Wednesday, May 02, 2018

Hello, I'm listening...

I’m always in awe of those technicians who set up the acoustics for major theatres like the Disney Hall in Los Angeles. It’s such a baffling science. Sound travels in mysterious ways and patterns. A singer can stand on a stage in a cavernous Broadway theatre, sing without a microphone, and you hear her clearly in the last row of the balcony, which is in a different zip code. And then there’s a lovely 99-seat theatre in the San Fernando Valley with almost stadium seating and fantastic sightlines but you can’t hear a damn thing in the upper five rows.

Technicians use special panels to enhance the sound, to deaden the sound, to channel the sound, combat echo, filter out unwanted sound. They construct nooks and crannies, place walls strategically – I don’t know how they do it.

Why is one restaurant so loud you can’t hear yourself think and a similar restaurant in a similar space is quiet and comfortable? This keeps me awake at night.

The reason I bring up this topic (besides looking for something else to talk about after 5200+ posts) is that I have a weird acoustic quirk at my house. My house sits back from the street up an incline. If I’m in one of the upstairs rooms that fronts the street and two people are talking on the sidewalk across the street I can hear them as if they were right under my window. It’s bizarre. They’re maybe ten yards away, but they might as well be in the same room. Meanwhile, order a sandwich at any Subway and the person behind the counter can’t hear you.

I find this phenomenon fascinating. Do you have any audio quirks where you live or work? And seriously, how hard is it to hear “A BMT with NO CHEESE?”

31 comments :

FFS said...

I cannot hear my wife talking when she is in the kitchen and I’m in the bathroom with the tap running. She thinks I’m going deaf.

Pat Reeder said...

I don't have any odd audio quirks in my house, other than trying to work with a cockatoo occasionally screaming in my ear. Trust me, his voice travels with no problems. But I used to have a friend who was an excellent audio engineer/producer and ran the board for a lot of major rock concerts here in Dallas (sadly, he died young years ago). He told me his secret for making stadium concerts sound good. And the secret is...

You can't. He said stadiums are made for basketball and hockey, it's insane to try to play music in them; but they can sell that many seats, so that's where they put them. It would explain the complaints I've heard about the terrible sound at concerts in Cowboys Stadium (I've never actually attended one; most of the bands I like can barely fill a listening room.) All those flat concrete and steel surfaces a hundred or more yards apart create a giant echo chamber. He said the only thing you can do it turn everything up to 11 and hope it drowns out the echo. I know that sounds dumb, but I guess it worked because all the big name bands thought his mixes sounded better than anyone else's and kept hiring him.

James Van Hise said...

In December 2010 I attended a theater in Beverly Hills where Dick Cavett and Mel Brooks interviewed each other on stage for 2 hours. HBO aired a one hour version of this even though the entire 2 hours was pure gold. Where I was sitting was fine for audio but I later heard that the people sitting up in the balcony had trouble hearing them even though they were using microphones. I don't know how theaters like that can stay in business.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I'm amused by the idea of ordering a BMT - a New York subway line - in a Subway.

I live near a world-class botanical garden that every summer has a week of evening concerts. The garden, which is 3/4 of a mile long or so, runs along a long road that is parallel but a couple of blocks away from the long road off which my little street runs (in the direction away from the gardens). So: you get off the tube (London Underground), and walk along a couple of blocks from the gardens. You do not hear the concert. You turn down my street *away* from the concert, and suddenly you hear it just fine. I would prefer it the other way around, of course.

There's something about the gaps in the buildings, because you can also often hear it quite clearly on the tennis courts on the other side of the railway (which is another few blocks further away than my house, but on the same lateral line). How the wind is blowing affects it, too.

wg

Dave Creek said...

I saw what you did there with "baffling science." You know, because sound technicians often use baffles to . . . never mind.

Andrew said...

Your post reminded me of this article on John Cage visiting an acoustically silent room:
https://intelligentsoundengineering.wordpress.com/2016/10/11/john-cage-and-the-anechoic-chamber/

“In that silent room, I heard two sounds, one high and one low. Afterward I asked the engineer in charge why, if the room was so silent, I had heard two sounds… He said, ‘The high one was your nervous system in operation. The low one was your blood in circulation.’”

