Sounding off about good audio practice

In our latest roundtable the industry experts discussed what many see as the Cinderella of the AV industry – audio. Starting with what seemed like a simple question, but proving quite tricky to answer as the debate progressed – what is good audio? George Cole reports.

Derek Chalmers, production manager, The QEII Centre: “Different buildings have different audio systems, and as long as they’re fit for purpose, that’s fine.” Jim Smith, associate director, AECOM, states: “For me, good audio is intelligible speech, clarity, natural sound, free from distortion.”

Kieran Walsh, director application engineering, Audinate notes: “If you go to a rock concert, you expect trouser-flapping bass and people would be disappointed if it was a perfect audio experience because that’s not what they believe they’re buying into in that context.” Ian Revens, a former consultant now working for Electrosonic adds: “We have gone from good audio to crap audio in terms of compression. We went from decent CD audio to MP3. Once people get used to that level of compression, are they discerning enough to appreciate good audio at a concert? So, should suppliers plan for the majority or keep offering high quality audio?”

Stuart Leader, director integrated solutions, Polar Audio: “In audio, there’s an acceptance of lower standards, but in video, they’ve gone in the opposite direction, from SD to HD to 4K, and there’s even talk of 8K. Video quality is improving all the time, but audio quality is going down to the lowest common denominator.” Rodrigo Sanchez-Pizani, LTSMG member and AV site supervisor King’s College London wonders if the industry is making a poor job in defining good audio. “There are many good video standards, so you don’t put rubbish projectors in a cinema. But all too often, the first thing that gets cut from a project is the audio. It’s easy to justify a four grand camera, but not so easy when it’s a two hundred pound microphone. There is little understanding of what audio quality is and how to define it.”

Audio cost is seen as easiest to cut

Gareth Collyer, the ISCE’s training committee chairman (NEXO’s sales manager for the UK and Ireland), agrees: “Nine times out of ten, the easiest thing to cut is the audio. Many people have no idea of the cost implications of a sound system that is done properly with Dante networking and the IT infrastructure that makes good audio work these days.”

Chalmers says the biggest denominator in any audio system is the engineer. “You can have the best audio system you can buy, but if the engineer is rubbish, you’ll get rubbish out. So there is a training aspect and good engineers are worth their weight in gold.” But Smith points out: “Even if you have a great engineer and a great system, if the room’s not good…” Phil Stanley, regional sales manager northern Europe, Revolabs, agrees. “In our experience, room acoustics are the biggest challenge.”

Stanley believes education has a role. “Sometimes, you have to put a pair of headphones on a person and say, ‘this is what good audio sounds like.’ The consumer world filters into the commercial world, and standards like 1080p and HD4K are easy to understand by consumers who bring them into the workplace. But there really isn’t a defined standard for audio.”

Expectations play a role too, says Sanchez-Pizani. “Audio is always about the minimum you need to get there, whereas nine times out of ten, video is about, ‘can I get a bigger screen?’ or ‘how can I make this image better?’”

“You have set room standards for acoustic properties in certain spaces, such as classrooms, meeting rooms and halls of worship, but they are rarely met,” notes Mark Grimes, commissioning manager, proAV. “It’s only after the end user has had a bad experience do you come in and improve it. That usually involves acoustic treatment which the client doesn’t like, because it often means changing the look and feel of the room.”

Kevin McLoughlin, AV User Group director and AV manager at the RSM, points out that almost one in five people in the UK are hard of hearing. What matters to them is that the sound is clear. “Assisted listening is often forgotten and the standards for assisted listening are basically the disability act,” he says. Adds Grimes: “Fifty per cent of installed induction loop systems don’t work. It’s just not seen as the romantic side of installation and so gets left behind.” Says Smith: “Consultants and designers are having to remind clients, ‘you have not asked for assisted listening.’ The perception is that assisted listening can’t cover large areas in a room, and so the people using it are put in a corner.”

Gabriel Thorp, RIBA’s senior AV technician wonders if the future for audio is personalisation: “If you look at things like silent discos, sound is becoming more individualised. Is audio going to move off the walls and into personal devices?”

Architects demand hidden audio

Grimes notes: “If the audio breaks down in a presentation, then the presentation has broken down. Audio is the key.” But as Smith observes: “Built environment projects are often very visually driven. Architects want to see nice lines and they want to hide loudspeakers behind plasterboard or ceilings.” Steve Barrett-White, AV technical manager RIBA, agrees: “All architects care about is vision. They know they need the technology, but they definitely don’t want to see it, whether it’s a projector, speaker or control surface. Whatever it is, they want it hidden.”

