How Not To Build A Recording Studio
A guide to the common pitfalls, mistakes, misconceptions, snake-oil solutions, and silly ideas that we have come across in our many years of building professional recording studios
A brief introduction.
One very important lesson in doing anything, is first to learn what not to do before we learn what to do.
I recall clearly when I took an electrical engineering course at college, we were placed on serious and heavy courses of how not to work with electricity, during which we were played surveillance videos and photographs of horrific consequences of people doing silly things they knew they should not be doing.
We spent weeks learning how not to do things as the most basic fundamental foundations of our careers in electricity.
Our teachers did not even start to teach us what to do until we knew what not to do and what to do if things went wrong.
It is an important part of professional training to know what will be a problem, what will ruin a project, and what to expect to go wrong if you do certain things.
While audio and acoustics is a little less dangerous than working on power systems, the principles of learning what not to do are the most important anyone will learn. Most proper educational courses will begin with a how not to do it lesson, so here is ours.
Here we will place many examples and lessons we have seen and heard during our many years in the industry so you don’t have to suffer the mishaps and wasted money that others have had to in the past.
We will offer no real-world reference examples or identifiable pictures in this section, as while others may have been unfortunate enough to make these mistakes it is not constructive or useful to embarrass or shame anyone, we all make bad choices from time to time, all we seek to achieve here is to draw attention to the various common and easy blunders that inexperienced people, and those who should know better, commit in their pursuit of their audio goals.
Error 1 - Electrical stupidity.
Sorry to have to start with such a serious one, but it matters to us a lot.
OK, while we are on the subject of electricity and danger we will begin with one of the most stupid and deadly practices in pro-audio.
Power line ground lifting. There is only one piece of correct advice;
NEVER DO IT! EVER! NO MATTER WHAT!
Many musicians have been killed or injured by electric shocks on stage. (see this link) Wrongly attributed to a “shock from the microphone” it is most commonly their electric guitar amplifier that just killed them. The microphone was just a ground path that completed the deadly circuit. Systems to which the microphone is connected usually have many tens of electrical grounding points and more likely the mix engineer(s) would have been shocked way before the musician if all of those had failed in the power supply system somewhere. The mic body is usually connected to the console ground through the mic cable screen so any voltage on the microphone would most likely be on all the system unless something was catastrophically wrong in the stage box. Electric musical instruments are often the most likely to be wrongly ground lifted as they are often used by people who are not technically savvy and as for some bizarre reason musical instrument manufacturers choose not to use balanced audio lines. Unbalanced lines that they use are the most prone to ground loop problems.
Valve guitar amplifiers are most commonly the source of unwanted noise due to their poor design and tendency to cook their innards due to the harsh environment the valves create, they are truly ancient technology, indeed many are actually ancient as the musicians often see credibility in using old broken gear that is deemed cool by the music press.
If an electrically powered piece of audio equipment is having issues with ground loop interference, or ground borne signals, the proper answer is not to take the dangerous quick fix solution and pull the power ground. Your laziness can kill. Use of proper signal line isolating transformers (such as a DI box) is the proper quick fix, or actually finding why you have noise on the ground (both signal and power) in the first place is the long term fix.
While we should all be safe in modern installations due to the use of GFI / RCCD / Differential protection devices we cannot always trust that they are there, correctly connected, working, or of the correct value. In many cases I have seen lethal 300mA protection devices wrongly fitted on final outlet circuits to avoid nuisance tripping. This should never happen. All studio outlets should, without fail, be protected by a 30mA or less protective leakage breaker.
Needless to say, all the audio installation should have been installed professionally in accordance with industry standards, that if followed properly will avoid the need to ever wrongly ground lift electrical equipment.
No item of electrical equipment should ever be primarily grounded by means of an audio signal cable, contact with other equipment, or rack-mounting bolts, none of which would ever qualify for equipotential safety bonding under any electrical regulation.
No power distribution system, fixed or portable should ever have a 3 pole outlet that is ground lifted whether it is designated so or not.
An electrical safety ground is an emergency safety measure that is there should an internal component fail, or the apparatus mechanically fails. It functions in a way that a if high voltage high current is accidentally sent to the exposed metal parts, often including the audio cable screen which is a part of the signal path in unbalanced equipment, it will conduct to ground. It is there to form a last line of defence by sending the electrical current safely to the earthed ground connection blowing the circuit protective device rather than the current passing through the user. Removing this protection is no different than removing a safety guard from a dangerous machine, once this protection is removed there is no last line of defence anymore. if the failure now happens the operator, unaware that their protection has been removed, risks death.
