Neil Shaw is a master acoustical consultant whose Menlo Scientific has tamed many a sound issue. From Court Houses to Sports Facilities, Screening Rooms and Academic spaces, he has made a career out of mitigating sound issues before they arise. A soft-spoken, humorous guy with a distinct Queens accent and attitude, Neil is also a reigning Fellow to the Acoustical Society of America (ASA), a Fellow of the Audio Engineering Society (AES), and a Senior Member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) among other prestigious professional organizations. Neil is also an avowed “Dead Head”, long time resident of Topanga Canyon and in full disclosure consulted with me on the building of my post audio studio Allied Post Audio. Neil is a funny, generous and inquisitive mind who took time from his schedule to share a bottle (or two!) of wine and talk acoustics.
WOODY: How did acoustical engineering become part of your desire as a profession?
NEIL: Well, I started off in the 60s. My brother had a band, the Penetrons. A bunch of teenagers playing music in Bayside, Queens, New York. Since I had an aptitude for electronics—building Heathkits, setting up phone systems and chemistry sets—I just became a sound guy.
WOODY: Did you build the Heath mixers and things like that?
NEIL: I built their radios—I forget all the stuff that I built from them. They had test equipment you could build. It was great. I wish we still had it. A lot of people don’t have that hands-on experience any more. They don’t know the joy of smokey solder, you know—the flux—the gaseous flux. I was the geek in high school, I guess. I was good at math and science, and won a physics medal—this, that, and the other thing. And I ended up at Cooper Union—their School of Engineering at St. Marks and Third in 1968, right after the Summer of Love.
WOODY: [LAUGHS] So you were in college at the perfect time.
NEIL: The perfect time. I was studying electrical engineering. But one thing led to another, you know. I left Cooper Union in 1970 and traveled for a couple of years, and started working for real bands. One of them was Edgar Winter’s band as a grunt. I was helping with the sound.
WOODY: Edgar Winter, haven’t thought of him in a while!
NEIL: Yeah, but he was the headliner. Most of them were bands where they’re probably selling real estate now. I don’t know what happened to a lot of them. But one thing led to another and I ended up back at UCLA at their School of Engineering and Applied Science.
WOODY: Is this graduate or still—?
NEIL: No, it’s still undergraduate. Originally I went back to finish my undergraduate. But it was funny because I decided to start through extension. And I took a welding class, a linear algebra class, and a rock-climbing class. And I got a call from the dean of the extension. What could I have done to be called down to the dean? So I go to see him, and he says, “One of your professors says you should be matriculating.” So I was a wise-ass—I said, “Well, what’s that,” knowing what it was. He says, “Well, that’s where you earn your degree, and I encourage you to apply. You probably can get a good scholarship.” So I applied—
WOODY: So they’re pushing you.
NEIL: They’re pushing me. This is 1973 or something. And so I enroll, and I’m there for less than a quarter and I get called down to the dean of the engineering school. Dick Stern—he’s now at Penn State, a really great guy. He says, “One of your professors talked to me. He says you should be a departmental scholar.” I said, “What’s that?” He said, “Oh, you work on your bachelor’s and master’s degree at the same time.” I said, “Why would I want to do that?” He said, “Automatic parking. You don’t have to wait in line to register.” So I did that. [LAUGHS]
WOODY: This is UCLA?
NEIL: UCLA. But then in 1975 I got a job with a company called General Acoustics. They did a lot of acoustical work for the military and turbine business—gas turbines for generators. Then I got a call from an engineer in Santa Monica who did more of the architectural acoustics.
WOODY: So prior to General Acoustics, did you get your bachelor’s and your master’s?
NEIL: No, I was still in school. So this was ’75 and I was still in school. I got my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in 1977—both of those in ’77. Later in ’76 I got a call from an engineering firm in Santa Monica that did architectural acoustics and sound systems. So I worked for them for seventeen years. But I started Menlo Scientific in 1992, we incorporated in ’93, and it’s been twenty years since then. There’s a Menlo office down here that’s mainly the architectural acoustics office. There’s a Menlo office up in the Bay Area that’s mainly electroacoustic product development and material science. You know, development of headsets for Microsoft or helping Intel with their—at the beginning when they were doing their voice-over internet phones—uh, excuse me, Cisco with their internet phone, Intel with their internet appliance. After awhile these things get misty. [LAUGHS] And then we have a little test lab that tests headsets and microphones and speakers in the Boston area.
WOODY: So that’s a substantially different business than acoustical design, right? I mean, they’re both engineering, but one is engineering of a space and one is engineering of equipment.
