Can you really call yourself an audio engineer if you haven’t gone from being proud of a mix to being ashamed of it in less than 24 hours?
One of my first mixing gigs was for a radio station—they hired me to remix their live concert recordings for broadcast. After working on my first mix for a week straight I brought it to my boss for revisions. It was terrible, but he let me down easy.
“It’s alright kid, we’ve all been there,” he said. “I listened to a mix in my car last week and got so mad I threw the damn CD out the window.”
John was a good audio engineer, and a great mentor. He taught me that the problem wasn’t with my ears—it was with my room.
Setting Up the Guest Room Control Room
Many engineers dream about working in facilities like Abbey Road, Record Plant and Ocean Way—but the reality is most of us work in bedrooms and basements, which typically provide less-than-ideal acoustics. Hard surfaces like drywall, metal and concrete can cause frequencies to bounce around the room and smear your perception of the sound—especially in rooms with parallel surfaces and 90° angles.
Thankfully, there’s quite a bit you can do to improve the acoustics of your room without having to hire an acoustician or a construction crew. Check out these simple tips to help you achieve better mixes that sound good on any system—even in your car!
Tweeters should be an equal distance from your head as they are from each other
Good mixes start at the source. It goes without saying that professional studio monitors are a must for achieving quality mixes, but their placement within the room can have a big impact on the sound.
When setting up your mix position for the first time, it’s best to aim the speakers so they’re firing down the longest portion of the room. The more distance between the speakers and the far wall, the less chance they have of creating unwanted reflections. Just be careful—you don’t want to get too close to the wall behind the speakers either.
Theoretically, the ideal listening position is 38% into the length of the room, centered between the left and right walls. However, this distance will vary from room to room, depending on the layout. Once you’ve identified the ideal listening position for your room, it’s time to place the monitors.
Remember sitting in Trigonometry class in high school and thinking to yourself; “When am I ever going to use this in the real world?” Well, this is the moment you’ve been waiting for.
The goal here is to create an equilateral triangle between you and your monitors—meaning the tweeters should be an equal distance from your head as they are from each other.
The ideal speaker height is with the tweeters at ear-level, and although there are many schools of thought on monitor orientation, it’s typically considered best practice to place your monitors on-axis. If your monitors are on an angle, the frequency response can change as you move forward and backwards.
Dedicated monitor stands offer added isolation that can help prevent unwanted reflections, although isolation pads can achieve similar results for desk-mounted monitors.
Now that you’ve identified your listening position and properly placed your monitors, it’s time to apply some acoustic treatment.
OK, let’s just rip this Band-Aid off right away—egg cartons, moving blankets and carpet are not going to improve the acoustics of your studio. These materials only absorb high frequencies—they don’t do anything for the low-end, which is the biggest problem in small studios. If you want professional results, you need to use professional materials. There are two basic types of acoustic treatment: absorption and diffusion.
Absorption panels are typically made of fiberglass or rockwool and used to make a room feel more “dead” or isolated by absorbing sound waves. Diffusion panels reflect or diffusesound waves to prevent problems like standing waves, flutter echo and comb filtering.
Some engineers prefer a more “live” sounding room, while others opt for more isolation. Although it varies based on preference, most tracking rooms feature 25-50% coverage, while control rooms feature between 50-75%.
Trying to cover 75% of your studio with acoustic treatment can be expensive, time consuming and downright overwhelming. The good news is you don’t have to do it all at once. Start small and tackle the biggest problem first—the bass.
Although it varies based on preference, most tracking rooms feature 25-50% coverage, while control rooms feature between 50-75%.
Bass frequencies are the most difficult to tame in any studio. They tend to pool in the corners of small rooms, causing “nulls” as big as 30 dB. That means even though the sound coming out of your monitors may be balanced, your room is working against you by creating 30 dB EQ cuts all throughout the low-end.
Your best defense against these nulls are bass traps, which are thick absorption panels placed in the corners of your room to trap low-end frequencies. Start by hanging bass traps in the corners behind your monitors, followed by the corners on the back wall.
Typically the next biggest culprit for acoustical problems in a small studio are “early reflections” from the walls to the left and right of the mix position. Sound from your monitors travels directly to your ears, but reflections from the walls arrive a few milliseconds later causing a time smearing effect, which results in poor clarity and stereo imaging problems.
To fix this issue, simply place absorption panels at the early reflection points. You can identify these points using “the mirror method,” which requires a handheld mirror and a little help from a friend. Sit in the listening position and have your friend hold the mirror flat against the wall. As they move the mirror back and forth, make note of where you see reflections of either monitor—these are the early reflection points and should be covered with absorption panels.
Now that the corners are covered and the early reflection points are taken care of, it’s time to focus your attention a little higher.
The ceiling above the listening position creates early reflections just like the walls. It’s much more difficult to put a mirror on the ceiling, so a good rule of thumb is to treat the ceiling space halfway between your ears and your monitors.
While traditional absorption and diffusion panels work just as well on the ceiling as they do on the walls, some engineers prefer to use ceiling clouds, which are acoustic treatment panels specifically designed to be suspended from the ceiling. Ceiling clouds typically feature a unique shape to offer a combination of absorption and diffusion.
If you’re working in a space with hardwood floors, it’s also a good idea to place a rug under the listening position. Not only does it help absorb sound waves, it really ties the room together!
Back Wall Treatment
Now that you’ve got the corners and early reflection points covered it’s time to focus your attention on the back wall. Sound from your monitors reflects off of the back wall and bounces around your room, often causing frequencies to sound “blurry.”
While you could easily add more absorption panels on the back wall, too much absorption can cause a studio to sound “dead” and isolated, which can skew your perspective. Diffusers can help disperse standing waves and prevent blurriness without sucking the life out of your room.
Proper monitor placement and a little acoustic treatment can go a long way, but that’s just the beginning. Stay tuned for Part II of this series for more tips and tricks on improving the sound of your room.