Acoustic treatment can seem daunting, especially if you’ve just started diving into the recording process. What can you use for treatment? Where in the room do you put it? And how do you know if your recording space even needs treatment to begin with?
Luckily, these are all questions we’ll answer in this easy-to-read beginner’s guide to treating your home studio. A great mix, master , and excellent overall song starts with the engineering process, so it's crucial to invest in the proper acoustic treatment of your recording space.
Why It's Important To Practice Proper Acoustic Treatment: Finding Your Direct Sound
So, why is acoustic treatment so important? Though it may feel overwhelming, acoustic treatment is worth your time for the following reasons:
Sound Can Appear Distorted In An Untreated Space
Sound waves leave the monitors, bounce around the room, and and make the music sound inaccurate by the time it reaches your ears. Some sounds will appear too loud, others too soft. And that makes mixing accurately almost impossible.
Proper Treatment Leads To Great Songs
You might have a great ear for mixing, but if you’re in an untreated room, that doesn’t matter. The sound you hear will be off and, ultimately, your mix will be off. For example, you can always add certain frequencies to a recorded sound, but you can't necessarily fully mitigate frequencies that you don't want to be there.
Sound Waves Are Delicate
The quality of sound waves is contingent upon the acoustic treatment of the environment around them. While it may seem like a hassle to test your room acoustics ahead of time, it's ultimately worth it in the long run, and you'll earn a better recording.
Acoustic Treatment Gives Your More Control
If nothing else, acoustic treatment should be taken seriously since it gives you more control over the recording and post-production process. You should aim for tracks that have most clear and direct sound possible. This gives you the most freedom to manipulate the feeling of instruments and vocals long after the original recording. You might not be able to take out a natural reverb baked into a recording, but you can add an artificial reverb with plugins onto a properly-recorded take.
Understanding Sound In Your Studio: What You Need To Know
In order to successfully use acoustic treatment throughout your home studio, you need to understand how sound works and travels. When it comes to getting a good recording, it's not just about the quality of your recording tools: It matters greatly how you use each piece of equipment and what environment they're in.
How Does Sound Move Around The Room?
When you make a sound (sing, strum a guitar, etc), the sound waves move from the source outward in every direction. Some of the sound moves in a straight line into the microphone — this is called “ direct sound .” The rest of the sound ricochets around the room randomly, many of those soundwaves inevitably returning back to the microphone — this is called “ reflected sound. ”
Now, because direct sound goes directly into the microphone without bouncing around the room, it’s the most accurate sound the microphone can capture. With reflected sound, each new wave can change how your recording sounds, and even the most subtle changes can result in completely different recordings.
Depending on the size and shape of your room and whether or not you’ve treated it acoustically, the change in sound can be drastic. Our ears naturally gravitate towards sound that have a bit more presence to them. For instance, you may notice that singing in the shower or a cathedral, sounds better than singing in any old room.
This is because any of these spaces may have better acoustics. While we may strive to create a similar sound through a final processed mix, it's important to note that this is a different from our approach throughout the recording process.
While recording, you want to mitigate sound reflections as much as possible, since these waves can always be added through artificial reverb, but not necessarily taken away. Recording studios may differ greatly in terms of set up, but with any room, there's a way to isolate direct sound so that you have the cleanest recording possible. Home studio aren't any different-- As long as you have the tools and knowledge needed to isolate a sound, you can create an amazing recording and listening environment.
How To Start Identifying Your Room's Acoustics
Before you decide what acoustic treatment materials to get, you’ll want to test the sound of your room. You may have heard of the “ clap test. ”
This is where you walk around your space clapping as loud as you can. Go to every corner and wall while doing this, listening to the reverb. Does it sound tinny or bassy? Where is it more pronounced?
Smaller rooms will probably have high-pitched, short ringing sound. Larger rooms usually have a nice full reverb. The more of a ringing sound you hear, the more absorption you’ll need — this will make it sound dryer and absorb unnecessary sound reflections which is good. You can always add reverb with plugins, but you can’t remove natural reverb from the recording.
It may help to do the clap test in other rooms so you can familiarize yourself with the different sounds. Try it in your rich friend’s mansion. Go into your bathroom and clap. You’ll hear the difference.
The Three Trouble Spots In Your Room: How To Avoid Unnecessary Sound Reflections
When you treat your room (we’ll get to the how in a bit), there are three spots you need to deal with first: trihedral corners, dihedral corners, and the walls. You'll need to focus on these studio problem areas since they can create room modes, or an altered sound wave that's created when a sound reflects off of one wall onto the opposite one. For example, a sound wave reflecting off of the ceiling and floor or a sound reflected between left and right walls would create room modes.
Room modes can be classified by the number of boundaries in which they interact with. Trihedral modes occur when three surfaces meet at once, while dihedral modes occur when two surfaces have a sound wave reflected between them.
Trihedral corners are where the walls meet the ceiling and the floor (two walls + ceiling = three surfaces AKA trihedral). Dihedral corners are where the walls meet each other (two surfaces AKA dihedral).
The general rule is that trihedral corners get top priority, dihedral corners get second, and the walls get third. The reasoning behind this is: if there are more surfaces that meet in one place, then there are more surfaces for soundwaves to bounce around on.
Soundproofing and Acoustic Treatment: What's The Difference?
