Acoustics for Speech and Hearing Institutes

I’ve only just started freelancing on my own. Unlike the initial  romanticised impression of acoustics being the perfect mix of music, maths and physics, I really spend most of my day listening to noise :). So I thought I should get my hearing tested for two reasons:

  1. To have a point of reference for a ‘before’ and ‘after’ scenario of my hearing sensitivity.
  2. To understand what frequencies I am sensitive to, and any hearing losses I may have for other frequencies – so that I can accurately tune listening spaces.

I went to this institute near my place and found out two things that didn’t suit my needs.

  1. I could hear road noise very clearly inside their listening room! This is past 3 doors, no less – the entrance door, the door to the audiologist’s room, and the door of the listening booth.
  2. They test only 5 frequencies from 250 Hz to 8 kHz, because this is primarily for old people to hear speech.  For my purpose of tuning spaces for music, I need to be tested for a much wider range – 50 Hz to 18 kHz.

Anyway, I went ahead and turns out my hearing is normal, but I suspect it won’t stay so for long. I am a tad sensitive to vocal high pitches – the Lata Mangeshkar types – playing those at normal volumes can grate on my ears. But I did have difficulty in listening to low pitches – the 250 Hz thing. This would’ve been critical information for me to have found out – except that I will have to take it with a pinch of salt, pending more accurate tests. There was plenty of low noise infiltration through the doors, and I could hear them despite the on-ear headphone.

Anyway, the point is, that critical spaces such as these must not have any type of noise coming in. They had even used thermocol for acoustical isolation. Thermocol, styrofoam are easily and cheaply available, but they are not acoustical materials at all – they can at best be used for impact isolation.  There was also some masking effect happening due to road noise intrusion. I could clearly tell the sound of an auto, a bike, a bus, and some local vegetable vendor hawking at a loud voice.  This is also because the glazing they had used was rather thin. It is critical for listening booths to have glazing because they are to be closed, and the only way for the audiologist to know that you are able to hear a certain test frequency, is when you raise your hand. They have to be able to see you. Glazing itself is not a problem, but the right thickness must be used. Also for such applications, either in-ear earphones, or supra-aural earphones must be used. On-ear headphones are not very effective for blocking out sound.

These and many other defects can be solved right at the design stage.  Eventually, the kind of hearing aids that are prescribed are primarily influenced by the extent of the patient’s hearing loss, and the budget.  The first factor – the extent of the patient’s hearing loss can be accurately gauged if external interference is zero. In this case, it is critical to avoid masking effects.

The right technical advice will take into not just that, but also the hum of your HVAC, the type of earphones you must use, the influence of nearby buildings and their DG sets, etc.  It should also prescribe materials from a rough-use point of view (for instance, the rubber linings of the door had peeled off – leading to a compromise in sound isolation). For a place primarily meant for accurate testing of hearing loss, the noise constraints posed by the location can be easily overcome with correct acoustical diagnosis, testing and recommendation.

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Soundproofing Studios

Studios are critical listening spaces. The noise levels have to be as low as 10-20 dB.  The hum of the HVAC, the rumble of the ceiling fan, the structural vibrations of all the houses/buildings nearby, the rumble of trucks on the road, the cross talk through the HVAC duct, the hum of the machines, all make a rather big difference to the quality of the sound. Also, since most studios are rather small spaces, the the bass response must be carefully evened out.

One of the projects I worked on involved two studios (A and B), located one above the other. Both A and B were located on top of a full fledged household. So the ceiling fan of the house was hung from a metal hook, and that ceiling formed the floor of Studio A. That made a rather audible rumbling noise, despite carpeting in Studio A. The glasswool in both studios was filled in more than 15 years ago, and was clearly sagging. When you played sound loud in Studio A, it could be heard in Studio B’s recording room. This is otherwise not a problem, only, in this case, when they increased the gain of the mic for singers with feeble voices, the sound coming out of the other studio got recorded.

Both studios were built with good isolation in mind, with double doors, corridors lining the rooms, etc. But the structural vibrations caused by the HVAC unit on top of the terrace was a problem, as was the motor run by the next house for pumping water to their overhead tank.  The recording room in studio B was exactly 11 ft along one size, and the bass frequency formed clear dips and peaks in the room. Any surprise that the problem frequency was exactly 100 Hz? The monitor speakers were placed at accurate angles, but despite that, the recording console had a big dip, and right behind that, where the producer of the movie and his cronies sit, there was a boom.  They were also not able to use the air conditioning when the recording was in progress. They only used it for post production. So in terms of scope of work, it was a rather big project. But as with all acoustics projects in Bangalore, the budget was rather limited 🙂

The purpose of outlining this scenario is to mention common issues faced by a lot of studios in this area. Structural vibration is the biggest grouse. And increasingly, pavements are laid joining the road and residential areas. This, despite there being a mandate not to do so for longer than a certain width ( wide enough for your car to roll out of your house). This leads to added coupling.

That said, in India, the advantage is that most structures are still brickwork/RCC, unlike gyp/wood partitions in the west. Internal walls are usually 4 inches wide, and external walls are 8 inches. Older houses have thicker external walls.  So, a decent amount of isolation exists between rooms, if you ignore flanging.

All this is was about the sound isolation bit. Now when it comes to reverberation treatment, and the frequency response of the room,  studios again are the most critical sound spaces.  It is vital to avoid shadow zones for bass frequencies, and diffusers must be optimally used. Faulty room acoustics leads to the sound engineer falsely believing the sound spectrum to be something it is not, and equalizing to correct what they think they’re hearing.

