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Acoustic Treatment Theory Explained

Dennis Foley September 15, 2014 No Comments
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I have a checklist that I go through with customers in their rooms. I was looking at the control room checklist the other day and there are 98 items on it. I always say that good sound quality is the summation of doing a lot of little things right and in the right order. I have almost a hundred things on the control room checklist and number one can’t be done where number six is. Number one’s got to be done number one before number six and it’s taken me years to figure out their order but if you do them step-by-step then you know you’ll have a much better chance of success at it.

Acoustic Treatment Theory is a lot like making the World’s perfect sandwich

I guess it’s like making the world’s perfect sandwich. If you put in all those layers in then they all need to be the best cuts of everything. You need think about where the bread came from. How do they make that perfect bread? It’s not just the meat and the tomatoes that you need to import from Italy, its all the little attention to detail along the way. Well there’s a lot that goes into that perfect sandwich the same as the room.

The only way you figure out the room is if you build a room and then you analyze it and then you see the mistake that you made, then you look at the mistake and you look back through the build process and you look at the sequence in that build process, at where that mistake should have been corrected and you correct it and then you change your list sequence. So it’s all a matter of experience.

You can’t get this out of a textbook. You’ve got to actually build the rooms and test them, build the rooms to the best of your ability, the best of your knowledge, the best of the current thinking in literature and study on the subject but then test and find out for yourself. A lot of the things we found out when we tested were true and a lot of things we found out were not true. Then we found out a whole new third area of data that had not been covered before. We found out areas that we could make better and get better performance out of them.

This all came about through the RND process.

I get questions all the time about the theory behind acoustic treatment and that’s why I always say cart before the horse. Be very careful about some of the claims out there. With my checklist of a hundred items for a control room, a lot of people want to do number 15, 16, 17 ahead of or behind number 6, 7 and 8 you can’t do it. The reason may not appear to be valid in the beginning but when you get down to number 70 you’ll be like: “Oh now I see why we did number 6 at number 6, now I see why the sequence is critical.”

One, the quality level of each item done correctly builds upon the success rate and level of the following thing that you have to do. Not everyone is as critical as me. I’m critical because I want all the knowledge that I’ve accumulated through all these years to apply to my builds. I mean what’s the sense of building a structure if you’re not applying all that you have learned to that particular structure?

So that’s why I have this checklist but the bottom line here is, it’s a lot of little things done correctly and more importantly done in the right order.

Order seems to be the hardest thing for people to understand.

They have the idea, they have the concept, they have what they kind of want to achieve but they don’t know how to put it in the right order to do it. You want to do no harm, you don’t want to create more issues. Here’s a good example, there’s combinations of shell and room, of rigidity and flexibility that have to be met.

Concrete is very inflexible. Concrete is very rigid. The frame has a different rigidity to it. Now you could measure this and put it on a graph but you can’t measure what it sounds like. Only experience will help you. There’s a completely different sound inside the room when the outside shell is concrete. There’s a completely different sound within the room when the outside shell is frame. There’s a completely different sound when the outside room is brick. So all of these things can only really be accomplished through experience and knowing what barrier build works for what room usage and the sound quality that’s desired. I saw a studio the other day that had 8 by 16 blocks filled with sand, great idea, different sound.

Learning in online forums is a big no no

One of the problems that we’ve encountered is that we’ve tried to go into some of these online forums to contribute and what seems to happen is there’s a lot of people sharing a lot of bad information that are convinced it’s correct and so when we jump in there, it’s kind of like: “Who are you to say?”.

There’s a cycle of bad advice that’s like a loop on a video. It’s just something that keeps repeating itself and repeating itself and getting rehashed and rehashed and then companies take it and polish it up a little bit here, change a little bit there to try and make it unique and different but it’s the same old stuff and I can tell immediately when the response comes from somebody who hasn’t built anything and that’s the big break point for me because I built these rooms over eight years.

I know what they sound like. I’ve lived in them, slept in them, banged the garbage can lids in them to get the crews to wake up to go to work. I mean I’ve been on the front lines with the building part of it so I know what the structures sound like. I know how to build them and the disconnect I see a lot of times is in just that.

There’s the science part which everybody can read but the actual sound that the structure in the science produces, well if you haven’t built it, you don’t know what it’s like. If I ask a lot of these people to tell me what a certain sound is like, to describe the sound quality in a room that has an 8-inch poured concrete barrier and a 6-inch framed wall on the inside, 6 inches apart from the concrete barrier? Very few would be able to tell me.

John Storyk of Walter Storyk Design Group would be able to tell me because John builds rooms like that. Massenburg builds rooms like that. The big guys they know the sound quality and that’s what people buy in their builds. They buy that experience of that sound quality, they buy that sound. John Storyk’s rooms have a unique sound; Massenburg’s rooms have a unique sound.

People like that sound, they do a lot of things extremely well, not all things but enough things that customers go you know “For what I’m going to use it for, I love it. I want that.” And each one has the associated price tag. But it’s those guys experience, forget the science, they know the science but it’s the sound that’s critical and I always say sound takes on the characteristics of the surfaces that it strikes. Nothing could be more true than that statement when it comes to room designs that you’re going to listen to music in, record music in, play music in. There’s just no substitute for that.

