Renovating an Existing Studio

When it comes to renovations, some studio owners are constantly tinkering — adding a little more fiberglass here, a little more sheetrock there — so that their facilities have not so much a design as an evolutionary history. Other owners shudder to think of altering anything, not wanting to upset their particular balance of acoustical magic. Some facilities seem to spend more time upgrading their rooms than recording. And in some, were it not for the occasional piece of current electronic gear, you’d be hard pressed to tell from the finish-out which decade you’re in once you’ve passed through the front door.

Most studios, however, go through periodic upgrades — whether acoustical, electronic, cosmetic, or some combination of these three — where discreet results are expected. Adding new equipment and making aesthetic improvements are usually an attempt to keep current with technology or maintain a contemporary, comfortable environment for clients and staff. Acoustical renovations, on the other hand, are usually motivated by existing shortcomings, so change for change’s sake is not enough, and predictable results are essential.

Renovation can be a cost-effective means of improving existing rooms without incurring the expense of ground-up construction. Before a renovation project is undertaken, however, it is important to establish appropriate expectations for the achievable improvements, and to understand the consequences of the renovation process.

It’s certainly not possible to tell you here how to upgrade your facility, or even to establish a surefire way to go about initiating a renovation project, since the approach must be tailored to your current situation and specific needs. What we can do, however, is to outline the pertinent issues that can affect a renovation, using examples of successful past projects.

We have selected three recently renovated but distinctly different facilities to illustrate the range and scope of improvements which a renovation can pursue, and to point out some of the idiosyncrasies which accompany every project. These three example renovations are: 39th Street Studios in New York; Blue Jay Recording near Concord, Massachusetts; and the Edit7 suite in NBC’s studios at Rockefeller Center in New York.

A facility renovation can be as comprehensive as building entirely new rooms within an existing facility, or as simple as redistributing finish materials and re-mounting the monitor loudspeaker system. Our first example falls closer to the latter end of that spectrum, and shows how a relatively minor upgrade can result in major acoustical improvements. Located in mid-town Manhattan, 39thStreet Studios is a single-room music recording and production facility. Owner Mike Carp determined that the primary goal for this facility upgrade was to improve the monitor reference at the mix position. Secondarily, he wished to reduce the HVAC noise in the control room and studio, add a new technical power and grounding system, and cosmetically upgrade the control room. It was important that these changes be accomplished as inexpensively as possible, but still produce a significant “bang for the buck.”

Work on the monitor wall of the control room was the first order of business. The geometry of the monitor soffits, side walls, and ceiling near the loudspeakers was modified to provide more appropriate sound propagation through the room, and acoustical finishes were added to improve the monitor reference and expand the listening area. At the same time, mass was added to the walls and ceiling to reduce resonances and make a minor improvement in the sound transmission loss through the front wall construction.

To isolate the monitors while maintaining a solid support, new concrete block pedestals and “spike” mounts were constructed. The new monitor enclosures were designed so that the loudspeakers could be changed out quickly and easily without requiring further renovation of the room.

Additional modifications to the doors, door seals, and rear wall afforded improved sound isolation from adjacent rooms and the building’s exterior.

To reduce noise from the air conditioning systems, the distribution of both the supply and return ductwork was modified, and quieter terminal devices were installed. Appropriate isolation devices were installed at the room’s air handler and compressor to reduce structureborne vibration. Finally, for the new console and support gear, a technical power and grounding system was installed including a new isolation transformer.

For some studios, renovation projects take a more comprehensive approach. The acoustical upgrade of Blue Jay Recording located near Concord, Massachusetts, included a reworking of the interior finish-out of both the control room and studio, but avoided major modifications to the layout and basic construction of these rooms.

Originally constructed a dozen years ago, Blue Jay is a single room facility built underground in an earth berm. It primarily serves the record and music mixing/recording client. Owners Bob and Janet Lawson determined that an acoustical and technical system upgrade was in order. Their goal was to improve an already well-received room in order to maintain their existing client base and to appeal to new music project work.

Renovation was undertaken in both the studio and control room. Changes in the control room were coordinated with the installation of a new SSL console, the addition of video monitoring for the console automation, and the creation of a new machine room.

