Whether working in clubs, bars, studios, stadiums, boardrooms or bedrooms, we deal with a lot of imperfect acoustical spaces, and making it right is no picnic. Sometimes, either through mere luck or clever application of tools or theory, everything works. Unfortunately, in-home production brings perhaps the most difficult acoustical environment of all. In such cases, the typically small rooms and parallel walls are a recipe for acoustic disaster, especially when tracking or mixing.
While difficult, a successful production is possible even in the most problematic spaces. Virtual instruments, samplers, synths and loops can provide nearly everything you need, and direct boxes, guitar/bass preamps, Pods, SansAmps and ReAmps can put you 90 percent of the way there — all from the convenience of the mix position. The time-proven techniques of near-field monitoring and close-miking are definite assets in dealing with bad spaces, but like the concept of “parlez” in Pirates of the Caribbean, these are really more like guidelines rather than absolutes.
Monitoring at close distances does reduce the room's effect on the listener. But all bets are off once the playback levels become excessive and the monitors' output begins to physically excite the room. The situation is even worse with a loud subwoofer. It's true that low frequencies tend to be nondirectional, but LF signals tend to couple with corners, adjacent walls and floor surfaces. Sub placement is an entire art unto itself, and finding the optimum position requires some trial and error.
Close-miking will attenuate room anomalies to a great degree. However, attempts at stereo miking — particularly with spaced-pair drum overheads in a low-ceiling room — can invite nasty phase problems that can result in odd dropouts and cancellations at seemingly random frequencies. But in any acoustic miking endeavor, the key to success is knowing your space. Every room, no matter how funky, will have at least one optimum location, and some experimentation in finding that magic spot is time well-invested. Sometimes, the mere act of opening the door can change a room's sonic signature, while leaving a closet door ajar can break up room reflections.
Not all of us have the luxury of recording in the stellar facilities that grace Mix covers or are spotlighted in our annual “Class of” feature. But if you're working in an imprecise space, think about the room and ways of working any irregularities into your favor. A carpeted, heavily furnished living room will tend to be fairly dry; hallways are usually reverberant and may provide just the right natural slap for miking guitar amps; staircases are natural diffusors that could be used in front or behind the source; and, often overlooked today, bathroom reverb was a mainstay of many past pop and rock records.
From the mix perspective, the worse your room/monitor system, the greater the importance of checking your mixes for translation against other systems, ranging from audiophile to automobile, and head-blaster to headphones. A little ear education doesn't hurt, either — it's hard to know what's missing in a playback unless you know what proper reproduction sounds like.
A poor acoustic space doesn't mean you will get a poor product, but here, as with any endeavor, some smart thinking, a pinch of creativity and a willingness to try something different can make a huge difference in your productions.