NEIL: Well, no. Acoustics is acoustics, okay? The laws of physics apply no matter what you’re doing. It’s kind of like, you have a buzz in a system, all right? And a lot of people have magical solutions and different, let’s say, old wives’ tales to fix it, but all you need to do is go back to Maxwell’s equations to find out what you’re doing wrong, and that will solve your hum and buzz problem.
WOODY: What are Maxwell’s equations? Who is Maxwell?
NEIL: Maxwell is James Clerk Maxwell. He was an Englishman in the late 19th Century. He took the work from Faraday and Kelvin and others and generated four laws that join together all electrical and magnetic phenomena—electromagnetic phenomena—which basically electricity is. He was able to reduce to formula and equations what’s going on with electric fields and magnetic fields and charges, and that’s all she wrote. I can show you a book I have downstairs that I’m reviewing for the AES Journal called Grounds For Grounding. I thought at first it was a manual for parents of teenagers. [BOTH LAUGH] And he just says – it’s all about Maxwell’s equations. It’s intuitively obvious once you know it, but until you know it, you look for the mythical perfect grounds or big fat wires running all over the place.
WOODY: So what are your degrees?
NEIL: I have a Bachelor of Science in Engineering and Master of Science in Engineering.
WOODY: Wait a minute, you’re not a doctor?
NEIL: All but thesis. Actually, I was enrolled in a Ph.D. program before I got either my bachelor’s or master’s degrees, but once I started working in Santa Monica, the work was really interesting and it distracted me from a PhD.
WOODY: So you got started, like most of us, in your career, with—I’m sure you didn’t go to college thinking, hey, I’m gonna be an architectural acoustical designer.
NEIL: Yeah, I did.
WOODY: You did?
NEIL: Well, not when I started Cooper Union, but when I went to UCLA, I got there and I saw that Dick Stern was the acoustics guy in the mechanical aerospace department. And he had three classes that I took—153 A, B, and C—which was acoustical engineering. He had a laboratory course for the second one. I remember going up to a bridge they had just ripped down with sound-level meters to measure the traffic noise. And then they had the Knudsen Laboratories—excuse me, the Del Sasso Laboratories in the Knudsen Building, the physics building. They had an anechoic chamber and two reverberation chambers in a row. They even had a pool below one of the reverb chambers so you could do underwater acoustics. You know, Vern Knudsen, who they named it after—I have his books in the garage because I helped the family go through all the papers from his house in the Palisades at Mandeville and Sunset when they were donating the house to UCLA. That’s another story, and I’ll give you a copy of the article I wrote about the papers. He got here in ’22.
WOODY: This is Knudsen?
NEIL: Vern Knudsen. He was a professor at the University of California—UCSB, they used to call it. University of California Southern Branch before it became UCLA.
WOODY: Santa Barbara?
NEIL: No. They called it UC Southern Branch—UCSB. And he was around in Hollywood when the talkies came about. Can you imagine how exciting that must have been to be a guy involved in acoustics and all the studios are converting their stages to shoot sound?
WOODY: And lucrative! So, Neil, would it be correct to say that your specialty is acoustical architecture as opposed to electrical acoustics? Or is that incorrect?
NEIL: That’s incorrect. I do anything that’s acoustic related to building, recording, live reinforcement, sound playback.
WOODY: Besides the acoustics for rooms for recording and sound playback properties your work also takes you to giant industrial spaces as well. Why don’t you take a second to talk about that?
NEIL: Well, let me just say, it’s all about “the room.” It doesn’t matter what it’s used for—there are certain things you want to worry about. One is room acoustics. How is the sound perceived in that room? Are there any defects – like echoes? Is the reverberation time too excessive? Is there noise from external sources? Is there noise from the air-conditioning system? Those are things you think about in terms of the room. Then you also worry about – will the activities in the room disturb an adjacent space? How many times have you gone to a motion picture theater and seen one movie but heard three? [LAUGHS] That’s what we do a lot there, but we also do a lot of other things.
We do environmental noise studies where we go out and measure the noise before they build a project so that they can get their environmental impact report done. But also so we know what we need to design to mitigate external factors for the rooms that they’re going to build in that building. We also do audiovisual system design where we deal with a projector and loudspeakers and a mixer and the microphones in a room. Now that could be in a post-production facility where we work with the owner in selecting the equipment and the placement of it. Or it could just be for a classroom or boardroom application. Menlo did the remodel of the executive boardroom for the Academy awhile ago. We dealt with the room acoustics and the HVAC quieting, as well as the projector, the screen, the microphones.
WOODY: When you say microphones, do you mean for like conference?
