Setting up an Audio Workspace
A guide to some of the considerations when installing a Digital Audio Workstation, and preparing and optimising the space for recording and listening.
Once you have chosen the equipment you need for your Digital Audio Workstation - your computer, speakers and other peripheral devices - you have to decide how and where to install it. Sometimes the planned location and configuration of your workstation may place constraints on your available choices of equipment, and if your options are limited then you should draw up at least a rough plan before committing to an expensive order, to avoid any unforeseen incompatibilities or conflicts. This process can also help to bring to light items which might have been overlooked in the shadow of more glamorous kit like microphones and speakers; stands, cables and acoustic panels are rarely top of anyone's wishlist, but can be equally valuable to an efficient workflow and a quality end product.
There are some considerations of ergonomics and acoustics which - if you bear them in mind when making these early decisions - will make the workflow of your project smoother, more comfortable and more enjoyable, as well as improving your results. Choice of room (if indeed you are given a choice), furniture, positioning of equipment, and acoustic treatment of the space can all alter your audio environment significantly, and here we will outline some of their broad effects - in terms of what to aim for, what to avoid, and why.
Ergonomics and Aesthetics
It is important to remember that you are building a creative as well as working environment. All serious recording studios pay great attention to creating a conducive atmosphere for the creative process - be this by comfortable furniture, soft lighting, outside spaces etc. Surprisingly, as well as the improvements to artists' and engineers' working conditions and therefore productivity, many of these have tangible benefits to the audio environment. Low lighting tends to heighten one's audio awareness (think how much more acutely you listen in a darkened room), soft furnishings soak up unwanted reverberation, hospitality rooms (kitchen, chill-out room or whatever) get noisy and/or unfocussed people out of the critical listening space... a good atmosphere can have hidden benefits.
So, when planning your space bear in mind that it should be as pleasant an experience as possible for you and other users; a happy and relaxed presenter will have a more positive impact on your recordings than any expensive microphone or processor ever could, and a happy and relaxed engineer will make much better tea. How you style your workspace will depend very much on personal taste, but keep in mind that in long mixing or recording sessions your ears can tire very quickly, and you will need to take breaks and change focus, so try to make this downtime pleasant and productive.
Equally important of course are the practical concerns of your daily workflow, and making this efficient and ergonomic. If you need constant access to a particular processor, mixer, volume control etc, then it should be within arm's reach, without bending or twisting. The computer keyboard and mouse should be positioned to offer support to arms and wrists, and screen(s) should be near to eye level. This is common advice for all computer workstations, and this is no exception.
Positioning Monitor Speakers
One of the most important aspects of setting up a listening space is the correct positioning of speakers. Correct positioning is important for optimal frequency response and phase alignment, so consider this a top priority when planning your workspace. The general rules are quite simple:
Stereo speaker positioning:
For stereo speakers, the listener and speakers should represent the vertices of an equilateral triangle, thus:
Depending on the size of your speakers (and your room) a distance between the speakers of 1 to 2 metres is usually optimal.
5.1 Surround Sound speaker positioning:
Front Left and Right speakers are positioned the same as a simple stero pair, with the addition of the centre speaker in the centre (unsurprisingly), and the Rear Left and Rear Right (or Left Surround and Right Surround) just behind the listener, thus:
Sub-woofer positioning is not specified, as listener perception of deep bass is not very directional. If you have the choice, a front-and-centre position beneath the centre speaker is preferred, though not critical.
- Tweeters (high frequency drivers) of speakers should be at ear level when in the preferred listening position.
- Positioning speakers close to a wall will accentuate their bass response - positioning in a corner even more so. Avoid where possible, and compensate where not.
- Speakers may contain large magnets, and should not be placed close to CRT monitors or magnetic media (hard discs, tape etc). Some professional monitor speakers are magnetically shielded.
- Speaker supports should be sturdy and secure. Tall speaker stands should ideally be weighed down at the base. Shelves are inadvisable, but if unavoidable should be strong, thick, and screwed down.
- Rubber or foam acoustic mats are available to decouple speakers from desks etc. A few large blobs of Blu-Tac are a cheap and serviceable alternative.
