Acoustic consultancy: Continued relevance

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Open atrium space with escalator at Kolkata State Convention Centre, India

Hurrairah bin Sohail speaks to acoustic consultants to determine their outlook on their profession and services as AV and IT continue to merge into a new breed of enterprise technology.

When speaking with AV professionals about the impact of the convergence ofAVandITone concern is consistently voiced. AV has always been a specialised field, requiring a specific set of skills. The fear is that the shift to IP will render AV’s hard-earned expertise obsolete.

When it comes to acoustic consultancy, these fears might be unfounded. Peter Hunt, group CEO of Hewshott International, takes a nuanced stance and says: “The management of audio over IP principally enables the rollout of audio systems through a common platform so that it can have a wider level of flexibility. It is a welcome expansion because it removes some traditional barriers that have prevented audio from expanding and being managed, especially at a corporate level.

“However, sound is a sensory element and it’s the first aspect that people complain about. Placing audio into the IP domain is not the panacea. Having a good solid understanding, then experience in handling sound, is the very first step, and it is an area of expertise that could be drowned out by all the noise promoting more and more audio over IP solutions. Poor microphone choice and placement can never be overcome by any amount of DSP programming, just as good speaker placement will enable quality sound to be reproduced.”

He continues: “The wider AV industry, including both manufacturers and the industry press must ensure that these core analogue skills are held in the same high regard as their development of audio over IP and the Holy Grail of ‘one size fits all’.”

As Hunt highlights, albeit with some reservations, the merging of AV and IT has opened up new avenues for audio deployments. How has this impacted the value of acoustic consultancy? Kelvin Ashby-King, principal consultant at T2 Consulting Group, details: “We are finding a specific niche for our services, for our AV and acoustics business. The convergence of AV and IT has actually helped to define AV’s role more in the corporate and education markets and as we are also an IT consultancy, we are actively merging the disciplines to come up with creative and bespoke solutions for a totally integrated deployment for our clients.”

Hunt from Hewshott International adds: “Ultimately, acoustics deals with parameters of sound behaviour in an environment, both air-borne and structure-borne. So, from an acoustic perspective, the business has not changed as AV merges with IT. However, what has changed is the ability for speaker systems to produce wider frequency bandwidths and deliver more power. How speaker systems blend, especially at low frequencies, has overlaps with acoustic design because the frequencies involved will impact a building. Plotting full bandwidth point sources of sound and seeing the impact of physical spaces on the overall speaker performance within a space is where an acoustician will take some interest and become involved.”

To say that acoustic consultants have not had to adapt in any way to the convergence of AV and IT would be disingenuous. Hunt from Hewshott says: “From a consulting point of view, we need to have the confidence that large systems design which includes high dependencies on the network, be it corporate or dedicated, will work, and we can’t quite rely on manufacturer’s say so. It requires IT networking skills, which we have invested in so we can handle all aspects of the audio and video transport requirements over the network. It is the only way we can be very confident of moving clients from traditional thinking to entirely network based solutions.”

Justin O’Connor, education specialist and instructor at Bose Professional, says: “Convergence has changed the skill set needed at the integration level. System designers, AV engineers, and installers need to be network- savvy, in addition to maintaining their skills in audio and video systems. Overall, the shift is noticeable, and the industry at large has embraced and met the challenge.”

Undoubtedly, adding IT skills and expertise to their roster has been the focus of many integrators and consultants over the past few years. Many AV professionals in the industry today are well versed in IP standards and multiple programming languages.

Manufacturers have played a part in this change and O’Connor details Bose’s efforts: “In our education department at Bose Professional, of course we include learning modules on audio, and we also offer networking and Dante modules in both our online and in-person classes.” The question then arises, if AV can acquire IT skills is the reverse as plausible?

When it comes to acoustic consultancy, the learning curve might be steeper than expected. Hunt from Hewshott says: “The biggest departure from the IT world into audio is understanding what is happening to an audio signal at an analogue level. Compression, equalisation, gating, gain and many other parameters are analogue attributes that impact the quality of the signal, and this can be clearly heard with a trained ear. Sure, the transport of audio is now firmly in the IT space and much of the adjustment to the audio signal happens in the digital domain, but this is more through the development in technology; the capture and reproduction remain analogue. The IT space has to deliver audio over the network without artefacts or delay.”

According to Ashby-King from T2 Consulting, the nature of acoustic consulting serves as a barrier to entry. He explains: “Acoustic consultancy is both, art and science. The science gives the technical solutions and the art is how to practically apply this to give the correct solution to the client that is cost effective and meets their requirements. The move of audio to IP and the network is making it easier, more accessible and cost effective for users but this also means a heightened awareness that acoustic expertise is required to support the new range of audio capabilities.”

The convergence of AV and IT is something that is irreversible. According to O’Connor the advantages for audio are numerous: “The benefits of IP technologies go beyond the enterprise. With so much more bi-directional channel capacity on a single low-cost cable that any electrician can run and terminate, professional audio equipment in general is now leveraging Dante or other interoperable IP solutions. Once, expensive hardware and cabling was required to build any kind of matrix or distributed audio system. Now the network itself is that matrix.”

Hunt from Hewshott says: “Audio ventured into the mass market digital domain in the early 80’s when CDs were launched. Ironically, it’s taken much longer than expected to get audio over IP, but I can’t help but wonder if this is more an IT issue than an audio one. Now that we see audio being routed over a network as second nature, I can’t see it going back. In fact, I think that we have much more to go, and as soon as we can get more current delivered by POE switches, I can see many more options for audio emerging. I can’t imagine a situation arising where we would consider designing any audio system without a significant element being handled in the digital domain.”