If you're looking to build a studio, there's masses of information out there — but no substitutes for professional advice and experience.
Although I'm not a professional studio builder, I have worked as a sound engineer for many years, both live and in the studio. I am often asked by bands I work with if I can help sort out their rehearsal rooms, so they can practice without disturbing the neighbours and do demo recordings there. I inevitably wish that they had come to me before they signed the lease!
We all know studios that are nothing more than a convenient collection of cheap rooms with some carpet on the walls, foam on the ceilings and, if you are lucky, bass traps. Some of these thrown-together rooms can sound OK, and be reasonably successful at producing acceptable results — but if they do, it's blind luck! I have been in many rooms that will never be right no matter how much time is spent on them, either because they are fundamentally the wrong shape and/or because they are constructed from inappropriate materials.
Building a studio always requires a certain amount of work, and often involves reducing the existing dimensions as you put in double walls, floating floors and extra ceilings in an attempt to isolate the recording space from the surrounding structure. If you are not on the ground floor, all the issues are made more difficult, as any weight you add will need to be supported by the existing floor: a real concern and potential major expense. Many properties simply are not suitable: rooms with flimsy stud walls and beamed wooden floors are unlikely ever to be made sufficiently solid to be able to stop the sound of a full-on band migrating to neighbouring rooms. I was recently shown one 'ideal' building that was already equipped with studio-sized rooms — except that all the rooms shared a common roof void, above the suspended ceiling tiles, affording no separation at all! Even if separation issues can be solved, there's the question of how suitable the space is: low ceilings, box shapes and parallel walls rarely produce good-sounding rooms.
Faced with all these potential problems, the idea of paying for professional help seems a lot more attractive!
Several years ago, I decided that it was about time I built my own studio. I had found a house with a suitable basement, and it looked like becoming my dream home. Unfortunately, the market crashed, as did our house sale — but I had become attached to the idea of owning my own studio, touring less and working at home. After much searching, I found a disused laundry building in Sheffield and a new dream was born. Obviously, by this point the idea had grown out of all proportion to my original concept. I now had a business partner and a large building that needed to pay its way. I was no longer building a single studio, but fitting as many control rooms as I could into the space and sub-letting them.
I had read countless books, visited numerous forums and web sites. I had absorbed lots of information, but still felt that I did not know enough to start work. If it had just been me, I am sure I would have forged on, but as I was now spending my business partner's money as well, I decided to seek help. Having engineered for many years, I knew many artists who had their own studios. A quick call around some of them still failed to get me anywhere positive. Most had done it themselves, and had not had a great time doing it.
However, a few names did crop up, and I spoke in depth to several companies and even visited a few. One company stood out, and I arranged to travel to Greenwich to meet with Recording Architecture for a paid consultation. The cost was relatively low, at around £100, but the idea of paying for help with my studio design still represented a leap of faith for me!
I dutifully arrived at the offices with a reasonably accurate floor plan of my building. The next two hours were what can only be described as an epiphany! Roger D'Arcy, the architect, proceeded to sketch out in pencil the rough shape of five control rooms around a central live area. He also managed to do something I had failed to conceptualise in the previous months: get all the rooms connected by a single corridor, with doors entering into the rooms at the correct place. I watched in wonder as my studio took shape. Roger admitted that after so many years of drawing studios, he had a fair idea of what he wanted to achieve and that it was just a case of making it fit!
I signed up on the spot and agreed to pay for his most basic service. For a few thousand pounds, I received all the plans for my studio, as well as instructions on how to build almost every aspect of it down to doors, floors, walls, acoustic treatment and oft-neglected but vital things such as lights, heating and air! Some will say that £2000 is a considerable sum, and indeed it is, but it is also the cost of a good mastering EQ or top-end nearfield monitors. What this money did pay for was a solid design on which to start work. I now knew what I was building, how, and why it was being built that way! All through the build, Roger and his drawing partner Hugh Flynn were there with support, helping us with extra drawings, explaining further bits we didn't understand — even redrawing two rooms when we decided to double the area of the live room. They were also able to tell us which parts of the plan we could change and which aspects were crucial. This meant that we could prioritise our expenditure on the most important parts and scrimp and save on things that weren't.
I decided to talk to Roger as well as a few other professionals in the field, to find out what prospective self-builders could learn from the professionals. Having left university in 1981, Roger worked as an architectural designer at Andy Munro's Turnkey Two until 1987, when he teamed up with building technologist Hugh Flynn to form RA.
"Recording Architecture was commercially set up to provide full architectural, acoustic design and project management services for larger commercial and institutional facilities, frequently built from the ground up. That said, maybe some 30 to 50 percent of the 15 to 20 projects that we handled per year could be considered small (some very successful project studios for notable artists and producers have been extremely small, often no more than a single room within a private residence, such as Neneh Cherry's or Sade's). Not everyone requires, or can justify the cost of, a full architectural service, along with structural engineers and piles of construction details, and we were always very mindful to make our time available on a consultancy basis to anyone that needed it. This worked best and was most cost effective when clients would visit our offices for a couple of hours or so, armed with survey information and photographs. A rough sketch with dimensions was enough. We would then quickly redraw to scale as the meeting got underway, before discussing and sketching out appropriate construction details for acoustic treatments and advising on material specifications.”