Think about who you are putting at risk, seriously. Is it worth it, just to fix a buzz that is most likely caused by something else that is wrong?
It would seem that a few guitar roadies over the years may well have inadvertently, negligently, killed their good friend and employer, quite some weight to carry just to stop an irritating buzz.
Error 2 - Thermal Insulation is not Acoustic “Insulation”.
It is extremely common for us to encounter previously installed structures that were supposed to be a well isolated recording studio that were nothing of the sort. Indeed, we have been contracted to “fix” significantly large scale newly installed acoustic treatment that was ineffective only to find a large quantity of thermal insulation in place of all the acoustic isolation materials. In all cases our only option has been to start again, at the expense of losing the entirety of the preceding work.
Putting glass fibre wool behind partition walling will not stop sound from passing through, If the sheetrock (gypsum board) did not stop the sound then a few grams of woolly fibre isn’t going to help much further.
Using lightweight thermal insulation boards behind sheetrock will not stop anything that the sheetrock did not stop itself.
Gluing 5cm of low density mineral wool to the brick structure before installing a partition wall will not stop the sound from passing. Again, anything that can pass the sheetrock wall is not going to be significantly hindered by a thin layer of low mass mineral wool.
Effective acoustic (insulation) isolation is only really achieved by either mass or separation, or a combination of the two. Lightweight thermally insulating materials are neither one nor the other and are not of any significant help. High density Rockwool sandwiched between two sheetrock layers can help damp panel resonances and therefore reduce transmission, this however is not isolation and is not equivalent to low density thermal insulation, do not confuse the two simply because they both itch.
Error 3 - I’ve isolated my speakers on rubber mounts so they won’t disturb the neighbours.
Even some official publications suggest this ludicrous method of reducing structural transmission. We have encountered various installations where the loudspeakers are mounted on vibration isolation mounts in order to reduce (ineffectively) structural transmission.
Any reasonably professional loudspeaker is not going to radiate any degree of energy through the cabinet in a way as to augment that which was radiated externally by the cone. The mass and inertia of the cabinet coupled with its damped nature reduces all cabinet radiation to insignificant levels. In all except a plastic bucket of a cabinet, the cabinet radiated sound will be many orders of magnitude below the energy radiated by the cone.
At the same time, below certain frequencies, related to the geometry of the source, the source becomes omnidirectional radiating in all directions equally, thus any direction where a large planar surface like a wall is encountered by the radiated sound, some of that sound will be transmitted into the wall irrespective of whether the loudspeaker is on rubber mounts or not. This situation is all the more ludicrous when the suspension mounted cabinet is fixed to a wall by rubber mounts yet has a bass port in the back of it.
Studies have shown that vibration isolation mounting of loudspeakers is wholly ineffective in reducing structural borne transmission from the room that they are playing into.
Error 4 – I’ve put some sponge in the corners to control the bass.
When we consider the size and wavelengths of the frequencies to be controlled it is very hard to comprehend how a relatively small amount of lightweight sponge is able to control and neutralise problematic resonances or standing waves in a region where half or quarter wavelengths are many meters long.
The first flaw with the concept is that sound reflects off a whole surface, not just a corner, there is no bass magic happening in a corner that means simply treating a corner will fix the bass problem. just putting a small sponge thing in a corner is rather like trying to block a whole highway with a single inflatable traffic cone.
The second flaw with this concept is that even if we covered the whole wall with the sponge, and the sponge was an effective absorber, it would simply not be deep enough to do anything of practical use in the bass region.
Corners don’t make bass. Just because when you put a speaker in a corner it has more bass does not mean a corner creates bass, any surface can only reflect back what energy it receives and while there are issues with corners and sound waves, they do not amplify bass. When a loudspeaker is in a corner it is generating the same energy as normal, but all that energy is being directed forward fully in phase, thus what would have been radiated to the rear is now all travelling forwards. This is very different from reflected energy generated elsewhere. Putting a small bit of sponge behind the speaker will not have much effect upon the corner effect.
Error 5 – I’ve put some sponge on the walls and that is how we treat a room (I saw it in a magazine)
Firstly, and most importantly of all, I hope you have the fire safety certificate for that sponge. No, really, seriously, that stuff kills in seconds if it burns or it is not fire resistant. You may be in there thinking you can put the fire out and save your gear but before you know it the fumes have got you, it is no joke. All it takes is an electrical spark, a phone charger burning, a candle falling over, a lit cigarette against the foam and normal untreated foam will go up so fast you won’t believe it. We have even seen instances of treated foam burning in a toxic manner.