A scene from Goodwill Hunting is a good example

It really reminds me of the scene in Goodwill Hunting when Robin Williams, God rest his soul, is explaining to Matt Damon’s character, who is a smartass kid who’s got the answer to everything and he says you can tell me all day your smart answers, you can tell me all manor of facts you’ve lifted from a textbook but until you’ve been in the Sistine Chapel and you’ve looked up to that painting, you can’t tell me what the air feels like in that room, you can’t tell me what it smells like. You can be as smart as you want to be but you don’t know that experience and that’s I guess what it comes down to it.

When you don’t have experience you cling to knowledge for comfort and that’s okay I get that, I understand that. And there’s a lot of smart people in these forums, there’s a lot of people that understand the physics of sound and the science of sound. But until you take that knowledge and apply it using current construction techniques with materials, methods of labour, cost, budgets, space restraints, usage requirements, legal usage requirements, I’m sorry but you haven’t been at the dance long enough because it’s different, it’s completely different and I’m going to tell you that your big room designers have a characteristic sound to their rooms just like amplifier designers have a characteristic sound to their amplifiers, just like speakers designers have a characteristic sound to their speakers. Even parts of the world, French speakers sound different than German speakers.

British speakers sound different than Italian speakers and those differences, art, cultural, intellectual, probably many other variables to consider, but the goal is matching those differences and putting them together in a room that makes everybody shine and everybody sound good. So you take all those differences and you make the room so it sounds good and any good room designer is the same as any good amplifier or speaker designer. He has a characteristic sound.

What is our sound?

Very tight defined bass, very wide and focused sound field at the same time with lots of air in the presentation. So those are our three objectives and they work great. And they’re universally applicable to most situations in music except voice rooms but that’s kind of the stepchild. They’re the easiest but also most misunderstood and we should do a video on that because we need more diffusion in our voice rooms because all our electronic sounds are starting to sound the same and we’ve got to stop that.

You can’t do that to vocals. You can’t apply the same kind of processing to vocals as you do instruments because vocals are what we connect to emotionally and through our music you have to be very careful with those. The human ear is very sensitive to electronic manipulation of vocals. I don’t care how good your processing equipment is because that sound has to be played in a room. So any electronic synthesizing or processing will now be amplified in the room if the room is designed correctly, not amplified in the sense of strength, amplified in the sense of quality because you’re going to hear everything, you hear the processing, you hear it every day in my studio.

So it’s not easy and I think in these forums a lot of times people have lots of knowledge and some of them have more knowledge than I have in certain areas and that’s fine but the area that we can help you with and the area that you can benefit from our eight years of RND is in our actual building and testing and we should probably do a video on some of the testing procedures we did.

16 Mic Testing

I mean at one time we were using 16 microphones in 1 room chasing pressure, it’s like a cat chasing a mouse but we’ll do a video on it as its kind of funny too. I think I might even have some old photos of that but we’ll see what we can do. So we’ve got a lot of knowledge from this process but there’s a big gap between taking that knowledge and applying it and like they say: “Until you walk in someone’s shoes you don’t know anything about them” and you really don’t. And it’s the same with room design and that’s why there’s 4 or 5 good room designers and builders in the world because they had to take a long time to figure out how to get their signature sound and they all have it and they all command big dollars for it, because it didn’t come easy and they know how to fine tune it. When they’ve been doing it so long, they know how to fine tune it, make it work for almost any situation.

So nothing’s easy, nothing’s free, there’s cost and benefit to everything. You have to decide as the consumer the experience and the knowledge versus the cost and as experience and knowledge becomes more valuable the cost increases.

Final Thoughts On Acoustic Treatment Theory Vs Experience

We got a few calls from offices this week. Some new buildings have been built in our local area. The economy is starting to pick up and I got a few calls the other day that they just finished building their room and it’s too noisy. What does that simple statement tell you? If they’ve just finished building their room why is it noisy? Didn’t they plan for those noise issues before they built the room? Nope. Now you see here’s the cart before the horse. Build the room don’t try to figure out how to build it to keep out the noise. Why are you calling us?

We’re happy you called and we’ll be more than happy to help you but you should’ve called us before you build the room. You should’ve called us when it was a line on a piece of paper, when it was a drawing because then I could have really helped you and saved you a ton money and you would’ve had a quiet building. So usage in planning is critical. It’s a lot cheaper to move a line on a drawing than it is to move a wall so hopefully we don’t have to move any walls but usage planning, get out the pencil first before you pull out the wallet. Way better advice when it comes to acoustics.

In Summary

I hope this discussion has helped. If you want to learn more about room acoustics then please sign up for our free room acoustic treatment videos and ebook which provide step by step instructions. Get instant access by signing up now. And if you would like your room acoustic issues analysed for free by me then please fill in the form here and I will be happy to take a look for you.

Thanks
Dennis

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Dennis Foley

I am an acoustic engineer with over 30 years’ experience in the business. My technology has been used in Electric Lady Land Studios, Sony Music of New York, Cello Music and Films founded by Mark Levinson, and Saltmines Studios in Mesa, Arizona, along with hundreds of others.

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