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Acoustic Treatments For The Project Studio

Feature | Tips & Tricks By Dave Lockwood
Published June 1998

Acoustic Treatments For The Project Studio

Recording Architecture's renowned Black Box modular acoustic treatment system is now available in a range of packages specifically aimed at the project studio. Dave Lockwood talks to consultant acoustician, Nick Whitaker and architect Roger D'Arcy about the company's latest venture in this sector of the market.

Acoustic treatment so often comes a distant second to the equipment budget in the project studio, yet the accuracy of the monitoring environment is one of the major factors determining the standard of work that can be achieved within the room. However, a new range of acoustic treatment packages specifically developed for the project studio market is now available from one of the big names of professional acoustic design, Recording Architecture. Since 1987 RA has built up an ever more impressive client list, consisting not just of internationally renowned studios around the world, but also of many project rooms and artists' home studios. Recording Architecture actually now forms just part of the newly created AAA (Acoustics And Architecture) Group, in combination with Pegley‑D'Arcy Architects, Nick Whitaker Electroacoustics and the enigmatically named Black Box. The latter is their system of modular acoustic treatments — literally a range of large 'black boxes', each with different acoustic properties — designed to offer 'bolt‑on' acoustic solutions where more structural or permanent work is not possible or is inappropriate. Although high‑profile studio projects form the most visible part of their work, Roger D'Arcy, architect and one of the company founders, attributes much of the group's phenomenal growth over the last 10 years to their significant involvement in the project studio market: "We probably wouldn't make a living just designing big 'pro' studios from the ground up; there just aren't enough of them, even internationally. We really do need the hundred or so project studios to go along with that. That's where the bread and butter is, but it's also where our techniques get extended and challenged — it's continual R&D."

Black Market

This basic package is the entry‑level Black Box Mini System.This basic package is the entry‑level Black Box Mini System.

It is in recognition of the importance of their involvement with this sector of the market that the group has developed its range of three project studio 'packages', incorporating Black Box components. D'Arcy continues: "One of the problems for us in the project studio area is that it's quite difficult for us to get across to that market that we actually do this kind of work! We get three or four phone calls a week from people who don't know who we are, and that, in a way, is a good thing, because it means they are not intimidated into thinking, 'I didn't think you'd be interested in doing my small room'. Our attitude is simply one of 'is our solution appropriate for you?'. If the answer to your problem is only a thousand pounds worth of stuff, then that's fine."

It's a philosophy that has always been at the heart of the company's activities, for unlike many acoustic design companies, Recording Architecture does not undertake the actual building work involved in a project. For co‑founder and consultant acoustician Nick Whitaker, the distinction is crucial: "It's actually one of the hardest things to get across to a new client. The answer to the question 'How much is a recording studio?' in our case is 'It's as much as you want to spend', whereas in the typical 'design and build' situation, the answer is 'it's as much as I can make you spend'."

Unique Blend

The intermediate package adds some wide‑band absorbers.The intermediate package adds some wide‑band absorbers.

Despite the obvious presence in the market of plenty of other 'acoustic consultancy' services, Whitaker believes that Recording Architecture's blend of measurement, advice and design remains unique: "Sure, there are one or two other, much smaller companies who do offer a sort of 'advice' service, often based on computer‑aided design, which they do by postal application, but I think they are missing the point. It is simply not possible to guess people's acoustic needs intuitively, at arm's length and, in effect, that means they can be in real danger of seriously misleading people." D'Arcy: "We believe that the best way to tackle any job like that is to get in and make some measurements. If you try to do it just off the plans there could be all sorts of things you might not be aware of — say, the effect of a masonry wall on one side and a lightweight, rattly plasterboard wall on the other — and you can't tell what people's floor is made of. They will often tell you the wrong thing — an awful lot of people think they've got wooden floors when in actual fact they've got wooden planks on battens on concrete floors. That alone could dramatically change the acoustic treatment required. Another mistake you can make trying to work just off clients' plans and photographs is that you might be assuming you can bolt something heavy to the wall when in reality that wall is actually a hardboard panel!"

