Guide to Bringing the Studio Experience Home with Acoustics
Audio companies that range from the acoustical treatment manufacturer Primacoustic to speaker companies like Bowers & Wilkins (B&W) all offer technical support to aid dealers design room spaces conducive to proper listening applications.
Robert Archer · August 27, 2015
For as long as music fans have had the ability to spin vinyl, flip cassettes, or now select digital streams, one thing has always separated the experience Dave Grohl hears when playing “Something From Nothing” in his Studio 606 and the one homeowners get when they fire up “Sonic Highways” on their systems. That one thing may seem small, but in the grand scheme of audio playback it is the most important consideration for any system: acoustics.
Professionals take great care in every aspect of music creation. Historically, consumers have not been as thorough with their audio systems and the playback of their favorite recordings. Exacerbating the situation, the consumer audio industry’s high end category often emphasizes exotic cables, speaker designs and amplification concepts in lieu of any consideration of room design.
Acoustic experts say for reasonable sums of money, consumers can get the same listening experience as Grohl, Butch Vig, Alan Parsons, Jack Joseph Puig, Tony Maserati and Bob Ludwig with a little bit of thought and planning.
Identifying Home Audio Issues
First let’s address the obvious—not every home space can be transformed into a pristine audio environment. Things such as design concerns and preexisting room layouts with furniture could hamper top-tier acoustical designs.
Traditionally, putting interior design concerns aside, James Wright, business development for Primacoustic, points out that in a studio environment sound is dissected and listeners need complete control of what they are hearing. In home settings consumers need to take the same steps as the pros to recreate that experience he goes on to say.
“To accurately record and mix a project the audio engineer needs to hear precisely what is being reproduced by the speakers,” he states. “Likewise, to enjoy a recording as intended by the engineer, producer and artist, a similar level of accuracy is required. Room anomalies such as reverberation, slap echo and standing waves cloud the impression of the audio program. Acoustic treatment—specifically absorption and diffusion have been used for many years to achieve an accurate listening environment in studios.”
Unfortunately for homeowners, Wright says there are many challenges for music and home theater listeners to overcome to achieve a “pure sonic pathway.” Some of these issues he lists include overall room design and size, and surface materials within the room that reflect sound. Acting hastily, Wright adds that sometimes equalization (EQ) will be used to address sound issues within a room, but this solution often creates a new set of problems.
“EQ is used to compensate for problems with the loudspeaker and audio system, but it is not able to address concerns related to echo, reverberations or standing waves,” emphasizes Wright. “EQ can ‘personalize’ the listening experience by boosting or cutting frequencies, but it is not able to defeat anomalies created by room structure and reflective surfaces. Only absorption and diffusion can help with these issues.”
Dealer Training Helps Dealers Solve Audio Problems
Acoustics and audio are complex topics that can be intimidating to even the most seasoned dealer. For years, Gerry Lemay, director, Home Acoustics Alliance (HAA), has trained dealers and consumer audiophiles on how to diagnose, design and install acoustical solutions in home settings. Over the years the curriculum has evolved as technology has advanced. Today Lemay says the training is mostly an interactive experience for students.
“HAA is a unique training experience from two perspectives,” he says. “Our training is primarily hands-on or, better put, ears-on. 75 percent of the training involves hands-on work and each technical change to the design is reviewed not only by measurement, but by listening, particularly during our Level II training. I think it’s fair to say that few A/V pros will have an opportunity to step-by-step hear what incremental changes in the design or calibration of the system sound like. This creates a new perspective on the design and selling of home sound systems [the training works well for two-channel as well].
“Students are empowered to teach their clients about the actual effect of various design mistakes. This also gives them a new mandate to explain that the brunt of the job for creating high performance sound depends on the home theater designer and calibrator. In other words, you might be able to buy the equipment through the Internet but you can’t buy their expertise anywhere but from them.
