Buying a house is a big investment, so it's important to pick the right property, and if you're a recording musician you'll probably want it to include a suitable space for a studio. We weigh up the pros and cons of different studio locations within a typical small home, and also look at the kind of work that each space might require to make it usable.
There's an old saying that an Englishman's home is his castle, but for a lot of SOS readers it is also their project studio! Over the last six years, every shape and size of home studio has been featured in SOS Readerzone columns, proving that there isn't a space, no matter how unpromising it may appear, that is beyond conversion. Obviously, some ways of working are more easily accommodated than others. For example, a musician working primarily with computer-programmed material may only have a very small and quiet setup, particularly if instruments like drums, guitars, strings, and keyboards are sourced from soft synths or sample CDs. However, most people have slightly more complicated arrangements involving at least a few loud and large live instruments. Even PC/Mac musicians with compact software studios need space in which they can set up accurate monitoring systems so that the process of mixing in stereo, or possibly 5.1, can be properly performed.
In this feature I'll be looking at the sorts of spaces found in and around a typical small home, and I'll be weighing up the pros and cons of each in terms of their use as a possible home studio.
Not many modern houses are built with cellars, but 100 years ago or more they were quite common, particularly in towns and cities where coal holes in the pavement allowed fuel deliveries to be tipped down a chute leading into the cellar. Even houses with ground-level coal sheds often had vaulted cellars, as they provided a cool place to store foodstuffs which we now pile into fridges and freezers. It's also possible to find some cellars with fireplaces and plastered walls and ceilings, where the original intention was for it to be used as an extra living space.
On the face of it, cellars sound like ideal studio spaces, but, because they come in all shapes and sizes, some are more suitable than others. On the plus side, a cellar is likely to have thick brick or stone walls, no neighbours living below, just the one entrance interrupting the space, and good security due to its limited access. It also benefits from being out of the way of the rest of the house, where more domestic activities take place. However, most cellars require a fair amount of work before they become a suitable home for electrical equipment.
Any coal hole or meat store probably won't have been built with human habitation in mind, so it will often come with a very low roof, a narrow and steep staircase, and no damp protection. In some areas cellars are prone to flooding in bad weather, and many are constantly invaded by damp finding its way through the porous brickwork from the ground outside. They are also unlikely to have been built with a system of ventilation, so dampness tends to remain.
To satisfy today's UK Building Regulations (see the 'Standards & Permission' box for details), if you were to convert your cellar into a habitable room you would have to ensure that all of these problems were fixed. Of course, you don't have to adapt what is essentially intended as a private work space into a habitable room to the same standards as a bedroom or living space if you really don't want to, but it may be wise to do so bearing in mind that you are probably intending to spend a great deal of time in there.
To create a safe exit route in the event of a fire, Building Regulations will almost certainly demand that the staircase be upgraded to a certain pitch and width, and that it be given a set amount of headroom. What's more, the top of the stairs will be required to lead directly to an exit point. If, for example, the stairway opened into a room rather than a hallway, then the cellar would probably have to have an alternative escape route leading up into the garden.
Even if the stairs are sound, extremely stringent damp-prevention standards have to be met by administering one of two main damp-proofing processes. The first involves sandblasting the cellar walls until their surfaces become rough enough to grip a waterproof render called tanking slurry, which bonds to the brickwork and provides a continuous protective coating. If the bricks are soft and crumbly and can't offer much of a key, the considerable pressure of ground water is likely to remove the render in time, and even solid brickwork needs to be treated against cement-attacking salts.
The other method is to cover the walls with a polythene membrane fixed with special self-sealing brick plugs. The plugs also provide a key for wooden battens which hold the room's plasterboard wall panels. This method involves digging a drainage channel at the foot of the walls so that any water that has permeated the bricks and become trapped behind the polythene can soak away into a sump chamber where it is pumped clear of the cellar. In both designs, specialist extractor fans and dehumidifiers are needed to ensure condensation does not become a problem, and to make sure that there is a steady flow of air.
