Interview w/ Jerry Steckling
By Barry M Rivman
Chat with acoustical design partner Jerry Steckling on what it takes to build an award-winning, world-class studio—or turn your current space into one.
With the myriad articles and primers on studio acoustics, it would be easy to confuse acoustical engineering with science. Well, let’s amend that. It’s easy to assume that acoustical engineering, or any technological endeavor that employs numbers, measurements, and ear-catching jargon such as “room nodes,” “absorption,” and “diffusion” is an exact science. Sorry to say, much like electronics, acoustics is not an exact science. Not just due to the fact that real-world and ideal-world designs yield different results, but also due to the subjective perception of human hearing. To put it simply, equations don’t solve nature, and nature doesn’t solve equations. In pro audio and its related fields, the greatest designers and engineers are also artists—artists who use the tools of science to achieve their wonders.
One such artist/engineer is acoustic designer Jerry Steckling, founder of JSX Audio, who, designed ENZY Studios in Mumbai, India, which was hailed by The Indian Recording Arts Academy as India's Top Recording Studio for 2016 at their annual awards ceremony. ENZY Studios also won the IRAA's 2015 award for Best Equipped Recording Studio in India.
More recently Steckling, whose professional credits include Industrial Light and Magic, Skywalker Ranch, Pixar Studios, and THX, partnered on a studio for rapper-actor Snoop Dogg, where the mandate was an ultra modern environment coupled with elegant simplicity and a highly streamlined workflow. Steckling was charged with the task of making the studio look like the bridge of the starship Enterprise, while at the same time providing world-class sonics.
If you’re ready to pull the trigger on a world-class recording facility or hoping to turn a space you have into one that will provide the perfect creative environment that will enable you to record and mix without compromise, let Jerry Steckling tell you in his own words why you should strongly consider working with JSX.
WP: Do you have a design philosophy or mental approach to designing a control room?
JS: I consider building control rooms like being a luthier. I like to get really familiar with the materials; what they feel like, what they sound like, and experience what they sound like as they’re being installed in the room so I can actually hear the effects of the materials. I have my habits and desired materials, and some of those materials are not the exotics that are advertised in the acoustic material supplier’s web sites. Some are very, very simple; simple insulation materials, simple boards and slats—in other words, we can build a very good-sounding room from the Home Depot.
The challenge there is: “Okay, we’ve built you a very good-sounding room, now what do you want it to look like,” ‘cause the crude materials don’t look good, but they can sound good. We have a huge selection of fabrics that we use, and each one of those has a little bit of an acoustic signature as well. So, I try to anticipate what the final look of the room is going to be, what the fabric and other materials are going to be, and like a luthier, try to figure out what the instrument is going to sound like when you’re finished. I frequently say that the speaker box is speaker box number one, the listener is sitting in speaker box number two, and the systems need to work as one.
WP: When you approach a studio design in an existent facility, we assume there are going to be problems you’ll encounter . . .
JS: (Laughs) You’ve just struck upon the fact that there really are no cookie cutter solutions in our business. It’s almost never that we can repeat some of the same processes. Each situation is unique. I spend a lot of time at the “get” of the project interviewing the client, asking what kind of music is going to be done there. What’s the loudspeaker system; where do the clients go, are they high-end clients or mostly in-house clients; is this 5.1, 7.1, or Atmos (Dolby’s immersive theaters sound system); do we need two rooms, do we need a greenroom, a kitchen, all of those things go into the design of the space.
Set aside the acoustics for the moment, there are two huge categories of our design work that have sometimes little to do with each other. One is isolation, where we study how the space plan works. (E.g.) “Do you intend to use this vocal booth with two different rooms, in which case we have to make sure that for control room A and B, we’re allowing for the girth of the walls. In that process, we’re going to investigate all of the penetrations that go into those rooms so that we get the isolation correct. HVAC penetrations also can be a huge acoustic leak, so, the very first part of a project is the space plan— ensuring the client’s workflow functions well. For example, where are you going to store the microphones; how much space between rooms; does the HVAC go into the ceiling or the walls, which depends on the building we’re inheriting; all of those questions and more go into the space plan.
Secondly but not lesser is the interior sound-field acoustics. These vary quite a bit, especially with the performance areas—are you doing piano, are you doing string quartet, are you doing all vocals, are you doing drums in here—can influence the way we lay out the interior acoustics for the various performance rooms. Then in the control rooms, therein lies the question of how we have to solidify the speaker system. How big are the consoles? Are the clients sitting behind you? Is their listening situation critical, or is it just the cockpit of operators that’s critical?
