Would my organization benefit from hiring a consultant to design our Audio/Video system?
In today’s world of Youtube videos and instant access to forums and free advice, it’s easy to want to “do it yourself”. After all, most organizations have at least one staff member or volunteer that dabbles in sound. Just think of the money that can be saved. Unfortunately this isn’t always the case. In fact, it can actually end up costing you more money, and a whole lot of other problems you may not have even considered. I know what you’re probably thinking, “Not my organization, we have an expert on staff. Besides, sound is all guess work anyway and it doesn’t have to be perfect.”
In my 25 years as a professional sound system designer and installer I have encountered this opinion literally hundreds of times. I think it’s time to put some information out there with the hope that it might save your organization money and prevent unwanted problems and embarrassment. Keep in mind as you continue to read that this is a very real problem. If I sound a little pushy or arrogant, it is not my intent, it’s because I am passionate about the subject and I really do want to help your organization. Also, in order to help you, I need you to understand that there is a vast difference in professional AV consultants and the everyday amateur volunteers or staff members you are relying on presently. Playing in a band or running a DJ service does not make an expert in live sound reinforcement. There are certifications in place for a reason, even if most areas do not require you to have them.
Are your on-staff AV personnel certified as technology specialists? Have they been trained by the actual manufacturers of the equipment? Do they have a competent understanding, not just of sound equipment, but of acoustics? Do they understand how the human ear works and how sound reinforcement can either help or hinder a performance? I would propose, based on years in this field, that 99 out of 100 do not.
I am about to share some real life situations I have experienced. But first, here are a few important points to consider:
Are you really going to build a place for people to come “hear the message” and not give any consideration to how they will hear?
That doesn’t make much sense, but it seems to be the course of action most organizations choose. Because most people serving on committees don’t have much understanding of the field, AV systems are put on the back burner only to be visited again at the end of the construction or renovation project. Many times this means that funds are running low and you end up settling for a second rate system that is an eyesore, sounds unclear and performs badly. And although most people don’t know exactly what to listen for, they still know things aren’t right. Even on a subconscious level, bad sound can be exhausting to the listener. Isn’t it better to have the audience listening to the message instead of concentrating to hear the dialogue?
Doing it the right way doesn’t have to cost more money.
The cost of a sound booth will probably be the same whether you put it in the wrong place or the right place. Why not put it where it will actually work for the sound engineer? The cost of building four walls doesn’t change that much whether those walls make a square or a trapezoid.
Do you know the differences in room orientation and how those differences affect acoustics? A professional consultant does. The location of a loudspeaker array can make all the difference in system performance. Since the location typically changes nothing in the cost, why not put it where it needs to be. Get my point?
Buying the right equipment in the first place will save you in the end.
I have seen storage rooms in churches and schools filled with expensive audio equipment. When I ask “what’s with all this unused gear?” I hear “well, first we had model A but that wasn’t working so we bought model B” By the time they call a professional, they are on model H and they’ve purchased a room full of unused expensive gear. And to make matters worse, four out of five times the pro notices that the equipment is being implemented incorrectly, making that particular type of equipment wrong for the job in the first place.
Sound is not guess work.
Sure, the internet is full of “opinions” and a few of these opinions can even be correct. Unfortunately the information out there is a mixture of myth, opinion, false logic, and misinformation with a small nugget of truth in there to make things interesting.
Practically anyone who plays music has at least some experience with sound and sound equipment, and quite a few of these people consider themselves experts. Here is a fact for you: Sound is science, it can be measured, quantified, and predicted. The only people out there guessing are amateurs who have no formal training in sound. At the professional level, no one is debating the characteristics of sound. If you brought ten different professional consultants to look at a project, they will all come up with close to the same solutions. Why? This isn’t guess work to a professional.
Are you actually helping the organization by doing things yourself?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not condemning do it yourselfers. When it comes to things around the house, I am a proud do it yourselfer. Sometimes it saves me money; sometimes it blows up in my face. Sometimes it works… sort of. I’m a living example of the saying results may vary. It’s fine to gamble on the outcome when it’s your own personal project, but here’s the question, are you comfortable with “results may vary”when you are responsible for making decisions for your organization? Hiring a consultant or at least getting bids from a qualified installation contractor may cost you a little in the beginning but almost always pays off in the end.
Let me give you some examples from my own experiences. I have dozens of stories from my own career as well as many from my colleagues, but I have chosen a couple of examples that illustrate my point.
The company I worked for was contacted to give a bid on a new sound system for a local church. This was supposed to be a new construction, but when we arrived on the job site to do a site survey we discovered that the building was already done. The only thing missing was the carpet and furnishings. Like a lot of churches we work with, this organization was handling the construction themselves. They were able to save all sorts of money by using volunteer labor and honestly they were doing a great job. Unfortunately, when it came to their AV system, their strategy ended up costing the church more money than they could have ever saved by doing it themselves, and in the process they created nearly insurmountable issues with the sanctuary and quality of worship services. Let’s discuss this scenario and see where things went terribly wrong.
