David Bell’s quest for good acoustic design14 March 2017
An open letter to the trade published towards the end of last year set a challenging agenda for everyone involved in the recording, mastering and post-production sector. It was signed by: Richard Boote, owner of AIR Studios and Strongroom; Ivor Taylor, director of Grand Central; Ben Mason, technical director at sound design studio 750mph; George Apsion, who runs Kore Studios; and White Mark’s David Bell. In other words: a brace of formidable London-focused pro audio heavy-hitters.
This agenda, quite clearly aimed at generating more debate on the subject, singled out the education sector for its critique of standards in acoustic design and the obvious knock-on effect on audio quality should, as the signatories believe, subsequent generations of recording engineers, producers and sound designers grow used to an alleged deterioration. But the wider implications for every realm of studio activity come under scrutiny as David Bell, talking exclusively to PSNEurope, expresses his concerns about diminishing responsibility.
The signatories pointed to a growing number of cases in which remedial action is sought from them by users of newly built or refurbished educational facilities. Despite huge budgets, some of these users remain dissatisfied with acoustic performance and eventually turn to experienced operators like White Mark to address the issues. Acoustics, the signatories argued, appear to be neglected when a publicly funded institution relies solely on routine architecture and construction for projects that should at the very least recognize their intrinsic sonic purpose. The perception, they insisted, is that specialist acoustic design is beyond the public purse – even though the costs admitted by anxious clients are frequently much greater than a service such as White Mark would charge.
Needless to say the signatories have called for new regulations and better practices than those encouraged by the current de facto handbook in the public sector: BB93, or Building Bulletin 93 – Acoustic Design of Schools – A Design Guide, a document derided by Bell and his colleagues as a foundation for any crucible of professional careers.
“One of the problems throughout the provision of audio facilities is the devaluation of the studio as an acoustic environment – in favour of the purchase of equipment, and other things that you can see on your capital balance sheet,” Bell says. “Despite the money spent on educational facilities, BB93 specifies the absolute minimum. Because the procurement methods of the big purchasers are based on a design-build approach, the lowest bidder will win the contract based against the specification – and there isn’t one, really.”
If isolation and acoustic performance are dangerously under-specified in education, the consequences for students are clear. But the problem is more widespread, according to Bell. “A similar approach is being taken by the national broadcasters,” he says, “who are producing rooms of extremely diverse capabilities. Whereas at one time BBC Engineering’s Guide To Acoustic Practice was held up rigorously, or perhaps in Europe the IRT [Institut für Rundfunktechnik] specification, we now seem to be forgetting the importance of basic things such as the isolation between different areas where acoustic work is undertaken, but not related to each other.”
Post-production has a further ‘layer’ of protection in the shape of Dolby Laboratories, which maintains licensed facilities in every major media hub. “But their level of control is advisory only,” Bell points out, “and the licences are more difficult to obtain because the main focus is on the Dolby Atmos format, which demands higher specifications in the first place. The issue is that if the licences are more exacting and demanding, which is a good thing of course, facilities may be less inclined to attain one. It means that there’s another criterion for quality slipping by the wayside.”
“One of the things we pride ourselves on is that you can record something in one of our studios, and take it to any one of our other studios, and it will sound very similar, Bell continues. “And if you take it from one of our studios to a cinema it will also sound representative – albeit in a room 25 times larger. Essentially, if you get the acoustic design right, what you hear in the studio is what the world will hear in the cinema, on the television, on the radio or on whichever media player you select. It’s not something that the engineer will have to predict by having to adjust the mix one way or the other.”
At the very least, working environments should be balanced across the frequency range and in reverberation time; and isolated properly from their surrounding environment. “What’s going on,” asks Bell, “when there’s a sign in the reception area that says something like ‘please keep quiet while the red light is on’? Really? In reception? What’s happening is that the prime movers in the purchasing community are allowing practices to be dumbed down because these specifications are becoming less important, and are not being used as a design standard.”
Cost-consciousness is a strange thing. On the one hand, it’s clear that no sensible person would embark on a commercial project without setting a budget. But once corners have been cut in one department, any disproportionate expense in another soon begins to look extravagant: if you think you can build a studio for £20,000, anybody that charges over £20,000 for any individual dimension is quickly priced out of the market. On top of that, acoustics is widely considered to be the kind of expensive luxury that remains out of the reach of many users, like that boutique noise gate that cannot be justified, wonderful as it is.
