acoustic panels

How Acoustic Panels Can Improve Your Recording Studio Sound

Sometimes new home studio Producers think acoustic panels involve some sort of voodoo magic. So they end up not using anything.

But that’s a bad idea.

Acoustic panels can seriously improve the sound of your home studio. To show how, here’s what we’ll cover:

  1. Choosing the right panels for your studio space
  2. Testing the sound in your studio
  3. How sound travels around a room
  4. Where to place acoustic panels
  5. How to hang acoustic panels
  6. Affordable and DIY acoustic panels

Choosing the Right Panels for Your Studio Space

Before you go out and buy acoustic panels and start hanging them up wherever they look cool, hold on a second. There’s actually a best and worst way to do this. The room you choose will determine how many acoustic panels you need and where to put them.

If you have a smaller room, you’ll need more absorption because sound waves bounce around the room quicker, leading to harsh ringing tones. However, you don’t want to put too many panels up and make the sound of the room completely dead. With bigger rooms, especially those with higher ceilings, you won’t need as many.

Really it comes down to each specific room — no two rooms are exactly alike. Even if they have the same dimensions, there will be different things in the room for the sound waves to bounce off of. You’ll want to test the sound in whatever room you’re using.

Testing The Sound in Your Studio

In order to test the room’s sound, you can do what’s cleverly called “the clapping test.” This is where you walk around the room clapping. Anyone watching you do this may think you’ve gone mad, but it has a purpose.

The point is to listen to the reverberations hitting your ear. Do they sound harsh and tinny? Your room needs some acoustic panels. Does your clapping sound way too big, like you’re in a cave? You’ll need some treatment.

If clapping doesn’t give you a good enough idea, try playing an instrument in the empty room — whatever instrument you would normally play.

How Sound Travels Around a Room

To better understand why sound treatment is so important, we have to talk about how sound travels throughout a room.

A good way to think about reverb is as a reflection of sound. So when you strum a guitar or sing a note, the sound waves go in a straight line in every single direction. These sound waves bounce off walls, corners, other things in the room (even you), and eventually make it back to the mic and your ears. The bigger the room, the longer it takes for these sound waves to get back to your ears. That’s why if you were to clap in a big room with high ceilings, the sound seems a bit delayed — it just takes longer for the reverberations to get back to you.

As the sound waves ricochet around the room, they can run into each other and cause an imbalance in the sound. What makes it worse is that sound that hits hard and shiny surfaces (like windows or tile) will reflect back more frequencies.

The whole idea with treatment is to lessen the reflected sound so as to let the direct sound (the sound going directly into the mic) stand out in the recording.

The places in your room that cause the most reverberations are the corners — anywhere a wall meets the ceiling or another wall. So acoustic panels should be hung along the corner where two walls meet, leaving a bit of room between the corner and the panel (enough room for a couple fingers to fit into). This keeps from totally killing all of the room’s bass.

Where to Place Acoustic Panels

Now that you’ve determined whether or not your room needs treatment (every room does) and a general idea of how much, let’s cover where to place the panels. Panels go up after hanging bass traps, which you can learn more about here.

But bass traps, which absorb lower frequencies, can’t do what acoustic panels do — panels absorb unwanted mid-to-high frequencies. After you take care of the top corners with bass traps, acoustic panels should take over.

The places in your room that cause the most reverberations are the corners — anywhere a wall meets the ceiling or another wall. So acoustic panels should be hung along the corner where two walls meet, leaving a bit of room between the corner and the panel (enough room for a couple fingers to fit into). This keeps from totally killing all of the room’s bass.

After the corners, you should hang panels on the walls themselves. Most people take four panels and make a diamond or square shape. Whatever the case, when hanging panels on opposing walls, don’t hang them so that they are directly across from each other — they should be at least a little bit off-centered, whether side to side or up and down.

How to Hang Acoustic Panels

Now it’s time to get down to the nitty-gritty of how to go about hanging acoustic tiles: planning, measuring, and hanging.

