Determining the type of audio system that will score big with fans is a challenge facing all facility operators.

Sports fans attend athletic events with high expectations-and most of those expectations have very little to do with what's happening on the field, court or ice. They want, among other comforts, excellent lighting, crisp video presentations and high-tech sound.

That's why facility operators spend oodles of dollars on consulting and design services in all of these areas. Well, almost all of these areas. Sound systems and acoustics often get short shrift-even though their costs, compared with other technical elements of a new or upgraded facility, are relatively reasonable. "Video and lighting are more tangible," says Pat Brown, owner of Synergetic Audio Concepts Inc., a Greenville, Ind.-based firm that provides education for pro-audio contractors and consultants. "Sound is much more subjective in nature. Video always costs more, but people understand video better. Everyone knows what a video screen should look like. They know what they're getting for their money."

And if there's not enough money to go around, sound and acoustic elements often are among the first to be scaled back. While a sound system obviously remains necessary, architects unfamiliar with the dynamics of sound and acoustics may overlook noise reduction needs, which help control reverberation within a facility to maintain speech intelligibility and reduce background noises. If a facility operator isn't allied with a qualified sound consultant, the likelihood that the system will need to be upgraded within one to five years is "alarmingly high," Brown says.

That's what happened at the Kiel Center in St. Louis, which is upgrading its sound system this fall. The original speaker system hangs above the east end of the ice, blaring into the ears of spectators on that end but barely reaching fans on the west end. "Unfortunately, the sound contractor wants the work and will usually cave to the customer's complaints about cost," says Joe DeRosa, director of engineering at Soundsphere, a loudspeaker manufacturer based in Stratford, Conn. "The customer will live with the substandard system for a while, and then the contractor will get a call. Since some of the components will need upgrading, the final corrected system will cost more than it would have if it were done right the first time. Our best dealers walk away from many jobs only to be called in later."

Today, facility operators of all venue types-professional, college, high school and municipal-are teaming with sound and acoustics consultants and contractors to make the experience for their patrons more pleasurable. They have to. The advent of CD/DVD hometheater technology and digital surroundsound in movie theaters means that spectators now have a point of reference to determine the difference between superior and inadequate sound. Put quite simply, "It's an image thing," says Gary Zandstra, sales and marketing manager for Integrated Media Group, a sound contractor based in Byron Center, Mich. "Almost every high school and college athletic director I talk to makes some reference to sports being entertainment. A high school spending $30,000 to $40,000 on a football stadium sound system is not unusual. Some of their performance levels rival those of college stadiums."

The NBA is frequently credited with developing the "show time" mentality in sports, which has since filtered down the ranks-taking on new dimensions as it goes. "Sound is a complex subject," says Tom Young, a former sound consultant and now technical sales engineer for Meyer Sound Laboratories, a component manufacturer in Berkeley, Calif. "It is not pure science. There is an artistic, human and intuitive element involved. You have to stop and think and listen."

That's about the soundest piece of advice available to facility operators who are either looking to upgrade an existing system or developing a sound system from scratch. Taking such matters as sound pressure levels, equalization, amplification, wire size, loudspeaker placement, reverberation and noise reduction into your own hands (and ears)-or those of another unqualified person-could be a mistake. And just because a manufacturer excels in the home-audio market doesn't mean the company has a smooth track record in the stadium and arena realm. "Sound, in general, is a narrow niche. When you limit it to stadiums and arenas, it's even narrower," says Brown. "Most of the problems come in when people either choose the wrong consultant or contractor, or go with a low bid."

Accepting any bid can be tough, though, without some understanding of just how far arena and stadium sound has developed over the years. "Initially, sound systems were just there to announce that Y.A. Tittle had thrown a touchdown pass," notes Jon Sager, director of market development at Eastern Acoustic Works, a loudspeaker manufacturer in Whitinsville, Mass.

In the early days of sound reinforcement, amplifiers supplied only a few watts of power, and loudspeakers were anything but loud. Engineers eventually determined that-much like a cupped pair of hands over the mouth directs the shape of a shouting voice-a loudspeaker horn shapes and directs audio sounds. Horn loading since has become a required part of every loudspeaker system.

The earliest horns, though, suffered from poor audio quality. Frequencies in the upper-third of most horns' ranges were beamed straight ahead, rather than fanned out over a large area. This created uneven sound coverage-an effect Sager says left most announcers' voices in "squawking" mode. Because such systems (which today are typically mounted on poles or on top of scoreboards) last for decades, many smaller high school and municipal venues still use them. But the creative use of bond issues allows today's high school administrators to not only upgrade sound systems in stadiums and gymnasiums, but also in libraries, auditoriums, music rooms, multipurpose areas and natatoriums.

