Recording Studio Design Review

Brandon Drury —  June 21, 2010

Recording Studio DesignI’m in a quest to build my “Superstudio”. Basically, I’m looking to move from an entirely unideal situation at home into a much-more ideal studio custom tailored to my needs. Instead of fighting 8′ ceilings, I’m ready to start fighting 16′ ceilings (or higher). The idea is to do this from a modern home-recording-on-steroids kind of perspective. This means I will not fall into the money-is-no-object studio world that few manage to stay in business. However, I’ve decided that my rooms will sound BAD ASS. Period. I may have a little more leakage than Ocean Way does and maybe my interior decorator will actually be a straight person (because I can’t afford the more expensive and obviously more expensive alternative) but I’ll have a facility where I can do my thing.

So going into Recording Studio Design by Phillip Newell, I was looking for a book that:

  • Told me exactly what I needed to meet my sonic goals
  • Gave guidelines on the “usability” side of designing a studio. (Line of sight, electric stuff, practical stuff, etc)
  • Gave alternatives so that I could figure out what best suited my needs so that I could choose when to compromise and when not to.
  • Be halfway interesting to read.

So here we go……

“High End” Studios Only

I can tell you right now that Recording Studio Design is using the “old school” approach to building a pro studio. By “old school”, I mean they are coming from a time when the walls were 18” thick of solid concrete for near-100% isolation between rooms. (I’m exaggerating, the author never recommends 18” thick walls, exactly.) He does, however, present designs that are well beyond the scope of any home recorder or home recorder moving up I know. I realize the old timers like to say, “Back in my day, a studio was PROFESSIONAL!”. They are probably right. That’s the same generation that spent $6 trilllion on nukes (Seriously!…..when accounting for inflation) and kept making more. This generation puts everything the credit card generation ever did to shame. Nowadays, we’ve got to keep a tighter pocketbook. I don’t consider that to be a terrible thing. I don’t need a studio that is bomb proof. I just want something that sounds awesome (way better than the house I’ve been making due with for nearly a decade) and is ergonomically solid enough to get some work done in. The end.

So right off the bat, if you aren’t Mutt Lange, this book is probably overkill for your home studio needs. Even though the author has built an endless list of pro facilities, I’m not sure many of them could stay in business in the current climate of recording land. So basically, I’m looking for a more economical method of meeting my Superstudio goals.

If you are building anything “modest”, this is not the book for you. (I realize the definition of “modest” in studio land is perpetually changing, but if you use that word, it ain’t gonna happen with this book.)

College Physics Required….Almost

Good ol’ Phillip Newell is a smart guy. There is no doubt about that. The only problem is he assumes you are a fart smeller as well. Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History In Time, is dramatically easier to read (at least for the first 80 pages or so). Recording Studio Design is packed with equations. He makes no attempt to dumb down any of the concepts. He assumes you have a strong background in Alebra. This is okay, but, generally speaking, I found this to be more of a philosophy book than anything.

Practical Overload and Underload

There are specific examples of numerous studios that the author has designed and these often support a concept he is trying to teach. These have strong value, but in terms of building up a plan of attack for my own studio, I never got that, “Ah ha! That’s what I’ll do!” feeling. It never came obviously clear to me what approach I should take in any given situation (vocal booth, live room, or control room).

Granted, I’m always reading this kind of crap and know much of the intermediate stuff. (For example, from day #1 I’ve planned my control room to start with 16′ ceilings before I knock the “ceiling” down to 8′ with literally TONS of Rockwool. So Newell’s explanations on that were preaching to the choir.)

While the author goes into insane detail on certain aspects of studio design (again, much of it overkill for my needs) in the index you will not find “bass trap” anywhere. He certainly covers absorption heavily (but with a few problems for those of us living in the fattest country in the world*), but I still didn’t walk out knowing the most economical method killing the low end reflections in a room. He’s more covering concepts (from an academia standpoint) than actually teaching the whens, whys, and whats of selecting a method based on the reader’s needs.

I’ll give you an example of the overload I’m talking about. He states that the problem with Isaac Newton’s theories of sound (apparently Newton got that one wrong) was due to the fact that he didn’t take into account the heat from the friction of wave traveling through air space. [Nick_Nolte_Being_A_SmartAss_Cop]Ohhhhh, WHO GIVES A SHIT!!!!!![/Nick_Nolte_Being_A_SmartAss_Cop]

Here’s another one. He discusses how to calculate the tension of the spring necessary for holding up a floated floor. That I can live with. Then he goes on to state that using two springs gets you into “double pendelum” mode. He then goes on to reference physics experiments and studies that discuss the chaotic element of what happens when you have to pendelums hooked together. As interesting as this is, I would have preferred him simply telling me, “Just use one spring and this is how you figure out what you need”. Ironically, I never quite figured out how to estimate the weight of my studio gear that would go on top of this floor and therefor, in my mind, this makes the whole damn section useless. Whatever.