Done correctly, and professionally, these measures should create a perfectly habitable environment, but planning and care is necessary, because any further drilling into the walls to fix shelving and wiring is likely to break the waterproof seal. Even if you decide that you don't need to take such measures because you have a naturally dry cellar, you are still likely to suffer from occasional damp problems, so it's wise to ensure that your gear sits away from the walls, and that any shelving is grounded on polythene. A dehumidifier is also a must, because not only are damp environments extremely bad for the health, they are also sure to play havoc with your studio gear.
Sealing a room or house from the elements may sound like a good idea, but it can cause moisture to build up, which promotes the growth of fungi and rot. Having some flow of air is a simple and effective way of combating condensation problems, and it can also guard against damp. Victorian engineers and their successors realised the importance of air flow, and their buildings typically included gappy floors and roofs, as well as air bricks below the floor level. The central heating of the day came from open fires, which required a huge draw of air, usually provided by air bricks feeding the cavity under wooden suspended floors. Over the years, many people, unaware of the value of air flow, piled soil or set concrete above air bricks, bridging damp-proof courses in the process. Inside the houses, fitted carpets and their rubber underlay stifled ground-level airflow, resulting in rotten floorboards and damp. To make matters worse, chimneys were blocked, double glazing added to windows, and insulation piled in loft cavities, further compounding the problem.
For a cellar to stay free from condensation and damp, ventilation is vital, and these days Building Regulations are pretty clear as to what measures you need to take to ensure a room is up to standard. The Regulations also now make provision for air flow in lofts. Before roofs were felted and insulated, they were a great source of heat loss, and would often leak with rain water, but their gaps also allowed a huge air flow, which is why old buildings often have surprisingly few rotten roof timbers.
Although some cellars function as proper basement rooms with high roofs, many were not intended for habitation and are fairly shallow. Even when a cellar has head clearance, it may not be enough to accommodate the installation of a decent floor, carpet, and a soundproofed plasterboard ceiling. Fortunately, it is possible to dig down under a house to increase the cellar's depth, either to meet the requirements of Building Regulations, or to a point where there is adequate headroom. Any excavation would also have to include the depth of a damp-proofed floor and the plasterboard ceiling, so in some cases several feet of soil may need to be removed, and that is likely to be deeper than the house's foundations.
The cellar walls and foundations will be holding up the house's many tons of brick, cement, and plaster, and their stability is dependent on a solid base of earth. Once you disturb that earth, you run the risk of bringing the whole lot down on your head, either straight away or at some time in the future. The solution is to have the house underpinned with reinforced concrete (check out Martin Bushell's DIY underpinning work in the December 1999 Readerzone), but the specifications of such an undertaking need to be calculated and drawn up by a structural engineer, and shouldn't really be attempted by a non-professional. I can think of at least one very recent case in which the owner of a mid-terrace dug under their house causing the whole thing to collapse, taking the neighbouring houses with it! To stop gungho DIY enthusiasts, the Party Wall Act was introduced in the UK in 1996, which basically states that neighbours have to be informed in advance of any work which is to be done to a party wall, presumably so that they can object if no sensible plan is evident.
Even if underpinning is not needed, digging out a cellar is a considerable task, because it requires the removal of tons of densely compacted soil, all of which has to be carried up through the house and into a waiting skip. In a space where no labour-saving mechanical digger can reach, the job can only be done with shovels, so many hours will have to be spent working in what is sure to be a dusty, damp and dark environment. Furthermore, a very low roof will mean working with a hunched back until some depth is reached, and unless the stairs have already upgraded, the steep and creaky planks will make going back and forth particularly demanding.
So cellars are great spaces for studios, but they can be costly to convert if they don't already have loads of headroom and some kind of effective damp-proofing.