NEIL: Well, they had a conference table, so we had to put in not just a system to play back program but also a VoiceLift system so that the people at the end of the really long executive boardroom table could hear the others. It had a mix-minus-one system, so that someone here wouldn’t hear themselves, people over here would hear them a little, and the people at the end would hear them a lot. And that would vary depending on where you were.
WOODY: How hands-on are you in terms of the design of that?
NEIL: I did the design. I actually got under the table and helped finish the installation ’cause they weren’t quite ready when it came to the sign-off.
WOODY: Is this going through a mixing console?
NEIL: It actually goes through a digital signal processing system. I take all the microphones and mix them together, and then I subtract yours out and send that signal to your microphone. And then do that for each of the microphones around the table. And then you also might attenuate the signal from the microphones on either side a bit. There are twenty-two microphones, and I think in this system we had eighteen loudspeakers up above, so we needed to map which loudspeakers got which microphones. So there was like eighteen mixes. And then there’s enhancements where you can have gating at a certain threshold, so it turns off below a certain threshold. You don’t have the noise in a room, and you can add EQ, and a little bit of compression, gain control, among other processing.
But not only that. We worked on the electromagnetic compatibility design criteria for the No. 7 Line Extension for New York City Transit between Times Square and the Javits Center. We put together criteria about how you want to design the system to avoid interference between systems. We wanted to make sure that the train signaling system didn’t interfere with the radios, and the radios didn’t cause the doors to open or close, and things like that.
And the reason I got that is because I knew about grounding and routing for audio systems. You remember we spoke about Maxwell’s equation earlier? For this project we talked about what type of pathways to use using conduit and things—how to route signals of different levels. You don’t want to have the traction power next to the microphone signal for the train dispatch. This is where the cabling and routing and shielding and grounding and frequency coordination comes into play.
WOODY: [makes muffled unintelligible sounds like a train announcement] Have you ever been on a subway train in New York City?
NEIL: Many times. They’ve gotten much better. I did the paging system design at three of the terminals at LAX, and I remember I was in old Terminal Two. I didn’t work on the new one, but when I was in the old one when I was flying to Canada a lot in the 1980s. Not only did I not know what they were saying, I didn’t know what language it was in. [LAUGHS]
WOODY: I wouldn’t think of an acoustical designer as being someone who would be hands-on in a paging system for LAX. It wouldn’t occur to me that someone has taken the time with those systems, because giant industrial spaces like LAX sound terrible to begin with. I wouldn’t think that someone actually spent time baffling sound.
NEIL: Well, some of them sound really bad, granted, but most newer terminals, they spend a lot of time and effort, at least in the design, on getting the acoustics and the paging systems right. They don’t want to have a reputation for bad sound and that you’ll miss your connection because you couldn’t hear the announcement.
WOODY: So Menlo is hired for those types of jobs?
NEIL: We’ve done everything. If you looked at our website—
WOODY: Yes, you’ve done them all: performance spaces, hospitality, convention centers, transportation, courts and government conference centers, sports facilities, museums. Again, from my very limited view, I would think of it only for recording studios, I would think of it for movie theaters, or you know, the Walt Disney Hall where the philharmonic’s gonna play. But I wouldn’t think of it for a terminal at a train station.
NEIL: Well, I’ll tell you, more people use the terminal at the train station than use Disney Hall. [LAUGHS]
WOODY: On the Westside (of Los Angeles) they are building a new train line that will be near the Bergamot Station.
NEIL: So this is how acoustics are involved with that. One, you want to know what the existing noise environment is, so that any development you do will not impact it too much even though they keep doing incremental things. Then they can use that baseline information in the design to determine the alignment – do we need sound walls, do we need a special kind of a track bed to lower the noise? Don’t forget, these are all steel on steel. Those things make noise. You can also determine the station design—what sound levels will you need for any paging announcements. You have to balance them so that the passengers can hear, but not you know, bug somebody who’s living adjacent to the terminal.
WOODY: I wouldn’t think about the sound of the train on the track. That’s also a consideration that you would deal with?
NEIL: And also the noise of the machinery on the train. You ever go down to Union Station and see the big Amtrak trains?
NEIL: Oh, you have to go. It’s beautiful, it’s wonderful. But those trains are noisy. They have all these pneumatic and hydraulic equipment going on, and the electrically operated equipment. It can get noisy.
WOODY: I spend my time as a sound designer putting all that in.
