Talking Acoustic Treatment – Interview with Ethan Winer

From running a professional acoustics business to playing Tchaikovsky on the electric guitar with a full orchestra, whilst writing numerous valuable articles and a book in between, Ethan Winer has a wealth of experience and insight into music and the science of audio acoustics.

I had the great privilege of being able to ask Ethan a few questions via email for the DIY Music site. If you’re interested in acoustic treatment for your home studio (or spare room!) then you may well find this very useful. 

Ethan and Bear

Hello Ethan and welcome to DIY Music. I’m very grateful to you for taking the time to answer some questions for my readers. I became aware of your work when researching acoustic treatment, which is one of your specialities. But that’s not all you do, could you tell me a bit about what you are up to these days by way of an introduction?

Hi Stu. I turned 67 a few weeks ago, but I’m still very active and have many interests. I’m mostly retired from my acoustics business RealTraps, and now RealTraps general manager Jim Lindenschmidt handles the sales and customer support. I still maintain the RealTraps web site when it needs updating, and I cover the phones on weekends and holidays. But these days I mostly do fun projects, including magazine articles, and writing my book, The Audio Expert. Which you can find out more about here.

Last year I played a concerto with the local symphony. I always wanted to play the Rococo Variations by Tchaikovsky, which is a major piece for cello and orchestra. I play the cello, but I started late, in my 40s, and never got good enough to play a serious piece like this at a professional level. But I’ve played the electric guitar on and off since I was a teenager. So I memorized the entire piece and practised like crazy every day for ten months to get back my guitar chops. Last January I performed this piece on my Telecaster and even made a video of the concert:

 

I’m still active in audio forums, offering advice about acoustics and general audio technology. I also do original research, and a lot of myth busting, and post the results in forums and on my Facebook page.

That performance is amazing! What a great experience that must have been. With regards to the forums you’re active in, could you recommend any?

There are a lot of forums, and a lot of opinions both good and stupid! Some of the good ones are Home Recording and My own Audio Expert forum.

So, how did you get into the area of acoustics and audio in general?

In the late 1970s I built a large professional recording studio. I had two partners, and one was the major investor, and we were committed to doing it right. So we hired professional acoustic consultants who showed us how to make floating walls and a suspended ceiling for sound isolation, and how to build bass traps and other acoustic treatment.

About a decade later a few companies started selling acoustic foam, and I was disheartened to see such ineffective products being sold as acoustic treatment. So in 1995 I wrote an article for Electronic Musician magazine showing how to build the wood panel bass traps I had in my pro studio. That design works much better than foam, but it’s too large and heavy to be practical as a commercial product. So in 2003 I started RealTraps with my long-time friend Doug Ferrara, to sell highly effective bass traps made with rigid fiberglass and membranes.

I’ve read the acoustic treatment section of your website with much interest. As myself and many of my readers are working in home-based, small studios, I’d like to distil from you the best advice for people in our situation. So, first of all, do you believe it’s possible to achieve good acoustics in a small room without having a huge budget?

Every room can be improved, and even small rooms can be made “acceptable” given enough bass trapping. If you can’t afford commercial products, you can make your own absorbers with rigid fiberglass or mineral wool. The key for small rooms like yours is to make the room mostly anechoic, at least at bass frequencies. If you covered every surface with rigid insulation six inches thick, and even more in the corners, that wouldn’t be too much! To avoid having the room sound totally lifeless you could glue butcher paper or thin cardboard in front of the insulation at the corners and front wall.

What about those accoustic-foam tiles you can see as the top-seller on Amazon?

I have no idea if those foam tiles are any good. Years ago you could rely on a company’s published data to tell how well a product absorbs at different frequencies. But a few years ago an eBay merchant set up shop selling cheap packing foam as if it was acoustic foam. He showed good absorption data, but it was fake, copied from Auralex. The foam is actually crap. Worse, this seller has many good reviews because his customers don’t know any better and were pleased with their purchases!

So all I can say is buyer beware. If you know how to tell good foam from bad foam by listening to it, then you can always return it if they sell you junk. Otherwise, stick with known brands. I’ll also mention that foam is not usually the best material for acoustic treatment anyway, and certainly not for bass traps unless it’s very thick.

If someone were just starting to think about acoustic treatment, where would you begin making improvements and what are the most important things to consider?

Bass traps are important, and so are absorbers at the loudspeaker reflection points. These short articles on the RealTraps site explain the basics:

Acoustic Basics How To Set Up A Room Early Reflections

And what could you do without (maybe something that you’ve seen recommended elsewhere)?

I don’t think most people benefit from loudspeaker isolation products. The claims sound too fantastic to me, and I’ve never seen proof that they do anything. Maybe if you have really poor speakers with a cabinet that’s not robust enough, and you put them on a flimsy table, maybe then speaker isolation pads would help. But most loudspeakers are adequately stable when resting on typical speaker stands.

I’m aware that you can make some treatment yourself. What would you say is worth doing ‘DIY’ and what would you be better of buying ready-made.

The better commercial acoustic products are superior to what most people could make themselves, but someone who is reasonably handy can certainly save money by making their own absorbers. It’s really a matter of how much money you have, versus what your time is worth.

Are there any online resources you could point us to that would be helpful when looking at treating our rooms?

Besides the articles I mentioned above, there’s a ton of information all over the RealTraps web site:

RealTraps Articles RealTraps Videos

Thanks Ethan, it’s been a pleasure and an education!

Okay!

So there you go, I hope you find the information and links in this interview valuable, I’ve certainly got a few things to think about for my home studio treatment now. If you want to find out more anbout Ethan and his business you can visit the Ethan Winer website and the RealTraps website.

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