What's That You Hear?

The saxophone player has the practice room at noon followed by a tuba player and then a soprano. The jazz band has an afternoon rehearsal in the concert hall followed by an evening performance of the chamber orchestra. What does all this mean?

It means that the acoustics and amplification in an institution’s music facilities must be very flexible. Music programs have special requirements for each facility, including practice rooms, classrooms, and performance venues. Students need to hear, listen, and be heard with precision, but providing the appropriate venue for each need can be challenging. The keys are to be flexible and to design for the greatest possible range of use.

Starting on the Right Note

“Amplification and acoustics are the biggest consideration when it comes to designing a music facility,” said Dr. Ken Greene, professor at Trinity University.“The soundproofing and isolation for classrooms is very important in order for students to hear what they must hear.”

When Trinity decided to renovate and expand the Ruth Taylor Music Building, Greene says that determining both current and future needs was critical.“We built for growth and worked to maximize the flexibility of the design. You have to anticipate the future.”

One critical piece, according to Greene, is to look at the technology incorporated into each classroom. “Our faculty uses a variety of teaching mediums,” he said. “All our classrooms support the use of record players, cassettes, CDs, and MP3 players. We also have Web connections and SMART boards and marker boards in all our rooms. Assigning faculty to a classroom is easier when you have the technology in place to meet anyone’s preference.”

Finding the Middle Ground

Geoff Edwards, AIA, chief operating officer of Kell Munoz Architects, San Antonio, worked on Trinity’s music facility. “In an ideal world colleges and universities have enough money and space to have separate facilities for vocal and instrumental music and for solo performances or the symphony orchestra. Budget and other constraints mean that an institution usually finds the middle ground when it comes to acoustics and amplification requirements. Some requirements are the same everywhere — such as sound isolation — but small and large groups have very different needs.”

Edwards said that putting as much technology into the room as possible was an excellent approach at Trinity. “The university even provided for Digital Audio Tapes (DAT) in their classrooms. The medium isn’t used much today but a significant collection is available at the school. By providing for any medium they have great classroom flexibility.”

In concert halls, Edwards says that retractable acoustical curtains and reflectors or shells can be combined with technology to meet changing requirements. “Acoustical curtains are electronically controlled and can be easily adjusted to fine-tune a venue for a given performance,” he said. “Shells can be reconfigured based on the required intimacy of the performance. They provide good sound reflection and feedback for the musician.”

When renovating or building a new facility, Edwards advocates not specifying any equipment until construction is 50 percent complete. “Establish your parameters at the start of a project but don’t specify until later,” he said. “Just-in-time ordering ensures that you have the latest technology, and the cost may even be lower than when you began the project.”

Electronic Architecture

Technology can be a musician’s best friend when it comes to optimizing the practice and performance environment. “Electronic architecture — a facility’s combination of speakers, amplifiers, signal processing, microphones, and other flexible components — enables an institution to create the environment they need for a given rehearsal or performance,” said Ron Freiheit, director of design engineering for Wenger Corp. “Technology answers the question of what you can do when a space can’t be provided for each individual type of practice or performance need.”

Freiheit stated that technology for music performance doesn’t change rapidly. “We have certainly seen advances in acoustics and amplification, and that will continue,” he said. “The changes are much slower, however, than on the consumer side.”

Wenger recently developed a new Virtual Acoustic Environment practice room, or VAE, an evolution in the company’s music practice rooms. “The VAE has record/playback capabilities, improved simulations of nine virtual acoustic environments and an enhanced, user-friendly control panel,” said Freiheit. “We designed the product to simulate multiple environments because of the situations we found at many institutions. It’s an all-in-one concept.”

Teachers can use the practice room to easily evaluate a student’s performance using the VAE’s recording capability. Students benefit from the ability to select from nine active-acoustic settings, which allows them to optimize their performance in different environments.

“The foundation is to be flexible and to continually evaluate new acoustic and amplification products,” said Freiheit. “Technology is starting to replace some shell components and we will continue to see advances in this area. The evolution is slow so it’s easy to continually evaluate needs in light of marketplace changes.”