Secondly, I hope it was cheap. That is the only time you will not be wasting money. Thin sheets (less than 10cm) of sponge are highly ineffective as a broad band sound absorber, no matter what funky pattern is on the front, especially in the thickness most people find acceptable to glue to solid walls. Ask yourself one question. When was the last time you saw a picture of a professional recording studio with sponge stuck to the walls? Professionals simply do not use it, strange that, because the internet and magazines all say it is great. Maybe the experts don’t know what they are doing and the internet and magazines are the real experts. Either that or you are being sold good old-fashioned snake-oil by sharp salespeople. In most cases simply putting soft furnishings, wall rugs, drapes, or curtains in the room would actually be a more effective treatment, especially if they are slightly spaced off the walls.
Yes, sponge does something. Line a bare walled room with sponge and it will improve, but line that room with almost anything soft and the effects will be the same. mids (to some degree) and highs will be absorbed, bass will be the same and the room will have typically muddy long decay time bass and short decay time HF, not a good environment to work in. While the sponge does something it is not an effective acoustic treatment that does anything more than any other soft surface other than sometimes look cool. Ironically the old joke egg carton stuck to walls acoustic treatment is slightly more effective than most sponge panels. Additionally there has to be a large percentage of coverage for anything to be effective, a dozen 60cm tiles are not going to fix a 4m x 4m room.
Error 6 – I stuck diffusers to my walls, sponge absorbers in-between, bass traps in the corners, clouds on the ceiling and now I have a fully professional standard recording studio.
Probably not. Unless you live in rural USA or somewhere with similar building codes and conditions or have paper thin walls and no neighbours to disturb then you will have reasonably serious lack of bass control for a start. Even there, the walls or building often resonate and would need treatment.
Incorrect placement of diffusers or semi-reflective panels can have serious effects on imaging and perceived frequency balance. 90% of such rooms we have seen and measured are seriously compromised for critical listening purposes.
No matter what acoustic decoration you stick to the walls of a concrete bunker the lower frequencies still see the concrete bunker, and the room still sounds like a bunker in the lows.
We have seen cases where customers have spent in excess of 20,000 on these stick-on solutions, yet continue to have issues with usability of the listening room below 400Hz.
These solutions can be effective in simple editing rooms or media suites where visual appearance is important and the owners do not want to use soft furnishings, they are not useless products.
Unfortunately, there is no alternative to deep heavy treatment of a critical listening space to create a “professional” listening environment. If there was we’d be doing it, doing our jobs faster, easier, and have the ability to do more jobs for less money (but the same profit) for more customers with the same resources we have.
Error 7 - I don’t want to flush mount the loudspeakers because that is “old school” and all the top rooms now have free-standing speakers.
At low frequencies all loudspeakers of normal size radiate in all directions equally, energy goes everywhere. This means that just as much bass (within a couple of dB) goes backwards as goes forwards. As a result the loudspeaker needs to generate as much low frequency in the forwards direction as mids and highs, but as half of that (or more) is going elsewhere. This means the lows either end up rolling off by about 6dB or have to be pushed by 6dB in the processing to achieve a flat balance, this often reduces headroom or increased distortion. (here we are assuming this is truly free field). Free standing loudspeakers need much higher LF capability than flush mounted speakers to remain flat in the forwards direction, or have a lower maximum output than flush mounted loudspeakers.
Bring the loudspeakers close to any boundary and that boundary will reflect the rear radiated energy back forwards to the listener (a metre or two is adequate to begin this effect) This reflected energy now joins the direct energy out of time. It causes cancellations where it is out of phase and summations where it is in phase. This results in an uneven smeared bass response wholly dependent on the distance to the rear and side boundaries. Free-standing loudspeakers within a few meters of a boundary cannot ever have a truly flat frequency response in the lows at the listening position, they have series of dips related to the distance to the rear reflective surface and an uneven bass response that is related to this.
Flush mounted loudspeakers suffer none of this as zero energy is rear radiated, immediately they have a 6dB advantage in output in the lows and a far more smooth, accurate LF response in both the time and frequency domain.
Close mounted (under 30cm from the wall) free standing loudspeakers begin to behave much better in the lows as the cancellation wavelengths start to be higher in frequency than the loudspeaker radiates rearwards with any consequence, these are often called bookshelf loudspeakers.
