Understanding how sound travels in a given space is critical when setting up speakers in your studio.
Let us have a very brief look at how sound travels, and how we measure its effectiveness.
Sound travels at approximately 1130 feet per second (about 1 foot per ms).
By the way, this figure is a real help when setting up microphones and working out phase values.
Now let us take a frequency travel scenario and try to explain its movement in a room.
For argument’s sake, let’s look at a bass frequency of 60 Hz.
When emitting sound, the speakers will vibrate at a rate of 60 times per second. Each cycle (Hz) means that the speaker cones will extend forward when transmitting the sound, and refract back (rarefaction) when recoiling for the next cycle.
These vibrations create peaks on the forward drive and troughs on the refraction. Each peak and trough equates to one cycle.
Imagine 60 of these cycles every second.
We can now calculate the wave cycles of this 60 Hz wave. We know that sound travels at approximately 1130 feet per second, so we can calculate how many wave cycles that is for the 60 Hz wave. We divide 1130 by 60, and the result is around 19 feet (18.83 if you want to be anal about it). We can now deduce that each wave cycle is 19 feet apart. To calculate each half-cycle, i.e. the distance between the peak and trough, drive and rarefaction, we simply divide by two. We now have a figure of 91/2 feet. What that tells us is that if you sat anywhere up to 91/2 feet from your speakers, the sound would fly past you completely flat.
However, this is assuming you have no boundaries of any sort in the room, i.e. no walls or ceiling. As we know that to be utter rubbish, we then need to factor in the boundaries.
These boundaries will reflect back the sound from the speakers and get mixed with the original source sound. This is not all that happens. The reflected sounds can come from different angles and because of their ‘bouncing’ nature; they could come at a different time to other waves. And because the reflected sound gets mixed with the source sound, the actual volume of the mixed wave is louder.
In certain parts of the room, the reflected sound will amplify because a peak might meet another peak (constructive interference), and in other parts of the room where a peak meets a trough (rarefaction), frequencies are canceled out (destructive interference).
Calculating what happens where is a nightmare.
This is why it is crucial for our ears to hear the sound from the speakers arrive before the reflective sounds. For argument’s sake, I will call this sound ‘primary’ or ‘leading’, and the reflective sound ‘secondary’ or ‘following’.
Our brains have the uncanny ability, due to an effect called the Haas effect, of both prioritizing and localizing the primary sound, but only if the secondary sounds are low in amplitude. So, by eliminating as many of the secondary (reflective) sounds as possible, we leave the brain with the primary sound to deal with. This will allow for a more accurate location of the sound, and a better representation of the frequency content.
But is this what we really want?
I ask this because the secondary sound is also important in a ‘real’ space and goes to form the tonality of the sound being heard. Words like rich, tight, full etc. all come from secondary sounds (reflected). So, we don’t want to completely remove them, as this would then give us a clinically dead space. We want to keep certain secondary sounds and only diminish the ones that really interfere with the sound.
Our brains also have the ability to filter or ignore unwanted frequencies. In the event that the brain is bombarded with too many reflections, it will have a problem localizing the sounds, so it decides to ignore, or suppress, them.
The best example of this is when there is a lot of noise about you, like in a room or a bar, and you are trying to have a conversation with someone. The brain can ignore the rest of the noise and focus on ‘hearing’ the conversation you are trying to have. I am sure you have experienced this in public places, parties, clubs, football matches etc. To carry that over to our real-world situation of a home studio, we need to understand that reflective surfaces will create major problems, and the most common of these reflective culprits are walls. However, there is a way of overcoming this, assuming the room is not excessively reflective and is the standard bedroom/living room type of space with carpet and curtains.
We overcome this with clever speaker placement and listening position, and before you go thinking that this is just an idea and not based on any scientific foundation, think again. The idea is to have the primary sound arrive at our ears before the secondary sound. Walls are the worst culprits, but because we know that sound travels at a given speed, we can make sure that the primary sound will reach our ears before the secondary sound does. By doing this, and with the Haas effect, our brains will prioritize the primary sound and suppress (if at low amplitude) the secondary sound, which will have the desired result, albeit not perfectly.
A room affects the sound of a speaker by the reflections it causes. Some frequencies will be reinforced, others suppressed, thus altering the character of the sound. We know that solid surfaces will reflect and porous surfaces will absorb, but this is all highly reliant on the materials being used. Curtains and carpets will absorb certain frequencies, but not all, so it can sometimes be more damaging than productive. For this, we need to understand the surfaces that exist in the room. In our home studio scenario, we are assuming that a carpet and curtains, plus the odd sofa etc, are all that are in the room. We are not dealing with a steel factory floor studio.
In any listening environment, what we hear is a result of a mixture of both the primary and secondary (reflected) sounds. We know this to be true and our sound field will be a combination of both. In general, the primary sound, from the speakers, is responsible for the image, while the secondary sounds contribute to the tonality of the received sound.
The trick is to place the speaker in a location that will take of advantage of the desirable reflections while diminishing the unwanted reflections. ‘Planning’ your room is as important as any piece of gear. Get the sound right and you will have a huge advantage. Get it wrong and you’re in the land of lost engineers.