On occasion, we’ll suggest different space plans for the control rooms, different aspect ratios. More often than not, we’re inheriting some shapes in these buildings that are not necessarily the golden ratios. The golden ratios would distribute bass across the room in either gross ways or subtle ways, and we do our best to accommodate the wavelengths that might be played in the room. If it’s EDM or hip-hop, we have 30 Hertz to worry about. If it’s television, broadcast, or cinema mix, the subwoofer response is a little less critical. Technically, it’s all critical, but we can afford a little less passive absorption in those wavelengths.
WP: At what point in the construction do you like to get in and measure?
Frequently I’ll go out and measure to see what those rooms are doing without anything in them. If I have the chance during the build of the project—and I don’t get this chance very often because of construction schedules, etc.—but before any bass or other kinds of absorption are in, I’ll have the walls framed, get the HVAC and lighting and such put in. Then, I’ll set up loudspeakers and move the microphones around. After that, we’ll start installing all of the absorption, so I can measure what affect those materials have. You might assume that I’ve done many rooms I’d have some values written down in my spreadsheets, but even today after designing 50 or 60 rooms (I’ve lost count), and having experience with those materials, I will still discover new things. I try my best to be included as the room tuning expert as well as the acoustician on the front end of the project. I like to consider my job as the bookends of the project.
WP: When it comes to the point where aesthetics and acoustic treatment meet, do you custom-build treatments or go with products available on the open market?
JS: That depends on budget. In the course of categorizing the expense of the rooms, we have to consider the isolation costs, which are fixed, so to speak; i.e. if you want to achieve x-amount of isolation between these rooms, it’s going to take x-amount of materials and labor to do it. That’s the easier budget to determine, because you can figure it out by square foot, linear foot, etc. And I’ve got my spreadsheets for that. Acoustic doors, entryways, and sound locks are easily figured out to get the isolation—so there’s a block of costs. Then the interior treatments to control the wavelengths is another batch of materials that are actually easily mounted, so that’s another category. You just have to say, “I need x-amount of materials and labor to mount these.”
Then when you say, “What does it look like,” we’re talking about shapes and forms. A lot of our customers have more Spartan budgets. They have function prioritized way before form and are quite happy to have a livable form in terms of how the interiors lay out. That said, on the interior-look budget; that can be as much as the rest of the budget; premium fabrics, millwork, a latticework stained maple ceiling for example. Those are the kinds of things that can add up some expense rather quickly. It just depends on what the client has in their budget and their expectations in terms of the clients they intend to sell to—the interior-look budget can swing wildly. Our Spartan customers can choose from a basic set of cloths and maybe very little millwork, painted baseboards, etc., and we can keep them on budget pretty easily. But, as I said, that look might involve shaping of things. I have my habits in terms of where I believe the best absorption belongs to get the total RT60 handle.
You mentioned bass absorption and what the technique was, so to double back there: you can measure the RT60 of a room, which is total reverb or damping time. But, you’re really considering the listening position, which is what you need to favor. It’s my habit to build a number of cavities that in total will work on the RT60. Even across a back wall, I’ll have certain pockets spanning the back wall that favor 60Hz, 80Hz, 125Hz, etc. So, if I get a number of bass absorbing cavities that work at those frequencies—and they’re all very low Q—they overlap each other, and that’s how I usually work the design of the bass absorption. With reference to mode response, your eigenmode response across the length of the room or the diagonals, we have programs that can give you some decent mathematical predictions in the response of a larger room.
However, it’s been said that small-room acoustics is almost more art than it is science. With that said, there aren’t any formulas or apps for small-room acoustics. You can’t put in enough information. The walls and ceilings could solve all of your first two octaves of absorption because they move. They’re all panel absorbers. There are no prediction programs for that. I don’t like to call it “art,” because every little decision is made with science, it’s just that there are so many overlapping things to consider, that there’s no app or formula that can dependably predict what will happen.
So, people say that it’s art, and potentially it is. I guess if there’s an art to it, it’s calculating and explaining to your customers what the compromises will be. I’ve built a couple of rooms needed no EQ, for instance. I was able to design their shapes from scratch, but that isn’t what we get when a customer moves into a facility, warehouse, or what have you.
WP: Based on what you just said, have you encountered a situation where the best advice you could give was, “Move.”
JS: (Laughs). The best advice I could give in a handful of situations is “don’t build here.”
WP: Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could get customers to talk to you before they sign a lease?
JS: I sometimes get that luxury. Yeah, I encourage people to do exactly that: consult with your acoustics people and studio-building design people before you sign a lease. In two cases in the past year, I actually went on tours of various buildings with the client. That is the way it should be done, so the client doesn’t fall into a trap or compromise that isn’t acceptable.
WP: You mentioned dealing with bass frequencies in a control room. Would you elaborate on that?
JS: So, in these rooms, having inherited more often than not, less than desirable ratios, your first concern are the axial modes. The first one is from the front-wall speakers to the back wall and to the listener and back again. There are significant modes that would be created along that axis. Of course, you also have width and height; all the other three-dimensional resonances to consider as well—but your main one, perhaps your loudest one is front to back.