Most commonly the main loudspeakers are close to the listener in many rooms because the rooms sound bad themselves and the listener is trying to get into the acoustic near-field to hear better.
Error 8 – The regulations say we don’t need a full fire alarm system as we are not commercial / over a certain size / open to the public.
That’s good to know, you can tell that to the fire as you realise you can’t escape the inferno outside.
Regulations do not, and cannot cover every possible situation. A recording studio is a very special situation. Often there is no visible or audible connection to the outside world it is almost impossible to see or hear a fire in an entrance way, store room, or passage. It is also almost impossible to hear an external fire alarm. Similarly if an equipment fire within a studio were to happen when unattended it would rage unnoticed to a point that it was capable of bursting out in seconds and engulfing the rest of the building.
It is essential in every way, and more so than in other conventional spaces, that people within the isolated studio rooms are able to be made aware, automatically, of any potential fire outside as soon as possible; and that adequate fire-fighting equipment for safe evacuation or tackling minor fires is provided. This requires that a fire alarm system that is interconnected to outside is fitted irrespective of regulatory technicalities. It matters not what use the studio is put to, or if it is in a house or educational establishment,
fire cares not what you are doing there why you are there, or how many you are.
If you isolate a room from outside you really must have a form of knowing if outside becomes a danger to your lives and a safe means of evacuation in such circumstances IRRESPECTIVE of regulations or laws.
Error 9 – We don’t need ventilation, we have air conditioning in our room.
It is staggering the amount of times we have to address this one.
Fact 1 – Humans need air to function, shortage of fresh correctly oxygenated air makes us unwell.
Fact 2 – Common split air-conditioning units do not bring air into a room, they simply cool the air already in the room. Just because air is cold does not mean it is good to breathe.
There is a misconception that somehow an air-conditioning system will always bring in fresh air. Only large duct based systems can do this, split systems are only half of the required air treatment system for a studio, the other half brings in new fully oxygenated air from outside and is called ventilation. When a studio uses a split air-conditioner it must have ventilation as well.
Low oxygen levels can cause tiredness, light-headedness, headaches, nausea, and a lack of circulating air can be a common cause of illness. This is not a place to save money, it can make people ill.
Error 10 – If I need fresh air I’ll open the door / window for a few minutes.
We get this one a lot too. There is some (flawed) logic in the thought.
In a normal house which has no forced ventilation we have people circulating, most rooms have small airflow under doors, around windows, and through recessed lighting holes, but more importantly they have regularly opened doors and high circulation of people.
A studio tends to be a sealed box for sound isolation reasons and in many cases doors and windows do not get left open for noise reasons, people do not circulate much, and even if windows can open they tend not to be opened as sound coming in and going out can be a problem.
Many poorly ventilated studios develop a typical smell, it is a heavy smell of stale air, warm equipment, and lingering body smells of people that were in there, this is common in cases of poor ventilation and is actually a sign of serious trouble. We have had people tell us that it is the smell of the acoustic treatment and old fabric, it is not. We have many older studios that were well ventilated that have no “studio smell” to them.
Additionally, a person will often not get to the point of stopping, opening the door / window, until it is way too late to prevent mild ill effects, our ability to detect the onset of hypoxia is almost zero We have usually passed mild distraction, mild nausea, and headaches before we stop what we are doing and open doors and windows.
Error 11 – I saw this thread / article that showed a studio being built so I copied it.
Yes there are many such cases and often the copy falls way short of the original.
If there was such a simple one concept fits all method we’d either be rich or out of business by now.
Building a studio is rather like building a giant tree-house as opposed to building a normal house. Each site we have to build one has vastly different properties in itself, each customer has different needs, there is a budget to consider, final visual aspect choices, and the general surroundings all have different impacts on what we can or can’t do. Change just one of those aspects an the correct studio becomes a very different product.
Yes, we have put comprehensive pictorial diaries of what we do on the internet in some places, but it must be understood that every one of them was custom tailored for the purpose and environment we were presented with.
In most cases you would waste vast sums of money trying to make it fit another circumstance. If showing what we did allowed everyone to do as we do themselves we would never show what we do.
Copying a custom tailored complex product and expecting it to work as expected in another environment is asking for problems. You could go so far as killing people if, for example, your floor could not take the weight of what we put in our example. On the other hand, it might work OK but maybe you didn't need to do half of it at all. Maybe you could have done better for less money without the compromises we had to make to fit the circumstances we had
Error 12 – I bought all this great classic vintage gear and I want to make a commercial studio with it, it’s going to be really cool.
