Acoustic Makeovers

Jun 1, 2003 12:00 PM, By Chris Michie

Every year, at least 10 recently completed studios or mixing rooms appear on Mix's front cover; up to two dozen more are displayed in our annual “Class of…” feature (see page 30). Primped and polished for their “beauty shots,” these gorgeous studio spaces look as pristine as a shrink-wrapped CD, yet many of them are older than this magazine (and some of its readers). It's no secret, but many of the spankin' new studios pictured in Mix are actually in their second or third incarnation. To find out more about the art and science of renovating existing recording and listening spaces, we spoke to four respected and in-demand studio designers: Michael Cronin, Francis Manzella, Chris Pelonis and Carl Yanchar.


As Francis Manzella puts it, “Interior makeovers or acoustic renovations usually come up because of one of a couple different motivations. The first motivation is usually a desire to bring things up to date, both in terms of interior design and the acoustics.” Manzella notes that many successful studio owners whose facilities date from the 1970s and '80s may now be looking for ways to rejuvenate their businesses. “They realize that what worked aesthetically and acoustically 20, 25 years ago doesn't necessarily ring the bell for any of their clients anymore.

“Another big motivation is when a studio changes hands,” Manzella continues. “The new owners often say, ‘Well, we bought this place because it was a great place, but now we want to make it our place.’”

There is, of course, often a third reason for an expensive and disruptive acoustic renovation: There is something acoustically wrong with the studio or control room, and nothing short of a complete overhaul can correct it. “Many studios back in the '70s and '80s were kind of homemade,” says Manzella. “Most studios weren't designed by an architectural acoustics expert; they were designed by the owner. And the owner either knew what he was doing or he got some books and tried to figure out what he was doing. Sometimes they got it right, and sometimes they didn't.”


Chris Pelonis describes a typical acoustical problem, one he ran into at Holly-wood's Future Disc Mastering. “They had one of these sort of stop sign-shaped control rooms with a compression ceiling,” says Pelonis, “and that was a problem. Sure, a compression ceiling creates loudness and efficiency, but it also creates an absolute disaster in the low frequencies, with an incredible amount of harmonic interference in the tonic frequencies and in the harmonics.”

As Pelonis describes it, many compression ceilings are set at an acute angle to the front wall and are typically very hard. “You get an accumulation of low frequencies that resonate in that acute angle,” he notes. “So I came up with a way to build in a low-frequency absorber out of that acute angle — actually make it part of a trap — and that cleaned up the bottom end immensely. It was very successful both at the Future Disc rooms and at Scream Studios, Randy Alpert's studio in Studio City [Calif.].

“The other thing we did with these compression ceilings was to soften up the surface to dampen that first reflection,” adds Pelonis. “It's really kind of ridiculous that anybody would think the trajectory of a high-frequency driver reflected from a compression ceiling smacking right down onto the top of a hard metal console could be a good thing. But that's exactly what you see when you ray-trace those reflections.”

A problem that Pelonis often encounters in older rooms is a less-than-accurate main monitor system. “In the ['70s and '80s], main monitors were not really looked at very seriously,” he says. “They were there more for the hype: ‘Let's play it real loud and get excited.’ But people would actually mix on Auratones or Mitsubishis or NS-10s or something.

“Another issue I run into is that people have their speakers soffited either improperly or in the wrong place,” Pelonis continues, noting that relocating the speakers to reduce boundary interference can make a “huge difference. There's also an old style of soffiting that you really need to be aware of: The speaker soffits that kind of hang into the room and beneath them, there's an airspace. That setup may as well not be soffited.” As Pelonis explains, the purpose of soffits is to eliminate boundary interference: When a speaker is mounted flat into a wall, low-frequency energy is forced forward in time; whereas when the speakers are free-standing, omnidirectional energy rebounds off of the front wall and reaches the listener after the initial signal, causing phase distortion. “So, if you build soffits that are sticking out of the wall with an alcove underneath, not only does it create a cavernous low-frequency resonator, for lack of a better term, it also gives that low frequency a place to go rather than forward.”


Pelonis notes that there may not actually be anything “wrong” with a room that he has been asked to modify. “There have been many cases where the room was built in another era. That doesn't necessarily mean it's wrong, just that it's wrong for that client. But this is such a subjective business. In 10 years, there'll be some discovery or a new medium that requires a different approach. And then they'll be tearing out all those old Pelonis rooms,” he says with a laugh.

One area of subjectivity is reverberation: Different clients prefer different amounts of “liveness” in their recording and listening spaces. “In a mastering room, for example, it will tend to be on the shorter side, 150 milliseconds, say,” Pelonis explains. “Anywhere from 100 to 300 milliseconds seems to be the comfort zone where people really cannot be fooled by the room. But there have been times when people wanted it more live and I've gone up to half a second.”

