It Has to Sound Good, Too?

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Type: Article, Report or Whitepaper

Topics: Audio; Design; Live Events

Date: May 2012

Circumstances are requiring better sound in places where you’d least expect it, and acoustics are often part of the solution for one-off events.

By Dan Daley, Special to InfoComm International®

The relationship between Austin, Texas, and the South By Southwest (SXSW) mega-event that the city has hosted for the past 25 years is becoming one of basic physics: How can conference organizers fit ever-larger, ever-louder hordes of attendees into a finite space?

One solution has been to hold more SXSW events in ad hoc venues. Music artists have been shoehorned into smaller and smaller spaces, while film viewings — SXSW’s other staple media — have moved into environments with less-than-cinema audio acoustics.

“A bigger part of the gig every year is setting up [movie] theaters in spaces that were not meant to be theaters,” says Mark Genfan, an acoustician and owner of Acoustic Spaces, which has been the audio consultant to the SXSW film division for the past five years. Genfan cites the wide-open interior of the Austin Convention Center and a generic meeting room at the Long Center for the Performing Arts (actually a small, square room with concrete block walls whose acoustical reflections result in “horrendous” sound, he says) as examples of where SXSW film showings have been held lately.

Increasingly, these and other unlikely venues must be turned into acoustically valid spaces to support cinema sound and music. It’s either that or waste a lot of time and money at what has become the new-media industry’s biggest annual confab.

But Genfan and other acousticians say the trend is much bigger than SXSW. Music, theater, multimedia, trade shows, and other events for which good, intelligible sound is critical, are being held in a wider variety of venues, many of which were never designed with sound in mind. Corporate America, in particular, requires quality sound to get its brand messages across in a wider array of spaces. Major brands, for instance, are backing independent music artists (Converse and Red Bull have built entire recording studio complexes, in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Venice, Calif.). Getting the sound they want where they want it (outside the studios) is proving to be a challenge.

Gross remediation of reverberant spaces is often a matter of hanging copious amounts of sound-deadening material. Often, techs hang drapes along walls in order to absorb sound reflections from PA playback systems that are usually mounted in the front of the room.

In fact, those who need to make unprepared spaces sound better will find that more off-the-shelf help is available from commercial acoustical treatment vendors. Emily Frame, regional manager at Auralex, says inquiries about temporary acoustical fixes are on the rise and products have been adapted to address those issues, such as Auralex’s ProMAX stand-mountable panels, introduced in January.

One of the big issues is the fact that, because many of these types of spaces were not designed for acoustics, hanging treatments could have adverse aesthetic consequences, such as screw holes in walls, which would present a problem in locales like museums. The solution is to use free-standing products such as absorption panels, which Frame says are more expensive than attached products but avoid drilling into walls. She also suggests using isolation devices to decouple noise generators, such as guitar amplifiers, from resonant surfaces, like stages, to cut down on vibrations.

“A lot of the same solutions are the ones used when spaces like echoey rooms have to be turned into conference rooms with speaker phones,” Frame says. “It’s the same issue: needing to improve the sound in areas that weren’t originally designed to sound good.” 

Better Planning

After a few years of trying drapes at SXSW, Genfan began planning further ahead of show dates in order to tune the playback systems to the various screening spaces.

It turns out the secret to achieving better acoustics in acoustically-challenged spaces isn’t so secret after all: It’s the X Curve, otherwise known as the extended curve, the Dolby-adjusted version of the original Academy Curve that delineated high- and low-frequency performance in a given space and how it’s applied in these ad hoc circumstances.

“We’ve had to make the time to work with the PA providers in Austin to optimize the sound systems, in terms of placement and equalization, before the screenings,” Genfan explains. “In some cases, we’re working only with speakers that are rigged – hung and flown – and without perforated screens, which is about as wrong as you can get for film sound. But that’s what you have to work with.”

Genfan uses a SMAART program to spectrally analyze the intended screening room, then, using the cinema processor, applies appropriate EQ curves that will conform with the Dolby theatrical X curve . Of particular concern is keeping dialogue intelligible in the center channel. Less easily resolved are noise issues. These range from upper-mid-frequency noise from projectors that are in the same room as the screening, to the cacophony characteristic of SXSW — scores of bands playing within a few yards of each other in the city’s dense mesh of music venues, some of which are barely more than a bar and few stools.

Genfan says dealing with acoustics under these types of circumstances calls for a combination of physical treatments, appropriate equalization and containment. “Training the AV providers is the key to all of that,” he says.

Big Apple Acoustics

While Austin may be the capital of Texas and live music, New York City is the capital of everything else, and Greg Wnuk, audio department manager of special events at See Factor, has seen much of it.

“People are always trying to jam things into strange places here,” he laughs. “You have everything from fashion shows to movie premiers and corporate openings, and they use everything from stores to galleries to museums to stage them in. Some very beautiful settings, but not the best places for sound.”

Like its street grid, New York has a lot of right angles and hard surfaces, breeding grounds for acoustical problems. The New York Public Library is a good example. The marble-floored building is a favorite for fashion and cultural events that require both music and speeches, all of which would echo wildly around the rooms without some containment. Wnuk says the most effective solution is the use of distributed sound systems — with and without compact line arrays.

“The idea is to use a lot of small boxes for the PA,” he says, which also helps keep a low visual profile for the sound system, another client requirement.

Line arrays can help focus the sound in deeper rooms, but many of the typical spaces are wide and shallow; distributed speakers are the only solution in situations like that, he says. Wnuk also tries to suggest that clients choose “soft goods” when possible, from rented floor carpets to padded banquet tables to help absorb sound reflections. That kind of advice rarely overcomes aesthetic design considerations, however. “They just want [good sound] to magically happen, and that’s what we try to do,” he says.

Some solutions use a combination of passive treatments and active electronics, such as the approach that consultant Paul Scarbrough, a principal at Akustiks, has used on occasion at the Park Avenue Armory in Manhattan. For a recent music and speech event honoring composer Philip Glass, he combined heavy velour draperies around the walls with a digitally steerable Duran Audio columnar array, whose 19-foot height and 6-inch width camouflaged it well against the large hall’s esthetics.

“The challenge is to balance the articulation of music and the intelligibility of speech against the visuals of the room,” he says. “A combination of passive and active solutions often works well.”

Then again, sometimes it might be best to acknowledge that you won‘t be able to win all the battles, acoustically speaking. Mark Holden, lead acoustician and principal at Jaffe Holden Acoustics, says that events he’s worked on at the 69th St. Armory in Manhattan are often unable to be completely isolated from external noise.

“We’ve found that some audiences, especially those in someplace like New York, just accept the occasional interruption of a siren,” Holden says. “It’s part of the feel of the location. In Carnegie Hall, for instance, you’ve always been able to feel the rumble of the subway.”

In fact, Holden says, he appreciates when reverberant spaces and the types of music used are purposely matched – a legato tenor saxophone scale or cello passage in a subway tunnel or under a bridge makes the location an extension of the instrument and the music. “Sometimes you’re better off not fighting it.

One day it’s a library, the next it’s the foyer of a department store. As See Factor's Greg Wnuk points out, “We’re never in the same place two times in a row.” Demand for unique environments for live events is only going to increase, so finding strategies for making the audio work with the space instead of against is imperative.

(Editor's note: This story has been changed from the original to clarify Mark Genfan's application of EQ to challenging rooms.)