There are many articles online that outline the 'correct' and most scientific method for proper bedroom studio acoustic treatment. However, if you're working in a bedroom studio or home studio, creating the 'perfect' acoustic environment is pretty much impossible. I know that sounds negative, but bear with me!
A standard residential property with parallel walls, square corners and plasterboard just isn't designed with sound in mind. Efficiency, affordability and profit are the motivations of the architect, but acoustics? Not so much.
Bedroom studio limitations
It's because of this issue I argue that a perfectly treated bedroom studio acoustic space shouldn't be the focus. The focus should be on optimising what you have, making yourself aware of the imperfections and working with them to improve your judgement and, ultimately, your music.
The aim of this article is to highlight the misconceptions about bedroom studio acoustic treatment and to provide you with practical advice on where to invest your time, your energy and, importantly, your money.
By the end of this post, it's my intention that you will be able to do the following:
- Identify the sonic factors that make a real impact on your music;
- Describe how sound actually interacts within a room;
- Explain the difference between absorption and diffusion;
- Analyse the acoustic properties of your studio.
Where to invest
It's important, especially when starting out, to invest your time rather than your money. Many producers fall into the 'all-the-gear-no-idea' trap when beginning their careers, because they believe that equipment will improve their sound.
While technology can certainly help, it will only get you a teeny tiny fraction of the way. You can have all of the latest bells and whistles, but they're not worth much if you don't know how to use them.
I certainly made this mistake at the start of my producing life, particularly when I began to make money after university. I even invested in numerous fancy MIDI controllers with flashing lights even though I knew that they wouldn't have any impact on the sound itself.
You can read more about my thoughts on why new gear and technology won't make your music production better here.
Working on a budget
Furthermore, after realising that more gear was actually slowing down my workflow, I made it a rule that, from then on, I would only invest in equipment that would directly improve the quality of the sound that I was outputting.
There are limits with this approach, still, however. By far, the best place to invest your money is in yourself and your ears, with time, dedication, practice and perseverance.
Proper bedroom studio acoustic treatment also happens to be pretty darn expensive. If you're just starting out in music production, it's likely that this level of treatment just isn't feasible. You may have just invested in a computer, software, monitors, an audio interface etc. and aren't ready to take out a bank loan to go the whole hog.
Indeed, many engineers will tell you that you should allocate up to 50% of your total studio budget on room treatment. It's important, but I appreciate that it isn't the most exciting prospect to many.
Putting in the work
If you are a beginner, or within the first two years of starting out, I would certainly make the case that it's simply not worth worrying about too much.
Your time is better spent learning as much as you can about the production process itself, developing your compositional skills and finding out if music production is something you can really see yourself continuing with.
Let's face it, it's not the cheapest or most practical hobby, and it's important not to waste money investing too heavily up front before you find out if it's a field you can even be passionate about.
Indeed, there are a number of DIY home solutions that you can implement to vastly improve the quality of your room's response, without having to part with a considerable chunk of cash.
Although these methods won't add up to a perfectly treated recording and mixing environment, they can go a long way and will also help you to learn about acoustic treatment, so that you're ready to invest your money wisely when the time comes.
How sound actually works
Before you begin implementing these DIY methods, it's important to understand a little about how sound travels and behaves in a room so that you are able to appreciate the reasoning behind each technique.
It's also important to understand that this process is equally important for both recording and mixing.
When a sound is generated in a room (e.g. from an instrument or voice) the following events occur:
1) Sound waves are projected outwards from the source in all directions.
2) A small amount of the sound waves propagate directly into the microphone. This is referred to as 'direct sound'.
3) The rest of the sound waves spread throughout the room, bouncing randomly from surface to surface (not good).
4) Some of these reflections also make it into the microphone at varying times after the original source (also, not good).
The direct sound doesn't get an opportunity to interact with the surfaces in the room, so the microphone receives it as balanced and unaffected. However, the reflected sound waves are received one after the other and can actually change the original sound.
