Emerging Technology

What a Waste!

Simpler auditoriums and performing arts facilities.

What does a technology guy know about performing arts facilities? Quite a lot actually. One common thing about all of my previous job incarnations is that they involved music and places where music is performed. Full disclosure, I was a string bass major in college; still play electric bass; gained a fundamental understanding of architectural acoustics in order to scientifically design sound systems that matched their acoustical environment (before we had computer modeling programs); worked in architectural acoustics field designing recording studios from New York City to Chicago. I have a pretty deep understanding of what is happening in auditoriums and performing arts centers.

Frankly stated, we waste hundreds of thousands of dollars on each performing arts facility we design for our school districts. I look at the beautiful interior designs of performance spaces highlighted in various trade magazines (including this one) or architectural design magazines and see gorgeous ceiling cloud systems and articulated sidewalls. Make a trip to Las Vegas, or any other center of entertainment activity, and take a good look at the contemporary performance spaces built in the last 15 to 20 years. You will not see any ceiling system nor articulated sidewalls. They are fairly plain boxes with absorption placed at key locations on the side and rear walls and the fire protection covering of the ceiling deck and trusses painted black along with the HVAC ducts.

Historically, creating an acoustical environment that enhances and directs reflections of the acoustical performance from the stage towards the audience was an absolute necessity. There are marvelous symphonic and opera houses where professionals ply their trade, and most of those performances are purely acoustical performances with little electronic enhancement or amplification. But that is not what happens in the typical school district auditorium or performing arts facility. Very few functions or performances held in school district facilities are purely acoustical — no electronic amplification. Concert band and symphony are the only two performance arts groups in a school district that do not rely on some type of electronic amplification. All other activities use the sound system to increase the level of the audio program.

We can blame the Beatles and Rock and Roll! Not that far from the truth. When the Beatles played in Shea Stadium, they could not hear themselves or their music over the screams of their adoring fans. They never toured after that point in time. The sound systems of those days were totally inadequate. If anyone has attended a U2, Rolling Stones or Kenny Chesney concert in the last few years, you are well aware that those limitations are long gone. In fact, the last 10 or 15 years represent a major cultural shift where high-quality audio is expected as part of our Home Theater experience, in our cars and from our smartphones or tablets when using ear buds. We even have headphones and ear buds that cancel out the background noise to make our environment quieter and allow us to listen to our music on an airplane.

Those expectations also apply to our professional sports facilities, cinemas, entertainment facilities and even our houses of worship. So when a school district builds an auditorium or performing arts facility, it now contains some type of electronic amplification system. I am not saying that all of those systems exhibit high-fidelity audio, but they are loud, and that is the point.

As implied earlier, the purpose of ceiling clouds and articulated walls in an auditorium or performing arts facility is to create what we call “early field reflections” that combine with the direct sound to provide some extra volume, but primarily a subjectively more pleasing experience. When I add a high-fidelity sound system to that space, I eliminate the value of those early field reflections.

Let me put it a different way; the volume level of audio coming from the speaker system is so much louder than the original acoustical signal coming from the stage that the listener cannot even perceive the presence of the original acoustical source. It is buried deep under the sound system. If you cannot hear them, why pay all of those dollars to create them?

To be clear, I am not saying that we do not need to properly design the acoustics of an auditorium or performing arts facility to make sure the reverberation field is properly balanced and controlled. I am simply saying don’t throw dollars away on ceiling clouds and articulated walls.

This article originally appeared in the February 2014 issue of School Planning & Management.

About the Author

Glenn Meeks is president of Meeks Educational Technology located in Cary, N.C. He can be reached at [email protected]

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