Ermmm No it isn’t. It's going to be a pain in the backside.
Most older professional audio gear really didn’t have much more than an expected working life of 10 - 20 years at best, older gear even less. Old components were hopelessly unreliable and suffered huge variation from one item to another. Older studios would only have a small selection of equipment and even that limited inventory would need constant highly trained on-site maintenance, almost every commercial studio had permanent maintenance staff, some 24/7. A stock of on-site components and spare units would be needed to keep up any kind of professional commercial service. Failures during takes of everything from Valve microphones to whole mixing desk PSUs were common and costly.
Almost any piece of audio gear over 30 years old is highly unlikely to sound as it was intended back in the day. Capacitor values (and as a consequence, filter frequencies) will have vastly drifted. Switches and relays will have worn oxidised contacts, resistors under any form of thermal stress may have changed value. Potentiometer tracks will have worn thin and therefore values will have changed.
As a part of our own on-going studio support and maintenance we see this problem constantly, as we started in this industry when this gear was new we know what it should be like and it is very rare indeed to see old gear working like new.
Even when the gear was new it was unreliable, it was the cutting edge and often made in small workshops from whatever was to hand. It was accepted in the 1960’s to the 1980’s that the studios would do running repairs on new gear (even their own upgrades) and not expect too much from it.
Expected noise-floor performance was not great, hum, distortion, drift, and crosstalk was normally poor. Much of this gear never needed to accept high level signals such as digital converters often output, and noise floors more than 50dB were seen as excellent. There were no EMC regulations, equipment did not need to be free from interference issues and there was no standard line level balanced signal interface standards nor grounding standards. Much of this gear would not remain quiet in the best of installations.
While vintage gear can be a cool, unusual, and novel effect, these days it is not suitable as the backbone for a commercial operation.
You wouldn’t expect a modern taxi company to be rolling about in 1930’s vintage cars trying to get people to urgent appointments on time, so why think that a vintage studio is a great commercial venture?
Error 13 – I have these amazing Hi-Fi speakers that sound absolutely incredible on everything, I want to use these they are better than any studio monitor.
Fair comment, but flawed thinking.
Many amateurs fall for this one. They buy the speakers that make everything sound great in thinking that all the music they buy really does sound great. Then there are those who choose the speakers that make all the mixes they have done sound absolutely awesome, flattering even.
This is not the point of a studio monitor, you really want to find a loudspeaker that shows as much difference between things as possible, with as much detail as possible while possessing a great time and frequency response. Many consumer loudspeakers, including cheap studio monitors are designed to enhance the sound a little, make it sweeter, softer, warmer, or more agreeable to listen to, while in the studio we want a speaker that reveals everything and at the same time allows us to produce work that translates well to all other formats.
Studio monitors should be brutally revealing, an aggressive mix should sound horribly aggressive, a soft mix should sound soft, a dull mix should be dull, and a bright mix bright, they should not all fall somewhere in the middle as they do on cheaper speakers.
Error 14 – We want to put all the computers on the net and use cloud storage, we need access to everything from everywhere, and have the ability to remote access it all and……….
There is a TV program called “The News”, maybe you are aware of it?
Allow us to remind you.
Seriously? Imagine the consequences of losing a clients latest album to an internet hack and it being released worldwide online. It is a hackers dream. Multi-track session files and everything all the bad takes and unpolished raw sound files all over the globe before anything could have been released.
No studio I have ever seen has military grade security on their networks that can stop these hackers if they wanted to gain access, just a firewall or network security is not adequate as the news articles have shown, just one unpatched machine can leak everything.
The real security measure is simple. No studio computers should have any means of accessing the internet. Wi-Fi cards should be disabled or removed. Upgrades and authorisations should be done off-line, or at least with all media drives disconnected. If files need transferring via the net then get a separate machine away from the media machines and put only the files to be transferred on a USB stick. Above all have a designated network security person manage this quarantine.
By all means network the production machines for collaborative working but keep then on a physically separate hardware network internally with no web access. You may find that some artists will not want their files to be on any form of shared network, you will have to be able to show the studio is isolated in that case.
The financial consequences of a leak that is the responsibility of the studios incompetence could easily pass the tens of millions, can you afford that? Is it worth that just to have auto-updates or easy access to info or files? If an artist demands that functionality they should be made to sign a waiver, and ONLY that machine should then connect to the net while being hardware isolated from any other machines.
