“The problem is that the areas we work in are not optimised for sound,” explains Feltech Key Account Director Nevil Bounds. This is not an uncommon conversation to have these days, as open plan office schemes become more popular and everything from warehouses to disused tube trains are converted into work spaces.
In the corporate world, a great percentage of the complaints about video and audio conferencing equipment are related to poor sound. Nevil, who supplies AV conferencing systems to the UK’s major banks, financial institution and law firms, explains that no matter how expensive your microphones, loudspeakers and DSP processing equipment, there is one major factor that can ruin communication: “Poor sound is a major concern in boardrooms and meeting spaces; the main culprit is usually bad room acoustics. Many times an AV conferencing room is a lovely square room, usually glazed with lots of hard surfaces and has horrible reverberation times. The picture on the screen looks absolutely stunning, but the sound can be very poor. It almost doesn’t matter what DSP you have or the mics you are using – if your room has high reverb times or HVAC noises, the sound will not be satisfactory.”
This is of great concern in the corporate world as meetings held by AV conference have become increasingly important. “In the past 20 years, audio and video conferencing has gone from being nice to have to a critical business component, and it is a major problem if it fails,” he says. “We save money on flights by using video conferencing instead of sending people across the Atlantic for a two-hour meeting, but now we have a horrible experience because the far end is in a room that is very reverberant, which causes a great deal of fatigue and makes it very difficult to clearly hear what the people are saying.”
These poor acoustics not only obstruct the natural flow of ideas, inhibit communication and prevent collaboration, but they also have an adverse effect on the health of employees. “There is no question about it – poor audio and background noise is extremely fatiguing. At the end of a long day of meetings it can really take its toll on your stress levels and health. However, if you can get the room acoustics right you will leave work in much better shape. Background sound is very tiring and room design is responsible for a lot of this stress.”
Nevil often shudders when a client asks for a multi-purpose work space because it usually means compromising the acoustics. “I know that real estate is expensive, but it is very hard to effectively use a space for video conferencing, meetings and large presentations. We even run into situations where several rooms are built next to each other — some divisible, some not — and there is sound leakage between the rooms. Mics and DSP can’t really do much for you in those circumstances. It is a shame when a lot of money is spent on lighting and furniture but little attention is paid to the sound of the room. I just wish that designers considered room acoustics in the planning stages. A little bit more time and money makes the job of the DSP much easier.”
Reception areas are notoriously noisy, as they are often heavily trafficked areas with high ceilings, video screens and sound playing throughout the day that only adds to the noise. Nevil comments: “When you have this cacophony of sound in the reception it is difficult to localise the audio. Each room presents its own challenges. I am not saying it has to sound like Abbey Road Studios, but integrators and manufacturers need to get to the end users, designers and architects to explain that the end result is much better when the acoustics are considered early on in the design stage of the room.”
Outside the problems caused by poor acoustics, Nevil feels that meeting etiquette is also a major contributor to a poor audio experience: “It would be great if the staff were trained to use the AV equipment, but it is very difficult for the AV manager to take time from a very busy CEO or Chairmen’s schedule to teach them how to use the equipment, and I am not in a position to tell them they have been doing it wrong for the past 25 years, as I will most likely be shown the door,” he laughs. “It is very awkward to tell someone that they don’t know how to use a simple piece of equipment like a microphone. We have to find other ways of making the audio experience better.”
There are solutions to correct rooms with bad acoustics; however, they often require breaking up the space with fabric and mobile partitioning at angles and these fixes often sacrifice the room aesthetics. “Adding baffles and acoustic panelling to a room can make an incredible difference, but it doesn’t look particularly pretty. The main concern for a business is the boardrooms need to look good to maintain a high visual standard,” Nevil comments.
“People do not employ the services of acoustics consultants early enough. A little bit of CAD time and more time paid on acoustic design at the beginning of the project makes it so much nicer because it is difficult to compensate for it afterwards and it is never as satisfactory as having a good room to begin with. We are doing more, but are we getting to the architects and designers early enough? Probably not. In some cases, we are called in when the ceiling speakers have been installed and the mics are set up, but it is often too late to fix the problem without some degree of compromise.”