Setting up your studio just right is key to capturing high-quality audio. Just because you’re working from a home studio doesn’t mean you don’t want professional sounding results. One of the most important things you’ll put into your studio are acoustic panels. But what kind should you use?
There really is no straightforward answer to this question. When it comes to movable versus fixed acoustic panels, there’s a lot to consider. Let’s take a look at some of the many applications of acoustic panels to help you decide.
What are the Differences between Movable and Fixed Acoustic Panels?
We’ll state the obvious. Fixed panels are attached to the walls and ceilings and don’t move. Once you figure out the proper placement, you don’t need to worry about them again.
On the other hand, movable walls or folding partition panels can be turned or angled from a fixed position. In professional studios, they might even be attached to the floor and ceiling so they can be used as a partition when needed. Movable and folding panels can also be completely free standing so you can put them wherever you want.
Although these panels are installed and applied differently, they each have their own benefits to offer. One is not better than the other. You just need to ask yourself–which one will be better for you?
Why Do I Need to Worry about Acoustic Panels Anyway?
If you want your work to sound even remotely professional, acoustic panels are essential. Adding them improves the sound of both the live recording and work done in post-production.
Matt Boughan points out that the best way to approach acoustics is in layers or “operable walls.” We tend to agree. Start with the basics by figuring out what you need and keep improving from there.
So, the very first thing you have to decide is what you’re going to be doing with your space. Is it only for your personal use? Will you be trying to grow it into a professional studio? Will you be recording only or will you use it for post-production, too?
If you’re using your studio for only the recording part of the process, you have to approach it differently than you a room designated for post-production or one designed to handle both ends of the process.
First, let’s take a look at the acoustics you need in a room for recording.
Ideally, a recording room is completely isolated from any outside noise or intrusions coming from elsewhere inside your home. It’s probably not going to be possible to completely isolate yourself, but try to choose the room that is the most isolated for your studio.
In whatever space you have, your goal is to minimize the sound bouncing back and forth between the walls. It causes an echo effect and can make for some unprofessional recordings. You can’t really change the shape of your room or where it’s located in your house, but with acoustic panels, you can interfere with the way the sound moves.
What If I’m Using the Same Room for Recording and Post-Production?
If you’re setting up a recording studio in your home, chances are you’re going to be using it for both recording and post-production. Unless you have a lot of room to spare, this is the setup that makes the most sense.
We’re going to get into a lot more detail about where to place different kinds of panels but for now, remember this: you have to consider the acoustics of both the sounds you’re recording and the playback coming from your speakers when making necessary changes.
Let’s focus on the specifics of how to appropriately set up the room you’re probably working with: a rectangular shape with four parallel walls.
Does the Size and Shape of the Recording Studio Matter?
Yes. In a perfect world, a recording studio wouldn’t have parallel walls or 90-degree angles, but in reality, most of the rooms in your house probably do.
Because you can’t really change the shape of a room in your home, you have to work with what you got. Philip Mantione gives a thorough and well laid out rundown of how to optimize a boxy home studio, including how to place various acoustic panels.
Among his suggestions are bass traps in all corners, acoustic panels spaced out along the front and side walls, and a diffuser along the back wall.
Now, should these be movable or fixed?
In this case, fixed panels make the most sense. Why? Because the shape of the room isn’t going to change. The corners and walls are always going to be there and you’re always going to want panels in the same place to counter this. Fixed panels are the winner in this case.
What about Reflection Points?
Reflection points are the spots on your studio walls where the sound waves from your speakers bounce off the walls. They’re particularly important during playback and, as long as you don’t rearrange your speakers, should remain the same.
According to Tim Perry, one of the first things you should do is place acoustic panels at these reflection points. This makes a lot of sense. Stopping this reflection immediately will stop a lot of other problems from occurring.
How do you figure out where reflection points are? It’s actually quite simple. Sit in your listening position and have a friend walk along the wall with a mirror. When you can see your speakers in the mirror, place a panel.
Your goal is to create a listening spot where you don’t hear any reflection. This way, you’ll get the purest playback you possibly can because it will be coming directly from your speakers.