Pelonis points out that with modern measurement equipment, it is relatively easy to capture an accurate picture of a room's reverberation time, and he believes strongly that reverb times should be consistent across the frequency spectrum. “I've had many disagreements with people who say to forget about anything below 300 Hz because you can't control it,” he says. “I completely disagree: It can all be controlled or properly addressed.”

To correct studio spaces that have excessive low-frequency reverberation, Pelonis uses a product called the Edge. “Back in the '80s, so many studios would have these nice, consistent reverb times — 300 milliseconds — from 300 or 400 Hz up, and then they'd have a second-and-a-half of reverb from 200 Hz down,” he recalls. “That really creates a problem in the harmonics in the rest of the spectrum, not to mention what it does for the low frequency. If you start adding up the harmonics of 40 cycles, it doesn't take too long to figure out that there is going to be some interaction with the midrange frequencies.”


Assuming that the studio owner has identified the acoustic or aesthetic problem he or she wishes to correct, what are the options? “Every job is different,” says Manzella. “It has to be tailored to the vision and the budget of the customer.

As Manzella notes, isolation — or the lack of it — is often a serious concern. “With a free-standing studio, you're generally more concerned about exterior noise getting in than you are about the music getting out,” he explains. “But in New York City, you're worried about it being a two-way street: You don't want to be bothering the neighbors, because that's as much of a headache as it is when they bother you. New York has its own set of unique challenges. A large percentage of our clients are in Manhattan in multistory commercial buildings ranging in age from 120 years old to brand-new. And a lot of the older buildings are structurally sound buildings, but really not built with a whole lot of sound isolation in mind.”

As Manzella explains, many loft buildings were once used for manufacturing and are designed for heavy live load capacities but, being wood-framed, are rather springy structures. “This is very problematic for studio isolation,” he notes. “In the simplest of terms, when we're doing a floated room for a studio, you can think of the room as a spring and you can think of the building as a bigger spring. If the building itself is more compliant than the isolation construction we devise, then the isolation construction is defeated by definition; the building will move more easily than the heavy studio room that we've built. Now, structural transmission is basically transmitted into the building. So, these are the first challenges we face: determining what the existing isolation is and if it needs to be improved, and finding methods that are compatible with the host building construction.”

Given adequate isolation, and provided the room proportions and dimensions are correct, Manzella is usually content to work within an existing shell. “We'll basically strip back most of the installation of finishes and fixtures and millwork, and then build in again from the shell,” he says. “In a lot of these places, there's something good about them that they want to keep.”


Many recent control room remodels have been spurred to some extent by the growth of the market for 5.1 and other surround formats. “People are coming to grips with the fact that they want to go one step better than just popping five speakers on stands and saying, ‘Now we're surround,’” says Manzella. “They want to actually think about the implications of doing five full-bandwidth channels in their control room.”

In some cases, installing a new 5.1 monitoring setup may require an increase in the control room's dimensions, which is not always an option when structural or isolation walls cannot be moved. Carl Yanchar's solution for Studio B at Front Page in Glendale, Calif., was to build a new 5.1 mixing room in what had been the original studio. However, many existing stereo control rooms actually contain enough space for a 5.1 monitor system — or a larger console — without moving structural walls, because “lost” space devoted to bass traps can often be recovered. “The amount of real estate dedicated to trap space has been reduced as designs have evolved over the years,” notes Yanchar. “It's now easier to calculate and there's less overkill.”

Occasionally, the additional space for a control room expansion can be found by revising an existing floor plan. “Sound Station Seven had an old '70s-style compression ceiling — a very dead control room — and it didn't really sound very good,” recalls Manzella. “The owner said, ‘I've got this really beautiful recording room, but nobody's really happy with the control room.’ So I came in and said, ‘I've got to tell you, I've got a crazy idea.’ My crazy idea was to rip out the control room, a machine room and a lounge, and turn the whole thing into a significantly larger control room that basically encompassed the functions of the machine room and the lounge all in one big room. He liked the idea, we talked about a couple of different ways to do it, and we implemented it and it came out wonderful.”


In the case of a recent dramatic renovation at Blackbird Studio in Nashville, attracting a better clientele was not a motivating factor. Rather, it was the extreme perfectionism of owner John McBride, who dreamed of having his own studio for 25 years. “I'm not exactly running this studio as a business,” says McBride, founder of sound rental company MD Systems (currently MD Systems/Clair Bros. Audio) and husband of country singer Martina McBride. “My goal is to have the finest audio recording environment in North America, which doesn't necessarily coincide with an intelligent business plan.” McBride is an unabashed Beatles nut (hence the name of the studio) and aims to equal the recording standards of George Martin and Abbey Road Studios. “If I ever have the chance to get Paul McCartney in here, it's got to be the best,” McBride explains.