Both soundproofing and acoustic treatment are key elements for improving the quality of your recordings. For example, you'll keep the noise from the street out with soundproofing, while you'll avoid producing a vocal that sound's too far away with acoustic treatment.
Note that although these concepts go hand in hand, they are in fact, different. Acoustic treatment refers to treating the sound waves within a particular space and how they relate to one another. Soundproofing is focused on keeping the sounds out of a home studio.
Acoustic Treatment Basics: What You Need To Improve Your Home Studio
Okay, now let’s get to the what and how's of acoustic treatment.
The main elements involved are absorption and diffusion. These two methods of acoustic treatment help to reduce indirect sound, leaving more of the direct sound (source-to-mic sound). This gives you an overall better recording.
And the four main types of treatment that deliver absorption and diffusion are bass traps, acoustic panels, diffusers, and vocal reflection filters. Remember that they key goal of an acoustic treatment tool is to produce the preserve the natural tone possible from an instrumentalist or vocalist in a recording.
Bass traps are the first thing you want to use when treating your room — they’re mainly useful during the mixing process. They can be somewhat expensive, but they can make a huge difference. These “trap” low frequencies (hence the name), but they can also absorb some mid-to-high frequencies too. Bass frequencies can easily mud up a recording, so you don't want to skimp out on this stage of the process. This can also help treat room modes, so they're certainly worth investing in as part of your acoustic treatment plan.
You’ll want to put the bass trap panels in the trihedral corners of the room, which is right where the bass likes to build up before bouncing back to the mic. You want your bass traps to be tucked snugly into the corner with no space behind it.
Next, you should use some acoustic panels, which help reduce the mid-to-high frequencies during recording and mixing.
The first place to put them is right behind your studio monitors. Then you’ll want to hang them along the dihedral corners of the room, leaving a little space between the panel and the corner. This helps them absorb a tiny bit more low-end.
And then you should hang the rest of the acoustic panels on the walls. A good place to start is on the walls on either side of your ears and the wall directly behind you. Try to spread them out evenly, using opposite patterns on parallel walls.
Diffusers are mainly for bigger rooms and not always necessary in smaller rooms. Most home studio producers have smaller rooms (oftentimes with natural diffusers like a bookshelf, a dresser, and a bed) and smaller budgets (diffusers are expensive).
But if you do have a big space and some extra money, you can place diffusers on the top sections of the walls and on the ceiling.
Vocal Reflection Filters
If you do have small recording space, a vocal reflection filter can go a long way. This is that semi-circular contraption you may have seen that sits behind your vocal mic.
The point of it is to absorb soundwaves as soon as they leave your mouth, in turn reducing the amount of reflected sound bouncing around the room. It does basically the same thing as acoustic panels, it’s just catching the sound as soon as possible.
Acoustic Treatment Alternatives: How To Improve Your Sound In A Pinch
Many people reading this may not have a ton of money to drop on brand new acoustic treatment stuff. So here are some budget-friendly alternatives for room treatment.
DIY Sound Treatment
First, if you can’t afford a vocal reflection filter, you can use things you already own, like a blanket hung from a doorway, a mattress stood up against the wall, or a closet full of clothes. Just position the mic about 6-18 inches away from the makeshift absorber and that should help.
You can also use thick blankets to line the walls and put small pillows behind your monitors.
Another trick is to use dynamic mics, which are usually less sensitive than condenser mics. This means dynamic mics are not as affected by reflected sound, although they may not sound as pretty as a condenser.
Basically, it’s better to make your recording space as dead-sounding as possible and get as much direct sound as possible. You can always add reverb later with a simple reverb plugin.
Advise The Vocal Or Instrumental Performance
If you're recording another artist or yourself, use what you know about the space to help advise your recordings. For example, if you don't have a pop filter to catch some of the harsh consonants recorded into a vocal, ask for your singer to sing pronounced "p"s, "t"s and "s"s as lightly as possible. You can also experiment with different types of microphones
Consider Your Control Room
Did you know those headphones you’re mixing with may color the sound you hear? Your monitors too. Spending time thinking about the set up of your control room is important since it can easily distort the way your hear a mix or recording session.
That’s why you may want to consider a room treatment software like Arc or Sonarworks. For example, Sonarworks removes the coloration from your headphones and/or monitors, meaning you get the most accurate sound to begin your mix with.
It strips away the lies your headphones feed to you. And if you want to ensure your room is not distorting your mixes, a room treatment software can really help. If you're using studio monitors, make sure you understand how sound travels trough the speakers and and make sure your listening position is optimized to hear both left and right monitors equally. This is particularly important so that you can have an accurate perception of your song's stereo image.
Utilize Acoustic Foam
If you can't afford proper acoustic panels, acoustic foam can make an excellent, budget-friendly option for applying acoustic treatment to your home studio. While not all foam panels are totally soundproof, they can certainly improve the sound quality of home studios for the better. Small changes in room sound add up largely over time.
Don't Give Up
Building the most effective acoustic treatment plan for home studios is a process of trial and error. A common misconception is that the recording equipment alone can make or break the sound of a recording. While this is partially true, the environment surrounding your expensive microphone is just as important. For the best results, continue to test your sound acoustics on a regular basis, especially as you add new equipment and items to the room itself. Remember, sound reflects off of everything, so it's worth taking the time to analyze any particular reflection.
Whatever you end up doing, continually work to make your room and home recording quality sound better. You won’t regret the little time and money it takes.