So the main thing to be concerned with here is reflections and how to reduce them as much as possible. In general, the 'harder' a surface is, the more reflective it is to sound waves.
Likewise, the 'softer' a surface is, the more sound it will absorb. A glass window will reflect much more sound than a fabric curtain, for example.
The reason I don't label reflections as 'undesirable' or 'bad' is that, in specific circumstances, generating reflections when recording is in fact the whole objective.
For example, an engineer may require a long reverb on a vocal. In which case, traditionally they would need to record in a suitably large hall and capture the resulting reverberation. Reverberation is simply the audible reflections generated in a given environment.
It's important to think about your monitor speakers as a sound source, too, as these are also just as vulnerable to reflections as I'll discuss throughout.
Absorption and Diffusion
You will have no doubt seen large foam panels on the walls and ceilings of recording studios and home project studios. The purpose of these is to absorb reflections so that they don't reach the microphone, or your ear, (just like a sponge absorbs water) and you're left with the pure direct sound of the source.
However, if you absorb too many of these reflections, the direct sound alone can feel a little unnatural because the room feels 'dead'. This is because our brains have evolved to use reflections all the time to assess our position within our environment, and an acoustically dead space almost never occurs in the natural world.
Engineers have found that absorption actually works better in combination with diffusion, another form of acoustic treatment.
Diffusion allows some reflections to remain, but in a more controlled way. Diffusers achieve this by scattering the reflections to preserve the natural frequency balance and tone of the original sound.
Combining these two methods is the secret to a great sounding room and, hopefully, great sounding recordings and mixes.
To properly apply absorption and diffusion, you need to gain an understanding of the sonic properties of your own space.
Analysing your room's acoustics
Before you go out and spend a small fortune on expensive acoustic treatment, start by analysing your room. This doesn't need to be too scientific.
A great way to get a sense of the space (and looking like crazy person) is by simply walking around and clapping your hands as loudly as possible in each area. While doing so, listen to the response in the room.
You'll notice the room's reverberation patterns in each location, and some spots will be different to others.
Depending on the design of your environment, the objects you have in it and the surfaces present, the room could exhibit a range of issues.
The dreaded cube
If, like my bedroom studios over the years, yours is cube-shaped (the worst possible environment), you may experience harsh ringing or 'flutter echo', as well as standing waves due to coincident modes.
If you're very fortunate you may have high ceilings and many different surfaces that enable better diffusion, however this is fairly unlikely in a standard property.
In general, the more cube-shaped your space is and the more metallic-sounding ringing it exhibits, the more absorption will be needed to deaden the 'liveliness' and create a drier overall sound. It's important to address this first, and then use diffusion to fix any remaining issues.
Square-shaped rooms are difficult to treat, if not impossible, particularly if the dimensions are relatively small e.g. under 12 feet. But, hey, you've got to make do with what you have, right?
For further reading, Sound On Sound have a great article on room acoustic properties here.
Improve your bedroom studio acoustic treatment
Hopefully this overview has provided you with a more informed insight into acoustic treatment and a better appreciation of the nuances at play. You should now be equipped with an understanding of where best to spend your time and money (and where not to).
You should also be able to describe the differences between absorption and diffusion, and where to implement these tools to address the reflections in your space by assessing its acoustic properties.
Your efforts should be concentrated on creating the best environment that you can within the limitations of your budget, and then move on to focusing on your music.
Having an understanding of the impact that acoustics can have on your recordings and mixes is the most important factor. Many professional engineers and producers work in imperfect spaces using imperfect equipment - what makes them stand out is that they're aware of these flaws. They know where the issues are and how to compensate for them in their work.
In the next article, I'll be providing a series of practical, actionable steps that you can take to improve the sound of your room in order to achieve the best recordings possible, without wasting time and money.
In the meantime, if bedroom studio acoustic treatment really interests you (and it should, as it's pretty darn essential), Sound On Sound wrote a great introductory article with further details on the science behind these methods.