studio
This is the ideal scenario for any home recording studio. The one additional advantage advantage would be if you had access to a fairly large room. Most of us will be lucky to have a spare room available to completely convert into a studio though. And chances are pretty good that the room will be one of the smallest in the house/apartment.
The advantages of using a separate room is obvious. Not only does the separate room provide the best insulation possible from external noises, it also allows you the freedom to optimally set up your studio and add acoustic treatment.
As far as room space go, beggars can't be choosers. If possible though, try and see if you can get access to a room at least 16 X 14 feet. The reason for this dimensions is to allow the recording booth (control room) to be separate from the rest of the studio. This can be done by a permanent divider, but even a "sound blanket setup" can be used. This size room will also allow one or more artist and instruments to be added if needed (on a limited scale).
I am not going to go into too much detail about this setup, as most home users don't have access to such a large room and don't have the need for such a comprehensive setup. (If the need ever arise, I will gladly address this setup in more detail in a future article.)
For the smaller "all-in-one" studio, we will use the more compact dimensions of 12 X 12 feet.
For this type of room you will need the following:
- The room needs to be cleared of all objects, including furniture.
- Uncarpeded floor (preferably wooden, tiles or concrete).
- Properly positioned recording equipment.
- Acoustic treatment for key recording positions.
Obviously you need a cleared room to start with a "clean slate" from where you can place your recording desk, equipment and accessories. This allows you to place and move objects around to find the optimal position for each one, and the add acoustic treatment.
Carpets tend to absorb a lot of sound and can have a negative effect on the quality of the acoustics in the room. Taking it out of the equation allows you to add the necessary amount of acoustic treatment at the necessary places for producing the best quality sound.
Depending on if you're just going to use one recording position behind your desk and microphone to do voice-over work or podcasting, or have an additional position for you to perform with an instrument, you may have to test for the best possible acoustics for each recording position.
(Normally if you have more than one recording position, you will have your desk and recording equipment out of the way against a wall. Even from there, you need to make sure that the position has good acoustics as well, since you will most probably do voice-overs and other vocal work from this position behind your desk.)
Now we need to turn our attention to acoustic treatment. This is a whole subject on its own, which we will be addressing in the following section.
Since you are working in small space, reverberation will definitely be problem, which makes acoustic treatment essential. The reverberation effect of a small room can easily be explained as follows: If you to hit 2 solid hard objects (or even your hands) together in an empty room, it creates a sharp unpleasant sound.
(The sound travels away from the source very quickly, immediately hitting the wall, bounce back and reach your ears almost instantly, while clashing with sounds bouncing off the opposite wall at the same time.)
If you perform the same exercise outdoors away from nearby buildings, you don't hear that sharp unpleasant noise, but just a softer clapping sound that's more muted and pleasant on the ear.
(The sound travels away from the source, don't hit any object to reflect it back, weakens as it keeps on traveling through space, and even if it hit and got bounced back by objects far away, the sound wave will be too weak by now to have any effect or even be audible.)
It is for combating and eliminating this reverberation in rooms, that acoustic treatment is extensively used.
Acoustic treatment can be divided into two sections for dealing with reverberation and other unwanted sounds:
- Sound Absorption
- Sound Diffusion
Absorptive objects are used to completely absorb a sound, not allowing any of it to be reverberated. These materials are placed in key areas where reverberation have the most effect.
Corners in the room should be targeted first as they are the biggest culprits.
The ninety degree angles between the wall & floor, as well as the wall & ceiling have the second biggest effect and should be next on the list.
Next up are the opposing walls, parallel to each other, and acoustic treatment should be applied sparingly, depending on the amount of remaining reverberation.
A word of caution. Too much absorption and sound deadening can make a room sound too "dead" and muffled. As a result, start with the key areas and apply materials until you reach the level of absorption that suits your taste.
Another way to avoid a "dead sounding" room, is to diffuse the sound, rather than absorb it. This bring us to the second form of acoustic treatment
Instead of absorbing the sound, sound diffusers are used to scatter the sound around the room, creating a much more natural and pleasant reverb. The diffused sound reaching the microphone will be softer and more neutral, something some sound engineers actually prefer.
Sound diffusers can take up some space though and are not very practical for a small studio. They also tend to be quite expensive, putting them out of reach for most home users.
Preparing Your Smaller Room
You now understand why a big room is preferred for a studio setup, and why reverberation is the biggest reason for this choice. (Apart from providing the additional space to accommodate more performers and instruments.) You've also see how the proper use of acoustic materials can help smaller rooms overcome this handicap.
Now lets have a closer look at how acoustic materials can be applied to specific areas of your 12 X 12 feet room to provide the room and your recordings with best possible acoustics.
As I mentioned before, you get 2 types of acoustic treatment: Sound Absorption and Sound Diffusion. Also, I already pointed out that sound diffusers can take up space and be impractical for smaller studios where every inch is valuable. The expensive price tag also makes it less ideal for the home user.
As a result, we will only make use of sound absorbing materials, which will be more than adequate for a smaller room. Sound absorbing materials cab be divided into:
- Bass Traps
- Acoustic Panels
Bass Traps: This is the most important piece of sound absorption. As the name suggests, these interestingly shaped foam blocks are used to absorb low (bass) frequency sounds. As bonus, they are also able to capture mid-tone and high frequencies.
This is what makes bass traps so import. Therefore they should be the first item on your shopping list. Where to place them? Obviously in the place which produces the most reverberation, your studio's corners. You will be surprised by how just covering the corners of your room will eliminate reverberation.
In a small room this may be all the sound absorption you need, so do a sound test first to see if you are not satisfied enough with the results after adding the bass traps. If too much reverberation still remains, you can start adding acoustic panels.
Acoustic Panels: They are ideal to be placed against the flat surface of opposing walls to cut down on the sound waves bouncing between each other. You can start with a single acoustic panel in the center of each wall, as this will already have an impact in a fairly small room.
From what I've seen and experienced, this should take care of remaining reverberation issues. If you are still having problems, you can add acoustic panels in a chequered pattern outwards from the center panel until you are satisfied, although I doubt this will be necessary.
A final step, is to move around in your newly prepared studio and do a sound test (clapping objects or your hands) in every position you will be recording from, just ensure the acoustics sound good in all the important areas.
Hopefully you can now rest assured that your small studio will be up to the task to perform almost just as well as one four times its size. Yes, it will never replace a big professionally prepared commercial studio, but your home setup will be more than sufficient for your own needs.
(In case you didn't know, an amount of natural reverberation is necessary in recordings to make the audio sound not "dead" and muted. But almost all modern day DAW software comes equipped with build-in functions to mimic almost any kind of environment and its accompanying reverberation.)
You now have a clean sound to start with and manipulate to your heart's content.
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Catch you in the next article and happy recording!