Never leave any project on any disc or allow it to be written to any disc that can be internet accessed in any way. Hackers are far more clever than we are, but as yet they haven't found any way to access something that isn't in any way connected to them, that is our only sure line of security.
Error 15 – I have read all the reviews and they all said positive things, it has to be great. Maybe it's me, maybe I just don't know how to use it properly, but it doesn't seem to be very good.
It is a very rare thing indeed for a magazine to publish bad commentary about an item, even in an “independent review”. The same goes for big commercial websites, even some internet forums kill bad comments.
Most commercial publications fear upsetting advertisers, these advertisers are often the paymasters of the publication, and loss of advertising revenue can hit a publication hard. A bad review, critical of an item can damage sales of that item and the manufacturer could decide to take (unfounded) legal action against a publication if they think it has damaged their business. Even though this legal action can successfully be defended it is deemed too costly and problematic for most publications, thus any reviews that may expose serious reasons not to buy a product are often not published or maybe they just ignore that point and comment on other points.
The only way to really know if something is worth buying or will do the job is through personal recommendation directly from an independent individual or alternatively borrow one and try it.
As manufacturers ourselves, we are proud of the quality of what we do and encourage all potential customers to take the time to go and view one of our projects. We know not everyone will like what we do, generally such a thing is impossible to achieve, but we don’t expect anyone to simply take all the sales marketing or magazine articles as a recommendation, we don't take only our suppliers word, we test their products before buying. We expect our customers to do the same.
As a company that advises and recommends other manufacturers products we know very well that we cannot trust sales literature or reviews as the final word. We have had products that simply do not do as they claim, and can never have done so, despite having been reviewed. Some of our contracts require us to be the product specifier, as professional specifiers we would be open to legal processes if we negligently simply read magazine reviews and recommended products based on that.
Error 16 - I don't know anything about electricity. It is dangerous. I need to employ a professional electrician so everything is done properly and passes all the tests. I will just leave everything electrical to them, they know best.
Yes, it is important that all electrics are done professionally in compliance with local regulations and are correctly certified.
One large error with the opening statement is that the professional electrician knows best. In most cases related to studio installation they don't. In many ways they will fail the test of "competency". While a professional qualified electrician is indeed very competent to simply deliver electricity, safely, to an electrical appliance they have no training in delivering correct electrical supplies to sensitive audio equipment. Your electrical system is the foundation of everything electronic in your studio, it affects everything, are you sure that this person is the person you want to hand responsibility for all your equipment interconnect quality to?
Let us consider one thing; the common ground reference connection. Most audio equipment is not equipped with completely floating, isolated, balanced input circuitry, and most audio equipment uses some form of 0 Volt ground reference internally, even if separate from the power ground, it is often an essential part of referencing signal from one device to another. Having a solid reference connection between items is essential to achieve a good clean quiet signal path. When we consider that in the analogue domain we have important valid signals in the tens of millivolts range from microphone capsules and pickups that are often referenced to the electrical ground connection, we can see how important it can be to have both effective isolation and noise rejection within the equipment itself but also a clean uncontaminated common ground reference between equipment itself.
An Electrician will often quote an "I.T. Grade" supply as being a high standard electrical system, but, it would be woefully inadequate for a commercial recording studio, IT systems typically work on 5 Volt data signals that have only two valid signals (5V and 0V) and as long as the receiving end can differentiate the signal will be successfully transmitted. A data system can tolerate a level of interference that would 100% swamp an audio signal from a microphone capsule, thus a perfectly acceptable "I.T. Grade" power system is woefully inadequate for audio.
What a professional recording studio needs is a laboratory grade power system, a system that would be clean enough to allow perfect sensitive measurements to be taken without contamination. This is what our highly sensitive barometric pressure transducers (Microphones) and electromagnetic field transducers (Pickups) require to operate in a complex environment of often hundreds of interconnected circuits across many rooms.
Very few electricians have any idea of what it takes to achieve this within the boundaries of electrical regulations and standards, thus they are not technically competent to design and install such a system without professional guidance.
Only with a trained, experienced, competent audio electrical engineer can anyone actually guarantee any resemblance of a suitable clean working audio electrical system.
In may cases, a good open minded electrician (harder to find than you may think) working alongside a knowledgeable audio electronics engineer (getting harder to find these days) can be an excellent team to design and install a studio electrical system.
