Our tireless Editor‑in‑Chief tackles some studio acoustics problems while on holiday in Turkey, with a budget of precisely nothing!
Emrah Ozdemir runs the Kilim hotel in the Turkish riverside town of Dalyan, along with his wife Beckie, who is also an extremely talented singer. If you ever go there, expect to be roped into a jam session! This year he set aside one of their smaller guest rooms to use as a studio and music room, but its rendered brick walls and almost total lack of soft furnishings, other than a couple of rugs on the floor, gave it a live acoustic that a tiled bathroom would have been proud of!
Emrah had set up his Samson Resolv 40A monitors atop a plastic table left over from the restaurant area, but he was sitting behind the desk with his back close to the wall, which was producing strong reflections and also changing the perceived level of bass due to the boundary effect. There were also strong side‑wall reflections that contributed to an unfocused sound and weak stereo imaging. The room itself was essentially a rectangle, maybe 3 x 4 metres, with one corner taken up by a small shower room leaving an L‑shaped studio area.
The challenge here was not to make the room perfect for recording, rather to improve it as a listening environment, as Emrah works almost exclusively in Reason 4 using sampled and synthetic sounds, composing music for Turkish film and TV. However, I suggested that he explore Propellerheads' Record software as a means of adding audio‑recording capability if it ever became necessary. [Reason 6, which has just been announced, allows you to record audio directly into the sequencer — Ed.]
Other than his PC laptop and monitors, the studio gear comprises only a Terratec Phase 26 USB interface and an Evolution MK449C US keyboard. However, the room also plays host to Emrah's guitars, bass, acoustic drum kit and a handful of ethnic instruments, although currently he has no need to record these. When real instruments are required on his recordings, he often works with a team of musicians in Germany, usually during the winter when the hotel is closed, to either add to what he's written or replace his guide synth parts with the real thing. Where the programmes he's writing for have smaller budgets, his finished mixes often comprise only Reason instruments.
My aim, then, was to produce a more accurate monitoring environment so that Emrah could be more confident in his choice of sounds and mixes, though the work he'd finished before moving into this new space sounded extremely polished. Since moving into the new space, however, he'd had to rely almost entirely on headphones.
Fortunately, the limited bass response of the little Samson monitors helped to avoid the worst of the bass problems, but my first job was to revise the monitoring position so that the speakers were on the desk, close to the wall, firing out into the room along its longest axis, rather than facing into the wall. The rather lightweight table was also set into vibration by the speakers, contributing to a muddy sound that would need to be dealt with. And then there was that bathroom‑like reverb to tame...
With no equivalent Wickes or B&Q for some considerable distance, we tackled the job by improvising using materials already available around the hotel. Incredibly, the job was completed in just a few hours at no cost whatsoever.
Tackling the lively room sound first, we draped a sheet over the drum kit to reduce its rather generous contribution to the room resonances, and then applied our local equivalent of acoustic foam, which in this case was a set of six thick, flat cushions around 800mm square and 120mm thick that were probably stuffed with compacted cotton. These were originally destined for the guests' seating area, but hey, priorities are priorities!
To hang them (the cushions, not the guests), we found some thin wire of the type normally used for gardening, and threaded it through the upper corner of each cushion before twisting it to form a loop. A cord was then strung between the wire hoops so that we could hang each cushion from a single masonry nail bashed into the wall.
I explained to Emrah that this was more 'proof of concept' than a permanent job, and we would ideally have used more absorbers, but I suggested that if he was happy with the improvement, he could replace the cushions with larger frames filled with mineral wool, furniture foam or more compressed cotton at a later date. We put two of the cushions at head height on the wall directly in front of the mixing position, and two more at the side mirror points, one of which was hung in front of some metal shelving, and the other on the door of a cupboard. The remaining two cushions were placed on the rear walls, one behind the drum kit and one right at the back of the room, next to the entrance door.
The monitors were still standing flat on the table, which meant that the tweeters were aiming at Emrah's chest rather than his head, and there was still no isolation to prevent the speaker vibrations travelling to the table. Ideally, I needed some commercial speaker platforms, but instead had to make do with a salvaged piece of old furniture foam and a couple of left‑over floor tiles. No problem: a raid on the hotel kitchen produced a serrated bread knife, which made a neat enough job of cutting the foam. I cut two pieces the same size as the floor tiles and around 80mm thick, but this still didn't get the tweeters aiming in the right direction, so I cut a couple of further foam wedges to put under the front edges of the larger foam chunks to angle them up slightly. This did the trick, and playing back some commercial material, as well as Emrah's own mixes, confirmed that relatively little vibration was now making it through to the table top.
Seated in the mixing position, the cushions, which we'd placed at the mirror points, really helped tame the room reflections and minimised the rather excessive flutter echo that had been present before. Our improvised speaker pads also worked pretty well, though I'd have liked to find some non‑slip matting to put under the speakers. Emrah may be able to find some at the local hardware shop or at the Saturday market.
A subjective evaluation of the system after the adjustments we'd made concluded that there was now a surprisingly well‑balanced and solid sound when seated at the mix position, though the room still tended to dominate proceedings when standing further back. I was particularly (and pleasantly) surprised by the tight and punchy bass available from these little speakers in this setup. They get a touch boxy when pushed hard, but at moderate listening levels they actually sound fine. I think Emrah was also surprised that we'd managed to bring about such a significant improvement using a combination of such basic materials and techniques and by moving things around.
Though this was a really simple and quick job, it once again underlines the reality that even very basic acoustic treatment is vastly better than none at all. In this case, we managed to optimise the sound for the mix position using the available cushions, and didn't worry too much about how things sounded in the rest of the room. Additionally, this exercise demonstrated in a very practical way that the performance of small speakers can be improved quite significantly by isolating them from the desk on which they are standing, ideally with something solid and heavy between the speaker and the foam rubber platform base, and also by ensuring that the tweeters are aimed directly towards the listener's head.
Emrah worked on a mix a couple of days after we'd made these changes, and he told me that he was now achieving very workable results from the room, with much clearer and more accurate‑sounding monitoring than before. If you're in need of Turkish-style music for a TV or film project, Emrah can be contacted on www.kilimhotel.com.
Emrah Ozdemir: "Thanks Paul, I am really surprised at how different the room sounds after the changes we made. Everything sounds much cleaner. Now I can mix without having to rely entirely on my headphones, and I look forward to working on some new material!”