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On Residential Re-Purposing

The best scenario for a private, residential studio involves a purpose-built structure, separate or de-coupled from the residence.

What’s the biggest audio recording trend of the “Oughts?” Surely it’s the affordability of good (enough) gear, but the second biggest trend has got to be the proliferation of private studios. Due in part to trend number one, countless numbers of today’s top hits feature overdubs (and sometimes even basic tracks) often done in “producer’s studios,” typically re-purposed basements, attics, garages, and spare rooms.

Attempting to study the effectiveness and complications of the popular trend towards re-purposing residential space into a studio, I enlisted the advice of widely respected acoustician and room designer Russ Berger of the Russ Berger Design Group (RBDG). As a private studio owner looking to expand operations, my first question naturally is, “Where do I put a new music production studio and will this even work?” On this industry-wide trend, Berger notes, “It’s permanent. It’s a big part of what we’re doing now and a big part of what we’ve been doing for the past eight years.”

For Studio Records — home studio of composer, arranger, and freelance bassist John Evans — RBDG set out to incorporate a recording studio as an extension during construction of his new home. The best scenario for a private, residential studio involves a purpose-built structure, separate or de-coupled from the residence. “Once it’s already built, then it’s band-aids and perfume time,” notes Berger, “and there is only so much that can be done.” The reason? No matter how much mass is introduced into sound blocking and isolating walls, acoustic energy will travel around, under, and above those walls through flanking paths while vibrating any structure physically connected. In a freestanding structure, such energy is contained and refocused within the building, being transmitted via the floor and roof structure (which connects all rooms in a building), as well as any shared interior walls, ductwork, and the foundation, all of which also allow noise transmission. “If you build the best wall in the world and you’re on a common concrete slab, you’re limited to a transmission class in the low 60s, maybe — the 70s at best. With wood-frame construction, it is significantly less.”

If a separate structure isn’t possible, many of us look to our residences for the ideal re-purposing site. To begin, don’t even think about an upstairs bedroom unless you’re doing only very quiet work at only very select hours of operation; loud sound sources can flex walls, floor, and ceiling, making them diaphragmatic and efficient transmitters of sound energy. Berger warns, “…If you have even one bridge tie across that wall to the adjacent wall … or at the floor, or at the ceiling, all of a sudden you’ve transmitted that diaphragmatic energy into that other wall and it reradiates into the other room … if the bedroom is upstairs, you’re asking for trouble. If its slab on grade, you have a much better chance of achieving an acceptable result.”

Berger feels that basements and garages make better choices (especially if a garage is disconnected from the residence) but that often, less obvious factors apply. “You’re limited by your flanking paths and your penetrations,” he explains. “Your weakest links are what determine that. You’re driving this ceiling structure, and it reradiates in the other rooms.” Eliminating these weak links involves mechanically decoupling from the adjacent construction, sealing all intersections airtight, and typically using multiple layers of sheetrock or more massive materials for walls, although Berger advises that complicated, multilayer sandwich walls can often be wasteful and ineffective: “Many times I see this done wrong, and it’s wasted money. They could have spent the same amount of money, done it a different way — the proper way — with less effort and disruption and had a better result.” Investing in acoustically isolating doors that have higher STC ratings is an expensive must-do if the goal is reliable performance over time and there is no room for sound lock construction. If the amount of leakage still requires more noise control, then a “room within a room” is required.

The de-coupling of such a room is done via “floating” all walls and flooring with resilient isolation footings that reduce vibration. Berger warns that these materials also have a resonant frequency of their own — at which they will excitedly vibrate — and that effective construction techniques can be expensive. Such a room will also need troughs and channels for wiring, quiet HVAC systems, good sightlines and some natural light are always nice. Thus, the list of considerations is tremendous.

As if noise control isn’t enough, we still must address acoustic concerns. If we don’t, our clients will! As Berger frankly reminds us, “Room acoustics is where the ambient return from your performance either inspires or sickens.” Gulp!

In my own scenario, the biggest obstacle to studio expansion (other than budget) has been negotiating the myriad of zoning rules, noise codes and legal issues that could plague an ill-advised studio build or move. Squelching an enthusiastic optimism in such pursuits, Berger frankly reminds us, “You have to be mindful to Caesar; there are government codes and regulations and things that have to be met … and wanting it to be different doesn’t always make it so.” Gulp! Again.

In my estimation, the key to success in repurposing is defining exactly what work one intends to do and having realistic expectations about what our homes and the laws of physics can allow. Above all else, Berger stresses the importance of planning and how it does wonders for maximizing a budget’s effectiveness. He continues that professional help is a necessity and that a million dollars are not needed to get the help you need. “Anybody can throw money at a project and eventually make it work, [but] I have yet to meet a client that would tolerate that. Even with the famous ones I work for, everybody has a budget. Knowing right where that limit is, and where you can cut corners without cutting performance, can have a significant impact.”

Many of us will find ourselves in the re-purposing biz sooner or later, carefully minding the laws of physics, of Caesar, and of the dollar.

Rob Tavaglione owns and operates Catalyst Recording in Charlotte, NC. Contact him