We have an excellent document on audio system electrical systems should you wish to learn more that can be found here.
Error 17 - A studio building team costs a lot per day to hire. I know some builders that are far cheaper than that and they do good work. I can save a lot of money by buying the design and getting a project manager and using the builders.
We know what many are thinking at this point;
Well you would say that wouldn't you, you "sell" these services and you are trying to make more profit, I can do it cheaper, but you don't want me to.
Put it this way, if all we did was sit here and draw up plans in an office with a couple of designers and a CAD package we would make far more profit per hour at the desk than spending time out on site with over €50,000 of tools that wear out regularly and using a team that need managing, feeding, and transporting all over the world.
The reality is, we want to make really great studios for our customers, not hit-and-miss versions of a common theme of mediocre results. More so, we want to do it on budget and on-time, professionally, and we do care about keeping it in a sensible budget so the customer can have the product they ordered.
The reason we put this "error" here is that it really upsets us to see people virtually bankrupting themselves on a second-rate build when we could have given them a great studio for a price they could afford. More so, it angers us to see incompetent constructors claiming they are capable of something they are not and effectively robbing the customer of hard earned cash while trying to deliver something they know nothing about.
One of the most common issues we come across with general building teams is that they will abandon the build once they realise it was not what they thought it would be.
We have seen this time and time again. Most builders see a plan for a cool looking room, think "how hard can it be" and put in a quotation. When they eventually get going and realise a lot of the work is out of their knowledge zone and things start going very slow, they see that they quoted too low and realise that they will end up out of time or out of money. Some then decide to cut their losses and run before it all goes horribly wrong leaving the customer over budget and with a stalled project. Others underestimate the complexity, assume our 6 week build estimate would apply to them, get to the 6 week point then realise that they are way off, but they have already booked in 5 more jobs and can't continue without leaving regular customers stuck, so they abandon the studio build.
Another common issue (and this is so common it is almost every example) is that when a customer decides to contract a group of workers on a daily rate the schedule ends up in the wrong galaxy. We have seen actual cases of potential 10 week builds (with our team) ending up taking far more than one year with the same number of local contracted workers on a daily rate only 50% of our team. We've seen projects financially destroy the customer as a result, the money saving exercise actually hitting them for 300% of the cost we put forward that they thought was "extortionate" at the start. We have even seen projects never finished.
Where things have run somewhat smoother in time, we have arrived at the end to see catastrophic errors in construction that destroy all of the expensive acoustic isolation work because the local builder wanted to make the isolation walls stronger by fixing them to the structure they had to be isolated from. The cost of repairing these things can be more money than the client has to spend on the project. The instructions and plans are absolutely clear, but many builders are used to working from bad plans and having to "invent" solutions as they go, when a builder sees something they think is abnormal or a mistake they default to improving the situation, but in this case things can become improved beyond repair very easily.
We ourselves find it hard to find good workers, we very rarely run more than one or two new carefully selected workers per project as the process of training is complex and takes time, we find that it takes between 5 and 10 studios to get a worker up to standard where they can work unsupervised without risk of catastrophic error, and as each project differs slightly from the last, even our best team can need close guidance on aspects of how things go together.
In addition to this, studio building needs multi-skilled workers, the carpenters have to pull cables, the electricians have to fit glass, everyone has to switch roles as the project progresses, everything has to be done in the right order or it simply will not get done efficiently, if the cables are not in place within two hours of a wall going up the next stage cannot progress, and everything stops to wait for the cables as an electrician is called.
If something is missed the consequences can be huge, Simply forgetting to pull a ventilation duct can have an effect of stopping the whole project for 2 to 3 days some time later in the project as acoustic panels have to be removed, cut, adjusted, and refitted to accommodate the duct that nobody saw would be there. Miss two small things like this and you are 1 week of operating expenses over budget and 1 week of trading behind. A novice crew can easily miss 10 to 15 small things like this on a normal construction. It is easy to see how 10 weeks can become 50 weeks for a novice crew.
If the team are just contracted workers on a daily or weekly rate they have no responsibility for time or costs and things can (and do regularly) get very out of control. In most cases they lack knowledge, flexibility, the correct tools, and experience, all they have to offer is muscles and willingness and that alone is inadequate to build a recording studio.
Error 18. I need a 5m x 5m space for my gear, so I bought this 5m x 5m space, can you make it sound good?
It is amazing how common this issue can be. A novice can't be blamed for not knowing, but the situation is often hopeless.
