Acoustic treatment is one of those studio essentials that could help you create better-sounding mixes that sound great no matter where they are played.
Unfortunately, relatively few home studio owners are hip to the benefits of proper acoustic treatment, and fewer still bother to implement it in their own studios.
In this guide, we uncover the cheapest way to acoustically treat a room. We’ll cover the most important principles for building your own custom DIY acoustic panels. Here you will learn the basics of how to build your own acoustic panels, what materials you will need, proper placement, and the rationale behind it all.
We drew heavily quite a number of helpful tips from a few videos on the YouTube channel “Lonely Rocker”. The channel is packed full of helpful information on acoustic treatment and other equally valuable bits of studio wisdom, so we suggest that you check it out.
What’s In This Guide
- What Are Acoustic Panels?
- How Acoustic Panels Work
- Testing Your Room for Acoustic Treatment
- Materials For Making DIY Acoustic Panels
- Proper Studio Placement Of Acoustic Panels
- Final Thoughts
What Are Acoustic Panels?
Acoustic panels are sound absorbing devices that are installed on walls and ceilings of recording or mixing studios. They may also be placed in any space where sound-reflecting surfaces cause echoes and other sonic anomalies that may get in the way of optimal sound reproduction, accuracy, and clarity.
The main purpose of acoustic panels is to get rid of slapback echo and to reduce resonance and comb filtering. With enough acoustic panels installed, reflective echoes are effectively dampened, resulting in a more neutral-sounding room.
Many people confuse acoustic panels with bass traps. Although they may look the same and perform similar functions, bass traps are used to dampen and control low-frequency resonance in a room. In contrast, acoustic panels are designed to dampen mid and high frequencies.
However, bass traps are also very essential to your room treatment setup, so we recommended checking out our guide to bass trap placement here, as well as finding the right bass traps for your room here.
Acoustic Treatment vs Soundproofing
It is also important to make the distinction between sound absorption–which is what acoustic panels do–and soundproofing. With acoustic panels, the main goal is to create a more sonically-neutral and accurate sounding space.
With soundproofing, the goal is to prevent sound from escaping the room, so that you don’t bother the neighbors or other people in the house.
And although you can incorporate soundproofing when treating your room, keep in mind that it probably won’t do much in terms of helping you create better mixes.
How Acoustic Panels Work
To get the most benefits from acoustic treatment, it would be helpful to understand the basics of how sound works, and thus why you would even need them.
The sound coming from your speakers project outwards to all the parts of the room. Some of it–the direct sound–goes directly to your ear. The rest–the reflected sound–bounces from surface to surface in your room, producing a mess of echoes.
The problem is that these echoes eventually reach your ear, where they combine with the direct sound coming out of your speakers. Certain frequencies may then cancel each other out, causing comb filtering. The delay in the reflected sound will further muddy up the sound and give you a less than accurate reproduction of the audio material you are monitoring.
Compensating for room acoustics
All rooms have their own acoustic set up, which is why music will sound different in one room, than in another. If you want to know more about that, look up “room modes.”
The problem is further compounded by the fact that rooms generally have poor acoustics to begin with. It is very costly to design a room to sound great without any type of treatment. With most home studios–and even in professional facilities–it simply isn’t economically feasible to build a room that has great acoustics.
This is where acoustic treatment comes in. By installing acoustic panels at strategic spots in your room (more on that below), you can dampen and–even eliminate–unwanted reflections considerably.
As the reflected sound waves reach the acoustic panel, they are absorbed by the material rather than reflected. You could, therefore, use acoustic panels to neutralize reflected sound in an echoey room, and make it more conducive to critical listening.
Too Much Acoustic Treatment?
Indeed, there is such a thing call “too much acoustic treatment.” Mounting up excessive panels could make a room sound ‘dead’, which isn’t conducive to proper mixing either. Most studio engineers find that utilizing diffuser panels along with sound absorption panels results in the most musically pleasing sound reproduction.
Once you hit on the right combination of diffusers and absorption panels, the improvement in your room and your mixes will be quite noticeable.
Why Acoustic Panels Are Necessary
Acoustic panels help create a neutral listening environment by absorbing sound reflections in a room. This results in more balanced audio reproduction. By balancing the sound across the audio range, mix engineers get a more accurate representation of the recorded sound. It then becomes easier to create mixes that will translate equally well to a wider variety of playback systems and devices.
Testing Your Room for Acoustic Treatment
Acoustic treatment essentially corrects sonic imbalances and anomalies in a room. To figure out whether or not you need to treat your room, try this simple experiment. Walk around your studio and clap your hands loudly. Do this from every spot of the room, listening to the sound bouncing from the walls and the floor. In most untreated rooms, you will probably hear a distinct, metallic ring.