Sound technical help should make sure that you avoid all these pitfalls, and the expensive corrections they entail. The right treatment should make the ambient sound crisp and clear, with accurate and predictable colouration from the room.   The quality of sound you hear can then safely be subject only to the quality of the equipment. I have a personal affinity towards sound studios, because these test so much of our skills, and these are also the places where some of the best works of art are immortalized. As someone whose interest in music primarily led her to acoustics, I do have a thing for these little rooms.  🙂

Soundproofing Jamming Rooms

 

That gap on top of this post is intentional. Air Gaps are your friend when it comes to soundproofing!

Every band dreams of practicing freely in a room without neighbours dropping in with a scowl on their faces. Similarly, every studio hopes to record the most subtle aspects of music without worrying about the surrounding urban noise.  These two places need soundproofing for opposite reasons – jamming rooms must prevent sound from going out, and studios need to prevent sound from coming in.

This post discusses the soundproofing requirements of jamming rooms, and lists some loopholes to watch out for. Soundproofing for studios requires a separate post.

Jamming Rooms generate noise levels equivalent to around 100-110 Db – close to twice or thrice the loudness you hear at a noisy traffic signal. This can get distressing because by definition, practice implies long hours. Involuntary listening for long hours can get disturbing – leading to annoyance, irritation, headaches, raised heart rates, and raised blood pressure. A sustained elevated heart rate is good for a workout – staying in such a state for long causes a dip in your longevity.

How much soundproofing do these rooms need?

The good news is, there’s no need to have a zero output concept here. Urban noise is expected to be at least 60 db during daytime, and around 43 db during night time in residential areas. What’s even better news, our ears perceive loudness logarithmically, and so the decibel scale is logarithmic. That means if you reduce the sound even by 10dB, you perceive it as only half as loud.

Soundproofing projects are always more challenging than those which require acoustical treatment for reverberation, or fine tuning. This is because heavy mass is needed to block sound, and most venues do not afford space. A room within a room is the best option, but when that’s not possible due to structural constraints (or in the absence of permission to make structural changes to a building), alternatives must be carefully calculated.

The common mistake here is that while gypboard constructions can be used for isolation, the calculations must be for that purpose alone. Expecting gypboard configurations that work for absorption, to also work for isolation, is a folly here – one that I see all too often around me. Rockwool or glasswool will do nothing to absorb sound at low frequencies if you don’t stop them first.

A word of caution to DIY guys.

  • All soundproofing materials come with numbers that tell you how much transmission loss they give. Do not assume that simple arithmetic will give you accurate results. The materials come with a clever line “All joints to be properly sealed and caulked”. Here lies the whole game.
  • Also, the materials are tested under lab conditions – the numbers will vary rather widely under different site conditions.
  • Further, they come with instructions on how to construct. If structural constraints or budget force you to make variations, discuss them with an acoustical consultant, not the vendor.
  • While heavy absorption helps in transmission loss if carefully designed, careless use of absorption materials will make your drum kit sound dead. A drum kit produces a wide range of frequencies – 50 to 15kHz. The high frequencies will sound dead almost immediately, while low frequencies will painfully linger on if you provide too much absorption in the room.  

The other important thing to watch out for are leakages due to site constraints, or plain human error. Every soundproofing project has a leakage fixing phase. A 1 mm gap is enough to turn a 99 % success into a 100 % failure. Also, the most important thing to watch out for is leakages due to structural contacts. You may come up with a clever design, but if you drive nails or screws through to hold things together, that’s a short circuit route. Acoustical caulks must be carefully chosen. I know carpenters who use metal paste to block leaks. It’s rather difficult to convince them of the structural coupling it provides.

Lastly, a note about budgeting. Soundproofing materials are more expensive than absorption materials. All choices must be based on calculations, with generous discounts on the claimed performance, keeping site conditions in mind. While budget constraints are understandable, it is vital to have a talk with an acoustical consultant to understand what part of it can be DIY, and what part of it must be professionally installed.

The funny part is, road traffic noise can be a blessing for such projects. I have two precisely opposite cases on hand – one project next to a noisy road, and one located in a quiet residential layout. Needless to say, the sound reduction needed in the latter was huge, and with structural changes not being an option, I had many sleepless nights reading quoted transmission loss numbers and separating the grain from the chaff.

If there’s a choice of location, try to choose a noisy location, so that you don’t stand out. Low frequencies and structural vibrations are the toughest to isolate, but there are clear laws defining how things work, so in the right hands, your project can be a decent success even with budget constraints. Happy Jamming!

When is the best time to talk to an Acoustics engineer?

Unfortunately, there’s only one design a building is going to have, and it has to include everyone’s conveniences and dreams – the client’s, the architect’s, the HVAC, electrical and plumbing people, and last but not the least, the acoustic consultant’s.  The correct interpretation of  ideas into engineering requirements, and their faithful implementation will form the bridge between dreams and conveniences. This is why it is vital to call in your acoustical consultant sooner – during the design phase. The laws of physics won’t change at the last minute, during the commissioning, and the acoustical consultant will usually have no good news to give you if you bring them in just before the inauguration party.

Walls are walls, glass is glass, a rose is a rose, etc…And one usually can’t take the place of another in the general scheme of things. A large part of the value of an acoustical consultant lies in their ability to prevent a problem before it occurs.  This effort and expertise may go entirely unnoticed, because good sound is taken for granted, just like air to breathe. One does not notice the acoustical environment unless it is disturbing. 🙂 That’s a job hazard acousticians live with.  🙂