Where to Place Acoustic Panels

Home studios, home theaters— they are incomplete without acoustic treatment. Why invest in expensive recording equipment or speakers when the room itself will lend a hand in tarnishing those beautiful frequencies of sound? One of the biggest solutions on the market today, for preserving those frequencies, is to get acoustic paneling. If you’ve never done it before, you may have a lot of questions regarding the where and the what. The panels itself are inexpensive, but going into it without a plan can quickly rack up the costs. To avoid that and give you some tips in getting the most out of your investment, in this article, we’ve laid out some good placements for acoustic panels.

Where to Place Acoustic Panels

Deciding where to place acoustic paneling can seem like a daunting undertaking but it’s necessary for building home studios, home theaters or even office conference rooms. Acoustic paneling aims to enhance and ‘purify’ the sound traveling within a room through means of absorption and diffusion. The ideal placement of these panels differs according to differing room needs. Certain strategies can help us understand why and how these work. That’s why the typical areas for paneling and the placements according to your room needs have both been covered in this article.

How does sound travel within a room?

The way sound travels has shaped our strategies for placing acoustic panels. So, let’s see how it moves within a room:

Firstly, from the source where sound is generated, sound waves move out in all directions equally.

Secondly, a small portion of it will reach the intended destination, for example: the audience’ ears or the microphone. This portion is called the direct sound because it goes directly where we want it to go.

Thirdly, most of it will travel through the room randomly, bouncing off of objects and surfaces. This is called reflected sound or echo.

Finally, some of the reflected sounds will reach the intended destination by chance. The rest of the sound is dissipated through energy conversions at impact.

The direct sound is largely unmodified and reaches the microphone in its original state. However, the reflected sounds are altered due to multiple reflections from surfaces within the room. This is the key to understanding what people mean by ‘the acoustics’ in a room. Rooms generally have poor acoustics due to poor insulation in the materials of the walls, ceilings and floors. In recording studios, for example, we only want to record the pure sound of the music and nothing else. So, to minimize the echo effect and cut back on sounds that are not direct, absorbent materials are needed.

Acoustic absorption works best in combination with another type of treatment known as diffusion. When you remove all sound reflections within a room with absorption, the room can sound ‘dead’. This is uncomfortable for many people and not suitable for rooms like home theaters. 

Untreated reflections generally cause problems because they tend to get stuck in one spot with the lack of reflective surfaces. So, some frequencies are amplified while others are cancelled out. As a result, the natural frequency balance of the room gets disrupted. That is where the process of diffusion comes in. A few of the reflections are allowed to remain in the room and scattered strategically with diffusers. Diffusers work by effectively scattering the reflected sounds, ensuring that they don’t get stuck. This way the natural frequency balance is retained.

So, those are the fundamentals of acoustics and the process of sound traveling within a room. Now, you know that you need to keep in mind both absorption and diffusion when considering strategies to place acoustic panels.

The Thinking Strategy behind Acoustic Treatment

Your action plan regarding acoustic paneling will depend entirely on the end result you wish to achieve. That is to say you need to know the requirements for the type of room you are building, as different rules will apply for different purposes. There is no one-size-fits-all scenario so make sure you understand what will help you achieve the best efficiency.

  •   If you are building a recording studio

The key to treating a studio is to block off any sound other than what you want being recorded. The microphone, instruments and the person doing the vocals are all that should be heard. All other sounds are unwanted. It ends up being background noise caught by the mic and it’s a total waste. To optimize recording potential, diffusion is needed near the microphone and in all other places absorption is key so that the background noise can be dampened.

  •   If you are building a listening room

A listening room is simply a broad term for any room where sounds require to be emphasized. For example, a conference room in an office building or a room where speeches are held. As stated the main goal is simply to enhance the sounds within the room so, the focus when treating is diffusion. Absorption is seen as more of an accessory to that. If you are building such a room, you should prioritize diffusion tactics.

