Acoustics Get Increased Attention in Sports-Venue Design

There has been significantly increased focus on sound systems installed in sports venues in recent years, and, in some cases, major PA-systems manufacturers have adapted entire product lines around this category. But those systems are still at the mercy of the venue acoustics, which are largely contingent on other architectural trends that have influenced recent stadium and arena design, including multi-use requirements.

The good news is that acoustics are being taken into account more often in both design and renovation of facilities, in part because of popular demand. Mark Graham, an associate at consultant/designer Wrightson, Johnson, Haddon & Williams (WJHW), whose portfolio includes the Toyota Center in Houston, the FedEx Forum in Memphis, and the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, cites a recent arena-renovation project he worked on, Rimrock Auto Arena in Billings, MT. In that project, the building operator asked the community for feedback on what they liked, disliked, or felt should be changed with the renovation.

“[The operator] knew the acoustics in the existing space were not great, but, when approximately 40% of the 1,000-plus respondents commented or complained about the acoustics at concerts, acoustics became a top priority for the renovation,” Graham says. “Architects and owners are paying much more attention to the acoustics in sporting venues than a few decades ago, not only to improve the fan experience at sporting events but also for other events such as concerts. Refunding ticket prices related to consistently bad sound at concerts is not something the building operators want to do when those funds could be used to improve the acoustics.”

New Marlins Park
Bowl design can sometimes compel new twists in sound systems. The new Miami Marlins stadium is a good example. The venue’s asymmetrical bowl meant that almost every one of the 30 sections above the lower deck was essentially unique, rather than having six or eight sections that can serve as templates for the rest. This required a denser distributed-sound-system design than might otherwise have been required for a similarly sized stadium, since no upper-deck seat can be fully covered by any one single speaker.

The design also required speaker placement and aiming specific to virtually every location on the upper deck, as well as custom brackets for many of the speakers. The stadium’s asymmetries also meant that focal points often needed individual speakers set at different distances and patterns. For instance, the area around home plate uses the EAW MQX8343-MS-WP long-throw enclosure from one side but is matched on the opposite side by a shorter-throw QX564-WP unit. All of these requirements added to the overall costs.

(It should be noted that the bowl’s asymmetrical design was prompted by the need to orient the site to allow the retractable roof let in as much natural sunlight as possible for the stadium’s natural-grass field. Turf-maintenance savings could offset the additional sound-system costs over time.)

Sound-systems designer/acoustician Steve Durr, whose systems include the Kansas City Chiefs’ Arrowhead Stadium, the Cincinnati Bengals’ Paul Brown Stadium, and upgrades to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, says he is finding that venue architects increasingly take intelligibility issues into consideration in their designs but that sports venues designed as multi-use facilities have an inherent acoustical/architectural paradox. “The desirable acoustics for sports means a loud, reverberant space, while that’s usually exactly what you don’t want for a concert or other kind of event” with complex audio like music, he points out. (He cites the Indianapolis Colts’ Lucas Oil Field as an example of getting the acoustics right for both types of applications.)

Durr thinks architects can do more to improve stadium and arena acoustics, but he’s happy to have more technology designed with live sports audio in mind to address what architects can’t. “What we can fix now that we couldn’t even five years ago is amazing, because we have the products to do it with.”

Architect David Bower of Populous agrees. He also points out that sports-venue design tends to engage the acoustician sooner in the process than it did a decade or so ago: “We’re getting them involved at the earliest phases of design now, at least by the midpoint of schematics, rather than at the design/development level.”

That said, Bower points out that venue design has other exigencies that are higher on the hierarchy of needs when it comes to design, starting with site location and orientation (baseball parks are aligned approximately along a north-south axis to take advantage of afternoon sun, and, with only a five-degree variable available, stadium sound can sometimes be affected by wind direction). He says that the shift in the last decade from point-source PA systems to more precise distributed ones has helped overcome those potential conflicts.

Although manufacturers aren’t building sound systems that are specific to sports venues, they are adapting existing products for that market. For instance, when the Philadelphia Eagles’ stadium sound system needed coverage of very specific sections of the venue with enclosures that would also deflect weather in a particular manner, EAW’s Strategic Engineering Group took a concept from an existing low-profile EAW line-source speaker array and adapted it for horizontal mounting. (There is synergy at work here, too: a version of that adapted design is under consideration to become a standard product in EAW’s speaker-systems line.)

In another example, a customized version of EAW’s AX 364 arrayable installation loudspeaker, modified to fire simultaneously forward and down, was developed for the New York Mets Citi Field ballpark. Several of these modified enclosures were installed at the clubhouse level, with a pair of 10-in. woofers aimed downward to cancel out low-frequency buildup in an architectural bass trap. Similar customized solutions have been developed for such venues as the Red Sox’s Fenway Park in Boston and Nationals Park in Washington, D.C.

There can be both positive and negative synergy between the architecture and the sound system. “The overall performance of the sound system can definitely be linked to the building acoustics, as poor acoustics lead to poor sound-system performance,” WJHW’s Graham explains. “There are some systems that are better performers in a reverberant environment, but they typically come with a decrease in system response and don’t meet with the audio experience today’s sports fans are expecting.”

With more and more of the venue’s live sound finding its way into event broadcast audio, any improvement in what the crowd hears helps what viewers hear at home.

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