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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Curse Of Low Ceilings

It's time for another book excerpt, this time from The Studio Builder's Handbook. This time it's regarding a problem that most home studios have - low ceilings. What most musicians and engineers don't know is why they're usually bad for sound and hopefully this article will offer an explanation.

As a bonus, I've included a section on studio floors as well, since a frequent question is whether it's better to cover it with rug or leave it hard.
"Low ceilings are another frequently encountered factor in a room. While a low ceiling (8 or 9 feet) isn’t that much of a problem in a control room, it’s a different story when it comes to a tracking room for a couple reasons. First of all, the sound from most of the drum kit (especially the cymbals) projects upwards and will splash off the ceiling (especially if it’s a hard surface) back down towards the drums, causing some frequency cancellation and altering the sound of the drums as a result.

Secondly, a low ceiling is the sworn enemy of overhead mics. This is because with an eight foot ceiling (for example), you frequently can’t get the mics up high enough to capture enough of the kit. As a result, the overhead drum kit mics are relegated to being cymbal mics (although this may be OK under the right circumstances). If you raise the mics up near the low ceiling, you may capture some of those unwanted reflections, thereby altering the sound of the kit. Higher ceilings of at least 10 feet (12 to 15 are best) eliminates these problems, which is why everyone likes recording in studios that have them. If you’re locked into a room with a low ceiling, the only choice you have is to treat it to either deaden the reflections, or at least make them sound as good as possible.

The Floor
Regardless of the space you’re dealing with and its ultimate use, the question of what to do with the floor always comes up. Should it be soft with carpet or hard and reflective with wood or cement. If you have a choice, you’d rather make the ceiling soft and the floor reflective for several reasons.

First of all, you can always put a throw or area rug down on a hard floor as needed, but an even bigger reason is the psychological aspect. Having a hard surface below our ears gives us a reference point that’s familiar and always consistent, which inherently feels more comfortable to us. The ceiling doesn’t have to all be soft. You can hang sound panels from the ceiling (sometimes called “clouds”) at the same ratio of placement as on the walls. Just make sure they’re extra secure so no one gets beaned in the middle of a session if one works loose.

For the tracking room, you usually want to keep the floor reflective, so wood or cement is fine. Just put a light carpet under the drums or other acoustic instrument to keep them from moving and also keep the reflections down. That being said, the smaller the tracking room, the more you want to contain the ambience. That’s because the reflections of a small room usually aren’t that great sounding because of the room modes (as we just saw), and we actually start to hear the smallness of the room. The more we keep them under control, the better everything in the room will sound."
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