  •   If you are building a home theater

The idea here is to create a funnel-esque feeling for your room like in the cinema theaters. The sound of the speakers needs to be transmitted to the audience. Like in a listening room, the inside sounds need to be enhanced so the priority is on diffusion again. However, some absorption is needed for the ceiling and the floors.

Typical places to put acoustic panels and why

The Floors and Ceilings

Placing acoustic panels across the floors and ceilings can help adjust the ‘height’ of the sound. If you place diffusers along both, you will get sound that permeates across the top and bottom. Uneven usage of absorption can create an upward or downward effect. If you are working with large spaces, this is something you can consider. However, in small areas like rooms it’s best to go with a balanced mixture of absorbing and diffusing. This helps keep the distribution even. 

Quick tip: avoid going overly heavy on the absorbent panels along the ceilings because it can create a ‘squashed’ effect.

The Left and Right Walls

In a room of regular shape, for example squared and rectangular rooms, the treatment of the side walls are kept identical as the effect of the paneling is interconnected. There is an issue called ‘image shifting’ which presents itself due to the interference of the side walls. The sound waves can get distorted or seem to get ‘displaced’ if the room is large enough. It will be noticeably removed from the original point. This is why absorption is the most important element in treating these walls. 

Don’t go overboard though as you might create the ‘dead’ feeling. Find out the problem areas in these walls, the areas where sound echoes the most, and accordingly place panels of differing thickness along them.

The Front and Back Walls

These are the walls that determine how far and how well sound is carried along a room. Finding out how to treat them can be tricky. Generally, diffusion is given importance here. Using different types of paneling, you can create a combination of depths and diffusion intensities. 

The strategic thinking of placement will come in handy here. For example, in home theaters, if the back wall is the area where you’re planning to sit, thicker diffusing panels are needed with fewer at the front so that the sound moves towards you and spreads there.

Where to place acoustic panels according to your room needs

Listening rooms like offices

Controlling sound in a room where people will talk is mainly dependent on height. The acoustic panels should be placed centered at the height at which sound is generated. So, consider whether the people will be standing up or sitting down. For example, if you are doing it for an office go for 4/5ft off the ground but if the occupants will be standing, place them higher at about 5-7ft. 

The reason why the placement is centered at height is because you want to catch the most direct and loudest sound waves. This way it will prevent them from reflecting off of surfaces within the room.

Home theaters with speaker systems

With speakers, you need to consider reflection points. The speakers in your home theater audio system work simultaneously and are pointed in different directions at the audience. Generally, for simple systems such as two speakers on either ends, you will need acoustic panels on the back walls. However for larger systems, such as ones with 4 or more, you need to find the reflection points. To do this, start from the speaker and visualize a straight path to the walls or ceilings that the sound wave will follow after being heard by the listener. These areas will be your reflection points and where you should place your acoustic panels. 

To avoid confusion, try tracing the paths on a drawn outline of the room first. Then, test out the acoustic panels at those points and adjust accordingly.

Recording studios

Studio quality recordings have the easiest set up, albeit you might have to spend the most, too. If you are working with a microphone and voice only, there are only a few reflection points to keep track of so place your panels along these points. Or, you can go all out and cover everything. 

For podcasts and any sort of audio recording on desks, you need to use panels in front of you and around the sides to preserve the quality of your recording as much as possible. If it’s a full out studio where you intend to play instruments, there is no option but to treat everything. At that point the height of sound generation won’t matter because they will be too loud. They will reflect off any surfaces left exposed.

When you start placing your panels, keep the above criteria in mind. However, feel free to update the room and add more panels according to your preference of what you want to achieve. These are just general rules of thumbs for these types of rooms.

Final Thoughts

Fewer panels with correct placement will give you way better results than a lot of panels with no action plan. It will save you money to think ahead before you buy it. Absorption and diffusion are the main methods with which rooms are acoustically treated. Keep in mind your individual needs as well as the general placing strategies to form your plan.


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