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Sound Diffusion vs. Absorption in Worship Environments

There are many examples of diffusing architectural elements in this synagogue.

Cathedrals, mosques, synagogues and temples are often decorated with an abundance of architectural details (deep coffers, arches, columns, sculptures, intricate engravings etc.). These features are not only beautiful to look at, but also serve the vital acoustic purpose of sound diffusion. Large, uninterrupted spans of hard, flat surfaces reflect sound in a singular, specular wave, which creates discrete echoes and comb filtering (In acoustics, comb filtering is when a delayed reflection interferes with, and distorts the original sound wave). These conditions can contribute to an acoustically uncomfortable environment, in which speech is difficult to understand, and music can be hard to perform and enjoy. Irregular surfaces, on the other hand, scatter these reflections, minimizing comb filtering and distracting echoes. In a “diffused” worship environment, speech is intelligible, music is clear and warm, and there is a sense of envelopment which greatly enhances the congregants’ worship experience.

Absorptive treatment can also be used to control echoes and harmful reflections. Instead of redistributing reflections, these “fluffy” materials (drapery, padded pews, acoustic panels etc.) reduce the overall sound energy from the reflections in the room. However, using to too much sound absorption in a room can often make a space sound ‘dry’ or ‘dead’. Determining whether your space needs absorption, diffusion, or a combination of both is dependent upon the acoustic properties of the space, as well as the type of worship service being conducted.

Acoustic Properties of the Worship Space: Reverberation, a principle acoustic factor, is the sound energy that remains in a listening environment as a result of lingering reflections. The dimensions, construction materials, and furnishings of a given worship space determine its reverberation time (RT or RT60). Large halls with reflective materials (glass, wood, concrete) have longer reverb times, while small rooms with absorptive materials (drop acoustic ceiling, carpet, curtains etc.) will have shorter reverb times. Incorporating sound absorptive materials, Such as fabric wrapped acoustic wall panels, is often the best way to reduce the overall reverberation in a room to a suitable level. However, the target reverb time also depends on the nature of the worship service being conducted in a particular space.

Type of Worship Service: Ideal reverb times for worship environments vary widely.  Non-musical, spoken-word worship requires a very short reverb time (.5-.8s range), ensuring that speech is intelligible. At the other end of the spectrum, cathedrals can tolerate an extremely long reverb time (2s and above) due to the traditional nature of their liturgy. Choir, organ and plainchant worship will actually benefit from longer reverb times that create a sense of ambience and spaciousness by sustaining musical notes. These spaces will often lack a sound system, and instead utilize the hard surfaces to propagate sound throughout the room.

Traditional worship may be enhanced by long reverb times, but contemporary worship requires a significantly shorter reverb time. In these environments, drums, guitars, bass and other amplified instruments are critical to the high intensity worship experience, but have far different acoustical needs compared to the choir and organ in a more traditional service. Contemporary “high impact” churches require a reverb time in the .8-1.3s range to ensure that the music won’t become too “muddy” and indistinct. Contemporary churches must also be more cognizant of late specular reflections (slap echoes) which can inhibit the timing of musicians and contribute to poor music clarity.

Let’s take a look a few common scenarios when it comes to treating traditional and contemporary worship spaces.

While including a mix of absorbing Sonora® Panels and diffusing Double Duty barrels, many people overlook the contribution of the padded chairs and carpet to the sound of this space.

Scenario 1: Conversion from Traditional to Contemporary worship

A growing contemporary church moves into a larger, traditional sanctuary and is confronted by a raucous acoustic environment during their first rehearsal… This “live” space was perfect for traditional music, but is not conducive to a “high impact” contemporary worship service. To reduce the excessive reverberation and distracting echoes, sound absorption should be added to the rear wall (opposite stage) and side walls. Also, if using on-stage monitors, the stage walls should be treated to manage stage volume.  Spot diffusive treatment that provides low-frequency absorption would also be beneficial. A good choice for this would be traditional ‘barrel’ diffusers. These are one of the oldest tried and true solutions for controlling bass issues in a performance space. Also, since these units function as both absorbers and diffusers, you get the benefits of both.

Scenario 2: Mix of Traditional and Contemporary worship services.

A worship facility decides to offer a contemporary service in addition to their traditional services… As more absorption is introduced to cut down on distracting reflections, we want to retain the envelopment and spaciousness which benefits congregational singing and traditional worship music. Sound diffusive treatment would be a great way to control echoes and specular reflections, while keeping the energy in the space. A mix of absorption and diffusion is usually best. Multipurpose spaces can also benefit from variable acoustic treatment which allows the room to “adapt” to each service, but that is a subject for another article.

Scenario 3: Poor Music Clarity in Traditional Worship space

A traditional worship space renovates their facility by adding thicker carpet, padded pews and a drop acoustic ceiling… All of a sudden, their once lively space feels “flat” and dull. Acoustic instruments are more anemic, less distinguishable and choirs have a difficult time blending and tuning.  To “liven up” the space, replace sound absorptive materials with diffusers.  For example, replace 1/3rd of the acoustic ceiling tiles with a combination of gypsum tiles and lay-in diffusers. These days, there are wide variety mid-range quadratic sound diffusers available for drop tile ceiling grids, as well as the more traditional barrel and pyramidal diffusers.  

