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John Mills – Sound System Design and Commissioning Part 1

Show 148, Part 1

SVC Podcast – Show Notes – Show 148-1

In this edition of the SVC Podcast, SVC Contributing Editor Bennett Liles talks with John Mills of Morris Light and Sound in Nashville about how sound systems are designed, installed and commissioned. John provides the benefit of his experience in church, corporate and other environments dealing with a wide range of difficult acoustics and unrealistic expectations on the part of some clients.

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From Sound & Video Contractor Magazine, this is the SVC Podcast with John Mills of Morris Light and Sound. We have show notes for the podcast on the web site of Sound & Video Contractor Magazine at

There’s quite a bit more to audio system design, installation and commissioning than often meets the ear. John Mills of Morris Light and Sound in Nashville has seen and heard it all, and he’s here to tell us what he does from start to finish with both the hardware and the client. That’s all next on the SVC Podcast.

John, glad to have you with us on the SVC Podcast from Morris Light and Sound in Nashville. I like to do one of these how-to-do it shows sometimes rather than sticking to a particular installation project. I know you do a lot of audio system design and commissioning so let’s just take it from the top on that. What’s the first thing that you have a look at when you arrive onsite for one of these sound system projects?

Yeah, so I mean obviously we always want to try to do a site survey first. There’s only so much we can do with pictures. I usually do start, especially if the client is not in the same city as we are located, I’ll start the client conversation with send me some photos of your space and rough dimensions, maybe some plans if they’re real far away. Once we kind of get to a point of a real discussion, obviously I’d like to be in the room. One of our things is we’d like to be a very personal touch kind of thing. We just don’t want to be people on the other side of the phone that are going to sell you a product. We want to be in there, especially if it’s a church. They’re much more interested in a relationship and a company that’s going to take care of them long term. But when I finally get to the facility, albeit a church, a boardroom, an arena, whatever it might be. The main thing I’m looking for is what does it sound like with nothing going on? Is it a very reverberant space? Is it not? That’s kind of obvious, but you can look at a photo of a place and go oh, it doesn’t sound that bad. Then you get there and especially, say, a basketball arena. That’s one of the ones I was working on this morning. I’ve been in the space and the photos of it didn’t look that bad. But when you got in there, my gosh, there’s not a bit of treatment. There’s not a bit of anything but a wood floor and a metal roof and cement walls and you can imagine what that sounds like. [Timestamp: 2:24]

So when you get there you just give a listen to the old native room tone as it’s sometimes called.

Yeah, trying to determine is the first order of business here acoustics and trying to knock down the room to a level that’s usable. With this basketball arena we were talking about their concern is obviously if we put too much treatment in, now the crowd and the fans don’t sound good. But they’re having such a problem with their intelligibility in there with their current system, they don’t even use it, honestly. It’s kind of sad that they spent a lot of money on a system that’s just not even literally understandable at all. So a very big determining factor is where do we split the budget on this, because they need a lot of treatment to get it to even a reasonable space. So yeah, I think especially from an audio design, as you’re saying – the majority of what we’re going to talk about today – we really are specifically listening to the space as much as we’re looking at it. Obviously I’m going to look at the rigging and what’s available and where I can put things and sight line issues. In a church we often, especially in a lot of the modern designs today, we’re doing line arrays. Well that’s great, but some of the older-designed buildings, if they have screens coming off the sides of their little fan-shaped room, it’s kind of tough to do line arrays sometimes because now the top seats in the back, the line array is right in the middle of the screen so you’ve got to be very conscious of that. Almost always, I would say 95 percent of the time, we’ll end up doing a 3D model of the room and show them mocked up versions of the speaker systems that will be in there because especially with sound, they want it to sound great, but they also don’t want to see it. So you don’t want to end up in there and find, “Oh, my gosh. That sounds amazing, but it’s blocking a sight line to the pastor at this level,” or you can’t see the cross or the baptismal or something like that. We’ve found that the little bit of time we spend in these 3D models is very, very useful in helping communicate to them what their final product will look like. It’s much easier to sell them on what it will sound like, obviously, but they’re much more concerned even, I’ve found lately, that they see it. [Timestamp: 4:34]

And communication is the key word. The clients always have some idea in their heads whether it’s communicated adequately or not. It usually comes out in the wash somewhere. So what do you tell a client when they want a great-sounding system in a room with very poor acoustics? How do you explain that to them?

It’s tough sometimes because acoustics is such a mystical thing to people. They don’t understand, especially when they see the dollar figure involved in proper acoustic treatment. Budget is a touchy subject with people a lot. They want it to sound amazing, but sometimes they don’t understand what it’s going to take to do that. So when you throw a thing at it like, “Well, I really think we need a two-inch treatment here and a one-inch treatment there, 70-80 percent on that wall,” and you talk through what it’s going to be, what they’relooking at is they say $30,000.00, $50,000.00, $80,000.00 budget depending on the size of the room, if we’re talking a church, that they’re going, “So this is just going to be soft panels on the wall?” And they’re going, “Wow, that’s a lot of money just to make things hang on a wall.” You really have to educate them on how sound travels. I use the analogy of a flashlight and a floodlight when I’m talking about a speaker. And with the acoustics I talk about mirrors. When you have a wall that’s not treated, it’s basically a mirror. If you shine you flashlight at it and that flashlight was a sound wave, it’s going to reflect right back into another person. And when two flashlights hit the same person it’s very annoying. I guess I just try to dumb it down to a non-technical version of things because they just gloss over. We’ve all been in those conversations where we’re giving the most eloquent, technical version of whatever it be and seven of the seven decision makers in the room are going, “Okay, great. What did you say?” [Timestamp: 6:15]

Yeah, impressing each other but the client, it’s going right past them.