Chris Power, chair of the AV Cultural Forum says: “The end user often comes late into the game. So, the world sees this fantastic imagery, but for the end user, it’s not fit for purpose. So they spend the next ten years trying to reconfigure things.” Chalmers contrasts this attitude with going to a cinema. “The show starts with a big display about Dolby and an audio show. You feel cinemas have managed to get it across that movies are not just about the image.”

Collyer says cinemas have been helped by Dolby defining theatre audio standards, and adds that video has a big advantage over audio when it comes to satisfying architects’ whims. “An architect can specify a large white wall and that wall can become a video projection surface, whereas audio is limited by the laws of physics – there’s no such thing as a good-sounding flat speaker.” Barrett-White suggests that a roundtable meeting between architects and other stakeholders could help raise the profile of audio in the initial design. “I have done a couple of CPD presentations on acoustics for RIBA,” says Stephen Patterson, sales development manager EMEA, Biamp Systems. “I always say to architects, ‘if your room is not fit for purpose, you have failed your job.’”

Eamonn McClean, head of the EMEA multimedia team at JP Morgan Chase, says: “From a corporate point of view, the biggest complaint is always audio. We have developed our own internal standards that are issued to architects. They have minimum requirements for audio in a space. We also have our own internal architect checking across the board. If we didn’t do this, every installation would have a different experience.”  Barrett-White says it isn’t just about educating RIBA’s 50,000 or so architects, but spreading the message to universities teaching architecture. “If you don’t get to them before they come out of college, this scenario will continue.”

Having standards can cost

Sanchez-Pizani notes that as soon as you set standards and show them to an architect, the cost goes up. “The challenge is to convince the people with the money that the standards are there for a reason, and not having standards will bring you problems in the future.” Jon Dew-Stanley, director of Midwich Technical, points out that many audio systems consist of a mix of manufacturers’ components. “So who is responsible for training and showing the end user how to get the best out of the boxes?”

Dew-Stanley adds: “There is a balancing act. Every manufacturer around this table will probably say, ‘we want to do training,’ but one of the biggest challenges is saying to an integrator, ‘we’ll take all your engineers and put them in a classroom all day, free-of-charge,’ because if they are sat in a classroom, they’re not generating income.”

The roundtable also explored how audio was being sold to large corporate users. McClean says that the user experience rather than audio per se is being sold, with factors such as usability, portability, standardisation and ease of deployment being at the fore. “As far as the end user is concerned, it needs to conform to a minimum set of standards and be easily useable. When you’re deploying thousands of systems, one of the biggest issues is cost. Most people want a simple system that does what’s required. Larger high-end solutions need to be interoperable and have vendor support. Our organisation is about software, so the buzzword is, ‘does it have an API and can we integrate it with our software?’”

Says McLoughlin: “Interoperability is extremely important. End users don’t care about the kit. They just want to hear the information and receive the communication. It’s all about usability – it’s got to be fit for purpose.” Adds Chalmers: “We have a term, ‘industrial theatre,’ – our audiences want the same experience as someone at a West End show. They want to come in, sit down and watch a business show, and they expect it to work.”

McLoughlin notes that manufacturers and distributors are becoming more connected with end users in providing end solutions.

“If you change an integrator on a different project, but use the same complex system, you get different results. But if you work with the same constant distributor and manufacturer relationship, you can keep that consistency all the way through.” Revens believes that the rise of smart buildings is impacting on the corporate world. “The technology companies are showcasing their meeting rooms and it’s slowly filtering out to the rest of the corporate market which is saying: “We want that – how do we get it?’”

While the industry has set various audio standards, such as AES67 and AVB, the feeling is that much more needs to be done. “One of my personal frustrations is that the industry can’t agree on a core set of control interchange and data interchange standards,” says Patterson. “If you look at video, they have standards, and it has been much easier to have multi-manufacturer interoperability.” The AV industry could also take a leaf out of the IT industry’s book, where cross licensing and patent sharing has resulted in global interoperable standards, such as WiFi and USB, he adds.

The session ended with a look at what the industry needs to focus on to help the cause of audio. “We need to create an understanding with the end user on the importance of audio,” says Revens. “We need to move away from the ‘shiny kit syndrome’ and design systems around solving a problem rather than using a piece of kit,” states Patterson.

“Focus on the beginning of the chain,” says McClean. “It’s having the right people and creating a suitable environment to deploy good audio. Because if you don’t get that foundation right, it doesn’t matter what you put in.”

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