The general tendency when designing recording studio is to think of the equipment first. Many so-called recording studios are in fact no more than several piles of rather sophisticated and expensive equipment set up in any reasonable room that will house them.
Many recording studio owners realize all too soon after the inauguration of their ‘studios’ that there is more to recording studios than they first thought. Bad recording studio design often leads to some trial and error, and sometimes very wildly misguided attempts to convert their already-purchased, unsuitable space into what they think that they really need.
Recording studio is not just recording equipment, software or superb microphones and monitors. It is a quiet, isolated place where you can focus to music and recording. Acoustics is not an intuitive science, therefore it is best to get some expert advice before designing a recording studio.
General requirements for recording studio design
Some of the basic things that set a professional recording studio apart from a home recording studio are:Sound isolation and background noise levels
The lack of experience of the people involved in recording studio design often leads to a tendency to fail to realize the need for good sound isolation. People simply believe that they can work around most of the restrictions which poor isolation imposes. This is a dangerous attitude. Once it is realized that the compromises severely restrict the success of the recording studio it is often too late or too financially burdening to make the necessary changes in studio design. Isolation is a two-way problem. The first need for recording studio isolation is to prevent sound from escaping from the studio and disturbing any neighbors. Disturbance of neighbors may lead to complaints which are a bad reputation for any recording studio. The second need for recording studio isolation are noises from the local community entering the studio. They can disrupt recordings and the creative flow of the artistic performances. Sound isolation also sets the dynamic range limit for a recording studio. This is very important in a professional recording situation.
Confidence in the system
A professional studio should be able to operate efficiently and smoothly. This means reliable equipment and confidence in recoding process. A professional recording studio needs recording rooms with adequately controlled acoustics and a monitoring situation that allows a reliable assessment to be made of the sounds entering the microphone. This means a reasonably flat monitoring systems in control rooms, with good transparency and resolution of fine detail, that allow the flat response to reach the mixing position and any other designated listening regions of the room. Doubts about the monitored sound may cause musicians to become insecure and downhearted, and hence will be unlikely to either feel comfortable or perform at their best. Recording personnel and musicians should realise that they can trust that what they are hearing is what the audiophiles will hear in good conditions. This will give them more confidence. Nothing really inspires more confidence in a recording process than the participation of an experienced and knowledgeable staff.
The complete system
A recording studio is a system, just as a rocket is a system. No haphazard combination of high quality fuel, engine, stages, rescue system, capsule and protection will guarantee a well-performing rocket. The whole thing needs to be balanced. The same principle applies to recording studios. A hugely expensive, physically large mixing console, with large flat surfaces will tend to dominate the acoustic response of a small control room. In such situations, even when using the flattest monitors available, there is little chance of achieving a flat response at the listening position(s) in a small room. When studio equipment outgrows the rooms as the studio expands, the results usually suffer. Also an expensive recording studio software running on the fastest computer around is worth nothng if the whole chain is not suitable for quality recordings. Studios should also be well ventilated, with good stability of temperature and humidity, otherwise musicians can become uncomfortable and instruments can vary in their tuning. Correcting the tuning later by electronic means is not a professional solution to any of these problems, because if the problems exist at the time of the recording they will almost inevitably affect the performance negatively.
In an enormous number of cases, prospective recording studio owners purchase or lease premises which they consider suitable for their studio before calling in a studio designer or acoustical expert. They often realize that there could be potential problems, but they believe that they can talk their way around any difficulties with neighbors. They invest considerable money in building something which they deem to be suitable for their needs, and then only call in specialists once the whole thing has been completed but the neighbors refuse to ‘see reason’. Acoustics is not an intuitive science, and many people cannot appreciate just how many ‘obvious’ things are, in reality, not that obvious at all.
It is a very unpleasant experience for acoustics engineers to have to tell people, who have often invested their hearts, souls and every last penny in a recording studio, that the building simply is not suitable. Unfortunately, it happens regularly. The problem in many of these cases is that the buildings are of lightweight construction and the neighbors are too close - bad choice for recording studio. Three things are instrumental in providing good sound isolation – rigidity, mass and distance. Lightweight buildings are rarely very rigid, so if the neighbors are close, such buildings really have nothing going for them except cheapness. Even if there is space to build internal, massive, floated structures, the floors may not be strong enough to support their weight because the buildings are only of weak, lightweight construction. In many cases, the premises will have been purchased precisely because they are inexpensive; perhaps they were all that could be afforded at that time, which often also means that the money for expensive isolation work is not available. The cost of massive isolation work in a cheap building will obviously be greater than a smaller amount of isolation work in a more sturdily constructed building, and usually the overall cost of the building and isolation work will be cheaper in the latter case.
The general requirements of a studio should be carefully thought about before a location is chosen.
Good sound isolation is essential, and many people greatly underestimate its importance. One cannot work more quietly at night time and expect to achieve the same results as working at normal SPLs. Noisy electro-mechanical systems, such as ventilator fans, disc drives and air-conditioning units should not be allowed to disturb the recording or monitoring environments. Background noises above 30 dBA are not acceptable for professional use.
Choice of location can greatly simplify sound isolation requirements, but convenient access for the clients may drive studios into more noise sensitive areas. In the latter case, costs must be expected to rise. Potential earnings, on the other hand, may also be greater. An undisturbed recording environment may be essential for achieving great artistic performances.
Lightweight, inexpensive buildings rarely make good studios. Buildings should also be considerably larger than what is needed solely for the interiors of the finished rooms. Isolation and acoustic control work can be space consuming. Adequate height is also beneficial. Old buildings often have hidden problems, so the prediction of conversion costs can sometimes be difficult to assess accurately.
Adequate low frequency isolation can often require the use of considerable quantities of heavy materials. These need not be expensive, but the question often arises as to whether a given building can support the weight.
Large and small monitor systems tend to be needed, each for different reasons.
Control room and monitor system decay times should be shorter than the decay times in the principal studio (performing) rooms. Otherwise monitoring environment decay may mask the performing room decay, and make the recorded ambience very difficult to assess.
It is best to seek expert advice before choosing a building in which to site a recording studio, because acoustics is not an intuitive science.
Recording studio design is science just like any other science. You need knowledge and experince to design a good recording studio.