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How Acoustics affect the relationship between Listener and Presenter

The studio is the seat of creation, the heart of broadcasting, the womb that lends confidence to the presenter and provides intimacy with the listener. A good studio is comfortable for the presenter and transparent to the listener, so each listener enjoys a direct relationship with their presenter(s).

There is a wide range of programme formats from talk, through news, to a wide range of music genre. The voice is important on all counts; intimacy, articulation, impact, nuance and delivery of content – brilliant content (as John Myers says) is what listener love and radio is all about listeners.

A neutral studio acoustic is wonderful; it enables microphones to flatter the voice and all the gismos to work their best to deliver the product to the listener. A studio having a harsh acoustic will negatively affect what the microphone hears and no amount of limiting or equalisation will fix the problem. The microphone is the most unflattering part of the broadcast chain, unlike our ears, it has no ability to be selective and small discrepancies appear to be amplified. We, humans, expect everything to be presented as it would in real life and the lowly microphone cannot do that, not even if we use a stereo pair – it just does not sound right and once noticed we seem to focus on the defect until it becomes annoying and then go elsewhere.

Is this a formula for a totally dead studio? NO, it would be oppressive and the off-mic effect would be more noticeable – the voice would appear to go away. To not be oppressive a studio needs reverberation and this needs to be balanced so it supports the sound of the voice when, on occasions, it moves off-mic.  Unfortunately, different voices need slight differences in the reverberation and indeed the microphone to work well-this is why some studios are better for some voices than others.

To begin designing the studio acoustic, the size, shape, microphone type and position are all important – one is designing for the microphone, what and how it hears. How often has engineering swapped microphones and reveled in the improvement to the delight of all? The problem is that the result enshrines the microphone as the answer to all ills and when it does not work disappointment abound. But don’t despair, try another or (if available) try different settings.

When designing a studio, reverberation is all about room reflections. Very early reflections, <20m/s, will put an edge on the mid band and easily create the ‘bathroom’ effect off mic. Much later reflections >45m/s, create their own room colouration and will begin to give a cavernous effect to the off-mic sound. The 20m/s to 45m/s reflections with a nice smooth decay curve provide sufficient information to our ears for our brain to resolve what we hear and feel comfortable. If we then moderate the amplitude of those reflections against the voice we can produce an ever tempered studio tolerant of significant off-mic effect and fully supportive of the presenter’s voice. As with all things analogue, the art form is to get a smooth decay over the reflection band to be able to give small preferences to the early or latter reflections according to the voice so the off-mic effect is minimised and the ‘sweet-spot’ defining the distance over where the presenter can operate maximised.

The objective: happy presenters, loving and dedicated listeners, great ratings and loyal advertisers. What more could you want?

Never mistake silence for a project running well

Effective communication is very important for the success of any project to ensure minimum risks and successful completion of the project. Projects often ‘fail’ because we simply fail to clearly articulate the vision and the project’s success criteria. The vision must be effectively communicated to team members so the team is able to visualise the end result, in order to work towards a common goal.

Successful communication is about being there for everyone, being in touch with the challenges of the project, understanding who must deliver the project as well as being present, visible and engaged with everyone – during the good times and the challenging times.

Regular reporting of progress and benchmarks is crucial. The well known saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” is no less true than when communicating project progress or status. Without strong communication it is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to effectively coordinate efforts in order to bring about a project’s successful resolution. 

If members of the project team do not know what their tasks are, or how to accomplish them, then the entire project will grind to a halt. The project can also be affected if the customer is not kept up to date of progress or does not spend the time in meetings; their expectations of the project will not be met and can cause conflict.

A lack of transparency will also eventually lead to inefficient, counterproductive decisions that will hinder the aims of the project. When team members are not aware of updates and the project’s progress, communication gaps arise. Not everyone needs access to everything but creating a culture of trust and transparency within the project team ensures that team members share their opinions and concerns and leads to a positive experience and a well delivered project.

The studio should be a comfortable space conducive to collaboration and creativity.

Eloise Veale, Creative Director of Veale Associates spoke to us about her work designing sound studios and the key things to consider when undertaking a design. Her projects include The University of Winchester, Dean Street Recording Studios, Kerrang! Radio, Smooth Radio, The University of West London, Classic FM, Frontier Developments Games, Playfish Games and Lansdown Studios.

