The Sound Of Science

If audio is a subjective medium, then performance venues present an especially difficult conundrum with their requirement for excellent acoustics both on stage and in the audience. In the past half-century, the environmental acoustics of traditional concert hall and theater designs have been augmented with any number of technological innovations which improve the sonic experience for performers and patrons alike. Whether it's achieved through advanced acoustical materials or sound reinforcement and electronic enhancement systems, audio has a wide range of opportunities for improvement before it reaches the ears of critics and the complimentary alike.
Playing a significant role in the evolution of both acoustical materials and technology, Jaffe Holden Acoustics was founded on science in 1960, and today continues to add measure and method to the experience of sound. The company has made great strides in lightweight acoustical shell design, and has harnessed the power of technology with its Electronic Reflected Energy System (ERES), an acoustical enhancement system.
The company's progressive maneuvers reflect recent changes seen in the business of acoustical and performance sound and video consulting. The business has become much more competitive and broad based, observed Russ Cooper, president and principal architectural acoustic designer. With 20 years of experience behind him (16 of those with Jaffe Holden), Cooper noted, "When I first started, there were basically three major firms competing for all the acoustic work in the country. Now the list has grown to perhaps half a dozen or so firms of varying degrees of size and quality that are asked to submit proposals on any given project type. Fees are much more a factor in selection today than in the past-as they are now in all areas of the design profession."
While clients are looking more closely at the bottom line, they still place high priority on the best quality sound, which leaves little room in the budget for trial and error. Fortunately, things have changed on the design side of the equation as well. "The technical side of the business has evolved such that most of the calculations we do are all done by computer, as opposed to when I started, most were done by calculator or at the very least spreadsheets," Cooper recalled. "Computer simulated design tools and modeling-although offering nowhere near the ability to accurately predict sound in a concert hall-do offer a tool to evaluate various design schemes on a project in an 'A-B' type comparison." Those A-B comparisons have never been so necessary as they are in today's market, where multipurpose venues rule the day and a single system is expected to meet a number of requirements.
At a time when a single system is expected to fulfill more than one purpose, a single business entity is also expected to offer a variety of design solutions. Among the approximately 70 projects in the works at Jaffe Holden, there has appeared a new breed of client that seeks more from the company's Performance Sound and Video team. In the past, Robb observed, "our clients were satisfied with our providing acoustic and electro-acoustic design services, and we would get the occasional request for audiovisual work. The question came very seldom at first, but in the past five years we've been asked on a regular basis, so now two of our people do a great deal of audiovisual and video, and we're also taking steps right now to include IT and telephony-not as a standalone service, but as a part of a package."
The "one-stop shopping" model seen recently in the conglomeration of manufacturers and even the services of architectural and engineering firms has most likely led to the demand for all-in-one specialty consultants. "In the past AV services were not as frequently requested," Cooper said. "Today it is commonplace and in this climate of less performing arts and more competition it is important to diversify to thrive."
Having joined the company in 1989, Robb has watched Jaffe Holden's core business of sound reinforcement for performance halls evolve from taboo to "me too." "Today, anything that has anything to do with a performance will absolutely have some kind of electronic system in it, even if it is as simple as a basic public address system," he said.
"Basic" certainly isn't how most of Jaffe Holden's Sound and Performance Video projects would be described. Building on the performing arts world's acceptance of technology, Jaffe Holden is credited with designing the first surround concert halls in the western hemisphere at Denver's Boettcher Hall and Mexico City's Sala Nezahualcoyotl. Furthermore, Jaffe Holden's work in acoustical, electro-acoustic and sound enhancement via ERES has come together in numerous projects, probably on the grandest scale at the 21,000-seat Assembly Hall for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Salt Lake City, UT where five different sound systems were implemented, including two ERES systems.
Jaffe Holden's audio expertise remains the foundation for its work with an increasingly diverse array of clients. "We do a lot of museum work now, as we have expanded into AV with interactive exhibit design," Robb pointed out. "Museum projects tend to start out with the standard audio, but then there is the addition of a lot of unusual things-specialty speakers and sound delivery devices that work better for museums and interactive kiosks. Then there are special considerations for the type of AV or video that matches the sound." Recent museum projects designed by the Museum Studio at JHA include the National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and the National Constitution Center.
In the end, it is the combined application of expertise and technology that makes or breaks a consultancy. If a system doesn't work in the real world, it won't pass the test. The Jaffe Holden Performance Sound and Video team works from practical application experience. "Every one of the people here has spent many days, hours, weeks of their lives behind the mixing console doing shows either on tour, in the theater or recording studio," Robb said. Everybody knows what the equipment is and how things operate. You can't just create that with room modeling programs on a computer and expect the contractor to make something wonderful out of it."
With technical experience abundant at Jaffe Holden, musical talent also abounds among 98 percent of the staff. The cumulative experience behind the scenes and on stage informs designs that work well for those on both sides of a performance. "Our team is really talented at what they do," Robb said. "We figured out how to get all that experience onto paper, we figured out how to work with architects, electrical engineers and audio contractors to get the best product, but ultimately it's all about the sound, and we know sound."

Jaffe Holden

Kirsten Nelson is a freelance content producer who translates the expertise and passion of technologists into the vernacular of an audience curious about their creations. Nelson has written about audio and video technology in all its permutations for almost 20 years; she was the editor of SCN for 17 years. Her experience in the commercial AV and acoustics design and integration market has also led her to develop presentation programs and events for AVIXA and SCN, deliver keynote speeches, and moderate and participate in panel discussions. In addition to technology, she also writes about motorcycles—she is a MotoGP super fan.