Room in a room

October 25, 2021
 by Paul McGowan

Our rooms contribute to how reproduced music sounds.

Have a room resonance peak at maybe 150Hz? Every track of music played in the room will have that same bass bump.

Your room’s response is then added to by the multiple room responses of where the recording was captured, mixed, and mastered.

What we hear when we play music is a messy amalgam of rooms and their imperfections.

Which is often why my favorite recordings may not be yours and vice versa.

Rooms within rooms.

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25 comments on “Room in a room”

  1. When I bumped into an art dealer friend at an exhibition a while back he explained, half jokingly, that American ‘philanthropists” like to build art galleries so they can put their name on the side in large letters, and are then left with the problem of buying art by the yard to fill them. If the 19th century British nouveau riche industrialists did the same with brick-built churches in newly built towns and suburbs. As the mass of churchgoers shrivelled, these became perfect recording venues or were acquired by the likes of George Martin to create recording studios. Much of continental Europe always had more churches than you could shake a stick at, as well as a series of increasingly acoustically advanced concert halls. Since the 1930s the likes of the BBC, Decca, EMI and frankly most recording artists have had their favourite venues, producing a remarkably consistent sound. This simplifies matters. A good example is Ibragimova’s recording of Paganini’s Caprices, recorded in the Henry Wood Hall in the peak of lockdown in Spring 2020, requiring only three people (performer, recording engineer and producer). The venue was a church, bombed out in the war, then adapted in the 1970s as a rehearsal studio for two of London’s major orchestras. Sound quality from UK and European labels seems to me to be very much a non-issue, because there is no excuse not to make consistently good quality recordings.

    1. In 1972 ‘Pink Floyd’ did a live concert in a Roman amphitheatre
      in Pompeii, Italy because of it’s near perfect acoustics.
      It sounded so good that they ended up recording it.

      1. There are a lot of them about. The best I’ve been to is the Sanctuary of Asklepios in Epidaurus, but it’s not used for concerts. I think they do theatre there and it had a stunning acoustic. I saw Tales of Hoffman at the amphitheatre in Paphos, Cyprus, which was a bit dodgy. The Theatro Romano in Merida, Spain is very popular for rock gigs, orchestral concerts and theatre, and is very beautiful. It was built at the same time as the theatre in Pompey and is similar in design. We were staying nearby once and the wife wouldn’t agree to go to an opera. They start late because in the summer it is baking hot, even late at night. The most famous is the Verona Festival, which is a massive global tourist attraction and my wife is keen to go as Roberto Bolle (formerly of American Ballet Theatre) does a big dance festival. If you want to see Aida or Nabucco, that’s the place to go. The most beautiful I’ve seem is the Arena de Nimes in southern France. The main difference is that the Greeks designed acoustics for theatre and the the Romans (like at Nimes) mostly for gladiatorial stuff.

          1. A long, long time ago, when I was a teenager, on a school trip. It’s very touristy and busy around there and the Amalfi coast, the Cilento coast a little further south is a different matter and very beautiful. We once stayed a short walk from the temples at Paestum, built by the Greeks 500 years before Pompeii, perhaps the best preserved temples anywhere, with the obligatory amphitheatre. There are quite a number in the UK, all largely ruins. Another huge one is in Arles, which is very near Nimes, used for bullfighting and concerts. Seats at least 20,000.

  2. A bassoon player tunes his instrument by individually selecting and modifying a specific reed from his set of personal reeds depending on the room acoustics and even room temperature and humidity for getting the best sound. However the bassoon player always hears the sound at the spot where he is just sitting and playing. Shouldn’t thus a recording engineer capture this “best sound” by placing a microphone at the same spot? But what about capturing the best sound of each other instrument of the orchestra? And why and how adding the room sound/reverb? Would two sound engineers select identical mic placements? And why not simply making a one point recording at the best listening spot in the auditorium? And in the end it is up to the “audiophile” to reveal the best sound from his system and his listening room. Better have a check of the fine details buried in the recording using a decent pair of headphones before starting any set-up procedure resulting in a most individual room sound.

    1. There is a very good article in Sound on Sound interviewing Philip Hobbs when he was engineering one of the Dunedin Consort’s Bach recordings. Google “When you make recordings designed to show off your hi-fi systems, they had better be good!”. He’s been Linn’s had engineer for almost 30 years I think and has made fabulous award-winning recordings over the years. They were amongst the first to be offered online as 24/192 downloads, almost 15 years ago, when Linn brought out their new range of streaming DACs. I have quite a few of them.

    2. I oft say (as others have) that the creation of music is an art, and the reproduction of that music is a science. Paul does rightly understand that the room is the second half of the speaker system, but as you have touched upon, what does one do with variance in one of the most important factors of reproduction, and that is phase.

      Our brains have an uncanny way of attributing “realism” to small variances in phase, and why it’s important for a speaker designer to time align driver’s phase to create what we perceive as realistic audio. In this, a room (which is the other half of the speaker) also plays a vital role.

      Even worse, for the end user (and this too is part of the science of reproduction) we have to deal with electronics that introduce their own phase variance over the audio spectrum, and is part of the disdain I have with manufacturers who utilize cheap, poor performing devices like op-amps that have phase variance of 20~80 degrees over the audio spectrum.

        1. Certainly today’s market allows us some tools which we didn’t have in decades past, tools like Dirac or any of the other brands used in audio. I certainly start with the basics used for decades long before these tools, and use software as sparingly as needed. I like the fact that in 2 channel, the required adjustments from the software I use really doesn’t have to adjust much at all to obtain a flat response. Other channels in the room however, due to placement, do require a little heavy lifting to get those in line.

