This month we play the role of studio design consultants... and leave the heavy work to the studio owners!
The Hatch Studio is the brainchild of Hugh and Ben, who aim to be able to offer professional quality music production facilities from a picturesque location in rural Worcestershire. At the time of our first visit, the studio was functional, but not performing as well as its owners would have liked. They'd spent a lot of time and effort converting a two-storey outbuilding to provide a control room upstairs and a live room downstairs, but once they started to do work in the studio, they found the monitoring to be unreliable, particularly at the bass end, and they also had some problems getting a good drum sound, due to the low ceiling in the live room. A further, separate downstairs space was available for use as a vocal or instrument recording booth, and Hugh and Ben were keen to get some advice on how they could improve that space.
The building itself is quite old and is of partial timber frame construction, with a couple of gabled windows midway along the upper level. It was in this centre, upstairs section that the duo had set up their control room across the width of the building. The upstairs then comprised three separate room spaces, each coupled to the other by means of a wide opening, so all three spaces made a contribution to the acoustics. Various wall sections were angled, due to the construction of the roof and gables. This limited where traps could be sited, and also limited their physical depth.
We listened to some standard material over the monitoring system and found that the bass end was indeed unreliable, as it seemed to change as you moved about the room. It was particularly inaccurate when heard from the seating area opposite the mixing console. Also, as the room was quite narrow, the mix position was close to the centre line of the room — something which brings about additional low-end problems.
Though we felt some improvement could be made by creating a deep bass trap beneath the listening area, where the sofa was raised on a hollow plinth, we said that we felt the only proper solution was to move the studio around so that the monitors were firing lengthways down the room. To make best use of the available space without blocking access between the three areas, this would mean relocating the studio gear to the furthest end of the upstairs space, and because this was smaller than the space the control room originally occupied it would, in turn, mean demolishing the partition walls that separated the end two spaces. Once they'd done this, wall-trapping (comprising Rockwool slabs over an air gap) would take care of the worst acoustic excesses. The question was, would Hugh and Ben be prepared to undertake something so major? We sketched out a few possible solutions and then went downstairs to look at the live area.
There were some improvised screens and some angled sections of pine panelling to break up reflections, but the real problem with this room for drum recording was that the ceiling was quite low, and the suspended, office-type ceiling they'd put in wasn't quite up to the challenge of sweetening the acoustics, as any overhead mics would be directly below it. Our suggestion was to replace some of the ceiling tiles immediately above the drum overheads with panels into which large holes had been cut, then back these with fabric. The space between the false ceiling and the real one could then be stuffed with Rockwool, allowing the new panels to act as absorbers rather than bouncing sound back into the overhead mics. Hugh and Ben had seen pictures of the Auralex Space Couplers (which we reviewed in SOS July 2007) and liked the look of them, but as they were on a budget, they decided to have a go at making something similar themselves. Space Couplers comprise a matrix of square cells, about three inches across and three inches deep, that couple directly with the space behind. In this case, that space would be damped with as much Rockwool as they could get up there. They would, however, still use fabric behind their panels, both to improve the appearance and to stop the Rockwool fibres finding their way into the room. Assuming the panels were sized correctly, they would just drop into the suspended ceiling in place of the usual ceiling tiles.
Our other suggestion was to build some simple absorbing screens that could be moved around as necessary. We explained that these could be as simple as rigid Rockwool slab in a frame, with a fabric covering on each side. Extra scattering could be used to sweeten the room and this could be achieved using irregularly shaped pieces of wood fixed to the walls.
In the vocal booth (which in reality is a small room), we suggested using more free-standing absorbers in combination with an SE Reflexion Filter, along with some fixed Rockwool-panel absorbers across the room corners. They'd already fixed up some small corner traps comprising rolls of Rockwool in hessian, so the new panel traps could fit directly over these.
Hugh and Ben said they'd be happy to make the necessary changes, but as the work would take them several months, we'd have to come back near to the end of the project to check the results and to take a few more photos. They seemed more than happy to tackle relatively complex woodworking tasks, and were positively keen to demolish the wall upstairs. From our point of view, this was going to be a very unusual Studio SOS, as we wouldn't be doing any of the actual work ourselves — of course, we still got our quota of coffee and chocolate Hob Nobs...
Christmas came and went, closely followed by Winter NAMM and the Frankfurt Messe music trade shows, but in April we got the call from Hugh and Ben saying that most of their work was complete, and asking if we'd like to come and take a look. Everything had changed: they'd found an old Sony MXP200 broadcast console on eBay, and they'd adapted it for tracking; they'd invested in a Neve 8816 summing mixer, and they'd also updated their Pro Tools system with three 888 interfaces. But the biggest change was in the control room itself. The partition between the end two room sections was now gone, leaving just two wooden upright roof supports, which wouldn't pose any problems from the acoustics point of view. The walls and sloping ceiling sides either side of the mix position were now adorned with Rockwool traps, as per recommendation, but rather than go the easy route and just put up simple traps in frames, they'd done a lot of Internet research and come up with some eyecatching Australian trap designs that combined absorption with a bit of useful scattering. Overall, the visual effect was a bit like an inside-out Sydney Opera House!