But would you get this expertise from any architect? Roger's love of music led to his interest in studio design, but he says that most architects do not have this grounding. "Architects are taught very little about acoustics, and are highly unlikely to have knowledge of studios, or the recording process. However, in association with an acoustician, they can help plan and efficiently construct the host space to be adequately sound-isolated. Likewise, an acoustician — and they should be specifically experienced in recording studios — is generally not able to visualise space or understand how to make things, but again, in conjunction with an architect or a good builder, their input can be invaluable.”
Roger is insistent that taking advice from an experienced professional is the best way to ensure you get what you want. "Taking professional advice can be so important, if only to point projects in the right direction — literally, establishing optimal orientation/console and monitor positioning — and strategically, but perhaps more importantly, to help avoid the many potential pitfalls and serious mistakes. It is often more costly to apply the wrong techniques than the correct ones, and there seems to be an overwhelming urge to apply too much treatment, rather than just enough of the right thing in the right place.”
Roger is also outspoken about the deficiencies of 'off the shelf' solutions to acoustic problems, which he compares unfavourably with specific advice tailored to individual studios. "The difference of professional input can be enormous, particularly with regard to low-frequency control, which is usually inadequately addressed. The shameful marketing of relatively inexpensive, lightweight material 'systems' to be glued to walls and placed across corners, as if they were efficient, complete acoustic solutions, has much to answer for. Perhaps the main issue is how to select and evaluate the particular professional required. There is no substitute for appropriate experience, and the greatest value is often simply to talk to a couple of appropriate consultants in the architectural/studio professional fields, and pay for their time. Discuss your project, establish the best strategy and, most importantly, simply avoid big, expensive mistakes.”
Peter Keeling from Studio People echoes many of Roger's comments. "What I always say to people is: get the rooms right before you spend all your budget on equipment. It's very difficult to change a room, easy to upgrade or change equipment. What you hear is affected more by the room than even the best speakers, and good room design is more often about the right techniques rather than specialist and expensive materials. What I have learned over the years, particularly from doing projects in very compromised spaces, is that sometimes you have to throw the 'book' away and work from experience and practicalities. Many projects just don't have the budgets to perform fancy and complicated acoustic treatment designs, but there is usually a simple and more cost-effective solution! That said, don't compromise on isolation. If you need it, because of your location, type of work or nature of the building, you must follow all the rules and then some — isolation doesn't come cheap and is usually the most costly part of any project, whether self-build or contracted. Getting that part right is the most useful part of advice that we can provide.”
Peter started in 1978, designing and manufacturing audio equipment ranging from 24-track recorders to desks. His company started taking on studio design in the '90s, and his background experience in electronics, construction and acoustics have helped him build a turnkey company able to provide all aspects of studio design. "A typical project can include consultancy, so we'll help you out with design ideas and specs; design drawings, either detailed or just sketches, depending on the client's needs; construction on-site; mechanical services such as air conditioning; electrical services; audio/video cabling and equipment; custom joinery, technical furniture and so on; and, most usefully for self-build projects on a really tight budget, an offering of standard acoustic-related products such as absorbers, resonant traps, doors, windows and any custom joinery required. We'll even supply skirting, dado and architrave if it meets with the overall studio theme requirement.”
Like Roger D'Arcy, Peter Keeling is very much aware of the traps that self-builders can fall into. "Architects and local builders just don't generally understand what's important and will generally have little or no experience of proper studios. You have to employ the right people, and I have witnessed many many projects that have fallen foul of the 'builder's bodge' syndrome. You've seen it before: suspended ceiling, fluorescent lighting, nice parallel walls plastered and painted (so lots of standing waves), noisy air-con, windows too high, doors not sealing... it's a long list and many Further and Higher Education establishments have spent millions getting this all wrong, by using the wrong people to specify and build the spaces. All the best equipment in the world will not improve the sound of a bad room, or stop Johnny the drummer bleeding through two floors to the offices below.”
With big recording budgets now a thing of the past, more bands are investing in multiple-purpose spaces where they can store equipment, rehearse and track/mix. The majority of bands I work with these days are in this situation, and have solved it with varying success. The number of music professionals working at home in their own studios is also increasing, as can be seen just by the increased amount of technology that is being bought to equip these home studios. For people in this position, it seems clear to me that it makes absolute sense to pay for the services of someone like Roger or Peter. If you are looking at anything that could be described as structural, I would definitely look at involving a specialist architect; the modest outlay can easily be recouped in money saved through doing the job right first time.
My own experience chimes with Roger D'Arcy's, in that I've found that builders are very able to advise on construction costs, but tend to have little knowledge of how buildings perform acoustically. I recently talked to an architect about a loft conversion, and he admitted that I probably knew more about mechanically decoupling the floor in the loft from the host building than he did. It just wasn't something he dealt with very often, although this is an area where legislation is helping, thanks to recent laws regarding transmission of noise between adjacent flats beginning to have an impact on builders and architects. New materials are also becoming available at your local builders' merchants. An Internet search can turn up several different types of flooring system available at a builders' yard near you! Hopefully, builders and architects alike will start to pay more attention to this aspect of construction and, in turn, this could help drive material costs down.