Looking after the design side of VA, she directs how spaces look and creates the vibe for the environment; finishes, furniture, materials and wall graphics…what you see. Her role is about ideas, understanding and listening, testing spaces, recording how users operate and move through their environments, and proving the project aesthetic to generate concepts, ergonomics and a style that works for each individual client.

Veale got involved with the family business as a result of conversation whist sat waiting for a flight. “My Father looked at me and said he had been thinking. In the past I had created a few sketches for him to show clients how their facilities were going to look. At the time, VA was working for GMG Radio who were looking to re-brand their studios and meeting rooms, so new finishes needed to be selected and graphics needed to be designed. VA were also about to start working on a relocation project with Classic FM which involved branding and designing a new waiting area for them, so my Father asked me if I wanted to get involved. The rest is history.”

We sometimes hear stories about how a studio build has gone horribly wrong but it can be a smooth and enjoyable journey if done properly. “The key to a successful build is to ensure the studio is built to expectation. There are in essence two sides that need to be supported and catered for; the high level management with specific business and facility requirements which also includes brand identity, and the users. The needs of both sides have to be fully explored to make the space fit for purpose and tick all the boxes. Then on top of that you have the building demands and limitations, external considerations, what the constraints are, any statutory considerations, and what is practical cost wise. Most mistakes that happen in the studio creation can be traced back to not taking the time at the outset. There are critical issues that need to be agreed such as how much sound isolation is required, will the audio being created in the studio impact on neighbours and how environmental noise will impact on the studio and recordings. Ideally it’s wise not to compromise on the acoustics; after all you wouldn’t put a Ferrari engine in a Mini or as Pirelli say “power is nothing without control”.

As for challenging projects, one that comes to mind is the University of West London. “The University needed new recording studios to replace existing ones that were about to be demolished due to a site expansion. The facilities were critical to them being able to deliver courses and student exam work so they had to be finished in time for their return after the Easter break. They chose a space in their basement that was being used as an engineer’s workshop and decided to put a live room, control room, drum booth and post production studio down there. Most projects of this kind have a minimum lead time of 6 months for design and install but they needed studios incredibly fast due to the main contractor’s construction programme, so we only had 10 weeks to design and build new flagship facilities. All acoustic projects are different and this one was so fast moving we had to absorb the unknown literally as things presented themselves. The project included a lengthy process of excavating the floor to create enough head height and be able to float the studios which challenged the programme even more! The project was a great success, it was handed over on time and snag free – something the main contractor Willmott Dixon hadn’t experienced before.”

Advances in technology makes more things possible in both design and manufacturing, more and more products and materials are being created that push what’s been before, offering more and more creative opportunity. “Design and technology influence how people use their environments. Things also get smaller, less and less space is required to do the same things as equipment becomes more and more comprehensive and accessible. Space and real estate is always a premium and anything not needed is consolidated. So everything shrinks, and with that comes more and more compact environments with higher demands and new challenges.”

“One particular project springs to mind where the design has been directly influenced by the pandemic. We have had to reduce the number of meeting rooms in the design so they can be enlarged and accommodate the 2m social distancing rule as per their policy, but this will have a large impact on them in the future and the services they can accommodate due to reduced facilities. I’m not keen on designing for Covid as this is a temporary state we find ourselves in, plus many aren’t in a position for a complete redesign so really this becomes an internal management process on how to operate safely within the current restrictions. If we designed for Covid every workspace would need redesigning, spaces would need to grow significantly and unfortunately you can’t just add water to make a building grow! It will be a case of having as few people in as possible rather than the old ethos of ‘cram as many as possible!’ So not an economical approach when so many businesses are really struggling and they need to be making their money work as hard as possible for them.”

As for the future, although much work is now being done at home the need for a professional sound studio has certainly not gone away – this will always be the real test. At the beginning of the pandemic and many adapting to working from home we found ourselves being asked about the difficulties with monitoring, and were reviewing a number of home working environments. Many engineers are used to recording and mixing in a high end studio and they were striving to achieve a similar and accurate sound at home. We found ourselves analysing reflections and negative acoustic properties in rooms and identifying how to cancel it out using EQ for a more accurate representation.” 