NEIL: Well, you could go down there and sample it. You know how do you know if a soundscape’s in a city or the boondocks? What are the elements of a boondocks soundscape? Crickets, birds, and an occasional hound dog barking. What’s the soundscape of the city? Dogs barking, police sirens, and traffic. Have you ever been in a prison or a jail situation?
NEIL: So how do you know what the soundscape’s like there?
WOODY: Because of all the movies I’ve ever seen.
NEIL: Well, I’ve worked on jails and prisons and I’ll tell you, they’re much happier places while they’re under construction than after they’re open.
WOODY: I’m sure. [BOTH LAUGH]
NEIL: But the beauty of what we’re doing in TV and film is that we’re creating a believable reality for when people go into our show as to willful suspension of disbelief. And so you just need a hint of certain things and you suck ’em right in.
WOODY: Sure, a prison door slam. Boom – you’re there.
WOODY: So let’s talk more about some of the considerations that you would have for recording studios or those kinds of things. A lot of the people who read my blog are sound people or they’re filmmakers. What sort of things can they do? In a professional environment—48 Windows, Allied Post, large dubbing stages on movie studio lots, places like that—we design them so that they’re acoustically correct, but the vast majority of people today, even union people, are encouraged to do the bulk of their work at home and then translate it. So what sort of things can somebody do by themselves to mitigate acoustic problems?
NEIL: Well, there are various international and SMPTE standards for how to set up your room, what the levels you want to have when you’re mixing, and the conditions in which you’re mixing. The first thing is you want to make sure that you have equipment that is fairly faithful to the sound that’s reproducing. You don’t want it to colorize the sound. And then you need to make sure that they’re in the proper location. If you’re mixing 5.1, there’s a standard set-up. I’ve seen rooms where it’s anything but standard. If you want to move from space to space, you have to have certain things be common between them. Let’s talk about loudspeakers. Certain lines of loudspeakers, they voice their speakers so they sound similar—not identical—when you move from the ones you use in your home to the ones you’re using in a bigger dubbing theater. You want to make sure that the orientation, spatially, for the ones in your home are similar to the ones in your professional mixing facility.
You also want to make sure that your room has no defects. You want to make sure that you’re not mixing in the null of the room nodes at the low frequencies. You want to make sure that you don’t have any early reflections off walls that come to you in the 20 to 30 millisecond time window because those tend to smear the sound. You want to make sure that it’s quiet. You have to also understand that in a smaller room your low-frequency audition is going to be a lot different than it is in a big room. I don’t care where you do it. The laws of physics—they’re there. I remember I went to this one little home studio that these guys were managers of an apartment building complex, and they took a storage room and took a pre-built room and put it in there to do their things. They said, “We have too much bass in all our mixes.” And I said, “Well, look at the room you’re mixing in.” There is no bass, so of course you want to crank it up, so when you get out into your car, which has more room, you’re going to be bass heavy.
WOODY: So how does somebody who doesn’t have a degree in physics get a better idea of what you’re talking about?
NEIL: This is the one thing you need to know in acoustics: size matters.
WOODY: So a small bedroom might not be the best place to mix a feature film in 5.1.
NEIL: You may find that you may need to fix it later. [LAUGHS] The first thing is the walls of the room are important because if you’re depending on walls to give you some low frequency, the low frequency may not see the walls and just pass right through. Or the walls may be resonate at a particular frequency. Certain constructions in homes just suck up 250 Hz. So I don’t care how much you turn it up, it’s not going to be enough. But you understand that if the room sucks up the sound, you may have a problem. Now at very low frequencies, by using panel absorbers or Helmholtz resonators to kind of tame some of the room nodes, yeah, that’s great. But 250 Hz you don’t need to have that type of control—or at least you shouldn’t.
Okay, windows and doors—those are other problems because any window is basically – an open window – in terms of the amount of sound you’re going to get back from it at low frequencies. At higher frequencies, you’re going to get a lot back. But starting at about 1K and below, sound just goes right through there. There’s an interesting book by Lothar Cremer, Principles And Applications Of Room Acoustics, where he talks about this, and he says, “Why does a whip sound different in a circus tent than outside?” Well, it’s because the canvas lets the low frequencies go right out and all you get back are the high frequencies, so it makes that snap even more intense. So think about your room as a circus tent and what’s going to go through it and what’s gonna bounce back.
