How to Build a Quiet Studio Environment by TweakHeadz Lab
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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 roomI 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. 

 Quiet!

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 next room.  

Sound Isolation enclosures

There are 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 Aurelex MoPads 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

IK Multimedia ARC Advanced Room Correction System Software
One of the most critical factors influencing the quality of a music production is the accuracy of the monitoring system. In fact, the combination of speakers and room acoustics prove to be the weakest link in the music production chain.
PreSonus Monitor Station Studio Control Center
The PreSonus Monitor Station is the ultimate desktop monitoring and communications system for your recording studio. Based on the award-winning Central Station, the Monitor Station provides talkback, speaker switching, input source switching and four ultra loud and clear headphone amplifiers delivering everything you need to control your recording environment.

SM Pro Audio M-Patch 2 Monitor Control Station
The M-Patch 2 is a compact desktop/rack-mountable sized passive volume attenuator and patch control device. Building on the success of the original M-Patch, the new M-Patch 2 is a feature packed passive problem solver for nearly all production environments.

Rolls PM351 Personal Monitor Station
The PM351 is ideal for live bands and church musicians, as well as studio musicians and singers. Having the ability to monitor a main mix along with the musician's voice and their instrument make the PM351 an effective and versatile tool.

Hosa Straight Headphone Extension Cable - 25 feet (Female 1/4 inch Phone to Male 1/4 inch Phone) (Model HPE325)
This is a 'gotta have' for the studio. This 25 ft., flat (uncoiled) stereo extension makes life just a little bit easier.




Whirlwind Console Marking Tape
Look ma! No residue! Use this 1 in. wide tape for marking channels. Specially designed for consoles.

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 Ebtech 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. 

 


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