The room in which you produce audio is at least half of the picture. It has a huge effect on the sound you create and the way the mix sounds through other systems in different places. It’s so vital to the sound of your recordings. If you bring a set of speakers into a totally untreated room, it’s possible that you can get good recordings. But not probable. Whether you’ve got a large space like a double garage or a broom closet to work in, you’re going to need to do something to treat it. Many times, the room is a bedroom with gear in the corner. But there’s another way to go about it. Think of the room primarily as a studio space first. When you’re done rearranging the room for optimal sound, then find a place for your bed. Prioritising your career in music over personal preferences like the orientation of your bedroom wardrobe is a good habit to set early on!
Your primary aim in setting up a room is placing the speakers in a way that creates both left-right and front-back balance. Sound travels in all directions, so we need to balance out the room to try and minimise unevenness in the inevitable deflections. The ‘magic triangle’ rule says that your head and the two speakers should form an equilateral triangle. The one place you don’t want to be is in the centre of the room, where the sound tends to collect and cancel itself out, resulting in dead spots on certain frequencies. Symmetry is the goal, so remove any furniture that inhibits your ability to create the configuration. Preparing yourself for a professional music industry career in this way demonstrates the type of thinking required to make it in the music industry.
Second Time Lucky
You’ll probably end up setting your home studio up twice. The first time, just as you finish plugging in your last cable, you’ll realise that it’s inconvenient to have the controller keyboard where it is, and it needs to be moved. Or the computer monitor catches the glare of the afternoon sun. Or the mic preamps are inaccessible down at your feet, when you should be using them most often. Whatever it is, the setup process is a learning curve. So be aware that when you need a three-foot cable, you probably need a six-foot cable. Think of it as a work in progress, with the end result being the super fine-tuning of things like the location of your pencil jar. Contrary to the popular, often sloppy image of most producers and performers, a career in music requires this type of attention to detail.
What’s your reference song? If you don’t have an instant answer, you need to select a well-produced, commercially released track that you’ve heard a million times over a bunch of different systems. Something you know really well that can serve as your control mix. Whatever room you’re in, playing back your reference song will give you a solid opinion on the state of both the sound system and acoustics of room. From an elevator to a large conference hall, you’ll build a clear idea over time of what’s right and wrong with the space. Like-wise for car stereos, TV speakers and the type of headphones you get bundled with a $50 phone. Know thy reference song. When you do, play it back in your home studio and try to match the sound as closely as possible in your own mix to avoid the dreaded “But it sounds great on my headphones!” syndrome. If you’re studying at an online music class for any reason, it’s to be able to produce good music that travels.
Generate A Signal & Listen
OK, so you’ve set up your spot. Now we have to find the frequency response of the space. Grab a pencil and load up a signal generator that can play back a simple sine wave. You should be able to sweep it all the way from 20 to 10kHz. Start at 20Hz and slowly start bringing it up. The tone should sound like it’s coming from the dead centre. Listen out for volume fluctuations and make notes on where the sound seems louder and where it seems quieter. Around 6kHz you’ll start to notice that your location in the room starts to make a larger difference. Even the position and direction of your head can make them seem louder or softer. That’s because the waveforms are so much shorter and more easily influenced by changes in travelling distance. Because the behaviour of the low end tends to influence the high end, you can stop measuring around 8kHz.
When you sit in position in front of your monitors, reflections from within the room can seriously distort your sense of the room’s frequency response. You might find that certain frequencies simply drop out when performing a signal sweep. Especially at the low end. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, cancellation. Sound waves are always bouncing around and cancelling each other out. This results in dead spots, which are a volume dip on your test tone at certain frequencies. To work out where the dead spots are, find and play back one of your dead spot frequencies. Ask a friend to walk around the room holding an absorptive panel while you listen. When he or she reaches the position at which one of the two waves responsible for the cancellation is blocked, the volume of your dead spot test tone will jump up. This will give you sense of which direction is responsible for the cancellation.
Secondly, there’s the issue of incomplete cycles. A 50Hz waveform (which is about 22ft in length) is unable to complete its cycle in a 18ft room. As a result, the bottom end tends to build up and collect in the corners and alcoves of the room. This creates the need for strategically placed bass traps to absorb the problematic low end. Bass traps are responsible for capturing and internally scattering the reflections of low frequencies in order to prevent your mix sounding inaccurately bassy.
We certainly do live in a time that favours creative work. Whatever you aim to create, there are tools and teachers competing for your business. So if you’re in the habit of saying that there’s no point in trying, stop kidding and start educating yourself and begin building your reputation as a serious professional ready for that music industry job. Those are the people who get them.Written by award-winning musician and producer – John Bartmann