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Thursday, August 21, 2008

Do-It-Yourself Sound Dampening

This is part 1 of the Makeshift Musician's Comprehensive Guide to Building Your Own Studio

Maybe if you're just starting out with your studio you haven't given it much thought, but do you realize what professionals do when they build a studio? They design the entire place from the ground up, making walls with crazy angles and covering them with different materials. Then they make a separate room for a drum kit and another separate room for vocalists. They cover the walls with either unusually-shaped wood or this unbelievably expensive foam padding with tons of little pyramids cut into it.

Obviously, we at home can't recreate this stuff, but we can throw together our own acoustic dampening setup without giving up thousands of dollars and our first-born.

Most of us don't really get to choose where our studio is, we just have to deal with whatever room we can fit the studio in. I've had, as a studio, my childhood bedroom, a college dorm room, the single-bedroom in a single-bedroom apartment, and the one-car garage of a much nicer apartment. If, however, by some stroke of good fortune you can choose where your studio is, try to choose a room that is somewhat isolated from everything else. You want to be loud and not have to worry about neighbors or roommates attempting to bludgeon you to death after you've played the same guitar solo eighty times just to get it right.

Once you've got your place, what can we do to make it less echo-y? Here are some of my suggestions:

EDIT: My astute readers have suggested that the things I mention the upcoming paragraphs tend to do very little for acoustic dampening, and that the difference between cheap foam and expensive foam is a lot more than pretentiousness. After just a little bit of research, I have to agree with them. Take a look at some of their fantastic advice in the comments section.

Rugs:
Go to Goodwill or Wal-Mart and get some big, ugly shaggy carpets like your Aunt has in her living room and nail them to your wall. The more hideous the color, the more fun you'll have putting them up.

Pictures:
Since they have flat, non-porous surfaces, pictures would seem like a bad choice for acoustic dampening. However, anyone who's ever moved knows that a room sounds really obnoxious until you put some pictures up on the walls. Get some pictures that you know will inspire creativity.

Egg-crate-style mattress pads:
For the true faux-professional look, get some of these while you're at Wal-Mart. Remember, the only difference between expensive acoustic foam and cheap mattress foam is pretentiousness.

Furniture:
You'd be surprised at how well furniture can not only scatter sound waves, but also make the studio more comfortable for everyone. Get an old couch or easy chair and see how it changes the feel of the place.

Just remember that the more angles you have in the studio, the more sound gets bounced away harmlessly from your microphones, which is what you want. You don't want the place stark and hospital-like, but you don't want it overly cluttered either. Try to make your studio into something cozy and comfortable and inspiring. I hang huge wall-hangings full of weird geometric patterns in my studio, which have the double-effect of dampening sound and looking awesome at the same time. Experiment a lot and you'll likely find some combination of things that works perfect for you.

This is part 1 of the Studio Guide

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>>> Go to Part 2: Get a Computer For Your Studio

6 comments:

Alex said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alex said...

I stumbled on your site and I have to make a few comments as several things you mentioned would mislead a beginner. First, all of your suggestions mention will do very little to help tame room acoustics. The suggestions you make only affect high frequencies. This is not a factor that significantly contributes to bad sounding recordings. The main thing to look at is low-mid frequencies. As well, you need to touch on comb filtering, correct monitor placement and room modes. While this subject can get quite involved, a basic understanding of the way sound interacts with your room goes a long way toward controlling your rooms acoustics. A good resource to reference is Ethan Winer's website www.realtraps.com. This will give anyone with the desire a jumpstart on getting a good sounding room. A good point to remember is that you can have top of the line equipment in a bad room and have a bad sounding recording. The flip side is that you can have cheap equipment in a great room and get a great sounding recording. Consider this: Daniel Lanois recorded "Achtung Baby" with a Soundcraft PA board, Shure Beta 58's and Sm 57's. The lesson here is that you should put as much of your budget into your room as you can. $1000.00 spent on a RME interface vs. $300.00 spent on an M-audio and $700.00 spent on bass traps and wide spectrum absorbers and diffusers will lead to a very clean and professional recording. I learned all of this stuff the hard way.

Ben said...

Actually, I've been looking for a source of cheap traps for a while. Thanks for the realtraps link! I particularly like the portable vocal booth - http://www.realtraps.com/p_pvb.htm - and the minitraps - http://www.realtraps.com/p_minitrap.htm . I have heard excellent recordings made in rooms that, to my knowledge, don't have any kind of acoustic dampening: starblast.org for example. The point of this site is to get absolute beginners to do something, anything to get started with recording, since the entire process is intimidating to begin with. I think many folks give up before they've even started. I may do a mini-article pointing out that site, though. Thanks again for the thoughtful info!

Jesse said...

"Remember, the only difference between expensive acoustic foam and cheap mattress foam is pretentiousness."

While I wish this was true, it's absolutely not. As Alex said, this, among the other suggestions, only affect high frequencies. If you have a ton of really high end flutter, those will definitely help. But most rooms I've worked with haven't had that problem - once you get stuff in a room, they usually don't. The issue, and the use for often more expensive acoustic treatment, is low end. Bass buildup is the biggest acoustic problem in small rooms. Bass traps can be expensive, or cheap if you make them yourself, but are necessary to stop low waves from building up. They ONLY work if they are dense. If you make a "bass trap" out of material that isn't dense enough, it will only absorb highs, leaving you with a room that has too much bass and now less highs. There are great plans for DIY bass traps online for about $50, but you need to use the right materials or they won't help. Egg crate foam isn't a solution for probably 85-90% of acoustic issues.

Ben said...

I think this article is the closest thing I have to real controversy. :) I'm moving up in the world!

I'll have to edit this article to reflect some of this. Thanks guys for clearing this stuff up. I do only about 20% of my work acoustically, so I'm certainly no expert. The main point of the site is empowerment; an emphasis on not sweating the details and just going for it. That said, I certainly don't like giving inaccurate information so I'll definitely have to do some editing. Thanks again!

Tim said...

The actual difference between mattress foam from Wal-mart andd real passive acoustic absorbers is density and fire retardants. For proof that being fire retardant is important, take a look at the Great White fire.