How to Reduce Echo in a Large Room with High Ceilings

Union Station High Ceiling

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Reverberation- the technical term for what we usually call echo- is a finicky creature. Most musicians have had this experience: you find a long tunnel, tall stairwell, or perhaps a huge church with vaulted ceilings, and you make some music just to experience the power of the reverberation in real time. We love to sing in the shower because the bathroom provides a satisfying echo chamber. In fact, Simon and Garfunkle’s stirring “The Sound of Silence” was written in a bathroom. The music and lyrics were inspired by the feeling created by the intimate echo.

Yet, for producers and recording engineers, reverb can be a beast, a wild animal that must be tamed. The dominant approach to recording is to record tracks as dry as possible, and to add reverb later. Recording a take with natural reverb is more often a liability than a benefit- it limits your ability to process the track in most ways. And if you change your mind about how much reverb you want on the track, you are stuck with your recording, unless you want to re-track it.

Reverb in Music

That said, reverb is very much the life in music. Almost all music features reverb of some kind. Our brains use hear reverb subconsciously, and use it to understand what kind of environment a sound is coming from. Music with no reverb whatsoever sounds dry and artificial (although this is sometimes used to artistic effect. For example, 90s alt darlings CAKE use no reverb whatsoever on most of their albums.) Reverb is almost always added to vocals at the least, and usually to other instruments as well. Consider the classic 80s drum sound, with powerful reverb on the snare.

Leon Cathedral InteriorYou probably know this already, but large rooms with high ceilings tend to be very reverberant. This is particularly true if the room has large flat surfaces, such as the walls or ceiling. This principle has been used intentionally throughout history- churches and concert halls have been designed to amplify performers using natural reverb for centuries.

When to Tame a Reverberant Room

But there are many reasons to control the natural reverb in a large room such as this. Perhaps you want to record vocals or an instrument, and you want to record as dry as possible so your track doesn’t contain your room’s natural echo. Perhaps you want to rehearse with a group, and your room is so reverberant that it’s distracting. Or perhaps you are not even a musician, but your room echoes and it’s bothering you.

The good news is that controlling echoes is a simpler matter than you might think. The even better news is that it can be done on a budget, depending on how handy you are.

What Makes Rooms Reverberant

Empty Room in HouseHave you ever experienced this? While moving to a new place, you walk into a room that you’ve just cleared of all furniture and possessions, and you notice that the room has much more echo than before. You have just experienced one of the most basic principles of reverb. An empty rectangular or square room, with bare walls and ceiling (and especially an uncarpeted floor) is one of the most reverberant spaces.

Sound can be hard to understand intuitively, because we are visual animals, and it’s invisible. I find it’s helpful to use visual metaphors to explain sound. A large, flat, hard surface is like a mirror for sound. Sound bounces off these surfaces without losing much energy. Two parallel surfaces like this are like a room with mirrors on either wall- the sound bounces back and forth for a while before dissipating. So an empty square room has loads of parallel hard flat surfaces, and the echoes linger.

Audio Treatment

However, some materials absorb sound rather than reflect it. Particularly, soft materials like fabric tend to absorb sound. Uneven textures also help to break up sound reflections. If you have seen professional recording studios or large theaters and concert halls, you have probably seen sound-absorbing panels and strangely-textured sound diffusers. The sound-absorbing panels contain insulation that’s very effective at absorbing sound, and the diffusers scatter the reflection so it’s minimized.

While these pro-level furnishings are usually highly specialized and expensive, there are actually some simple and inexpensive solutions that work extremely well. I’ll run through some great solutions, moving from the simplest to the most complex.

How to Tame Your Room

Soften Hard Surfaces with Rugs and Curtains

The first thing you can do to control echoes in large, reverberant rooms, is to make the hard surfaces less hard. Rugs on a tiled or hardwood floor make the room instantly less reverberant. They have the added benefit of adding color and life to your room, and making it more inviting! You can go for solid colors, sophisticated patterns, or you can mix and match!

Curtains do great work here as well. If you have blinds, try replacing them with curtains. Keep in mind that the larger and heavier the curtains are, the more effective they will be at sound absorption. In fact, many blackout curtains also advertise sound absorption as a selling point. Their ability to reduce outside noise does double-duty to absorb sounds inside the room.

Add Furniture to Minimize Large Flat Surfaces

Many people only think in terms of basic functionality when decorating a room. But consider adding decorative furniture such as end tables, credenzas, sideboards, accent chairs, poufs, and more. Items like these can make a space feel more intentional and tasteful, while simultaneously absorbing reverb. The more the better!

