The first time I turned up the gain on a condenser mic and heard the inside of my studio space through an ultra-sensitive microphone diaphragm absolutely blew me away. It became crystal clear at that moment that the noises I found otherwise imperceptible under normal circumstances were incredibly loud in the context of my recordings. From that moment on, I was on a hunt to reduce extraneous sounds from ending up on my tracks, and part of that pursuit was getting proper acoustic treatment. Today we’re going to find out what acoustic treatment is, how it works, and then apply that knowledge by looking at the best options for acoustic panels for your home studio.
What is Acoustic Treatment, and Why Do I Need It?
What we call “sound” is actually a pressure wave caused by a vibration within a certain frequency range. If something vibrates between 20 and 20,000 cycles per second (Hz), it creates a pressure wave that is transmitted through the air. If the wave is intense enough to vibrate our eardrums, we hear it. When these same waves hit a solid surface, however, some of that pressure is transferred, which causes that surface to also vibrate and create its own sounds. These are called sound reflections or reverberations.
The problem with this reverberation is twofold. For one, reverberations cause what are called standing waves to occur. Standing waves are when two waves of the same or similar frequency occupy the same space and interact. If they’re in phase, they add to one another and make those frequencies sound too loud, and if they’re out of phase, they cancel each other out. Both of these are absolutely terrible for mixing. The other problem with reverberation is that it causes echoes to bleed into your recordings, especially if you’re using high-gain microphones.
Acoustic treatment, then, is the process of adding sound-absorbing or diffusing materials to flat surfaces and in corners of your home studio to help reduce or sweeten reflected sound, leaving only the original sounds from instruments, vocals, or studio monitors. By placing foam, rock wool, fiberglass or other sound-absorbent materials on walls and in corners, reverberations are reduced to the point where they become inaudible. Alternatively, irregularly-shaped objects can be hung on flat surfaces to disrupt and disperse standing waves. The interesting 3D wall art that you may see hanging in a studio is actually a cleverly-hidden sound diffuser.
Adding acoustic panels to a room prevents standing waves from bouncing around within a space and ultimately coloring the sounds that are picked up by our ears and our microphones. Without proper acoustic treatment, recordings can be tainted by unwanted reflections. Also, proper acoustic treatment allows the uncolored sound from monitors to be heard as-is, making more accurate mixing and mastering possible in a home studio environment.
How is Acoustic Treatment Different from Soundproofing?
One of the most frequent misunderstandings I see when interacting with newer home studio hobbyists is knowing the difference between soundproofing and acoustic treatment. Though often employed in tandem, soundproofing and acoustic treatment do very different things and are accomplished in completely separate ways.
As we stated above, when a sound wave strikes a solid surface it causes that surface to vibrate, which in turn creates another smaller sound wave. It doesn’t just reflect sound back into the room, it also reflects it outward. Soundproofing is the process of adding mass or additional layers between rooms to reduce this propagation of sound out of the room. “Soundproofing” is really a misnomer, as it is virtually impossible to prevent all sound from propagating, even in professional environments. “Sound reduction” is a more accurate but far less common term. Regardless of what you call it, soundproofing is not acoustic treatment, so you shouldn’t expect your acoustic panels to provide much if any noticeable sound reduction.
What are the Most Common Acoustic Treatments?
Acoustic treatment is accomplished in a variety of ways. There are commercial options as well as home-made remedies, both of which have varying degrees of success depending on the application. Let’s take a look at the most common options:
Acoustic Foam and Bass Traps
Acoustic foam is what most people think of when they imagine the inside of a studio, and for good reason. Acoustic foam is still the most common method of applying treatment to the walls and ceilings of a small space because it does so well at taming high-frequency flutter echoes. Vocal booths, small recording rooms, control rooms, and mixing and mastering suites tend to be treated with acoustic foam in pro studios due to its affordability and ease of application.
The downside of acoustic foam, especially thinner foam, is that it often doesn’t do a great job of absorbing lower-midrange or bass frequencies, which can be a problem in bigger spaces. To help with this, bass traps can be applied to the corners of a room to help. Bass traps, also called broadband absorbers, are larger and especially dense treatments that are better suited for lower frequencies, which have larger and stronger waves than midrange or high frequency sounds. When deployed in tandem with thicker acoustic foam or other types of absorbers or diffusers, bass traps are often the best solution for treating a boomy-sounding room.
