I recently had a conversation with sound designer/producer Rick Allen, who has a high-end studio at home. Rick produces original audio collections for film, radio, TV, video, advertising, Web development and gaming, and he has become concerned about the lack of treatment in his studio. As our conversation developed, I asked him about his room size (22x19x8 feet) and gear. He’s oriented to the 22-foot wall with Pro Tools as his main DAW; he uses a variety of virtual and analog instruments in his daily work.
Rick’s room treatment is basic. There are large, flat absorption panels on three walls, and he has a cloud suspended above the listening position. He has a large main desk, a side desk to the right and a rack of keyboards on his left. It looks like a very comfortable setup. His monitors are mid-field three-way speakers on sturdy Sound Anchor platforms. In the back of the room, there are some racks for his converters and other processors. Being that he does a lot of radio work, the room doubles as a voice-over booth with a mic position in one corner.
As we got deeper into the nuts and bolts of his signal flow, I recognized some areas where I thought he could make some improvements before getting into acoustic treatment. Don’t get me wrong; I’m a big believer in knowing your space acoustically and getting the problem areas under control. However, acoustic treatment will only help if your gear is giving you accuracy from the beginning to the end of your chain.
My first suggestion was for him to get his monitors closer to his head. This helps take some, but not all, of the room out of play, especially if you’re listening at low volumes. His speakers were older and too large to tuck in, so I suggested the Focal CMS 65s with the CMS Sub as a good choice that wouldn’t break the bank. Another choice would be the PMC DB1S-A IIs, which are capable performers in the near field though a bit more money. Next, I suggested he perch his speakers on Primacoustic Recoil Stabilizers to help his imaging and overall sound. The speakers and the stabilizers would come in just over $3k.
The next thing back in the chain is the monitor controller. I suggested the Dangerous Source ($899), which is perfect for his setup. It has two analog, one USB and one digital input, 24-bit/192kHz D/A converters, separate speaker and headphone outputs with their own volume control and switching for two speaker sets. He can use this both for his monitor control needs and to drive his headphones for voice-overs, and it sounds great. Another choice would be the SPL 2381, which features volume control, source switching for three sets of monitors, talkback, and cue mixing functions ($962).
Next, we moved on to his front end. Rick is using 96 I/Os for his Pro Tools conversion, and although they’ve been used to make thousands of records, the older Avid converters are long in the tooth. As an alternative I suggested Lynx Auroras or the Antelope Orion 32, which has S/PDIF I/O, 32 channels of analog I/O, word clock I/O, ADAT I/O, USB I/O and MADI I/O ($2,995.)
Next on the list is power, which I think is greatly overlooked in small studios. Whether you buy into the concept or not, clean AC power can make a huge difference in sound quality and will lower your noise floor. The Furman P-1800 AR voltage regulator and power conditioner costs under $900 and can take care of any fluctuations. The next step would be to have balanced power. This is where you have to pay the big bucks and it gets you into audiophile land. Furman has the P-2400 IT ($2,499), and it goes up from there.
It’s tough for a working audio pro to spend that amount of money on something that doesn’t make sound, but in my experience, the payoff warrants the expense. Once you’re in that neighborhood, you may consider higher-end AC cables (this is where the scoffers stand up). I find that quality cables do make a difference, and there is hard science to back it up. Michael Griffin from Essential Sound Products (essentialsound.com) and I have had many conversations on the topic, and he’s a true evangelist. The discussion exceeds the boundaries of this column, but if you’re in for balanced power, you should be in for beefier AC lines.
Another thing to consider is power junction boxes and your AC wall outlets. Belkin makes a sturdy power junction box you can buy at any home improvement store ($25), and while you’re there, get a “hospital grade” AC power outlet ($12). It uses heavy-duty brass parts—no contractor-grade stuff here—and you can replace your old outlets as a DIY project.
Now you’re ready to move on to acoustic treatment if you think you need it and have the money. Some of the “room” problems we hear in our rigs are what’s coming out of the speakers themselves, and if you monitor at conservative levels, you can reduce the room’s influence on the mix. Yes, room acoustics and treatment are important, but it’s the gear we really hear. As you upgrade your signal path, your listening experience will improve every step along the way.