Of course, you may already have a good sounding room, in which case the reflected sound will be fairly pleasant. No matter how good your room sounds, however, you will still need to dampen the reflections if you plan on doing any mixing in that room.
So you see, acoustic treatment is essentially about making the sound in a room clearer and less cluttered. You could, therefore, understand what is coming out of the speakers more clearly. For the same reason, you will also see acoustic paneling in hotel lobbies, restaurants, factories, and even churches.
How sound behaves in an untreated room
In an untreated room, sound will continually bounce off the hard, fixed surfaces, such as the walls, ceiling, and floor. Eventually, all the combined sound waves will reach a saturation point, at which time the room will no longer be able to diffuse and dissipate all the energy. This results in a cluttered and muddled sound that will eventually cause ear fatigue.
Obviously, this situation isn’t ideal for a mixing engineer, whose role requires being able to hear the sound clearly and accurately, so he or she can make the most appropriate mixing decisions.
Type of sound echoes
The reflections that acoustic panels aim to reduce and eliminate may be primary–or first order–reflections or secondary reflections. Primary reflections are those that bounce off nearby surfaces. Secondary reflections are those that bounce back from other surfaces, resulting in a resonant or reverberating effect.
Going back to that experiment you performed earlier, the harsher or more metallic the echoes of your clapping are, the more acoustic treatment you will need. If the reflected sound isn’t all that harsh or unpleasant, you might be able to get away with less acoustic treatment.
However, keep in mind that your mixing room will probably benefit from some acoustic treatment, no matter how pleasant the reverberant sound may be.
Materials For Making Your Own Acoustic Panels
There is a huge variety of materials that you can use for acoustic treatment.
Commercially-available acoustic panels are usually made of polyester, polypropylene, cotton, fiberglass, or acoustical foam. They may also be covered in fabric or perforated metal, painted, or left uncovered.
If you opt to make your own acoustic panels, the materials for one panel will cost you less than $20. They are pretty easy to build, and you could easily achieve professional-looking results even if you don’t have a lot of carpentry experience.
“Lonely Rocker” has an excellent guide on how to create your own acoustic panels, with extensive details on the materials you will need. Check it out below.
The panels you will create by following along with the video will measure 24 inches by 48 inches. You can make your panels larger or smaller if you wish, but these dimensions should work well for most small or medium-sized studios. You could make more panels if you have a larger room, but it might be better to install several panels in the recommended size instead.
The tools you will need are:
- Power drill
- Circular saw
- 8” x 1 ¼” wood screws
- Wood glue
- Tape measure
You will also need the following:
- Four pieces of wood, 1” x 4” x 8” (for two acoustic panels)
- Acoustic absorption material
- Finishing fabric
- Backing material (optional)
We also recommend using 24-inch Roxul Safe ’n’ Sound acoustic absorption material. Following the instructions in the video, the resulting frames should have an inside width of about 23 ¼”. This should allow you to drop the Roxul pads right in and get a snug fit without any excess material to trim off. The package comes with eight pads, so you will have enough for eight panels.
Covering the front of your panel
You will probably want to cover the front of your panel with fabric to prevent damage to the acoustic material. Besides, it will look much better and more professional if you have some kind of fabric covering the front of your panel. Whatever material you choose, it might also be a good idea to make sure that it is fairly durable and that the color and texture complements your studio décor.
Backing material isn’t absolutely necessary, but it does keep things neater and more professional-looking. Almost any material will do, since hardly anyone will ever see the rear of your acoustic panel anyway. W recommend using the same type of fabric used under chairs or couches, which is generally the cheapest you will find in home supply stores.
Installing the backing fabric is easier than installing the front fabric because you probably won’t be too concerned about making it look as nice as possible. All the same, try to get rid of any creases if you can and make sure that the trimmed edge can’t be seen from the front.
Proper Studio Placement Of Acoustic Panels
Building your acoustic panels is only one part of the equation. Just like mounting bass traps, it is just as important to know where your panels should go and to install them properly for maximum benefit.
Placing your panels haphazardly around your studio may not effectively get rid of all those pesky reflections. In some cases, poorly-planned acoustic panel placement may even make a bad-sounding room sound even worse. Remember that sound waves don’t discriminate, and will simply go everywhere. You should, therefore, plan out your placement carefully to ensure that your panels will go where they can do the most good.
Hanging your acoustic panels
There are many ways to hang your acoustic panels. Here are a few:
- French cleats
- Picture frame mount
Simply choose the ones you have, or the ones that’s easiest for you. There’s no right or wrong here.
Positioning your acoustic panels
One thing you do have to make sure of is that your panels are evenly positioned.
If your room is symmetrical and you have set up your monitors and mixing position properly, simply make sure that your panels are aligned with their opposite counterparts. In other words, they should be mirroring each other.