Rock Golf said...

"I’m always in awe of those technicians who set up the acoustics for major theatres like the Disney Hall in Los Angeles. It’s such a baffling science."

I see what you did there.

Steve Bailey said...

I recently began doing a podcast using only my PC. I always have to record it in the master bedroom, which has carpeting that "soaks up" the sound. When I try to record it in my man-cave, I get a fierce echo.

Covarr said...

Softer and more textured materials can both significantly dampen reverberation. Two restaurants might seem like similar spaces in terms of shape, size, and layout, but the one with the carpet and tablecloths is all but guaranteed to bounce less noise.

The Walt Disney Concert Hall is a particularly complex beast, far moreso than the average auditorium or concert hall, but a lot of it boils down to math and geometry. Sound waves will travel out from the pit or stage in every direction, and the walls and ceilings need to be arranged not just so that the waves bounce, but so that they specifically bounce toward the audience. It also helps that people shut up during these performances, so there's less extraneous noise to compete with the actual performers.

When you're at Subway, there are several factors working against you. One of the most significant is that giant glass case. While it may not be directly between your face and theirs (depending; this might be worse for Danny DeVito), portions of the sound waves coming from your mouth and aiming even a little bit downwards will bounce right off and never go near them. That alone is a significant cut in effective volume. Add to that a mediocre room without any special allowances for carrying sound, refrigerators everywhere, and loud customers muddling up the sound space, and you've got a recipe for terrible audibility.

One of the joys of stage acting is that you really learn to project without yelling, which is all but necessary at Subway.

Covarr said...

@FFS: Reverse it and she'll have the same problem. Tap water pouring from a typical faucet is a special kind of sound very similar to white noise. It smashes its way through frequencies left and right, and even if it doesn't drown her out, it has a strong impact on highs that can muddle even close sounds let alone far ones, destroying clarity of nearby sounds and hampering intelligibility.

estiv said...

I played as part of a three-piece band in a cafeteria at a large business. The room was about half the size of a football field, with a three-story ceiling over much of it (the rest of it one-story), and had two exterior walls that were almost entirely glass. It was awful. The people in the back told us it sounded like mud; I assume this was due to all the glass, which reflected every note multiple times. Plus, because the one-story part had offices behind it, we found out we inadvertently made it impossible for the people working there to concentrate. I don't know how touring musicians at the bottom of the food chain keep their sanity playing lousy venues.

John Hammes said...

Circa 25/30-something years ago (and clearly long before that): Our local college radio station had floor carpeting lining the walls of the rooms serving as DJ/News/Recording booths. Must have worked in some way, as generally up to that time, that carpeting had been up forever. Those rugs could best be described as having kind of a sickly, earth tone ambiance. But, on-air, at least we all sounded healthy.

Bob Sharp said...

In May 1978 I saw the Beach Boys (the real Beach Boys -- all three Wilson brothers, Mike Love and Al Jardin) play a concert at the UNI Dome in Cedar Falls, Iowa. It was constructed as a football stadium, and had an air supported roof, similar to the Metro Dome in Minneapolis.

I was about 20 feet from the stage, and throughout the concert, Brian Wilson would periodically look up at the roof and just shake his head. It was not the best place for a concert.

The worst concert I ever saw was the Grateful Dead at the Iowa State Fair Grounds in 1973. They had what they billed as the largest sound system on earth (something like 480 speakers), but they mixed on stage, and out in the audience the vocals and lead guitar were muffled. It was basically rhythm, drums and keyboard. We left early.

Anonymous said...

For many years I worked at a local college library. The building was quite new and large, absolutely gorgeous, made up of 2 (above-ground) floors, with much of the upper floor open to the lower. The exterior walls were all glass, and while the view coldn't be beat, EVERY single whisper from just about anywhere could be heard just about everywhere else. I can't count how many times I had to go upstairs to tell people that their private conversations were being heard by everyone on the first floor. Even the hidden nooks seemed to somehow shoot every word clear across the building.
As for my home, I live halfway up a large hill, and from inside my house I can hear people talking at normal volume outside the apartments at the bottom of the hill (and unfortunately half of them contain college students whose car stereos are constantly rattling my windows). I don't seem to hear much from the homes further up the hill though.