“The second unique element to HAA is the experience itself. The classes are intentionally kept small with no more than six students in a theater for the Level II [training]. The problem solving aspect puts the onus on the team to develop solutions based upon their Level I training. Mistakes are good things that we learn from. In many cases, team members retain communication with each other and often connect with other HAA calibrators.”
Reinforcing Wright’s earlier comments, Lemay emphasizes the proliferation of automatic room EQ tools are falsely providing a sense of improved audio performance. Lemay explains these solutions can be used in conjunction with proven acoustical methods to deliver a quality listening experience, but as stand alone solutions they are not up to the task.
“I think the biggest challenge toward promoting the reliance of the performance on the home theater contractor has been the explosion of automated calibration tools,” he notes. “HAA does not discourage the use of automated systems. We note that they can be highly useful, but understand, you can’t truly calibrate a poorly designed system. The design, proper function, and final tuning of the system are best done by experienced hands and ears, with the automation as a tool not a total solution.”
Additional Support Available
Lemay says students that participate in the HAA’s Level I and Level II programs will have the ability to calibrate systems. He adds that as much as these programs provide a solid foundation of understanding, there is also no substitute for real-world experience.
“The best way to understand how to use this knowledge is the school of hard knocks,” he admits. “Therefore, the best prerequisite for HAA is to have installed, tuned and listened to a theater beforehand. The students that do best are those that have agonized about acoustical problems and having recognized the system isn’t performing correctly despite using automated tools.”
Picking up with industry training leaves off, Wright says that companies like Primacoustic support dealers in every conceivable situation where they need help. He points out that his company provides technical support and design assistance in all areas of acoustics, and it has years of experience designing projects that range from large arenas and gymnasiums, to boardrooms and recording studios, to residential home theater and home studio spaces.
Wright emphasizes a key thing for dealers to remember when specifying designs for residential clients, that positive results can be achieved without a major financial investment by the client. He says that for well less than the cost of an exotic audiophile transmitter that transforms air molecules or stands that lift speaker cables off the floor, which are products that bring no verifiable results, dealers can offer clients a documentable solution.
“An investment of $800 will get you well on your way in a home application,” he notes.
Don’t Forget Commercial
With the lines between residential and the pro A/V market continuing to blur, Wright reminds dealers not to look past the impact of acoustics in commercial environments such as bars, restaurants and boardrooms.
He says that in these types of environments, just like in a home or studio application, acoustically treating a space will make the installed technology perform to its full capabilities. Wright recommends that dealers can validate their services to clients in many cases for just offering suggestions to solve common acoustical problems.
“Putting a name to the issue and showing the customer how affordable and effective it is to fix the problem is a great place to start,” he advises. “In many cases acoustical designs can breath new life into pieces [of equipment] that seem antiquated. When compared to the expense of new equipment, as well as the pain of an end user learning to manage new technology, acoustic treatment is extremely cost effective and has zero failure rate.”
Regardless of whether the space is a living room, dedicated home theater, boardroom or locations such as Blackbird Studios and Sunset Sound, having a good listening environment can do nothing but make the client happy.
“Installing acoustic panels is no more difficult than putting ceiling speakers in a room. The first time is new, but after a couple of installations you get the hang of it and the process becomes second nature,” emphasizes Wright. “Most think of concert halls and recording studios when think of acoustics, but the fact is that communication and enjoyment in any space can benefit from improving the acoustical performance.”
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Bob is an audio enthusiast who has written about consumer electronics for various publications within Massachusetts before joining the staff of CE Pro in 2000. Bob is THX Level I certified, and he's also taken classes from the Imaging Science Foundation (ISF) and Home Acoustics Alliance (HAA). Bob also serves as the technology editor for CE Pro's sister publication Commercial Integrator. In addition, he's studied guitar and music theory at Sarrin Music Studios in Wakefield, Mass., and he also studies Kyokushin karate at 5 Dragons in Haverhill, Mass. Have a suggestion or a topic you want to read more about? Email Robert at email@example.com
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