Gee, that’s a harsh title! But if you are like me and spend even a minimum amount of time on the various gear forums, it is probably not the first or the last time you will see that statement or some variant thereof.
It usually starts quite harmlessly: you have just saved up enough money for a cool new studio toy. Maybe it’s a new compressor, or a new microphone, or better yet a new set of studio monitors. So you wander into your favorite gear forum, and post the question, “I just saved up X amount of dollars, what should I buy?” Spirited answers pour in from owners, users, and dreamers, about that perfect magic box that will set your eardrums atwitter and help you achieve total mix domination.
Then it happens—the arrival of the thread killer. And he says, “You know you’re better off sticking with the gear you already have and taking that money and treating your room!” Tires screech to a halt, civilians run for cover, and although you try and retort, it’s too late, debate ensues, your thread is derailed and your excitement crushed.
I know, I was there, I lived it. My gear lust is second to none, and yet I stand here, convicted, to tell you that the two best things I ever did for my studio were (a) to buy the best monitors I could afford, and (b)—you guessed it—to treat my room.
I still remember the first time I sat down in my newly re-arranged and treat-ed studio, moved my chair into the sweet spot and cranked up some of my favorite reference mixes. I was completely blown away by how much better they sounded.
Less muddy! Less hyped! While that may sound like romanticized hyperbole, it was pretty close to the literal truth.
The real proof of concept came as I re-learned to mix in a room I had already occupied for four years. My first few months of mixing were pretty rough. I had to learn to trust what I was now hearing, and unlearn many of my bad habits, most of which came from purposefully over- and under-compensating for the troublesome frequencies in my previously untreated space.
Once I got a handle on that, however, mixing became less stressful. It became easier and easier to trust what I was hearing, and in turn it would translate better in the real world. I could stop making excuses for my room and telling my clients the sonic equivalent of “objects in mirror may appear larger than they are”. My big question to myself was: After twelve years, two rooms, and countless releases, why did I wait this long to do something so simple and yet so rewarding?
Well, room treatment is not sexy—it has no blinking lights, you can’t sing into it, it’s not vintage, and when done well, it has no mojo. That may be the easy and obvious answer, but as I thought about it, I realized there was also a deeper reticence. There was a fear factor.
If I buy a boutique compressor, I can be pretty sure it will work and sound great, and if it doesn’t, well, it comes with a warranty. If it breaks, it’s return-able, and if it doesn’t break and I just don’t like it, it has resale value.
Room treatment, on the other hand, is heavily steeped in math, physics and science—all subjects I pretty much got straight Cs and Ds in. What if I put a bass trap or absorption panel in the wrong place? What if I buy the wrong rockwool? What if I don’t build it correctly? Those are all expensive mistakes! So for many years I played it safe, but ultimately made my mix-ing harder on myself than it had to be.
So why am I telling you this? Because now I am that guy, the one who pops up on threads and says… “Treat your room!” Like the person with a fear of heights who takes up sky diving, you can do it; you can work through the excuses and the fear. Ask yourself, “Why am I not treating my room?”
It’s actually easier than you think. You can spend a little, or a lot. You can learn all about it, or not. There are dozens of DIY web sites that will gladly show you how to calculate and compensate for the frequencies in your room, they will show you how to build this stuff on a budget, there are YouTube videos on the subject, and this magazine you’re holding tackles the subject regularly, most recently in our June 2011 issue.
If you are not the DIY type (I wasn’t) there are also many professional pre-built solutions from companies that will gladly help you work through what you need and where to put it. I opted for pre-made products from both GIK Acoustics and Primacoustic and could not be happier. Both companies took time to help me figure out what I needed, what it would cost, where to put it… and why. In other words: There is a solution for everyone, at every level.
In the end, mixing becomes so much easier when you can trust your room. Period! It makes it a joy rather than a chore, and face it—you’re still going to find a way to keep buying new gear, too, and it will make your new (and old) gear sound better as well.
Paul Vnuk Jr. ([email protected]) is a recording engineer, producer, sound designer, and musician living and working in Milwaukee. His clients include bands from all over the world in genres ranging from indie-rock to Celtic folk, as well as Sony Creative Software (for whom he recently recorded the Continental Drift sound library). Check out his website at www.majale.com.