The small spare room, usually known as a box room, has served the home studio owner well over the years. Usually situated above the entrance hall and stairs, and accessible from the first-floor landing, it is the room which is conveniently miscellaneous in terms of its intended use. Although it sometimes gets turned into a small bedroom, it's also prime real estate for home-studio development. Taking a large bedroom as a studio may not go down too well with the rest of the family, but if you can cram everything into the box room you're more likely to keep everyone happy. Sadly, though, size is a problem when it comes to accurate monitoring, and a small room leaves little space for acoustic treatment.
The main problem with having walls that are very close together is that they create many early sound reflections, all of which are likely to interfere with the direct output from the speakers, partially cancelling some frequencies, reinforcing others, and generally muddying the stereo image. In the ideal listening environment, speakers should be placed on stands, kept away from the corners of the room where bass hot spots occur, and the listening position should form one point of an equilateral triangle, of which the speakers are the other two points. A typical box room probably measures something like 2 x 2.5m, so by the time everything's in its ideal location the listener will probably find themselves positioned out in the hall! Even if the seating position can fit in the room at a sensible distance from the monitors, it is likely to be up against the back wall of the room, and that will reflect sound back to the listener's ears a very short time after the direct sound, further confusing the audio picture.
To a certain extent acoustic treatment can be applied to the walls to make a small room less lively, but bass frequencies are still likely to be a big problem, as they are harder to manage. And, of course, more acoustic treatment will reduce the size of the room further... In the end, anyone using a box-room studio has to adapt by playing their music through nearfield monitors at low volumes to keep bass under control, and by checking mixes over headphones and on hi-fi setups in other rooms.
It will also be difficult to soundproof a room that will certainly have a wooden floor, a frail door, and possibly a plasterboard partition wall rather than a solid brick one. A proper soundproofing job would involve building a suspended floor and new internal walls and ceiling made from studding and many layers of plasterboard. Sadly its construction would leave only enough space for an elf to stretch his legs, and the weight of the material would probably collapse the floor!
Fortunately a full soundproofing job may be unnecessary, as many semi-detached houses have their box room on the outside edge of the property and above the entrance hall and staircase, so that there are no neighbours directly on the other side of the wall, or in rooms immediately below. Obviously sound will still leak into the rest of the house, but by significantly improving the door, window glazing, and carpeting, and by working at moderate volumes, noise doesn't have to become a problem.
Victorian terraced houses tended to have their box rooms leading off from the back bedroom, built directly above the kitchen and adjoining another box room belonging to the neighbour. Thankfully many neighbours will have turned their box rooms into en suite bathrooms instead of having them as bedrooms, and if that is the case you can rest assured that your musical activities won't be waking a sleeping baby in the next room. However, if the neighbour likes to sing in the shower, as mine does, there will be certain moments when recording is not advisable!
Overall, though, a box room can become a nice little recording workshop once you've applied a little soundproofing and acoustic treatment, but mixes will need to be checked in more neutral environments and recording and playback levels will have to be kept low.
Once upon a time, the garage was the key weapon in a motorist's fight against car rust, but most modern vehicles have far better corrosion resistance and tend to spend their nights parked in the driveway. This means that many garages are free to be used as home studios, once an alternative store has been found for the half-empty paint pots, space hoppers, swing-ball kits, and camping equipment.
Of all the spaces found in and around a typical small home, the garage is probably the best suited for conversion into a serious studio. It will almost certainly have a concrete polythene-lined floor, and won't have anyone living underneath. It's also unlikely to have a party wall, so any sound leakage won't immediately find itself in the neighbour's living room. In terms of size, the garage will probably be ideal for a small setup, having been built to accommodate at least one family car.
Being a non-load-bearing single-storey building in most cases, a garage is likely to be a single-brick construction. This means that it won't have cavity-wall insulation or offer much sound isolation. Straight away, a basic garage will require studding and plasterboarding, with insulation and soundproofing applied to the walls, and it will probably also need a proper floor and ceiling.
Quite what treatments you carry out will probably be limited by the original garage size. If you have a pretty wide and tall garage then it may be possible to fit a full 'room within a room' construction, including a suspended floor mounted on neoprene rubber blocks, freestanding internal walls, and roof. However, if the garage is very small to begin with then the less-effective, but cheaper, baton and plasterboard lining will probably be your only realistic option.
