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Acoustics A to Z
A = Acoustics
The aim of our articles are to break down acoustic terms and concepts as simply as possible, without going too far into the mathematics and every nitty gritty technicality, that acousticians usually love to get stuck into.
So please, if you’re an architect, contractor, developer, planner… or really anyone who occasionally needs to dabble in acoustic design and assessments… then read on…
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What is Acoustics and how does it affect us?
Fortunately, the name of the topic I’m covering in this A to Z series of short articles has given me a pretty convenient place to start with for the letter A, acoustics.
Acoustics is an area of physics which deals with waves in gases, liquids and solids. The most common topics within this are sound, noise (an unwanted sound), and to a lesser extent vibration. But as the diagram below shows, it’s a very broad area.
R. Bruce Lindsey in J. Acoust. Soc. Am. V. 36, p. 2242 (1964)
Firstly, I should explain, my profession is as an ‘Acoustic Consultant’. In short, I deal with acoustics, noise and vibration that would occur in your everyday life. Whether it’s your home, place of learning or place of work, or the method of transport you use to get there, at some point, an acoustic consultant like myself would (hopefully!) have had something to do with it. If I were to categorise myself based on the ‘Lindsay’s Wheel of Acoustics’, my work would be predominantly in the Engineering quadrant, with some spill over into Arts.
But to be honest, I don’t enjoy trying to explain my job when small talking at a party. I shouldn’t struggle really, because whilst it feels like a very niche profession, I know that it’s actually a very broad topic and with a bit more composure, I could probably bore you all day.
But acoustics is just not something that a lot of people think about. A common response is “you’re an acoustic consultant?… so, you stick eggboxes on walls?”. Well not quite… it’s easy to think of acoustics as being something to do with being a musician, a sound engineer or designing recording studios and concert halls. Admittedly I might dabble in the latter on the odd occasion, but really, it’s a very (very) small percentage of my job.
Of course, there are plenty of people who are aware of the importance of acoustics and I don’t want to offend those reading this… but for the most part, unless you’re an ‘audiophile’ or you’ve a keen interest in auditoriums and concert halls, you’ll probably only think about acoustics if it’s providing you with problems.
Take your home for example. For me, just walking around my house, I notice the annoying metallic sounding ring on the stairs from the flutter echo between the walls either side, and that when cooking in the kitchen, with the TV on and my partner having to raise her voice to be heard… it’s noisy enough to give me a headache. I’m also well-tuned into the whirring of the filter in my fish tank (and that sitting in the armchair next to it oddly makes the vibration louder!), and the increasingly rattly sound of the extractor fan in the bathroom (when my latest lazy attempt at ‘mitigation’ without removing the whole thing has fallen off). Thinking back to my old flat, about 50 metres from a motorway, I don’t miss the hot summer days with the balcony door open, compared to my house now, where I have to check whether I’ve left the window open, because it’s so much quieter (barring the odd noisy scrap that our cat will get into outside).
In most cases, ‘good acoustics’ is when it isn’t noticed. But as I alluded to above, when you have something to compare it against (the noisy motorway vs the quiet cul-de-sac), the effect it has on your life is much more obvious. It affects every one of us, every day, everywhere, whether you’re conscious of it or not.
And that effect can range from a minor annoyance, to a breakdown of communication and productivity in the classroom or the workplace, or a significant impact on your mental wellbeing and physical health.
Acoustic design is not just eliminating the annoying rattle from my extractor fan or making music more pleasing to the ear in an auditorium.
It’s making sure that students can hear their teachers and learn effectively. It’s keeping productivity levels high in our open plan offices. It’s enabling residents to live more comfortably in their homes without noise depriving them of sleep. It’s helping patients in our hospitals rest and recover, and even aiding in diagnosing them. It’s preventing employees in noisy working environments from suffering long term hearing damage.
It’s many things, and it’s important.
This article could be a lot longer, but as we’re only at A of this A to Z, I will leave it here for now. I hope you enjoyed this short read and will return as I try to shed some light on how acoustics, noise and vibration affect us, why it’s important, how we can control it and how to make sense of the ‘dark art’ of acoustic consultancy.
I hope you enjoyed this short article, and keep an eye out for more articles on the common questions that I get asked by clients in my job as an acoustic consultant. Feel free to connect and message me through LinkedIn, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or through our Contact Us page.