If there's one thing that unites amateurs and professionals, it's a common love of music and the search for the perfect space! Talking to Roger and Peter, I was struck by their continued enthusiasm for the subject. These are people who live and breathe studio design and love their subject. Recording Architecture has now closed its doors, but even in retirement Roger is still enthusiastic about studios. He has left a great reference book (reviewed in SOS November 2011: /sos/nov11/articles/ra-the-book.htm) detailing many of his projects, with plans of how they were done, and if you buy a copy he says he is willing to answer mail and provide advice. My own recommendation is always to seek out help where you can, and don't be afraid to pay for it. Money spent in planning is invariably saved in execution, and the less you spend on the build, the more you can spend on toys!
If your studio is to be a money-making venture, investing in professional design and construction advice is very worthwhile, as you'll discover in the main text of this article. But what about those of us whose ambitions, and budgets, are more humble? If you don't have the money to pay for tailored professional advice, you don't need structural work, and you are just trying to convert a bedroom or spare room into a music-writing space, do you turn to companies that provide balanced room kits, or search the Internet for do-it-yourself sites and advice? And how do you know which advice will be sound, or relevant?
One of the great things about music is people's willingness to share ideas and experience, and this crosses over to studio design. The many forums that are out there are testament to this. A question can be asked and a dozen replies arrive overnight — one look at the SOS forum will provide you with many examples! At the beginning of my own build, I pored over countless sites and read numerous pages. I also encountered contradictory information, as well as some that was just plain wrong! An online calculator that appeared on several sites was posted on another with a correction, as the equation used originally had been mistyped! There are some very good reference books out there, aimed at different sections of the market, and some great self-build sites. I would, however, cross-reference everything you do, read more than one article and more than one book, and see what the tried and trusted methods are.
The nature of sound means that preference does come into play, but this doesn't mean that good studio acoustics are not quantifiable. The subject was broached many years ago by such organisations as the BBC, and guidelines laid down, depending on the studio's use, stating the reverberation times best for different uses. Studio sizes were debated and ratios of room dimensions detailed between small, medium and large rooms. Almost all this information is in the public domain, although sifting through it is time-consuming and can be confusing.
One of many people who provide advice and help on the Internet is Bob Gallagher, whose 'homestudioguy' web site provides low-cost build plans. As Bob says, "Even if someone is just beginning to record with a small setup in their basement or spare room, major acoustic changes can be made just by incorporating some appropriately placed acoustic materials and rearranging furniture as has been shown countless times in Sound On Sound magazine's Studio SOS articles. In those cases, the suggestions are made by professionals and are generally low-cost and easy to do. The hope is that those who receive the help, and those who read the SOS articles, will take those lessons learned and continue to utilise professionals as their studio facilities change and grow.”
To get a larger manufacturer's point of view, I spoke to the ever-enthusiastic Peter Janis at Radial Engineering, who have been involved with studio acoustics for many years now, with their popular Primacoustic range. "After seeing the first Digidesign software in around 1987, I sketched out a plan for the folks I used to work with that basically put the computer in the centre of the studio and analogue gear as a circle around it. Part of this vision included room acoustics. When I went out on my own in 1992, I approached Sonex, who at that time was the market leader, and became the Canadian distributor. Back then, they held a number of acoustic courses that taught us the fundamentals, including a course by acousticians Hoover & Keith. I soon realised their focus as a company was more on the architectural side of the business, not the recording studio, which is more of my passion. So I decided to launch Primacoustic to better suit the need of the burgeoning home studio.”
Primacoustic, along with companies like Auralex and Vicoustic, have become stalwarts of the small studio, offering 'out of the box' solutions. Peter goes on: "Over the years, we changed our product offering to fill the gap between entry-level foam panels and the high-end studio finishes that can be very expensive. By creating a modular system using high-performance acoustic panels, we enable the home-studio engineer to produce recordings that are a leap above the typical demo quality that is produced in a home, and these are usually good enough to be confidently transferred to the larger recording facilities for mixdown. As an acoustic panel manufacturer, we do not so much provide services, but provide the products, basic know-how, and guidance on what to use where for good results. We also offer complete solutions in the form of London room kits that will turn a spare room into a functional facility and get you 90 percent there.”
Peter is quick to point out that it is important to quantify your expectation. "If you want a fully fledged recording studio, to achieve 99 percent [of the performance of a professional facility], you will need to hire a designer and invest a lot of money to build it from the ground up. But I can tell you that some of the top artists in the industry have home-built studios that use our Broadway panels and MaxTrap bass traps, and they get 95 percent, which is very acceptable.
"No matter how big the name, how good the design, you will always hear of folks being either satisfied or disappointed. Ultimately, you will get used to the room you have and likely tweak it as you go forward. Go listen to various rooms and walk around to hear how the bass and lower-mids work. If the room is balanced, then I think you have a good designer.”