Elite and Dangerous

Few things are as evocative as sound; the way the right score can produce an emotional reaction is something film-makers have been capitalising on for decades, and more recently, videogame developers too. Games are now telling more complex stories and we are seeing more cinematic aspects incorporated into their sound design. There is now a shift towards hyper-realism; delivering cinematic experiences with emotional heft and using complex object based audio to achieve a more immersive sound environment. Put simply it means more content with more depth and detail and more demands.

Mixing on headphones is part and parcel of the mix process, as is mixing in stereo, 5.1 and 7.1, but many games studios are predominantly using headphones to mix due to in-house limitations, resulting in companies being reliant on external facilities to record for them, driving up cost and reducing in-house flexibility. Having internal recording and mix facilities mean that companies are no longer dependent on outsourcing and acquire the ability to respond rapidly to fast changing game requirements. Good quality facilities afford the opportunity to produce more in-house, plus every games studio is looking for the best talent and good facilities are key to attracting them.

Frontier Developments moved to the Cambridge Science Park in 2005 and the company has been gradually growing ever since. By 2017, they occupied 3 separate buildings on the park. “We really wanted the whole team to be together in one location” said James Dixon, Director of Operations at Frontier Developments. “Trinity were planning on building some new, modern offices which tied perfectly to our needs, and allowed us to work together to specify the space.” 

In 2018 Frontier moved into their new building, as part of their new home they decided new professional audio facilities would be hugely beneficial, providing a great work environment, enabling the audio team to be more efficient, respond quicker and encourage team interaction, as well as reducing the need for outsourcing. Veale Associates were part of the process to design their new rooms. “It was important to us to provide quality facilities for our audio team” added Dixon. “They had been making do with converted, untreated rooms and what we were producing was pretty amazing given the circumstances, but this afforded us the opportunity to take our audio to the next level.”

Veale Associates created acoustic and construction designs, delivering 12 Sound Design Rooms, two recording studios with one Foley pit, two Audio Mix suites and an AV Editing suite. The facilities were designed to provide each sound designer with their own independent and acoustically treated working environment, with separate dedicated rooms for accurate recording and mixing on 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound formats; as well as providing the infrastructure for future Dolby Atmos productions. Eddie Veale, Principal of Veale Associates said “Our acoustic and studio design knowledge was critical to the design team in order to develop the layout to accommodate the sound facilities. Being involved at the front end when the project was still a green field site enabled us to work with the architects to build the necessary studio isolation into the fabrication of the building rather than trying to retrospectively fit it. The building design featured an impressive fully glazed façade with louvers to control sun glare which looked great but acoustically provided a number of reflection, flanking and noise issues; being able to work with the architects to deliver something that intrinsically worked saved Frontier a lot of time, headaches and money. The rooms needed to be quality sound rooms, compliant with industry standards and meet certain aspirations for Frontier’s uplifting work ethos and achievement.”  

The audio team are very happy with their facilities. “We had to strike a balance between rooms that designers could spend all day in, enjoying natural sunlight and rooms that were fully acoustically treated for critical listening” said Jim Croft, Head of Audio at Frontier Developments. “Everything has been used to its fullest and you can hear the results in our games! Happy staff make the best audio.”

Mixing on headphones is and always will be part and parcel of the mixing process as is mixing on stereo, 5.1 and 7.1. “It remains an essential part of mixing because most of our customer base is listening on phones. We have to cater for all levels of consumer quality. We use telemetry to detect the number of speakers a consumer is using, and apply different levels of compression and volume to different buses accordingly” said Croft.

However, having a pro level mix space rather than mixing on headphones alone has certainly impacted positively on the work practises at Frontier. “They have massively improved our work practices and raised our quality bar” added Croft. “Having the pro mix space allows you to mix with true accuracy in surround and stereo, and be confident that what you are hearing is a true picture of what is there. Being able to mix in a properly calibrated reference room as we go along makes mixing in the last couple of weeks before release much easier, as does our new bus centric Wwise mixing setup. Also having dedicated recording spaces – particularly with our fantastic foley floor – leads to much greater depth, detail and originality in our soundscape because we are using libraries less. However, if anything, I believe headphone tech will grow in popularity with the advent of VR, AR and HRTF tech. Consumers have never really taken to traditionally unwieldy 5.1 surround in the home, although sound bar surround tech is advancing quickly.”