Acoustically, a garage is probably not the most ideal space. Its featureless shape and parallel walls could potentially cause unpleasant flutter echoes, and if any one of the three dimensions (width, height, or depth) is an exact multiple of either of the other two, strong room resonances at specific frequencies will occur. Of course a garage is designed to take a car's length, and the width of open car doors, so it's not unusual to get divisible dimensions such as 12 by 24 by eight. An ideal space would have less obvious ratios, and surfaces that were not quite parallel. Of course, if the space were large enough to begin with, the studding could be designed to remedy the problematic dimensions and the flutter echo too, although the latter can usually be fixed with acoustic treatment.
It's also important to note that bricking up the garage door or making any other structural changes will require Building Regulation approval, and planning permission may also be needed if any conditions of use were set when consent was originally given for the garage.
The ubiquitous garden shed also has the potential to be a great place for a music studio, and it's certainly worth serious consideration for anyone with a reasonably large garden. Any outbuilding which is obviously not a garage, and is not connected to a house, is classified as a shed, whether it is built from something substantial like brick or just from wood. Shed building requires neither planning permission nor Building Regulation approval provided that it meets certain criteria. For a start, the shed mustn't cover more than half of the area of the garden, not including the area occupied by the house, and it can't be used as sleeping accommodation. In terms of size, the floor area has to be 15 square meters or less (which is about the size of a standard double bedroom) and its roof, if flat, cannot be more than three meters in height, although the ridge of a roof is allowed to reach four meters. There are also a number of other limitations regarding the positioning of the shed in relation to roads and boundaries.
If you already have a brick building in the garden then so much the better, otherwise a wooden shed is likely to be less expensive and quicker to construct from scratch, although, as a combustible object, it needs to be at least two meters from the house! Its biggest problem will almost certainly be soundproofing. On the one hand, a two-course brick wall with rendering and plaster will at least offer some soundproofing, while, on the other, a pine frame of 'two by two' with weatherboard cladding will have very little mass and will stop almost no sound from leaking out. Apart from upsetting all the neighbours, a noisy shed will be a musical advert to every thief in the area telling them that your shed is stacked with saleable electrical goods. A wooden shed is also going to become very hot in the summer and freezing in the winter, so some extensive modifications need to be made to solve these problems.
Firstly the shed will need a solid concrete base complete with polythene damp-proof layer. Once erected, insulation and soundproofing materials such as Rock Wool will need to be fixed behind its weatherboard. After that, it will probably be necessary to build an inner room within the shed's shell based on the 'room within a room' principle. This exact method was used by the TMS collective featured in Readerzone in July 2002, who, through a little trial and error, managed to quieten their shed's spill to a level that was acceptable to their neighbours. However, having sealed the room, they then suffered from the lack of ventilation and the heat of the summer. Their solution was to install periscope-style air ducts designed to cut down on sound leakage, while an air conditioning unit was used to keep the place cool and to maintain a circulation of air. TMS also invested in a security system so that their insurance company were happy.
Unfortunately, it takes a greater mass of material to attenuate lower frequencies, so for every octave drop in pitch, sound isolation is halved, which is why kick and bass are usually all that can be heard clearly when music is playing next door.
Solid materials tend to transmit sound quite effectively, so soundproofed structures usually include air gaps to hinder the travel of sound.
In the construction of suspended floors, the new floor is usually mounted on blocks of neoprene rubber, which help prevent the passage of sound vibrations. Sound-insulating material such as Rock Wool is then usually packed into any gaps left between the two sets of walls to provide further damping.
For many, the loft is an excellent location for a home studio. Unlike a cellar, it's not a space that's going to suffer from penetrating damp, it probably won't be fought over as much as the box room, and it will still leave you the garage to park your car or store that space hopper! Having a studio in a loft is also good for security, especially if it is accessed via a ladder rather than a fixed staircase. Burglars ransacking a house in search of swag will probably overlook a loft hatch, unaware of what they're missing.
