acoustics Tag

Who’s Doing Livestreams Right?

Ben Folds takes requests—and gives piano lessons to kids—while stuck in Australia.

The audience for livestreams has exploded in recent weeks as people have exhausted their options for more traditional mainstream entertainment and musicians and other performers have embraced online performance as the best near-term solution for engaging their fans. I talked to acoustic designer Steve Haas about who’s doing a good job of broadcasting from the internet and what musicians can do to up the sonic quality of their streams.

—Michael Gaughn

Thanks to the boom in livestreams, a lot of people are being exposed for the first time to the idea of famous musicians doing intimate performances, but you’ve been aware of and helping to arrange home performances for a while now, right?

Yes. I’ve been very passionate about promoting house concerts, and have been creating private concert venues in people’s homes for a long time. Before the pandemic, hosts of house concerts were putting on monthly shows with some really great 

artists. It was just amazing, the quality and caliber of musicians you got to see several feet from you in someone’s living room. They would clear out the furniture, put 50 people in there on some loose chairs, and have a suggested donation of 15 to 20 dollars per person.

 

But of course now that can’t exist for a while in any environment, commercial or private—hopefully not as long as everybody’s predicting. Certainly when Mozart did his house concerts in the palace, he didn’t have to deal with a pandemic, and certainly didn’t have the internet to be able to convey his music to the masses. But people do now, and it’s amazing how many performers have jumped on this. They understand that the only way they can keep their music and their talents alive in the minds of their fans and the general public is through online presentations.

 

Whether it’s prerecorded videos or live streaming, some bands will go to great lengths to individually record their parts and overdub the video. And then somebody will put it together through video editing software and create a pretty amazing production.

 


In general, what is the level of quality you’ve been coming across over the past couple of months, from an acoustics perspective?

Most people are just finding a room in their home or their apartment—sometimes the bathroom, which everybody thinks has great acoustics. But that’s a little iffy—sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s not. It can also be their kitchen, their living room, wherever they can set up an iPhone or a simple microphone. That’s the bare bones.

Performers are realizing they need to use this vehicle to get their music out there. And some are realizing they have to rise above the tide and separate themselves from the masses.

 

I get dozens of livestreams every day on my Facebook and other feeds, but I just don’t have time to listen to all of them. And that doesn’t even include the highly produced streams, like the Together at Home concert with Lady Gaga, Elton John, and others. So there has to be a way for artists—not just musicians, but actors and dancers, too—to convey their craft. But they have to step up the production. And the thing is, the ones I’ve seen do that haven’t had to spend thousands of dollars.

 

It’s really about thinking, “OK, what can I do to create an environment that will give me something better than what sounds like a typical living room? How can I get a little better balance? How can I get some good audio equipment? What do I need to do 

to make sure my video and audio are in sync?” I’ve seen some videos that were out of sync, which is very annoying.

 

They also need to think about lighting. How many people are doing livestreams with a window behind them? I’m not a lighting designer, but Lighting 101 tells us don’t have a window behind you.

 

 

I realize it’s difficult to advise people on acoustics from a distance, but is there any general advice you could give? For instance, they should probably take a moment to listen to the room they’re thinking of using and get a sense of its sonic characteristics.

Most normal rooms—living rooms, kitchens, bathrooms—don’t have a neutral sound, but tend to sound very colored. Bathrooms usually have an excessively bright sound because you’re dealing with porcelain and plaster and other hard surfaces with nothing to absorb it. Kitchens can sound like that too because they don’t have any soft furnishings, so they tend to emphasize the higher frequencies.

 

Living rooms, family rooms, and dens can have a very midrange boomy sound because you typically have all of the low-end sound sucked out—that is, absorbed—by the windows and the thin sheetrock and plaster. The high end can also be muffled by some of the furnishings, especially if you have carpet or area rugs.

 

And that’s really indicative of what I’m hearing on a lot on livestreams—that midrange honkiness that’s left once the highs and the lows are sucked out. It’s better to simply try to soak up or absorb some of that sound. I joke about it, but bringing every pillow and blanket in your house or apartment into the room while you’re recording will actually make a difference. But it depends. If you have a huge living room, just having three or four pillows is not going to do it.

 

If you want to take it to the next level, you can buy or make 

A BRIEF SAMPLING OF STREAMS
Steve Haas on High-Quality Livestreams

Brad Paisley and special guests perform
in real time on Facebook 

The Doobie Brothers perform a video
sync-up of “Black Water”

Steve Haas on High-Quality Livestreams

Singer Maysa Leak (of Incognito fame)

your own acoustical panels. It’s pretty easy, getting some insulation boards, which are typically about one or two inches thick, and wrapping fabric around them. It doesn’t have to be pretty, but it certainly can be very effective.