The improvements sought for the room’s acoustics included an increase in the size of the “sweet spot” to encompass the width of the new console and to extend back through the client area behind the operator. A smoothing of the low frequency amplitude response, and an increase in the bandwidth and dynamic range of the monitoring environment were also desired. Tests in the control room prior to the renovation determined that the existing shell construction and finishes were contributing to the lack of accurate imaging and the low frequency anomalies. Additional mass and damping materials were used to limit the resonance of the existing ceiling panels, and a diaphragmatic ceiling absorber which had been installed with the original construction was removed. Some of the original acoustical materials were found to be reflecting sound rather than absorbing it, as desired, and were replaced with more efficient sound absorption.

Diffusing elements were specified to increase the return of diffuse energy back into the listening areas. The rear wall of the control room was originally a seven-foot picture window which afforded a splendid view of the local countryside. To maintain this view and the natural ambient light which filters into the control room, a custom designed, optically-pure, plexiglass quadratic residue diffuser was provided by RPG Diffusers, Inc. Additional diffusing elements were added to the left and right rear wings of the control room to further widen the area of good listening and to provide the acoustical character they desired.

The control room monitors underwent structural modifications and acoustical improvements. The individual drivers were shockmounted, the cabinet bracing was increased, and limp mass damping was added to the exterior. Monitor pedestals were constructed of groutfilled concrete block with a poured concrete topping slab. Since the control room slab was effectively isolated from the studio, the monitors could be pointloaded and acoustically grounded directly to the slab with a mechanical connection through the pedestals.

As the studio is naturally quiet thanks to its underground construction, the room’s ambient decay could be increased without the fear of emphasizing noise problems. The center ceiling area was raised and the space filled with 21 quadratic residue diffusers; their sound distribution patterns were arranged to maximize the diffuse energy in the wood floor areas. An alcove that was originally absorptive was reconstructed out of stone to further add to the diffuse nature of the space, and the ceiling above this alcove was covered with quadratic residue diffusers. The resulting acoustical environment in the studio was free of the flutter echo and tonal resonance which had hampered the original design. Blue Jay’s high-profile track record continues to be recognized by leading contemporary artists and engineers. Most recently this facility was selected to record the soundtrack for the motion picture version of Dick Tracy.

A third type of renovation project involves the creation of a new room as part of a larger facility, working within an existing shell and adjacent to other ongoing functions. Such was the case for the construction of Edit7 at the NBC studios in New York. Edit 7 is the audio post and support space for NBC’s Saturday Night Live show, and comprises an audio control room, voice-over booth, machine room, and support area.

The portion of the building selected for renovation into the new Edit7 facility was the “Children’s Studio,” as it had been reserved exclusively for children’s programs when the studio was constructed in 1933. Since that time, the space had gone through a second incarnation as a radio studio complex. Located directly above the David Letterman set and adjacent to the SNL studio support areas, this renovation required considerable attention to noise control techniques.

In preparation for the new design the existing construction was removed back to the exterior shell. New interior floors, walls, and ceilings were constructed to provide a completely free-floating interior enclosure. The ceiling height on this floor is extremely limited, so extraordinary efforts had to be made to maintain every possible inch of clearance. To this end, the suspended drywall sound isolation ceiling was built around rather than under the existing concrete beams, and included false beams constructed to maintain the acoustical symmetry of the control room.

While the all-new construction allowed the rooms’ sound isolation and interior acoustics to be optimized to the available space, the design of the Edit 7 rooms had to accommodate the mechanical and electrical services which were provided for this space. Since the technical requirements of this facility are commonplace within the NBC complex, adequate air supply, ventilation, and clean technical power were readily available. The construction schedule was structured to present minimal impact on the adjacent spaces while tying into the existing systems.

Before undertaking a renovation project, it is essential to consider the following questions:

What are the existing problems?

Are mixes not relating to final product or outside reference? Do you have to turn to the producer to say, “Trust me, it will sound fine when we’re finished?” Are there noise problems that disturb the recording or monitoring process? Are you disturbing your neighbors? Is there enough room for your clients or the talent? Does the space look like Stonehenge? One of the essential elements to a successful facility renovation is identifying specific, feasible goals.

