Room acoustics can be a pain in the you-know-what.
You’ve got to pay attention to them if you want your mixes to sound great. But taming them often seems like a black art.
Sure—there’s lots of information about acoustics scattered across the internet. But most of it is misguided, impractical, or…well…boring.
Armchair engineers on audio forums pose as experts. Acoustic treatment manufacturers post articles, but they’re also trying to sell products. And hiring an acoustician can cost thousands.
How do you know who and what to listen to?
Fortunately, you don’t need a physics degree to build a great-sounding studio. You don’t need to spend thousands either. Often, the first step and most important step is to simply clear up some common misconceptions.
Read on as we debunk 7 pervasive acoustics myths. Avoid them and you’ll be well-equipped to build a great-sounding studio or mix room with ease.
Myth #1: Turning down your speakers will minimize the effects of room acoustics
A Grammy-winning mixer was recently telling me about a studio he had just finished building. After running through the gear list, he proudly proclaimed:
“Want to know the best part? Since I monitor so quietly, I don’t need any acoustic treatment. The room doesn’t get in the way.”
Listening volume has no impact on room acoustics. The ratio between the direct sound (what travels straight from the speakers to your ears) and the reflections (the sound that hits your ears after bouncing off one or more walls) doesn’t change at different volumes. If you think you can solve acoustic problems by turning your speakers down, you’re fooling yourself.
Perhaps one reason this belief is so pervasive is because our perception of sound does change at different volumes. In the 1930’s, Harvey Fletcher and Wilden Munson discovered that at low levels, our ears are less sensitive to low and high frequencies. This means we hear less low end when we turn our speakers down. Since most acoustic problems are in the low end, we might think our room sounds better at lower volumes. In reality however, the problems are still there. We’re just not hearing them quite as well.
Myth #2: Foam is an effective bass trap
Foam bass traps are cheaper than competing products. Many engineers think they offer equal bang for the buck.
The truth couldn’t be more the opposite.
In order to absorb low end, you need mass. There’s no way around it. This is why proper bass traps are thick, heavy, and take up a ton of space. While foam can be effective at absorbing mid-to-high frequencies, it does little-to-no good in the low end, where the majority of acoustic problems lie.
For illustration, here’s a graph comparing the effectiveness of a foam bass trap to a fiberglass alternative:
Avoid foam bass traps. They’ll do little more than take up space. Instead, look for ones made of rigid fiberglass or Rockwool. These will be much more effective.
Myth #3: If your mixes don’t translate, acoustic treatment should be your first step
Want to know a secret? Most of the time, acoustic treatment isn’t the best place to start.
If you’ve ever done any recording, you know that moving a microphone a few inches can dramatically change the sound. Speakers work the same way.
Your first step should always be to find the right spot for your speakers and sweet spot in your room.
Do this before investing in acoustic treatment or new monitors, as it can often make a huge impact. Why try to a fix an acoustic problem with treatment if you can solve much of it by simply moving your monitors?
Get placement right, and the rest will be gravy.
To help, I’ve put together a video with 7 simple tips to help you optimize the placement of your speakers and sweet spot. To download it, click the link below:
Myth #4: Room correction software will fix everything
Over the last few years, a number of software-based solutions have emerged to combat acoustic problems. Most of them use a microphone and EQ to measure and flatten the frequency response of your room.
Many engineers hope these tools will solve all of their acoustic problems. Unfortunately, not quite.
While room correction software can offer some benefits, there are many things it just can’t do. Even the best EQ setting can’t fix modal ringing—a problem that occurs when certain frequencies ring out in a room longer than others. While it can help, it can only correct the frequency response of a small sweet spot in the room. These corrections can even make other areas in the room sound worse.
Acousticians like Ethan Winer are against room correction software. Others, like Bob Hodas, use EQ as a core part of their room tuning process. With the jury split, I’ve done extensive testing to come up with my own conclusions.
I’ve tried many room correction solutions, including KRK’s ERGO, IK Multimedia’s ARC 2, and Sonarworks Reference 3. I now use Reference 3 every day, and it’s made significant improvements to my listening environment. However, I find it works best as the cherry on top of a room that already sounds great. It’s not a substitute for acoustic treatment or proper speaker and sweet spot placement. If you’re looking for a quick fix, you’re not likely to find it here. There’s simply no way around acoustics.
Myth #5: Deader is better
When it comes to acoustic treatment, many say that more is better.
While it’s true that adding bass traps will often improve a room, the caveat is to keep an eye on high frequency absorption. Adding too much acoustic treatment can over-dampen the high end of a room.
As with most things in audio, balance is key. Aim for an even reverb time across the frequency spectrum. Too much treatment can make a room sound boxy and lifeless and lead to a low end that rings out much longer than the high end. A room like this is no fun to work in.
Myth #6: Egg crates, rugs, and carpet make effective acoustic treatment
There are all sorts of poor man’s alternatives to proper acoustic treatment. Most of them don’t work.
The most famous of these are egg crates. To the untrained eye, the surface of an egg crate can look similar to the diffusers used in multi-million dollar studios. Perhaps they can do the job just as well?
Not even close.
Egg crates are a far cry from the carefully crafted diffusors that adorn top-tier studios. They not only look bad, but are completely ineffective. Save them for the eggs.
The same thing goes for rugs and carpet: While they may absorb high end, they are completely useless at lower frequencies. Because of this, loading your room up with rugs or putting carpet on the walls will often make it sound worse.
Stay away from these homegrown, cheap-fix solutions. This doesn’t mean you need to spend a ton of money to get things right. If you’re on a budget, I recommend building your own bass traps. Just make sure you use the right materials.