“At least 50 per cent of the clients we enter into discussions with begin by telling us how highly recommended we are by Wave, or 750MPH, or Grand Central… but that they ‘cannot afford to build a Rolls-Royce’. But it doesn’t cost that much more to do it right, and if you don’t you’ll end up spending the money anyway. You have to follow Building Regulations, otherwise you’ll be obliged to fork out again to put something right. Well, the same applies to acoustic design. If you don’t make it a priority because of a perceived unattainability, you’ll soon find that it’s a false economy.”
Others prioritise equipment, or certain types of equipment, because it can provide a very visible badge of honour on a competitive platform. But the number of admiring glances is diminished if your Rolls-Royce is parked on a scrapheap, and if that’s a Park Lane sounding metaphor let’s Soho it up a little: Pro Tools 12.5 HD with surround and over 32 hardware inputs, sitting in an inadequately isolated room, is pretty much the proverbial fur coat and no knickers.
Bell also points out that the burgeoning industry for portable and remedial acoustic treatment products may have its place, and it is demonstrably popular, but it cannot be made responsible for curing the fundamental ills that can beset a facility on a basic architectural level. “I’ve seen plenty of acoustic treatment panels all over a perfect cube, so you’ve taken out virtually every frequency but you still have an impossible room mode to deal with. We had to take two-thirds of the acoustic treatment away, and asked our old friend [acoustic specialist] Matt Dobson of Exigy to measure the system and move the monitors into a position that would work. In the end, I don’t think we charged anything!
“Having removed a large section of acoustic treatment, and moved the loudspeakers to a position verified by accurate, professional measurements, it would have cost this client a lot less if he’d approached us in the first place. I’ve also known people, having orientated the desk one way, complain that the door was in the wrong place instead of simply re-orientating the desk.”
Faced with such a rising tide of corrective consultation, it’s refreshing to hear of an undoubted success story in the annals of modern studio construction. Cenzo Townsend is the MPG Award-winning producer and engineer behind countless hits, and where once he might have been an habitué of Olympic and elsewhere he now runs his own studio, Decoy, at home in Suffolk. White Mark was the acoustic designer.
“As a total design it all makes sense,” reports Bell. “The initial control room didn’t need isolation because he’s at least 600m-800m from the nearest dwelling, and otherwise basically in a field. Bass absorption was unnecessary because it leaks out through the lightweight walls, so we did some low-mid and mid-frequency absorption and some mid to high diffusion – fantastic.
“He then built a live room and another satellite control room, so we floated the live room and fixed the second control room on a separate slab down at the other end of the building. The isolation works perfectly: he can use each room independently, including a second, smaller live area that was added later. The requirement was there to do it properly, and the acoustic treatment was created for the room, not afterwards. Check out the ‘log-fuser’ – a large circular array of kiln-dried logs at one end of the live room…”
What the signatories would like to see in general, and Bell – a lecturer, Companion and degree-ceremony regular at the LIPA teaching institute – in particular, is more workshops and more stringent licensing by the various industry bodies and associations that become involved in the construction of audio studios in the normal course of events.
“Students are the future,” says Bell. “I don’t know how you can teach microphone techniques in a room that sounds like the reception of a bank. If you close-mic a drum kit and then pull it back, it won’t sound any different if the reverberation time is two seconds. How do you teach Foley? You either close-mic and then use artificial reverb; or you use the natural acoustics of the room and tweak them to sound like the dramatic setting required. You won’t perceive the difference in those techniques if the room is flawed to start with.
“I would love to arrange a series of seminars on this topic, involving studio owners, educators, acoustic designers and others. I really care about these standards and, before I retire, I’d like to think we could do something about them.”
In contrast, when White Mark built a facility for Arbeitsgemeinschaft Rundfunkanstalten Deutschland (ARD) in London the specs were understandably rigorous, with the German clients exhibiting a friendly rivalry and a teasing desire to avoid ‘sounding like the BBC’. This, however, was the banter of peers, a professional competitiveness as opposed to a targeted critique of UK standards. It also reveals that even the most accurate measurements fail to achieve a universal sound, and that cultural preferences always take precedent in what could be described as the ultimate showdown between art and science. Can this confidence return?