Planning

The first thing to do is look at how many panels you have (or how much surface area they can cover) and then at how much wall space needs treatment.

One nifty tool that can help you plan out your acoustic treatment is
Google Sketchup
, which allows you to create a virtual mockup of your room. This can be super helpful because you can apply tiles to your virtual room recreation and easily move them around.

Next, you’ll need to figure out how you want to hang the panels. The best way, from a sound perspective, is to use an aerosol-based glue. You can also try no-damage wall hangers that are sticky on one side and velcro on the other — these work well for light things like foam panels. I used small drywall nails, which are probably not the best acoustic choice, but they work well.

Measuring

There’s that old saying, “Measure twice, cut once.” That applies to hanging acoustic treatment. Measure twice, hang once. And now that you have your room treatment all planned out, you can start measuring and hanging.

First, you should mark exactly where you plan to hang your panels. Panels should be equally spaced out from each other along the wall. Here’s an easy formula:

Distance between each panel = (length of the wall − total width of panels to be hung on the wall) ÷ the number of gaps between the panels

This makes measuring and hanging panels way easier. Otherwise, you’ll just be guesstimating.

Hanging

Now that you’ve marked where the panels need to go, you can start hanging them.

If you’re using 1-by-1-foot foam acoustic panels, you can use velcro wall hangers or glue. If you’ll be using big, framed panels that are filled with absorption material and covered by cloth, you’ll probably need to use brackets or nails. Treat it like hanging a big painting.

Affordable and DIY Acoustic Panels

The cost of buying new acoustic panels can add up, and big numbers don’t work for a lot of DIY musicians with home recording studios. Fortunately, there are some workarounds to this.

Egg Crate Foam

Egg crate foam is that stuff that, well, looks like egg crates in foam form. It’s often used as a bed topper to provide a softer sleeping surface.

But you actually use it to treat your home studio. They can be a more affordable alternative to acoustic panels or even bass traps. Egg crate definitely isn’t the best choice, but if your budget is very limited, you can use some to help the sound of your studio. It should help cut down on the reflected sound.

Keep in mind, egg crate is much denser than acoustic paneling, so don’t overdo it or you can make the room sound dead.

Remember, the corners are the most important part of the room when it comes to treatment, so you shouldn’t even think about acoustic panels until you’ve gotten some bass traps. But once those corners are taken care of, you can use acoustic panels where the walls meet each other, where the walls meet the ceiling, and on the walls themselves.

Pillows and Blankets

One of my first “vocal booths” was a square of thick blankets hanging from the ceiling. It worked well and cost me nothing. You can also hang blanket across a big wall to help absorb some frequencies, or you can fold a blanket and put it up in the corner as a makeshift bass trap.

Obviously, blankets and pillows should only be used if you have no budget or if you need some supplemental absorption. But just know that it’s an option if needed.

DIY Acoustic Panels

If you’re looking to save money but still want quality, you may have to go the extra mile by making your own acoustic panels. It actually doesn’t sound that difficult, as long as you’re comfortable with woodworking, fabric, and insulation.

You can Google “how to make acoustic panels” and you’ll get plenty of DIY tutorials in both video and article form. It involves making wooden frames, filling that frame with insulation, and then tightly covering the whole thing with acoustically transparent fabric.

Wrapping Up

It’s safe to assume your home recording space will need some sort of treatment, and it will probably involve acoustic panels. After testing the sound in your studio with claps, a voice, or an instrument, you’ll have a better idea of how much treatment it needs.

Remember, the corners are the most important part of the room when it comes to treatment, so you shouldn’t even think about acoustic panels until you’ve gotten some bass traps. But once those corners are taken care of, you can use acoustic panels where the walls meet each other, where the walls meet the ceiling, and on the walls themselves.

Then, once you decide how you want to hang the panels (glue, velcro wall hangers, brackets, nails), then you’ll want to measure twice before placing them.

At this point, you should be ready to hang whatever acoustic panels you need to help improve the sound of your home recording studio.

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