Designing Minds: Studio Design in the Digital Age
By Dan Daley
The digital audio revolution has changed the metaphorical DNA of music itself, allowing sounds and ideas to be manipulated in ways unimaginable even a decade ago. Today, the landscape of digital audio seems limitless — until it bumps into the laws of physics, that is. Isaac Newton still has lots of street cred.
Studio design — a confluence of architecture, acoustics, building construction, audio technology, and spatial aesthetics — has been honed to a science over the years. Traditionally, it has been predicated on the size of the components of audio: massive battleships of consoles (which act as sound deflectors even as they route audio signals) anchoring huge control rooms designed to hold more and more people and bulky analog gear, while also efficiently dissipating all the heat created by people and machines.
What didn’t change, however, is the amount of space that a 60 Hz frequency wave needs to unroll fully (about 19.2 feet — the formula is arrived at by dividing speed of sound [1,150 fps at sea level] by frequency). Or the fact that parallel walls in an acoustical space create standing waves, in which pressure fronts build up, creating room nodes around certain frequencies and distorting the sound.
More recent developments in music recording have compounded this: A control room suddenly needs substantially more space to accommodate the rear speakers of a 5.1 monitoring array. Noise issues take on new dimensions when a dozen or more computer fans set up a blanket of upper-midrange frequencies, especially when they mask a mix that needs to be monitored quietly because the control room is a half-inch’s worth of Sheetrock away from someone’s bedroom.
These challenges and others were faced by the cadre of studio designers that came of age when the average console was long enough to launch aircraft, and tape machines were the size of Manhattan studio apartments (and more expensive). Here’s how they’ve adapted studio design to where the technology has taken us.
Good News, Bad News
“The good news is, with digital, everyone can have a studio,” says John Storyk, a designer for nearly 30 years. “The bad news is, with digital, everyone can have a studio.”
In small control room situations, Storyk relies on a large array of off-the-shelf acoustical solutions, an industry that’s grown in the wake of personal digital studios. RPG’s Modex traps are particularly useful for achieving low-frequency absorption (between 100 Hz and 200 Hz), he suggests. Other solutions include membrane-type wall-mounted absorption panels from European-based companies Pawel and VPR Panel.
Commercial recording studios are often built on concrete slabs completely isolated from each other, or “floated.” That’s not always an option in smaller studios. The solution is a “room within a room” design, in which new walls and floors are built over existing walls and floors, separated by an air space in which there is minimal mechanical (i.e., physical) connection between inner and outer walls.
No Console, No Problem
Another major change in studio design revolves around the recording console, or the lack thereof. Storyk loves the freedom of not having what he calls a “twelve-foot hunk of metal in the middle of the room” that can significantly affect the travel of sound waves. “More people mix with a mouse, and they’re also putting money into things like better microphones and preamps, bypassing the idea of a console altogether,” he says.
Designer Fran Manzella, however, points out an opposing trend that’s developed in recent years. “For most of the 1990s, things were getting smaller, moving towards more keyboard and mouse control,” he says. “But in the past year or so, we’ve seen a trend back towards bigger mixers coming into small studios.”
Manzella also notes that 5.1 surround monitoring is pushing the size envelope of small studios outward. “There are certain minimum dimensions you need to get the ‘sweet spot’ a certain distance from every speaker in a surround array,” he says. He estimates that the minimum size of a control room has gone from less than 200 square feet to 250-plus square feet as a result of the shift in monitoring configurations alone. “The choice of console versus controller will determine additional space needs,” he adds. “Even people using Digidesign ProControl systems seem to want larger ones, many have been around 32 channels.”
Designer Russ Berger says that diligence in creating and maintaining a quiet recording environment will pay off big later on during the editing and mastering process. “If you don’t start with good clean elements, free from extraneous noise, you’re snake-bit before you start,” he says. “If anything, digital technology has increased the need for us to pay attention to the noise floor of our studios and control room environments.”
Noise sources such as computer fans and HVAC systems (the contractor’s acronym for heating, ventilation, and cooling systems) have to be minimized. There are commercially available solutions, including duct silencers for HVAC systems, and prefabricated rack towers, such as those from Middle Atlantic products, that combine several heat-producing units into a single enclosure cooled by a fan-driven “chimney.”
In an era when recording budgets are lean and the palatial studios of earlier days are few and far between, technology and physics have to give way to simpler solutions. “Listen to your environment,” Berger suggests. “Listen for trucks and other outside noise, and learn to schedule yourself around it as best you can. There are no airplane noise filters. Not yet, anyway.”
You can’t perfectly simulate the acoustical characteristics of a large space in a small one, but you can get pretty close, Maurer contends. He accomplishes this by using near-field monitors that are scaled to the room — at about 250 square feet, the personal control rooms are a little more than a third the size of the mothership — and tighter control of early reflections.
Let’s take a moment to reflect on reflections. These are the bounces that sound makes off vertical and horizontal surfaces. As outlined succinctly by F. Alton Everest in his book, Sound Studio Construction on a Budget, “There are three things that can happen when sound hits a wall. It can be reflected, absorbed, or diffused. If the wall is flat and hard, the sound will be reflected...In most rooms a lot of reflections...combine into reverberation.”
Reverberation is great in recording spaces, but it’s anathema to a monitoring space, which needs to be as neutral as possible. Halls can have reverb times in excess of two seconds, but for critical listening to speakers, the RT60 should be close to a half second. (RT = reverberation time, the amount of time it takes a loud short sound to fade, defined more scientifically as a drop in loudness of 60 dB — so acousticians call reverberation time RT60.)
The simplest absorptive panel is fabric stretched over a frame enclosing a dense, non-resonant material. Owens-Corning 703 fiberglass insulation is often used in studios. It works very well for high frequencies. Diffusers — panels containing slim vanes of varying width, commercially available from companies such as RPG — are used to break up midrange frequencies. Low frequencies in small control rooms often rely on separate subs. That’s fine, says Maurer, as long as a way is provided for to allow those frequencies to vent out of the room as they unroll, via strategically placed openings in lower rear and side walls.
Finally, there’s the issue of ergonomics — the ability to reach everything easily. Maurer compares the ideal studio layout to that of a jet fighter: The distance of everything from the command position is based on a preplanned hierarchy of needs. “You want to stay in the ‘sweet spot,’ and systems like Pro Tools let you,” he says. “You no longer need to budget space for lots of outboard gear, since most of it can now be handled by plug-in modules.”
However, Maurer knows the allure that certain pieces of vintage gear have for audiophiles. “So I recommend planning a space for a rack to one side or the other, or behind you, which makes it easy to reach everything in it from the same position,” he says.
Studio design isn’t for dummies. But there are relatively simple and cost-effective solutions that can make the digital studio a great-sounding place to be.