Real-estate is expensive, in many cases every spare square meter or foot is valuable and nobody wants to buy somewhere that is bigger than their needs. Far too often these decisions have been made way before acoustic advice has been sought.
Unfortunately until now, nobody has developed conventional acoustic treatment that is not snake-oil which can be applied to effectively treat a room for critical listening that does not require a significant amount of space. The laws of physics are absolute, and low frequency control requires systems with depth to interact with the long wavelengths of low frequencies.
In exceptionally rare circumstances where all the low frequencies can be allowed to pass through thin walls and there is no problem with noise going out or getting in it may be possible to use thin acoustic treatment. This situation however is more like a shed in the middle of a field where there are no neighbours, no traffic, and no planes flying over. For everyone else it simply cannot be done.
Most professional built 5m x 5m internal dimension rooms started life in at least a 7m x 6m empty space.
Error 19 I have a friend who is an architect / interior designer, I have asked them to manage my project and do all the design work. They will deal with the looks, I just need you to do the acoustic treatment.
Oh splendid, world war three is upon us!
In a studio the room and the appearance of the room IS the equipment. The room itself is what does all the hard work making everything sound accurate in there, everything you see is performing a function, and everything has to be as it is in order to perform that function. What is left to play with visually is simply a question of colour and sometimes materials choices.
It is common for some designers to go mad with hard flat "cool" supposedly "technical" surfaces, clean lines, sharp corners, lots of glass, and parallel angular looks, others like to make something look themed, but almost all require a "blank canvas" starting point to perform their artistry with materials that they dictate.
Unfortunately in most situations this means destroying the acoustics IF the interior designer is given precedence in the appearance of the project, what usually ensues is a long drawn out protracted battle between the acoustic engineer and the designer and the customer is often left with two babies squabbling over a colouring book.
I make no apology for the utterly horrid look of some studios designed by acoustic designers who may be great acousticians but have no taste for how a place feels. The feel of a room is as important as the sound in every way. No studio should ever look like the inside of a 1970's sauna or an old cloth sack, sadly many do.
If a customer wants a specific aesthetic design it is a good idea to delegate a designer to work FOR the acoustic engineer, under the direction of the acoustic engineer where both can work to achieve a great looking acoustic treatment, rather than an acoustically treated interior design.
On rare occasions where a great designer and a great acoustician are allowed to work with mutual respect, from the beginning, a really great studio can be made, but in our experience these occasions are vanishingly rare indeed.
Many acoustic designers are perfectly used to incorporating great interior designs into their work, some would even make good interior designers in their own right, others, sadly not, they just concentrate on technicalities.
What usually happens in common cases is the interior designer starts first and expects everyone to obey the design, as a friend or trusted supplier to the client wishing to stamp their signature on everything it can be difficult to explain they have to take a minor role in the project. The usual result is often a battle and somebody walking off the project.
Error 20 I've bought this building (in town, in a basement, up a tree) and I would like you to build a studio in it.
Oh why oh why oh why does this keep happening to us.
Probably the greatest compromise that any studio has is where it is.
This dictates everything. Literally everything about the studio.
It is the one biggest decision anyone building a studio can possibly make.
We have seen ridiculous errors made in the choice of buildings, and occasionally had to refuse contracts because we knew any studio in that building would not be a viable project.
From floors that cannot take the weight of a studio, buildings prone to flooding, buildings with restricted working hours, buildings that had no access for large instruments, buildings too sensitive to sound leakage, all the way to places that were far too upmarket to have bands hanging around at late hours without the police being called.
It doesn't take much, and doesn't cost much to call someone like us at this early stage and ask us to look over a venue (even by e-mail with pictures and Google Maps) and make sure nothing stupid is being done through normal lack of experience.
For us to simply look over a project and say "this may be suitable" would only cost a few hundred (Euros, Dollars, Pounds) not thousands, but could actually save you hundreds of thousands.
We have had projects where we had to reject buildings and send the customer off to sell it and find something else suitable. There are situations that are 100% unworkable. If a floor will not take a load we can't build on it. If we have to do so much isolation that there will not be any room left inside it is pointless.
If you are looking for a building to put a studio in then PLEASE contact an expert BEFORE you buy, even if you never intend to use that expert you at least have someone who can tell you why you shouldn't buy it if it has problems. It is not an expensive service and can save you a fortune.
Julius Newell Acoustic Engineering (Unip)Lda
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