In studios built prior to the ’80s, it was customary that control rooms would be built with three to four feet of absorption on a back wall to contain that first mode down into the deeper wavelengths. Nowadays, the rooms are smaller and the real estate is not really affordable. The square footage is too valuable. So sometimes there is a compromise, and we explain as we’re designing that we’re only going to take 14 to 16 inches off the back wall for the space absorption, but here’s your compromise, here’s what it’s going to do for your bass response. Down below in the deep wavelengths, let’s call it 20 to 40 Hertz, frequently the architecture is already a bass absorber; walls move, sheetrock moves, the stud wall moves; they’re all panel absorbers. So, down below in those first couple of octaves, you have some built-in architectural absorption before you build any bass traps. That has to be figured into it as well.
I’m one of a few designers who aren’t afraid of active absorption, which I’ll do if there isn’t enough space for passive absorption. In other words, if we can’t hack off three or four feet off the back of the room to do passive absorption to get down into those frequencies, we can do it actively and mount loudspeakers in the back wall. I did Robert Rodriguez, the movie director’s room in Austin, Texas, where I built two subwoofers into end tables on either side of his client couch, because the couch was up against the back wall. I fed information from the main speaker channels and crafted the filter set into the woofers and cleared up all of the modes that way. I believe that the future of listening rooms is going to be all active design. The real estate for passive bass design can no longer be afforded.
WP: Generally speaking, how would you go about designing those active bass filters?
JS: There’s no such thing as a button to press to get the filters to work properly. You have to wade into what the boundary responses are; where the front speakers are versus how different the active absorption speakers are.
WP: I’ve heard it’s a big no to put a client couch on a back wall in a studio.
JS: Yes, you try to keep them off the back wall because if you don’t have the space to do the passive absorption you’re putting the client’s head about 18 inches from the septum wall, so yeah, there’s going to be bass buildup.
WP: Being close to the wall, would comb filtering be an issue as well?
JS: No. The comb filters you would consider in the 250Hz and above, and that leads into a discussion of initial time delay gap. That’s another part of the spectrum that needs study, and study it to make sure there aren’t any early reflections, thus comb filters. Somebody once upon a time tried to identify the zones of sound in a room where you have modal response down in the first three or four octaves and everything above that is ray acoustics and absorption and has to do with your initial time-delay gap.
WP: Could you elaborate on time-delay gap?
JS: I used to teach this topic. To briefly describe it; let’s say that the listener is five feet away from the loudspeakers, so in approximately 4-1/2 milliseconds the sound arrives. Then, the ceiling is x-number of feet away from the top of our head; let’s say six feet. So, the loudspeaker wave has to go six feet up and six feet back to the listener. That’s about 10 milliseconds. Sidewalls and back wall might be something similar. You can see around the room these various dimensions and boundaries are going to reflect things back to the listener, x-number of milliseconds later. If that surface is hard, then it’s going to be a reasonable reflection of the initial signal. Of course, it’s off-axis from the loudspeakers, etc., etc., but the point being is you’re going to hear a slap. Off any boundary you might actually be able to snap your fingers and hear a click back and forth as a flutter echo. If you study the hearing response of the human being, we have about a 15-millisecond window where we interpret the reflections and start calculating inside our brains to determine direction and proximity of the sound source. Inside of those 15 milliseconds, our brains are processing all of that as spatial information. So, it’s important that for the first 15 milliseconds after the initial signal arrives at our ears, that we keep that we keep that initial time-delay gap as clear of early reflections as we can.
WP: Excellent—and how do you do that, if I may ask?
JS: It’s all ray acoustics. You have to figure out where your reflective surfaces are and you want to either diffuse or absorb those early reflections. That’s how we determine where a lot of the materials go and how they should be shaped, and how deep they should work into the spectrum.
WP: What about reflections off the console, how do they factor in?
JS: We always get reflections off the console, so when I’m EQing a room and I see a console reflection comb filter, should I EQ against it? No. But, here’s the operator, reaching around, sliding the chair around, so your eyes and your ears are discounting that reflection because you can actually look at your work surface and you can see it, so your brain discounts it. The console reflections are negligible because our brains calculate them away, ’cause we can see them.
WP: In designing Snoop Dogg’s new studio, did you encounter that type of situation, where you said, “I wish you’d spoken to me first?”
JS: Yes. The shapes of the rooms were 7/8ths built before I got involved, so yeah, there were some compromises that had to be made. The inside shape of the traditional studio is octagon-like with some elongated walls. There are many people making suggestions for these rooms, and they’re just looking at pictures on the Internet or Mix magazine and say, “oh, that’s the shape of a room” when they don’t realize what’s behind that final finished shape to do the real work (acoustics and absorption). In Mix A at Snoop’s that was very much the case; it was designed octagon-ish, with elongated sides, and it didn’t allow all of the space I needed for the bass absorption. So, the room got a little bit smaller in places where they didn’t expect. On the other hand, that room had good ceiling height, so I put a lot of absorption up there.