Mike Bloodworth said...

#1. Home: When sitting at the dinner table, where I do most of my work, I have a T.V. +/- 20 feet away. I have to turn up the sound bar pretty LOUD in order to hear things clearly. Even more so when a noise source e.g. a fan is also on. (Middle age ears don't help) However, I can go outside to the curb which is even farther away and I can hear eveything perfectly.
#2. Concert: The worst sound was at the Great Western Forum. It was still a sports stadium back then. I saw Supertramp there. The echos, bouncing sound, crowd noise all combined to make the sound unacceptable. Only copious amounts of pot got us through. However, I haven't been there since it has been refurbished.
#3. Radio: To JOHN HAMMES, I also used to work at a radio station that had carpeted walls. It looked silly, but it worked.
Miscellaneous: I.O.WEST (an improv theater in Hollywood) had lousy acoustics to begin with, but many times throughout the years a new nightclub would open up next door. You could hear the loud Womp womp of the music which would drown out the performers on stage.
Finally: Ken, when people find out you were in radio do they ask you to hook up their audio equipment? They do that to me all the time.
M.B.

J Lee said...

One of the worst cases of botched sound design was when they built Philharmonic Hall (nee Avery Fisher Hall/nee nee David Geffin Hall) at Lincoln Center in the early 1960s. The original plan was for it to completely replace Carnegie Hall, which would be torn down in the same way the old Metropolitan Opera building just south of Times Square was leveled after the new Met at Lincoln Center opened.

The only problem was the acoustics in the new hall were horrid, and it took years of tweaks to sort of fix the problem, but not before some performers and orchestras gave up and went back to the (fortunately saved) Carnegie Hall. The New York Times did this story back in 1974 on the problems.

Bruce said...

Just one comment. Why the hell are you eating at Subway?

Andy Rose said...

I covered my closet in furniture pads to do voice work (and the floor is already carpeted), but for some reason low frequencies from the outside like to bounce around my crawlspace and come up through the floor. I've had sessions interrupted by the hum that comes from a neighbor idling his car eight houses down the street.

Joe Cipriano, who's one of the top VO guys in Hollywood, built a home studio that looks like a normal room, with a minimum of visible soundproofing. But he spent a crap-ton to make it acoustically isolated from the rest of the house. Not a single wall or window in his studio has direct exposure to the outside.

<a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=msOUu8dSY7w>https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=msOUu8dSY7w</a>

Wally said...

In the spirit of recounting your big break story this week, may I suggest you reach out to 5 friends and let them recount how they also got their foot in the door?* I tend to hear more of those stories from the latest generation (Scott Myers' Go Into the Story particularly for writers). But, reaching back to the days when it happened more often via a connection on the golf course for actors, writers, crew may be interesting for your audience. Thanks.

*If you haven't already done it, of course.

MikeN said...

Mike Bloodworth, the audio from a TV is almost always pretty bad. You need a separate speaker system with amplifier to get good sound. This is because they simply do not invest in the speakers that come with the TV.

Andy Rose said...

@MikeN: TV sound is much, much better now than it used to be in the analog days. Analog TV sound was transmitted using the exact same format as FM radio, so the quality never got any better than that, no matter what kind of speaker you had connected to it. That -- and a quirk of how the broadcast spectrum was organized -- was also why you used to be able to pick up the audio of any TV station on Channel 6 by tuning an ordinary FM radio to 87.7. The Channel 6 that I watched as a kid used to advertise that fact as though it was some special public service they performed.

Pat Reeder said...

One thing I've never understood is how some professional sound people can manage to make something sound awful in a place with great acoustics. I once saw Don Williams at a venue where I'd seen him before. The first time, the sound was perfect, one of the best concerts I'd ever heard. Second time was so horrid, Don kept apologizing from the stage for how bad it sounded. Same venue, same sound system. And the one concert my wife and I ever walked out of just because the sound was hurting our ears was Bob Dylan. There was a high-pitched tone throughout the show that was like a dentist's drill (No, it wasn't Dylan's singing voice.) And that was in the Fair Park Music Hall in Dallas, one of our major theater venues for touring Broadway shows. Ruining the sound under those conditions takes a special kind of talent.

