Acoustics Now a Part of the Venue Conversation

Acoustics are becoming more integrated into sports-venue sound-system planning, and the discussion is increasingly taking place early in the planning of both new construction and renovations, say systems designers and installers.

Mark Graham, an associate in the Denver office of design firm Wrightson, Johnson, Haddon & Williams (WJHW), notes that, on several recent venue projects that he managed, the budget for acoustical treatments was nearly as large as that for the systems hardware.

“That represents a milestone, in my opinion,” he says, adding that another indicator that acoustics have “arrived” in sports-venue AV systems design is that they are now included in value-engineering calculations and integrated into strategies to reduce overall systems costs while maintaining or even improving system performance and functionality.

That’s happening, adds Greg Hughes, another WJHW engineer and designer, because numerous venue owners and managers in recent years have forgone acoustical design and treatments as part of the initial sound-system design and installation only to experience intelligibility problems, disappointing teams and fans and rendering the venue less desirable for third-party rentals.

“It’s part of misguided attempts to save money, but it’s also a result of the misconception that reverberation equals volume, and they want their stadiums and arenas to be loud,” he explains. “However, they’re realizing that [those are] not the same things, and they’re also realizing how much it costs to go back after the sound system is already in place and add acoustical treatment so that it interacts properly with the system. They’re realizing that acoustics and sound systems have to work together and be looked at as a complete system and that not addressing that can cost a lot more money in the long run.”

The additional premium can be as much as 25% of the cost of the system, Graham estimates, citing two unnamed NFL stadiums that spent hundreds of thousands of dollars adding acoustical treatment after the fact in recent years.

“An $8 million sound system in an eight-second[-long–reverb-time] barn just doesn’t work,” he says.

Better Tools
Systems designers do have increasingly better tools with which to address such issues as intelligibility in large, reverberant venues. These include more precisely aimable line arrays that allow the dispersion characteristics of sound systems to be both far more predictable in the design stage and better targeted when installed, keeping the energy off reverberant surfaces and focused on seating areas. However, even these highly focused systems don’t reduce the need for acoustical treatment — mostly absorbent materials — by much; when venues add more applications — loud music performances, for example — sustained volumes increase substantially over the decibel levels of games.

As a result of wider acceptance by venue owners, acoustical design in stadiums and arenas is becoming more assertive. According to Brian Elwell, senior consultant/VP at AV integrator Acoustic Dimensions, recent installations at the University of Kentucky, where absorptive clouds were positioned over the basketball court, and at the University of Michigan, where a hockey arena’s rear walls received absorptive coverage, show that an understanding of how acoustics and hardware interact is sinking in with sports-venue clients.

“The predictive technologies are also getting better, so we can offer clients a much more accurate idea of what the end result is going to be with many different kinds of sound in the room,” he says. Measurement systems using lasers to “shoot” the room’s dimensions let specialized computer programs use real data to compute sonic reflections. “Even in new construction,” he points out, “you can use 3D-modeling programs and ray tracing and convolve that information with sound sources like music to see how it’ll turn out in each kind of environment.”

Graham sees the trend also in minor-league and secondary academic sports venues, where budgets face even greater scrutiny — an indication that acoustics are moving out of the “optional” category. As a prime example, he cites the Denny Sanford Premier Center in Sioux Falls, SD, which will be home to the USHL’s Sioux Falls Stampede and the IFL’s Sioux Falls Storm when it opens next year. “They’re including all of the acoustical treatment and design that we requested in there,” he says. “No one questioned the need for it at all. Acoustics is a regular part of the conversation now.”

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