How Building Cost Effective Acoustic Treatment for the Music Studio Will Help Your Music Production; Part 1: Sound Cloud

(Part 1: Sound Clouds)

Just as important as having a killer DAW such as SONAR X1 Production Suite 64bit running on a good machine, one needs to take a good hard look at their recording and mixing environment.  If you are starting to get to the point where the word “professional” (as in making some money) comes into play, you should probably start to think about your sonic room environment as well as your environment’s presentation.

The beauty of the music industry today is that you CAN make extra money as a part time job utilizing tools such as SONAR, but there comes a point in time where you need to step it up if you have what it takes to succeed on certain levels.  In my personal situation, as a writer/mixer/producer I take on some decent paying side jobs once in a while when time permits such as recent tracks that I sold to ESPN Sports center, but I can tell you that if I didn’t have SONAR X1 Producer Expanded and a decent mixing environment, there’s no way I would have been able to deliver those tracks.

In the upcoming weeks I am going to be talking about, as well as be demonstrating how I recently treated my new music studio room with great looking acoustic treatment panels.  I built all the custom panels myself so it cost me a fraction of what it would have been to order these panels online; and in my opinion they look better because I elected to design them with exposed natural wood where the cheap ones online are just basically fabric-wrapped.

The three types of panels I built which will be discussed on this blog were wall traps, corner traps and sound clouds.  Today I will go into detail on how I built the sound cloud that goes over my mix position. Before I go into any detail, I need to state that these are not direct instructions on “how to” build acoustic panels.  I am simply showing you how I built mine, and if you care to attempt to build your own, you are responsible for how you use this information to build and install these panels on your own and AT YOUR OWN RISK.  The bottom line is that neither Cakewalk nor I are in any way responsible for how you use this information.  I’m not claiming in any way to be an expert on this matter.  I simply did some research, talked to a lot of trusted friends, and then went for it.  Also, I did use some basic power tools as well as hand tools that I will recommend, so if you are uncomfortable using tools please seek help from a professional.

First things were first; I took a look at the dimensions of my room and set up my speakers and mix position.  Keep in mind that setting up a home studio is all about accepting the fact that you most likely will never have “perfect” environment.  The key is to realize what your goals are, and then weigh all those against each other to get what you want out of the room to make it a best-working-environment [for you].  You can drive yourself crazy trying to crunch math formulas and read every theory out there, but unless you are building a room front scratch you might be wasting your time over-thinking everything because there are so many variables involved on how sound waves react in a room. 

The best case scenario is that you have a rectangular room with moderately high ceilings and then you can set up your mix position shooting down the length of the room.  Worst case scenario (as in mine) is that you have a square (or close to square) room and then you have to look at everything else > Where is (are) the door(s)?  Where are the windows?  How high are the ceilings?  What’s the flooring material? What furniture is in the room? In my case, I have a dead square room with 7’ 3” ceilings which is not a great scenario.  In a room like this, it is most important to knock out as many corners of the room as possible which is what I did, and then find the points of first reflection.

The easiest way to do this if you have a person that can help you is to sit in your mix position and have that person run a mirror along the right wall at the height of the speaker cone.  When you see your left speaker in that mirror that is roughly the point of first sound reflection.  You can do the same for the other side of the wall.  You can also do this for the ceiling if you want to be exact.

In terms of where my speakers sit, from the professional advice that I got from Gavin Haverstick of Haverstick Designs, he told me that with my 13’ 7” x 13’ 7” room my mix position should be about 62” off the front wall.

For my sound cloud here were my goals:

–  Must be light because I was not going to be able to tap into joists in the ceiling for support

–  Inexpensive

–  As close to professional looking as possible

–  Easy(-ish) to install


*The exact materials I used for making and installing one sound cloud panel were (estimated costs since I used these materials for multiple panels):

–  Wood- Furring strips from Home Depot (8’ x 3” x .75”) [2], Cost: $1.98

–  Screws – Fine Thread Drywall screws by GripRite 6 x 2” 5.08cm [8], Cost: $.96

–  Fabric – CASTIELLE ACOUSTIC SUEDE (key;-) FABRIC BY THE YARD, Cost: $5.96 (1 panel)  

–  Wrapping for back of panel- Home Depot paper-throw tarp, Cost: $1:39 (1 panel)