WOODY: You’re never going to have a dubbing room-sized bedroom. There’s always going to be a window in an awkward place, or a closet door in an awkward place, or a door in an awkward place, so even if you put sound absorption like Owens Corning or something to absorb some of the sound—
NEIL: Fiberglass, unless it’s really, really deep, only works well for high frequencies. You may get some appreciable absorption starting at about 250 or so, but it’ll unbalance the room, depending on how you do it. Spread your absorption out—don’t put it all in one spot. Use diffusion to get rid of some bad things, and appropriate bass management. You know, deep bass traps are great except they take up a lot of space—you don’t have that kind of space in these small rooms we’re talking about. Panel absorbers and Helmholtz resonators would be much better. There are commercial ones—you can build your own. There are a lot of resources on the web that tell you how to build it. There are also many good books.
WOODY: Now I know you can be a purist because you’re a professional who does this for a living but can you—
NEIL: No, no, no, being a professional and a purist doesn’t mix because they (clients) always want it—I always tell clients you want it good, fast, or cheap—pick two. So this is what I would say. Realize where you’re doing your work. Realize that you have to use this sometimes instead of this while you’re working. I’m pointing to my head and my ears here.
It used to be in live sound, sometimes you would not be able to mix in the best position, so good mixers would go to the best position and listen, and then go to their mix position and then be able to do the translation—I’m hearing this here, this is what I have to do to make it sound good here. So you have to use your head, in addition to your ears, to sometimes compensate for what you’re hearing, so it’ll turn it better than the room will allow it.
WOODY: You know, the idea a number of years ago was that the solution to mixing at home and mixing in bedrooms and so on was this concept of near field monitoring, so that you were listening through accurate monitors in a triangular orientation to your ears and minimizing the room, so that it’s really about coming from these spectacular near fields into your ears, so that you would then make your judgment.
NEIL: The question then is how do you overcome the laws of physics? Every room has what’s called a Schroeder frequency, named for Manfred Schroeder. He’s the guy who came up with the mathematical theory for the quadratic residue diffusers. In
Number Theory In Science And Communication.
He came up with this formula that kind of gives you the dividing point where you can use statistical acoustics versus geometrical acoustics. What happens below the Schroeder frequencies is you get nodes. Why do you get nodes? Well there are not enough to fill in between the few you get, and you can hear the bass dead spots. Once the nodes are dense enough, they may be there, but you can’t “hear” them in the “denseness.” If the room is twenty feet and the wavelength is forty feet, you’re going to have really strong nodal behavior in the room. You have nothing in the middle and strong stuff at the walls. Twice that, you’ll have two dead spots. You’ve been in many rooms where all of a sudden you move three feet and there’s no bass. Well, that’s the problem. In small rooms, no matter how good the speakers are and no matter how close you are, you’re not going to get accurate reproduction at the low end.
WOODY: So the near-field concept is a fallacy?
NEIL: It’s not a fallacy, but this is what you need to do. You have to realize you’re doing mixing in a bedroom and you need to finalize at the stage or the dubbing theater. And you listen to it, and you say, “Oh, I have too much here and not enough there.” And you keep that in your head next time you’re doing a mix in your small space – that what you’re hearing here you have to remember that you have to make up for the deficiencies in the room. It’s like when you’re going into a skid, right? You have to turn into the skid just enough—not too little, not too much.
WOODY: All right, well then, let me ask you this. So the latest sort of advancement from the near field concept is the room mode detection software. So for instance, I have the JBL LSR Series of monitor speakers, and they came with a microphone and its own calibration system, so you stick the microphone in the mix position and you to leave the room—crank it up and leave the room—because it’s gonna blast pink noise, white noise, and so on. And it’s gonna analyze the characteristics of my room. It’s then going to, I’m assuming, apply an EQ characteristic that makes up for the deficiencies that it reads from the room, and now I’m mixing in a perfectly flat space because the reproduction of sound has been altered to now make up for the deficiencies of the room.
NEIL: I would say the only place you have a perfectly flat room is on a flat earth. Okay? However, those programs are really useful. I know some of the people who developed the algorithms and the techniques. You can’t get around the laws of physics. You can minimize some of the deficiencies in a room, but you cannot fully eliminate them. Yeah, that’s all possible, but you’re in a bedroom. There’s a bed in there.
WOODY: So what?
NEIL: Well, it’s not the same as a theater unless it’s a home theater where there’s a bed in there. [LAUGHS]
WOODY: The bed soaks up the sound?
NEIL: I would say it is most likely the largest acoustical element in a room.
WOODY: Well, what about recording studios that have couches in them?
NEIL: How much bigger are they?
WOODY: Than a bedroom?