I do want to point out that when the author says, “This is how it is” it’s usually damn good advice. THIS, I appreciate! I wish he had sections of “If this is happening, DO THIS!” That would be awesome and be worth infinitely more!

The “history of room design” section wasn’t nearly as interesting as the history of cold war planes book. So guess which one I DON’T want to read! I guess reading about why 60s control rooms sucked has it’s merit, but we could cut out a lot of wasted time by just saying “X causes Y so you should avoid it.” Done. A virtual tour through the history of sound isn’t going to beat out the space shuttle documentary. Sorry.

Commander Data Personality….Only Serious

Phillip wastes no time with small talk, emotions, or anything that would make this book interesting or fun on a level beyond covering concepts. He cracked one joke once which was BADLY needed. You can feel your bones rot while you consume the knowledge. I found myself needing to “go out and do something” after reading a chapter (if you catch my drift).

In comparison, Alton Everest’s Master Handbook of Acoustics, while definitely a text book, feels dramatically easier to read. I mention this because I’m used to reading technical crap and I realize that not everyone on Earth is dumb enough to read such headache-inducing stuff.

Back to Recording Studio Design…….

How a person can go so far out of his way to dehumanize himself is actually impressive, but that doesn’t mean reading this wasn’t a total freakin’ chore. I would have given this book a much more positive review if I hadn’t felt like this was some kind of Buddhist test.

*No American Equivalent
The author mentions items like “Cotton Waste Felt” and “Deadsheet” often in his designs. THIS is good. The only problem is he never recommends a specific brand and searching in Google for this stuff turns up practically nothing. It appears I’m not alone as you can see on this thread at John L Sayers. Even experts have to guess at the materials he’s using. Not good!

Why he doesn’t have a little blog where it clarifies this is more than disappointing. It would probably take him 5 minutes to post it somewhere. As a guy who is looking for THE design for my studio, this lack of practicality reduces much of the book’s hard hitting material to cerebral exercises. I’m certainly not going to say, “Ahh screw it! We’ll just use pink stuff instead of dead sheet.” That could RUIN my studio.

When Science Goes A Hair Too Far

I’m a big science spectator. (I check the Large Hadron Collider updates almost as much as a half-assed sports fan checks the scores.) However, there are things that science can’t explain yet. (Where did we come from? Why are we here? How can you make an “awesome” recording?) I think certain aspects of the book push really hard with equations and such. They use science to the fullest extent. I like that when it produces better results (as it does with fighter jets, for example) , but in many cases there is a huge push for equations and all this excessively technical jive (even for a guy who has a DRAMATICALLY higher tolerance for this than most), but ultimately ends up with a conclusion that says (paraphrased) “You are still screwed”. In other words, I don’t want to deal with a rigid, technical methodology unless it IS going to deliver better musical results. You can’t tell me to do calculus and then later on say, “Well, we really don’t know yet.” That doesn’t work for me. These types of issues popped up more towards the end of the book, but were worth noting.

Another thing that leaped out at me was what I’m calling the “military grade dilemma”. In Alton Everest’s “Master Handbook On Acoustics” he’s discussing air conditioning systems. He tells you right off the bat that with a few simple uses of specific common practices that your local guy WILL know how to deal with, you can get what you need. He says, “Don’t overbuild this!”. I never got the vibe that Phillip Newell was concerned about overbuilding anything. This make sense for battle-grade military equipment where people die if their shoes come untied or whatever, but I rarely wear shoes in my studio anyway. You get the picture.

Some Of My Favorite Stuff

Stone / Rock – I had not seen a recording studio design / room acoustics book focus on the use of stone before. Aesthetically, rock walls look amazing (super close to a dungeon if done “correctly” although you may prefer some sort of unicorn-looking room for whimpy clients). It appears they do some outstanding things acoustically, too, when that sound is desired. I think I remember seeing quite a bit of stone in Tommy Lee’s live room.

For anyone interested in building a room out of stone, I’d highly recommend that particular chapter in this book.

Control Room Ceilings – Newell presented one of the coolest methods for chewing up ceiling space in a way that absorbs low end that I had not seen emphasized in such a way before. (Again, Newell assumes everyone building a studio has at least 14′ of ceiling height to play with for a control room.)