– Screw Hooks [size: #8]-  Zinc plated by Crown Bolt [8], Cost: $2.24

Knauf Insulation 4’ x2’ (#3 – same specs as Owens Corning 703)- Cost: $7.50

– Staples- Cost: $.25

– Thin Hanging Chain- Cost:  $.72

– 2-inch C-clamps- Cost: $1.63

– All-In-One

– Polyurethane/Stain- Cost: $.82

– Wood Glue- Cost: $.12

***Total Cost for Materials per panel: $23.57

Tools Used:

–  Pro-grade hand-staple gun

–  ¼” staples

–  Power saw (I used a miter saw but one could use any saw power or other)

–  Screw gun (coupled as a drill)

–  Hammer

–  File or sand paper

–  Stain brush

–  Knee pads

–  Rubber work gloves

–  Measuring tape

–  Pliers with a cutting feature for the chain

  • CUT the wood furring strips into 4 pieces so that you end up with two 4’ pieces and two 2’ pieces.
  • FILE DOWN the ends of all the wood pieces using a file or sand paper so that all the edges are smooth with no splinters.
  • CONNECT THE PIECES WITH 2 SCREWS PER CORNER.  The 2’ pieces are going to attach to the ends of the 4’ pieces with the screws, so place one end of the 4’ piece up against a corner of a wall for stability so that it is coming up diagonally, and align a 2’ piece to the end (the other end of the 2’ piece will be touching the ground to stabilize). (This would be much easier if you have someone to help.)  Lay down a small strip of wood glue at the end of the 4’ piece which will help to hold it in place while you drill the first screw in through the 2’ piece into the 4’ piece to make a 90 degree angle with the two pieces.  Drill the first screw into the top (left or right) of the 2’ board so that it connects to the end of the 4’ piece.  You must go very slow drilling this in so that you don’t crack the wood.  The screws are just thin enough so that you should not have a problem. Drill another screw in the same way but on the opposite side of the 2’ board.  Once you have these two in, the unit is stable to make it easier for the rest of the pieces to be screwed together.
  • Position the two pieces that have been joined upright and place the second 4’ piece in position to be joined by two more screws.  Place a strip of glue on the top end of the 4’ piece and then add the first screw again either on the right or left side and then the opposite.
  • Turn the whole frame over so that it’s upright again (will be missing the last 2’ piece) and set the remaining 2’ piece on top after adding glue to each end of the 4’ pieces.  Carefully and slowly screw the remaining pieces together with the same method.

At this point you will have the frame built.  If it’s not completely symmetric don’t worry – that’s what the c-clamps are for later as you connect three of these together.