NEIL: And they’re also against the wall and the person’s away from them. Let me just say, you can do a great soundtrack in your bedroom—okay? You can do a lousy soundtrack in the best recording studio. The maxim says, it’s a poor workman who blames his tools. So it comes down to the engineer. I think that these auto set-up systems are a great boon for a lot of facilities, but in the end, you have to listen yourself. And you should listen in the final delivery space. Right now there’s a big thing going on. Why does the movie sound different at the AMC googleplex than it does when I was mixing it at blah blah in Culver City, Burbank, Hollywood, wherever. Well, is the room set up the same? How do you set up your mix room for SMPTE 202? You’re supposed to listen at 85 db for your monitoring. Your neighbor’s may start complaining, all right?
WOODY: Define some acoustical terms for me because I think people hear terms and they don’t know what they means. I’ll throw some at you. Room nodes—nulls.
NEIL: They’re both the same. Standing waves are multiples of one-half the wavelength of the sound that fit exactly between two walls or the wall/ceiling. As such there are places where the velocity is zero, which is always at a wall, and where the velocity is maximum. At locations where the velocity is zero, the sound pressure is maximum, and where the velocity is maximum, the sound level is minimum. At the sound level minimums on a standing wave, you have a node, and where the sound level maximums on a standing wave, you have an anti-node.
WOODY: Are you talking about a frequency?
NEIL: At a frequency.
WOODY: So a node is a frequency?
NEIL: Nodes are frequency-dependent.
WOODY: So you’re standing in one part of the room and 250 Hz is really loud, and you’re standing over here and you can’t hear it.
NEIL: Let’s look at this. Let’s assume that half a wavelength at 250 Hz fits perfectly between two walls. That means there’s going to be pressure maximum at the walls because of where the sound wave presses against, okay? An open window is a pressure anti-node, or pressure release. Remember at a wall the air can’t move, while at the open window it can. So that it can’t support a wave coming back. But on a wall it can go there and it bounces back, so you can get an acoustic pressure anti-node at the wall and an acoustic pressure node in the middle. That’s why you can’t hear it in the middle because there is minimum acoustic pressure at that point. Where the velocity’s maximum, the pressure’s minimum. And where the velocity’s zero, the pressure’s maximum.
So at the wall, the velocity has to be zero because the wall can’t move. So you get a maximum pressure there. In the middle of that half a wavelength, there has to be a velocity maximum in order for there to be the standing wave. That’s what that means that the wave doesn’t travel—it stands there, it doesn’t move. And if you have a standing wave, you have pressure maximums, pressure minimums, nodes and antinodes.
WOODY: So, in the real world, I have a 250 Hz standing wave and I’m mixing. What am I altering?
NEIL: You can’t change the standing wave by EQ.
WOODY: No, I can’t change the quality of the room, but I’m changing the quality of my mix. I’m hearing one thing because of this standing wave. So what’s the adjustment I make? Am I attenuating?
NEIL: Well, it depends if you’re in a node or antinode. You’re gonna boost or cut to compensate. And that’s what’s important that you listen to the mix in your bedroom and then you listen to it in the dubbing stage or the mix room. And then you can hear the difference. You go and say, “Ah, there’s way more than 250 Hz here or there’s not 250 Hz here.” You’ need to listen. I had this discussion earlier about hearing and listening. I tell people my hearing’s getting worse, but my listening’s getting better. [BOTH LAUGH]
So this is the thing—you have to realize that in acoustics size matters. The only thing we can deal with within the room itself is the size, shape, and materials we’re using. So what we want to do is we want to design the room for the purpose. We want to utilize the size, shape, and materials to get the optimum result out of the room. And then we have to understand that the room’s going to have limitations. Carnegie Hall has limitations. That reminds me: How do you get to Carnegie Hall?
NEIL: No – you rent it. [LAUGHS] And so you have to understand that you need to use your knowledge and experience to improve what the room can offer you.
WOODY: So, you know, at the end of the day, what you’re saying is it all goes back to what any mixer learns as they get better, which is I need to listen to my mix in the car, I need to listen to my mix on a boom box, I need to listen to my mix here, and then I need to evaluate these various experiences I’ve had in each one of these and to make adjustments. You know, this is what I deal with my clients all the time, because I’ve had clients who’ll say to me, “You know, I listen to it here and it sounds great, and then I listen to it there and it sounds different.” And I try to explain to them that audio is a very peculiar beast, and your experience of audio is gonna change depending on not only the room you’re listening to it in, but also the equipment you’re listening to it on and the speakers you’re listening to it through.
NEIL: And your state of mind.
WOODY: Yeah, absolutely.
NEIL: The company you’re in.
WOODY: Totally. And it’s such a subjective experience that what I explain to them is the reason I have these crappy little speakers here and I have this television set over here and I have these flat beautiful monitors speakers here is because I’m constantly swapping between my three main sources and making adjustments. And I go, “But I listen to it on the television, the music’s too low, so we need to make the adjustment.”
