To help us think about the impact of acoustics on the success of meetings and events, Jeff Loether, founder of Electro-Media Design, often points out two very keen differences between our sense of hearing and our sense of sight: First, we have eyelids but not “earlids” – meaning, we can’t concentrate and close our ears to everything else; second, he points out we can choose to look at something, but we can’t hear at something.
What does that mean as it relates to your attendees’ experience at corporate meetings and events? Possibly everything. At the end of the day, acoustics is about ensuring that your attendees are fully engaged in the meetings you’ve worked so hard to execute. Distraction, sound noise, and volume all can play a part in creating stress on your attendees’ ability to engage with speakers. Loether has built a career around minimizing those stresses. As an audiovisual expert who founded his company close to 30 years ago, he has worked with clients at Benchmark properties across the country.
In this Q&A, we tapped into Loether’s supreme understanding of acoustical science to distill the questions any meeting professional should ask of its venue, plus some tips, apps, and guiding principles you should know before booking any meeting room or venue, without having to become an acoustics expert yourself.
What are the key questions a planner should ask about the corporate meeting space they are booking?
- What’s the background noise like?
Just listen. Be quiet for a moment in the event space you’ll be in. Ask the venue to turn the AC on if you think AC could be used during the event. How is it? Are the ducts rattling? Write down what you hear.
- What about the reverberation?
It’s technically defined as the persistence of sound in space once it’s introduced. So, what we teach is to clap your hands or drop a book and listen to what happens to that sound. How long does it persist? There are apps that you can use to measure these levels – RevMeter Pro is one. A good meeting room will have less than one second from the time there’s an impulse of noise to the point where it’s inaudible. The longer the sound persists, the more it adds to noise. When you’re in a noisy restaurant, it’s not because the HVAC is being noisy, it’s because the people around you are talking and the environment is reflecting their voices and it becomes built-up background noise, building on itself, causing you to talk louder to be heard. Reverberation smears the speech. The harder it is to listen, the more stress we have, and the more difficult it is for us to understand.
- How is the acoustic isolation?
In other words, what’s the separation like from adjacent spaces? When you’re in this room, notice if you hear the lawn mower outside. Are the doors going to be open or closed? Can you hear noise from the kitchen or service corridor? Is the partition separating your meeting from the one adjacent going to be sufficient? Ask your partner to go into the room and holler or sing or turn on the radio to see if it’s isolated, or if it comes into your room. Another trick for partitions: In the room where your meeting will be held, turn the lights off, and then have them turn the lights on in the adjacent room. Wait a couple minutes for your eyes to adjust. Can you see any light leaks from the room next door? If so, you’re going to have an acoustic problem – because if light passes through, so will sound. You can still use that room, just ask to make sure there won’t be another meeting held concurrently next door, or even food being set up, for that matter.
Is it possible to fix an acoustically bad room?
It’s challenging. If a room isn’t bright enough, you bring in lights, right? It’s not that easy with sound absorption. There are sound absorbing panels and blankets, but in a room that’s intrinsically noisy, it’s very difficult to fix. Hard surfaces, floors, and ceilings cause reverberation problems. It’s more of an architectural issue.
Are there different acoustical factors to consider based on meeting type or objectives?
Any use of streaming or recording or teleconferencing or virtual presence is going to need better acoustics. As humans, we can listen through a certain amount of noise, but only for a period of time. It always sounds weird on the other side. If anyone will be joining the meeting remotely, you’ll need better lighting and acoustics, because the cameras and microphones are nowhere near as good as our eyes and ears. The good news is that when you make these adjustments – better light, better sound – they’re beneficial for those in the room, too.
Is group size the main consideration for speakers deciding whether or not to use a microphone?
No. When I did original research on this back in the ’80s, I asked event venues how often they rent a mic to meeting planners, and surprisingly, they said that they rent mics for a variety of reasons: when the presenter is going to be using a whiteboard and have their back to the group, or the presenter is experienced and can use the mic for effect, or they’re inexperienced and will need a talking stick in their hand, or because the room is noisy, or because they want to record the meeting. I got all these answers, and none of them had to do purely with the number of people in the room. So, consider all the factors.
What new technology is trending in improving acoustics?
Microphone arrays and line arrays. One is microphone tech, one is speaker tech. The speakers are suspended from the ceiling or on sides of stages and can focus the sound down into the audience in big rooms, rather than firing the sound off sideways and bouncing off walls. These are digitally steerable line arrays that can aim the sound and minimize the amount of splay off the walls, thus reducing the reverberance in the space above listeners, and improving the signal-to-noise ratio.
Any last secret tip for meeting professionals?
Built-in sound systems generally perform measurably better and create a better guest experience than portable sound systems. Our measuring machines find that a built-in house sound system usually tests a full three or four times better by projecting the sound down so it’s absorbed by attendees, rather than portable sound systems that tend to increase the volume and reverberate the sound sideways, off the walls, and ceiling. Built-in systems are a lower-stress, higher quality, not-as-loud experience. The issue is that outside AV companies don’t like to use built-in systems because then they don’t get the rental money, so they’ll tell the planner it doesn’t work very well, but they have these fancy new speakers they can stick in the front of the room. Don’t fall for it! Remember that louder is not better.