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How to Build a Quiet Studio Environment
that enhances musical creativity
by Tweakheadz Lab
There is a lot of knowledge about how to build a home recording studio. Underneath most of this is an implicit assumption that a recording studio is something you build to keep sounds from going in or out of a room. After all, the recording enterprise is an inherently noisy enterprise. Or is it? In the past, when most home studios were designed for recording a "band", you know, a 4-5 member group that has a drummer with a full kit of cans, a couple guitarists with big-haired amps. A Bass player with his or her stack, and the keyboard player with their amp 'n junk.
Wait a minute! Is this how everyone works today? Of course some of us do, and have active bands that gig and record. But what about everyone else? How many of us are essentially a one person operation, using a computer, keyboards and samplers, and a mixing board? How many of us are only using a computer? Don't be shy now. My bet is most of you. The rules for what a recording studio should or can be have changed as a result of the wonders of modern technology. If you are a part of this revolution, this article is for you.
The number one consideration of a home-based project studio is not soundproofing, but the making of a quiet room. I find it kind of funny that some people will spend thousands to treat their room yet never quiet the stuff inside the room itself! You walk in and hear a noises coming from computer fans, equipment racks, particularly samplers. If your rig is like mine, consisting of several computers and samplers you may have multiple hard drives, zip drives, cartridge drives, DVD and CDR machines. This is no way to work on music or produce audio. When you add this to the whoosh of air coming fom HVAC ducts, environmental sounds leaking in the windows and the rumblings in other rooms from electrical appliances in the home like your refrigerator, washer and dryer you may have quite a racket going on! What one finds is that this racket masks other problems in the studio, like 60 Hz hum at the console outs, poorly set up gain on mics, synths and other instruments. It's rather ironic. People who have a noisy studio create their stuff, mix and master it and never really notice that the entire production is imbued with noise problems. When the piece is done, they still don't notice it because, yep, they listen to it in their noise-infected studio. So let us post rule number one. Ready? Here it is.
To create music you must be able to hear your
sounds. Doh! OK, I can see you dudes rolling your eyes. Some of
you have bought the hype that you need $4,000 studio monitors to do this.
Yes. Studio monitors are important, but even if you have the best monitors
in the world you are still going to have major problems if you cannot clearly and
totally hear what is coming out of them! So let us be clear. The number one
enemy to good sound is the noise in your room, coming from the very devices you
make music with. The louder your room is, the louder you have to monitor your
music, the faster your ears will fatigue in a session and the greater the likelihood
you may damage your hearing after years of constant, relentless exposure to high
sound pressure levels. On the other hand, with low ambient noise in a room,
you can find a lower comfortable volume level at which to work. This saves
the ears a lot of wear and tear and you can work longer, and do those major projects
that require successive all night sessions.
How to quiet your music creation room
Lets take a brief look at how professional studios do this to get a clue. Pro studios are multi-room operations. At minimum, there are 3 rooms. The "studio" where the performers play and are singing, playing instruments and drums, etc. The "control room" where the mixing board and patchbays and quiet outboard gear resides. Finally is the "machine room" where, you guessed it, all the noisy stuff goes. The problem for the home studio is that, usually, one room has to fulfill all these functions.
For this article I will assume you want
to have a control room and studio room be the same
room. You can record sensitive vocals and acoustic instruments with noisy sources gone,
just don't swivel that chair too much. So, the goal, then, has to be to develop some
kind of machine area where all the noisy equipment can go. As usual, there
are expensive ways to go about this, with sound isolation racks, buying only the
quietest hard drives and fans. A better solution is to use the room's
closet to store the noisy machines. The best solution is the simplest, and
the cheapest. Cut a small hole in the wall and run some long cables into the
Sound Isolation enclosures
companies making these now. They are expensive and may not totally
eliminate the noise, but they will significantly reduce it to the point where
you can work more comfortably. There's a cool tip there about using
under the PCs in the enclosure. Check it out.
The Closet Approach
The closet approach is probably
more problematic than the other approaches because putting your gear in a
closed tiny room will actually make it resonate louder unless you take great pains
to totally insulate the closet so sounds cannot leak out. You can cut down
on the internal resonance in the closet by adding generous layers of sound absorbing
materials, and installing a heavy door with weather stripping. Sound travels
through air so it is important to seal the door as much as possible. Cable
access becomes a problem here. if you think you can run the cables under
the door, you will have too much leakage and you will still hear noise. The
solution here is to drill a hole from the wall to the closet so you can run your
cables through there. Once you have the closet sealed and tight then another
problem arises: Heat. In a sealed tiny room the computer will eventually
become like a furnace. It will not be able to dissipate heat very well if
it is 100 degrees in the closet. You may be shortening your computer's life
and worse, may be creating a fire hazard. So you need ventilation, which is
much easier said than done. Assuming you do not want to re-route air conditioning
ducts for this, you will at minimum need to install two fans where the back of the
closet goes into the next room. One fan exhausts the air out while the other
brings cool air in.