Unfortunately, using the loft space also comes with its own set of problems, which can be more costly to fix than with any other option mentioned so far. Unless you are going to install a huge dormer window, using the loft won't require any planning permission, as it doesn't affect a building's visual appearance; however, Building Regulations are particularly stringent in this area.
If the roof has been lined with felt, and the space is already fairly dirt free, you could simply lay down a couple of boards over the rafters, hook up some lights and electricity, and worry no further (for an example, see Bob Prance's studio in the September 2001 Readerzone), but the chances are that you will need to do a little more work, and that's when it pays to work within the Building Regulations. You probably won't meet any opposition to your loft alterations while you're the occupant, but non-approved building work can make it very difficult to sell a property in the future. At best, borderline work may be granted retrospective Regulation approval, but anything which does not come up to standard may have to be taken out and redone. The two main issues for any attic work are the structural integrity of the building and fire escape provision, although providing adequate ventilation is also an important issue.
Any permanent stairway to the loft must come off a landing rather than from an existing room, so that it has its own independent escape route should fire break out in one of the rooms below. Fire doors are also required, and the building materials used to construct the loft space have to be capable of holding back the spread of fire for 30 minutes. If a new landing is created to house a stairway, its walls have to meet the same fireproofing standards.
The alternative to making a full-blown loft conversion is to create a 'storage space' which cannot be used as living space and should not have a permanent staircase. It will still warrant Building Regulation approval, because it amounts to a change of use, but it won't be scrutinised in quite the same way. The rafters will probably need upgrading, having originally been designed to take just the weight of the lathe-and-plaster or plasterboard ceiling below, rather than people and furniture. Assuming a certain dead load for each square meter, Building Regulations work from a set of tables which show how thick and deep floor joists need to be, and how far apart they should be spaced when spanning a certain distance unsupported. By using the tables and making a few measurements, it's possible to work out what beams are needed for the job, but be warned that the joists have to rest on load-bearing walls, not just on non-structural partitions.
One of the likely problems with using a loft space is a lack of head room. The size of the building together with the pitch of its roof will determine the height of its attic space, but, unfortunately, the sorts of small buildings which would benefit the most from more space often don't have large attics. Once floor joists, fireproof flooring, carpeting, and ceiling are added, the available height will be reduced even further. It may also be necessary to increase the depth of the roof beams to allow enough room for both insulation and an air gap. It's probably reasonable to expect to lose something like 12 inches or more by the time all the work has been done.
Although more layers of plasterboard means better sound isolation, care needs to be taken not to overload the beams when lining the loft. In most cases, the beams are only designed to take the weight of tiles. In fact, the entire strength of a roof depends on its triangular structure, and the rafters at the base of the triangle prevent the spread of the beams under the considerable weight of the tiles. Cutting through rafters to increase hatch access can compromise this structure. Similarly, cutting beams to install a roof window will also have structural consequences. Building Regulations also take into account the problem of condensation which can easily build up, especially if a loft is home to brewing kettles and perspiring musicians, so there may be the need to fit ridge tiles with vents, and ensure that any impermeable felt is vented.
Soundproofing the attic is likely to be difficult. Sound travels particularly well through solid materials, so any vibrations will affect the bedrooms below and, given that the rafters will be resting on all the walls below, sound has the potential travel throughout the house. There is also a good chance that sound will find its way out through the top of the roof fairly easily too. Once again, if a loft space were big enough, some kind of 'room within a room' construction could be attempted to isolate any vibrations from the rafters. However, the weight of such a construction would almost certainly be too much for the design of the house. In short, many lofts are crying out to be used in some way, but to turn them into proper studios complying with Building Regulations is a serious and expensive job which needs to be carefully considered.
