Feature Article - November 2009
Find a printable version here

Audio & Illumination

Space-Specific, Sport-Specific

By Dawn Klingensmith

The Sound and the Fury

Case in point: At a cost of $1.5 billion, the new Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas was intended to be the world's most impressive sports stadium, while also doubling as a concert arena. But the building's design caused acoustical problems, particularly for concert goers who claimed the music reverberates in some locations and sounds muffled in others.

Football fans complained that sound broadcast through the stadium's hundreds of speakers seemed to get eaten up by the enormous space. And some said they had trouble hearing Cowboys' announcer Jody Dean, though that problem reportedly has been solved.

Before sound engineers and consultants started a months-long process of fine-tuning the sound system, The Dallas Morning News invited readers of its Cowboys Stadium blog to chime in with their opinions of the stadium's acoustics. "I have a better sound system in my shed," one respondent groused. "This may qualify as one of the worst sound systems I've heard," another wrote.

The acoustical challenges, built right into the stadium's architecture, are the sheer size of the space; the retractable roof, which precludes the installation of overhead sound-deadening material; and giant glass doors—each measuring 180 feet wide and 120 feet tall—in the end zones.

Hard surfaces, like Cowboy Stadium's massive glass portals, reflect and amplify sound. That's why school and recreation facility audio systems often sound like the unseen adults in Peanuts cartoons. In typical gymnasiums and natatoriums, hard reflective surfaces and materials, including water, concrete, wood, metal, tile and glass, bounce sound waves among one another, creating echoes.

Competitive facilities should perhaps be reverberant to some degree to stoke excitement, but surfaces and materials must be absorptive enough to support intelligibility and clarity.

Even top-of-the-line sound systems won't deliver optimal speech intelligibility and frequency range without proper acoustics, including strategically placed noise-reduction solutions such as spray-on ceiling coatings, tiles, ceiling- and wall-mounted panels, suspended banners and perforated metal panels with fiberglass at their core.