The Put it in the Next Room Approach
This, for me, was the best way to go. I've had success at the TweakLab. Drill a 4 inch hole above the baseboard going into the adjoining room. One method here is to get a standard electrical box as is used for installing outlets in the wall. You can place the cut the hole for the box so it is in line with other outlets in the room. (So when you move or sell the house you can just cover it with a utility cover).
Most walls are about 6" from one side to the other, so you need a way to thread the cables through to the other side. I tape the cables to a common yardstick or a drum stick and simple push them through.
I recommend keeping the audio interface in your studio room. This allows you to connect all your mics and keyboards directly, without going to the next room. If you have a PCI soundcard/breakout box rig, extend the cable on the breakout box so you can keep it in the studio, while the PCI card sits in the computer. If you only have a PCI soundcard, then keep your mixer in your studio and connect to it with balanced TRS cables (assuming your soundcard has balanced inputs and outputs. If not you will need a converter box like a hum eliminator.)
Create space in the next room for your computer and a rack unit. Then make an inventory of the cables you are going to need to pull this off. Here is some information of cable lengths you can expect with average grade cables.
USB and Firewire: Simple solutions--get some good quality powered hubs or long cables.
Digital Audio Cables (coax s/pdif and toslink s/pdif /ADAT, AES/EBU XLR): Simply get the correct length you need. Technical recommendations for Toslink are that length be limited to around 5 meters or around 17 feet. AES/EBU can go long lengths depending on the quality of the cable. Coax cable can go 6 meters or 19.8 feet. There are methods for going longer, but those are beyond the scope of this article.
Video monitor cables: DVI cables are officially spec'd to go 5 meters (14.4 feet) but often you can get away with a longer run. There are DVI booster and repeaters for long runs. HDMI cables vary in quality and maximum length. Lower cost "Category 1" HDMI can go 5 meters or around 16 feet. Category 2 "Hi Speed" HDMI can fo 15 meters. In the analog domain, VGA cables can be extended to 15' but as always be mindful of the quality. Cheap VGA cables will cause ghosting. The best VGA will be quite thick with ballasts on each end.
Analog Audio cables: Avoid running unbalanced audio to the next room. USE XLR or TRS for long runs to noisy samplers. If the gear is unbalanced, you may need to add a line shifter or hum eliminator to convert the signal from unbalanced to balanced.
SCSI cables: See below
Keyboards and mice: While you can extend PS2 cables, I recommend USB for these. This will allow you to go wireless. Just plug into your hub.
I am now on my 3rd system since I originally
drilled the holes in my walls. Amazingly, for me, this system
worked. If I open the door to the room, I can hear the computer whirring
away out there. When I close the door, it is totally silent. There are a
few things to observe here. With SCSI, you have to be careful about long
cable lengths. Put your sampler as close as you can to the wall the cable
will exit if you can. I could not, so I enlisted the help of an old zip drive.
Have the scsi signal buffered in the zip drive made a 12 foot run possible. I have
had success with 25 foot scsi runs this way, but that is really pushing it.
A 25 foot serial cable, surprisingly, is not a problem at all with my MIDI interface
(a Unitor 8 and AMT8 combo) And believe me, I have LOTS of data going down this
cable. My USB mouse and PS2 keyboard had no problems with long cables.
The only serious problem was on my first PC system. I had Soundblaster Live soundcard
that has 1/8inch stereo mini-jacks.
I used it for system sounds and for monitoring and sometimes recording. It
was a 30 foot unbalanced path! I was not surprised to hear a loud 60hz hum coming
from it to my computer speakers that I use as surround nearfields. The
hum-eliminator totally cleared that up.
This was, without a doubt, the best upgrade I have made in my studio since I
started using hard drives. I can once again hear and pinpoint troublesome noise
at my mixer and take steps to get rid of it. When I am doing sound development work
I don't have to crank the gain or wear headphones to hear subtle nuance. Thanks
to the lower levels of monitoring I can compose and mix all night long without disturbing
neighbors or roommates. Silence and music have a mutually beneficial, almost magical
relationship. Silence is the perfect backdrop for bringing sound from the world
of our minds to the real world.
Best of Luck in your music making,
Rich the Tweakmeister.
Recording Studio Design Forum by John Sayers Productions
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