 

As a practitioner and somebody who designs spaces to sound fantastic, I don’t typically advocate the DIY approach to acoustical treatment. But, my goodness, in this situation we’re in, why not get something that will improve your recordings, improve your livestreaming, and set yourself apart a bit for a modest cost?

 

 

I know there are a lot of variables, but in general, should they be using smaller spaces?

It really does depend on what a space is giving you sonically. It’s all about the balance. Does it sound neutral? You can get a large space that has enough furnishings and other things to create that neutral sound, and have the added benefit of giving 

you a really nice visual backdrop, too.

 

There’s this thing going around the internet, a father and daughter out of Utah—Shaw, I think is their last name. They’ve gotten millions of hits for the songs they sing together. They sound wonderful and they’re in a very nice, voluminous living room. And yet you don’t hear excessive reverberation or other imbalanced sound because they seem to have paid attention to their room’s acoustics.

One option is to create the performance in two parts. I’ve heard people say they’ve recorded their audio literally in a closet to get the best sound possible and then dubbed it on the video. There’s nothing wrong with that, especially if you’re trying to get high-quality sound and visuals. They may not always go hand in hand.

 

 

I don’t want to go too far into the weeds, but how much impact does microphone selection or placement have on all this?

If they’re recording the audio and video at the same time and their space isn’t perfect, it makes a huge difference. There are professional artists where you can see they’re using closely held wireless or wired mics. And if you don’t have a balanced room, that allows the sound to be picked up much better without getting too much of the room. You want to make sure you have the best-quality microphone you can find with what you have to work with. You also want to make sure the mic’s control pattern is fairly narrow so it’s not picking up too much of the area around you.

 

 

I realize no one can know the future for sure, but where would like to see all of this go from here?

It’s great that during these difficult times people are still keeping that sensation of live music. We’ve been witnessing what I call the one-to-many type of presentations, whether it’s a single artist or band delivering a song or a performance or the big 

production concerts such as Together at Home. The Metropolitan Opera just did one. And I heard of a hip-hop artist who actually did one on Fortnite, a gaming platform. So everybody’s finding unique ways to deliver that one-to-many experience.

 

I do think the next step, as this continues, is that homeowners who can afford it will say, “You 

know what? I want a private concert.” Even if they have to do it on the big screen in their home theater and have Elton John or another type of artist use two-way communication where the performer can hear them applaud and they can interact in conversation between songs, ask questions, or whatever. That way they can react to the performance in a one-to-one or one-to-a-family or small-group situation.

 

I look forward to that happening because it really is amazing when you can have that experience with an artist. If they can’t physically be in the same room with you, then get the next best thing and have them be on Zoom or another stable platform. Have that same type of experience and same type of two-way communications instead of one-way. Feel the intimacy of the performance.

Steve Haas is the Principal Consultant of SH Acoustics, with offices in the NYC & LA
areas. He has been a leading acoustic and audio design & calibration expert for more
than 25 years in high-end spaces ranging from home theaters, studios, and live music
rooms to major museums and performance venues.

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs,
couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Acoustic Designer Steve Haas on Media Rooms

Cineluxe Showcase: A Tribeca Trendsetter

photo by John Frattasi

Steve Haas is the person you call when want to make sure your home theater will sound better than any movie theater. His extensive body of work for various commercial venues and high-end private viewing and listening spaces has established him as one of the world’s leading acoustical engineers. And his collaborations with legendary designer Theo Kalomirakis have made him synonymous with the highest-quality dedicated home theaters.

 

But media rooms (also known as entertainment rooms, multi-use spaces, or communal spaces) are increasingly becoming the movie-watching venue of choice in the luxury market—even though they’re in many ways the antithesis of what you would want for a reference-quality home theater. They tend to be part of an open floorplan, need to serve other forms of entertainment beyond movies, are frequently flooded with ambient light, and feature serious acoustical challenges like hardwood floors, huge plate-glass windows, and large stone and concrete surfaces.

 

None of that changes the fact that the high-end market really likes these kinds of rooms. Fortunately, things like larger, brighter video displays, innovative projection-screen materials, digital room correction, and way more sophisticated lighting and shading control are helping to tame what would have until just a few years ago been impossible spaces for watching movies at any real level of quality.

