Friday, December 28, 2007

Mayberry's First Live Sound International Article

Acoustically Incompetent

It’s been 108 years now, and you’d think it’s been long enough. Yet some of the brightest guys in America keep making the same dumb mistakes over and over again.

And ignoring the issue hasn’t made it go away either- it just keeps popping up like Baby Boomers and their anticipated Social Security payments…

Still, you’d think someone given the responsibility of designing our great facilities would want people to be able to converse and enjoy listening to music in them. Sadly, that is far less often the case than necessary.

At the most basic level, sound bounces around unless it’s absorbed or diffused. Too many bounces and our brains get confused and we can’t enjoy the space. Too much intrusive noise and we get confused too, and the issue only gets worse as we age.

The cure is simple and well known. Go buy absorption and diffusion and sprinkle it liberally around a room, starting with the ceiling, floors, and walls. Absorption is cheap; diffusion more expensive. Yet neither is a rare or exotic item; they are both widely available and allow both performers and listeners to enjoy the space. Carpet works well.

We should all agree that a good sound system cannot fix a bad acoustical space. Neither can a great one. No amount of amplifiers and speakers can “fix” a large room with insufficient acoustical absorption, no matter how loud it plays or well its pattern is controlled. Even with the most exotic line arrays, the room will sound far better if properly treated to optimize the reverberation time relative to performance expectations.

Yet for years American architects have wrongly believed that noise and reverberation problems can be cured with exotic sound reproduction systems. They can’t. There is no $300,000 sound system that sounds good in a tiled restroom. Nor is there a three dollar sound system that does.

Isn’t it funny how modern restaurants using the exact same materials as our restrooms and get the same “aural flush” result? Did you know any acoustician can calculate and predict the results accurately long before the building is built?

One needn’t look very far to understand why it’s difficult to communicate in most modern buildings in the United States- it’s the fault of our architects. Their training is lousy.

How lousy?

Apparently architects are no longer required to take Latin. Had they done so, they would realize that the root word in auditorium is not seismic retrofit; nor design/build; nor cost/plus; nor value engineering, nor even LEED. Here’s a hint:

1727, from L. auditorium "lecture room," lit. "place where something is heard," neuter of auditorius (adj.) "of or for hearing," from auditor "a listener," from audire "to hear" (see audience).

One might assume that a space dedicated to where something is heard would have a primary emphasis on noise reduction, reverberation control, and maximizing speech intelligibility.

Not so in American architecture. Even with seats costing $200 per evening for prime events now, our architects continue to treat acoustics as an inconvenient afterthought.

Why so? I’ve concluded there are a number of answers behind this debacle.

Many American architects live exclusively in a visual world. It’s often all about the pretty picture in a magazine and on the web. Many European architects live in a visual and aural world and realize that the design of a facility affects the quality of sound reproduction.

Our architectural schools do not teach the subject properly. One of our more prestigious architectural schools offers a total of 123 total classes in its curriculum. Only one of them, “Design for the Luminous and Sonic Environment” appears to have an emphasis on the aural environment. Even in that one we take a back seat to lighting. Typical.

Ever look an architect straight in the eye and asked them what they budgeted for interior acoustical treatments up front? Nine times out of ten the answer is nothing.

Architects routinely ignore their acoustical consultants input, and put in them in the unenviable position of having to justify their recommendations ad nauseum. Ever see a lighting designer having to justify their lamp selections in a similar manner? Nor have I.

Our architects need to better understand which materials have the best acoustical absorption. Wood is good, but not great for absorption. Fiberglass is two to three times better.

There is no building code compliance enforcement for intelligible speech, thus it is not a priority for many architects. There is for fire sprinklers. If the sprinkler system doesn’t work, the building doesn’t get a Certificate of Occupancy. True, there are some emergency evacuation standards that are just beginning to address the issue, but the lack of an acoustic code means a lack of enforcement. We regulate everything from tire tread wear to pajama flammability, but not basic audio quality in our society.

More expensive project labor means less expensive materials are used. Seen much granite used in buildings recently? Less expensive materials imply lower weight materials, resulting in less capability to attenuate sound transmission between rooms.

Perhaps some of that is our fault as sound system suppliers. My suspicion is that few in our profession are aware of how to calculate speech intelligibility. We have no control on the amount of fiberglass or diffusion installed in a building. Many have never bought any absorption or diffusion in their entire career.

Providing a quality aural experience requires a quality acoustical space first and then a quality sound system to perform well. Go straight to Audio Jail, do not pass Go, and do not collect $200 if you think you can get away with a all hard surfaced interior, no matter how tightly you control your speaker directivity.

In the meantime American architects need to step up to the plate. The issue is well understood, and the knowledge to solve the challenge already exists. No more research needs to be done. Get yourselves properly trained.

The first quantitative acoustically engineered building opened to the public in 1900. Boston Symphony Hall has been making money for a century now, and it’s well past time our architects use technology properly to improve acoustical performance throughout North America in every single building.

Remember Zappa’s Law: There are two things that are universal: Hydrogen and Stupidity. The inability to communicate successfully in our facilities falls in the latter.