When I was working in AV integration a few years ago, one of my vendors (thanks again, Matt) sent me a lead to follow and was able to meet the designer that day. We discussed his project (a construction in a new space for the USTA stadium in New York). The end user wanted a simple 2×2 display, so I asked him a question: what is your audio strategy? This ultimately caused a shift in the thought process and led to a much larger client-approved project. The bottom line is this: many customers don’t consider the end-user experience in its entirety. Instead, they tend to focus on one aspect of a project that immediately stands out, such as the “put some displays here at the entrance to the luxury suite” visual.
See the first column I wrote for rAVe [PUBS] to learn more about the components of a truly immersive digital signage experience, including the benefit of adding a sound element to your project. Just to reiterate the definition, according to the 7Senses Foundation (and help prove my points):
“Hearing or audition — is the ability to perceive sound by detecting vibrations, changes in pressure of the surrounding environment over time, through an organ such as the ear. As with sight, auditory processing relies on how the brain interprets, recognizes and differentiates sound stimuli.
If I relate the total experience to a VMR (virtual meeting room) call, when there’s only video, but no audio, everyone immediately goes nuts (you can’t hear each other, can you hear me now? – like a telecom ad).
When I talk about effective audio, there is the actual audio content, the type of audio playback devices and placement of audio devices to most effectively hear and experience audio. I remember my past, especially watching the original TV series “Get Smart” with the reference to the “Cone of Silence” while working on a large AV project about 7 years ago with an inverted cone of silence ( aka audio cone). Open space executives wanted to make sure they were the only ones hearing audio from their respected office systems through the ceiling speakers directly above their desks. I tested them myself by sitting in the CEO’s chair, then moving about 3 feet to my right and the sound cut out.
Many different audio devices are available, such as ceiling speakers, trunks, soundbars that attach to the bottom or top of a screen (or sit on a credenza), or loudspeakers. -speakers built into devices and grouped into camera/speakers/mic. systems. Since most of my professional background was more video-focused than audio-focused, I spoke to a consulting firm specializing in acoustics and technology for high-end clients and projects, Henry Mestre, Vice President of AKRF, to make sure my information is correct:
Michael: What is your process when a client contacts you regarding the audio portion of a digital signage project?
Henry: My process is all about design thinking. I always ask our partners/customers “What is the vision? so that we at AKRF can focus on science and standards in our proposals. Their responses help us build and create an incredible experience for the audience. I believe that the quality of my questions will translate into the quality of the project outcome. And because of that, my philosophy when designing digital displays is “Content First”. Agreeing on the audio and video content will lead us to a final vision for the design and installation.
Michael: What information do you need to get started?
Henry: For each project, I consider location, content and resolution, expected digital signage size, and brands and models that will add value to the installation. Pixel pitch and typical viewing distance will be taken into account, as this will impact the user experience. The location will dictate the best methods of mounting the screen. Considering your options among: wall mount, ceiling mount or even large mobile custom stand. And of course, keeping the ADA for public spaces in mind to ensure you are compliant. I’m also thinking about the accessibility of the screens from a service perspective and how that will be handled once the installation is complete and the system is handed over to service. Finally, investing in audio and video distribution is imperative, along with robust content automation management software. This will allow for multiple inputs and outputs which will create a custom layout on your screens. This will give it a look & feel of something special to the audience.
Michael: How do you design audio for digital signage?
Henry: Getting the acoustics and aesthetics right from the start is crucial because they need to sound great and look good. I would like to know the following: Where does the audience stand/sit and listen? Is the audio content speech and/or music? What type of music? Are the speakers visible or hidden in the wall?
Michael: What advice can you give on acoustics to anyone considering going through this process?
Henry: You really have to look at your surroundings and what influences the space. Background noise needs to be measured and a discussion of how to deal with noise is a very important part of the formula. For example: traffic or a noisy mechanical room adjacent to your digital screen will spoil the experience and this will have a negative influence.
Michael: I always hear people talk about room acoustics and speech intelligibility. Can you talk about it and give us some examples?
Henry: A well-designed room will take into account reflections from all surfaces. Reverberation is created when sound is reflected off a surface. Excessive reverberation will reduce speech intelligibility. An acoustics team will measure the reverberation and design the space so the room sounds natural. This will create an environment that allows you to hear speech clearly and makes listening to music enjoyable.
Michael: How do you create a system that has balance for speech clarity and has good bass for dance music (is it just bass and no treble?)?
Henry: It’s all about frequency response. We must be aware of the specifications of the equipment we choose. Are we going to add a subwoofer? Is the full range of the speaker? Does the audio system have a crossover? What we choose will characterize the dynamics of the system.
Michael: I have worked in spaces that were either very loud (i.e. echo) or too low in volume. It was extremely uncomfortable. How do you manage the volume?
Henry: SPL-Sound Pressure Level and dB-Decibels are how we measure volume. dB(SPL) is measured by a sound level meter. Sound engineers and acoustics will make sure you are in the right place in the room as far as volume is concerned. This will create an intimate natural sound space that will engage listeners. Commissioning the space with a sound engineer or an acoustician is imperative. I constantly get calls on large systems that don’t sound good because no one has completed a final order of the PA system.
Michael: Is there anything you would like to add regarding sound and acoustics?
Henry: Yes, contact your consultant, your acoustic team or your sound engineers first! I get calls all the time from someone who has completed an install and is now stuck and unhappy. Changing the acoustics after completion is expensive and sometimes even impossible. In some cases, the client has spent their budget on that amazing digital signage which does not match their contents and will now have to dive into fixing everything with additional cost. Calling us before the project begins will give you better leverage in the future.
Note: In one of my previous columns I included information about creating accessible solutions for those with orientation issues, that column is here.
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