Bad Acoustics Overview


Acoustic treatment is by far the most effective means of improving the sound quality of your listening environment. Better yet, acoustic treatment is extremely inexpensive if you are willing and able to do the work yourself. Like so many issues today, the problem is bad information. I won't go too far down that rabbit hole as Marcy has already teased me about airing some of my 'Engineer Rage' in the Post Sound and Mixing series...


The problem is that the truth is extremely complex and situationally dependent.  There are no one size fits all answers in acoustics, or in any subject for that matter. So how do we approach this?

We simplify by function. You the listener want to hear the output from your speakers. For what purpose? How does your space fail to deliver?

Let's take two examples:

Example one: You want to treat your listening room so you can sit in your lazy boy and enjoy your vintage album collection with friends. You've noticed that the sound is dark and muddy and only gets worse when you turn up the volume. Also, your roommate works nights and the sound leakage keeps him/her from much needed sleep.

Example two: You have a project studio and you would like to improve audio clarity at your listening position. You notice as you play your way up the keyboard that some notes sound louder than others and that some notes take longer to decay than others. You're also not sure that what you hear from your speakers is truly representative of what was recorded.

In example one the goal is to have a warm, enjoyable listening experience from a variety of positions in the room and to acoustically isolate the room so as to not disturb the aforementioned roommate.

In example two the goal is to create a surgically accurate listening position and to remove as much room interference as possible.


We now see the problem. What are the tools we can use to fix it?

There are 3 types of acoustic treatment: barriers, absorbers and diffusers. A barrier prevents sound from passing through it. An absorber absorbs sonic energy that passes through it. A diffuser scatters sonic energy that comes in contact with it. We'll get into more detail in future posts but that is more than enough detail for our purposes.

In example one it is probably best to start with isolation. Thus, we could install sound barriers on or in the walls to isolate the space from the outside world. This will please our roommate but will change the acoustics of the room itself, making it much wetter (echo-y). In most cases, if you are going to isolate the space, it's best to do that first. After a quick reassessment of the space, we can focus on the muddiness and wetness of the room.  We use broadband absorption(placed in key locations) to rein in the excess mid-range energy and then we can use a mix of broadband absorption and diffusion until the room caresses the sound with a nice subtle glow.

In example two we will assume isolation is not an issue. Since engineers typically work at a much lower volume level this is a fair assumption. We then look to limit all sources of acoustic interference. A simple sentence that represents a huge subject:)! We will be much more aggressive in this example than in example one as the goal is to create a space where the engineer can truly trust what he/she hears and not one that is necessarily acoustically pleasing. We are also paying more attention to the primary listening spot of the engineer as opposed to the room as a whole in example one.


As you can see, acoustics is about making assessments and solving problems. There is no such thing as a perfect room. The goal is to customize your room to fit your specific needs.  I think of this like the martial arts. You don't want to fill your head with a bunch of 'if this' 'then that' techniques. You want to understand and master the concepts and how they relate to each other so that you can see a problem and solve it in real time. Rather than handing out acoustic fish, the goal of this series is to train an army of acoustic fisherman:).

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About the author

Marc Antonio Pritchett is a working actor, musician and fight coordinator in the greater Los Angeles area. He is the co-founder and lead engineer at Steel Dawn Recording Studio.

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