With a little cunning and resourcefulness, you can improve the sound of nearly any studio — even when it's on the other side of the world!
Joe Matera called us because of concerns with his monitoring. He couldn't put his finger on exactly what was wrong with it, and although his studio shares a room with his home gym and office, that didn't seem to be the cause of his problems. Pretty routine stuff, we thought: Hugh and I would drive over, take a look and then come up with a solution... That was, until Joe told us he lived in Newborough, Victoria, Australia! Despite the promise of endless chocolate Hob Nobs, the jet lag and budget rather ruled out us flying over.
Nevertheless, we felt it would be worth trying to help Joe via email, as many readers around the world experience similar problems, so this exercise might serve as a useful template for others facing similar challenges. As you might imagine, our correspondence took the form of a series of conversations, and our first task was to find out as much as we could about Joe's existing studio space and the problems he was experiencing. Then we had to establish what materials were to hand, how Joe felt about a spot of DIY work, and so on. When Joe had finished the work, we then had to try to gauge the improvement.
This is how Joe's first email to us started out: "One of my favourite sections in your mag is Studio SOS, but I know that being in Australia, I'm way too far away for a visit. So I thought, if I send you a photo of my studio, could you offer me some helpful advice via email on how to improve my studio?”
Joe then went on to describe his setup, and also attached a few photos. The first thing we needed to know was the size and shape of the studio room, which Joe told us was roughly 3.5 metres (11 feet) square.
Joe continued: "I have a side wardrobe, which takes up the entire side area next to the studio entrance door. Also, the way I am seated in front of my computer doesn't quite follow the correct equilateral triangular setup recommended in your previous Studio SOS articles. However, when I listen to playback, I actually move my chair to align myself with the monitors in what seems to be a more correct position for listening. Unfortunately,cd there's no other way I can set up my monitors at the moment without first having to get a new desk and so on.”
Joe then went on to describe his less than optimal monitor placement: "My Alesis M1 Active monitors are some way below my ear level, so I know I'll need to get some stands. At the moment they're slightly less than a foot lower than the level of my head when seated but, again, when listening back or mixing I do position myself a little lower to be in the correct line of hearing.”
That immediately conjured up visions of Joe sliding down in his chair to get his head in line with the tweeters. He then went on to describe the speaker placement in relation to the walls: "As you'll notice from the photos, the left speaker, which is sitting on a wooden shelf near the side window, is properly positioned about a foot or so away from the front and side walls. The right speaker is positioned the same distance from the front wall, but due to space restrictions and the way my desk is built, there's around a metre distance between the corner and the wardrobe to the right.”
Although Joe felt that new speaker mountings might help improve things, he wasn't sure exactly what to use, and he even asked if placing mouse mats under the monitors would do the trick (such a measure would be unlikely to make any significant improvement, however).
As Joe's photographs showed, the walls of the room were largely bare and therefore very reflective. His monitors were also set up very close to the corners of the room, rather than midway along the wall, and he also needed to address the monitor height issue. Having a square room doesn't help, either, as the front/back and left/right room modes coincide and cause resonances to pile up at the same frequencies, causing some bass notes to sound much louder than others. With careful monitor placement, however, this can often be minimised.
It is also vitally important not to end up sitting in the centre of a square room when mixing, as there is usually a huge bass 'suck-out' in the middle of the room that leads you to believe your mixes have far less low end than they really do.
It was clear that some acoustic treatment would be necessary to control the reflections from the walls, so I asked Joe what was available in his locale. Ideally, he needed either acoustic foam, or a porous insulating mineral wool such as Rockwool (mineral wool) slab. A change to the monitor mountings was also indicated, and it would take more than mouse mats!
Joe told us that porous foam would be easy to obtain locally, but that he already had some stashed away from a previous domestic DIY project. This was originally used over a queen-size bed to help with back problems, but when it was no longer needed, it ended up being stored in the garage. Joe told us that it was exactly 50mm thick, with a convoluted 'egg box' pattern, and that there was enough to cut it into four pieces, each around one metre square. In response, I explained to Joe the need to place absorbers over the mirror points: nearby surfaces that could otherwise directly reflect sound back from the monitors to the listening position, causing a degradation in the stereo image as well as an overall lack of clarity. This is an approach described in many Studio SOS articles, and it provides a cheap and easy means of cleaning up the mid-range and high frequencies.
In Joe's case, this would mean hanging a foam panel either side of his mixing position, with further panels on the wall behind the monitors. Sometimes a panel on the ceiling also helps, but unless the ceiling is particularly low, it may not be necessary.
