JANUARY 27, 2021

How to Adapt a Less-Than-Ideal Space for Your Home Music Studio

building a home studio

A home music studio gives you the freedom to record or mix at any time, but it's not without its compromises. Unlike purpose-built commercial studios, which are designed to be acoustically accurate, your home studio may be in a spare room, garage, loft, or basement. The space may have odd dimensions, and it's anyone's guess how sound will behave.

While the location of your studio room may not be ideal, a few subtle modifications can turn it into a space for recording and mixing sound that matches the pro studio standards you're used to. Emphasis on subtle—it only takes a few simple alterations to make big improvements.

Lawnmowers and Recording Don't Mix

One obvious problem with any home music studio is noise, both coming in and going out. If you have neighbors close by or you live with others, they probably won't enjoy hearing take 35 of your heavy guitar riff cranked up to 11 through a high-gain amp.

You also don't want your moody ballad's breathy vocals ruined by a lawnmower starting up or a dog barking in the middle of the perfect take. Even a sound as innocuous as a bird singing outside or a truck driving by can end up on a recording, slipping through until compression and limiting brings it up in your mix. Some of this can be avoided by choosing specific times to record, but home studio soundproofing is a much more elegant (not to mention convenient) solution.

Choose the Right Soundproofing Material

Mineral wool is a great material for home studio soundproofing and building bass traps. If you own your home and can make structural adjustments, then the ideal solution is to build a room within a room. The idea here is to sandwich multiple layers of different densities to absorb sound at different frequencies: in addition to the building insulation, wood, and perhaps brick or cinderblock of your existing wall, you're creating extra layers of plaster, air, and mineral wool insulation. Fill existing wall cavities with mineral wool or another dense material for padding. If you rent or can't make permanent changes to the room, building or buying movable baffles may be the next best option.

Seal Doors and Windows

Sound tends to leak the most through doors and windows. Window frames can be filled with mineral wool and covered, but doors are trickier. Neoprene strips help create an airtight door seal, and you can attach a baffle to the back of the door to further reduce leakage. In a basement below ground level, you'll have an easier time—you may only need to block sound leakage from any windows to the outside.

Find Backup Options

If you can't soundproof your room because you live in a rented apartment or somewhere similarly restrictive, then recording and mixing with quality headphones might be your only option. You can also try hooking up guitar or bass amps to a load box, getting the benefits of high power amp tone with none of the noise. Drum tracking is a little trickier. An electronic kit triggering MIDI instruments may be a suitable workaround. Otherwise, you might place triggers and practice pads over the skins of a drum kit to dampen the sound and capture MIDI data.

progress shots of building a home music studio
Work-in-process photos of taking the "room within a room" approach to building a home studio. Images courtesy of Gaurav Harrish.

It's All in the Positioning

No matter where your home studio is located, thinking out the placement for your recording setup and monitors is a baseline step in achieving accurate sound. Your room will interact with the sound your monitors produce, and the resulting range of audible effects can lead you astray when you make mixing decisions. Standing waves, reflections, nulls, and nodes all combine in various ways to influence what you hear depending on where you are in the room.

Consider Your Listening Position

You can easily hear the difference in various spots in the room by playing a bass-heavy loop and just walking around. Note where the bass increases in volume and where it seems to drop. If your listening position is in a null, for example, you'll think you don't have enough bass in your mixes and will overcompensate by either not cutting bass that should be reduced or by boosting it. Play your mixes somewhere else, and you'll find you're left with a muddy, overpowering low end. If you hear too much high- or mid-frequency content due to reflections, you may try cutting it and end up with a mix that's deficient in those frequencies. When your room is the cause, you'll end up chasing your tail trying to correct it. The first step is to position yourself and your gear correctly—from there, you can use acoustic treatment to deal with any remaining issues.

Review Your Monitor Placement

Your monitors should fire down the length of the room. For example, if you're in a room measuring 12 feet long and 10 feet wide, position your monitors firing down the 12-foot length of the room. The best listening position is around 38 percent of the room's length from the wall you'll face while listening. This is where the bass response will be the flattest. The rear side of your monitors should sit at least a foot away from any walls, or the bass response will be exaggerated. Center your listening position between the side walls.

Your monitors should be an equal distance from both your listening position and each other, creating an invisible equilateral triangle. Angle the monitors toward your position at around 30 degrees, and align the tweeters to around ear level. Adjustable height stands make it easy to position your monitors and, as a bonus, will isolate them so you won't hear any resonance from the floor. You can put monitors on your desktop, but they should sit on decoupling pads or small stands to isolate them from the desk's surface.

diagram showing listening position relative to monitors and room size in a home music studio
Position your monitors so they fire down the length of the room and place your listening position so you form an equilateral triangle with the monitors. This diagram shows a hypothetical 10 by 12 foot room.

Most monitors are meant to stand upright, so avoid laying them down sideways unless they're specifically designed to be used horizontally. Laying them flat can result in comb filtering, and this potential phase cancellation may affect the sound and smear the stereo image. Monitors designed to work on their side have drivers located in precise positions to counter this. Keep all others standing.

Tame the Loose Ends

Once everything is in position, you can tame low-end energy with bass traps in the corners of the room. Just buy or make heavy mineral wool-filled wedges and extend them from floor to ceiling. Dampen reflections with absorption panels at the first reflection points on the side walls: you can find them by having a friend slide a mirror along each side wall and mark where you see the reflections of your monitors from your listening position. A diffusion panel with an irregular surface on the back wall can help provide extra absorption.

No room, unless specifically designed and built for studio use, is perfect. In any home music studio, setting up is just the beginning. Start listening to reference mixes you know sound good, and do it often. Once you're familiar with how your room sounds, you can match the relative frequency balance of top songs and feel confident that your recordings and mixes are on the right track.

  • James O'Toole headshot

    A musician and graphic designer, James freelances from his home studio on a range of audio and creative projects.

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