 

But advanced tech can’t do everything it takes to make a room exceptional, or even acceptable. Which is why we wanted to talk to Haas about what he does to bring these often resistant spaces into line.

—Michael Gaughn

Media rooms can vary dramatically but clients are looking for great performance regardless or they wouldn’t be engaging you. How do you typically handle something like that?

One of the first steps we always employ is understanding from the homeowners how they and, if applicable, their family use their homes—or how they intend to use it, if it’s a new home. Will they all gather in the media room at the same time to watch a movie? In that case, it’s more about dealing with the quality and not so much worrying about whether the sound spreads to the kids’ bedrooms.

 

 

To ensure the acoustical quality of a media room, I would think it would be crucial for you to be brought in early in the planning for a new home or a renovation. Otherwise, you could be dealing with a badly compromised space. Are you usually advising from the beginning or do you find yourself having to make do?

That’s a great question because it really is all over the map. More often than not, the architectural design and interior design are already well underway or nearly completed; or worse, it could be that the construction has already started. And as 

Acoustic Designer Steve Haas on Media Rooms

This multi-use media room in Connecticut contains a home theater . . .

sheetrock starts going in, the homeowner gets a sense of just how much this house is going to sound really “bouncy”— reflective and reverberant—and maybe they should get somebody to deal with these spaces.

 

That happened to us with a project in Westchester County recently. It was a gut renovation well underway; and that’s when the homeowner just realized, “Wow, we really need somebody.” We had to come in and do a lot of massaging to the interior design and the architectural design to 

Acoustic Designer Steve Haas on Media Rooms

. . . billiards lounge . . .

get what we wanted.

 

That project had two different rooms—a two-channel listening room and a media room that were both very open to the surrounding spaces, pretty much flanking the kitchen and breakfast-nook area. The entire right wall of the two-channel room was stone, surrounding a fireplace—which, of course, there’s nothing we can do about that—and the media room itself had a lot of glass, very much glass. So we’re always dealing with compromises in situations like that.

Acoustic Designer Steve Haas on Media Rooms

. . . and recording studio. Unique acoustic treatments and acoustically transparent finishes—including metal mesh, micro-perforated clear shades, and both exposed and concealed wood diffusion panels—were employed to achieve the desired aesthetic and acoustic performance. (photos courtesy of Audio Command Systems)

A lot of luxury homes, especially out west, favor very open floorplans and almost exclusively hard surfaces like wood floors, stone walls and fireplaces, and floor-to-ceiling plate-glass windows. And often the client wants their great room to double as a media room, which is usually the least conducive space in the home. That has to be a worst-case scenario for you.

We’ve certainly worked on rustic media rooms in Colorado, Utah—all that part of the country. And there are solutions, like monolithic plasters and 

micro-perforated woods, that can be used in an open-plan home to at least tame the sound, to help ensure it’s not just one echo chamber, one reverberant nightmare bleeding into the rest of the home. Also, trying to achieve as much tonal balance in the way the architectural materials are absorbing sound between low, medium, and high frequencies is essential. You have a fair chance of at least being able to enjoy a controlled room, even if it’s not dialed in with the level of finesse we would have in a dedicated room in a different type of architecture. It’s really important to understand that not every architectural style is going to lend itself to a fabric-wrapped room.

 

 

Home theaters are designed to be isolated, but in an open floorplan, the great room is often the physical center of the home. I would imagine you have to worry as much about the sound bleeding into the rest of the house as you do about the quality of sound in the room itself.

Because media rooms are outside that dedicated area, we often design them as part of the whole-house acoustic design. So we’re looking at various spaces throughout the home, not just for a high level of performance, but basically for general acoustic privacy.

 

If somebody wants to play a movie loud or have other types of entertainment, such as watching TV or playing video games, there’s really no way to stop that sound from completely taking over a good portion of an open-plan home. And that’s where we really have to think about the compromises. We have to think about it very holistically in terms of the

usage of the home.

 

Are we able to implement engineered absorptive/diffusive treatments, like we would in a dedicated room? Sometimes, but often not. Your left wall relative to the screen might be completely treatable because it’s just going to be bare sheetrock, but then the right wall is that huge stone fireplace we talked about.

 

 

Is it more important to get sonic symmetry—which is usually one of the key criteria when designing a 

Acoustic Designer Steve Haas on Media Rooms

Steve Haas with the Father of Home Theater (and
Cineluxe contributor), Theo Kalomirakis

listening room, media room, or home theater—or do you just place treatments where you can and not worry about the symmetry?