Shortly afterwards, Joe sent another message to tell us he'd ordered adjustable studio monitor speaker stands, which he said he'd install as soon as they arrived. He also had a couple of questions for us.
"What do you suggest as the best way to hang the foam on the wall aside from glueing the foam to a board? Also, isn't it true that if one listens to playback at low volume, the acoustic treatment of a room has no bearing on it whatsoever?”
We replied that listening at low volume doesn't mitigate the need for acoustic treatment, as the proportion of direct and reflected sound reaching the ears is still essentially the same regardless of level. We also took the opportunity to explain our simple trick of gluing old CDs to the back of the foam panels so that they can be hung on picture nails to save damaging the walls. However, it transpired that Joe would come up with his own solution — or rather, his wife would! She suggested the simple trick of folding a piece of fabric over one edge of the foam, then gripping this in a couple of folding office paperclips, which could then be hung on a couple of nails. I don't think this is quite so invisible or elegant as our old CDs method, but it certainly works.
Joe made up four panels and positioned them on the walls, wardrobe and side window, the last panel being removable. By now, the speaker stands had arrived, so Joe sent us an updated photo and commented that he could definitely hear a difference in the sound. His monitors seemed a little louder on playback, the overall sound was cleaner, and the tweeters were now aimed at ear level, 35 inches off the floor. But what, if anything, should he do next?
The foam should have done the trick for the mid-range and high frequencies, but we were still worried about the bass end in that square room. To find out what we faced, I explained to Joe that he needed to try our oft-used bass-line semitone sequence test to evaluate the low end, highlighting very obviously loud or quiet notes.
To run this test, you simply program a bass sequence of fairly pure tones (a simple sine wave is ideal) in semitone steps over the bottom two or three octaves covered by your monitors, using a synth or sampler plug-in with all the notes set to the same velocity. As this plays, you listen for notes that seem excessively loud or quiet in comparison with adjacent notes, as heard from the mixing position. You can then adjust the speaker positions a few inches at a time for the flattest result. It's normal for the level to gradually drop off as the pitch gets lower, but you're looking for is individual loud or quiet notes that stand out.
Joe performed the test just as we'd instructed, and discovered a rattle that was finally traced to a framed photo hanging on the wall opposite the monitors, so he removed it and the rattles stopped.
With the rattle fixed, he ran the test again and noticed that a couple of bass notes were, indeed, louder than others. He then made adjustments to the monitor positions as we'd suggested, to achieve the flattest result. This resulted in monitor positions around six inches away from the wall behind them.
After much tweaking of positions, he arrived at the point where there were no obviously loud notes, although in one area two or three notes were still a little lower in volume than the others. As a rule, small dips in the response are less problematic than peaks, so given the difficult nature of a smallish, square room, we felt it was about as good as it was likely to get. I did, however, also suggest that he try moving the speakers further apart or closer together, as that can also influence the low end. Moving them in slightly, towards the sides of the desk, made another small improvement.
By now, we all felt that we'd gone as far as we could without making further radical and possibly expensive changes, including installing bass traps. With his system now working as well as possible, it should now be possible for Joe to make reasonably accurate mixes, as long as he plays enough commercial records through the system so that he can get used to how the low end sounds. .
Joe Matera: "Paul's suggestions and advice in what I needed to do to improve the monitoring aspect of my recording and mixing process has been greatly appreciated and valued. Having put into place the recommended changes and adjustments, I have noticed the differences. The low frequencies are now a lot more evenly balance. I have also noticed that the overall clarity is better, and I'm able to better distinguish each frequency and instrument in a mix. The stereo imaging is clearer and more precise and my mixes have benefited enormously, as what I hear in my control room is now more accurately reflected on outside systems.
"I have found this whole experience interesting, as it's given me a better understanding of the importance of having the room and its monitoring system properly set up to achieve a better end result for my recordings.”
Joe Matera's new album, Creature Of Habit, is out now, on WAR Productions. For more, check out www.joematera.com.
Joe is a respected guitarist in Australia and has released a number of commercial recordings, but the only instrument he tends to record in his studio is the guitar. Bass and drums are recorded elsewhere with the mixing for his commercial releases done in a pro studio. Joe: "I record the guitar amp in the hallway next to my studio; it's one metre wide and 2.5 metres long. I close all the doors, including any wardrobes and cupboards, when recording. The end of the hallway leads to the bathroom and separate WC, and since they both have doors, I close them too. The ambience of the hallway seems well suited to my guitar recording; the floor is tiled on top of an existing wooden floor and I can put down a piece of carpet to help control floor reflections.”