The biggest investment most studios make is in bricks and mortar... and plasterboard... and Rockwool. But is there another way?
Most studio builds use conventional construction techniques. External walls are made of masonry, or whatever is usual for the area. Internal walls are built from wood studwork faced with plasterboard to construct a ‘room within a room’. This approach is infinitely customisable, materials are universally available, and the methods are tried and tested.
However, a conventional build has its downsides. It involves finding and coordinating skilled workers in different fields, who may need to be educated about the special circumstances that apply to studio projects. The slightest mistake can dramatically compromise the performance of a room. And unless you employ an expensive studio architect to oversee the build, you’ll have no guarantee that the results will actually meet your desired goals, nor any comeback if they don’t.
Above all, though, traditional builds are slow and messy. The building phase can eat up months or even years, during which you may be paying rent on your space without being able to make music or earn any income. And if you later need to move to another building, time and money you have poured into the fabric of the studio must be written off as a dead loss.
But is there an alternative? Well, perhaps. What if you could spend a similar sum having your room prefabricated off‑site by a company who specialise only in studio builds; who promise to install it in a matter of days; who say they can take care of everything from air‑conditioning to acoustic treatment; and who guarantee specific levels of sound isolation and a benign acoustic environment? These are some of the promises made for the Boxy System. To find out more about it, I travelled to Milan to view some showcase installations and meet company representatives.
The Boxy System is the brainchild of Claudio Lamberini, an Italian acoustician, metalsmith and polymath with a skill set that is probably unique. He had the idea of creating a modular format that could be adapted to almost any space, whilst retaining consistently high levels of isolation, and has filed a number of patents relating to his designs. Claudio then teamed up with Boxy’s General Manager Lorenz Koch to develop these innovations into a commercially viable business.
In essence, the walls of a Boxy room comprise a ‘sandwich’ of shaped steel plates, with acoustically absorbent material in between. These plates are bolted together, with the gaps between them sealed for isolation. The ‘sandwich’ incorporates internal ducts for the high‑volume, low‑speed air conditioning that is needed in studios; all the trunking and access necessary for mains and audio cabling is also built‑in. The plates themselves are available in a number of different sizes, meaning that the overall dimensions of a Boxy room can be adjusted to within 10cm or less.
In terms of isolation, the weak points of any studio are the doors and windows. Boxy have developed proprietary designs for both which permit their studios to incorporate large areas of glass, if desired, without undermining their acoustic properties. And talking of acoustic properties, Boxy rooms can be supplied empty, but are also available with a variety of neat proprietary treatment options. Cleverly, these panels are held in place on the steel walls using magnets, allowing them to easily be removed, cleaned and reconfigured. Even more cleverly, there is relatively little need for intrusive bass trapping, because the steel sandwich structure that forms the entire shell is itself a resonator that absorbs low‑frequency energy. All rooms constructed using the Boxy System are guaranteed to offer 45dBA attenuation of sound leaving or entering.
Since the first Boxy rooms were delivered around 20 years ago, the system has been continually developed, and now incorporates a host of neat details. For example, the Boxygen high‑volume air‑conditioning system can be combined with a UV‑C lamp that sterilises the incoming air, killing all airborne germs including the Covid‑19 virus. Internal and external decoration can be handled either by the client or by Boxy, whose options include the Philips Hue colour‑changing LED lighting range.
Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the Boxy System is its scalability. Most of the prefabricated ‘acoustic rooms’ on the market are intended to fill a particular niche where a small, isolated, dead space is required, usually for a vocal booth. Boxy studios can cater to that market, but they can also fulfil much grander roles. The largest Boxy room installed to date is a 100‑capacity performance space at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. Despite being 156 square metres in size, this is built using the same modular components as you’d find in a Boxy vocal booth, control room, radio studio or video editing suite — and it took only 12 days to assemble on site.
Boxy rooms are not kits and cannot be self‑assembled, but with that caveat, a Boxy room can be taken apart and shipped to a new venue when a studio move is necessary. Once rebuilt in that new space, its performance will be identical, so projects that were begun in the old studio can confidently be finished in the new one. Alternatively, modular components from an existing Boxy room can be incorporated into a newer, larger one if expansion is on the cards. Being made of steel, Boxy studios can even be installed outdoors in many parts of the world, though shade is required in hot climates and condensation can be an issue in cold ones.
Being made of steel, Boxy studios can even be installed outdoors in many parts of the world.
Over 900 Boxy rooms have been installed to date. Most of these are in Europe, and the company are still best‑known in their native Italy. Fabrication takes place in their main factory about 100km from Rome, but their main demonstration space is in Milan, the country’s second city and media capital. Le Park is not, however, a conventional showroom: it’s a working studio complex designed from the ground up for shared use. Several small and medium‑sized Boxy rooms are available for hire on a daily basis, and are equipped so that producers can simply plug in their laptops and get to work. The space also hosts an additional, private Boxy room belonging to mastering engineer Luca Arosio.