It's about having the experience to get the balance right.

Whitaker acknowledges that making the correct analysis is vital: "the last thing we want to be doing is perhaps to be adding expensive low‑frequency absorption when there might already be enough, especially with the typical modern plasterboard‑construction room where most of the problems tend to be at a slightly higher frequency, in the 100 to 200Hz region. It takes about three hours for me to check out a room, using primarily TDS (Time Delay Spectrometry) backed up with some MLS (Maximum Length Sequence) measurements, although the resolution of the TDS is far higher, particularly at low frequencies, which is where most of the problems tend to occur."

"It's not actually a prerequisite for us to get involved", states D'Arcy, "but we do very much prefer it when we can get in for a look around, and by paying a few hundred quid for Nick to visit the site you might actually save yourself several hundred pounds worth of acoustic elements which we might have thought necessary if we were working just with the plans. Inevitably, we will tend to over‑specify slightly if we haven't been able to test the room. But we do always prioritise our solutions — we might give you 11 recommendations, but there will always be a 'most important four' that you must do. Then we might say, 'it would be good if you also did the next three, very good if you did the next two, and the last one is a bit of a luxury'. The client can do it in stages, therefore, although it is important to stress that our Black Box system is not 'modular' in the way that some systems are in that there is not just one set unit that you merely vary the amount of. Nick and I have actually been into studios where they have put a single foam 'acoustic tile' behind each speaker!"

"And they honestly think" laughs Whitaker, "that this thing, a couple of inches thick, will make a difference, and when you ask them 'did you actually notice a difference?' the answer is 'er, no — but surely it's still doing some good, isn't it?'".

Bolt‑On Solution

The professional Mini System package, properly installed, is claimed to make a "very, very good room indeed".The professional Mini System package, properly installed, is claimed to make a "very, very good room indeed".

Whitaker is happy to measure a room with all the gear already in situ: "It can actually be useful to see what kind of gear and furnishings are there, because things like shelving and keyboard stands can actually produce both quite a good scattering effect and some significant absorption. In the project market, we quite like to say 'buy your gear, put it in and we'll sort out the room around it', because one of the beauties of the Black Box system is that it bolts onto ceilings and walls."

"Assuming that soundproofing — sound in and out — is not an issue", says D'Arcy, "we really can make an absolutely enormous difference, without doing any structural work. In fact, we get loads of thank‑you letters, because often people don't think about the acoustics at all. They just dump the gear in the room asymmetrically, in a corner, get on with using it, and then wonder why their exciting records aren't quite as exciting when they play them to their friends on their hi‑fi or take it to the mastering studio — that's when they really find out that they haven't got that tight, punchy bass they thought they had.

"It's the fact that we can make such a significant difference that led us to produce a a product specifically for the project market. We realised that the average project studio guy wouldn't know how to ask us for what we do! That's why we developed what we call our Mini Systems — Black Box components in set packages: the Basic pack, the Standard and the Professional. All of them are designed to take the typical British room up to a good acoustical standard, and for anything beyond that, we feel you ought to be getting involved with us as architectural acoustic consultants, as you are then into building flush walls and the like. The price range of the Mini system starts off at less than £1,500, and consists of a pair of our speaker stands [see box, left], and a diffusing panel, along with a pair of profiled acoustic foam panels and some advice from Nick as to where to put the diffusion for the best effect. The next package up the scale starts adding some low‑frequency absorption, as well as more scattering and absorptive material on the ceiling. We are able to give certain 'rules of thumb' about placement of the acoustic elements: 'if the room has certain dimensions, put this on that wall rather the other wall, etc'.