What is the likelihood of fixing the existing problems?

Cosmetic changes which also improve acoustics can be quite inexpensive, but cannot overcome the limitations of room volume, shape, or orientation. Restated a little more forcefully, ‘bandaids and perfume’ will not overcome the basic limitations of room volume, shape, or physical orientation. Improvements can almost always be realized but expectations must be reasonable.

Renovating a room (without completely rebuilding within an exterior shell) is typically not an effective means of improving sound isolation, unless an obvious weak link, such as a leaky door or penetration, has been identified.

Sound transmission through existing partitions and floors/ceilings is usually limited by the basic construction or by structural transmission through a common slab. It is extremely difficult and expensive to decouple existing construction or to modify structure to improve acoustical isolation.

Making HVAC systems quieter is similarly difficult within the confines of an existing system. Modifications are limited by the capacity of the existing units, and the balancing, volume, and velocities in the distribution system. In some cases, though, it is possible to redistribute air within a room to improve local ductborne or airflow noise or to provide better cooling of the technical equipment or occupants.

How will this renovation improve my facility?

What gains are expected with regard to the facility’s profit centers, booking rates, etc.? How will my clients perceive the change? Will the modifications attract new clients or address a new market? While there are many benefits to a facility upgrade, it is important to maintain realistic financial expectations when compared with the cost of the renovation.

How extensive should the renovation be?

Every renovation project is unique, and it is essential that the desired improvements be matched to the cost of accomplishing them. Many times there are several discreet levels of upgrade possible within a given facility, so it is prudent to choose a path which maximizes the benefit realized for each dollar spent.

In most cases, electing to renovate an existing facility rather than pursue new construction is motivated by a desire to spend less. As such, expectations for the upgrade should be similarly modest.

How long will the renovation take?

Obviously, the time required for facility upgrades varies with the extent of the changes and the difficulties in making them. Simple cosmetic and finish upgrades can be accomplished as quickly as a few days; completely rebuilding a room can take several months. If the renovation takes an existing room out of service, it is particularly critical to balance the amount of downtime against the desired results.

Very often, the sequence of a renovation, and the schedule established for the work can have a significant impact on the duration and cost of the upgrade. If the work will be accomplished by several contractors, it is important to consider the coordination of the different trades.

How much will the renovation cost?

Again, each project is unique, but the key is to establish upgrade budgets which target practical, tangible results. Throwing money at a problem without first establishing the anticipated results produces motion, not progress.

Building a new room within an existing facility or completely re-doing an existing room is typically more expensive than ground-up finish-out, but avoids the cost of building a new shell.

How will the renovation affect my existing facility?

What impact will this have on ongoing functions, either in-house or adjacent? Will my spouse divorce me? How will the dust and dirt and disruption of construction affect my clients and staff, not to mention technical systems and equipment? It’s not enough to compare the end results with the current facility; working conditions and the inevitable aggravations of the transition between the two must be considered as well.

What are the limitations of the existing facility?

What are the structural limitations of the building? How do local building codes or life safety requirements affect the design? What is the capacity of the existing building HVAC and electrical services?

Sometimes renovations are prompted by a change in the function of an existing room, or by the desire to convert a room to a new function. It is all too easy to investigate only the physical space required, and overlook the impact of changing adjacencies, or increasing the room’s heat and power loads.

How will the renovation change other areas within the facility?

What impact will the upgrade have on traffic flow through the facility? Will new adjacencies or functions affect either the existing or the new spaces? Are the public spaces (e.g. bathrooms, client lounges, kitchen) adequate to handle the new configuration? The renovation of one room can have significant implications for the operation of the facility as a whole.

What intangible effects might the renovation produce?

Renovation projects can breathe new life into a facility and staff. Renovation projects change lives. A well planned and executed project can revitalize a facility. Poor execution or faulty design can kill a thriving business. Unlike most buildings, these technical facilities are the tools and lifeblood of the industry. Bad tools in the hands of craftsmen can work wonders, good tools in the same hands – miracles. At worst case, a successful renovation will make tangible improvements and fix existing shortcomings without disturbing the best of what the existing facility has to offer.