The Design Process
The following should provide a good understanding of what can be expected in the process of designing a listening room. There are five distinct phases to most design projects. Some of these phases may on occasion slightly overlap but ideally, each will have a clear beginning and ending point. These design phases are:

  1. Information gathering or application
  2. Quote and/or contract
  3. Dimensional check or dimensional analysis
  4. Ergonomics
  5. Concept plan
  6. Schematics
  7. Construction
  8. Final measurements and testing

Each of these is discussed in more detail below.

Information Gathering
Any time a design is being contemplated, there is an initial process of gathering basic and useful data. This information includes answers to questions such as: Is the room dedicated or shared; Home Theater and/or 2-channel; what is the approximate size; and how many people should be seated?

At Rives Audio we have developed an application form that helps gather this basic information. Using a standard form makes our work much more efficient but does not mean there must be a standardized form. It is important that the design firm is listening to you -- the client -- and fully understands your needs. If this doesn't occur at the very beginning, it is never going to work out. We've found that our clients vary quite a bit in terms of what they want to achieve. This necessarily affects our designs. We ask all our clients to consider the following design aspects: budget, sonic benefits and aesthetics. Each of these aspects work together in balance and each client comes with a different and unique threshold for each. Elements such as noise isolation, nearfield vs farfield perspective and other more subtle characteristics must be considered as well. We often have to first educate the clients about these variables so they understand their own priorities and options better. At first, it's often not obvious to the clients what's important to them. We need to go through a series of questions to help them understand their own listening preferences and the most beneficial order for their priorities.

After we receive the application form, we evaluate it and discuss with the client what possible approaches are available to fulfill his requirements. It is possible that a practical or cost-effective approach for a particular space is unavailable and proceeding with a design might not be wise. While this is very rare, it can happen but fortunately, there won't have been a charge for this initial phase of the project. Some firms may charge a nominal fee to take it this far which is fine as well.

Quote and/or contract
At this point, you and your designer should be able to decide if proceeding makes sense. If so, you should receive a quote and/or contract. Design firms have different ways of handling this. Whatever their policy is, read the contract carefully. Most are binding. Some may have penalties associated with anything from delayed payments to delays in schedules. Be sure you are comfortable with the contract and by all means, ask questions on anything you don't understand. Also, if you are not familiar with the designer's work, you may want to ask for references at this time.

Dimensional check/analysis
If it is for existing construction, we take drawings from the client and put them into our CAD system. We send jpegs or other suitable drawings back to the client/dealer to verify that we have entered the correct dimensions into our system. This drawing must be verified by the client/dealer/contractor to insure that dimensions have been accurately transferred.

In the case of new construction where we may have some flexibility with regards to final dimensions, we perform a dimensional analysis to determine what size measurements are best for the space our client has available. We must take into account the physical area available and weigh it against the number of desired seats. As might be expected, compromises often have to be made. For example, a client may hope for more seats than a room can realistically support without compromising the sound quality for the rear row. See diagram below. This shows the appropriate amount of space required. In a perfect world, you would like to have the listeners at least 3.5 feet away from any adjacent wall. Not doing so will mean they experience low frequency gain above 40Hz due to boundary wall-loading effects. Also, the distance to a movie screen is important. For a projector that runs at 1080p, the nearest seat should have a viewing angle no greater than 36 degrees. This will insure that the viewer cannot resolve individual pixels. For an 8-foot wide screen, this works out to a viewing distance of a little over 12 feet. On top of these criteria, you should pick room dimensions that have good modal distribution. We want to support as many room modes as possible in the low frequencies without having axial modes that are close to each other. When the latter happens, we will get certain frequencies that are accentuated and create that boomy and muddy bass sound.

This whole process can be iterative as there may be some tweaking to insure it works into the rest of the architectural plan. We work with the client and architect until we reach agreement on the final dimensions. This is an extremely critical phase of the project. Dimensional relationships are one of the most important aspects of good low frequency sound reproduction and not easily changed once built. The point is, get this right and listen to your designer/engineer. If they warn of problems, listen carefully and ask them what problems those might be and how severe. They should know where the problems will occur and have a rough estimate of their severity but actual severity is often difficult to predict precisely prior to building.

Keep in mind that you are paying someone to give you advice on this very important aspect. This is one area where not to cut corners. It costs almost nothing to get the dimensions right in the beginning but can be very costly indeed to fix later.

This phase is to insure that the ergonomics/space-use particulars of the room are correct. For new construction, we have to consider where the entryways and windows will be. For both new and existing rooms, this is also when we determine the approximate speaker, screen and seating locations, including how many seats, if there are risers and other basic ergonomic issues. This too is an iterative process to insure we meet all of the clients' needs. Once this is approved, we move on to the concept plan.

This sounds like a really simple phase of the project but can often get complex very fast. For example, someone may want to accommodate 12 people in a 14' x 19' room. While you can fit that many chairs in the room, both visual and sound quality will be severely compromised. Some of this process may already have been taken care of in the dimensional phase but in this phase, it should be refined. A good designer will lay out the room and show the requested number of seats, then design another optimized layout that shows how many potential problems might be addressed and corrected. We run into this issue a lot and show our clients how it affects overall sound and visual aspects (people too close to the screen who can see individual pixels is not a good idea). Once they can visualize the problems, they generally back off and say something like, "well, can we get 8 people in the room even if 2 of them get bad sound?" Sometime we may downscale from theater style seats (which take up a lot of room) to more casual couch-style seating. There are many ways to incorporate compromises when striving to achieve the goals of the client but again, it's very important to openly communicate with the designer/engineer. It's your room after all. They need to fully understand what is most important to you.