  3. I can’t remember which recording studio it is, but it was mentioned in
    The Foo Fighters – ‘Sonic Highways’ (2014) video.
    There is a recording studio in America that has a ‘false’, or floating, floor
    with a lower room (basement) the same size as the ‘upper room’.
    The important design feature is an 8″ air-gap all around the edge of said
    floating floor (360deg’s)
    This allows lower bass notes to be recorded much deeper, clearer &
    cleaner than just in the ‘upper room’ size (volume)

  4. This is why an adjustable setup (at least in the bass region) makes so much sense and is why I’d never again invest in a non adjustable speaker, unless I could make the room more or less perfect or I’d be willing to use DSP at the front end (which I’m not).

    When used to an adjustable setup, gone are the years of evaluating most changes in equipment and its quality or evaluating recording quality by tonality characteristics too often. So many false decisions are caused by severe room or equipment tonality reasons.

    1. The only bass control that I have, now that I’ve gone back to using an amplifier with
      no rotary tone controls, is whether I plug both of the bass ports with ski socks or
      just one of the bass ports with ski socks or whether I leave them both ‘open’ 😀

        1. It’s Spring time down here now & Summer’s on the way.
          So I’ve got 7 months to buy another 2 pair from ‘Target’…
          unfortunately they will probably be made in China 😉

          1. This afternoon I bought a 6 pair pack of Dr. Scholl’s diabetes & circulatory socks, proudly proclamed to be made in U.S.A. (with unspecified source imported yarn). Well, at least the fabric weaving and final sewing are domestic.

      1. I remember using resistor options controlled by switches in the early days. Not good in terms of other undesirable effects to the crossover concept, but a non adjustable high end setup up to a certain level of maturity is not meant for music lovers, listening to too different qualities of recordings and also not for those evolving their setup with various improvements at this stage.

        A non adjustable high end setup by then was a too big compromise for me related to what’s the main purpose: putting music in the foreground, not music that’s suited for a high end setup.

    2. Hi Jazznut.
      With regard to speakers I’ve recently done the opposite the old ones have 5 drive units, on the front mtm 50mm morel soft dome mids a ribbon tweeter plus the bass driver.
      On the back a adjustable ambiance driver and + and – settings for the mids and tweeter, also a rear facing port all in a box without parallel sides which I’ve owned for 16 or so years.
      In that time I bought SR carbon XOT’s and Gaia feet both of which helped
      With better sound.
      My new speakers have no adjustments three drive units in a two and a half way design, it’s a slim parallel sided floor standing speaker with twin front ports and no damping thin wall live cabinet construction.
      It’s a big improvement on what I had before in a small living room.
      Yes just like FR said if the bass is to much some socks in the ports will do the trick.

      1. I fully agree, adjustable passive speakers are mostly a big compromise, too, active crossovers/speakers are good in that.

        Many just choose an option they have available, the demand exists.

  5. In is not just the rooms in which the recording, mixing, mastering and listening is done, but it is everything that touches the sound effects what we hear. The choice of microphones, the microphone preamp, the placement of the microphone(s), all the gear in the mixing studio, all the gear in the mastering studio and finally all the gear in the listening room. It is a very complex convolution of sonic signatures.

  6. I guess I never gave as much thought of the recording environment as I have to the playback environment.

    It makes sense now, but the recording environment is something I have absolutely no control over. The closest many can get is the choice of recording. That being said I don’t pick playback music based on how well it interfaces with my room or equipment. Of course there are some standouts of the choices that have been made. In the end it comes down to how far and for how long do you want to chase all things audio.

  7. When the grandkids come with their parents at holidays we give them the master bedroom and set up a small tent within the bedroom for the kids to have their privacy. Whatever works, right? 😎

  8. In my systems I find that the analog interconnect plays a much larger role in the replication of the sound of the original recorded venues than most people would imagine. I just bought a used pair of a certain high end interconnect that I won’t name (because I don’t want the available used offerings to dry up before I buy a second pair…LOL). This analog interconnect reveals the space and tonality of the original recording venue in a way that no other interconnect in my system has ever accomplished. It is as big a leap as changing to I2s from transport to DAC. It doesn’t matter how good your room is if every component in your system is not optimized, including connections.

  9. Joseph, I agree 100% with you about the I2S interconnect between transport and DAC. Back in 2015 ( I think ) when the DMP transport came out I bought both the DS DAC and the DMP because finally that combo supported SACD playback. It came with a one meter HDMI cable for I2S connection that Paul described as a “decent” cable ( again, I think ). When I substituted the two for my 14 year old Sony SCD-1 ( which was on its last legs reliability wise ) the PS Audio combo sounded better, but not great. I did some research and got a one foot ( the units are stacked so one foot is all I needed ) solid silver HDMI cable from Wire World ( sadly no longer available ) and it was like a lightening bolt. The much need trio snap, rhythm and pace suddenly appeared.

    1. Absolutely, Tony. The PSAudio HDMI I2s standard was groundbreaking and one reason I purchased the DSMP and DS DAC not long after they launched. I wouldn’t even consider a new DAC without I2s inputs.

      Not only do the quality of the connections affect the “snap, rhythm and pace” but also the tonality of the voices and instruments and the acoustic space between and around them. That micro detail is what enables the brain to perceive the ambience and dimensions of the “room” in good recordings, be it a studio, chamber, hall, church, cathedral or stadium.

      Unless the “room within the room” is faithfully reproduced, the enclosing room doesn’t have much to preserve.

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