Venue Acoustical Design Comes Into Its Own

The rise of acoustical design as a major component of sports-venue design is like many other aspects of life in the 21st century: a function of money. As the price tag for new stadiums and arenas went up, especially with much of the NFL and MLB replacing facility infrastructure over the past decade, the costs needed to be spread out over additional revenue streams. So it has become more and more common to have the Giants and Bon Jovi back-to-back in the same venue.

To some extent, that has always been the case. However, the Beatles at Shea Stadium in 1965, playing through a couple of Shure Vocalmasters fed into the ballpark’s horns, would not make it today.

“On both the pro side and college side of sports, there’s been a lot more recognition lately of the multi-use aspect of sports venues,” says Jack Wrightson, acoustician and principal of systems design firm WJHW, which has done a slew of stadiums, most recently the nearly open Minnesota Twins’ new Target Field. “That means the acoustical performance of the venue needs to accommodate amplified events.”

And he’s not just referring to rock concerts: sports events themselves have come to rely increasingly on live and prerecorded music as well as on more-sophisticated sound effects and even audio-for-video synched to giant displays.

“The sources of the audio are more disparate at games,” adds Steve Durr, who has done acoustic design for the Canseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis and several NASCAR tracks. “You’ll hear stuff from 14 different production companies for commercials, music, and sound effects, all coming from the PA system and getting into the broadcast to some extent.”

What’s happening is that more-complex sound is bouncing around ever larger spaces at ever higher SPLs. Small wonder the acousticians are getting called in earlier in the design process. And they’re walking a fine line between creating a space that encourages and naturally amplifies crowd noise and damping that noise when more-coherent sound, like music, is the focus.

Absorption is the main technique, achieved by strategic placement of absorptive surfaces, which can be anything from Owens-Corning fiberglass behind a perforated metal skin to ready-made products from companies like MBI and Sound Solutions. (We’ll cover those types of products at another time.) The solutions can be more subtle, such as the sound-absorbent upholstered (rather than hard and acoustically reflective) seats that Acoustic Design Group specified for Toledo, OH’s new Lucas County Event Center, designed to handle both hockey and concerts.

One venue has taken a leaf out of the recording-studio playbook. The Rose Garden Arena in Portland, OR, home of the NBA’s Trailblazers, features an acoustical cloud comprising 160 rotating acoustic panels suspended from the ceiling. One side of each 10- x 10-ft. panel reflects sound while the other side absorbs it.

“That’s a nice luxury to have, but it is a luxury,” observes Ian Wolfe, VP/designer at Acoustical Design Group, which did acoustic design for the Community America Ballpark (Kansas City T-Bones) in Kansas City, KS, and the multi-use Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids, MI. “The fact is, the huge size of [sports venues] today makes sophisticated acoustic solutions like that very costly.”

But they also could be costly not to implement. The new Cowboys Stadium in Dallas has drawn criticism for its sonics. The field’s giant glass doors let in lots of light but also act as huge acoustically reflective surfaces, amplifying ambient sound inside. Acoustical treatment originally specified was later deleted from the design, due to cost and sightline issues. However, the dissatisfaction with the sound has been limited to music performances, not the football games the system was designed for.

Stu Schatz, applications engineer for Electro-Voice, manufacturer of the line-array–type PA system used there, says that the problems can be largely addressed as long as temporary PA systems brought in for events other than football are interfaced with the venue’s PA system, using the higher-level array clusters to reach upper-level seating, instead of trying to throw the sound from line arrays hung near a stage.

As an example, he cites the recent use of Cowboys Stadium for the NBA All-Star game. “They put the court in the middle of the [field] and brought in a PA to cover the seating close to it, then tied that into the main PA system,” he explains. “And it worked perfectly.”

The Roar of the Crowd
The role of noise in crowded football stadiums is legendary. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was impressed with the amount of racket that Vikings fans could generate in Mall of America Field. He expressed envy at “the advantage the defense gets in the ability to anticipate the snap count in a loud environment. That was a difference-maker up there,” he told the gridironfan.com Website.

NFL rules call for loss of a timeout or 5-yard penalties against the defending team for excessive crowd noise. The league also expressly prohibits artificial amplification of crowd noise, but that hasn’t stopped the occasional accusation that exactly that is going on. Both the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New England Patriots have asserted in recent years that crowd noise is juiced electronically at the Colts’ RCA Dome (which the Colts deny and the NFL has not found cause for). On the other hand, the New Jersey Nets did cop to artificially boosting crowd noise in 1997. (Some sound professionals will say off the record that the practice still takes place surreptitiously, using DSP to process input from microphones around the field and then digitally regenerating and amplifying the sound.)

When it comes to sound, sports and other pastimes will find ways to coexist amenably if not peacefully in sports venues. That will be thanks in no small part to the input of acousticians, who aren’t sitting on the sidelines anymore.