DetroitGuy said...

I have a loft on the second floor of a 111-year old, 8-story concrete structure. Across and down the hall from me is the trash chute room that leads to the compactor in our loading dock one floor below. When the trash compactor is activated, there are some areas of my loft where the sound is almost as loud as it is down in the loading dock. And the farther away from it the louder it seems to get. Periodically, in the middle of the night, the sensor on the compactor gets blocked by loose debris and the machine runs and runs and runs. Then, it’s a matter of hoping it shuts itself off before I get dressed, put on my shoes and head down to turn it off myself. It’s very frustrating all the times it shut off just as I reached for the doorknob.

-dsr- said...

Re: restaurant acoustics -- when you go into a restaurant of any significant cost higher than Red Lobster, you can bet that the acoustics are a deliberate choice.

Some restaurant owners want everything to be quiet except for the conversation you're having at the table. They can't afford to give you a private room, but they can hire an acoustic engineer to make it sound like one. The sommelier will visit your table.

Other restaurant owners want to project the sound of a party in progress. If there's music playing at any tempo faster than andante and any volume above piano, you can bet that they want you to raise your voice a little and get more excitement into the room. Expect the waitstaff to push cocktails and craft beer pairings.

Anonymous said...

Here is how they setup the sound for the Super Bowl halftime show:

https://www.theverge.com/2018/2/2/16961244/super-bowl-halftime-show-audio-patrick-baltzell-2018

Tom Straw said...

When John Quincy Adams was a US Senator and gained seniority he was granted a more prominent seat on the senate floor. He refused. Everyone was baffled; he wasn't that humble. Turns out, due to the quirky acoustics of the senate chamber, the position of his desk allowed him to overheard the whispered strategy sessions of his opponents way across the room.
"And now you know... the rest of the story."

Jahn Ghalt said...

A Friday Question (actually - pick the day):

Would you describe your podcast set up? Equipment (mikes, mixer, computer, software, etc.) The Room - carpeted/not, furniture, wall hangings/treatments.

I listen on headphones - the sound is always very intelligible - even the "location" stuff - like your stand-up.

BTW, if the itch comes back, feel free to write and perform another pitc... er, stand-up routine.

Bob Sharp said...

Tom Straw, J Q Adams only served one term as a US Senator (less than that really 1802-1808), so he couldn't have gained seniority. He did later serve more than 8 terms in the House of Representatives after his presidency, collapsing from a stroke on the House floor, before passing away two days later.

MikeN said...

Andy Rose, it's not the broadcast, it is the hardware in the TV. If you connect TV out directly to speakers you get very low volume at best.

littlejohn said...

Ken,

If you ever get to Australia, and go to the Adelaide area for wine tasting, make a stop at the "Whispering Wall". The acoustics are simply amazing and were a happy accident. When our wine guide made a stop here, he told us while the dam was under construction some of the crew was on one side having lunch, and they were complaining about their supervisor who was on the other side of the dam - roughly 470 feet away . He could hear the crews conversation clearly, and fired them for their comments. They couldn't believe he could hear them until he recited back their comments.

One of our group went to the other side of the dam and said in a very quiet voice, "can you hear me ?", and it was like he was standing right next to us. It was stunning !

littlejohn

McAlvie said...

My general area is interesting because going south is literally also downhill for several miles. From an upstairs window facing south I can see tree tops two towns away. We are into spring now and the trees are filling in and creating a sound buffer. But during the winter there aren't too many obstacles between me and the neighbors a few streets south. And at night sound travels even further. So if it's a mild enough winter evening and they have company gathered around their firepit, I hear them. This is especially true if alcohol is involved, most of us getting louder when we get tipsy.

As for restaurants - there are places I won't go for lunch any more because the acoustics are so bad AND they insist on playing music. So you get kitchen noise, diner noise, and bad (it's always bad) muzak. I will never, ever understand why they bother with piped music in these places.