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Acoustics Snapshot

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Type: Article, Report or Whitepaper

Topics: Audio

Date: August 2011

Like no other, the field of acoustics is rife with myth, misinformation and marketing tactics that belies the true science and legacy of the trade. Acousticians and acoustical experts have backgrounds rooted in math and science, and spend years studying and honing their craft. Today, acousticians and acoustical experts work on venues as diverse as classrooms, houses of worship, performance centers, courtrooms, broadcast and recording studios.

Understanding the Job
“The motto at my firm is: We always design the third sound system. Acoustics is often an afterthought. It's a three hour elective in architectural school,” says Ken Dickensheets, principal of Dickensheets Design Associates in Austin, TX. “The biggest change to this job has been the computational and data collecting tools available to us today. It used to take hours of work to capture and analyze the reverberation time of a room. Now you can see data in different output forms in minutes, so analysis and data modeling have become vital and more accessible tools.”

Dickensheets notes that an acoustician must understand much more than sound. He or she must also becoming well-versed in the behavior of HVAC systems, interior finishes, the different shapes of rooms, as well as many other environmental factors that affect sound transmission. “In acoustics, every surface and structure behind it is also part of the acoustics practice. Construction and materials, the room, duct work, wall thickness and the way it's assembled and constructed,” he explains. “The architect or building owner sometimes assumes that an integrator can provide acoustics advice but they are not trained specialists.”

Patricia Scanlon, LEED AP and principal of Cerami & Associates, Inc. of New York, says that the growing body of knowledge and case studies in the education market has greatly improved awareness over the science of acoustics. “It certainly makes our job easier by having informed, educated clients and not having to reinvent the wheel on every project,” she adds. “Including acoustics on a project is becoming the rule; not the exception.

What has also made an acoustician’s work a bit easier is advancements in different technologies resulting in quieter HVAC and air handling systems, as well as the tools to be able to look outside of the four walls of a room. “We can easily assess traffic patterns and flight paths to analyze exterior noise and use computer modeling to understand what’s happening inside a room,” Scanlon notes.

Despite new tools and advancements, Richard Schrag, design principal for Russ Berger Design Group (RBDG) in Dallas, says, “What we do involves creating spaces with appropriate acoustics to allow people to listen, to perform, to create, to enjoy. Technologies come and go, but the physics of a space and the human interaction with it remains the same. There are always new products for us to use in our designs, new toys for us to play with, but the essential part of what we do is to work with individuals, find out what they need from the spaces we design, and to align that performance with their budget and expectations. Technology advancements aren’t going to change that.”

Market Conditions
As with many other professions, the recent recession and continued sluggish economy has affected the acoustics practice — but not always for the worst. “Over the past four years, my firm has seen an increase in business. Every vertical market is up — live performance, higher education, industrial and manufacturing — except hospitality, which has cut back severely. This is unlike past recessions or dips in the economy. Usually during a recession, only houses of worship project increase since they see a spike in attendance,” says Dickensheets, who has been an acoustician for almost 45 years and whose firm works on approximately 200 projects a year. “There has been a dramatic increase in noise and vibration work. Clients are looking at expenses and getting back to basics. Bigger and better sound systems aren't always the answer.”

Dickensheets attributes the rise in projects across most vertical markets as business owners who are paying attention to issues such as the productivity of workers versus outside noise, as well as quality-of-life at the workplace. He says that, as the economy recovers, steady growth will continue as will clients who are spending their money more wisely.

Looking back at pre-recession market events, Scanlon says the ANSI/ASA S12.60-2002 standard on classroom acoustics plus the subsequent introduction of LEED for Schools opened the eyes of many school administrators to factors like loudness, HVAC and window placement regardless of whether the project was vying for LEED points or not. “It took a while before people noticed the content of the standard. Then LEED for Schools really pushed acoustical awareness to the forefront,” she says. “Because of the acoustic prerequisite and a continued focus on activities like distance learning, projects in the education market stayed aloft during the down economy, even when corporate, residential and hospitality slowed down,” she explains.

Schrag agrees that “what’s significant about S12.60 and its adoption into LEED for Schools is that it recognizes the importance of acoustics to the inherent quality of the built environment and the well-being of a building’s occupants. It makes good acoustical performance a quantifiable goal alongside indoor air quality, thermal comfort, and daylighting.”

As for the effects of the economy, Schrag sees that architectural projects across the board have been affected. “Owners are cautious; institutions are continuing to tighten their belts,” he says. “Projects that are otherwise ready to go have trouble finding funding, and lawyers are scrutinizing contracts like never before. Still, at RBDG we’ve been fortunate to maintain projects across a wide variety of markets.”

From the acoustical products standpoint, architects and building owners must remain wary of fantastic claims. “In the last decade there’s been a real proliferation of acoustical products in the marketplace, partly due to the easy visibility that anyone can get by creating a web site and making claims about what a product will do — many of which are unsubstantiated,” explains Schrag. “Some of the new materials and treatments are valuable tools for us to use; some aren’t. I think that someone building a facility where acoustical performance really matters has to make sure that they’re getting solid advice, and not relying on a flashy web site with the latest thing that professes to be an acoustical panacea.”

Dickensheets also adds, “If an ‘expert’ comes in leading with predetermined acoustical treatment before understanding the issues, then he's a salesman; not an acoustician.”

Modern-Day Acoustical Projects
There certainly is no limit to the vertical markets that require acoustical expertise. As previously noted, acoustics is important in every venue, from a corporate boardroom to a recording studio, house of worship sanctuary, telepresence suite, broadcast studio and grade school classroom. Dickensheets says that, although some venues can be diverse, the unifying factor is poor acoustics. “I’ve worked in courtrooms that are noisier than a factory floor,” he says, noting that the ability to properly collect and analyze measurement data is critical.

Sometimes the venue itself is not diverse but its uses are. Russ Berger Design Group recently worked on the headquarters campus for Sweetwater, one of the largest music instrument and pro audio retailers in the world. Schrag says that the campus’s 250-seat performance and training theater has four separate sound systems, including an E-coustics electronic acoustics system that can dynamically change the acoustics of the room from a training or cinema auditorium to a variety of concert settings appropriate for musical performance.

Scanlon and her colleague Bruce Manning, associate principal for Cerami, recently completed the The American International School in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. This K-12 performing arts school sits on a large campus and includes a theater that is outfitted with AV technology similar to a Broadway theater. “The theater includes a full fly gallery, five HD video projectors including the center screen, side screens and rear wall, as well as multipurpose rooms, a black box theater and a band room,” says Manning.

Cerami worked closely with architect Nicholas Garrison, a principal and design director for FXFOWLE in New York. “The client hired the right architect the first time. He really understands acoustics and performing arts spaces so conversations about recycled fiberboard ceilings, acoustical panels and sustainability was easy,” Scanlon says. “By deploying the proper acoustical design, it is possible to have two rooms side-by-side with 30 kids playing band instruments and not have a problem.”

Besides the wavering confidence in the economy which may affect long-term spending on construction projects, technology and teaching style will play a large role in how the acoustics field will fare in the next few years. Manning notes that he is seeing more schools and universities moving to a collaborative environment and the standard teaching approach of a teacher speaking to rows of students is going away. Instead, students will work in group with the teacher as the mobile entity in the room and use technology like smartphones or student response systems for testing and roll call.

Scanlon says that what made her realize the enormity of acoustics in mainstream markets was a recent State of the Union address in which President Obama touched upon classroom acoustics and external noise in one of his anecdotal stories. “Then it hit me: People are a lot more aware of acoustics and AV today than ever before,” she concludes.