Before I took acoustics into account for my listening environment, my mixes always came out flat and unbalanced. I couldn’t figure out what was going wrong.
I would have a great mix when I listened to it in my room but, as soon as I heard it in a different context, I would notice that the bass was weak, the drums lacked punch, and the vocals were tinny.
After trial and error, I realized my room resonated with bass frequencies.
I already had some fundamental understanding of acoustics, but, this firsthand experience (finding an issue with my room’s sound) opened my eyes to just how critical acoustic treatment is.
Without any absorption, the bass in my room was too strong and made me turn down the low end in my mixes. That caused my mixes overall to suffer so, I went down a path of learning and treating my home studio until it was balanced enough to translate audio to reality.
DIY acoustic treatment for your recording or listening environment is essential to elevating your sound to the next level without paying for expensive gear or software. All it takes to balance out your room is a bit of work and patience.
By no means do you need to have a master’s degree in acoustics to improve the sound of your work environment.
You don’t need to be an expert mathematician or physicist; you just need to understand the basics of how sound travels (something worth knowing as a recording/mixing engineer anyways).
How does sound work?
You likely understand on some level that sound is projected by a source and then travels in waves through the air to your ear where you hear it.
If you put a blanket over the same source you probably intuitively understand that it will sound muffled and maybe a bit bassy (depending on the thickness of the blanket, of course).
So why is that the case?
Different frequencies of sound travel at different speeds. Various materials interact with those frequencies in different ways (don’t worry, I’ll elaborate).
Let’s take the blanket over a speaker as an example. If we play a drum set track through that speaker without the blanket, what do we hear?
We hear crisp, clear cymbals and a punchy, deep kick drum. Now we play the same track, but, this time, we put a thick blanket over the speaker; what do you think we’ll hear?
Well, you can try it yourself.
You will find that the cymbals come out muffled, and the kick drum sounds duller. The blanket is absorbing the higher frequencies of the track but, the lower frequencies are still passing through the material.
You can do similar experiments to see how sound reacts to different materials by putting this speaker in various rooms. Try it in your bedroom, in the bathroom, and maybe in a long hallway.
Take note of how different frequency ranges interact with the materials within those environments. If you have a tiled bathroom, was the sound a bit brighter and more reflective?
If you have a bedroom with carpeting and lots of blankets, was the sound warmer and dryer? Ask yourself these questions and experiment with these concepts as much as you want.
By doing these practical experiments, you’ll quickly learn that there are reflective materials, such as tile, glass, or wood, and absorbent materials, such as foam, carpeting, or fabric.
You’ll discover how different frequencies react to these types of materials. You’ll hear that higher frequencies are more reflective, whereas lower frequencies pass through several materials easily.
By understanding these basic concepts, you’re more equipped to treat the issues that currently interfere with your productions.
How do I know what the problems with my room are?
The most vital room to understand the acoustics of is your control room (or whatever room you produce in). Choosing the perfect room is an aspect of a home studio that is often overlooked.
If you don’t have a choice, you’ll have to work with what you have available to you but, if you can, it’s a good idea to choose a room that has unequal dimensions.
The worst room shape you could have for mixing is a cube (say a 12x12x12 room, for example). You’ll encounter a nightmare list of frequencies that cause you issues.
Ideally, find a room with a height, width, and length that are different.
Once you’ve chosen the room you’re going to use for listening and producing, choose where you’d like to place your workstation.
From there, you’ll want to hone in exactly where you will listen from, relative to your monitors.
The ideal listening position (for stereo sound) is achieved by forming a triangle between you and your studio monitors.
Both monitors should point straight towards your ears and come to a crossover point slightly behind your head. This will give you the ideal position to hear your audio.
When you listen, you want to have the sensation that you are hearing something directly in front of you rather than on either side.
All of this is essential to figure out the issues with your setup. You’ve got the sound to be as even as it can without any kind of acoustic compensation to balance the frequencies.
Now you’ll want to open a signal generator (most modern DAWs have one included but, if you don’t have one, a quick google search for “free signal generator plugin” will get you a myriad of results) and let it play through your monitors while you are in the ideal listening position.
Start with the lowest tone you can hear (probably around 30-50Hz, depending on your monitors). Then incrementally increase the frequency being played.
Listen for any frequencies that sound significantly louder or quieter than the rest, and you’ll know roughly what ranges are issues for your room. This isn’t a test without flaws.