In essence, these traps are fronted by plywood panels, into which large holes have been cut to allow most of the sound to pass through, but there's enough reflective area left to stop the high end sounding too dead. These panels are backed with acoustically transparent fabric and then have two-inch Rockwool slabs fixed directly behind them. The panels are then angled, so that the front section is around four inches from the wall, to increase the low-end absorption and to direct any reflected sound slightly backwards, rather than directly across the room.
There were six of these panels on either side of the room, and our immediate comment on the design was that it would be better to cover the wide edge of each wedge shape with a strip of acoustic foam rather than to leave it as bare reflective plywood. We also suggested that if they could drill some large holes in the plywood before fixing the foam, to allow sound to get into the edge of the trap, this would be better still. We agreed to supply a few sheets of Auralex foam to enable them to do this, as Auralex had kindly provided us with a quantity of their foam panel to use on our Studio SOS adventures. Other than that, the traps turned out to be both effective and eye-catching, though their low-end efficiency could still be further improved by putting more Rockwool in the cavity behind the trap where space permits. For the ceiling, they'd again used two-inch Rockwool slabs, covered with fabric, with the apex-shaped roof space hidden behind the panels.
They'd also put their Genelec 1030A monitors on Auralex MoPads, which are a good solution where the monitors need to stand on studio furniture. As soon as Hugh had secured his supply of Hob Nobs, he produced his BBC test CD and we set about checking the results of all these improvements.
What we discovered was that the tonal balance was now much more stable and well-balanced when in the mixing position, though the level and low end dropped off noticeably as you moved back towards the sofa. The sofa had been relocated to the middle of what had originally been the control room, which put it roughly midway between the ends of the room and, as we've experienced in the past, listening from the midway point in any smallish room can cause problems, especially at the low end. The answer to this was to move the sofa forwards towards the engineering position, which helped quite noticeably. Hugh also felt that there was a slight hump at around 200Hz from certain listening positions, which we thought might be improved by putting in the extra depth of Rockwool behind their absorbers, because the design as it was probably lost efficiency below 200-250Hz.
Some wall sections still needed to be finished, and we could see that these currently connected into spaces between the wall-beams that had been stuffed with Rockwool. Rather than plasterboard over these, we though that using a perforated panel covered in material or acoustic foam would make better use of some of the natural trapping that the Rockwool-filled void would provide.
The rear walls, either side of the opening, were still bare and reflective. We thought that a simple way to improve these would be to erect some shelves for the CDs and books we'd noticed around the studio. These would provide scattering to break up reflections, and this in turn would probably improve the stereo imaging slightly, especially for those listeners on the sofa, who would not be in the optimal monitoring position.
Downstairs, the ceiling panels had yet to be built but were definitely on the to-do list, so we asked for photos and comments on their performance, if they got around to fitting them before this article went to press. We felt that this was very important in achieving a good drum sound, as it would dry up the sound of the overhead mics, leaving more leaway for adding a suitable artificial room simulation at the mixing stage.
Another thing that had been completed was a section of reflection and diffusion behind the drum recording area, where several lengths of recycled church pew were now fixed to the walls. The duo had also been busy building a number of movable screens based on our original concept, which they'd made by putting together hessian-covered Rockwool slab in 2 x 6-foot frames, supported on wooden legs. Several more of these surrounded the vocal recording position, where a new SE Reflexion Filter was also in evidence, though as tradition dictates, they'd removed some parts of the mount and reconfigured others to make it more stable. The combination of screens and filter had already produced some really clean vocal recordings so we could find no further problems in that area. We also noted that some panels had been added across the corners as per our suggestions, so the vocal area was now very well damped.
We were very impressed with what Hugh and Ben had achieved, and we particularly liked their willingness to experiment and to elaborate on the basic suggestions we'd given them. The acoustic panelling in the control room certainly worked, even though we suggested a few monitoring improvements, and it also looked rather cool. They decided to leave a natural-wood finish, as this blended in with the vibe of the old building and, once the final cosmetics have been taken care of, they'll have a studio that looks as good as it sounds. We heard some work in progress that they'd been recording and the quality was extremely good, so I don't think they have too much to worry about now.
More info: www.thehatchstudio.co.uk
"The old tiles reflected a lot of mid-range honk, which made getting a good sound for the top of a drum kit very tough. We had our first session in since the improvements — a week tracking a rock band, and the producer was delighted with the drum sound. We had our custom Turkish cymbals, with two AEA ribbon mics as overheads, and it sounded great. Loads of clean, bright cymbal wash, with no EQ necessary at all.
"The extra screens we made have really helped as well. We tracked the band completely live, no headphones, no clicks, with amps out in the room and cranked up. A few trash mics here and there and the room suddenly came alive.
"The final cosmetic touches really improve the feel in the control room, and it is testament to all the acoustic work we did in there that all the vocals were tracked upstairs in front of the speakers. The new layout is perfect.
"Eventually we'll invest in some more high-end gear — Fairman compressors, or Neve preamps — but that's the next phase of improvements!"