By KERRY SMITH – St. Louis Construction News & Review
Videoconferencing is the telecommunications lifeline for internal teams and external stakeholders connected with commercial construction projects.
As critical as is the investment in high-quality, professional audio and video technologies and infrastructure, so is the sound and A/V design that enables virtual project communication to be disseminated and understood clearly.
St. Louis-based sound and audio/visual design engineers agree that the relationship between acoustics and audio/video is directly correlated to successful project partner collaboration.
“It’s critical to have solid acoustics in the space so that when you’re hosting teleconferencing and videoconferencing the spoken word and the visuals are being understood,” said Dennis Voss, G&S Architectural Products president. “This is the way business is being done today, and the stakes are high if the quality of the virtual communication is not spot-on.”
G&S intently examines the company’s dedicated conference area, down to the finishes on the tables, walls, ceilings and seating. “We look at the overall room, what it’s being used for and where we can install product so that every word being communicated – in the conference space itself and virtually – can be heard clearly,” Voss said. “Eliminating the reverberation from tabletop to ceiling, positioning the monitor and overall room layout and set-up are all part of the equation.”
The firm often sees conference rooms that are essentially a drywall box, says Voss. “Many have one, two or three full-glass walls,” he said, “which can make the room extremely sound reflective. Addressing the ceilings of conference rooms are often our go-to, because there’s not a lot to be done with an abundance of glass.”
Voss encourages building owners to consider materials selections that have absorptive characteristics when constructing or updating their conference spaces. “Think about what you’re installing for flooring, for example,” he said. “Don’t choose tile flooring and then expect to have an online Skype for Business meeting with four to five people on each side of the call. Especially when individuals are calling in from multiple locations, it’s all the more important that the conference hub, as well as the locations from which participants are located, are acoustically sound.”
Dave Bick and Josh Rasch are acoustical and systems engineers at McClure Engineering. McClure believes in and practices a holistic approach.
“Because we’re engineers and acoustical consultants, we view acoustics and audio/visual technology in tandem with each other,” said Bick. “Before putting a lot of high-end videoconferencing technology into the space, background noise issues – typically mechanical issues or noise coming from the building envelope and traveling into interior rooms – must be addressed.”
McClure regularly works collaboratively with its internal mechanical systems teams to ensure that the systems they’re designing do not compete with noise mitigation design. “We work together beginning very early on in the (construction) project to make sure the room itself is going to support teleconferencing and videoconferencing technologies,” Rasch said.
On the technology side, monitors on walls with web cams, tracking cameras that follow whoever is speaking and high-end microphones are all part of the mix. “Array microphones with lobe coverage that finetune the audio pickup in real time and pair with camera-tracking technology that exists are popular,” Rasch added. “Technologies like these have grown to the point where they can react to provide high-quality audio coverage for those who are speaking and reject or mute other areas of the space to reduce background conversations. The technology is only part of the puzzle, however. Without considering noise control and treatment of the space, the system will fail to perform.”
Patty Gaus, owner of Gaus Acoustics, said it’s also important to consider the proximity of the conference room with respect to activity taking place above, below or adjacent to the space.
“Let’s say you’re hosting a videoconference and above you is the fitness area,” said Gaus. “It’s critical that the sound emitting from the gym is buffered from entering the telecommunications room. We’ve seen this, where clients have made a major investment in their dedicated conferencing area, but its location is compromised by what’s occurring above, below or nearby.”
Gaus agrees with Voss that glass and wall conference room doors can prove problematic. “If there’s no absorption, that teleconferencing system is only going to perform as well as the room acoustics,” she said. “You can have the best microphones and screens, but the reverberation will seriously compete with the quality of communication taking place.”
Professional installation of audio/visual systems also plays a huge role in the ultimate quality of videoconferencing. Gaus said it’s often the case that a company may purchase the ideal, high-quality conferencing technology but if the client performs its own installation, the result may be disappointing. “The A/V company that sold the system may have demonstrated it with the microphone positioned on the conference table,” she said. “But when the client installed it, that microphone may have wound up within a 20-foot drywall ceiling.”
Kevin Tankersley, president and senior engineer at Designed Acoustics, has seen similar scenarios. “I just finished working with a client that paid a New York designer to install high-dollar video, audio and microphones in a completely renovated videoconferencing space,” Tankersley said. “Cool stuff, top-of-the-line conferencing equipment, but the rooms in which it was installed were acoustically horrible. The best equipment can only overcome so much. You have to fix the room first.”
Cost of videoconferencing equipment has come way down, says Tankersley. “Twenty years ago, a cinema-quality projector with 800 lumens cost $30,000. Recently we installed two 7,000-lumen laser projectors, with ultra-wide, 4K images for $3,500 apiece.”
Ricardo Garza is founder of Crossover Media LLC in St. Louis. A producer of video marketing resources for small businesses, Garza recognizes the importance of quality acoustics.
“Acoustical panels and lighting control are no-brainers,” he said. “Keeping the noise in and keeping the noise out makes for a much better experience.”