Rockwool and Fiberglass Absorbers
Among the DIY crowd, home-made rockwool or fiberglass absorbers have become an incredibly popular option in recent years due to their relatively low cost and better frequency response, giving them the ability to tame both higher frequencies as well as some in the lower midrange. These absorbers are usually just batts or sheets of rockwool or fiberglass insulation housed in simple wooden frames, which are then covered in cloth and hung on the wall of a studio to greatly reduce the sound reflections in a room.
There are a few caveats to deploying this style of absorber. For one, they require tools and a bit of know-how to build on your own. Failing that, you do have the option to buy them pre-made, but for some that is cost prohibitive as they are many times more expensive when labor is factored in. Also, they are thicker, which is good for absorbing low-end but not great if your space is small. Finally, this kind of absorber is heavy, which means you’ll need to poke holes in the wall to hang them. If you live in a rental property, you may have to factor that in to your decision.
If you’re building your own, here are two how-to videos to help you get started:
Diffusers and Wall Accents
Sound diffusers work differently than absorbers in how they affect how sound travels in your studio. When a sound wave hits an absorber, it is prevented from reflecting, but when it hits a diffuser the reflection is spread out. This is particularly useful for live rooms where the goal isn’t to kill the reverb but to make it more pleasing to the ear.
Diffusers have a few drawbacks for a home studio, namely cost and application to a single-room environment. For most home studios, diffusers are simply out of their budget, and even if they were they’re not particularly useful for a common one-room setup. If you only have one room for your home studio, that means you’ll be recording, mixing, and mastering all in the same environment. Though diffusers are good for recording drums or brass, they’re not well-suited for tracking vocals or other instruments. Unless a room is carefully tuned with a variety of other treatments, diffusers aren’t ideal for mixing or mastering either, since they can cause you to hear false sounds that aren’t actually in your track.
Sheets and Blankets
No, we’re not having a pajama party in the studio. There are special acoustic sheets available on the market which are good for sound absorption, and some even offer some soundproofing as well. In a pinch, it’s also possible to hang moving blankets or even regular sleeping blankets on the walls of your studio, however, they won’t have the same absorption properties as an actual acoustic sheet. The downside here is that hanging any of the above can make the room a bit stuffy, so make sure you have proper ventilation and airflow.
How Much and What Kind of Acoustic Treatment Should I Get?
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer to this question, since rooms are all inherently different in shape, size, and construction. Depending on what a particular room in your home recording studio setup is used for, it may require as little as 10% treatment to as much as 50% coverage on the walls and ceiling to prevent reverb from affecting recordings and mixes. Let’s look at what is ideal for each:
Vocal and Acoustic Instrument Recording
This is the most common type of home recording environment, and also the most demanding in terms of taming echo because of the kind of mics that are used. Ideally you’d want to shoot for average or heavy treatment, or about 20-35% coverage. That way, sound waves are mostly absorbed, and the ones that do hit the walls are reflected into absorbers and prevented from bouncing around the room and creating unpleasant echoes.
Mixing and Mastering
The other demanding application for treatment is the control room where you’ll do your mixing and mastering. This room will usually also require an average or heavier treatment of 20-35% to make sure that the sound you hear is only what is coming from your monitors and not also what is bouncing off the walls. Start with the frst reflection points from your monitors on the opposite parallel walls, then the second reflection points on the rear wall. Next, add more treatment to first reflection points on the ceiling. Then, add more treatment all around your listening area until your listening position passes a “snap/clap” test – snap your fingers and clap your hands, and if you can hear the reverberation, you probably need more treatment.
A live room is where you record loud instruments like guitar amps, drums, and brass. Because those instruments are so loud and the reverb from your room can actually be a benefit in the case of drum overheads and room mics, a live room will have far less treatment. It may require up to 10% treatment to tame high-frequency echo or boomy-sounding lows, or you might get lucky and have a very nice-sounding room that needs little to no treatment at all. The only way to know is to try it out both ways.