"Even this minimum package would make a difference of a significant order, assuming that there hadn't been any acoustic work already. Actually, it's often better if the client hasn't done anything, because so often they will have spent their money on the wrong thing. The classic one is where they phone us up and say, 'I've got the battens on and I've got the Rockwool on, what do I do now?'. And the answer is, 'well, the first thing to do is take all the Rockwool off and start all over again'. You would be amazed how many people think that is how you do it. They've got this idea about sound insulation in one half of their brain and something about absorption in the other, and 'Rockwool' is the magic word that sorts everything out."

Balancing Act

Acoustic Treatments For The Project Studio

"It would be great if there was one simple, single device that you could apply to a room to make it better, but unfortunately that just isn't the case. It is always a mixture and a balance of different elements — not tuned traps or RPG diffusors on their own, and definitely not acoustic foam! That's definitely in our top five of stupid things that people do — covering the walls with two inches of Rockwool and saying 'what sort of hessian should I use?'"

"And the next one on that list", adds Whitaker, "is to have heard ever in their lives the expression 'room within a room'. I had one last week where they thought they had built a room within a room, but what they had actually done was batten out from the concrete outer room, fill the void withRockwool and put plasterboard over the top. All they had done was to reduce the size of the room! It took a good six inches off every dimension. And their speaker stands were then bolted to the plasterboard!"

"We are up against so much partial knowledge from old '70s textbooks" says D'Arcy. "Some people will spend £20,000 pursuing this 'room within a room' thing when perhaps £5,000 spent on the internal acoustics and not working after midnight would have been a better way to do it. Often it's knowing when to bother attempting something that can be the most important thing we do — knowing whether it might ever be realistic to do a drum recording session at four in the morning in a residential situation. It can be done, but generally speaking, that implies concrete, fully floated 'room within a room', sprung bunkers etc, and maybe they haven't got the £40,000 it takes to do that.

"It's a matter of warning people when they are about to spend a lot of money, but not quite enough. I think that's one of the saddest things about the 'second tier' of acoustic consultants out there; they tend to lead people up this '£25,000 garden path', and leave them strung out, having spent their money, but still without achieving what they wanted to achieve. Those people work to a pattern. Nick and I saw a classic a few weeks ago; a guy had recently had a 'name' studio consultant/builder in to do his room because he had done a 'room within a room' for his mate's studio next door. But his mate was at the end of the building. He had no immediate neighbours, and everything was OK. The guy we were called in to see was living in a flat with only a plasterboard wall between him and a rather sensitive neighbour. The original consultant obviously thought, 'OK, we'll do another room within a room. It worked there, it'll work here.' Result; the neighbour was complaining like crazy and trying to close the client down and get him thrown out of his flat. But, of course, the guy had spent his £12,000 by then, so what could we do? Basically, no more than charge the guy £500 to tell him what a silly boy he had been! Whereas, if we had had access to the original budget, either we would have been able to do something appropriate for him, or, if it just wasn't possible, we would have told him 'don't do it'‑‑ which is sometimes what people need to hear.

"Sometimes, when we tell people not to do something, they are quite upset, but then they come back in six months with a different building and say 'thank God you told me not to do it there'. There is nothing worse than someone being commercially tied to an unsuitable building — then you have to try to sort it out, and just explain the limitations. These guys who go round doing 'Rockwool rooms' are not always wrong, it is just that they are unlikely to be able to spot those situations where their 'solution' is completely inappropriate.

"It's about having the experience to get the balance right. It's not that bass trapping isn't important, it's not that diffusion isn't important — you just need that sense of even‑handedness and balance in any situation. We are probably always using the same 10 things, but in vastly differing proportions. and that would apply to our architectural solutions as well. We are probably always using the same techniques there too, but the key thing is that you always need to judge when to use a certain technique."

