Furnishing for Acoustics

What system components and designs should you consider for a classroom amplification system? Where do you install which piece, what are some price considerations, can you integrate these into existing systems, what is the expected life cycle?

Sound systems come in a number of different flavors and they all have their reasons for existing, yet they all need to be integrated into the room design so the students and instructors can hear what is being said. “Sound systems for classrooms first started off as a way to hear the movie, slideshow, or filmstrip that was being played,” says Steve Thorburn, PE, LEED-AP, CTS-D and co-founder of Thorburn Associates, Inc., a technology system, lighting, and acoustical engineering firm with offices in California, Florida, and North Carolina. “The portable equipment had the loudspeaker built into the projector or record player and we were done,” he says. 

If the room was big enough, a second or even third loudspeaker was plugged in so people could hear even better. When computers and video projection became part of the mainstay in the 1980s, audio systems in classrooms became more common, according to Thorburn.

In these instances, the sound systems were used to hear what sound system designers call program audio. “This is different than speech audio, which typically comes from a ‘talker’ in the front of the room,” says Thorburn. All of the early sound systems, regardless of type — program or speech — were part of the room design; they were thought about when larger classroom and auditoriums were built. “Now, we see these systems being deferred from the building design and construction phase, and becoming owner-furnished equipment and treated no differently than chairs and tables,” Thorburn says. However, “Audio should not be an afterthought in the room,” he says.

All in the Design

According to Thorburn, in all cases the room requires proper acoustical design. “The best audio system in a bad room will, at best still sound bad,” he says. “This is truly a case of garbage in/garbage out.”

A sound system will not fix the issues if the students cannot hear the instructor because the room is too loud (i.e., too much fan noise, or the windows have to be left open and they let in all the traffic noise from outside) or the room has too many echoes. “Both of these situations are a testament to hard surfaces; adding more sound from loudspeakers will just confuse the ear even more,” Thorburn says.

For these situations, what Thorburn calls The Rule of the 7 Ps holds true: Proper Prior Planning Prevents Pitiful Poor Performance. The electronic components of the systems outlined above are all slightly different, but if properly selected will last 20 to 30 years. “We have looked at many auditoriums that just needed a microphone or two on stage plus program audio to play back a movie for 300 or more students where what was put in on day one still works, and in most cases very well,” Thorburn says. “The audio systems should be treated just as you would the lighting design or electrical engineering; it needs to be part of the room from day one. If it is added as a patch, then it will never work.”  

Victor Rivero
has written whitepapers, articles, and features for schools, nonprofits, and companies in the education marketplace. He can be contacted at victor@VictorRivero.com.

About the Author

Victor is editorial director of this publication. He can be reached at vrivero@101com.com.

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