When is a recording studio not a recording studio? When it’s a bog-standard classroom with some gear in! Howard Turner from Studio Wizard looks at what it takes to make a proper educational audio facility, and how recent regulations should have spelt the end for shoddy school studios.
If your PE teacher was given a swimming pool full of mud, and told that this was the ‘new purpose built facility for gymnastics’, you’d probably forgive that colleague for getting more than a little upset! However at the commencement of each term, we get calls from schools and colleges where equally inappropriate spaces have been foisted on Music Departments claiming to be ‘Recording Studios’. We know it’s wrong, you know it’s wrong, and now the government have given us the means to do something about it!
Since July 2003, new approved Document E of Building Regulations came into force. Since then, all new school facilities must meet strict standards for noise levels, sound insulation and room acoustics. These standards are set out in DfES Building Bulletin 93 “Acoustic Design of Schools” and cover all areas of schools, including music & drama facilities, and in great detail, recording studios & control rooms. If your school is planning a recording facility, you need to know about this, as a non-compliant facility could be forced to close!
Adrian James, one of the handful of specialist acousticians who contributed to the contents of BB93 describes it thus: “BB93 is a unique document which has to fulfil the roles both of a regulatory document and of a design guide.” “It contains a wealth of data, advice and examples covering all aspects of acoustics in schools” he adds, but stresses that the regulations are far from a textbook on studio design and that “specialised facilities such as studios really require input from an experienced consultant.”
A typical commercial ‘home studio’ facility.
Colours of Sound
So, what is so important about studio acoustics? Well, every sound we hear is coloured by the environment in which we hear it. We all know that for an art space to work (be it painters’ studio or gallery) the lighting has to be balanced and neutral so that the eye can perceive the subject and/or picture.
By the same token, the sonic qualities of a studio control room must be understandable and neutral. Our aim is simply to create a room whose characteristic sound we understand almost instinctively. Hardly surprisingly, it appears that the sort of room we understand is one whose sound characteristics closely ape those of an idealised domestic sitting room. Add to this a need to exclude distracting background noises and stop our endeavours affecting the occupants of adjacent rooms and we have described the basic criteria; Room Acoustics and Isolation. These two issues are not one and the same. In fact one makes the other worse. Once you’ve ‘Isolated’ and trapped all the sound inside a room; it’s going to rattle around in there and sound awful unless you do something about the ‘Room Acoustics’. After all, if we cannot understand what is coming out of those speakers, how can we hope to balance the instruments and vocals in a mix, with the room forcing some to the fore, and masking others? Similarly, how can we demonstrate manipulation of sound when each listener in the room is hearing something different?
So, control rooms have to have a standardised acoustic in terms of reverberation & background noise (from outside and from ventilation), and out of respect for our neighbours we have to keep our sonic excesses in. Live recording spaces might by contrast benefit from a variety of acoustics ‘colours’, however the issue of control of noise ingress and egress is even more to the fore.
A virtual overview of an educational facility. One room stereo, the other 5.1 surround.
A Bluffers Guide to Studio Building.
So, your institution has a grand plan to provide a studio facility – the pictures will look great on the prospectus. But how can you be sure that they have recruited the right team to design and build it?
Well almost without exception, if the design/build team chosen are a local architect and conventional builder, they will not have the skills to create a workable facility – large parts of their training teach them ‘unbreakable golden rules’ which must be broken in order to create a studio. If they have not got a studio acoustic consultant on board supervising (not any old noise consultant, but a bona fide studio specialist) then certainly the project is doomed.
If you are offered a pre-fab for your studio complex, it will be incapable of providing compliant studio isolation and noise control unless conventional studio techniques are used inside, with the pre-fab just keeping the rain out.
Building tender processes, common on school projects, are based around setting up an adversarial relationship between designer and builder, whereas in the studio world, each designer has pet ‘teams’; who understand his/her designs and will build them appropriately, cooperating closely with the designer at all stages. Competently defined tender documentation is essential if the process is not to end in tears!
