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We’ve been talking a lot on our recent hangouts about small room acoustic problems and why some room dimensions are just too problematic. Well I was asked to elaborate on it a little further especially in light of a discussion I had with Prince’s old engineer who was saying you can still make great music even in bad rooms and I agree with that but there are some things you need to be aware of to that end.

So the break-point and the dividing thesis of all of this is when the acoustical distortions of the room which are produced by the smallness of the room and the small volume, the small dimensions and the small volume, when those acoustical distortions exceed the ability to treat it in that room.

The smaller the room gets below a certain point, every foot or two in the smallness means another 5 or 10 percent less sound that you’re hearing and that’s really critical because you’ve got to hear everything but you’re not going to be able to. So it’s really serious, people have been told that they can just set-up speakers in any sized room and do whatever they want and make good sound and sure you can get a quality sound but those people that get quality sounds in those small rooms, they are experienced enough to know what the room problems are. So we’re just trying to make people aware upfront of the room problems and then tell them that, you know as long as you’re aware of those problems, here’s what we need to make it better for you.

So it’s not that you can’t good sound out of a room, I think a talented person because of their talent is going to get good sound no matter where. They’re going to be able to figure out the difference between the mix sound and the room sound and the distortions the room is causing, they’ll just simply work around them. My thinking is for people that are young and just starting in the music business, let’s open their eyes in the beginning. Let’s tell them upfront what they’re going to be facing, what they’re going to hear and what they’re not going to be able hear because that’s the truth. When the distortions become so high, you can’t hear things.

Ali: Agreed. When I first picked up the guitar, my guitar was so bad my very first one you know I couldn’t learn on it. The strings were too high off the bridge but it’s all I had to work with and so my learning progress was slowed until I could get the next guitar up the scale. Well it’s the same with the room. If you can get to that room with slightly larger dimensions that bit quicker, you’re going to be able to learn so much faster because then you’re not fighting the room so much. Because when you start out you’re not only fighting your learning curve and inexperience but you’re also fighting the room as well.

Dennis: Well and I think that’s critical for young people starting out in music because look they don’t have a lot of experience in rooms and it takes a lot of experience to hear room sound yet that’s all I ever hear when I walk into a room. I never hear people talking in the room, I just listen to the room. Well I’ve been doing that for 35 years so it’s easy for me to separate room sound from mix sound. Many times I’ve been sitting with engineers at the console and they’ll be like “Did you hear that?” and I say “Yeah about a 45 cycle pressure area right off to the right there” and he goes “Yeah, when I stand in that area” he says “I can’t hear anything, I can’t hear 40, I can’t hear 80, I can’t hear 120” I said “Well it’s the fundamentals and the harmonics”. He can’t hear those frequencies but he knows that that’s the problem over there in that part of the room.

Experience Counts

Well maybe a younger person may not have that experience. So I think it’s really important that we educate people and do a better job at talking about room size and room distortions because these are big problems, really big problems and if you’re not familiar with room sound you may not know what you’re missing and your mix may not translate. And Khaliq Glover said the other day on our hangout, or Khaliq associate, I forget which, said the other day, he goes “If it doesn’t print, if I can’t hear everything so that when I print that to disc or whatever the medium” that he hears everything that he heard and without getting the room out of the way you just won’t hear that, see.

So I think there has been a lot of disinformation by acoustic product manufacturers out there and they seem to have given people the impression that you can make any room sound good, you can make any room sound better but the room has to be judged on its own and its limitations recognized and then if they’re too great, find another room. If you can’t do that then we can fix this one but sometimes it’s only another foot in one dimension. Sometimes it’s not even 12 inches, I’ve seen changes in 8 inches. Well to me to decrease the acoustical distortions of a room have by 15, 20, 25 percent for 8 inches of more space. Why wouldn’t you do that? Why wouldn’t you at least make an effort to try to find something?

Now look I understand things, you know rooms are not readily available. Everybody doesn’t have a bunch of rooms to pick from and I get that. But I think we need to be a little cautious with our small rooms because they’re just, you’re just not hearing everything, the goal has to be to hear everything or what are you doing if you can’t hear everything?

Ali: Yeah, I certainly know from living in London, that space is a premium but then me and my band we basically got together and had to find a rehearsal space and that’s what you do. You hit a point where it’s “Right this can’t go on comrades in this space” you’ve got to find a dedicated space and that’s what lots of people do. You’ve just got to be aware of the problems. We don’t want to sell you on something that’s not going to work. we’re not into that, you know we want you to go into this situation with your eyes open and then you can make an informed decision. Do I buy product X and know I’ve got to live with the compromise or do I find another room? And as Dennis has said we want you to find another room if it’s going to be only a small improvement.

The Smaller The Room Gets, The More Pressure Builds Where You Don’t Want It

Dennis: Here’s a good example. The smaller the room gets, most of the time in our medium and larger size rooms, the pressure in the room that we have to deal with is at the boundary surfaces, so as the room gets smaller the pressure moves in to the center of the room. So if it moves into the center of the room, forward center or backward center that’s usually where your console is, that’s usually where your speakers are. So now you have your speakers in a high pressure area or low pressure area, depending and you know these are plus 15, plus 20dB problems.

They’re huge elephants in the room and you know it might be better “Okay let’s use that room for a vocal room and move the control room somewhere else.” You know it all depends on your usage, there’s a lot of things we can get away with vocal rooms that we can’t get away with drum rooms, vice-versa with control rooms. So I just, I have this great database of measured rooms and I’ve spent years listening in them also so I just want to give people the benefit of what we have discovered and if the distortions in the room size are bigger than the intended usage of the room or going to costs too much to solve, I think people need to be aware of that. I think that’s just the right thing to start from. It may not change anything as we move on down the road but always having that knowledge can be a good thing, see.

And that can be a good thing for room treatment because if the clients says to me “Well Dennis, how many units of this do I need, how many units of that do I need?” I’ve seen acoustic product manufacturers fill the whole room with boxes when that’s not going to help.

Don’t Waste Your Money On Solutions That Won’t Work

We got a call from a gentleman in the Cayman Islands the other day who would spend 25 / 30,000 dollars on boxes for his room but his room was physically the wrong size. It was 12-foot square with 12-foot ceiling so all dimension were 12 feet. You can’t get a more terrible acoustic size, it’s the worst and 12 is a really bad number.

So I just think a heads-up to everyone, I want to give you the information that’s in our database and everybody asks these questions and response. I was telling people that “Look your room is too small, go somewhere else” and then I started to realize after doing some chats with people that a lot of people can’t move they just can’t so they have to make that room work. Okay so as long as we understand the limitations, how much can we improve it for what you’re going to use it for and it may not be the usage you intended when we have to use it for something else. But you know we can figure all that but I just think more knowledge is a powerful thing.

And anyway who’s going to build 116 rooms and put 16 measurement microphones in them over 8 years and measure them like a wild man? Only a guy like me who’s chasing some technology that has a purpose and reason behind it. So I just want to share all that information with people because it’s good stuff, it can save you a lot of problems, you know and a lot of money.

In Summary

So I hope that helps you. If you have any questions at any time I am always on hand to help answer them. Leave them in the comments section or email me at If you would like to learn more about room acoustics please sign up for my free videos and ebook by joining the mailing list here. I send room tuning tips and things for you to test in your room every Wednesday. They are easy to follow and really help you enjoy more of your music. 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 and speak soon

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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