I know, I’ve been there. In the chair, in front of the speakers. Spent a good part of my life there. I should know. I’m a mixer. (Sorry, went into Dragnet mode there!)
With keyboard, screen, mix controller in front of me, and speakers outside of and behind the computer screen in a nice equilateral triangle with my head and ears, the mix is coming together pretty nicely. Got the harps and guitars panned and strings nicely textured with a good convolution reverb. But now — what about the bass? Why do the notes sound uneven, some booming and some receding? And why does the whole thing sound so much different on my other good living room speakers?
So here we are, it’s December on SCOREcast, and the topic of the month is Gear and Software. I’m not always a contrarian, but I am going to be one right now. Everyone might like to hear what I have to say about the latest microphones, preamps, and software plugins, and I have plenty of ideas about those. But almost every musician I have worked with saves up his or her money and then invests in all kinds of screens, knobs, cables and boxes, but almost nobody has given any investment or attention to the acoustics of the room they’re working in, and how that affects the sound. Does it matter? You bet. Let’s take a look.
We all probably sat through this in school; many musicians get glazed eyes when anything with math in it is mentioned. But it’s pretty simple: start with the fact that sound travels in waves, ranging in length from about 56 feet at 20 Hz on up to 7/10 of an inch at 20K Hz. Right in the middle, at 500 cycles, it’s 2.3 feet. And whenever a sound wave encounters a hard surface, such as the wall behind my mixing position, it bounces off like a rubber ball. Those reflections can interact with the waves coming straight out of the speakers, and either boost or cancel certain frequencies.
Of course music is made up of a wide variety of frequencies blended together, so the net results are complex. But the bottom line is what you hear isn’t necessarily what you get. Maybe the low end of the sound is hard to control and decide on, perhaps midrange sounds such as voices or orchestral instruments lack focus or take more EQ than they should, maybe your speakers don’t have a good deep and detailed stereo image. Maybe your woodwind or acoustic guitar overdub sounds like it was recorded in a bedroom (guess what?—it was!). All of these are ways in which your surroundings can negatively impact what you hear.
Actually there are two main concepts in acoustics that need to be attended to: how the surroundings inside your studio affect the sound of your speakers and of acoustic instruments you may be trying to record (room treatment), and also the issue of controlling sounds that may come in from the outside, which you probably don’t want, or your sound going out to bother the neighbors, which is also probably not ideal (sound isolation).
So what can you do about it? The topic is not that complex, but I’m afraid it’s a bit much for just a short article on a web blog, so I’m going to turn this into a book review. I have briefly mentioned it before, but I can’t say enough good things about a simple and extremely well written book: “Acoustic Design for the Home Studio” by Mitch Gallagher. This paperback will set you back less than $20, and it could be the best investment you could make for such modest money.
Gallagher really understands today’s project studio scene. He’s not going to make you wish you could afford a million-dollar custom building job (although don’t we all?), but goes over theory in a clear way and then tells you how to evaluate your present situation, and come up with a plan to improve it. He recommends off-the-shelf acoustic products that are affordable, and tells you how to use them, and also goes into detail about how to use everyday stuff that you may already have to fix up your acoustics for no cost whatsoever, if that’s what you need to do.
My home studio is not perfect yet, but with the aid of Gallagher’s book, I can get started. I have learned how to use the equipment I have to test the frequency response in my workspace, and have found some good alternatives on how to deal with it.
It’s tempting to go with a nice microphone preamp or a new PCI card system to support better plugins. But wouldn’t it feel good to be able to have the confidence that everything you record or mix and deliver sounds just the same everywhere it is played, just as you intended it to?
LES BROCKMANN is a Los Angeles-based recording engineer and score mixer with over 20 years experience in television music, from NORTHERN EXPOSURE (CBS) to KING OF THE HILL (Fox), feature films including the award-winning documentary GHOSTS OF ABU GHRAIB (HBO) and the cult howler TRAIL OF THE SCREAMING FOREHEAD (Larry Blamire, dir.), and video games UNCHARTED 1 & 2 (Sony/Naughty Dog). You can find his SCOREcast bio (and links to his other sites) here.