The other day, I came across this picture on Facebook:
A speaker manufacturer is claiming how well a particular brand of studio desk works together with their speaker.
I gasped in disbelief. This is a good combination? Thankfully the comments jumped right on it.
I just wonder what would happen if someone with less experience purchased this desk. They would essentially start the quest for good sound with a serious handicap right out of the box, thinking that a professional made an educated choice on where they need to place their speakers.
It’s no surprise that it’s so hard to find a good studio desk.
The manufacturers themselves actually don’t give much useful information to help you decide. In a way, they actually make it extra hard for you.
All you get are pretty pictures of useless setups, and lofty claims of ‘acoustic optimization‘ that allow the desk to have ‘no impact on your speaker’s sound’.
How A Desk Affects Sound
Let’s get that right out of the way. EVERY desk you put in front of you will severely impact what you hear.
Here’s a measurement of the right speaker at the listening position in my room:
Notice that peak in the impulse response after just 1.7ms.
Now watch what happens when I place a 2×4 foot (60x100cm) absorber on my desk, right in between the speaker and the microphone:
If I simulate this combination of speaker, desk surface and microphone in Merlijn Van Veen’s excellent floor bounce calculator, you can see that the resulting comb filter matches almost perfectly.
I could show you 10 other measurements just like it from 10 other rooms. It’s always the same.
You always have a first wide dip around 300Hz, followed by the first peak at around 600Hz and the successive typical comb filter pattern.
Now this example is an Argosy Halo desk, which btw, I love very much! But this reflection can only be avoided with some clever speaker placement in a very well treated room, and for 90% of home studios, that is simply not possible. Either you don’t have the space, or you’ll lose more than you gain by placing your speakers further away from your sweet spot than your room’s acoustics will support.
In effect, unless you are willing to work without a desk at all, the desk reflection is simply something you have to live with.
So desk surface size is actually negligible in your decision making.
The 4 Main Conditions for a Good Studio Desk
But that doesn’t mean that you should throw every other demand for good sound out of the window.
A good studio desk’s primary job should still be to allow you to work properly.
As an audio engineer that means you need to hear what you are working on, and you need to be able to follow your particular work flow.
If your desk fails at this basic task, it’s no good to you.
So what’s the most important part to hearing properly? Sweet spot and speaker placement!
Your desk needs to allow you to get those two right, or you’re basically starting the race with your shoelaces tied together.
And that brings me right to the first and most important aspect of picking a desk:
The one number that dictates your sweet spot is the distance to the front wall. Your desk needs to fit in that space, possibly even with speaker stands behind it.
Since most people sit upright with their head right above the edge of the desk while they work, the first number to check for any potential candidate is the distance between the front edge of the work surface and the back of the desk.
Add to that another foot (30cm) to account for speaker stands, and that entire distance needs to fit in between your sweet spot and your front wall.
If it doesn’t, it’s a deal breaker, and you can safely cross that desk off of your list of options.
This is especially critical in smaller rooms where the sweet spot inevitably ends up close to the front wall. It’s possible that you only have 4 feet (1m) to work with.
The next most important factor to good sound is your speaker position.
And as you can tell from the first image in this post, you cannot assume that what was intended for your speakers will work.
In fact I have yet to come across a purpose designed studio desk that doesn’t royally screw this up.
You need the flexibility to place your speakers at EXACTLY the right position in relation to your sweet spot and your room to get the most out of them. So the job of the desk should be to facilitate this as best as possible.
Unfortunately the opposite is true. You’ll have to assume from the get go that any designated speaker positions are unusable.
Instead you’ll need to figure out if the desk doesn’t stop you from what you need to do.
- Some questions to answer:
- What’s the ideal height of your speakers, and distance to your sweet spot?
- What’s the ideal distance between your speakers?
- Does the desk provide support for speakers at those exact spots, or will you need speaker stands? What kind of speaker stands?
- Will the desk’s legs get in the way of the speaker stands?
- Will your speakers have a clear line of sight to your sweet spot, or will something get in the way, like gear racks?