One of the most surprisingly functional additions is a bookcase full of books or other media. A wall of bookcases acts kind of like the sound diffusers I mentioned earlier. The random bumpy surface scatters reflections.

Don’t forget about houseplants! They are actually quite trendy as decor at the moment. Even if you don’t have much of a green thumb, look into plants such as the “Swiss cheese plant” monstera, majesty palms, snake plants, ferns, spider plants, and devil’s ivy. These are all popular houseplants, known to thrive indoors with minimal upkeep. On top of absorbing sound, they add so much life and freshness to your space! Hanging planters and tall plant stands will make them even more effective in a large room with a high ceiling.

Blankets on the Walls and Ceiling

Here, we are getting more specialized and less decorative. However, there are still ways to do this tastefully.

Many home producers have zeroed in on moving blankets for sound absorption. They are relatively thick and heavy-duty, yet inexpensive. You can install grommets to make them more functional, and hang them from wall hooks. If possible, try to hang them a with an air gap of 2-4” between the blanket and the wall or ceiling. This gap makes them even more effective at dampening reflections, as they will have space to vibrate and absorb more sound.

As I mentioned, moving blankets are not beautiful, but there are creative ways to hang them tastefully. Hang a simple canvas drop cloth in front of them for a clean and modern look, or check out tapestries for some flamboyant self-expression.

DIY Isolation Booth

If you are trying to record vocals (or other individual acoustic instruments) in a reverberant room, check out guides like ours to build simple isolation booths. These are essentially moving blankets hung from a frame in a rough semicircle behind the performer. They block reflections that would otherwise enter the mic from the back and sides. Since you are probably recording with a cardioid mic in situations like this, you don’t have to worry much about blocking reflections coming towards the performer’s front, as they are in the microphone’s null spot anyway. If your ceiling is high, try adding another blanket over the performer’s head. With this configuration, you can record beautifully dry tracks in nearly any space, no matter how echoing.

For the record, I am a full-time songwriter and producer, and I use a homemade isolation booth much like this. While most people associate a fully-fledged vocal booth with high-fidelity recording, this is a misconception. In fact, vocal booths resembling a tiny separate room are usually more of a liability than a benefit for individual recordings. They exist primarily to separate the singer from the rest of a band- unnecessary if you are tracking individually. And they are liable to have an unnatural, boxy sound unless they are also professionally sound-treated. With a home-made isolation booth, you can sound completely professional with far less expense and effort.

DIY Sound-Absorption Panels

Professional sound absorption panel kits are very expensive. For example, check out the price of these (and that is the price per panel, despite the photo showing four.) A much less expensive option has emerged, a favorite among independent producers and musicians, and even non-musicians who are designing high-quality home theater and stereo environments.

Roxul Rockboard sound-absorbing insulation is relatively inexpensive, and very effective. Build a wooden frame around the edge of the insulation, mount the insulation inside the frame, and use a staple gun to apply a layer of breathable fabric such as cotton to create a skin. You have just built a nearly identical product to the ATS panels listed above, at a fraction of the cost. And you can even get creative with any fabric you like as long as it’s a breathable material. Mount these strategically on your walls and ceiling to taste, and you can control sound reflections at a professional level. Again, try to leave an air gap of 2-4” between the walls/ceiling and the panels, to further amplify their effect.

Beware Cheap Foam Panels

A note on foam wedges such as these. These are probably not your best choice, no matter what your goal is. The truth is that they don’t do much, and if they weren’t relatively well-known already, I don’t think anyone would use them. I’m not even sure how they got so popular, but my guess is marketing, and the fact that they resemble certain types of high-end sound treatment.

But these wedges are thin, so they absorb far less than the aforementioned Roxul panels. They are mounted directly onto the wall, so they don’t have the air gap I have been recommending. Their jagged shape doesn’t actually make much sense- random shapes diffuse sound more effectively when the surfaces are hard. Believe it or not, a free-hanging moving blanket mounted a couple of inches from a wall is far more effective than these wedges. And home-built Roxul panels are more effective yet.

Conclusion

If your large, high-ceiling room is rattling your bones with meddlesome reverberations, fear not. Even on a relatively small budget, you have many options to vastly improve the acoustics of your space. You can easily get professional-sounding recordings in your room if you follow the steps I’ve laid out. And following many of those suggestions make your room more pleasant to spend time in as well- a true win-win! Of course, controlling reverb is just one part of producing music- if you are getting stuck on the mixing and mastering part, don’t be afraid to reach out to professional mixing and mastering services, which can be more affordable than you’d think! Good luck out there, and keep feeling the joy of the music!