When we first entered the sanctuary we were immediately assaulted by the absolutely terrible acoustics of the room. I swear I could still hear the conversations of the construction workers that had left for the day an hour before. All empty venues sound awful before carpets and treatments go in, but this was a whole new level of bad. Years of experience in the field told me that all the carpet in the world wasn’t going to fix this room. The sad thing is, I didn’t have to hear it to know it was going to be awful, I could have spotted it in the drawings. Of course, I was never given drawings.The cost of the acoustical treatment to attempt to rectify the poor design was $16,000. The amount they paid for the system was only $10,000 and they had to search for that at the end of the construction when nothing was left in the budget. Long story short, they’re still dealing with awful sound in their brand new church. They could have spent a few hundred dollars while plans were still being made and avoided all of the issues. They could have even gotten free advice from the company I worked for at the time; we were always willing to give advice if it meant we might get to bid on their system. So you tell me, did the people in charge do the best thing for that church?
I was contacted a few years ago to look at a new high school gymnasium for a sound system not far from where I live. Now I have to defend the clients I dealt with, they were doing the best they could with a situation they had inherited. By the time I was called the original people in charge of the new facility were long gone. You see, this wasn’t your run of the mill gym, it was a dome. It doesn’t take a professional to tell you that a dome can be a difficult room to do. It can, however, be done well with the right loudspeaker placement and some acoustic treatment.
But alas, the people in charge didn’t even consider how they would implement a sound system for games, performances and assemblies. They built their building figuring they would worry about that stuff later. After all, how hard can it be to put up a few speakers? When we got on site for the initial job survey we found that the most important property ”loudspeaker location” was going to be a problem. The only effective solution in a room like this is to fire from the center. The problem was the roof at the center of the dome is very thin. It would have supported the rigging of a speaker cluster IF there had been bracing and structure added during construction. They didn’t think about that.
They also didn’t think to put conduit inside those nice new walls for communications cabling to use. They also didn’t think to wait until someone had put in a sound system before they put the drop ceiling grid up. By the time we were contacted, money was running out for the project. This job was a disaster. Because of time alignment issues we couldn’t crossfire so we had to settle for a design that fires from one end. This is a great looking facility. In fact, I would say it is one of the nicest gymnasiums around. Too bad the sound is, and always will be, bad. A simple call to a professional would have changed everything.
If you put the mixing and control of your sound system in a closet behind your sanctuary or in a tiny room in the balcony you will not be able to mix properly, period. Mixer location is everything in a sound system, yet many people think this is just another one of those “sound guy” preferences that doesn’t really matter.
If you’re one of these misguided individuals who believe this, let me pose a few questions: How would you like duct tape over your entire windshield? Do you think you could see to drive? Want to jump on the interstate for a few miles and see how you do?
If you can’t see, you can’t drive.
The same applies to running a sound system, if you can’t hear, you can’t mix. Ok, to be fair they usually cut a window for you to listen through. How about duct tape on most of your windshield but leave you with a 12 inch by 12 inch window to see through. That should give you a good enough idea of what’s going on to drive down the interstate at 70 MPH.
I have sold a lot of expensive equipment and cabling over the years to organizations relocating their sound booth. It costs. Many others desperately want to move but don’t have the money in the budget. Anyone working as a professional in AV installation and consultation has seen this problem dozens of times.
I could go on all day with stories like these.
- Organizations not installing conduits during construction only to ruin the looks of a brand new facility with cables on the floor and raceways on the walls.
- Installers having to install loudspeakers in the wrong location because there are lights or ceiling fans in the way.
- Hums and buzzes due to improper installation, and even violations to the NEC and local building codes
- Do it yourselfers installing the wrong type of loudspeaker for the room causing incomplete coverage or excess reverberation.
- Staff buying the wrong type microphone for the application, the wrong monitor for the application, using the wrong type cables, etc.
As you can see from the examples I’ve shared, the need to consult with professionals is incontrovertible.
You have a couple of easy choices for assistance when it’s time to start planning.
- If you have a local dealer or contractor with a good reputation, give them a call for advice and maybe a bid. Many of them will do a free on site survey or consultation.
- If you want an impartial consultation, hire an AV consultant. The cost is small when compared with the price of endless upgrades and redos to try and fix what never should have gone wrong. An AV consultant will be impartial to the brand of equipment. They don’t need to sell you extras that aren’t needed just to increase profit. They don’t need to price you the most expensive top of the line equipment when a mid grade system will work for your needs. The price of the equipment they specify doesn’t affect their price, so they have nothing to gain by proposing outlandish overly expensive equipment. When they hand you a system specification, you are free to take it wherever you want to purchase the system.
If you are responsible for you’re organizations AV system, be sure that you are doing what’s best for your people.
If you would like to contact BH Protech for consultation services email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
President, BH Protech LLC