If you can handle robot-like-personality books, are extremely technical, understand a great deal about math and physics, plan on building a very high end studio, and don’t have a strong understanding of acoustics and studio design this is the PERFECT book for you. It probably is THE book although I suspect you’ll look for more specific practicality afterwards.

This can’t be your only book on studio design…..not if you live in the United States and have no idea what materials he is talking about.

If you are looking to build a mega sounding studio, but maybe don’t need a ton of isolation and are trying to max out your bang for the buck with as simple as setup as possible, this book is going to leave you hanging in a few areas. It certainly fills in some big blanks. I am glad I read it. I just wish it would have taken a more practical, ass kicking approach and made the thing fun to read. It wouldn’t have taken much to inject a little personality into some really difficult concepts. It just seems smart to make a book a pleasure to read.

Maybe I was shooting for the sky, but I was hoping this was going to be “the book” for me. I can’t say that was the case. It has extended my overall knowledge and I keep it on the shelf for specific reference, but I do feel like I just got done with a really tough job! I need a vacation!

I will need to dig deeper and find other books that can better address my situation and give me some more-specific advice.

Brandon Drury

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Brandon Drury quit counting at 1,200 recorded songs in his busy home recording studio. He is the creator of and is the author of the Killer Home Recording series.

7 responses to Recording Studio Design Review

  1. Well when you find one, let me know ok? I could use that info too! :)

  2. I have to say that I really enjoyed his book. :) I did read it a couple of times or more.., and refer back to some of his articles from time to time. Mind you, I do have a PhD in Music Technology so perhaps that helped a little… I also enjoy F.Alton Everest, who as we know is a common required text for most recording courses today. But I think you hit the nail on the head when you mentioned needing to review several books on the subject. After all, we all hear things differently, I guess because music is an emotive art realization, which is why we might be in the business anyway. Most of us have too many studio toys, if we spent more time actually recording and creating, rather than pondering the pros or cons of a particular device or construction method… we might be happier. Although… having just read your article about How to blow $10,000 and yes I have done this too….many times over i.e. ( my first Kodak CB Burner circa 1993) My first ProTools rig… the list goes on and on… my first Nubus Mac…. The concept of spending your money “wisely” and thinking about the long haul… 20 years is not a bad point of view. If we could put together a well designed studio that we could live with for a long time it must be money well spent. For example even a vintage Neumann u67 microphone in a poorly designed room, may not sound as good as a modern Audio Technica microphone in a well designed room. These are all things to think about. One thing many newcomers to recording overlook is that the laws of physics don’t scale down. You can’t find a design for a fantastic studio and scale it down to fit in your basement… it won’t work…! Well, not in the way it was designed to work… So, if you are really serious about building a great studio environment, read this book. :)

  3. I can personally recommend the book by Rod Gervais. Less math, more action, from an experienced builder. He can usually be found over at johnlsayers so you can ask the man yourself if you have further queries. ‘Home recording, build it like the pros’, cheesy title but content is the real deal.


  4. Thanks for the tip, dude. While I really like Alton Everest’s Master Handbook of Acoustics, I’m still looking for that one book that’s right for me. (Maybe wishful thinking.) I’ll definitely check out Home Recording, Build It Like The Pros.


  5. ‘Home Recording Studio – build it like the pros’ is a very good book with a lot of detail,diagrams and info and is perfect for someone assuming the contractor role in a true ‘ground-up’ pro studio build (the title means what it says) – a great reference with much insight but was a bit above my means and application (my basement).

    ‘Acoustic Design for the Home Studio’ by Mitch Gallagher is a good read with a lot of flexibility and options for different applications presented in a very practical manner… at least for me. Formulas and ‘ideals’ with a kind of best-to-worse presentation to fit most peoples home options. Built my dream studio(for now… and quite some time) along with custom made sound batts on an fairly limited budget and have been enjoying for 2+ years now – I recommend for anyone on any budget.

  6. Gee – I always thought Auralex’s “Acoustics 101″ ebook had my dream studio design in it. It certainly follows a lot of the acoustic principles I had learned – no parallel surfaces, diffusion, absorption, isolation etc. Now add a 16 foot ceiling to that and maybe you’ve got something!

  7. I find it interesting that Auralex makes an Acoustics 101 guide. They’ve built their whole business around unteaching people about acoustics.

    The first thing I teach when discussing acoustics is cleaning up the low end. The top end is a no brainer and can be done extremely easily. I’m not aware of any product that Auralex makes that even addresses this ultra huge low end problem in home studio acoustics. Frankly, I find them to be completely misleading and relying entirely on this urban legend of eggcrate foam.

    It should be fun reading what they have to say.