What about the Ceiling?
You absolutely have to have acoustic panels on the ceiling. Obviously, movable panels aren’t going to cut it. Shelly Williams has some excellent ideas about how to mount fixed panels to your ceiling. Once they’re up, you don’t need to worry about them again.
If you want to, you can place a movable panel to the ceiling that has an adjustable angle. This might offer you some versatility but it’s not something you have to have.
What Other Situations Are Fixed Panels Better For?
If you have permanent issues with sound in your studio, it makes sense that you would want a more permanent solution. According to Jane Sherratt, situations that pop up need to be addressed with a more long-term solution.
If your recording studio is located in a garage or basement that has constant, extensive reverb, you will definitely want fixed panels. This is a long-term problem, it’s never going away, and fixed panels are a more permanent solution.
If you hear noises coming into your studio from outside, it also requires a long-term solution. Maybe you can hear kids getting off the school bus, dogs barking, or cars driving past. Or maybe you can hear footsteps from upstairs or conversations from next door.
Again, long-term problems mean fixed panels are a better solution.
Moveable panels might work in these cases but why bother? You’ll either have to leave them in one place all the time or set them up every single time you need to use your studio. Fixed panels make much more sense in this case.
Does the Type of Audio I’m Recording Affect What Kind of Panels Are Best?
Yes, it does. If you’re planning to record a range of music, instruments or vocals, you should create as versatile a space as possible. According to James Lindenschmidt, this is something you really have to consider if you’re planning to work with a lot of different clients.
On the other hand, if you’re planning to do more specialized audio, your needs are different. For example, maybe you’re making a home recording studio so you and your buddies can record a podcast. Your needs are obviously going to be different than someone planning to work with different musicians.
Keep your purpose in mind as you decide what kind of panels will work best for you. We’ll keep coming back to this idea as we explore the pros and cons of both movable and fixed acoustic panels.
Why Would I Want Movable Panels?
Even if you already have fixed panels in place, having additional movable panels allows you to elevate your recording even more. Why? Because you can make adjustments for exactly what you’re recording, whether it’s a band, soloist, vocalist, or voice-over artist.
James Lindenschmidt offers several strategies on how to improve your recording space with movable panels. In these strategies, he refers to the “Sweet Spot,” the spot where the musicians are setup during the recording process.
One of the things he suggests is bass trapping. This panel helps even out the low range tones of drums and basses. He suggests placing large, thick bass traps behind the drummer to help counter this effect.
Now, what if you don’t always record with a drummer? What if you don’t always record with musicians? If you also do a lot of work doing things like recording voice-overs, do you really need a bass trap in your permanent set up? Probably not.
Another thing that movable acoustic panels are great for is when you need to adjust the balance of the room. The more musicians you have, the more adjustments you’ll have to make to get the room to sound the way you want it to.
Different bands and musicians will require a different setup which means that you might be making changes between every session. There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to balance and ambiance which is why you need to be ready to make changes.
There isn’t a better way to improve the acoustics of your studio than to add movable acoustic panels as each session requires. When it comes to the customization, movable panels are the hands-down favorite over fixed panels.
I’m Only Going to Use My Studio for One Purpose, Are Fixed Panels Enough?
They might be! Again, the answer isn’t straightforward.
Here’s the deal. If you’re only going to be using your studio for one thing and you can get the perfect setup with fixed panels, then you’re good. So, if you’re going to record a podcast and have figured out how to place fixed panels to get the sound you want, you don’t have anything else to worry about.
If you’re only using your studio to record yourself playing the piano or drums, and you’re happy with the sound you’re getting from your fixed panels—that’s all you need.
That said, if you find you need a little something more, or you’re not quite happy with what you have, adding in a movable panel could be the solution. These are perfect examples of cases where both types of panels are needed.
It’s a Tie
Again, there’s no straightforward answer to the question of whether fixed of acoustic panels are better for your home studio. It vastly depends on the size and shape of your studio and what you’ll be recording there.
Our best suggestion? It wouldn’t hurt to have both.