Building a Home Studio
STUDIO BUILDING FOR HOME AND PROJECT STUDIOS
There is no better hobby than making music, and there is no more satisfying business to get into. Many of us enjoy making music so much that we want to make it into a career. And it isn't just a vague dream - it really is something that is achievable. Many pretty ordinary people are making money out of music right now, even if it isn't their main source of income. They are enjoying what they are doing, and they are doing it to a professional standard. At the heart of modern music making is the studio, whatever type of studio it may be. Call it a home studio or a project studio, a well designed studio facility will enable you to create a demo tape that will start you off on your recording career, or with a bit of luck you might find yourself composing and recording music for television and film. Even if you just do it for your own pleasure and amusement, as already said, there is no better hobby.
Setting up a home or project recording studio can be a tricky business, and it's easy to spend a lot money and waste a lot of effort. There is more to setting up a studio than just buying the equipment. It's how the equipment is set up and the surroundings that are important. Your studio should be an environment in which you can feel comfortable and creative, in which you can sit down and start work without any preparation or messing about with the equipment. You just go in there and start making music. And when your tape is finished, it is perfectly possible that your recording might be as good as anything a full time professional engineer could have produced in a commercial studio.
It has been practical to have a studio at home since the early 1980s when the doubters thought that you had to go to a 'proper' studio to achieve anything at all worthwhile. Home studio owners have however proved the doubters wrong many many times and their work can be heard on record, CD, television and radio worldwide. And this is something almost any musician could do. It will take quite a bit of hard work to set up the studio and gain sufficient experience in using it, but musical success can be within your grasp if you want it badly enough.
In a way this is something to be envied, because you are at the start of a great adventure, and the equipment that is available now for people just starting out is much better than it used to be. But manufacturers will often only tell you about the easy options. Buying the equipment is as easy as saving up the money, but putting it all together properly needs know-how. Much of the know-how is here, and books are available to tell you everything you could possibly want to know. The best model really is the top professional studio and many of their techniques can be copied at home. Sometimes, where the difficulties really are too great, you will have to compromise a little, but that won't stop you having a great studio and making great recordings. Take care to read as much as you can and understand as much as you can before you start work. As the saying goes, a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, so click the link and we'll begin...
STUDIO BUILDING: SOUNDPROOFING
The subject of soundproofing is so problematical that it will probably make you wish you had taken up a nice quiet career like photography! The biggest problem is that one person's music is another person's noise. Any music that leaks out of your studio into your neighbour's house or apartment is going to be regarded, to a significant extent, as an annoyance. Particularly so because recording involves going over the same piece of music again and again. You will need either to come to an arrangement with your neighbours about how much noise you will make and at what times you will make it, or apply soundproofing treatment to your recording room. The alternatives could be a lawsuit and possible confiscation of your equipment!
The first thing to note about soundproofing is that it is impossible! There is no such thing as a completely soundproof room. It is a matter of degree. You might reduce the amount of sound leakage by 20 decibels, or if you can afford it by perhaps as much as 45dB or more. The more sound insulation you require, the more it is going to cost and it can get expensive. Good soundproofing requires three things: mass, decoupling and attention to detail. Upholstery foam and mineral wool are great for acoustic treatment but they are virtually useless for soundproofing because they are not very massive and they are full of holes. Sound isn't frightened of anything but sheer mass and the holes are an open invitation for sound to travel straight through. To provide effective sound insulation, you need heavy walls, floor and ceiling - the heavier the better. And rather than have one extremely thick wall, build two walls of half the mass with an air gap in between. This 'decoupling' means that a sound wave has to pass through four surfaces rather than two, and a small but significant advantage can be achieved. 'Attention to detail' means that sound will find the smallest gap to get through. No matter how massive your walls, if there is a defect anywhere the degree of sound insulation will be very much reduced.
If you have a choice about where you situate your studio, think about what annoyance value any sound leakage will have. If the room next door happens to be a child's bedroom, you might find yourself having to shut down operations at an early hour, or monitor on headphones. If you are thinking of moving apartment or house, look for a property where the potential studio room is as far away from your neighbours as possible. In a semi-detached house for example, the recording room should be at the end of the building, not against the dividing wall between the two houses.
Once you have found the ideal room, or rooms if you are very fortunate or well off, then it's time to start careful planning. The first question you will ask is, "How much money should I spend on soundproofing?". You might probably prefer the reply, "Not very much", but that wouldn't be true. Good soundproofing is very expensive and it could easily outstrip your entire equipment budget at a home or project studio level. We are going to have to compromise. Near-perfect soundproofing isn't possible unless you have a massive budget to create an equally massive structure. Let's start by looking at the problem areas and see what we can do to improve each in turn.
