The Room

A recent Internet meme featured a goofy song set to clips from an obscure mid-’70s wilderness “epic” called Buffalo Rider. I watched the whole film and can tell you the title is not a euphemism (thank the heavens); it’s a 19th century period piece about a guy who tames and rides a buffalo (technically the American bison, but American Bison Rider makes for a terrible title). Well, truth is, he kind of tames the buffalo—mostly the poor brute ambles about trying to scrape its rider off on low tree branches, angrily chases after bears, and generally goes about as he wishes and looks decidedly untamed, save for the fact that there’s a guy on his back.

The screening room at my office where I watched this classic is very much like that buffalo—no, it’s not smelly, matted, and covered with ticks. What I mean is it’s quite untamed. I’ll explain. You see, we screen a great deal of material at my office: Blu-rays, DVDs, YouTube videos, and 16mm films by the score. Apropos of absolutely nothing, we recently unearthed an extraordinary film from the early ’60s called Setting Up a Room that consists solely of two kindergarten teachers, you guessed it, walking around setting up a room. For 30 minutes. It’s a piece of mesmerizing performance art that Andy Warhol could never have dared to dream.

Anyway...the only room large enough to accommodate us is a massive, open kitchen with high ceilings, glossy floors, bare walls, and glass along one wall. Sound-wise, it’s quite literally the worst possible space, except perhaps if you set up a screening room on the floor of an anvil factory. The echoes are horrendous, speech is unintelligible if you’re farther than a foot away (and I demand that all people stay at least a foot away from me, which is at times hard on my marriage), and a powerful fan churns constantly in the exposed ductwork.

I was determined to try to tame this wild beast—and so began an Internet search for sound-absorption panels. A little tip for those of you planning to do the same: Don’t take a big sip of coffee before you check the prices. You’ll involuntary spit-take the entire mouthful over your keyboard and monitor. While it may play comedically (spit takes are never not funny), it’s not good for your electronics.

So, rather than plunge our small company into federal-government levels of debt, I decided to build my own sound panels using much cheaper fiberglass wallboard that I covered with a light, acoustically transparent cloth, tacked on with spray adhesive. (When I say “I” did this, please understand it’s a royal “I” and I really mean “my teenage son” did this. Although I was there to supervise and also just for the chance to get a contact high from those spray adhesives.) Construction went relatively smoothly, but if you ever work with fiberglass wallboard, I strongly urge you to wear one of those goofy Tyvek suits or at the very least a long-sleeved shirt if you don’t want your arms to look like they’ve been scrubbed with a grill brush and feel as though they’re being stung by bullet ants. In the end, I hung some 25 2-by-4 panels and concentrated them on the wall behind the viewing area.

And still the beast was not tamed. Yes, speech was somewhat more intelligible. If someone were to say, “You have a Crunch Berry in your hair,” (it’s a common phrase around my office) it now sounded like, “You blah blah blahberry in blah blah.” Which is actually an improvement, as up until my sound treatment, it was as though the speaker were a man overboard during a terrible storm at sea. Still, it wasn’t good enough.

I had been thrown off the buffalo. But I had learned from Buffalo Rider that rather than give up, it was time to pick myself up; brush the dust from my huge, droopy, oversized mustache; help myself to some pemmican and a bit of hardtack; and get right back on the American bison. And so I did, by calling the HVAC guys and whining until they agreed to help quiet that powerful fan that throttled away over our heads at all times. I’m always loathe to call in HVAC guys because, whether accurate or not, I feel like those who work with their hands look down on me, what with my soft job of looking at movies and typing things into a computer. Which is why I always put on my Carhartt jacket with the name “Stosh” stitched on the pocket and smear crankcase oil on my face before they show up. They assume I’m either a fellow laborer or a madman, either of which is preferable to the truth.

They were able to rule out our predominant theory that a Harley rider with an endless supply of gasoline had become wedged into our ducts and told us it was a simple kitchen exhaust fan the previous occupant had set to high and removed the option to switch off. Evidently the people in the suite before us were constantly microwaving frozen sardines, frying blue cheese sandwiches, hosting fish boils and interoffice chili-eating contests, as well as having the occasional food fight with shrimp paste. They switched off the fan. They also throttled down the air conditioning fan, which was inexplicably also set to super-mega-high. Apparently those chili-eating contests really cause you to work up a sweat.

The result? Decidedly so-so. The high ceilings, the reflective surfaces, it’s just too much. Throttling down the fans helps, but it’s still the most challenging screening room I’ve ever dealt with. And I’ve dealt with upwards of three of them.

Still, I will not give up. I will grab the reins and tame this buffalo. I’ll start by buying a nice, thick rug—something that goes with the blinds, of course.

bluewizard's picture

Room acoustics is one of the trickiest aspects of building a dedicated Home Theater room, or of taming any room for that matter. As my subject line implies, how much is enough, and how much is too much?

If you have ever been in a Anechoic Chamber, you know what a creepy experience it is. It is scary quiet and acoustically dead in there. If you over compensate your Home Cinema room, it too becomes dead and lifeless. However, if you leave it at bare walls, then likely it is going to be a reflective nightmare.

As in a concert hall, a degree of reflections add life to the sound, it gives it a fullness and presence. But how much reflection and from where is the question that I've yet to find an answer to.

Diffusers can break up the sound and prevent standing waves, and are probably essential to a Home Cinema room. But Absorption is equally important, and knowing when and where to place absorption is an important as knowing when and where to place Diffusion.

Then we get into degrees of absorption. The deeper the absorbing panels, the lower the frequency they are capable of absorbing. Thin convoluted foam acoustic panels absorb mid and high reflections, and also have a degree of diffusion. But to soften bass, it takes some pretty deep panels. I would say on the order of 6" or deeper.

So, my question is, how does one find that balance between absorption and diffusion, and between too much and not enough. And compounding the matter, it is not as simple as having absorption and diffusion, but where you place it is critical.

According to the recent article in Home Theater Magazine on Acoustic, the acoustics of a room are no small matter, they weigh heavily on the sound quality within the room. And as such, I find it odd that so little information is available on addressing room acoustic with an eye on how much is enough and where precisely to apply the room treatments?