  • STAIN:  Stain the frame using the brush and the polyurethane and wait at least a few hours.  You may want to add multiple coats.  I stained mine a light wood color to contrast my dark walls.  I also used a semi-gloss finish which gives the wood a good shine but not too over-the-top.
  •  STAPLE IN THE FABRIC:  This part in important (and can be tricky) and it may take a minute to get it right.  Lay the frame down the flat way on a clean flat surface.  Drape the fabric into the frame so that the edges of the fabric are over the edges of the frame.  Aim the staple gun down so that the head is flat with the ground and insert one staple into a corner of one of the 4’pieces.  Gently pull the fabric along the 4’ piece (the long way) and continue with staples about every 6 inches.  Once you have one side with staples, go over to the other side and again start in a corner.  Pull the fabric toward you to make it as tight as you can without ripping staples out from the other side, and continue down the length of the 4’ board.  Next, go to one of the 2’ corners and start stapling with the same method.  (The goal is to make the fabric tight without it ripping out from the staples – you will get a feel for it.)  Stapling the last 2’ piece will be what tightens up the fabric.  Once you have finished the parameter, go back to the first 4’ board and staple in between all the staples while continuously pulling the fabric as tight as possible.  (Be careful not to staple the fabric too close to the front of the panel depending on what staple gun you use.  I would test it first with a few staples and adjust where you fire as needed.)
  • LAY IN THE INSULATION: Wearing protective rubber work gloves (and I wore a breathing work mask) carefully lay one sheet of the insulation into the bed-frame tucking in the insulation.  It should fit snug inside the frame.
  • *STAPLE THE BACKING FABRIC:  Since I made a total of 18 panels for my room, I decided to cut costs by using a different fabric for the back of the panels to secure the insulation from leaking any fibers.  It is much easier to wrap the whole insulation panel in one piece of fabric if cost is not an issue for you.  If you choose to use a cheaper fabric for the back, just staple it in around the perimeter of the back of the panel.  You don’t have to be as cautious as it’s the back side which will ultimately be facing your ceiling.  You do not need to pull this very tight either.
  • SCREW IN THE SCREW-HOOKS:  These panels are exactly 25.5” wide so I decided to have my screws go in at the 8.5” marks on the 2’ pieces to make it symmetrical (There will be 3 lined up side by side.)  With a small drill bit, drill starting holes in at the 8.5” marks of each 2’ piece (on the back side and in the center of the edge) and then screw in the screw-hooks so there are a total of 4 hooks in the panel on the back side.
  • FIND THE PILOT DRILLING SPOTS ON THE CEILING: There are a couple ways to find the first drilling spots for hanging the panels.  The goal is to knock out any first reflections of sound that your speakers will throw that will hit the ceiling.  If you hang three of these panels side-by-side and they start 3 inches in front of your speakers, you will take care of these spots and don’t have to do any math.  So what I did was I took a (separate) 4’ piece of wood and put a screw into the end, and then I placed it upward on top of my left speaker in the front center pointing at the ceiling and then followed it to the ceiling where I made a mark with the screw.  I did the same on the other side so I had a good reference point on the ceiling where my speakers were.  I then made a mark on the ceiling directly in the middle of those two points.  I then made a mark exactly in the middle of my panel with a pencil.  On a step ladder, I then held the panel over my head with the screw-hooks facing upward and lined up the mark on the panel with the middle mark on the ceiling (but roughly 3 inches forward) and pressed the two screw hooks into the ceiling to mark where I would drill the pilot holes.
  • DRILL THE PILOT HOLES AND TAP IN DRYWALL ANCHORS: Carefully drill small holes from the screw-hook marks and gently tap in the drywall anchors (or screw in the anchors depending on which ones you bought.)  If you feel a resistance, it means you probably hit a joist which is one of the supporting beams for the ceiling.  You do not need ceiling anchors if you go directly into a beam.  If you have any doubt, or you are in a room where you are unsure of what is above your ceiling, you should seek a professional to help you install the panels.
  • CUT TWO EVEN PIECES OF CHAIN SO THAT YOU HAVE 12 LINKS OR SO BOTH EQUALING 12”.  This depends on how low you want the cloud and how high your ceilings are.  I hung my cloud so that it angles up and away from the speakers.  I did this because it’s what I remember from all the studios I have mixed in, and I saw clouds like this in pictures as well when I did the research.  So above my speakers the cloud hangs 2.5’ above and where my ear is the cloud is about 3.5 feet away.  Hang each chain piece from the screw-hooks in the ceiling.
  • HOOK IN THE SCREW HOOKS: Attach the screw-hooks on the end of the panel into the chains.
  • Here is the Grand Finale: Repeat these steps with two more panels – one to the left, and one to the right.  Most likely when you are finished they will look uneven or won’t be joined perfectly, that’s when the “c-clamps” come into play.  On a step ladder, maneuver your way so that you can clamp the back part of the center and left panels together (TOP, facing the ceiling) and then do the same for the front half of the panel on the back side.  (Do not fasten too tightly.)  Now c-clamp the other panel with the other side of the center panel and it should be close to perfect.  You also may have to adjust a few links to even it out by eye.  The furring strips (wood) are really light so they may not be truly straight but hey, they were .97 cents each and you should not have to mount massive ceiling brackets to hold the weight.

It seems like a lot of work but it’s actually not too bad once you get the hang of it; I found it fun and quite therapeutic actually.  If you wanted 4” thick panels (4” might be a better solution if you have a bigger room,) you can use this same method but use 4” wide pine, and make sure you secure it properly from the ceiling as they will be much heavier.  “I” see some imperfections in the panels, but I keep telling myself that no one will notice those, but they sure as heck would notice a difference in my mixes if these clouds were not over my head. 

I had my wall panels and corner traps up around my room and things were sounding pretty good.  The sound cloud was the last thing that went up and the first thing I threw on was Z3TA+ 2 from the SONAR X1 Production Suite.  Instantly I could hear and feel a major difference for the better.  It just seemed like things were more balanced and in control.  So first, get yourself upgraded to SONAR X1 or pick up the new SONAR X1 Production Suite which includes SONAR X1 Producer, SONAR X1 Producer Expanded, PC4K S-Type Expander / Gate ProChannel Module, and Z3TA+ 2 waveshaping synthesizer, and THEN get your room tuned up.

Thanks for reading and join me again here soon as I dive into the corner traps and then the wall panels.