Maybe your studio is going to be situated in a downstairs room with a solid floor extending all the way down to mother earth. You lucky person! You would only need to do something to your floor if you were troubled by a nearby railway line or major road. In either of these cases, low frequency vibrations would be very well coupled to the air inside your studio, and from there to the microphones and eventually your ears. Dealing with a problem of this scale is a major undertaking for which you need to call in the professionals, and your financial advisor. Most of us however will have floorboards whether the studio is upstairs or downstairs. In a downstairs room, the void under the floor may act as a sound transmission path to other parts of the house, but probably not so much to the neighbours'. You may choose to accept this, or you may wish to follow the example of those of us with upstairs studios who are almost bound to have to insulate the floor to some degree. Floorboards on joists have very little sound insulating capability. The inevitable small gaps between the tongue and groove boards offer an open sound transmission path which we need to block. Since the existing joists are only rated for standard domestic loading, the only complete solution would be to upgrade the structure of the building in a similar manner to a professional loft conversion and add steel supports to bear the weight of a thick concrete floor. Since we are going to have to compromise, then we have to accept that the existing joists will only take a small amount of extra mass and the soundproofing will not be total. One example of a partial solution to this problem was a home studio owner who used the carpet left by the previous owner of the house, together with some salvaged carpet underlay, to provide the resilient layer of a basic floating floor. There wasn't any need to put the underlay actually under the carpet since no-one was going to see either ever again. On top of the underlay were laid squares of 18mm chipboard, two layers thick, with the joins staggered so that there was no gap for sound to penetrate. Any acoustic designer will tell you that when you go to the trouble of decoupling structures in this way, using a resilient layer, then the worst thing you can do is to 'bridge' the structures. This would have happened if the chipboard was screwed down to the floorboards, so only the two layers were screwed together. Bridging would also have occured if the chipboard butted directly up against the walls, so a gap of about 10mm was left. All the gaps, between the chipboard squares and between the chipboard and the walls were filled with mastic. Mastic can be a rubbery or bituminous compound easily obtained from do-it-yourself merchants which is used to fill in small gaps, or in some cases it can act as a resilient support in its own right. The rubbery mastic that you can apply with a mastic gun is good for most purposes, the bituminous type is best kept for more heavy-duty building projects. On top of the chipboard was placed some more carpet underlay, and finally a carpet. Laying your own carpet isn't so easy so it might be an idea to call in a professional at this point.
The final result in this example was exactly as expected. The degree of insulation through the floor had gone up from practically zero to a level which the rest of the household could benefit from at all reasonable hours.
Upgrading the floor in the way described brings it up to the standard of an interior wall, just about. You might think that this isn't too wonderful, but bear in mind that most of the leakage in an ordinary house or apartment comes through gaps around the doors, and directly through the paper thin doors fitted in most modern properties. For the average home project studio, you would probably only need to upgrade the wall separating your studio from the neighbours, unless the rest of your family really hate your music! Once again, mass and decoupling are what we need, together with perfect attention to detail. Most professional studios use plasterboard supported by a wooden frame in a style similar to the BBC's famous 'Camden' partition. A double plasterboard partition would divide two areas quite nicely, but you will probably only wish to construct one layer to add to an existing wall. To build a plasterboard partition yourself isn't as difficult as it looks, or you can always find a jobbing handy person from the classified pages of the local paper. Just make sure you stick around to give the appropriate supervision.
The wooden frame is built from timber approximately 50mm square. The uprights are called studs, and the horizontal pieces noggins (in England). Since the structure should be decoupled from the rest of the building it is wedged in between resilient layers, probably of hair felt carpet. And try and resist the temptation of rigidly fastening the new structure as much as possible. Each additional nail or screw provides a sound transmission path that will reduce the effectiveness of your new partition. The studs should be 600mm apart and the noggins around 1.2m in a staggered pattern. The two layers of plasterboard should also be staggered so that the gaps are not aligned. It is normal practice to tape joins between sheets of plasterboard and lay a thin skim coat of plaster over the entire exposed surface. It is good acoustic practice too to do this. You should fill the space in between the plasterboard with mineral wool to absorb as much as possible any sound passing through. Once again, any small gaps around the edges should be sealed with mastic to prevent sound leaks.
If your studio is at the top of the building then it probably isn't worth doing much to the ceiling. Although the loft space or void above is a potential path for sound, by the time it gets through to the neighbour's property it has to go through two ceilings and the party wall and will be reasonably well attenuated. Laying one thickness of chipboard on top of the joists in the loft is about as far as it is necessary to go, bearing in mind that they can't take the same loading as the joists supporting habitable rooms. If your studio is downstairs, then you have a problem. You could insulate the floor of the room above, but in an apartment it might not be part of your property! You will have to add insulation to your ceiling from below, and it will probably be tough going. Choices range from suspended plaster tiles, which are quite good for sound absorption, but will only give around 10dB insulation at higher frequencies if you are lucky, through to additional layers of plasterboard, keeping in mind the load bearing capacity of the joists. If you want to be ambitious and you have the height available, then you could fit metal joist hangers to the walls and create a separate structure akin to a Camden partition. You will definitely need an assistant and plenty of DIY/home improvement skill for this.