If you can satisfyingly answer those questions, you can move on to:
Does the desk allow you to work the way you like? Does it support your workflow?
If you cannot work comfortably, you’ll exponentially increase the time it takes to get things done.
That mainly means placing your most used pieces of equipment where you like them to be.
In the age of the DAW, that’s your laptop, or mouse, keyboard and computer screen! Depending on how you work, you might also include a monitor and DAW controller, and some basic gear.
But undoubtedly, you will have to make some sacrifices. Most desks offer only limited surface area. You’ll have to make due.
Ultimately how you set up and how you work is a very personal question. One way to answer it is to ask yourself:
“What gear do I use most? What gear do I actually need to have in front of me?”
It might be worth seizing the opportunity and throwing out some unnecessary equipment. You may actually find that it improves your workflow considerably.
Everything else can move to a side table and effectively get out of the way of your speaker’s line of sight.
At this point you can also decide if that leather arm rest is worth the extra cost to you. If you work a lot on that desk, and you’re dependent on working fast, it’s one of the better investments in my opinion.
Finally I get to build quality. The reason this isn’t higher up the list is that, though potentially annoying, it’s still the easiest to fix yourself.
To clarify, I don’t mean build quality in the sense of: “Will it disassemble itself after a few months because of crappy materials and design?”
I think it’s a given that it’s built to last you many years.
Instead, to me, two things determine build quality: a) weight and b) vibration.
All this really comes down to is whether it is heavy enough to withstand the inevitable uncoordinated collision with your body, without moving.
Sooner or later you will bump against it. And if it moves, both your sweet spot and speaker position will suffer.
Of course it isn’t rocket science to prevent this from happening, but perhaps it may be worth just buying a heavy desk and avoiding it entirely.
I remember a very insightful conversation I had with HEDD chief Klaus Heinz on the topic of speaker decoupling during a visit to their headquarters here in Berlin.
He mentioned that the “decoupling” part is only a means to an end. In fact the goal is to remove any excess vibration, both from the desk and the speaker cabinet.
The idea is to stop them from radiating out sound themselves, which negatively contribute to the perception of pure sound coming from your speakers.
In effect, the critical part is to dampen out any vibration or resonance in the structure. Decoupling from the desk is just a method of achieving it.
So if you’ve ever felt the sound to be “boxy”, or “tinny” when you place your speaker onto, or close to your desk, the reason is probably because the desk structure starts resonating in sympathy with the sound from your speakers.
Stop your desk from vibrating by decoupling the speakers, and/or adding damping to your desk. You could, for example, stick sheets of self-adhesive mass loaded vinyl (MLV) underneath your desk surface.
But again, it might be worth the extra cost to get a heavy, well damped desk in the first place, and avoid the issue completely.
What About A Sitting/Standing Desk?
Now you may be (justifyingly) tempted by the latest craze of converting desks. They move up and down electrically and allow you to give your beaten body a change in posture while you work.
Technically, there is nothing wrong with this. If you can reliably make it happen, including moving your speakers(!!), by all means do it.
Just be aware that the sound will change between the two positions. Even in a well treated room. So you are adding another variable to an already extensive list of potentially confusing attributes for your brain to compensate for.
So as tempting as it may sound, if you are already having trouble relying on what you hear, it’s probably best to chose either sitting or standing, and stick with it.
At the very least you should dedicate certain parts of your creative process to a particular position. You could, for example, decide to only balance the bass while sitting down.
Putting It All Together
- Don’t worry about desk reflections, there isn’t much you can do about them anyway.
- Sit or stand, but avoid switching between them.
- Pick a desk whose depth allows you to comfortably sit in your sweet spot. Don’t let the desk dictate where in your room you sit!
- Be careful of the desks provisions for setting up your speakers. In fact, make sure it doesn’t keep you from setting them up correctly!
- Use the opportunity to nail down your essential gear and workflow.
- Make sure neither speakers nor desk vibrate when you play music. If necessary you can fix this yourself.
All things considered, you might find that the old square desk you’ve been using for the past 5 years isn’t such a bad option after all..