And I know that varies with the type of installation. In your experience, what’s proven to be the most challenging type of sound system? Is there one particular type that you always know will be tough?

Which can of worms do you want to open? They’re all tough and it all depends on things. Like government facilities, it’s always a very tight budget. Because of the way the process works on it, there’s very low profit margins in it so you’ve got to bid the job very well. So from a design, or if you were given the design perspective, you’ve got to really dot every I and cross every T and make sure you’ve got every last widget and nut accounted for. Otherwise, you’re not going to win the job. Corporate clients, I mean they just want it to work. We’ve got a really nice boardroom that we did here in town and he wanted an iPad control to control it, which was great. We did that, but I kind of said an iPad is probably really not the best solution because there’s not a really great app at the time available for the iPad that’s not going to be somewhat confusing sometimes. “Oh no, I’ve got to have an iPad.” I’m sure somebody else he knew had an iPad that controlled their boardroom or something. And it turned out that at the end of the day what ended up happening is the iPad, he didn’t find it very easy to use and he didn’t care. He just wanted to hit a button, have the screen turn on and have iTunes play a song or whatever it was. If the iPad got out of sync you had to launch the app twice, basically, was the workaround, but he could never remember that. So it became this ongoing discussion with him about well, this is why we cautioned you that you didn’t want the iPad, so now we need to go to an AMX control panel, which is much more money. He didn’t want to spend it at that time, but now he’s so frustrated he did. And so sometimes you have to do what the client wants and then come back and still hold their hand and help them. [Timestamp: 7:57]

One I know is churches where sometimes you have people who want to play with things and let their volunteers have a good time with it, but in the boardroom it’s just anything that doesn’t make me look stupid in front of the chairman.

Exactly. Yeah, yeah, yeah. You touched on a good one there with the churches. Now these days, some of the churches are putting in concert-level systems that are really, really high-end, high-technical. Hopefully they have decided to spend that kind of money inputting that kind of a system, they also hired a full-time tech that knows something about handling it. Oftentimes we find that’s not always the case. We’ve got a couple of jobs that have great people that run the soundboard on Sunday, but a lot of the times they’re still a mechanic by trade during the week or a plumber or a normal, everyday job person who doesn’t have professional experience running equipment of that caliber. So we pride ourselves in spending a lot of time educating these guys. I mean obviously when you buy a system from an integrator – not even just Morris, but anybody – you give them a training experience of here’s how to get your system on, here’s how to get it turned on on Sunday mornings. That’s included with everything we do, but we also do a lot more education past that of we do classes with them on what is sound? How does sound travel? What microphones are the best microphones to use on each instrument? Why do you not put this microphone on that? We’ll spend anywhere from two to three days to three or four times a year going back with seminars, again, with our clients to get them to the point of you’re used to driving a two-wheeled bicycle and we just gave you a brand new Tesla Model X. And so the technology is so much past where they were it takes a lot. You hand a kid a paintbrush who’s three years old and they’re painting a nice little picture for you. It’s very different than somebody who’s got 20 years’ experience with a paintbrush. [Timestamp: 9:44]

Of course, there’s no substitute for a trained ear but you want to also have all the numbers on the acoustical situation so what do you use as far as tools to assess the acoustics?

We do some modeling in the different softwares like EASE or NS-1 or Soundvision or whatever manufacturer has their software. Once we get onsite, though, we spend a lot of time analyzing the system in the space because we all know that every space sounds different. So you can put in the best of the best speakers and move it to another room and it’s going to sound totally different than it sounded in the room you were just in. So I use a piece of software made by Rational Acoustics called Smaart – S-M-A-A-R-T if you google Rational Acoustics. The beauty of this is it’s not just a simple RTA. It uses a transfer function. So it measures – let’s say if we’re using pink noise. It takes a sample of pink noise without the room and then compares it to a mic in the room. People have been doing that for a long time; that’s not a new technology. But what I do with Smaart, I use the multi-channel measurement section of it. So I’ll have four to six microphones, wirelessly or wired, that I pass out throughout the room and I’ll take a cross section of the room – kind of the old way to do it was to set a mic in a spot, take a shot, take a look at the software, see what the software sounds like. You move the mic – take it and move the mic, take another shot. Those are static shots of the room with probably the same input source, but you’re taking those and then averaging them. With the multi-mic setup that Smaart allows me to do, I can look at the system live in multiple seats and then I can take an average of that and I’ll take a couple of different average traces I look at where I look at it in four to eight octave or third octave at the same time and you can kind of decide oh, I see that same, exact, tiny little spike in all situations in the room. That’s something I’m going to go after with an EQ. If I see it only in two or three of those situations I might go hmm, is that a zone issue? Is that an inner box issue? What exactly is happening? Being able to see it live, I can interact with it. Let’s say the room was just a rectangle. Instead of just putting the mics on axis from front to back in the room, I’ll do those measurements and that gets done, but we all know that speakers sound a little different when you’re not quite right in front of them. So my last version of the tuning I do, I put the mics across that zone of speakers at a 45 to the room, say, for instance so it’s not going to go straight front row to back row, it’s going to go across the room. So I’m seeing not only different time arrivals, but different phase arrivals as they come across the PA as opposed to just front to back. And being able to look at things like that from different heights, have some mics set up on the floor, some at head height, some at standing height, you get to make a lot of choices and see a lot of things that you didn’t used to be able to see as a system commissioner. That’s one of my secret little tricks that I do. [Timestamp: 12:31]

