Acoustics: Beyond Mythology

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.
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Acoustics: Beyond Mythology

Sep 13, 2011 1:23 PM, Provided by InfoComm International

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 they 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.

“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, Texas. “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 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 says. “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 says.

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.”

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.”

This piece is an excerpt from an InfoComm Special Report on Acoustics. To read the report in its entirety, please visit




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