The shared spaces here are probably as close to ‘typical’ as Boxy rooms get, using the company’s own acoustic panels, and all look smart and professional. More importantly, they also sound decent. Any space of 6 square metres will inevitably have a slightly claustrophobic quality, but the smallest Boxy booths on display seemed to me perfectly usable both for voice recording and for low‑volume mixing. It was only in these little booths that I was able to detect a small amount of noise from the air‑conditioning system.
The strengths of the Boxy System become really apparent in larger control rooms and mixed‑use facilities of 20‑30 square metres. These are rooms that don’t just sound ‘good enough’ but genuinely good, where it becomes feasible to work with a monitoring system that has proper low‑end extension. To give a rough idea of the subjective level of isolation on offer, when a drummer set up in one of the larger Le Park Boxy studios, only the kick drum was clearly audible outside, and that at a level that wouldn’t cause a disturbance. I’ve heard conventional project‑studio builds that have bettered that, but only by using double‑leaf construction with a masonry wall, barrier matting, double doors with an airlock, and no windows. (If extreme isolation is required, it is perfectly possible to assemble one Boxy room within another, achieving 75dBA attenuation, but of course this is both costly and profligate of space.)
Another setup, at Warner Music Italy, showcased some of the possibilities for customisation that are available when Boxy work with an architect as part of a larger project. Here, the brief was to create two production rooms with a shared vocal booth. This was a showpiece facility at the label’s Italian HQ, so the basic Boxy construction was used as a canvas on which a designer could impose his visual aesthetic. The exterior is thus hidden by a funky metal‑panelled screen, and the same reclaimed wood flooring is used both inside and out. Incidentally, this project also provided a very powerful demonstration of the ventilation system; apparently Italian rap producers are unable to work without smoking continuously, but the air inside retained no trace of inspirational substances.
Of all the Boxy installations I saw, however, my favourite was at Energy Mastering, the studio of mastering engineer Pietro Caramelli. A large single room of 6.2 x 4.5 x 3.2 m in size, this highlights the extent to which the Boxy System is adaptable to individual preference and tastes. What I saw and heard there was not an anonymous environment that merely fulfils the necessary functional criteria: it is a characterful and personal workspace (and one which, if I’m honest, I wouldn’t mind having myself!). By design, it’s less dead‑sounding than many recording or mixing environments, but superbly clear and balanced. With large glass panels in the rear wall and very neatly implemented vertical LED lighting, it feels open and light, and the acoustic treatment is both effective and visually appealing. (It also boasts a fine collection of SOS back issues, which is always important.)
The Energy Mastering build makes clear the importance that Boxy attach to the human aspects of a studio. It’s a space where an artist or producer will be working for many hours at a time, and personal comfort is just as essential as technical performance. Some aspects of that are universal, such as the need for adequate ventilation and temperature control, and the avoidance of harmful materials such as formaldehyde. Others, like lighting and decor, are more personal. The Boxy System implements the universal aspects as part of its fundamental design (and meets all relevant international standards), whilst leaving freedom for the personal aspects to be tailored to individual desires.
Traditional studio builds, as I pointed out earlier, can be very slow. The typical lead time on a Boxy room, from first inquiry to final assembly, is likely to be around six months. That might sound like a long wait, too, but the key difference is that the actual on‑site work takes only a few days. A site visit can usually be arranged within a week or so of the initial inquiry, and a contract agreed within another week. After that, there’s no need for the client to spend time overseeing the build; everything happens off‑site, and access to the venue isn’t needed until the lorry rolls up with the parts ready for assembly. So if, for instance, you’re replacing an existing studio installation, the downtime is likely to be much shorter than using conventional building techniques.
The price will vary depending on a number of factors, but to get a ballpark estimate, you can simply email Boxy with an outline of the build you have in mind. Small booth‑type rooms of the type I saw at Le Park begin at around £25‑30k, and the cost per square metre drops as the size of the space increases. It’s probably fair to say that you can get things done more cheaply using conventional techniques if you are confident about designing a studio yourself, and are happy to manage and oversee the build; but that’s a big ‘if’, and if you want the guaranteed performance and confidence that comes with hiring a specialist consultancy to handle things, a conventional build could prove a lot more expensive.
This article shouldn’t be considered a full product review. I haven’t recorded or mixed anything in a Boxy room, nor have I been through the process of commissioning one. But I’ve seen enough to be impressed, and if I was embarking on a studio build myself, the advantages of the Boxy System would make it a tempting option. For broadcasters, educational institutions, commercial studios and post‑production houses, it offers guaranteed performance at a competitive price; for personal studios, it is flexible enough to cater to almost any taste in look, feel and sound. And in every case, it promises hassle‑free design and installation, and the reassurance that your studio won’t have to be left behind when you move on. It’s a serious investment, but it’s one that deserves serious consideration.