Last winter, I set up an extra room in my house as a digitizing and restoration studio. I don't master in this room, but I still need it to sound good sothat when calibrating my tape machine, adjusting azimuth, or QC'ing masters I can trust what I hear. For most of my career (lucky me!) I've had the luxury of working in rooms that had been tuned and treated by professional acousticians. I've never had to DIY, so I needed some serious hand-holding to help me understand what kinds of acoustic treatments to buy and where and how to hang them. Enter the folks at Vicoustic. Far more useful than the guy who claps his hands loudly and then tells you to slap some Owens Corning 703 on the wall, the consultants at Vicoustic walked me through every step of the process. This service is standard practice for all their customers, not just me!

I provided measurements of my home studio and a rough drawing of where my ATC monitors, console desk, side racks, and ATR-102 tape machine are all positioned, plus window and door locations. We discussed sonic and aesthetic goals, and a budget. When my budget hit the red, I got on the phone with my Vicoustic consultant to figure out the best way to trim the fat. What if we went with four bass traps instead of six? Skipped the ceiling treatment? Could my shelves full of music bios and audio books act as diffusion? (Not really.) Vicoustic answered all my questions clearly and respectfully.

They also provided me with a glossary of terms and sent me predictive acoustic models pre- and post-treatment. Since this was a welcome crash course in acoustics for me, I also used a miniDSP UMIK-1 USB Measurement Calibrated Microphone and REW (Room EQ Wizard) open source software to run some tests myself. My numbers mostly lined up with Vicoustic's predictive modeling. (I attribute anomalies to user error and the extra "stuff" that was in my room). Here are some useful terms per Vicoustic's glossary: Sound Absorption is the portion of the sound energy that is absorbed and not returned when a sound wave hits a surface. Sound Diffusion occurs when a sound wave hits a complex surface, such as a diffuser, and its energy is distributed in many directions. Reverberation Time is a measure of the degree of reverberation in a space that is equal to the time required for the level of a steady sound to decay by 60 dB after it has been turned off.

Let's talk numbers. The RT60 is the time it takes an impulse to decay from its peak down to -60 dB – an important bit of data in figuring out how to treat any room. Their modeling suggested that, pre-treatment, the RT60 in my room was around 1.5 seconds of mid-frequency reverberation time. Treatment would get that down to less than .4 seconds of mid-frequency reverberation time; a solid goal for my room. What does that actually sound like? The frequency response and reverberation time could be measured quantitatively. I wanted to know how those numbers dovetailed with my qualitative listening experience. Prior to treating the room, if I played a 1 kHz tone and moved my head around the listening position, the perceived loudness dipped all over the place. 100 Hz was even worse. You can imagine how music sounded in my pre-treated room: Confusing.

Per Vicoustic's recommendations, I ordered four Super Bass Extreme bass traps – high-density foam layers fronted with Vicoustic's elegant Wavewood panels, designed to provide effective low frequency absorption between 60 to 125 Hz (though maximally effective between 75 to 100 Hz, according to their literature). I also ordered three boxes of Cinema Round Premium acoustic panels (24 600mm panels in total). Vicoustic originally suggested six bass traps, the panels, plus one of their Multifusers for the ceiling, but, for budgetary and practical reasons, I scaled back. Also, I wanted to order the Wavewood panels because they look so classy, but they provide absorption and diffusion, which wasn't what my room required. Good to know!

I ordered the Cinema Round panels in Celestial Blue, a nice 'n' icy color and welcome aesthetic relief from typical black and burlap acoustic treatments. (The bass traps and Wavewood panels come in six shades of melamine wood – ranging from a dark gray-brown Wenge to an almost-white Ash Wood – and the acoustic panels come in 15 colors – from a rich pumpkin orange to an earthy green to a cotton candy pink, plus the more common black, gray, maroon, and navy palates.)

The loot arrived on a pallet, and my eyes bulged when I saw what I'd be lugging up the stairs to my house. Fortunately, everything was well-packaged and light enough for me to carry. I set up the bass traps first. They stacked easily in the front corners of my room. (Vicoustic sold me custom stackers as part of this package.)

The panels took a little more configuring. Okay, a lot. In a permanent installation, I'd measure twice, glue once, and be done. Did I mention Vicoustic also sold me some insanely powerful Flexi Glue Ultra, which is a plasticizer-free, quick curing sealant that does not dissolve polyurethane (foam) or polystyrene (ESP) products. This glue required serious muscle to squeeze out using a caulking gun, and, once dry, the adhesion was rock solid. Elmer's this is not. My challenge: I needed these panels to be removable, since it's likely this room is going to undergo a renovation in the near future. (Oh yeah, this whole process is a baby step toward building a mastering room from the ground up!)

Some people order or build frames for these panels. Vicoustic sells frames for the Cinema Round panels, but I thought about gluing the panels to strips of wood and hanging those as though I were hanging a picture, thus adding the acoustic benefit of a little space between the wall and the panel. I also considered gluing them to MDF or pegboard, which I thought might be a way to rig a removable panel for the pesky window on my right wall. Vicoustic also sells VicFix Metallic hangers, a medieval-looking metal hanger with spikes that pierce and hold the foam panels. My consultant told me his current favorite method for non-permanent installation is to glue steel strips on the panels and hang them with magnets. All this took way longer than expected, and I wound up calling for reinforcements to help me get the job done. But in the end, the panels were solidly hung, aesthetically quite lovely, and most importantly, my room now sounds much better.

What does that mean – sound better? This goes back to the quantitative/qualitative aspect of treating and tuning a room. Numbers are useful, but, like using an EQ, the numbers are just part of the information that help you make informed decisions as an audio engineer. You might think "kick drum… 60 Hz" but you will still sweep the EQ and listen until you find a frequency that addresses whatever it is you're going for sonically. Likewise, an RT60 (and other sophisticated acoustic measurements) tell you critical data about physical acoustic properties of your room and what you are (or are not) hearing. I do not discount the importance of this data, and it goes without saying anyone working in a professional room should consider hiring an acoustician to take proper measurements and advise on listening position, speaker placement, and absorption and diffusion treatment. But you still have to listen and judge for yourself. For my first DIY in acoustic treatment, the combination of Vicoustic's advice and acoustic treatments, the REW measurements, and good old-fashioned listening helped me dial in a sound that is quantitatively and qualitatively superior to my untreated room, where I can now work efficiently, effectively, and confidently.

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

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