It won’t give you answers with pinpoint accuracy but, it definitely gives you insight into what you’ll want to address to improve the space.
A tip for this test:
At first, go up by 10Hz each time, then, when you reach 300 Hz, start going up by 100Hz at every increase.
When you get to 1000Hz, begin increasing by 500Hz each time. When you get to 5000Hz, increase by 1000Hz.
Finally, when you reach 10kHz, start increasing by 2000Hz every time. This will save you time and still give you a fairly even spread across the frequency spectrum.
The next step is to find what areas might benefit from some sort of acoustic paneling within your room. Using the frequencies you discovered were too loud or quiet from the test above, walk around your room and make note of where you are standing when they are at their loudest or quietest.
This will tell you what parts of your room have nodes or antinodes (points where the sound waves build up too much or cancel out). For example, the back left corner of my home studio has a bass node that makes the bass sound loud enough to vibrate my body.
How do I treat my room?
Now that you understand the issues you need to address in your space, it’s time to fix them.
You will likely need to utilize a combination of absorption and deflection to produce the best possible balance in your home studio. Without hiring a professional or doing quite a lot of math, there will be a certain degree of trial and error when placing acoustic treatment on your walls. Don’t let that discourage you because the end result is definitely worth it.
Place your panels carefully and sparingly, and always return to your listening position to see if you’ve addressed the issue you were correcting. Be sure to work on each issue individually and check all the frequencies again after treating one problem area.
This can be a tedious process, but it will be beneficial to your music in the long run.
The most affordable and readily available treatment option on the market is, without a doubt, foam absorption panels.
When placed strategically, these panels can help you reduce the nodes in your room by reducing the amount being reflected back at you. If you notice any areas in your room that have a buildup of a particular frequency, using some sort of dampening or absorption panel can drastically reduce the issue.
For example, I have a bass trap in the corner of my room to reduce the buildup of low frequencies that used to plague my mixes. I also put sound absorption behind my monitors to avoid low-end reflections that build up in that area.
Absorption panels are a great way to deaden your room a bit and stretch your dollar as far as it can go. One common misconception to avoid, though, is that dampening treatment does not, in fact, soundproof your room.
While this kind of acoustic treatment may help reduce the buildup of certain frequencies, it won’t prevent the sound from leaving your room.
Truly soundproofing your home studio is difficult to do and can cost quite a bit.
Using deflection panels can be a bit trickier than absorption panels if you aren’t sure where to place them. In addition, these also tend to be much more expensive than the foam panels used for absorption.
Fortunately, you likely won’t need as many of these to make your room sound great! You should use a deflection panel when you want to avoid the sound bouncing straight off a surface.
For example, I use a deflection panel directly behind where I sit to monitor my productions. Doing so prevents the audio from reflecting back to me from the wall behind me.
This cleans up the mid and high frequencies in my listening room and gives me better control of the acoustics in my room.
Is there software that can help?
Luckily, with today’s technology, there is easily accessible software that can help you acoustically treat your room.
Obviously, a computer program can’t physically change the dimensions of your home studio or put up acoustic treatment. These programs work by analyzing the frequency response from your listening position.
Then, they create an EQ filter that adjusts your monitors to output a flat curve (or whatever curve you customize).
There are a couple of programs that are great for this purpose:
Both of these plugins essentially work under the same principle. You go through a similar process to the one I explained earlier, however, it is expedited by a microphone used to measure the frequency response from your monitoring setup.
The result of this analysis gives you a custom-tuned filter that takes into account the acoustics of your room and balances out your listening experience.
If you want to ensure the best results, combining physical acoustic treatment and a plugin filter is a budget-friendly solution to solve your problems.
If you’ve followed the principles outlined throughout this article, you should be able to confidently treat the acoustics of your home studio (without worrying too much about the exact calculations to get it right).
There is, of course, an entire field of study you could go down trying to learn more about acoustics and the physics of sound. I encourage you to continue learning about how sound functions (it can only benefit your career as a producer or engineer).
There is no one-size-fits-all for treating a room’s acoustics, there are just too many variables present with each room. What could sound great in my room might make your room tinny with no low end.
Train your ears to hear bumps and dips in frequency, and you’ll find it easier over time to hear what changes you need to make.
Use this article as a guide to help you assess and treat the acoustic issues in your listening setup.
If you haven’t done it before, it may take some time but, you’ll thank yourself for the results of putting in the effort.