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Studio SOS: Making A Small Room Sound Good

Inside Hugh Robjohns' Revamped Home Studio By Hugh Robjohns

The finished article. The cost of professionally treating the room, and having acoustic treatment custom-built, came to slightly less than that of the monitoring system which benefits from it!The finished article. The cost of professionally treating the room, and having acoustic treatment custom-built, came to slightly less than that of the monitoring system which benefits from it!

Getting good results in a small space isn't easy — but it is possible. And if you're the Technical Editor of Sound On Sound, it's also essential!

In a job like mine, I get to see a very large number of both professional and home studio spaces. Often, the most significant difference is that the latter either have too little, or quite inappropriate, acoustic treatment. So, when Paul White and I do our Studio SOS visits we can usually make a very considerable improvement just by introducing a few thoughtfully placed and good-quality acoustic panels.

I'm not entirely sure if my studio space should count as a professional or home setup — I generally work from home, and all the practical compromises of everyday domestic life affect me and my studio environment just as much as everyone else! Consequently, the room in which I've typed articles for this magazine over the last decade or so, and where I audition most review equipment, hasn't really been the model of acoustic excellence that perhaps it should have been. In my defence, though, I've heard a lot worse elsewhere, and I have become very familiar with my room's particular foibles. Perhaps more importantly, I have other rooms, both at home and in 'friendly' local studios, which I use regularly for critical listening, too. Nevertheless, I knew my home studio could be a lot better if I really put my mind to it, and the 'Do as I say, not as I do!' aspect has never sat comfortably.

Like many reading this, I suspect, I'd long had outline plans in my head for building a 'better room', but they mostly required moving to a new home that could provide a larger and more suitable starting point! Inevitably, though, family circumstances never evolved quite as expected, and my relocation plans stalled for almost a decade. Finally, the stars started aligning last year and the opportunity to move to an 'ideal home' had finally become a reality... or so we thought!

Unfortunately, when it came down to it, Mrs?R and I?couldn't agree on exactly what we both wanted, or even where we wanted to move to. So we drew up a list of 'absolutely essential requirements' and quickly realised that our current abode already ticked almost all of those boxes. Consequently, rather than spending money on relocation we tried to think laterally and find ways of repurposing the rooms in our present house, making better use of the existing space, as well as building some additional space to better accommodate our specific requirements.

Defining The Problem

As part of our re-evaluation we considered moving my studio elsewhere in the house, but over the 20 years that we've been here, it had already occupied three different rooms, and its current location was clearly still the most sensible and practical choice.

The main restriction in treating the acoustics as I would have liked was a lack of wall space, because my ever-growing collection of technical reference books and magazine archives — to which I refer constantly as part of the process of reviewing equipment and writing articles — were accommodated on five sizeable bookcases along one side of the room. My large collection of reference audio equipment was housed mostly on a large shelving unit on the opposite wall, and while this arrangement of furniture provided some limited absorption and diffraction, it really didn't do anything useful towards controlling the inevitable low-end issues! So the first step to acoustic nirvana had to be to relocate all the books...

As a family, we like books and have a lot of them, so we decided to convert the 'box room' into a proper 'library'. This turned out to be a genius idea! When I'm researching for SOS now, I really like the tranquillity and focus that comes from sitting in a winged-back leather armchair surrounded by oak bookcases, usually with Radio 3 playing gently in the background... and no chance of hearing the office phone!

When I'm researching for SOS now, I really like the tranquillity and focus that comes from sitting in a winged-back leather armchair surrounded by oak bookcases, usually with Radio 3 playing gently in the background... and no chance of hearing the office phone!

The Cunning Plan

With the bookcases and equipment shelves removed from the studio, addressing the acoustics in a professional way became a realistically achievable goal, and I started by identifying my precise requirements and sketching some ideas. It's probably worth explaining at this point that my studio is not typical of most home studios. I don't need to record acoustic instruments or vocals, for a start, or share the space with multiple musicians at the same time. I do record keyboards in it, though, and the odd podcast and video, so it's closer to being a small mastering studio than anything else, with a focus on being able to easily patch equipment for comparative and measurement purposes.

A plan view of the final studio layout.A plan view of the final studio layout.

Primarily, then, the room needed to provide the best possible stereo monitoring environment, both for auditioning review equipment and also for the editing, mixing and mastering work I occasionally undertake. I also wanted the option to reinstall my surround monitoring system at a later date, so I needed a relatively dead room with a consistent soundscape, and a very well controlled low end.

That last point would be the main challenge, as is so often the case, because the primary disadvantage of my designated room is its size and shape. The worst possible configuration, from an acoustic point of view, is a small cube, and my room is alarmingly near that, with floor dimensions of 3.1 x 2.9 metres with a ceiling height of 2.3 metres. There's also a door in one corner and windows on two opposite walls. Three of the walls are plasterboard dabbed onto concrete blocks, while the other is a stud partition. The floor is wooden laminate on concrete (block and beam), and above the plasterboard ceiling is a heavily lagged roof void.

Experience from countless Studio SOS visits has taught me that getting anything like an even bass response in a room like this is a big challenge, and the previous...

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Published June 2020