NEIL: But listen, look, most mixers will provide—will do a theatrical release mix, and then they’ll go remix it for DVD, and then they’ll remix it for streaming. Why do they do that? Because each one of those delivery points requires a different audio, let’s say, experience.
WOODY: A good mixer will want to do that. Now a studio may not give them that same latitude! OK, Neil, what we’re talking about, it seems to me, is more about frequencies more than it is about amplitude.
NEIL: Look, we want to have an even frequency response because if you don’t, the amplitudes will be different. Think about it, if you’re in a dead zone in a room, the frequency response is not right. If you’re in an area where you have a lot of reflections within an integration time, the frequency response is not going to be right. In fact, it’ll even smear the sound a bit. So you have to think about temporal and frequency at the same time in a mix situation. On TV’s you can have three, even one, front speakers. In many mixes, in certain scenes, everything’s out of center channel.
WOODY: Well the deliverables for surround in TV is dialog only in the center channel. Period.
NEIL: You don’t need 7.1 for when you’re talking on the telephone.
WOODY: Right. You know, most mixes I do require LCR. (Left, Center, Right)
NEIL: Well Woody, you know there is no accounting for taste – some clients like the “ostentatious conspicuous-consumption” mix. Some people like a good mix. I know I just eliminated 90% of future clients but— [LAUGHS]
WOODY: If someone is doing a mix at home, are there, in terms of the room—let’s say they’re using decent equipment, they have decent monitors, and so on. Are there any sort of simple tricks they can do?
NEIL: First thing I would do is I would get one of the room-analyzer programs. There’s a lot of them out there that are pretty simple. Put your microphone where you’re going to mix and see if there’s any like holes in the response. Then move the microphone a little bit one way or the other. Know your room—okay? You can listen and you can measure. It’s like in physics: they come up with a theory and then they eventually know how to measure it to confirm the theory. Or they make a measurement and they can’t understand it, and the guys into theory have to figure it out. Same thing here. I’m not saying the measurement is the be-all end-all, but it can help give you some more insight into what may be some of the problems with your room.
You can also use them to determine some of the reflections in your room. Are you getting reflections beyond the Haas integration time that may smear—or just at the border—and just smear your sound? You might figure you may need to put some treatment at those frequencies. You know, normally, it’s halfway between you and the speakers on the side walls, unless the side walls are splayed. Don’t forget about the ceiling and the floor. I see people treat their walls to within an inch of their lives and then forget about the big bounce off the ceiling. Or the floor, depending on how your room is set up.
WOODY: What about the mirror trick?
NEIL: The mirror trick. You don’t want to have mirrors in a room because you may scare yourself. [LAUGHS] But that’s the thing—that’s the trick that you have an assistant walk around a mirror and you look on the side walls of when you can see the speakers. Oh, you can say, that’s probably a reflection point. And the same with the ceiling. And angling treatment helps you too. Spacing a treatment off of a wall a bit gives you a little more bang for your buck. There’s a lot of commercially available devices that when used appropriately are really, really effective. Traps and absorber panels and diffusing panels—there’s a ton of stuff out there. Now some are good and some are better and some are excellent. Some are overpriced, some are fairly priced, some are a really good bargain.
WOODY: So without a brand name, if I pasted some foam—
NEIL: Forget it. I don’t like foam. Because first of all, any foam you need class-A fire rating.
WOODY: What if it’s two inches thick, though?
NEIL: Size matters, remember? I don’t like foam because it deteriorates over time, and I don’t like the way it looks—okay? You know, if I was in an industrial spot where I was doing airport announcements, it might not matter. But you know, you want to be in a room that’s visually pleasing to you too. I tend to like the transondant fabric-covered panels. Sometimes there’s nothing behind the panel just so it looks the same as the places where there is stuff behind the panel to accommodate the visual design in the space. And if you have a membrane absorber with a little piece of cloth over it, that’ll match the visual design where you may have fiberglass or diffuser behind the transondant cloth. I guess I’ve had to deal with too many interior designers.
We just re-did the Menlo website a week or two ago. www.menlozone.com/ We updated my projects and we changed out some of the pictures. We’ll be adding a page that has a lot of the PowerPoints from presentations that I’ve given at Acoustical Society, AES, Infocom—talks I’ve given at those things and also all the class notes from the courses I taught at SCI-Arc and at USC.