Looking forward, Frontier faces some huge but exciting challenges. The quality expectations of audio have grown along with the scale and detail of the games being made. Having professional audio facilities have not only proven to be great value for money but given the ever growing demand for content, Frontier are able to afford the opportunity to produce more in-house, to experiment and develop in a fast paced industry.   

With more game audio spaces being multipurpose there can be some design challenges.

With more game audio spaces being multipurpose there can be some design challenges. “One challenge can be creating a benign acoustic that works for most sound sets.  The acoustic balance to create a variable environment is quite fine, especially when designing for different types of games; the dynamic game where the player needs to maintain a high level of focus on the forward activity while being very aware of what is happening in the wings benefits from a front/sides/rear speaker configuration – a different setup where there is a speaker mid front, one each side and one behind – this is much better than trying to work in the standard stereo format and adds higher definition to the mix that pays dividends in the final master.”

The studio needs to be comfortable space conducive to collaboration and fully supports the creativity but there are some differences when designing audio mixing studios for video games and music production. “The fundamentals of studios are the same, the significant difference is configuration for use – thus a studio for music is different to one for post or games.  Music is about grabbing the listener and bringing them into the wall of sound to maximise the experience, the trick here is to create the mixing environment such that the engineer is in the same listening space as the listener will be so he/she can mix for the thrill, passion and excitement.  Similar for post except the outlet is cinema or television and here there is a chasm of difference – the cinema is a big landscape with the audience scattered in all parts and so experiences will vary and effects are often used as a focus, television widely relates to the home lounge and where background music is played a careful balance is essential to avoid dialogue being drowned out – in fact a more intimate acoustic can help to clarify the effects.  Games can be considered as the most challenging – ideally differing configurations are required to match the game format – games with a lot of surround ambience benefit from an ethereal distant background to avoid detraction from the focus and lead effects with an excellent definition for the foreground sounds, essential when transposing to headphones.”

Headphone technology continues to grow in popularity with the advent of VR, AR and HRTF tech. “Mixing on headphones is part and parcel of the mix process, as is mixing in stereo, 5.1 and 7.1, but many games studios are predominantly using headphones to mix due to in-house limitations, resulting in companies being reliant on external facilities to record for them, driving up cost and reducing in-house flexibility. Having internal recording and mix facilities mean that companies are no longer dependent on outsourcing and acquire the ability to respond rapidly to fast changing game requirements. Good quality facilities afford the opportunity to produce more in-house, plus every games studio is looking for the best talent and good facilities are key to attracting them.”

Although those making do with converted, untreated rooms are producing pretty amazing results given the circumstances, one of the biggest challenges faced is how to sound proof, dampen, treat small to medium sized rooms in a way that works for multiuse. “Many engineers have their own studio where they are doing their best to continue with their work and frequently wish for the ambience and sound quality of their day job but a small room will, by virtue of its size and limitations, always develop a character that will produce better results for some types of work than others.  Most home studios will not have the space, isolation and acoustics of the professional studio and, unless the owner is prepared to make a sizeable investment it will never work as well.  Beware, home studios often begin quite modestly and grow with a good work flow, then problems begin to arise – investigations frequently resolve that these result from early decisions or constructions that can be very difficult to remedy without a complete redesign and reconstruction, so it is important to have a clear focus from the outset.”

“Having a pro mix space allows you to mix with true accuracy in surround and stereo, and be confident that what you are hearing is a true picture of what is there. Being able to mix in a properly calibrated reference room as you go brings the ability to respond rapidly to vary fast changing game requirements and makes mixing in the last couple of weeks before release much easier.”

The studio is not just about the sound but also the aesthetic as its what creates the first impression and what is heard then has to excel. “Provided the front end space design planning is well prepared it is not too difficult, but let this get out of balance and the challenges quickly grow.  I begin with concept, the final appearance.  Once the mood boards are signed off the real acoustic work can begin – looking at geometry, selecting materials and engineering the acoustic environment.”