Of course, perfectionism comes at a cost. When McBride bought the two-room studio, originally built for producer/engineer Brent Maher (The Judds, Kenny Rogers, Jo Dee Messina, etc.), he brought Michael Cronin in to redesign the second room: a mixing suite. The remodel was a great success — according to McBride, it is now engineer/producer Richard Dodd's favorite room (aside from his own) in Nashville — and Cronin was then re-engaged to redo the A room.

Unfortunately for McBride, he had upgraded the A room once already, but Cronin's new design necessitated trashing most of that work. “There were some suck-outs in the room, one in the engineer's position,” recalls McBride. “I tried to put a Band-Aid on it: put some subs in and retuned the boxes. But basically, I was fighting physics. We had some success with the room rolling along just fine for about four or five months, but then I did some rough mixes on Martina's new record and the inaccuracy of the low end bothered me enough to know that it had to change. I had to cancel three weeks of bookings, but it had to be right. We've added seven feet of depth to the control room, which gives us a little over 30 feet; enough to give us 20 cycles accurately.”

As well as expanding the control room, Cronin's new design includes the addition of a complete second recording room adjoining the existing studio space. “The A control room will be finished in about two weeks,” said Cronin in late March. “Then, we'll be breaking ground on an 1,400-square-foot live room that will be added onto the A room. That will more than double the original floor surface and add a 22-foot ceiling.” Conceived as a “drum room,” the second A recording room will also feature a second live chamber and movable acoustic panels on the wall to change the reverb time. “These are all custom-made by RPG,” explains Cronin. “They look like a door panel that opens and closes and will vary the reverb, I would say, by half of a second.”

Commenting on the tortuous and expensive process that will eventually help him realize his dream, McBride wryly observes that, “I wanted to do something perfectly right, and a studio's not the best choice when you want to do something perfectly right. It's a money pit, man; it'll bleed you dry. We have gone to the tenth power to make this studio a wonderful place, and this level of quality is expensive, but I don't care because I am on a mission.”


At Blackbird, which is located in the spacious Cherry Hill section of Nashville, Cronin and McBride were able to develop a design that included new construction. But in many situations, moving walls is not an option: Pelonis has recently been working with a game developer who is leasing space in an office building and must return the space to the landlord in its original condition. “There are guys who are moving in and out of buildings all of the time,” says Pelonis. “They'll rent out an office building for two years to do a couple of projects — interactive CD work and whatnot — and then maybe move to another part of the country or liquidate.”

For Shiny Entertainment, which is developing video games based on The Matrix, Pelonis has come up with a modular approach to creating a usable audio environment. “Like everybody in this economy, they didn't really want to sink twice as much money into these rooms if they didn't need to,” explains Pelonis. “This way, they could pull all of this acoustic stuff out and sell it, and hand the space back to the landlord as an office building.”

Pelonis has been working with modular systems since he patented the Edge back in the '80s. “It's still widely used, and I can't build enough of them,” he notes. “Peter D'Antonio at RPG and I have been developing a new, improved version, and we are about to hit the market with a high-end modular studio package that'll be 10 to 15 thousand dollars.” Pelonis used a prototype system to upgrade a basement mastering room for Geffen Records. “Dave Donnelly ran it for them,” he recalls. “It was basically a rectangle, and we created a real mastering studio with all this modular stuff. We built it off-site and then showed up with a Ryder truck and a couple of guys. In maybe five hours, he had a studio.”


All of the designers we spoke to divide their time among all-new designs and renovations and/or additions to existing spaces, though it is hard to get a fix on the relative size of the two market segments. “I would say the biggest trend I've seen is toward privately owned facilities,” says Manzella. “Whether makeovers or ground-ups, we're seeing more and more significant projects that are being funded by an individual producer or artist or producer/artist and are being built for the purpose of their own work and not to be booked to outside clients.”

As to the overall health of the industry, Manzella is upbeat: “I thought for years that the recording business was more or less immune to the general economic climate of the country — up until 9/11. New York took such an awful hit at that point, and all the allied entertainment businesses — including recording and broadcast and production — also took a hit; at least anybody who relies on clients. Network broadcasting carries on, of course, but the commercial operations that rely on outside clients are still recovering, including my business. I'm very happy to report that the first quarter of this year is probably the biggest quarter I've ever had. I've got nothing but a positive feel for the way things are headed right now.”

Chris Michie is a Mix contributing editor.

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