Planning In 3D Can Be Worth The Effort

by Danny Maland

I have a dislike of being “sold” to. I have an instinctive eye-roll reflex that kicks in whenever someone starts touting equipment or services as a means to “improve profitability, increase client satisfaction, gain better name recognition, jump higher, run faster, and look better than ever before!” That's all fine and good, thanks, but what I really want is quantitative information. Let me have the spec sheet, and I will decide, myself, whether this watchamacallit will fit my needs or not. If the watchamacallit (or thingamabob, or whaddyacallwho) in question is a service that I supposedly “need” to offer, what I want to see is how that service really does help me get superior results.

I mention the above because I want to carefully avoid saying that using 3D software for planning equipment deployment is some sort of sure bet. Some folks may have increased their profitability and marketing power by being able to woo clients with nice pictures, and some folks might have found the whole thing to be just an added expense. Some folks may have hit fewer snags by being able to plan in 3D, and some may have encountered just as many speed bumps (if not more).

What I am going to say is that having a way to plan and present equipment installations in 3D has been a big help for me. It hasn't made me more money, but it's helped me to understand the implications of different gear choices. I haven't gotten more business because of using 3D for planning, but I have been grateful for the ability to get an advance feel for what might happen in a space.

I think that it's critical for me to acknowledge that working in a virtual, 3D, computer-generated environment isn't necessarily an easily acquired skill set. It doesn't seem all that tough for me, as I've spent years tooling around with different 3D modeling and rendering programs. For someone who doesn't have that background, constructing and outfitting a virtual space can be a daunting prospect. Even if you spring for a software package that includes a library of audio and/ or video equipment, you may still find yourself bogged down in all the features and controls available. Instant results are rare – maybe even nonexistent. If you want to get into this kind of thing, and are utterly new to it, you need to be willing to gain proficiency in small increments.

So...with all that ink having spilled on cautionary language, the question arises of where the rubber met the road for me, personally.

What really got me hooked on the idea of planning in “virtual reality” was trying to figure out what could or could not be accomplished with limited space. In past years I've been involved in what I would call a “serious, exploratory project” with my church that deals with providing a performance venue to local musicians as an outreach project. As we've discussed the possibilities of a permanent facility, one issue that has repeatedly come up is that of how the outreach project could be housed in different amounts of space. In my case, answering this question is where planning in 3D really started to shine.

What I was able to do was to build up a library of roughly modeled objects that approximated the dimensions of audio and lighting gear that I was interested in specifying for the project. I was also able to make approximations of things like seating, acoustical treatment, and doors. I could then make some quick models of spaces with varying square footage and ceiling heights. With a virtual room created, I could then dip into my library of objects to outfit the venue.

As I worked, it would very quickly become apparent if I was running out of space, or if an idea was clumsy. There was a sort of “enforced honesty” that came into play. If I wanted to do something like having splayed walls to reduce flutter echo, the amount of room lost was very easy to see. Similarly, issues of how to balance a desire for lots of audio and lighting with considerations for performer and audience comfort would “pop” out of the model very quickly. Sure, it would be cool to put another lighting truss there, but would that be too close to audience members' heads? Indeed, it would be neat to have a PA that could flatten an elephant, but where would it all go? How are we going to manage storage? Load-in? Getting folks in and out? Is it possible to do standing room down front for the “high energy” sorts of events? Do the loudspeakers have a coverage pattern that works for this seating arrangement, overall?

All of this became visual and immediate, which really helped conversations about the project to involve helpful substance.

Another benefit that revealed itself was that of being able to think through real-estate selection. When a property would come up for consideration, I could get a satellite photo of the proposed building (isn't the Internet grand?) and get the scale worked out. That being done, I had a rough idea of how much square footage might be available to me – not to mention an idea of the aspect ratio of the floor space – and I could try some different venue layout ideas in that possible building.

Even though the project has been mothballed indefinitely for lack of funds, I still find the whole experience to have been valuable. The idea of laying out a space in the computer is something I can keep in my back pocket, in any case.

  • Figures 1a – 1c are an idea for a space that utilizes inner and outer walls (with air spaces in between) to try for greater transmission loss between the inside and outside of the venue.


Figure 2 was an idea based on just having a “box” to work with, albeit one with a good amount of ceiling height.

Figures 3a – 3c were motivated by the idea of figuring out what could be shoehorned into a space with a relatively low ceiling, and about 3000 square feet of floor space. Figure 3c is the result of me loading my design into a rendering program that could give me an idea of how the space would look with a bit of area lighting in it.