Common misconceptions abound in the architecture & building world, ranging from the; ‘oh you’ll need a lot of egg boxes then’ (no we won’t!), to the horrifyingly common belief that there are magic forms of plasterboard or soft foam that stop all sound passing when you stick them to the walls. Sadly, these mythical treatment items are quite commonly brought into conversation by otherwise sane and competent professionals. Part of the problem is that a lot of common building materials have published noise reduction figures that seem quite high, but beware – these published figures are measured only at the frequencies of human speech. Shout at a bit of plasterboard and hardly anything will get through it, fire a big bass drum at it and it’ll go through like the board isn’t there…
A surround sound teaching control room NSAD Norwich.
How to Spot a Lemon:
The architect has done some impressive pictures, but is that a super studio or sad shambles on the table before you? Some questions to answer:
Are there drawings of isolated ‘rooms within room’ designs?
Are the walls, floors & ceilings at an angle to each other, i.e. non-parallel?
Has the designer drawn in the orientation of the equipment (especially the monitor speakers)?
Is the end of the room with the speakers in it symmetrically laid out?
Are there only soft surfaces on the walls beside the speakers?
Are there indications of acoustic treatments on all surfaces, including ‘bass traps’?
Are there reverb times specified across different frequency bands (there may be 6+ separate figures) in the finished room?
Are there background noise figures specified for the finished studio rooms and the adjacent non-studio spaces?
Is there evidence that the air conditioning system (there must be one to be legal) has silencers to control ventilation noise and also leakage between studio spaces?
Are there double sound lock doors into the studios (i.e. where you enter one door & close it before opening the second)?
If the answer is ‘no’ to any of these questions then you need to proceed with extreme caution! Don’t be afraid to ask an independent consultant to vet the designs and offer comments. And if the building is already under construction, don’t rely on council Building Control to test the rooms for you – they may be unaware of the requirement, and reluctant to hire in the necessary skills.
In the recent years we in the studio build industry have seen tens of millions of pounds of public money wasted on ill-thought-through school studio projects, when just the same amount of money could have delivered excellent facilities. These cases range from a normally built classroom with a plaque saying ‘Studio’ on the door, to purpose built multi-million pound new structures where every acoustic rule has been broken, and where remedial work is all but impossible owing to fundamental design errors.
Typical Small Studio Layout showing offset walls, & a symmetrical monitoring environment.
And In Summary.
As long ago as 1975 the need for appropriate acoustics in schools was recognised in law. BB93 takes that further by defining minimum standards, and stating that:
“Each room and other space in a school building shall be designed and constructed in such a way that they have the acoustic conditions and the insulation against disturbance by noise appropriate to its normal use”.
“BB93 sets minimum criteria for compliance with Building Regulations so it is not surprising that these are not particularly demanding requirements by the standards of professional studio design.” says Adrian James, adding that although BB93 “is a bit short on detailed guidance on studio design. There are a few rather old-fashioned examples in the chapter on design of music rooms, and a useful case study in the appendices.”
The most important advice is there in BB93 too: use a specialist, and get them involved as early as possible.
A final word fromAdrian: “No designer has yet been taken to court for failing to meet these standards.” But as spend on school studio facilities rises, it can only be a matter of time….
Master Handbook of Acoustics, F. Alton Everest, McGraw Hill. ISBN 0-07-136097-2
BB93 is available on paper as ISBN 0 11 271105 7 from the Stationery Office (www.tso.co.uk).
Or can be downloaded free of charge from the DfES website www.teachernet.gov.uk/acoustics.
Adrian James Acoustics Ltd. www.adrianjamesacoustics.co.uk
The Studio Wizard Organisation. www.studiowizard.com
Howard Turner has over 30 years experience in the studio business, and for the last 2 decades, his Studio Wizard Organisation have been at the forefront of the development of effective & affordable designs and solutions for studios. Further information: 07092 123666 web: www.studiowizard.com