Acoustics: A Speaker’s Best Friend (Or Worst Enemy)

Posted by Dave

I played for the grand opening of a new office building yesterday (I get all the glamorous jobs). Like most lobbies, yesterday’s was a combination of glass, steel, and stone. It was also large. In other words, the builders had contructed a natural echo chamber.

A little bit of “reverb” makes music sound fuller, so – for me – it was a wonderful venue. But at the mid-point of the party, several dignitaries made short speeches. And – for them, as well as for those trying desperately to understand their words – it was… not as wonderful.

As the voices bounced off all those hard surfaces, their tones came back – again and again – to interfere with the intelligibility for those in the audience. The faster a person spoke, the more difficult it was to understand them. When anyone from the audience coughed, cleared their throats, or spoke to someone beside them, those sounds bounced around as well.

For anyone further than 6 feet from the speaker, secondary (bounced) sounds soon overpowered primary (or direct) tones. I was less than 4 feet away, and I still missed a substantial chunk of what was said. (I got the impression it was something nice about the building, and those who had played various roles in its construction.)

If you are planning an event at a similar location, know that speeches will be made, and hope that your audience will be able to understand the speakers, do yourself a favor: invest in fabric.

Every party supply house should have draping available. Hung from portable stands, just for your event, it will absorb ricochet sounds and prevent them from bouncing back. Four such drapes, no bigger than 8 feet high and 8 feet wide, would have made an enormous difference yesterday.

To get the most sound absorption for your buck, I recommend placing your decorative drapes in front of the corners in your room. (Picture an “X”, with the fabric at each of the 4 points.) Not only will you dress up your venue, but you really will be astonished at the improvement in sound characteristics.

Of course – now that people will actually understand what you’ll be saying – you may want to go over that welcoming speech, one more time.


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