We have run into situations where some architects or designers feel it's their space. It's not. It's the homeowner's space. He or she is hiring us - architects, interior designers and sound consultants. We all work for the client, not the other way around. Any designer/engineer who forgets that should be called off the project immediately.

Concept Plan
The concept plan adds the basic acoustical treatment into the room. This calls out all the surface treatments, floor type, ceiling construction, absorption, diffusion and trappings within the room. It will also convey a good idea of what the room will look like from a 2-D plan view. In addition, the concept plan is a good time to consider budgets as well as aesthetics. Different treatments have different associated building costs and while we cannot precisely know what a contractor might charge, we do know how to trim costs. The caveat is that this is usually at the expense of either aesthetics or sonic performance. Once this phase is approved, we move to the schematic phase.

Keep in mind the three aspects mentioned earlier about this phase: budget, sonic benefit and aesthetics. You should have some sort of handle on these during this phase though don't ask the designer/engineer specifically what it will cost. They are not builders and should not be expected to give you estimates. Your builder will have to do that. But the designer can design in certain ways to reduce costs.

I use a kitchen analogy with many of my clients. Imagine the A/V components as your appliances. You need cabinets and countertops and floors. You can opt for granite countertops, natural cherry cabinets and beautiful stone tile flooring. It will be expensive but look great. Or you can have Formica cabinets and countertops with a vinyl floor. It will be perfectly functional but won't look like the previous kitchen. You'll have a lot of extra money to spend on software (or fine wine). You need to prioritize. We often ask clients to look through magazines and tear out pictures of rooms they find appealing. Acoustics don't have to look like anything in particular. A creative designer can integrate acoustic treatments into almost any decor. We often use coffered ceilings, columns and bookcases as ways of integrating acoustical needs into a room.

Some designers even provide 3-D imagery of what the room will look like. This is a nice added touch if aesthetics are very important to you and you have trouble visualizing what things might look like. However, such 3-D renderings are generally not cheap. If consultants are going to this extent, their design is likely complex and thus relatively expensive to build.

Like during the previous 2 two phases, don't be afraid to ask questions and even offer suggestions of what you might like to see. This is really the last phase you as the client will have input on so it's vitally important that you are really happy with the results at this point.

The schematics include floor plans together with all the detail and assembly drawings and often elevations where applicable. These are the architectural details required to build the room. During this schematic process, we will verify the preliminary work performed in the concept phase and insure that we have the right amount of absorption, diffusion and trappings. This likely involves small modifications from the concept plan but they are relatively insignificant to the client.

The schematics complete the design phase. They can now be given to a contractor(s) to bid on the project. Most contractors have never seen an acoustically engineered room before. That's okay - don't panic (yet). If your contractor doesn't ask questions and doesn't call on the engineer and designer to inquire about certain aspects of the design, you're in trouble. Don't hire that contractor. Pick a different one. Then call the designer and get his opinion on the questions the prospective contractor asked. Were they good questions? Did the contractor seem to have the right idea and perspective on the project? Your designer can be very important here because he will likely be communicating with your builder during the construction phase. Listen to him and don't necessarily pick the lowest bid.

Construction phase
Well, it's all coming together here. Think you're through once this phase has begun? Not even close. This phase is extremely important because the finest designs plus poor execution will lead to poor results. Excellent communication between builder and designer are a prerequisite here because these types of designs are usually foreign to most builders. Often a builder comes to us with questions that, had they gone off and done what they proposed, would have completely ruined the design. For example, in a fully isolated room, a builder said, "the clients want recessed can lighting, is that okay?" We had specified track lighting for the simple reason that cans would put big holes in our sound isolation barrier. So we explained to the contractor why he could not use recessed lighting. He was grateful for our explanation and that he had the foresight to call. In other instances, we've had a contractor think of a different way to build a specific acoustic device or suggest a different building material that was acceptable and less expensive or easier to work with. In such cases, we've often incorporated their ideas into future designs. So designers can often also learn from the builders - if they are willing to listen. It's a two-way street and the most important ingredient is good communication.

The overall process
In working with Rives Audio, one very important aspect to understand about this process is that once a particular phase is completed and has been approved by the client, we move to the next phase. We cannot return to a prior phase and change things without additional charges. This is one of the ways we keep our costs down and are able to provide our services at very reasonable fees. Whether you are working with our company or another design/engineering firm, keep this in mind. We all need firm decisions from you that we can count on as we work through the design process. A client who keeps changing his or her mind can be extremely frustrating to work with and make the process inefficient and costly as well as lead to less than optimum results.

As you go through the process, don't be afraid to ask questions of your acoustical engineer, architect and builder. Don't expect them to educate you on every aspect of what they do but they should provide you with ample information so that you can make informed decisions along the way. And try to enjoy the process. Don't get caught up on fabric colors when you are still trying to figure out the dimensions of the room. Take it a step at a time and a good engineer will walk you right through the process.
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