In a separate post, we wrote extensively about acoustic treatment. This involves making your home recording studio a suitable space for making professional recordings by dealing with reverberation, flutter echoes and so on.
Here we look in a bit more detail at a related but different aspect of setting up your home recording studio space: that of soundproofing. While full on soundproofing of a room will cost thousands, there are various materials you can use to try and minimise the effect your recordings might have on your relationships with your friends, family and neighbours.
Don’t you just wish that soundproofing a home recording studio was as easy as giving it a new coat of paint? Budding musicians or seasoned professionals would be able to play whenever they liked without worrying about the bass reverberating through the walls, or annoying the neighbours (well, let’s not rush to judge on that last point).
Whilst it is possible to soundproof a studio on a budget, there is still a lot of misinformation and old wives’ tales about the best ways to approach it. From carpet tiles to egg cartons, paper cups and hay, there is a science behind why some materials are better suited than others for soundproofing. Choose wisely!
Soundproof paint peels off
Whether you’re building your first home studio or renovating an existing one, you’ll need professional materials. While soundproof paint might appear to be a quick, cheap and easy “off the shelf” option that can dampen everyday noises, it’s not going to soundproof a studio that’s for sure. When it comes to doing things properly, there are no shortcuts.
Carpets block out the wrong sound waves
A carpeted floor does have more effective soundproofing abilities than, say, a wooden or tiled floor. That’s because it is a soft material, so it absorbs sound waves rather than deflects them. However, carpets only absorb high-frequency sound waves (like human voices) and not low-frequency waves or bass tones – the type you’ll need to insulate against.
They’re fine to use in other parts of the house or studio to limit noise from other rooms – but carpets are nowhere near effective enough for serious musicians and producers. To be blunt: putting carpet tiles on your walls is not going to stop sound escaping, or block noise interference from your recordings. In fact, it will probably give your recording a dull tone due to the absence of high-frequency sound waves.
Packaging is a waste of time, unless you’re Bert Jansch
Egg cartons and paper cup carriers are as ineffective as carpet when it comes to their soundproofing qualities. It might block some noise, but cardboard isn’t great at dealing with low-frequency sound waves that cause the most interference. But this hasn’t stopped musicians from trying (and succeeding).
In 1964, Scottish folk musician Bert Jansch recorded his track “Counting Blues” on a reel-to-reel tape recorder in the kitchen of producer Bill Leader’s Camden home. They reportedly soundproofed the room with blankets and egg boxes. Jansch then went on to record the rest of his 1965 debut album Bert Jansch in the same room. The album was sold to Transatlantic Records for £100, and went on to sell 150,000 copies – eventually winning him international critical acclaim.
Hay is excellent… but something of a fire hazard
In theory, hay would be an excellent choice of material for soundproofing. It’s highly absorbent and because of its structure, it allows high-frequency sound waves to pass through relatively undisturbed.
A 2003 study by Jasper van der Linden from the Eindhoven Technical University in the Netherlands found that an earth-plastered straw-bale wall had about the same soundproofing ability as a decoupled brick wall cavity, and perhaps a slight advantage in terms of absorbing low-frequency sound waves.
But before you head to the nearest farm, the problem with using hay bales to soundproof your walls is practicality. Hay bales come in large, well, bales! Do you have the space? Not to mention hay is messy and will decompose and probably start smelling and possibly turn damp. As if that weren’t enough to put you off, it’s a major fire hazard.
The silver bullet of technology will save us!
Earlier this year, a new “metamaterial” that soundproofs a room at the flick of a switch was getting a lot of attention in the press. Invented by Professor Nicholas Fang, a mechanical engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, the material uses elastic helices made from coiled tubes to interfere with sound waves.
The spring-like structures allow sounds that are audible to humans to pass through naturally when they are open. Then, at the flick of a switch, the springs compress to cause a 30dB drop in frequency, taking previously audible noises beyond the reach of human hearing. The science is impressive, but whether it takes off as an affordable soundproofing option remains to be seen.
Which leaves us with… foam!
Many people think that foam is an ideal material for soundproofing a studio and stopping noise interference. This is true, generally speaking. It’s absorbent, porous and, if you purchase the right type, can be highly effective. But if you are using cheap foam, such as the type used in mattresses or as polystyrene packaging, you’re going to encounter the same issues as you would with carpet and cardboard: it has no power against the low-frequency sound waves.
The best solution is to invest in a professional grade of acoustic foam. This will help to block sound from escaping through your walls, ceilings and floors. At the same time, it allows the right amount of high-frequency sound waves to reverberate, producing a good quality of sound if you want to use the room as a home studio – and it’s more affordable than you might think.
So there you have it, if you want to do a job properly, don’t opt for quick and easy – it’s a shortcut to nowhere fast. Old wives’ tales, carpet tiles, egg cartons, hay and polystyrene packaging might block out the high frequency sounds but they’ll let the bass rumble on, out and all over the place.