In 1984 legislation was introduced in the UK to impose a strict set of Building Regulations on any construction project, be it a new building or new work on an existing property. The standards are laid out in a set of papers called the Approve Documents, which are readily available from libraries. It is left to local authorities to apply the Regulations, and to their Building Control Officers to check and enforce the rules, although it's the responsibility of the individual to notify them about any plans, and to apply for Regulation approval.
It's reassuring to know that the Regulations cannot be retrospectively imposed on a property, so an old house that doesn't meet the standards, for example, does not have to be altered, although any new structural work has to be carried out in accordance with the Regulations. Although the documents are pretty specific as to how and what should be used in any given building project, their interpretation is left to the discretion of the Building Control Officers, so in certain circumstances some leeway is accepted. Architects, structural engineers, and surveyors are likely to know what they can get away with, so even if your space is not quite ideally suited to alteration, an architect may still be able to come up with a design that satisfies the authorities. Once a plan is submitted, notification of approval (or rejection) will follow in a number of weeks. Then a representative from the Building Control office will visit the site to inspect the work at key stages of the project. Of course, an architect or structural engineer will require payment for their plans, and the council charge a fee for approving plans and checking the work, and all of these costs will depend on the size of the job.
Building Regulations certainly make life difficult and costly for anyone to change an aspect of their property, but they were introduced for some pretty good reasons. Their main aim is to ensure nothing is done that might jeopardise the health and safety of a building's inhabitants or neighbours. The Regulations also cover issues of fire safety, and keep checks on the use of combustible materials and the provision of escape routes. Even things like damp and humidity can threaten health and cause damage to a building in the long term, so they are dealt with too. Access for the disabled is also an important factor, so new plans will be rejected if they are going to worsen current access.
Back in the late '60s, town planners, councils, and architects thought nothing of demolishing medieval bridges or timber-framed cottages to make way for concrete flyovers and car parks. These days, however, heritage is a bit of a buzz word, so not much can be done without planning permission. If you're wanting to build a home studio, though, planning regulations are actually less likely to cause a problem than the Building Regulations, as they are more concerned with building projects which impose themselves on neighbours and the environment, such as a large extension or new building. In short, planning permission moderates the visual impact of a development. Small extensions like the addition of a porch or conservatory are exempt, provided that they add less than a certain percentage of volume to a house. Listed buildings or buildings in conservation areas, national parks, and 'areas of outstanding natural beauty' generally require permission more often.
One final thing to mention is that construction legislation varies considerably even between England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, so it's worth making sure that you're familiar with the specific regulations for your region.
In this feature we've mainly dealt with non-communal living areas in and around the home, on the premise that lots of mess and noise are not things people will want you to share with them. But if you live alone, or have a particularly understanding family, there is nothing to stop you turning just about any room into a studio. For example, the Readerzone in SOS October 2001, featuring the home studio of Marco Mastrocola, had a studio computer and recording gear set up in one half of the large living room, while the upstairs box room was used as a vocal booth. A video camera linked to a TV monitor allowed Marco visual contact with the singers, and a careful arrangement of spare mattresses and drapes dealt with the box room's acoustics. Similarly, Bob Prance (SOS September 2001) had his studio in the attic, but occasionally used his daughter's bedroom to record vocals by running a long lead down through the house. There is also no reason why a bathroom or hallway cannot double as a recording space, provided that you don't mind dealing with unusual acoustics.
In a perfect world we'd all have enormous houses capable of accommodating large, perfectly designed studios. Each one would have a soundproofed live room, an acoustically neutral control and mixing area, and the triple-glazed windows would look out on a beautiful countryside scene with not a neighbour in sight. Most of us, though, have to live with compromise and build our studios on a tight budget in less-than-ideal spaces, taking into account the feelings of our house mates and neighbours.
All the spaces discussed in this feature are flawed in some way, and some are probably just not practical for certain types of music — it's hard to imagine someone recording a drum kit in a box room, for example. Nevertheless, if everything were perfect, there'd be no incentive to be inventive, and maybe then all our music would lack the very thing that makes it sound original and distinctive in the first place. Vive la difference, and long live the home studio!