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A Sound Investment

Making the right decisions—and avoiding missteps—in considering campus audio and acoustics
University Business, July/August 2012

Imagine a learning environment where students can’t hear the professor—or the emergency notifications as part of a safety situation. The basic need of clear audio solutions in higher education impacts so much more than meets the eye.

“Audio is vital to provide the complete experience when multimedia content is presented,” says Matthew Silverman, project manager of Learning Space Design in the Division of Instructional Technology at George Mason University (Va.). “A poor audio design can lead to student disinterest or inability to follow the material. Similarly, providing proper speech reinforcement in spaces that require it ensures intelligibility of the instructor.”

Audio in classrooms has always been a functional requirement of GMU faculty. The university installs audio systems in all of its classrooms, ranging from basic program-only designs to more complex videoconferencing systems. The university began its technology standardization efforts in 2007 and moved to the Biamp Nexia line.

In spring 2011, GMU completed a more unique audio installation for its Technology Enhanced Collaborative Classroom in the new University Hall building on its Fairfax campus. The system needed to address sound reinforcement so everyone could hear what’s being shared as well as overall audio quality. This required separate program audio at each of the three projector locations, as well as whole-room speech reinforcement. The solution used two Biamp Systems’ Nexia CS units (one for program and one for speech) to handle sound processing.

“Because the room has multiple modes of use, we had to program different audio configurations,” Silverman says.

Options for Audio Solutions

Institutions rely on a variety of solutions for their audio needs. Some rely on IP audio for streaming to multiple buildings while others use end points like amplifiers and speakers in a single location. Modern paging systems typically run off Cat-5 or Cat-6 infrastructure, with a number of different communications protocols available for system control, according to Joe Keefe, senior engineer at New Jersey-based Ostergaard Acoustical Associates.

Performing arts facilities have their own needs, based on whether the space is primarily used for speech or music. Stadium and sports field sound systems are obviously the costliest to engineer, says Keefe, because of their size and scope.

‘Systems need to be expandable so they will not become obsolete as a campus grows and changes.’ —Rodger von Kries, Technomad

The main factors to consider with a campus audio system are reliability, scalability, coverage area, and intelligibility, says Rodger von Kries, vice president of Technomad.

“Systems need to be expandable so they will not become obsolete as a campus grows and changes,” he shares.

Tim Root, chief technology officer at Revolabs, agrees that flexibility is the key term to focus on for audio solutions. Given the challenges of the acoustic properties of each room, different room layouts, the dynamics of the material being taught, and the various teaching styles, Root says the requirement list becomes endless.

Stretching the Budget

Officials at The University of Colorado at Boulder have worked hard to stretch its dollars for audio systems, according to Eric Sherrill, a classroom AV engineer there. Sherrill is part of a team that meets regularly to look at different issues and needs for audio. His group, under the IT department, is responsible for centrally scheduled classrooms on campus, which are mainly small audio installations.

“Most are not elaborate installs but just an ongoing thing,” Sherrill says. “Recently, we’ve been working to get all centrally scheduled rooms built out and are now going back to upgrade older rooms to current standards. We have three to five rooms underway right now.”

Sherrill says his typical small classrooms have a projector and control system, audio amplifier, and input panel into the system. A general install of OWI equipment is around $4,000 per room, which he says is certainly reasonable.

Ian Murphy, head of IT in the school of education at Johns Hopkins University, added the Cetacea Sound Astronaut system when an existing sound system broke in a small school of education classroom. After stress testing an evaluation model and getting direct feedback from students and staff, Murphy determined it was a great fit with easy installation and a good price (around $300). The Astronaut speaker transforms basic projector sound into full, classroom-wide audio.Equipped for teaching: Typical small, yet central, classrooms at UC Boulder have a projector and control system, an audio amplifier, and an input panel, the total cost of which is about $4,000 per room.

The cost for Johns Hopkins was based on the infrastructure already in place and using an in-house installer. Other campuses might pay $2,000 to $3,000 without wiring in place and staff members to install it, he explains.

“This gives us our original capabilities to run all sound from our podium computer, from any visiting laptop and the existing DVR player,” Murphy relates. “There is some existing functionality we’re not using now, but we’re thinking of adding an iPod dock in the future as a music source.”

Andy Stadheim, CEO of Barix Technology U.S., says he has always been drawn to projects that follow more open standards and protocols than proprietary ones. He believes an open platform is key.

As an example, Stadheim says the company focuses on helping universities use their existing phone system and existing structured wiring (amplifiers and speakers they already have wired) on an IP network. By IP-enabling their amplifiers, it’s possible to do 100 buildings with emergency page for $20,000 (or $200 per building).

“Anything that allows them to use existing infrastructure —we’re just trying to focus on the cost aspect,” Stadheim relates.

Who Rules the School?

Decisions for audio systems in higher education come up at different stages of a room or building project, depending on the client, says Thomas Emlinger, of Texas-based Roemtech LLC. Frequently, he says, audio tends to be an afterthought, but that’s changing.

“End users seem to be getting more and more sophisticated, which means they are thinking about things like audio earlier in the planning stages than they used to,” Emlinger relates. In his recent experience, Emlinger says 70 percent to 80 percent of the time, audio is given consideration before the walls go up. In years past, Emlinger says that number was more like 50 percent.

“Once the walls are covered up, if no thought has been given to audio, then running the necessary cables can be very difficult,” he adds.

Joe Keefe from Ostergaard Acoustical Associates agrees that decisions about sound systems come up at various points, perhaps multiple times, throughout a project. Keefe recommends that audio system design consultants provide input into whether an audio system should be a part of a project, relying on their expertise to help make the correct choices.

Silverman’s Learning Space Design Team of three at GMU manages audio and other technology solutions. The team pulls in other IT colleagues to ensure that specifications are correct, products are researched and agreed upon, and everything works across systems. Since GMU pulled these disciplines in-house six years ago, the university does not use consultants.

Johns Hopkins’ Murphy meets frequently and informally with the director of campus operations to discuss changes or additions to its audio system. Murphy ultimately makes the final decision.

Can You Hear Me?

Coverage and intelligibility are topics that come up during the details of installations, says von Kries. Unfortunately, many horn-based alarm and paging systems tend to sacrifice intelligibility and coverage area for efficiency and maximizing the sound pressure levels of the system. If a speaker does not provide adequate coverage across the whole campus with wide dispersion speakers, von Kries says there is the risk of holes within the coverage area.

The most common factors that George Mason University faces relating to audio clarity and quality are high levels of ambient sound and poor speaker placement.

“Our in-house design team has worked closely with our facilities group to minimize HVAC and other mechanical noise, as well as provide as much sound isolation to classroom spaces as practical,” Silverman says. “As for speaker placement, this can easily be overcome by doing speaker coverage studies ahead of time and then following the speaker plan at install.”

Silverman suggests that campus administrators have well-defined requirements prior to starting their designs, as they consider updating or adding new audio systems. This involves simply investing the time in design and studies ahead of the project.

“Simple audio calculations on whether you will have proper coverage and reinforcement on the front end,” he notes, “will save you a lot of grief on the backend.”