“There are critical issues that need to be agreed such as how much sound isolation is required, will the sound level of the audio being created in the studio impact on neighbours and what could the repercussions be, and how will environmental noise impact on the studio and recordings.  It’s very important to determine the exact sizes for the room or rooms and bigger does not always mean better. And, of course, these decisions are generally dependent on budget. Once these things are understood the room(s) can then be designed around them. It’s invaluable to talk with sound designers, mixers, Foley artists and sound supervisors about what they like and don’t like to refine things and make the space work for them.”

Dedicated audio facilities enable to audio team to be more efficient as they are in one location, respond quicker as they are in one location that encourages team interaction. A key studio can also double up as an amazing acoustically treated presentation space that not only looks awesome but sounds out of this world – a real bonus to show off your studios capabilities and wow clients.”             

Did you know that although fabric can tick all of the boxes aesthetically, it might not have properties that are conducive to being used for acoustic paneling?

Nowadays, the focus of acoustic paneling is becoming more balanced between ‘function’ and ‘aesthetics’. Solving acoustic problems can be done in an aesthetically pleasing way and sometimes the acoustic treatments can become the design focus of room interiors.

When choosing fabrics it is best to choose ones that have an open weave and are breathable. Be careful not to choose a fabric that has too much of an open weave, as you do not want to be able to see the core material through the fabric. Get this wrong and the absorption performance can be dramatically reduced.

Fabrics have weaves that create pores with different sizes and shapes, and with their different thermal and viscous effects, they influence the sound waves passing through them changing the absorption values. Fabrics are available ‘ backed ‘ or ‘ unbacked ‘. Backed fabrics are lined one side with either paper or acrylic, normally to assist with direct wall applications. Fabric used with acoustic paneling systems is usually ‘un- backed’ as backed fabrics do not stretch well.

There are three types of absorbers: porous absorbers, membrane absorbers, and resonance absorbers. Porous absorbers, fuzzy fibrous materials like carpet, decrease sound pollution in the environment by allowing sound transmission to occur in such a way that the fibers rub together and cause the acoustic energy to be converted to heat. As the sound energy penetrates the material the sound-absorbing effect is obtained and as the required thickness is large with porous textile absorbers, obtaining adequate absorption at low frequencies is more difficult and requires great thickness.

Membrane absorbers take many shapes and comprise a membrane that resists movement from the sound energy causing a reduction in energy and resultant absorption. There are box versions where air is trapped behind the membrane as a spring creating some tuning and often extending the low frequency absorption.

Resonance absorbers, referred to as Helmholtz absorbers are resonant boxes that have an aperture to admit the sound – they work by taking the sound, resonating and re- emitting the sound such that much will be in an opposed phase and cancel the next approaching sound wave.

Designs can use a mix of types and performances to deal with the needs of a room. Acousticians need the data about frequency-dependent sound absorption and flow resistance in order to work out the acoustics for the room, which types will be best and arrange them so they work with the natural behaviour of the room, and then cover all this up with fabrics.

Case Study: University of West London – Basement Studios

Project: Creation of several studios

Location: London, United Kingdom

Area: 682,0 sqm

Project Year: 2016

Contractor: E G Silverthern

MUSIC RECORDING STUDIOS

UNIVERSITY OF WEST LONDON

Recording studio facilities were created for the London School of Music at the University of West London, comprising of a Live Room with connected Control Room, Drum and Piano Booth, and a Post-Production Studio.

VA worked closely with the school academics, technicians and principle contractor Willmott Dixon to create studios that reflect the latest ideas and industry practices so students gain real world, applicable experience.

Working alongside Academia, the studio equipment is based around the Audient desk selected for its intuitive learning, enabling students to quickly learn audio signal path and processing towards recording and mixing of music and sound.

The studios formed part of a much larger project being delivered by Willmott Dixon. Due to incredibly tight time restraints, a 10 week construction programme was compressed to 6 weeks to meet Willmotts objectives.

The studios were handed over to Willmott Dixon ahead of the deadline, complete, tested and snag free. The studios proved to be a huge success.

“The Veale Associates team took a proactive and practical approach to our projects, which was of great value within a fast-paced and evolving project programme. The delivery of the VA team across their projects has been highly regarded for excellent quality, relevance and applicability. Their broad skill-base and sector awareness has enabled us to provide an accurate reflection of industry standards within our teaching facilities, further promoting the quality of vocational training that is essential to our USP.”

