A sound investment that works a treat…
Bad sound generally isn’t because of bad equipment. Usually, it’s because of the space that it’s in. Anna Hayes explores the world of acoustic treatment.
A former work colleague of mine is also an avid singer-songwriter, such to the point where he’s written enough songs for his first album. But recording studios are expensive and my mate Brendan decided to take a different route.
One trip to Woodies’ (Irish Bunnings) later and Brendan had rigged up his own makeshift studio in the home office, using sheets of soundproofing foam and, I suspect, no small amount of patience. Job done.
This isn’t a novel fix, it’s a budget-driven temporary fix by a guy who’d better remember me when he makes his first few millions…
The point is that acoustic treatment of rooms is nothing new and it’s not something that we haven’t been aware of up to this point. It’s just been, perhaps, a little bit under-discussed, and possibly something those carrying out works in their home or business have glossed over as they have “the best equipment”.
But, as with anything in AV (or life for that matter), it’s all about the environment.
Go to your room
There’s an absolute wealth of AV companies in the market today, offering every type of speaker that you can think of. Sure, some are better than others and have the price point to match. But an unsuitable or badly designed space could leave your $10,000 speakers sounding like portables hanging off a line of twine.
Convoy International’s national sales and marketing manager Martin Ireland says that in a HiFi or home theatre environment, nothing impacts upon the end result of an installation, more than the room itself:
“The best audio equipment in the world will not perform to its optimum in a room with poor acoustics. If your room is full of hard surfaces, such as tiled floors, large windows, etc., sound will bounce around the room, reflecting off these hard surfaces, resulting in a very unpleasant, bright, incoherent sound.”
Many products aimed at acoustic treatment can be tailored to suit a specific frequency which, Cristin Corsini, acoustic design associate at Cogworks, says is very important as each room creates a different situation for treatments to address.
“Sound reproduced in spaces like music studios, home cinemas and the like excites certain frequencies that are directly related to one or more of the room’s dimensions. These frequencies are called ‘room modes’; resonances as consequences of reflected sound between two or more parallel walls.”
Each room will sound different based on the room’s size, shape, surfaces, furniture, etc. According to Gustavo Pires, technical director at Vicoustic, this can result in the need for correction for a variety of problems including: excessive reverberation that may compromise speech intelligibility; acoustic defects such as echoes and other effects; and room modes that compromise low frequency content.
And, as in any circumstance where you have an ailment… you treat it.
The good news is that there are plenty of options for treating an acoustically challenging room, with more and more research going into the area all the time.
Matt Harders, Primacoustic brand manager at Amber Technology explains that there are two main types of acoustic treatment – one is isolation which is essentially designed into a building structure or completed afterwards by re-doing floor, ceiling, walls and doors to physically isolate a room.
“The other is absorption, which is designed to control the sound within the room by reducing reverberation, standing waves, bass build-up, etc. This treatment cleans up the sound and provides clarity to speech and music.”
Primacoustic’s Broadway panels, he says, work by thermo dynamic transfer: “When sound enters the panel it vibrates the material, and the acoustic energy becomes heat. Placing acoustic treatment on problematic reflective surfaces reduces the amount of sound reverberating around the room.”
Cristian echoes (pun intended) these sentiments, explaining that panels can vary in size, thickness, design and construction type depending on the market they are aimed at.
“There are other acoustic panels called acoustic tiles or ceiling tiles which are usually glued, they come in smaller sizes and are more appropriate for commercial premises, offices and the like. Furthermore, there are ceiling clouds and baffles which are found in big retail spaces, swimming pools, gyms, etc.”
He adds that absorption is achieved a number of different ways.
“Take the Artnovian Siena wood panelling for example, it’s a hybrid panel that incorporates a core absorber and a wood diffuser. The benefits are sound absorption and sound diffusion achieving an improved sound distribution and speech intelligibility while decreasing reverberation time.”
So how do I know where to put the panels? Whether to place them upright or landscape? If what I’m doing is simply exerting energy and making zero difference to the finished sound?
“There is definitely a fine art to acoustically treating a room,” Martin says, “While there are some excellent software solutions that can measure and model a room’s acoustic properties, treating the space is a delicate balancing act that requires a solid understanding of the science of sound and a good set of ears to determine which frequencies to absorb/diffuse and by how much.”
Cristian recommends always seeking advice from an acoustic consultant or an expert in the field to maximise the acoustic outcome within a budget limit:
“The advice I always give to my clients is to conduct an acoustic analysis to understand the problematics of the space or room, and also to have some analytical data which is essential for planning a course of actions and decide what panels to use, what amount and where to place them.”
But with the vast majority of our days spent inside rooms of varying types, the acoustic quality of that space is becoming more important from a holistic point of view.
Gustavo remarks that poor acoustics can be detrimental to people’s health and comfort. Poor acoustics in a home theatre, he says, may raise doubts regarding the investment made in the sound system installed.
“An office could have excessive background (excess of reflections) compromising speech intelligibility and comfort, compromising productivity and consequently profit. Ultimately, acoustically untreated offices may end up being unhealthy places to work in where, for example, people leave the office with headaches every day.”
Looks are everything
Acoustic treatment is still something of an unknown among consumers – awareness is getting better but there is a way to go. Our experiences in places with poor acoustics is likely to play into our future understanding in this area.
Matt believes that there is a general lack of awareness about acoustics but we have all been in situations that were affected by it – airports where we couldn’t understand an announcement on the PA system; restaurants where we couldn’t hear ourselves think, etc.
While acoustic treatments might once have been unsightly, companies are now focusing on creating aesthetically pleasing, as well as highly functional, panels.
Gustavo says Vicoustic approaches its design process from a holistic point of view, understanding that the panel needs to accommodate several characteristics to make the room work as planned.
“It doesn’t matter if your panel has a great acoustic performance if, when installed, it makes people uncomfortable with its design or if, for example, it releases VOC (volatile organic compounds) into the atmosphere that end up compromising the air quality of the room.”
To that end, acoustic treatments are almost falling into the wellness category.
As the title says, looks are everything, and some of the new panels can blend into a room as if they were always there.
Martin remarks: “As the acoustic treatment segment of the market continues to grow rapidly, the need for a wider range of treatment options has also grown. The demand for attractive, functional solutions has never been higher.”
He adds that their Sonitus retail partners frequently have showrooms where clients can see the range of panels available.
Primacoustic has developed panels that can be painted or printed on, with the view to ‘hiding’ the treatment in plain view and making it look similar to a canvas print.
Steve McKay at Primacoustic points out that placement of treatment is usually the most challenging part of a job, part of the reason for which is that a client may not want to change the ambience of a room or move/cover up existing features.
“Fortunately, treatment can be placed anywhere within the space with the ceiling being a prime area. Paintable panels allow the treatment to be disguised as artwork, pictures or corporate logos.”
A shifting market
It’s safe to say that acoustic treatment is no longer simply the purview of the recording studio or home cinema but now pushing into the public realm of office spaces, retail and more. These spaces are beginning to pay more attention to the sonic properties of their spaces and are acting accordingly.
And such changes look like they’re here to stay.
Gustavo points out that some countries have or are in the process of implementing acoustic regulations in many spaces like schools, offices, restaurants, etc. Acoustic design is also factoring into green building design schemes and, most importantly, people are more aware of the impact that bad acoustic conditions can have on their health and wellbeing, and are demanding better spaces in which to work.
Matt sums it up quite simply: “The best acoustic treatments are not noticed. People tend not to discuss great acoustics in a restaurant or meeting room, they just enjoy them. But if bad acoustics cause them to have a negative experience they will possibly avoid those spaces in the future.”