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Cheap & Easy Sound Enhancements for the Home Studio

Even though the products available for tweaking today’s home studio set-up are more affordable than ever, learning how to cut corners - and cut costs - remains an invaluable art.

Posted in Songwriter 101 on April 4, 2007 by

Over the years, I’ve become accustomed to using recycled and/or low-budget materials in an effort to improve the sound in my workspace. The following ideas may seem pathetically basic, but if they help get the job done, who cares? As one colleague put it, “The best studio problem-solvers are very often very low-tech - and half-assed!”

Q. How can I prevent sounds from being heard outside my recording space?

If your space is located directly above an adjacent living area, start by placing some sheets of good, dense soundproofing material (such as SoundStop or Homasote) directly on the floor of your main room, then cover with a low-pile carpet. In the never-ending battle to keep your sounds to yourself, bass is usually the most formidable adversary; however, the above treatment should significantly cut down on bass transfer and help with other leakage issues as well. Bass traps are yet another simple device - a large open box or an empty speaker cabinet placed in the vicinity of a bass drum or bass amp can help suck up those hard-to-contain low-frequency signals. Keep amps and voluminous instruments (such as drums) off the floor, if possible; risers are the ultimate solution, but even a basic wooden stand for amps will help reduce signal transfer. While you’re at it, get yourself a good caulking gun and carefully inspect all walls, ceilings, window joints, etc., filling even the slightest gap good and proper.

Q. What are some quick and easy ways to acoustically treat a room?

Cutting down on excess room vibration is yet another sound-stopping technique (since the louder it is inside, the louder it will be outside). A lot of experts recommend using many different kinds of materials in tandem - fabrics, foam, egg crates, even pieces of carpet remnant are all excellent for soaking up excess vibration. Filling up the area with combinations of soft and hard surfaces, such as pillows, small cabinets, wooden chairs, etc., will help diminish standing sound waves. The acoustical foam packages that are commonly sold for this purpose are great but often expensive; should you make the investment, be sure to get the thickest kind possible.

Q. My room is too dry sounding. How can I add back some life?

While some measure of absorption is usually needed to reduce reflections and suppress the overall volume of the room, at the same time you don’t want to remove all semblance of live vibe. To that end, placing some small sheets of plywood around amps and/or acoustic guitars will help add a touch of brightness during tracking. Or you can use a piece of reflective Plexiglas placed directly on the floor in front of a guitar speaker cabinet, with your mic situated on top of the Plexiglas a few inches away from the grille cloth. Yet another well-worn technique for adding back ambience is to run the final mix of your project through a set of speakers placed in the recording area, using a pair of ambient microphones situated several feet back and pointed in the air to capture the indirect signal, which you can then combine with your original track for a more dynamic sound.

Q. The sound coming out of my monitors isn’t “focused.” How can I fix that?

As acousticians will tell you, the dimensions of your listening area should be non-divisible, meaning that if your space is 8’ square, you’re probably already up to your neck in reflections. If your mixes lack definition because of this, add some acoustical foam or other absorbent substance to the wall behind your monitors (from the ceiling down). For floor treatment, thick carpeting or even a few large throw rugs will work; also, attaching strips of carpet remnant or other absorbing material to each corner can help diffuse reflections coming from behind your mix position. Finally, adjusting the height of your monitors slightly upward or downward (or even moving your chair up or down if it’s adjustable) will help re-direct any unwanted sound waves. Remember to keep your monitors as close to the mix position as possible to prevent flutter echoes (or other unwanted vibrations) from coming between your ears and your speakers.

Q. What about vocal separation in a small recording room?

If you like to record your vocals live with the players but don’t like to have all the players intruding on your vocal track, there’s a cheap and easy way to remedy this problem, too: constructing your own baffles (a.k.a. “gobos”) made of plywood, soundboard, or even ordinary shipping boxes. For cardboard or soundboard baffles, simply lay a pair of adjoining 4x4 sheets on the floor, then securely fasten them together using several layers of good strong duct tape (it ain’t pretty, but it works). Or, simply take a guitar shipping box, separated lengthwise, then glue restaurant egg cartons to it. When making baffles from plywood, start by lightly sanding the edges (to avoid getting splinters), then connect the panels with several small hinges. If the paneling is too smooth, add some foam, thin carpeting or egg cartons to the inside of each baffle to eliminate possible reflections. Stand it up in front of you, hang the mic, and voila-an instant vocal booth.

If you don’t want to futz with baffles, a much easier way to avoid unwanted leakage is to record with a low-gain, directional microphone (as opposed to “hotter” condenser models typically used for vocals), such as a basic dynamic hand-held model like a Shure SM-57.

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