Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Solving acoustics problems

A "waterfall plot" like this one is one of many tools used by
acousticians to determine the problems with a room.
Photo from realtraps which provides high quality bass traps,
an important type of acoustic treatment.
I recently received the following letter (edited):
      

Greetings,

The echo in my local church is really bad.  I am lucky if I can understand 10% of what’s being said.   I have checked with other members of the congregation and without exception they all have the same problem.

The church is medium size with high vaulted ceiling, very large windows with pillars spaced throughout.  The floor is mostly wood.   The speakers are flat against the side walls, spaced approx 15 metres apart and approx 10 feet above the floor.

The speakers are apparently ‘top of the range’… I just wonder if a graphic equalizer was used between the microphone and speaker, would this ‘clean up’ the sound a little?

I know that lining the walls with acoustic tiles and carpeting the floor would lessen the echo, but, we don’t want to do that if we can avoid it.

With regard to putting carpet on the floor, my thoughts are that instead of sound being absorbed by the carpet, the congregation present would absorb just as much as the carpet?.  One other theory I have is regarding the speakers.

If  the speakers were moved…

Michael

Hey Michael,

I sympathize with you. Going to service every week and not being able to understand what is being said must be very frustrating. While this is not the kind of thing I do every day, I do have some training  in this area and will do my best to give you something helpful.

Most churches are built with little attention to acoustics and old churches were built before there was any understanding of what acoustics is. With all those reflective surfaces and no care taken to prevent the acoustic problems that they create, problems are inevitable, and sometimes, such as in your church, they are simply out of hand. In a situation like that, even a great sound-system won't be able to solve the problem.

I recommend you hire a professional in your area to come look at the space and be able to give some more specific feedback. To have them improve the situation may cost anywhere from hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars (or even more) depending on the cause of problem. However, it's helpful to have some idea of what some of the solutions are so that when you hire that professional you are prepared for what's to come. You might be able to do some more research and take a stab at solving these issues yourself.

For example, it might be useful to listen to room and conjecture, even without measurements, if the problem is bound to specific frequencies or if it's just a problem of too many echos. If you are a trained listener you might be able to stand in the room in various places, clap loudly and listen to get a sense of this. Although even a trained listener would never substitute such methods for actual measurements, I often find this method useful for developing a hypothesis (eg. I might listen and say "I believe there is a problem in the low frequencies" before measuring. Then use measurements to confirm or reject this hypothesis). Also, look at the room, are there lots of parallel walls? If so, you are likely suffering from problems at specific frequencies and it's possible that a targeted, and probably less expensive, approach will help.

Another thing you can do is find someone with some stage acting experience and have them speak loud and clear at the pulpit. Have them do this both with and without the sound system and listen to the results. If they sound much clearer without the sound-system than with the sound-system, then that suggests that your sound-system may be causing at least some of the problems.

If you can't afford an acoustician, but you are willing to experiment a bit, this kind of testing might lead you to something. For example, maybe you notice some large open parallel walls and you agree that covering one or both of them with some heavy draperies is either acceptable or would look nice. You could try it and see if it helps. It's no guarantee, but it might make a difference. Draperies are, of course, unlikely to make that much difference by themselves, so you might consider putting acoustic absorbing material behind them.

Be warned, however, that acoustic treatments done by amateurs without measurements are often beset with problems. For example, you may reduce the overall reverberation time, but leave lots of long echos at certain frequencies. This can be yield results that are no better than where you started -- possibly even worse (although in your case I think that's unlikely).

Here are the types of things a professional is likely to recommend. You've already alluded to all of them, but I'll repeat them with some more detail. I put them roughly in order of how likely they are to help, but it does depend on your specific situation:
  • Acoustic treatments. Churches like the one you describe are notorious for highly reflective surfaces like stone and glass, and as you surmised, adding absorptive materials to the walls, floors and ceiling will reduce the echo significantly. Also as you surmised, floor covering may be of limited effectiveness since people do also absorb and diffuse sound, but, of course, it depends on how much of the floor they cover and where. I understand your hesitation to go this route since it may impact the aesthetics of the church, and it may be expensive, but, as I mentioned above, depending on the specific situation, you may be able to achieve a dramatic result in acoustics with relatively little visual impact, and depending on the treatment needed you may be able to keep your costs controlled. You should also be able to collaborate with someone who can create acoustic treatments that are either not noticeable or enhance the esthetics of your space. (Of course, you'll also need someone familiar with things like local fire codes!)
  • Adjusting the speakers. It's certainly possible that putting the speakers in another location would help. If they were hung by a contractor or someone who did not take acoustics into account, they are likely to be placed poorly. Location matters more than the quality of the speakers themselves. Also, if the speakers are not in one cluster at the front, adding the appropriate delay to each set of speaker may help to ensure that sound arrives "coherently" from all speakers, which can improve intelligibility significantly. Devices to provide this kind of delay, and lots of other features, are sold under various names such as "speaker processors," and "speaker array controllers," etc.
  • Electronic tools. Although this is likely to be least effective, you can usually achieve some improvement with EQ, as you suggested. For permanent installations, I prefer parametric EQs, but a high quality graphic will also work. An ad-hoc technique for setting the EQ is to increase the gain until you hear feedback, and then notch out the EQ frequency that causes the feedback. Continue increasing the gain until you are happy with the results. You must be very careful to protect your speakers and your hearing when using this technique, both of which can be easily damaged if you don't know what you are doing. Most speaker processors have built-in parametric EQs and some even come with a calibrated mike that you can use with the device to adjust the settings for you automatically. I've done this, and it works great, especially with a little manual tweaking, but you do have to know what you are doing. But, of course, you can't work miracles in a bad room.

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