Awhile back, Tim and I were attending a roller derby bout (his girlfriend is a team captain) and we started talking about how terrible the sound quality at events like these. It’s one of those things you just sort of accept, like the fact that if you’re not from New York, you’ll never understand the subway announcements.
I asked Tim what the deal was. He explained that it was because the venue was a cafeterium—one of those multipurpose buildings that usually have a basketball court, a wall or two of seating, and sometimes a stage (this one did). Why does that matter? Because cafeteriums are frequently made up entirely of hard surfaces. And hard surfaces reflect sound. A lot.
Sports like roller derby are noisy affairs. There’s typically music playing, commentators commenting, crowds cheering and chatting with one another, and the noise of the players playing—which includes roller skates on lacquered hardwood. So not only is all that sound competing, it’s bouncing around off of the walls and the floors and the hard-backed seats and the roof in one giant echoing noise chamber. What you wind up with is an incomprehensible mosh pit of noise.
Anyway, Tim likes to redesign venues in his head.
The Better to Hear Roller Derby
This is what the venue looks like:
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So the main causes of the bad sound quality at the roller derby bouts are:
- nothing but hard surfaces, which reflect sound
- commentary is competing with the noise of the crowd and the noise of the game
- low-quality equipment
And roller derby includes a special challenge (especially in this venue) because the commentators are against one wall with the court between them and the spectators. The players don’t want to be able to hear the commentating because they need to be able to hear one another, but the spectators want to be able to hear and see. From both levels.
The best way to solve these problems would be to have speakers embedded or hanging from the ceiling directed at the seats, including line arrays on either wall, and then to cover as much of the flat walls and ceiling as possible with dampening materials such as acoustic banners or the like. But these solutions would cost a pretty penny and probably require time for installation or construction, neither of which is a viable solution since this is a space the league is renting.
A more affordable and practical solution is thus:
Four smallish speakers, spread out evenly to cover the space in the balcony, accompanied by four tall, thin speakers on poles on the ground floor. By focusing the speakers on the audience, less acoustic energy reaches the walls and players. Now the audience is hearing more of the audio directly from the speakers as opposed to reflections from the room. That improves intelligibility. Since the players are now out of the speaker’s coverage pattern, the venue could turn up the volume for the audience if needed. The tall, thin speakers on the ground floor would help prevent blockage of sight lines.
Facing the Audience
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From the Side
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A temporary setup serves as a good trial for the venue to study how their sound system affects the audience’s experience. If they find these changes make noticeable improvements, they could look at even better solutions, such as permanently installed speakers for each audience section.
There are three reasons these types of events experience such terrible quality audio: A) lack of funds, B) lack of audio knowledge, and C) lack of time. Just because someone can provide a sound system doesn’t mean they know the best way to set it up in any given location quickly and effectively—and cafeteriums are an audio nightmare.
There is also a potential perceived lack of value. Like the case of the New York subways, organizers (and attendees) often reach a point where they simply accept noisy and difficult to understand. An “it’s not ideal, but it’s part of the experience” sort of attitude. However, it is possible that improved sound quality could in turn improve event attendance. It’s entirely possible–likely even–that there are people who have attended roller derby bouts and enjoyed them only to say to themselves the next time a match comes up, “It was fun, but it’s so loud. I can’t understand the commentators and it makes it hard to follow along. Maybe another time.”
However, there are relatively inexpensive ways to mitigate the problems—if you know what they are. Blankets hung from hard surfaces can help with the echoing and careful placement of speakers can prevent incomprehensibility issues. A little knowledge can go a long way.
What other venues have you been to that experience sound-quality issues?
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