Resonance of sound around the listening or recording space can cause all sorts of problems. Where the brain will subconsciously filter out room reverberation (or 'reverb'), a microphone will not. Reverb is all but impossible to remove from a recording, even with the most sophisticated tools and expert engineers, so avoiding it in your recording space is an important early step in getting a professional sound.
Similarly when listening back to your material, the signal from the speakers will reverberate in your listening space and this will accentuate some frequencies and attenuate others, leading to inaccurate mixes. For critical listening at the editing, processing mixing and mastering stages, a neutral sound from your room is equally important.
Acoustic treatment intends to reduce this resonance and reverberation within the listening room, to improve the neutrality of the frequency response of your reference monitor signal. The less 'coloured' the sound is by room resonances, the better your ability to judge respective levels within a mix, or the effects of an equaliser, a particular type of microphone, or any other critical audio process.
Simple acoustic treatment most often takes the form of foam panels attached to the walls of the listening/recording space, intended to reduce reflections and resultant reverberation. Curtains and drapes accomplish a similar role, as do soft furnishings.
When recording voices, some microphone stand mounted acoustic screens are available which partially surround the microphone with sound absorbtion material, and can be a simple and portable way to improve your recordings, especially if room reverb is a particular problem.
For further advice on acoustic treatment methods and acoustical analysis refer to our advice document on Acoustic Treatment.
Acoustics and Environmental Noise
There is a common misconception that acoustic treatment is the same as sound-proofing - this is not so. Though acoustic treatment can have a marginal effect on sound transmission, this is not its primary purpose.
Whereas Acoustic Treatment addresses the sound characteristics within the listening space, sound-proofing is intended to cut down the amount of signal transmitted through walls, floors and ceilings, and to isolate the control room from external noise, and as such does not necessarily have any acoustic benefits to the listener (thought the listener's neighbours may appreciate it). Its aim is to reduce both the intrusion of external noise into a recording or critical listening space, and the bleed of sound between these and neighbouring spaces.
As much as the unwanted intrusion of external noise, you must be equally aware of your own noise output. If you are using good monitor speakers, these may well be capable of producing deep bass notes, which will penetrate walls, ceilings and floors more than high frequency signals. Also, during a long session it is easy to become accustomed to a louder level without being aware of it, and to keep incrementally increasing the volume to an anti-social level.
When you set up, choose an appropriate time when you won't disturb anyone, and play some familiar music, spoken word recordings, and any other type of material you might frequently work on, at various volumes, then visit neighbouring rooms to gauge how much your output will penetrate into adjoining spaces. Make a note of the volume levels at which this level becomes unacceptable, and be considerate. Visiting your neighbours to explain what you are doing, and giving them contact details for if/when levels become excessive will generally be appreciated too.
As noted above, soft furnishings are one of the best ways - short of full acoustic treatment - of reducing unwanted reverberation, so you have the perfect excuse for a big sofa. Positioned at the far end of the room from the speakers this can act as a bass trap, and will additionally offer a good auditioning position for guests and artists, while the engineer mans the controls. If possible, leave a small distance between the wall and furniture to maximise its acoustic damping effect.
Your chair may well be your home for long sessions, so make sure it is comfortable and offers sufficient support. An adjustable chair may make considerable noise when you move about in it (though you may not notice until you listen, microphones are particularly unforgiving) so consider this if you intend to record in close proximity - keep it oiled or sit still!
Though in a horizontal plane, so generally less problematic, table tops are still large, smooth acoustic reflectors; covering them wholly or partially with material (the heavier the better) can reduce their reflectivity [see above for notes on mounting speakers on tables/desks].
There are a few points to note about the storage requirements of audio equipment, and the effect of different solutions on the acoustic environment. As already noted, magnetic media can be sensitive to the magnetic fields of unshielded equipment, such as CRT monitors and speakers. Additionally some equipment and media are sensitive to temperature, humidity and moisture.
If you are undertaking a project involving the digitisation of legacy media, then you should bear in mind the conditions under which the media will be stored during the digitisation procedure, and subsequent requirements for long-term archiving, if this is within your remit.
An unexpected fringe benefit of shelves of books or papers is that their uneven surfaces can act as a good impromptu diffuser of soundwaves, and help reduce room resonance and thereby improve phase response. Indeed, most things which help break up the smooth face of a wall will have a similarly beneficial effect, so a minimalist style is not generally recommended!