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Acoustically Incompetent: The Need For Architects To Learn To Listen…

The issue is well understood, and the knowledge to solve the challenge already exists

By John Mayberry April 27, 2012

It’s been 112 years now, and you’d think it’s been long enough. Yet some of the brightest guys in America keep making the same dumb mistakes over and over again.

And ignoring the issue hasn’t made it go away either – it just keeps popping up like Baby Boomers and their anticipated Social Security payments…

Still, you’d think someone given the responsibility of designing our great facilities would want people to be able to converse and enjoy listening to music in them. Sadly, that is far less often the case than necessary.

At the most basic level, sound bounces around unless it’s absorbed or diffused. Too many bounces and our brains get confused and we can’t enjoy the space. Too much intrusive noise and we get confused too, and the issue only gets worse as we age.

The cure is simple and well known. Go buy absorption and diffusion and sprinkle it liberally around a room, starting with the ceiling, floors, and walls. Absorption is cheap; diffusion more expensive. Yet neither is a rare or exotic item; they are both widely available and allow both performers and listeners to enjoy the space. You know, carpet works well if deployed properly.

We should all agree that a good sound system cannot fix a bad acoustical space. Neither can a great one. No amount of amplifiers and loudspeakers can “fix” a large room with insufficient acoustical absorption, no matter how loud it plays or how well its pattern is controlled. Even with the most exotic line arrays, the room will sound far better if properly treated to optimize the reverberation time relative
to performance expectations.

Yet for years architects in the U.S. have wrongly believed that noise and reverberation problems can he cured with exotic sound reproduction systems. They can’t. There is no $300,000 sound system that sounds good in a tiled restroom. Nor is there a three dollar sound system that can. Isn’t it. funny how modern restaurants using the exact same materials as our restrooms get the same “aural flush” result?

Did you know any acoustician can calculate and predict the results accurately long before the building is built?

One needn’t look very far to understand why it’s difficult to communicate in most modern buildings in the U.S. – it’s the fault of our architects. Their training is lousy.

How lousy? Apparently architects are no longer required to take Latin. Had they done so, they would realize that the root word in “auditorium” is not seismic retrofit; nor design/build; nor cost/plus; nor value engineering, nor even LEED.

Here’s a hint:


1727, from L. auditorium “lecture room,” lit. “place where something is heard,” neuter of auditorius (adj.) “of or for hearing,” from auditor “a listener,” from audire “to hear” (see audience).

One might assume that a space dedicated to the idea that something should be heard would have a primary emphasis on noise reduction, reverberation control, and maximizing
speech intelligibility. Not so in American architecture. Even with seats costing $200 per evening for prime events now, our architects continue to treat acoustics as an inconvenient afterthought.

Why so? I’ve concluded there are a number of answers behind this debacle.

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