I would argue that symmetry is extremely important because even if the sound is compromised, you don’t want it to change drastically when you go from left to right across the room. As long as we can treat other surfaces (ceilings especially) and achieve overall control, this approach can get decent results.

 

 

A lot of these homes have large, open stairwells that feed directly into the great room area. That has to be a particularly big challenge.

That’s always a very important issue to raise, and there are a lot of times where the designers will say, “You know what? Yeah, we have to close off the stairwell. Otherwise, they will hear everything everywhere in the home.” And you can do that when you’re in early enough in the design process. There are creative ways to design contained stairwells that provide that type of sound control.

Acoustic Designer Steve Haas on Media Rooms

Steve calibrating a 38-channel audio system in a large event space for a private residence in Sydney, Australia

Some people would say that digital room correction—not the kind found in mass-market receivers but the higher-end implementations—can compensate for a lot of the problems you’ve been describing with media rooms.

Well, it can fix a lot, certainly—or I shouldn’t say “fix,” because it’s a matter of just taking what is already there and reducing what the physical space has done to compromise it. If you know your speakers are behaving fine out of the box, then you have to understand what makes them not perform optimally at those particular seats. And that has a lot to do with their interaction with elements of the room that aren’t perfectly controlled because of the compromises we’ve been talking about.

 

With today’s processors, whether it’s mid-level or certainly the higher-end processors, there are a lot of tools in place to do this. But it cannot be done fully in an automated fashion even with the best processors. They just don’t work well without somebody with trained ears and skills looking at their results and saying, “OK, that got me a fair distance forward. Now here’s what we need to do to tweak it. Here’s how to optimize it with a manual calibration to get that last 10 to 20%.”

 

It’s easy to understand why the processors some manufacturers claim are perfect and get perfect results really don’t. There are things acoustically that can be overcome with electronics and there are things that just cannot. If you have a room that is

all hard and reflective surfaces, whether it’s glass, sheet-rock, stone, you name it, there’s just nothing a processor can do to overcome the excessive reflections and reverberations.

 

Yet there are those who will claim they can. The end users and AV integrators really need to understand that you can bend the laws of physics, but you can’t break them. If you have speaker interactions with nearby hard surfaces that cause what’s called “comb filtering”—short delayed reflections that combine with the direct sound to cancel a series of frequencies—no  processor eliminate that. That is absolutely a physical correction that needs to be made to the interaction of the speakers with the surrounding room and the surfaces close to the speakers.

 

 

So, when you talk to a client, what do you tell them is the best you can achieve with a media room, compared to a dedicated home theater?

We can say that on a scale of 1 to 10, that it’s not going to be a 10. No media room I’ve ever worked on is a 10—essentially flawless acoustically. Now, do we have solid 9’s? Absolutely, because we’ve worked hard with the entire design team to make intelligent compromises that achieve a well-balanced experience that thrills the end user.

 

If something is going to be well below an 8 or 9, then the client needs to understand that. They need to get to the point where they say, “I’m OK with a 6 or 7 because I’m gaining all these other functions. I have these beautiful vistas of the mountains out this glass window. The stone fireplace is just over the top. Wonderful. All these things.” We have to always remember it’s not just about what we do and what we bring to the table. It’s the overall experience. And people sometimes are OK with balanced compromises.

 

 

Since you often find yourself being brought into a project later than you would prefer, what needs to happen to change that?

First of all, it’s educating homeowners and architects on what happens when you ignore the need for proper acoustics. And fortunately there are a lot of case studies, a lot of horror stories, we can share that say, “OK, here’s what happens when you ignore acoustics in any regard.” Either the quality in some cases or the privacy, the isolation of just general noise, allowing exterior noise or mechanical equipment noise to infiltrate the rest of your house.

 

I really do think the answer lies with the architects and designers because they have to be on board with saying, “You know what, we don’t want our houses just to look good or feel good. We want them to sound good as well.” And that is a stretch for a lot of visual designers. That’s no secret because it’s just not something they’re used to. And they also have a lot of preconceived notions about what it means to implement acoustics.

 

What we’re trying to do is basically quell those misconceptions to say, “There is a way to do this without turning your beautiful house into a science project or burlap panel or whatever.” The biggest challenge and biggest effort one can make is to let the designers understand that we can give homeowners a much better sensory experience and also add to the wellness factor of their home from multiple senses and not compromise in any appreciable way.