If you want to know how to place your studio monitors, read this guide.
In a less-than-optimal scenario–say your mix position is in the corner of an odd shaped room–you don’t really have much choice but to make do as best as you can.
Take a look at the video below for a video guide on acoustic panel placement.
Fix Your Mixing Position
Before we get into the specifics of panel placement, let’s go over the basics of proper mixing position.
Ideally, your mixing position should be at one end of your room, not the corner. From where you are sitting, both of your monitor speakers should form an equilateral triangle with your head, and placed at around ear level.
Your speakers should also be positioned at equal distances from the side walls. This means that you should be sitting dead center of the narrow side of the room. Also, try to move your desk forward from the wall you are facing so that there is a bit of space between the wall and your speakers.
Where to place your panels
As to where you will place your panels, you will first have to determine where the most prominent reflections are likely to come from.
In most cases, these would be:
- the wall behind the speakers, and
- the two corners behind your desk
- The walls to the sides of the speakers, and
- the ceiling area above your desk.
The latter points are typically the first early reflections also, so you will want to place some paneling there as well. There may be more reflection points that you will have to treat depending on the size and shape of your room, but having panels on those areas mentioned above should be a good start.
Determining your panel placement
To effectively dampen reflections from the wall you are facing:
- Trace an imaginary line from your seating position through the left speaker and on to the wall behind it.
- Do the same with the right speaker.
- The point where the line meets the wall is where you will want to place your panels
Install your panels so that they cover the same area size above and below the speaker. This should effectively dampen the sound coming from the rear of your speakers.
To make sure your panels are level, you can make a temporary support frame with some scrap wood. Three pieces of wood are all you need, with two legs supporting a top crossbeam.
Cut the legs to the height where you want the bottom edge of your panel to be, and make sure they are exactly the same length so that the crossbeam sits level. You can then simply set your panel on top and mark the spot on the wall where it will hang. You can use this method for all your other panels too.
The panels you create with the help of the video guide above can be used as corner bass traps as well. The panels will be suitably deep, and the bit of air behind them will effectively get rid of most unwanted low-end reflections. Use the same guide frame that you used for the rear panels to determine the correct height of these corner panels, making sure that the center is aligned with the corner of the room.
Click the following link for a complete guide on mounting bass traps.
Positioning Side Panels
Finding the right spots for the side panels is a bit trickier. It will be easier to figure out the optimal position if you have someone to lend you a hand.
- Get whoever is helping you to slide a large mirror slowly along the side wall, while you sit at your mixing spot.
- Look out for when you see the speaker in the mirror
- Mark off that spot and install your panel there
If you don’t have anyone to help you, it will be necessary to determine the early reflection spot yourself.
To do this, form a triangle between your head, the right speaker, and the side wall. The distance between the early reflection spot and the speaker should be half the distance of your head to the same spot.
After you have installed the first side panel, you don’t have to go through the same measuring process again for the opposite wall. Simply measure the distance from the right panel to the right corner and use the same measurement for the left panel. If you’ve built your panels to the same dimension, both should be aligned perfectly.
Positioning Overhead Panels
As for the overhead panels, you can simply have their front edges lined up with the edge of the side panels that are closest to you. Instead of mounting them flat against the ceiling, hang their rear edges a little bit lower than the front so that they tilt slightly. This will allow them to ‘catch’ the reflected sound from your speakers.
After you have installed all your panels, do the ‘clap’ test again. If you have positioned your panels at the right spots, you shouldn’t hear any of those unpleasant metallic echoes at all. If there are still some bothersome reflections that you simply can’t live with, add more panels as necessary.
As you can see, applying acoustic treatment to your studio requires a bit of planning and work, but anyone can learn how to do it. Planning is an essential part of the process, so we suggest that you take some time to figure out what problems you are trying to solve and how you could best solve them.
Before you even pick up a hammer, figure out how to optimize your room and mixing position. Do your speakers and your seating position form an equilateral triangle? Is your mixing desk set at the center of your room, at a suitable distance from the back wall? You will first have to address these and other related issues before you could begin working on setting up your acoustic panels.
Plan your panel placement strategically. You will want to make sure that each panel you hang serves a purpose and that it does the job for which it is intended.
You should also do some test mixes before and after you install your panels. Comparing your ‘before’ and ‘after’ mixes will help you determine whether or not you need to make more panels or move the ones that you already have. Besides, it will make you feel good knowing that all that hard work you put in paid back in a tangible way.
To learn more about how to treat your studio acoustically, check out the “Complete DIY Acoustic Panels Solution For Your Home Studio” video from “Lonely Rocker”. Apart from a breakdown of the concepts outlined above, you will also find links to other helpful and informative videos.