WOODY: Well, let’s take a second and talk about some of that stuff. So you’re a fellow of the Acoustical Society of America, fellow of AES, senior member of the IEEE, member of SMPTE —what does all that mean? There’s a whole lot of letters there.
NEIL: Well, ASA is the Acoustical Society of America started in 1929 by Harvey Fletcher who was at Bell Labs. Leo Beranek was president of it. And Vern Knudsen was too. It’s the premier acoustical society. The AES most of your members probably know about—the Audio Engineering Society.
How I became fellows of them—I guess they have affirmative action for Topanga people. It’s a great honor to be among some of those greats who were also fellows. The Society for Motion Picture and Television Engineers—you guys must know about that because they set a lot of the standards for the audio, the projection, the delivery of what we do. INCE is the Institute of Noise Control Engineering. That’s a professional society that deals mainly with noise control—everything from making sure that the boiler in the basement doesn’t vibrate too much or make too much noise to community noise and quieting of HVAC (heating/air conditioning) systems and trucks and transportation noise and all that. And the IEEE is the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers. They’re the ones that made the internet possible. 802.11—that’s an IEEE spec. Wi-fi —firewire, are all IEEE standards.
WOODY: As a fellow, are you part of the committees that design these things?
NEIL: Anyone can be on a standards committee. I am on the SMPTE 202 study group right now. I am on the architectural acoustics committee, Books Plus, physical acoustics, and engineering acoustics technical committees of the Acoustical Society. I’m on the Acoustics and Sound Reinforcement Committee for the AES and a couple of others.
If you’re interested in this stuff, you get involved to write the standards. Why do you write the standards? Because you don’t like the standard you have to use, so you get down there and you lobby and you work and you convince the people to arrive at a consensus that maybe it’s time that we look at this a little different. Maybe we need to upgrade our measurement technique. Maybe we need to specify our technique a little better. Maybe we’re finding that the bandwidth we’re asking for is not good enough—the dynamic range is increased a bit. You know, a lot of theaters still use the Geneva movement in their projectors, okay, with that stuff called film.
WOODY: But of course!
NEIL: Actually, film is coming back in the same way that vinyl records are in certain ways. It’s not the medium as much as the message you can put on the medium, and some different media are maybe more amenable for different messages. I remember when we had gigantic floppy disks and then we went to 3-1/2. And then I remember when they had the Iomega drives.
My first computer was at Cooper Union—an IBM 1620. It had a panel with flashing lights. It had an IBM Selectric typewriter. It had a punch-card input reader and puncher. And we took the punch cards to a big cachunka-cachunka machine to print out. It was nice.
WOODY: Is acoustics a field that you’ve seen grow in terms of interest with students?
NEIL: I would say that the field has grown considerably since I started. There used to be one or two consultants in a major city. Now there are many because there are a lot more venues that require it—a lot more venues that realize they require it. Think about all the places where people want to put sound together in L.A. I mean, it’s everywhere from the mobile truck to someone’s bedroom to the scoring stages at the major studios to the live venues—everything from the Hollywood Bowl to the Greek to the small clubs.
WOODY: I think live people don’t think about sound in terms of the space and how the space affects the sound.
NEIL: I think that’s a misconception because especially the guys who have to go to venues—
WOODY: People just look at a wall of amplifiers and they’re thinking, well, that’s all it is.
NEIL: But that’s not true. I was fortunate to know, and be a friend of, Don Pearson, who was head of Ultrasound, the Grateful Dead’s mixer. In fact, I had him come down and help me with tuning several rooms because he’s tuned more rooms in a year than I probably did in my lifetime. Every time they went to a different room he had to tune the system to the room. I don’t know how much I would say he would intuit, but I would say he had to optimize its performance based on the room he was in at the time.
How many arenas, coliseums, stadiums, and sheds were built for one type of performance but are used for performances far from that which they were designed? The Grateful Dead cared about the sound in every space they played. I remember the Dead played the Sports Arena once and they blocked off part of the area just to hang heavy drapes to just try to control some aspect of the room acoustics. Don said, you do the best you can and realize that most of the people are going to have a good time anyway. [LAUGHS]
WOODY: Well, if the acid’s good.
NEIL: I heard that as long as it’s not the brown acid. [BOTH LAUGH]
WOODY: Do not take the brown acid.
NEIL: I was at Woodstock. I was eighteen years old—and it was just before I started my sophomore year at Cooper Union.
But all I can say is that the ride up was interesting and the ride back was interesting—and a lot of stuff happened in between.
WOODY: You don’t really remember much?
NEIL: It rained a lot.
[Special note of thanks to Eddie Flowers who did the original transcription as well as editing. Thanks Ed!]