While this space is more lively, the slap echoes from the back wall are controlled with a mix of diffusers and absorbers.

Sound diffusion can often seem a little mysterious compared to sound absorption. This is at least partly because sound diffusion is a more complex and multi-dimensional phenomenon compared to the more easily quantifiable sound absorption. However, sound diffusion is often times the missing piece of an acoustic puzzle: its benefits can help a bad room to sound good, or a good room to sound great!

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Happy Thanksgiving from Acoustics First®

Have a safe and happy Thanksgiving – Acoustics First.

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Silent Pictures® goes BIG for Ditch Witch®

This BIG group of Silent Pictures® is made up of 3’x3′ panels for a total size of over 9 feet by 15 feet!

When Ditch Witch® needed to acoustically treat their training room, they had a big and bold idea – take a cool promo photo and use that to make a Silent Pictures® mosaic! The required scale made it easier to break up the photo into a 3’x3′ matrix, which also eased the shipping and installation process! The final product (at over 9 feet tall and 15 feet wide) is imposing, and while it isn’t quite life-sized, the impact is indeed massive!

“Thank you so much for all the help you and your team did on this project. Our training room is complete now.
We are over the moon happy.”

Ditch Witch Midwest

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Sonora® LFC – Low-Frequency Control Panel

Bass frequencies are difficult to control… and there is sometimes a tendency to overuse standard, broadband panels to try to absorb everything in order to get rid of that bass. However, this method is unbalanced and has the side-effect of leaving a room sounding muffled and boomy.

Why?

Physics! High frequencies are easier to absorb than low frequencies. So, when you ONLY use broadband absorbers, they easily remove the high frequencies and leave more of the lows. Overusing broadband absorption in a large performance space can be a disaster – leaving an environment lacking energy and feel – many describe this condition as a room sounding “dead.” (Not good!)

So how can you treat the boomy bass without killing your rooms with too much broadband absorption? Can you just take out the bass? Unfortunately, it is impossible to ONLY absorb the bass, but we can LIMIT the amount of high frequency energy that we absorb to balance out the response.

Acoustics First® presents… the Sonora® LFC – Low-Frequency control panel.

Looks like a standard Sonora® panel on the outside, but it’s completely different under that fabric!

The Sonora® LFC looks like a standard Sonora® Wall panel, but looks can be deceiving! At 4-1/8″ thick, it is virtually indistinguishable from a High-Impact Sonora® panel – however the interior structure of the LFC is optimized to attack the bass frequencies and smoothly roll off the high frequencies. Let’s take a closer look at the performance difference between the Sonora® LFC and the standard Sonora® panel.

Standard Sonora® 4″ Panel in red vs. the Sonora® LFC in blue.

When you look at the performance charts, you will notice that the standard 4″ Sonora® panel starts to “roll-off” in the lower frequencies below 125 Hz – it still absorbs them, just to a lesser degree. We designed the Sonora® LFC panel to focus on those frequencies below 125 Hz – while allowing the other treatments to handle the rest! This allows you to use fewer broadband panels, and still have some high-frequency energy for diffusers to spread around – thus creating a more balanced acoustic environment.

The Sonora® LFC is an engineered solution using the same high-performance materials as our other products, but combining them in a way that optimizes them for Low-Frequency Control – hence Sonora® LFC! The magic is in the way those materials are used.

The optimized construction of the Sonora® LFC Panel!

All of the materials used in an acoustic environment have a function – “Diffusers,” “Absorbers,” and “Bass Traps” are all general descriptors of product functions. Some diffusers are also Bass Traps. Some bass traps are also broadband absorbers. Some diffusers use absorption for amplitude grating. By combining a dampened, resonant trap with multi-density fiberglass, the Sonora® LFC focuses on making acoustic spaces more balanced. For controlling the bass without sucking the life out of a room, the LFC Panel is an outstanding tool for refined Low-Frequency Control!

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Case Study: Swim RVA! Competition Natatorium (POOL!)

Swim RVA in Richmond, VA installed over 200 Cloudscape® Banners to help control their facility’s acoustics.

Athletic facilities, including indoor pools, can often tolerate longer reverberation times when compared to other large spaces, like event halls and theaters. However, sound absorptive treatment is often needed to improve PA announcer intelligibility, reduce ambient noise levels and facilitate clear communication between coaches and participants.

Swim RVA enlisted the help of RTW Media and Acoustics First® to improve the listening conditions of their large Natatorium which contains an Olympic sized pool. The massive volume (approx. 800,000 cubic feet) and abundant hard surfaces contribute to excessive reverberation and noise buildup. Water is an extremely sound-reflective surface, akin to polished concrete; which exacerbates these issues.

To address these problems, over 200 4’x10’ Cloudscape® Banners were installed throughout the ceiling. Cloudscape® Banners provide the most “bang for the buck” in reducing excessive reverberation and noise buildup. When festooned, they provide additional low-frequency absorption, which is needed in these mostly concrete-block facilities.

In the end, the client was extremely satisfied with the end results, both acoustically and aesthetically!

Is your indoor athletics facility too noisy? Contact Acoustics First® today for a consultation!

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