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What is the difference between soundproofing and acoustic treatment?
Does acoustic treatment assist in soundproofing?
Learn which is the most appropriate for your home studio
Soundproofing vs Acoustic Treatment
The difference between soundproofing and acoustic treatment lies in their purpose. Soundproofing is trying to keep sound in or out, so you can be loud in the studio without bothering your neighbors. With acoustic treatment, the aim is to adjust the acoustics within the room so you can mix/produce music better due to not having your sound ‘colored’ by acoustic reflections.
However, both will improve the sound quality and help you create a better and more professional listening environment. Take a look at your situation and determine which issues you are trying to solve:
Are you annoying your neighbors?
Is traffic noise compromising the quality of your recording?
Or are reflections from hard surfaces preventing you from creating transparent, quality mixes?
Let’s see what is needed in your home or recording studio!
Acoustic treatment means analyzing the sound field within a room and shaping it to achieve the best possible listening environment and sound quality.
It’s applicable in recording studios and control rooms alike, although the goals that you try to achieve may vary depending on the usage profile of the room.
Let’s focus on control rooms since most principles can be transferred and adjusted to recording studios.
Usually, the goals you try to achieve are:
Good stereo image (symmetry)
Transparency (reverberation time and reflections)
Flat frequency response (eliminating room modes)
A good stereo image is based on geometrical symmetry in your listening position.
This includes the distance between the loudspeakers, you and the speakers, and between the speakers and walls. If you get your setup to have solid measurements in those aspects, you can improve the stereo sound quality in the direct sound field.
However, it may still occur that it feels like, your mixes are “leaning” towards one side. This might be because there is no symmetry throughout the back of your room or in the diffuse sound field.
If you are working with acoustic foam panels or other acoustic treatment materials, uneven positioning of those can hurt your stereo image.
But also large pieces of furniture, thick drapes, or hard surfaces like windows can influence the symmetry immensely.
While symmetry might be more related to control rooms, dealing with reflections and reverberation time is well applicable to recording studios.
Both aspects are mainly achieved through the use of absorbers. There are resonant absorbers that target specific low frequencies, but the most common absorbers are “passive” which means they operate on the principle of dissipation.
This means they turn acoustic energy into heat through friction. Acoustic foam and most acoustic panels are based on this concept.
They absorb sound and in the process reduce the reverberation time by transforming the sound energy in the room. For control rooms, a reverberation time of about 0.3s is a good benchmark.
Apart from the symmetry aspect we discussed above, you can also use your foam panels (or whatever acoustic treatment materials you are using) to eliminate early reflections.
‘Early reflections’ is sound that has left your speakers, bounced off one of the boundaries or the room, and then reaches back to your ears. This essentially ‘colors’ the sound you are hearing which can make mixing decisions harder.
A good trick to tackle early reflections is by finding the right position for your acoustic panels. You can do this by moving along the wall (and ceiling) with a mirror. If you can see a loudspeaker in the mirror from your listening position, that is where you put your acoustic panels.
This allows you to visually see where sound would bounce off of a surface and make its way back to your ears.
Soundproofing prevents sound waves from entering or leaving the space you are treating. The good news is, that it works both ways, if sound waves aren’t coming in, they are also not going out.
The bad news is, that it can be quite difficult (and costly) to achieve complete sound isolation.
In particular, preventing low frequencies from entering or leaving your space can be problematic.
To have an impact on a sound wave, an object (e.g. a wall) needs to have (again) a thickness of at least 1/4 of the wavelength of that specific sound wave.
And the lower the frequency, the longer the wavelength.
Unfortunately, the low rumble of traffic noise disturbing your recording, and you trying out a million kickdrum samples, driving your neighbor insane, are both located in that low area of the frequency spectrum.
Generally speaking, soundproofing a room is done on a larger scale with measures on which you usually don’t have much influence:
Thick walls are needed to reflect or absorb sound waves with low frequencies.
“Room-in-Room” Designs let a recording studio or control room float within another room to ‘cushion it’ with air pockets and prevent sound waves from going in or out.
Impact sound insulation is often used in residential buildings below the flooring.
Unfortunately, these soundproofing methods will often be out of reach for the regular home studio, not least because of the extremely high cost.
But don’t despair, there are a few simple tricks you can employ on a budget to give you a bit of an edge.
Door seal kits
Although operating on a smaller scale than the methods mentioned above, a door seal kit can be quite effective depending on your situation. The concept that these are based on is a physical parameter called “impedance”.
It’s the frequency-dependent resistance that acts on the sound waves. In the realm of room acoustics and soundproofing that includes walls, floors, or doors.
However, in the case of a door, we have one critical aspect. If it doesn’t seal shut and air can flow through the gaps in the door, the impedance doesn’t change and there is less resistance.
Getting rid of those small gaps with a door seal kit, will not have an impact on neighbors or outside noise, but it can make a difference for you and the people living in your flat or the adjacent rooms.
Wait a minute, didn’t we just cover that acoustic treatment is about the sound within the room and not about what’s going in or out? – Yup!
However, remembering how absorbers work, logic dictates that acoustic panels will have some impact on soundproofing. If the sound energy is transformed into heat, it can not leave the room anymore.
This is also very interesting for bass traps. Because they don’t only absorb annoying room modes, but will also reduce low-frequency noise from the outside like traffic.
Now, although door seal kits or acoustic panels can be helpful when you are trying to soundproof your studio, it’s not possible to achieve amazing results like the structural methods mentioned above would.
Not to mention, that they probably exceed most budgets.
It could also be wise to try and work around the challenges your situation might offer:
Try talking to your neighbors and find times where it’s convenient for you to be louder (and them quieter).
If you want to work outside those hours, invest in quality headphones.
Schedule your recordings to times when there is less traffic noise.
Does acoustic treatment also soundproof?
Yes, it does (a little bit). Especially bass traps can have a positive impact on the soundproofing in your room.
What is the most effective soundproofing material?
Thick walls. Sorry, acoustic foam or fiber mats are not going to fix structural shortcomings.
Are acoustic panels good for soundproofing?
It depends on the frequency spectrum they are effective in. If they are high/mid absorbers, chances are high that the walls of your room will absorb or reflect those frequencies anyway.