Some of these are pretty simple setups. It’s easy to over-analyze some of the more straightforward projects but at what level of complexity in the system do you think it pays off to set up the whole system in your lab somewhere, test it and then disassemble it and take it to the site and set it up there?

With so much of the audio moving to digital transport, almost every manufacturer these days, especially the digital audio consoles and things like that, there’s a much larger form of complexity that is not just our old analog split that we can sit there and wire for days on end and then test it and it’s got a buzz. That’s one troubleshooting thing when you’re talking about digital audio, and especially when you’re talking about multi-room digital audio. There’s a lot of programming that needs done making sure all your switches are set up correctly, programmed correctly, that your quality of service setting, especially if you’re using anything like Dante, you can get one setting wrong on one network switch in the system and the whole thing can be very unstable or go up and down. So to answer your question specifically, I would say pretty much any time we’re doing anything that requires more than, say, a direct digital connection from one product to another, if we’re going to do three or four boxes that are connected, then we’re going to at least take it out of the cardboard, set it up on the table, talk to all of the boxes with our laptops and at least pass audio from Box 1 to 2 to 3, whether that’s an amplifier to – like if it was a Yamaha Nexo solution, I would want to have the Nexo amp on a Dante card with DVS connected to the CL console where I’m actually making sound leave the console, go through the network switch to the amplifier; I think even at that simple level of things. Now if we’re talking about a boardroom that has just a simple auto mixer, or a church that’s using a little eight-channel soundboard with two speakers hung left and right, I’m not necessarily going to set that up at the shop and test it. We’re at least going to turn all of the items on and make sure that they’re functional so we don’t show up on site and find out oh, my gosh, this speaker came from the manufacturer and the high-frequency driver is not working? I mean, knock on wood I haven’t had that happen, but things like that happen. [Timestamp: 14:38]

Yeah, that’s a bad time to find out that you’ve got some hardware that’s defective.

Especially if you’re doing an out-of-town install. So I think maybe that’s a good way to say it there. If it’s an out-of-town install, then we’ve touched, made noise through, and programmed pretty much everything because I don’t want to find that out when I get offsite. I would say unless it’s a very small, say, less than $5,000.00-$10,000.00 job we’re almost always setting everything up and checking it. [Timestamp: 15:03]

I know you have to keep in close touch with the client in case something changes but is there a special point in the process where you always go back to the client and check on budget considerations and expectations just as a routine thing?

Our model is very open. We don’t really hide anything from the client. We offer line pricing, cost plus. We explain every bit of the thing. If they want to see the line item for the nuts and bolts and the labor and everything like that at work places where we just give a final number of this is going to cost you $102,000.00 and you don’t get to see what that is, at Morris we don’t do that. So we’re very, very up front with budget and everything on the lines. We communicate the whole time through the design of it and I would say 95 percent of our jobs we design and we build. So when we’re putting the budget together we’re putting it together in a way that we’ve done it enough to know that this kind of product takes this much time to put in. So our labor is usually pretty spot on and if we’re seeing some kind of red flag coming from something the client is asking for in the middle of, say, and install or the final stages of the design, we’re going to throw the red flag back at them to go hey, this is possible, of course, but this is going to change the scope of work that we kind of came at the project from. So if you want to add this to it, for instance they didn’t say that maybe they mentioned we might want to do a broadcast room from the main sanctuary, but we didn’t do it, but we planned to pull cable, but all of a sudden they do want to do the consoles, obviously we’re going to go, we can do that, but that’s a change order at this point and we can add that to the project. [Timestamp: 16:39]

That comes up sometimes and you have to be ready for it. That’s just the way the game is played. Thanks for telling us about this one, John. In Part 2 we’ll get more into specific problems that are fairly common and how to solve those. John Mills with Morris Light and Sound in Nashville. We’ll see you on the next one.

Thank you for being here with us for the SVC Podcast with John Mills of Morris Light and Sound. Show notes are on the website of Sound & Video Contractor Magazine at Join us next week for Part 2 when John will get into bridging the reality gap between customer expectations and budget. That’s on the next SVC Podcast.

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