Domestic doors are so light that they hardly act as a barrier to sound at all. And what sound doesn't go straight through will easily seep around the edges. The easiest solution is to buy a fire door which will be solid and have much better intrinsic insulation, and fit it into a frame which seals all the way round. You could make a door out of two layers of 18mm chipboard with hardwood inserts to support the hinges. Extra battens around the inside of the door frame where the door closes, and also at the bottom, will help give a good seal all the way round. The actual sealing element can be neoprene rubber strip and the result should be reasonably good. Apart from going to the professionals, the next step would be to build a small lobby outside the studio so that a second door could be fitted, and on balance this is probably a better recommendation to the do-it-yourselfer in preference to trying to build and hang a really heavy door. Remember that a heavy door needs a heavy frame, and a heavy frame needs to be very well fixed to the wall. If you fit the door frame yourself, don't forget to seal around the edges with mastic or this will be another potential sound leakage path.
Where studio doors are a bit of a problem, windows are a lot easier than you might imagine. The easiest route would be to have conventional double glazing fitted which will provide a little extra sound insulation. For almost complete protection against noisy neighbours (and the reverse), purpose-made secondary double or even triple glazing is appropriate. The first thing you will need to do is get used to the idea that you are never going to open your window again. Let's face it, there's no worse window from a sound insulation point of view than an open window! After this, the next step is to measure up the opening very carefully and order some glass. Professional studios use very thick glass which is correspondingly expensive. We are going to use 6mm glass which is thicker than ordinary domestic window glass but not too costly. The essential points to bear in mind are these:
- Don't underestimate how dangerous glass is. Even when it is stored leaning against a wall you could brush against it as you walk by and gash your arm. Even one square metre of 6mm glass will be very difficult to handle alone, so have an assistant, and both of you must wear protective gloves and goggles.
- The glass should be set in mastic so that it is decoupled from the frame.
- Clean the glass meticulously in a good light before you install it. Any dirt or fingerprints you leave behind on the outside will remain there for you and your associates to see for the life of your studio. Put a bit of disinfectant in the water too or you might soon find small circles of fungus growing between the panes.
- Paint or varnish the outside of the secondary glazing frame too. You may think that it won't show, but on a sunny day you will see its reflection in the outer window.
- Line the reveals of the window with carpet, fixed with strong glue, to absorb sound that gets through the panes.
- Once again, treat glass with the utmost respect.
Once you have completely soundproofed your studio, you have completely air proofed it as well! It's easy to forget how much we depend on ventilation through the small gaps between walls and windows and doors. Without ventilation, your studio will quickly become the stuffiest place on earth and two people working in the same room together with heat generating equipment will force the temperature up to unbearable levels even in the depths of winter. Air conditioning would be nice, but at the very least you need ventilation to bring fresh air into the room and expel stale air out of it. A free standing fan within the room will recirculate the stale air and give you a bit of a breeze but no overall benefit.
One idea for the upstairs room of a house is to cut a hole in the ceiling and fit an extractor fan in the loft above. Cut another hole close to the outside wall so that air can be drawn in from the eaves of the house. Unfortunately, fans are generally quite noisy, so you must take steps to reduce the noise as much as possible without restricting the air flow. The fan is mounted in a box which stands on top of a resilient layer, actually some packing material that came with a piece of equipment. Decoupling the fan from the structure of the building makes a big difference to the amount of mechanical noise that gets through. To reduce the noise coming down the duct (which since the fan is an extractor, has to travel against the air flow), line the box with mineral wool (sold as Rockwool in the UK). Putting some Rockwool in the duct will reduce the noise very effectively but it also reduces the air flow. Recommendations for ventilation are as follows:
- Use as powerful a fan as you can find. Also, a bigger, slower running fan will be less noisy than a smaller, faster running one.
- Use as large a diameter duct as you can find. The lower the velocity of the air, the less noise will be produced by turbulence.
- You can make a duct from chipboard or MDF (Medium Density Fibreboard). If you line it with mineral wool, even more noise will be absorbed. Make sure that all the joins are well sealed or the fan will suck air through any gaps and not from your studio.
- Don't blow air through or past Rockwool into your studio, unless you want to clog up your equipment and lungs with mineral wool fibres.
- Place the exhaust vent as far as possible from the fresh air intake.
- Bear in mind that noise will escape from your studio through the vents so place them where the noise will do the least harm.
These solutions will transform a significant noise problem into something manageable but it won't eliminate sound leakage entirely, particularly if you want to record heavy rock bands in your studio! Bear in mind that there is no point in having fantastically good insulation in the walls when the floor and ceiling are not up to scratch. If you want to achieve higher levels of sound insulation, the only sensible solution is to call in a professional acoustic designer. Do-it-yourself is fine up to a point, but if you want to go beyond what is suggested here then you need professional help otherwise you may spend a lot of money and not achieve the degree of insulation you need.