The math to figure out how much treatment you need based on the size of your room is fairly simple, but does require a little algebra:
[ (Width * Height * 2) + (Length * Height * 2) + (Width * Length) ] * Coverage %
If a room is 8 x 10 with 10-foot ceilings, it has two walls and a ceiling that are 80 square feet each, plus two walls that are 100 square feet, for a total of 440 square feet. If you wanted to use that room for vocal recording or mixing you could start off with 440 * 20%, or 88 sq. ft. of treatment, and see if that does the trick, If you find it still has too much natural reverb you can add more.
If you’re not great with math, here’s a rough guide to help you out:
|Room Size||Light Treatment (10% coverage)||Average Treatment (20% coverage)||Heavy Treatment (35% coverage)|
|2x3x9 (small closet)||10 sq. ft.||20 sq. ft.||34 sq. ft.|
|8x10x10 (small room)||44 sq. ft.||88 sq. ft.||154 sq. ft.|
|15x10x10 (large room)||65 sq. ft.||130 sq. ft.||228 sq. ft.|
|20x30x10 (extra large room)||160 sq. ft.||320 sq. ft.||560 sq. ft.|
It’s impossible for me to give you one number to shoot for because rooms come in every different shape and size, and you might just have one room, or you might be lucky enough to have two or more to dedicate to recording. Also, different genres of music tend to have different needs. With that in mind, I’ve created a few example scenarios that may help illustrate a bit better.
Let’s say a hip-hop producer or rapper wants to make music at home. Typically the only live recording they will do is vocals, and everything else will be done with virtual instruments or samples. The best bang for their buck might be to retrofit a small closet as a vocal booth with 20-35% coverage to kill high-frequency flutter, then send their stems out to an engineer for mixing and mastering. Alternatively, if they wanted to do their own mixing and mastering, they could set up a small bedroom with 20-35% coverage, use calibration software to flatten the room’s response, and do their vocal tracking, mixing, and mastering all in one room. Obviously it costs more to treat a whole room than it does a small closet, but in the long term that will inevitably be cheaper than sending all your mixes to an engineer.
As another example, imagine a rock or metal band that is trying to put an album together. They could start by setting up their drummer in a larger room with whatever treatment they need to help sweeten the room’s natural reverb in the overhead and room mics. Then, for the rest of the band they’d have a similar choice to make: set up a small closet for recording vocals and acoustic instruments and send tracks to an engineer, or treat an entire room and use it for tracking, mixing, and mastering.
Since there isn’t one simple answer to this question, I would encourage you to join our Home Studio Enthusiasts Facebook group, post any questions you have with details of your specific use case, and we’ll help you sort it out within your budget.
Best Acoustic Treatment Options
Now that you know what treatment is and have a rough idea of what you’ll need, let’s take a look at some specific acoustic panel options:
Foam Factory in Michigan is the most affordable source of acoustic foam I have found. My studio is treated with their 2-inch acoustic wedge foam, which does a great job of absorption and taming reflection. For less than $200 I was able to fully treat a 7 x 10 x 8 room at about 25% coverage and add bass traps to the corners behind my monitors to control low-end frequency response. Coupled with SonarWorks Reference 4, I have everything I need to record vocals and acoustic guitar, plus mix and master my tracks.
If you have the money to spend, Audimute makes some absolutely gorgeous acoustic treatments. From standard fabric-covered fiberglass panels to unique wall art and tiles, they have beautiful high-end acoustic panel options for a lasting look. They also carry several great soundproofing products as well.
Not surprisingly, Amazon has a lot of budget options to help you get started:
If you’re going with foam, I highly recommend that you skip past any 1″ foam options and go straight for 2-inch or larger to get quality sound absorption. Here’s a solid 2-inch pyramid choice from FStop Labs:
For reducing boominess and taming low-frequency echoes, you’ll want to consider adding bass traps, especially in medium-sized or larger rooms where you’re going to mix and master. JBER makes a quality set of bass traps:
Rockwool, Fiberglass, and Acoustical Fabric
If you’re going to make your own panels, Amazon has the rockwool sheets, fiberglass panels, and acoustical fabric you’ll need to build them:
Best Acoustic Treatments for Home Studio 2021 – The Bottom Line
That’s it for our list of the best options for acoustic panels for your home recording studio! I hope you have a better idea now of what acoustic treatment is, what your options are, and what will fit in your budget. If you still have questions, pop over to our Home Studio Enthusiasts Facebook group and we’ll help sort you out.