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L.A. Grapevine, November 2006
Nov 1, 2006 12:27 PM, By Bud Scoppa
A few months ago, A-list mix engineer Mike Shipley contacted L.A.-based Delta H Design about creating a private studio for him. “Mike came to us,” recalls company founder/principal Hanson Hsu, “and said, ‘I'm building a room, and I want two big 4×4-foot windows right behind my speakers. I want it to sound like a world-class control room — and you can't do angled walls.’ In other words, we couldn't alter the shape of the rectangular room, which was 22×13×8.”
Hsu, the one-time chief engineer at Westlake Audio (his mentor was Glenn Phoenix), knew that Shipley's final stipulation would be particularly challenging: How would he solve the fundamental acoustical problems associated with two sets of parallel walls, plus a parallel floor and ceiling? After a week of endless calculations, Hsu had his “Eureka!” moment. After checking his math and checking it again, he confirmed that he had indeed figured out a way to make a rectangular space mimic a polygonal room so that it was free of standing waves and resonant frequencies.
Hsu called the apparent breakthrough ZR, for “Zero Reflection,” and immediately applied for a patent, because, to his knowledge, the design was unprecedented. “I was able to come up with a method that enables us to build — within the depth of a 4-inch-stud wall and using everyday materials — all the geometries needed to make any rectangular room sound like a world-class recording studio,” he asserts. “Our clients' reaction to our work is that the rooms not only have a charismatic signature sound, but are also quiet, with excellent isolation.
“We're a design firm — we don't just design studios,” Hsu continues. “But studio design has been our bread-and-butter for a long time now, and the hardest part about designing a recording studio is, it's got to have a good vibe, a good feel and the aesthetics have to match the client or his clientele. At the end of the day, of course, it must sound good.
“I remembered Mike from my days at Westlake Audio,” Hsu recalls, “and I knew that he had a really good set of ears. I knew he wanted a certain look, and he was very specific about the sound, the time parameters and what he didn't want to do. So I told Mike, ‘I've got this design that works on paper; I've run the numbers on it and done the equations. If you decide to do this, you'll be the guinea pig, but it could turn out great.’ Mike was incredibly supportive of the concept and willing to take the risk for the possible benefit.”
The Delta H team built all the geometries into the walls and covered them with flat cloth so that the room maintained its rectangular shape. “But it basically does more than the angled walls,” says Hsu. “The concept is so simple, but the application of it, because of all the math and geometry involved, is enormously complicated. We're currently testing prototype software that will predict every angle of reflection with any speaker system. We have to calculate each room out so that the mixer doesn't get any aberrant or negative acoustic anomalies. Basically, ZR design extends near-field into the entire room, so that once the sound goes past your mixing position, it never comes back. With ZR, you hear only your content and the transducers; the room is no longer part of the equation.”
As it turned out, Hsu's design sounded as good in Shipley's “guinea pig” space as it looked on paper — and so did the environment as a whole. “Mike is really vibey,” says Hsu. “As he puts it, ‘I've been in dark caves all my life; I want two big windows that open to let the air in. And I'm tired of flying to London and New York; I just want to stay in one place. I want my clients to ISDN me everything, and I'll mix it and ISDN it back.’ If you look at Mike's room, it's like a womb with the curtains closed, and if you pull the curtains back and open these two swivel windows, it goes from that dark, candlelit interior to almost like being outside.”
When the room was up and running, Shipley did a blind A/B test on a newly done mix from his place and another he'd done at a major studio, and the home mix was the unanimous winner.
Having proved to his own satisfaction and that of client Shipley that ZR worked, as did the other key elements, Hsu and his three full-time staffers — CTO Scott Waterman, project manager/designer Christine Huynh and architect/designer Lena Kim — went about applying the concept to the two-room studio of composer/sound designer Neil Uchitel, who, after hearing Hsu describe ZR, decided to take the plunge. “I told Hanson, ‘I'm a composer, not an acoustical physicist, so I'll take your word for it,’” Uchitel says. “It was nontraditional, but it made sense to me.”
The projected 5.1 mix room was a ballroom and onetime speakeasy next to the main house. It dated back to the 1920s, with wood floors, stucco walls and five antique glass windows. “I couldn't physically change the structure at all because of the historic nature of the home,” says Uchitel. Once again, the space was rectangular, and Uchitel had a wrinkle of his own — he wanted the mix room fitted with bass traps in the ceiling.
The construction was done in the space of three weeks, with Hsu incorporating the exposed Douglas fir beams into the bass trap. In contrast to Shipley's personal needs, Uchitel's room was designed to accommodate high-end clients from the advertising world.
The mix room was completed just days before Uchitel's wife gave birth to the couple's first child, and at press time, the studio has yet to be tuned. Hsu had stopped by with a Bruel & Kjaer 2250 analyzer to measure the place's acoustical accuracy. “We couldn't see the room on the analyzer, and we couldn't hear it, either,” says Hsu with satisfaction. “It was as if I'd plugged the CD player straight into the analyzer and we were watching the graphic EQ of the CD.”
Early in 2007, the Delta H team will begin converting the garage adjacent to the ballroom into a live room, once again employing ZR. Current projects include the Pepperdine University Fine Arts Division music lab, Yahoo Music Live Sets at Fox Studios Stage 17 and Chalice Studio F.
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