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How Small Of A Room Is Too Small In Room Acoustics?

Dennis Foley October 28, 2014 No Comments
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In a recent Google Hangout we addressed the issue of why some rooms are just too small to treat acoustically. The following is the video discussion and the transcript from it.

Dennis: Whenever your room size and volume is below certain dimensions, the amount of treatment required to actually have a large impact on the acoustics of your room is sizeable. Managing low frequency energy and managing reflections is the same in the sense you need a set amount of square-footage. You need square-footage of coverage in certain areas of the room.

If you’re managing reflections in the room you need coverage on your walls but for managing low-frequency in your room you need absorption technology and that takes up a lot of space. So whenever the room size and volume becomes so small that the amount of treatment that you need to correct the problems caused by the small room size is such that it would almost fill the whole room up.

So you wouldn’t have any room to work, you wouldn’t have any place to sit, you wouldn’t have any place for your speakers. So that said we see a lot of people that have really small rooms and if that’s your only option, that’s okay, it’s just that you’re not going to be able to resolve a lot of the issues that you’re going to face when you’re mixing, mastering or whatever function you’re doing in that room.

We’re going to assume it’s for music or voice, voice is a lot easier but there’s just going to be so many compromises that you’re going to have to deal with. Now that said if you can live with those compromises and make slight improvements, that’s what you have to do and you just have to be aware that there are going to be slight improvements. You’re not going to hit home runs with putting in acoustical treatment, you’re going to make slight improvements and if those improvements are good improvements for you well then that’s good.

Managing expectations

I always want to tell you upfront to what you’re going to expect because I don’t want you to spend a lot of money on room treatment, get it in the room and still have problems…which you will. Even our technology, which in the low frequency side is the most powerful technology on the marketplace, we have limitations also so we can’t perform magic when it comes to Physics. You need so much surface area to solve X problem and with small rooms you have more problems than you have surface area to solve.

So I’m always going to be honest with you and tell you that and then if you want to proceed and make some improvements in the sound, there’s plenty of things that we can do but you need to be aware that it might be better to look for another room. It might be better to try to put your efforts and energies into finding another room and sometimes a foot or two in either direction can make a huge difference. It can make a huge difference in the amount of acoustic treatment you need thus a huge difference in the amount of money you’re spending, a huge difference in the space requirements that you need for the technology to be working.

You’ve got to be realistic

So it’s good to be realistic which I guess is the word I’m looking for. It’s good to be realistic because with small rooms you’re still going to have issues that you’re going to be working around. There’s still going to be resonance issues that you have to be aware of and deal with. So the bottom-line is I’m not going to lie to you, I’m going to tell you the truth and if it’s a bad room size, it’s a bad room size there’s simply just no way around it. And with that in mind you know we can go forward and treat some of the issues or you can find another room and a lot of times I think it’s best to focus your energies on trying to find another room.

Ali: Agreed and I think what we’re getting from a lot of people, especially more for students and everybody in all sorts of different situations, I’ve been there and living in London where it’s basically you know everywhere in London if you’re going to have a bedroom studio because you’re sharing the place with lots of people, you know unless you share with your band which, I did at one point and that was lucky we could turn the whole lounge into the studio effectively. But a lot of people have bedroom setups, you know they’re just going to live I guess with the compromise thing. That’s okay, like I said to you if I had come to you in the past you said “well I can only get you 20% improvement” you know 20% is a good improvement and this is the space I got to work with, you know I think that’s fair enough.

Dennis: Well and that’s fine and I can work with you and be more than happy to help you. But there seems to be a general thinking out there that you can solve all the problems with current technologies in the marketplace, that you can get good sound in small rooms and even though the technology has improved and even though our technology is the most powerful in the marketplace, you still can’t in some rooms.

It’s a catch 22 situation

So it’s a real kind of catch-22 for everyone because I know that you need to hear everything in your mixes. I know that you want to hear everything in your recordings and the room sizes I’m seeing customers submit are just not possible to get good sound. You’re going to be missing out a lot of information. So maybe realizing the limitations of the room because of its size might help you to better deal with those issues in your mixes and help you along those ways.

I don’t know, it’s just, it’s really difficult because I want to help you to get the best sound that you can but I just know from building rooms over many years and testing them that there’s just so many issues in these small rooms. I saw a room the other day that was 6-feet wide, 6-feet wide. Well I’m 6-feet tall. I couldn’t even lay in that room sideways. You know some rooms are just so small that any amount of energy even vocal energy that you put in them is going to cause so many distortions.

So if we just only kind of take a step back and observe that just because we have a room of a certain size doesn’t mean that that room is going to be conducive to music work. So I want to make sure everybody’s aware of that and selecting the proper dimensions is very critical and I understand this is the room that you have to work with and that’s all you have to work with, I get that, I understand that and if it’s between that and not doing music well you know you probably want to do music.

So as long as everybody is aware that these small rooms are huge compromises in sound quality then we can work back from that premise and try to improve things by small percentages because our database just shows you that the amount of treatment that’s needed to solve the issues in smaller rooms is too great. If you really wanted to try to solve 70 or 80% of the problems we would need to take up so much space in the room that you won’t even have a place to put your speakers. So that’s kind of the tipping point we use for telling people about their room size.

The minimum room dimensions you should aim for

Ali: Okay and just one final thought on that though. Let’s let’s help the people who come to us and say ‘Okay what, I want to move, maybe I can move in 3-6 months what am I looking for? What’s the kind of minimums we want to give people as to as a starting point ideally?’

Dennis: Well we use constantly as a good ratio of dimension: 17-foot wide, 10-foot tall and 23-foot long, that’s kind of the benchmark that we use for telling people what really would be a good size. I helped a customer in Tucson last week and he was fortunate to have 1,200 square feet and we’re dividing it up to vocal, live and control room. So we’re taking 1,200 square feet and dividing it up into three rooms.

So we have plenty of square footage for all three rooms and I told him his control room needs to fit that 17:10:23 ratio because that’s kind of a break point. Above that it is great if it’s bigger, that’s wonderful, then we focus on just reflection management and not so much low frequency management. But below that then the issue changes we have to focus mainly on low frequency absorption.

So that’s a good guideline, now that’s a large room by most standards that I see. I don’t see that ratio too often, usually everything I see with our customers is much smaller. So therefore much smaller rooms below that ratio means much more treatment and I find that a lot of people don’t really have the budget to treat the issues in the room because of the room size and that’s the tug-of-war that we all go through. So that would be a good width, height and length dimension to consider and use.

In Summary

I hope this discussion helped. Feel free to contact me directly at: 520 – 392 – 9486 MST or info@acousticfields.com. 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. 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

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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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