There are two main control rooms in the facility, Mix A and Mix B, also known as Mothership and Battleship, and two smaller control rooms, each with their performance rooms alongside them and one large performance space, so a total of nine rooms. I was mandated to design Mix A (Mothership) like the starship Enterprise bridge. I put in a lot of really cool features in that room that remind you of the Patrick Stewart version, Star Trek Next Generation. That bridge (Enterprise) had this beautiful ceiling in it, and I was able to duplicate that, with a big dome in the middle of it that’s backlit. I used a cloth spread over a spider-like structure. (Ed’s note: The dome has built-in LEDs that respond to the music). Above that structure, I was able to do enough bass absorption for the hip-hop frequencies. Mix B (Battleship) at Snoop’s is a little more traditional in shape, and like Mix A, I was able to do more bass trapping in ceiling because the walls were oddly shaped.
WP: Speaking of the Star Trek mandate in Mix A, how do you handle a situation where the studio owner’s aesthetic vision flies in the face of what you need to do acoustically?
JS: In point of fact, if I had the bridge of the starship Enterprise to work with . . . well, that’s actually a cool acoustic space. It’s actually kind of decent, and it’s much easier with the math if I have a rectangle to work with. If I can get it close to the golden ratios, that’s even better. If you start shaping the room like a modified octagon or hexagon, then the math on resonances gets way squirrelly—it’s not easy to figure where the modes are going to build up. It takes an extra thought process—and again, I have spreadsheets that I built 30 years ago that predict RT60 bass resonances, and panel absorbers, so that I can configure a rectangular room in a short afternoon.
Now, if I had my way and people with the budgets, I probably wouldn’t build rectangular rooms because sound isn’t rectangular. I would build . . . let’s call it with “parametric shapes,” which are much more appropriate to sound waves. You can call it parametric shapes or multi-linear.
WP: Could you describe what that would look like?
JS: No. (Laughs) I have drawings, but I can’t describe it.
WP: On the subject of furniture, when you design a space, do you have foreknowledge of what console is going to be in the room and the shape of the desks?
JS: Yes, I always have—I always want to put that in my drawing set, and I always want to figure around that. When I was head of acoustics at Skywalker Sound, I had just tuned the room (Mix A) and they removed the console and installed a new one; keep in mind that it’s a three-man console, so it has an acoustic affect. After the new console was in and I tuned the room again, lo and behold, I was able to notice in a significant way, how much EQ I needed between the different consoles. The operator’s desk and the client’s desk is a “wing” right in the middle of your sound field, and they do have an effect, and I do try to influence the purchase of those. The reason I ask to begin with, what speaker system and what desk is going to hold your equipment, and also how many “stalagmites” are sticking out of the top of your desk; how many monitor screens are there, where are your nearfields, what do you do? I want to know all those things going into it so I can accommodate for all of that. There are times when I discourage a certain shape. For example, the foot wells of the console where the cross members hold the legs together can create a resonant tub that isn’t fun to listen to.
WP: Speaking of stalagmites, circling back to Snoop’s studio, he has the Slate Digital Raven system, which has big monitors pointing upward, mounted on a custom Zaor desk. Were those built before you were involved?
JS: It was ongoing. I knew they were going to mount them when I started. Then the actual shapes of the desks were negotiated between the builders and me until we determined that it would work. That was several drawings back and forth, just to make sure. Then the Ravens (27" monitors) were mounted at a particular angle. What I had to do more than acoustically, I had to accommodate the lighting above. Because, typically, if you’re working on a console with knobs, you want that light almost straight overhead so that the lighting doesn’t cast shadows onto the nomenclature on the knobs and buttons on the console. Or, in addition, the operator reaches over the console and the shadow blocks what they’re about to handle. That’s bad, so I’m always conscious of the lighting.
Well the Raven’s a big reflective surface, so I changed the angle of all the lighting so they didn’t see a perfect reflection of the lighting in the Raven’s display.
WP: In keeping with the Starship Enterprise metaphor, it sounds you’re playing three-dimensional chess with Spock . . .
JS: Yeah, there’re a lot of plates in the air, a lot of oranges being juggled. There are a lot of things that need to be considered in these workrooms, and that’s why I need and insist upon being intimate with the workflow (e.g.) Who’s going to be in here, how many operators? I want to know as much as I can before I start to take a pencil to it.
WP: I think we’ve covered enough ground, and I know you have some meetings to prepare for, so I’ll let you get to it. Thanks so much, I really appreciate you taking the time to chat with us.
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