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Being a musician these days is complicated. The most complicated part is that music technology has changed rapidly, and making music is suddenly a very different affair than it was in the past. Being a modern musician often means being a part-time producer and recording studio at the same time. With all this new technology and new ways of doing things, it’s easy to feel like you’re flying blind. Being a musician has always meant taking a chance on the unknown, staring into the void. But more than ever, it’s hard to know how to even get started.
The good news is that with the digital age comes the internet, a source of information that’s probably the closest thing to omniscience we squirrely humans have ever come across. And here’s me, a freelance producer and musician living in LA. I’ve managed to make a living with music full-time for about two years. And I’m excited for the chance to share some of my wisdom, what’s worked and what hasn’t, for new musicians who are starting out.
Know When to DIY
When it comes to music gear, you generally get what you pay for. When new musicians get excited about their first piece of cheap gear, I know that they just haven’t worked their way up to the really serious gear yet. Musicians are a discerning bunch, so most gear with a hefty price tag has a worthwhile reason to justify it.
But there are a few notable exceptions. In my experience, there are two places to save money, and maybe even come out ahead- vocal isolation booths, and acoustic room treatment. With some really basic DIY skills (and I mean basic, so basic that they are great first-ever-DIY-projects) you can build your own home vocal booth and audio absorption panels. To do so costs far less than buying ready-made gear, and often works better. You can taylor it to suit your space, and also customize the colors or patterns to match your decor!
Why Acoustically Treat Your Room
Most musicians reading this guide are realistically probably working in bedrooms. That’s the way things are going- an unused corner of your bedroom, or a spare bedroom if you have one, becomes your home studio. It’s a good deal, to work on music from home- we musicians have had to put up with a lot of grungy rehearsal studios and dive bars over the years.
But there’s a rub here. Bedrooms in houses or apartments tend to be pretty small, with parallel walls, floor and ceiling. This presents an invisible but important problem. Small rooms like this are not great for listening to sound. Which means you are not hearing your music as it truly sounds from your monitor speakers. This in turns means it’s impossible to make music to your fullest potential. It’s like editing photos through a blurry screen- how can you work if you can hardly tell what you are doing?
You might not notice the problem, because the brain is very effective at tricking you into thinking you are hearing things normally. Psychoacoustics means that your brain adjusts for all the quirks of whatever space you are in. But at the end of the day, you need to do some treatment to your room. Acoustically treating your room is crucial to produce, mix, or master great music. Thinking about room treatment is one of the things that separates an amateur musician mindset from a professional mindset.
What Is a Bass Trap
The technical ins and outs of acoustic treatment are very complex. It would take more space than I have here to cover everything. But I’ll teach you about one of the simplest and most necessary treatments- bass traps for your room’s corners.
You may have never noticed (I never had until I read about it myself!), but when you are listening to music in a room, the bass frequencies will “build up” and amplify in the corners, any place where two walls meet. Try it for yourself- play a track with powerful bass and stick your head in the corner. You should notice the difference.
By placing thick acoustic panels in the corners of your room, you can address this issue and “even out” your room’s sound. Thick acoustic panels in corners are typically called “bass traps” for this reason. The phrase “broadband absorber” is pretty much interchangeable here. Bass traps absorb the sound, therefore stopping it from building and amplifying.
With bass traps in the four corners of your room, you will hear your music much more “true” even if that’s the only acoustic treatment you do! As you can imagine, this is especially important if you work on music where the bass is heavy- hip hop, trap, EDM, dance, and more. Bass is notoriously hard to work with in home studios, but building DIY bass traps is a huge step in the right direction.
Bass Trap Design and Planning
The default size for DIY audio panels is 4’x2’, because those are the factory dimensions for Roxul Rockboard. You can build them to size as necessary.
In a typical bedroom, I would recommend having either four or eight bass traps, depending on your room and budget. If you have four, mount one in each corner, oriented diagonally across the corner, about halfway up the wall. If you have eight, stack two in each corner (they will probably reach floor to ceiling.) Mounting them diagonally across the corner takes up more space than having them flat against the wall, of course. But this air gap behind the panel actually makes the broadband absorption more effective.