Claire Pickersgill MRICS MSc BSc (Hons), Head of Capital Projects, University of West London

Case Study: University of West London – Blast Radio Broadcast Studios

Project: Creation of several studios

Location: London, United Kingdom

Area: 682,0 sqm

Project Year: 2016

Contractor: E G Silverthern

BLAST RADIO BROADCAST STUDIOS

UNIVERSITY OF WEST LONDON

Broadcast facilities were created for the Ealing School of Music, Art, Design and Media at the University of West London.

VA worked closely with the school academics, technicians and principle contractor Willmott Dixon to create studios that reflect the latest ideas and industry practices so students gain real world, applicable experience.

Two radio broadcast studios were created, one larger teaching studio with cameras over the desk and screens as aids to support teaching, and another smaller studio for students to use independently.

The two studios are identically equipped and centred around Lawo Crystal mixer with Vistools and uses the Tieline Commander for external reporting and contributions. Protools with RedNet to ingest music from other parts of the campus and record live studio productions, Myriad for play-out, Burli for news capture and script editing, phonebox for phone-in contributions, DJ kit comprising Pioneer CDs and record decks and mixer, Neuman microphones, PMC twotwo5 monitor speakers, Adder integrated KVM switches to seamlessly link the kit in the CAR/Racks Room to the studio desk and wall display screens.

“The Veale Associates team took a proactive and practical approach to our projects, which was of great value within a fast-paced and evolving project programme. The delivery of the VA team across their projects has been highly regarded for excellent quality, relevance and applicability. Their broad skill-base and sector awareness has enabled us to provide an accurate reflection of industry standards within our teaching facilities, further promoting the quality of vocational training that is essential to our USP.”

Claire Pickersgill MRICS MSc BSc (Hons), Head of Capital Projects, University of West London

Case Study: University of Winchester – New Music & Sound Recording Studios

UNIVERSITY OF WINCHESTER

Project              : Creation of several studios

Location           : Winchester

Area                 : 173m

Project Year      : 2017

Contractor         : EG Silverthorn

NEW MUSIC & SOUND RECORDING STUDIOS

UNIVERSITY OF WINCHESTER

VA transformed a dance studio into a 5 room music studio complex for the University of Winchester to support their expansion of audio recording and mixing for music production and film post-production.

The University commissioned Veale Associates to review their proposals and examine course structures and content to ensure the facilities satisfied student access and work demands. VA then designed the studio complex to comprise of two 5.1 control rooms, two live rooms and a Foley room. Extensive re-modeling was also undertaken to the access corridors to provide a new Studio Controller’s office and feature timber sound wave.

The studios were finished to a very high standard and incorporated the new University branding. The high ceiling in Live 1 provided an opportunity to design a custom acoustic diffuser manufactured by Wood-Skin and the studio equipment centered around 2 Audient ASP8024HR consoles with monitoring by Amphion and Unity Audio. The studios were fitted out with Protools and Logic and featured a Focusrite RedNet system to provide networkable audio across the entire complex.

“Our ambition for the University of Winchester is to become a leading provider of sound and music education. Veale Associates understood the Universities ambitions from day one, whilst appreciating the constraints on cost and time. They brought a wealth of industry and higher education experience to the project. The concept from day one was to deliver not only first class education facilities from the visual perspective but studios fully equipped to deliver the key learning objectives whilst achieving the acoustic and technical criteria necessary for studios of this type. We couldn’t have done this without the professional and creative input from Veale’s leading people Eddie, Eloise and Richard. The outcome is visually stunning, well equipped functional facilities that fully meet the project brief delivered to quality, time and cost.”

Professor Joy Carter, Vice Chancellor, University of Winchester

VA Design’s new reception and Physiotherapy Teaching Centre for UoW

The installation includes a new reception area, teaching rooms and an open-plan physiotherapy practice area. VA Design recently completed the refurbishment of the High Street Physiotherapy Centre for University of Winchester. The refurbishment is part of a series of improvements the University of Winchester has completed this summer. VA are proud to have a continued relationship with UoW, delivering world-class facilities for this forward looking University.