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Getting Acoustics Right
By: D. Sean Bail

Good acoustics. Bad acoustics. They are everywhere and nowhere. It is invisible. Like the air we breathe, it cannot be touched, and yet it surrounds and affects us every minute of our lives. Simply put, good acoustics are nothing more than keeping ambient noise and reverberation from interfering with the activity at hand. 

Good acoustics should go unnoticed, but bad acoustics are an irritation, or worse. Most often, it’s that feeling that something is just out of place, without knowing exactly what it is. Other times, it is the elephant in the room. This is the heart of the problem. Acoustics, by definition, are heard and not seen. When good acoustics occur, it’s very likely not by accident.

Everyone has experienced bad acoustics. Whether it is at the local restaurant or sleeping at the hotel next to the airport, bad acoustics are everywhere. What was the daily special? Which flight has been delayed? Could you repeat that? What? 

Good acoustics are the unseen foundation for making it possible for an audience to clearly receive a presentation. After all, what difference does it make how many people can be seated in an auditorium if they can’t understand what is being delivered? Like music, theatrics, and technology, acoustics are merely a means to an end, but they are often overlooked and overshadowed by visual considerations, style over functionality. 

The two most basic questions asked are: “What is the problem?” and “How does it get fixed?”  Both of these questions can be answered by qualified, acoustic experts. But, before asking these questions, there are things that should be clearly delineated.

First and foremost, as with any construction project, take the time to get references. This is not a project for those faint of heart or unskilled in craft. After that, there are three main items that need to be considered:

1. Performance
Try to find out how you want the space to “feel,” not sound. This will go a long way in setting some fundamental parameters that can shape a solution that best suits the needs of the church.  Other important questions are: How important is this space? What is the space used for? Will it be something else in five years? Is this absolutely critical or is it just necessary?

2. Aesthetics
This is single-handedly the largest factor in the cost of any acoustic solution. Most of this arises from the difference in something that has been obviously retrofitted after the fact or one that will not be noticed, as though it is supposed to be there. Designs and products should be matched as closely as possible to the needs of the room and the available budget. Once the performance requirement has been determined, there are an abundance of choices available to meet the needs of the church.

3. Budget
Establishing a budget should be the first step in deciding what options are available. Set realistic goals. It is important to know that there is really no quick fix to most concerns. And, while most of these types of projects amount to capital expenditures, the end result will be one of the best uses of church resources for the lifetime of the facility. 

Obviously, budgets are a huge concern, and, in the real world, sacrifices defined by limited resources will certainly impact a project’s outcome, but that does not mean that there are not workarounds to maximize value and execute the best possible solution. The smaller the budget, the more creative thinking plays a large role in planning these projects.

Creative options are generally found outside of acoustic design or product performance. Examples are a phased approach, unconventional implementation of products, and the utilization of in-house volunteer talent. Each congregation will have different strengths that can be integrated into the plan, and that involvement can strengthen the sense of community and ownership of any project.

Other circumstances can also have a major effect in the decision process. Different products have different construction requirements and lead times, which can dramatically affect the overall project.

In new construction, these issues can be addressed while the building is coming out of the ground and are usually installed without detriment to the operation of the church. As it often happens, acoustics become a value-engineering casualty, only to be rushed in after the fact.  This is both considerably more expensive and often a design nightmare.

In renovations or retrofits, careful consideration must be paid to how the solution will be installed and what repercussions, if any, there will be.

Installation is where all of this either comes together or falls apart. It cannot be stressed enough how important this portion is to the final outcome. Even a perfect design and best-in-class product can lead to a less than satisfactory finish if the installation is left to those whose talents lie elsewhere. There is a marked difference between knowing what should be done and knowing how to accomplish it.

There are certainly minimum levels of treatment, below which will also represent a minimized or imperceptible improvement, but overshooting the goal isn’t exactly the best value either. 

Acoustics is about subjective absolutes. A number of really intelligent people manipulating some really complicated math and computer models can calculate exactly how each room should be treated.

There are norms and acceptable levels that are recognized in the industry, but how does this translate to what you need? These should truly be used only as guidelines to establish a baseline design. The actual acoustics are only part of the dilemma.

Focusing on the needs and resources of the church by balancing performance, aesthetics, and budget will best insure that the chosen path will prove to be the correct path. 

D. Sean Bail is a sales consultant for South Eastern Acoustic, Inc., www.seainc.us.

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