Building Homemade Bass Traps
DIY Bass Trap Materials
- Roxul Rockboard Each pack contains six panels, and each bass trap requires two, so one pack makes three panels.
- Duct Tape I estimate one roll of Duct Tape per 4 panels you are building.
- Staple Gun
- 1×4 Lumber, by the foot. You will need 12’4” total per panel.
- Nails, screws, or even wood glue. Pick your favorite way to make wood stick together.
- Electric drill/screwdriver If you plan on getting into DIY projects, this is one of the handiest tools to have around.
- Tape Measure
- Fabric Scissors
- Fabric (by the yard) Here you can get creative. This is the “skin” of your panel, and almost any fabric works. So feel free to get whatever color or pattern suits your space! It’s a great way to kill two birds with one stone by livening up your decor. Mine have cool vintage floral patterns. You will need about about 5’x3’ of fabric for each panel.
Step 1: Construct a Wooden Frame
In my opinion, it’s easiest to get your wood from a hardware store like Lowe’s or Ace. You can buy 1×4 lumber by the foot, and often have it cut to the exact right size by an employee in the store. Especially if you are new to DIY, this saves a lot of hassle.
Construct a wooden frame so that the inner space is 24” wide, 48” tall, and 4” deep. This will be the frame supporting your insulation panels, which would otherwise get beaten up quickly.
(note: not to scale)
Check out my diagram. Assuming you are building 2’x4’ panels, these dimensions should get you 24”x48” internal dimensions. The width is 25.5” to account for the fact that 1×4 planks are actually about 0.75” thick, not 1” as their name suggests.
You can use nails, screws, or wood glue to put the frame together. If you are using screws, I suggest making guide holes with an electric drill first, and then screwing the planks together. Don’t be afraid to do some quick googling if you are not sure what you’re doing!
Step 2: Place Two Insulation Panels Within the Frame
Stacked on top of one another. Like so:
Step 3: Use Duct Tape to Mount Panels to Frames
This might seem kind of lo-fi, but it’s surprisingly strong. Wrap the duct tape around the front and back of the panel, pretty tightly to the wood, and make sure the duct tape is taped firmly to itself on the end. My audio panels are built this way! They’ve survived a couple of moves already, and they obviously still have years of life in them.
Step 4: Wrap the Panel with Fabric
Place the panel on a sheet of fabric that is about 6-8” wider in each dimension than the panel itself. Wrap the edges of the fabric up around the wooden frame, and use the staple gun to attach the fabric to the wooden frame. Do your best to wrap the fabric tight- it helps hold the panel together, and looks clean and professional.
Step 5: Mount the Panels (Bass Trap Placement)
There are many ways to mount the panels. You can literally just lean them against the walls, or place them on a stack of old books to get them to the right height.
You can buy shelf brackets to mount them to the wall. Keep in mind that the panels will be quite heavy, so go for heavy-duty brackets like the ones I linked to, and be sure to mount them in studs, not just in anchors directly in the drywall. (A stud finder is your friend here!)
I personally mounted screw eyes into my panels’ frames, and into the studs of my ceiling. Then I used paracord to hang the bass traps using the screw eyes. I like the way it looks, and it makes it easy to adjust or move them.
With this guide, you are on your way to turning just about any room into a powerful home studio, capable of making truly professional-sounding music. If you want to go really deep, you can use a program like Room Equalization Wizard and a measurement mic. If you learn how to do basic acoustic measurements of your room before and after installing the bass traps, you should see a significantly better bass response! But even if you don’t go through all this trouble, your room is pretty much guaranteed to sound better.
Better yet, this opens the door to more DIY acoustic treatment. You can use a similar construction to build thinner audio panels (only one sheet of Roxul thick, instead of two) and mount them at first reflection points in your room. With first reflection points and corner bass treated, your room will be just about fully acoustically treated, for a fraction of the cost of a professional job! And these homemade panels really do work just as well- as long as you mount them in the right places. Keep working and feel the joy of the music!
Robert is a freelance audio engineer and the lead writer for Range of Sounds. Robert has had a lifelong obsession with dissecting and understanding music and is a self-taught composer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, singer, and recording engineer.