Nick Whitaker's DOs And Don'ts Of Project Studio Acoustics


  • Don't rely on only one form of acoustic treatment in a room — this inevitably leads to an imbalance at different frequencies (eg. don't cover every surface with two inches of mineral fibre.
  • Don't attempt to 'soundproof' a space using porous materials — using mineral fibre alone will not provide significant sound insulation.
  • Don't mount the speakers asymmetrically within the room — the two speakers will never sound the same!
  • Don't mount the speakers within three feet or so from a side wall or ceiling.
  • Don't mount monitor speakers on wall brackets — particularly if the wall is a plasterboard type.
  • Don't use microphone cable in place of speaker cable!


  • Do use different thickness/types of acoustic treatment within a room.
  • Do seek the advice of a professional acoustic consultant to recommend sound insulation treatment. Normally a consultant can determine the limiting factors of sound insulation and advise on which works will provide a significant effect and which would not (eg. if the limiting factor of a room is the sound insulation provided by the door, there would be very little point sound insulating the adjacent wall without first upgrading the sound insulation of the door.
  • Do orientate the equipment and position the monitor speakers so that symmetry can be maintained at least at the front of the room and as far back as possible.
  • Do mount the speakers closer together if the width of the room is restricted — better a compressed stereo width than suffering comb‑filtering interference effects caused by strong reflections from side walls and ceiling.
  • Do use speaker stands (preferably floor‑standing) which hold the speakers rigidly in position and which do not have audible resonances.
  • Do use reasonably thick (minimum 2.5mm cross‑section oxygen‑free copper) speaker cable, as short as possible. The quality of sound coming from the speakers is strongly dependent on the quality of the power amplification and the interface between amp and speaker.

Standing Out

"Our stands are designed, above all, to be rigid" says Nick Whitaker, "to be able to resist diaphragm movement. Every other speaker stand on the market is either a 'Z' frame or two legs going up to the required height with a bar on top. When Roger and I walk into studios we cannot resist giving one of the speakers a little push. You can go and have a cup of tea, come back and it will still be moving! So the bass diaphragm's pushing one way and the thing it's on is moving with it, so how can the bass have any tightness to it?

"This is one of those crazy things the hi‑fi people discovered twenty‑odd years ago. 'Wow, my speakers sound so much clearer if I put them on stands.' The other variant on the 'pro' speaker stand is to take a hi‑fi stand and just stretch it so that your speaker is above the console's meterbridge.

"Following the principle of getting the source right and following the signal down the chain, it doesn't matter how much wonderful acoustic design has gone into your studio, if your speakers are rocking backwards and forwards every time they reproduce a kick drum, then they are not going to sound very good. In fact, they would probably sound better on a pair of our stands in an untreated room, as we once discovered. We had measured a client's home studio in California, and the room was a bit of a disaster, but we said, 'the first thing to do is to get rid of those bloody awful speaker stands of yours'. We put a pair of our stands in their place and played a couple of our favourite CDs. From the first bar of the first song it was as if we had already cured half the problems of the room. It was quite unbelievable.

D'Arcy adds "A similar thing happened recently in another 'name' project studio where Nick analysed the room and we subsequently lent them a pair of our speaker stands, and said where to put them. And they did the entire album like that — putting the stands in was the only acoustic work that was done! So our 'starter pack' really could be as little as just a pair of our speaker stands and still make a big difference. We've sold maybe 200 pairs to people who have said, 'that's it, that's my problem', and that alone has done enough for them.

Black Box Mini Systems

  • The Basic package — "less than £1500"

Pair of speaker stands, one variable acoustic panel, two profiled acoustic foam panels (wall‑ or ceiling‑mountable) plus special fixing system for mounting panels.

  • The Standard package — "less than £4000"

Pair of speaker stands, one variable acoustic panel, two double wide‑band absorbers, one perforated MDF/profiled acoustic foam ceiling panel, profiled acoustic foam panels (wall‑ or ceiling‑mountable) plus special fixing system for mounting panels.

  • The Professional "make a very, very good room indeed" package — "under £5000"

A full acoustic analysis with report and recommendations starts at £525.

All prices quoted here are exclusive of VAT.