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs,
couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

The Key to Home Theater Sound Quality–Pt. 2

home theater sound quality

In Pt. 1, I talked about how you can’t assume that something on a lossless source like a CD, DVD, Blu-ray Disc, or high-quality download will sound great just because it was recorded, mixed, and mastered by “name professionals.”

 

While I won’t publicly call out any aurally-disappointing disc titles out of respect for my colleagues in the recording industry, I did recently have an opportunity related to a friend who has grown into a world-famous Grammy-winning jazz vocalist but didn’t have a concert video yet. I encouraged him and his manager of the importance of not only having one but making sure the sound quality was top notch. (Of course, I told him I’d promote the heck out of it, if done well, in the world of CEDIA demo material.)

 

They agreed, and his label brought an A-list production team to the table to make the video during one of his concerts in Europe. When the time was right, the artist sent me the final edit of the surround mix to evaluate in some of my favorite local-area private theater rooms.

 

Much to my surprise (or maybe not), the balance between instruments was way off. Even more astounding, the editor had the same mono mix of all voices and instruments playing on the left, center, and right speakers! (Is this a new mode called Tri-ono?) No matter where you sat in the theater, the entire audio program was coming directly from the speaker in front of you, regardless of where the actual visual images of the voice and instruments were coming from!

 

Of course, I gave critical feedback to the production company, and the response I received from the lead engineer was:

 

My mix is essentially a 3.1 mix with some bled into the center speaker and the documentary
elements entirely in the centre speaker. This was deliberate, as 98% of people listen in their
living room on stereo or not well set up 5.1 systems and they will hear this mix as intended.
Those of us lucky enough to have full blown cinema rooms would possibly be better served
with a traditional 5.1 mix with the vocal in the centre speaker etc. as I would do if this were a
cinema release. The decision as to whether it should be a mix suitable for the majority or a
cinema-style mix I shall pass on to others. Happy to do either but would recommend the former.

 

This was the eureka moment that began to let me see first-hand just how disconnected the world of production can be from consumer audio. (I’m sure my video colleagues have many similar stories about video quality.) And why I always listen to new discs on known systems first, so I never have to wonder about the quality of what I’m evaluating.

 

Maybe it’s time we demand better recording/editing standardsespecially on consumer releases of media contentto ensure we all receive the best quality in our private theaters and listening environments.

—Steve Haas

Steve Haas is the Principal Consultant of SH Acoustics, with offices in the NYC & LA areas.
Steve has been a leading acoustic and audio design & calibration expert for over 25 years in
high-end spaces ranging from home theaters, studios, and live music rooms to major museums
and performance venues.

The Key to Home Theater Sound Quality–Pt. 1

Home Theater Sound Quality

You’re probably all thinking this is going to be another blog post about acoustics, right? Well . . . I guess it could be, but, no, we’ll have to save that for another entry.

 

There’s something beyond the room, the acoustics, the system, and the calibration that most people don’t realize can have a significant effect (positive or negative) on the experience of listening to music or movies in your theater—the quality of the source media itself!

 

While many people realize the compromised quality of compressed audio like MP3, the average consumer just assumes that a lossless source like a CD, DVD, or Blu-ray Disc must have the best tonal and level balances and spatial quality because it was recorded, mixed, and mastered by “name professionals.”

 

Most of the time, that’s true. But there are plenty of occasions where I’ve acquired a stack of new discs to try out on my reference system for my own listening/viewing pleasure and am incredibly surprised that the quality is all over the map. This seems to be especially true with concert videos, where the recordings of even well-known artists have turned out to be very underperforming when it comes to imaging, surround placement, noisiness, dialogue clarity, and other quality factors.

 

I’ve even been in the final stages of calibrating the audio of a theater and the client urges me to try out the concert-“X” Blu-ray that I’ve never listened to before. And after a few minutes of listening, we both sit there and look at each other in disbelief at how mediocre the system sounds. Fortunately, I know to quickly grab my Top 5 sound-quality reference movie and concert discs and play them so we can (hopefully) breathe a sigh of relief that everything is all good with the calibration and our ears!

 

In Pt. 2, I’ll tell the story of a Grammy-winning vocalist I know whose concert video didn’t turn out the way I thought it would.

—Steve Haas

Steve Haas is the Principal Consultant of SH Acoustics, with offices in the NYC & LA areas.
Steve has been a leading acoustic and audio design & calibration expert for over 25 years in
high-end spaces ranging from home theaters, studios, and live music rooms to major museums
and performance venues.