Ask any company executive about his technological dream room and chances are it will include a number of display products — a brighter projector, a plasma display, an interactive whiteboard and a state-of-the-art videoconferencing system. But how many would list echo-cancelling microphones or digital signal processing (DSP)?
Ironically, sound has always been the silent partner of visual technology. On one hand, great sound isn't something one generally thinks about during a presentation — if it's done right, that is. But attend a presentation where the speakers are tinny, the sound is bouncing around the room or you can't hear the speaker, and sound quality suddenly becomes a major issue.
For those who want a world-class conference room, audio components should be included in the AV planning process, not tacked on as an afterthought. That's because high-quality sound engineering requires taking into account the room's architectural design, the function of the space and the different demands that will be placed on the presentation audio system.
Give me space
A proper sound system starts not with equipment, but with the layout of the room itself. When an audio specialist assesses a space, he does more than just look at where the outlets are and decide where the speakers should go. According to Brad Weber, a senior consultant at Atlanta-based CDAI, one of the first things audio specialists do is scrutinize the layout of a room. "The electronics and room acoustics need to be interrelated, and must work together," explains Weber. "They need to be designed that way — to work together — otherwise they are always fighting each other."
This is one of the reasons it's important that the sound component play a role in the architectural design of the room, he says. "Most companies know they want good speakers and microphones. You can spend a lot of money on top-of-the-line electronics, but if the room is bad acoustically, it will still show."
The right mix
A room well-designed for sound should generally consist of a mix of surfaces, with some that allow the sound to bounce and some that absorb sound waves. Hard surfaces such as glass, hardwood floors, stone, tile or mirrors tend to reflect or bounce sound waves. Some bouncing is needed, however, to ensure that people can hear what's being said. But too many hard surfaces cause the sound waves to crash into each other, distorting the sound. Some surfaces that absorb sound, such as heavy curtains, acoustical panels and overstuffed chairs, help control distortion. But again, too much of a good thing can cause problems. Too many absorption factors can leave a room with dead spaces or make the sound "flat," regardless of how good the speakers and microphones are.
Innovations in sound products have allowed integration companies to solve some room-acoustic issues with ingenious gadgetry, but don't count on this to save your facility from poor room design. "Audio technology continues to get better and better, giving us some flexibility in fixing these problems, but starting with a good room is still important," Weber says.
In addition to architectural concerns, it's important for a sound specialist to know how a room will be used. If the room will be used mainly for presentations, it requires a different setup than a room used for videoconferencing. Who will be using the room and the depth of their technical experience are also factors. And sometimes it's a matter of convincing clients that what they want is not necessarily what they need.
The trend toward "surround sound" is one example, says Weber. Many executives are convinced they need surround sound, and Weber admits there is a place for this technology, such as the advertising firm that uses its boardroom to show clients potential commercials, or the sales firm that regularly incorporates high-tech multimedia presentations. In these cases, surround sound makes sense. But if your company relies heavily on PowerPoint presentations, "You don't have to have surround sound, because you won't get anything out of it," says Weber. "The vast majority of PowerPoint presentations do not use surround sound, so it's not a good investment."
The video difference
As little as 10 years ago, filling a room with robust sound was all that really mattered. But today the additional audio demands of videoconferencing change the whole sound dynamic in a room. According to Brett Sandgren, vice president of New York City-based Audio Command, "Adding videoconferencing usually means that the company must revisit the entire system and scrutinize its design, seating, lighting, window treatments and yes, audio."
Unlike presentation audio, videoconferencing systems need more microphones, more speakers and the ability to regulate live audio to ensure that all participants can hear and speak as needed. "With audio for conferencing, you don't need the high fidelity of a surround system," says Sandgren, "but it does need to be evenly distributed throughout the conference room." It's important to take into account any other sound sources in the room, he adds. Seemingly innocuous sounds such as the fan noise from a projector or the hum of a building's heating system can be picked up by the sensitive microphones used for videoconferencing, so be aware of those possibilities.
Weber agrees, adding that it's also important to find out how many people regularly participate in the room's videoconference calls as well as how many will actually be speaking. "There are many cases in which the client says we need to videoconference for 25 people, but it's actually 23 listening to what the CEO and CFO present," he says. "That's important to know because it's easier to deal with microphones for two people than for 25."
Ready to play
To get optimal sound quality, specialists say it's important to pay as much attention to the audio facet as any other component of the presentation room. With the right mix of room acoustics, speakers, microphones and specialized audio equipment, it is possible to design a room that can produce crystal-clear videoconference meetings as well as stunning multimedia sound for all kinds of presentations.
Julie Hill is managing editor of Presentations.