Twenty-first century stadium and arena sound components have evolved to take the form of two different systems - both providing sound comparable to the rigs used on rock 'n' roll tours. Distributed sound employs multiple smallformat devices positioned in several locations and covering many areas, while clusters use several centrally located horns to throw sound over great distances.

For example, inside Michigan State University's 15,000-seat Jack Breslin Student Events Center, a large mid-frequency horn cluster-capable of throwing sound great distances without sacrificing power response and coherent tonal quality-was recently installed. The array includes 20 boxed units, with 10 aimed at the upper portion of the arena bowl and the other 10 suspended beneath the top 10 to serve the lower bowl. Four additional loudspeakers hung from the bottom of the scoreboard cover the floor. Suspended from a rigging grid, the array can be moved to seven different positions in the arena via a motorized track system.

While superior sound in an arena only requires a few loudspeaker clusters because of its enclosed environment, most stadiums feature distributed sound systems to better penetrate the facility's open-air characteristics. Stadium loudspeakers typically are clustered and positioned over each section of seats on all levels, and they sometimes require special structures to accommodate their positioning.

Last year, the Charlotte (S.C.) Knights, a Class AAA affiliate of the Chicago White Sox, installed 41 loudspeakers in custom outdoor enclosures featuring stainless-steel cabinets and hardware around 10,000-seat Knights Castle. The system replaced the facility's old audio rig, which was struck by lightning late the previous season. Nine clusters, each featuring two forward-firing loudspeakers and one backward-firing unit, are mounted 18 inches back from the lip of the stands and cover the lower-deck sections. The upper-deck sections are covered by six clusters, each comprised of two loudspeakers. A pair of subwoofers hangs in the press box area and alternates between clusters. The team's public address announcer at the time said that after the upgraded system was installed, fans used to compliment him on his material, as if it were all new. "Truth is, they were never able to hear what I was doing, until now," he said.

Regardless of whether you're talking about a stadium or an arena, the process of equipping a facility with stateof- the-art sound usually begins with an investigation of the venue's uses and programs. The Breslin Center, for example, hosts a number of athletic events, as well as concerts and conventions. The variety of uses will determine different degrees of sound that a facility requires. Does the system need to be capable of broadband audio to accommodate music and voices, or does it just need to be tailored to the human voice? If music is a priority, subwoofers and other fidelity components enter the picture.

After evaluating the facility, you should research, select and contract with a consultant - preferably one who handles both sound design and acoustics. This is a service you probably won't find in the local Yellow Pages. Search options include manufacturers' recommendations, the Internet, and word of mouth and testimonials from athletic and facility directors (especially at the high school and college levels). It's also wise to find a consultant or designer who works with a core group of contractors. In many cases, consultants can help narrow a field of contractors down to only the most reputable. Because no standard certification process exists for contractors in the pro-audio industry, Brown says, a list of previous installations - credentials, if you will-is critical. "We find that a lot of people who can get the equipment feel like they're in the business," he says. This is particularly a problem at the municipal, high school and small-college levels, he adds.

While those are the basic steps facility operators need to consider, Rob De Hart, owner of Audio Visual Now, a Santa Cruz, Calif.-based sound-systems consultant and distributor for stadiums, arenas and fitness centers, offers a few extra suggestions. One is to focus on front-end equipment, which usually involves a small mixer and public-address microphones. Sometimes, a more-elaborate system will be specified (such as an automated mixing console) if the venue will be used for multiple applications, De Hart says. Smaller, more-portable systems can also be used for more-focused sound reinforcement in a stadium environment to better funnel sound toward the playing field or the seats for practices or rehearsals. These systems include speaker-stand mounts and builtin wireless microphones for greater voice projection.

After all the details about a sound system have been hashed out-including costs that typically range from $20,000 to more than $1 million, depending on the type of facility-the consultant issues specs to manufacturers, who develop loudspeakers and other components for the project and then bid on it via local contractors.

If a project's costs begin to spiral out of control, refocus plans and concentrate the sound only in the seating bowl - not the concourses, rest rooms and other areas of the facility. According to Jack Wrightson, an owner of Dallasbased Wrightson, Johnson, Haddon and Williams, a leading sound consulting and design firm for professional and college stadiums and arenas, it's better to skimp on the areas covered in a facility than on the quality of equipment used.

Even the most cutting-edge sound systems will lose speech intelligibility and frequency range without proper acoustics. Consultants and designers usually specify a facility's noise-reduction characteristics. But they often get cut out of the specs for financial reasons, says Alex Baeza, marketing manager for Houston- based International Cellulose Corp., which produces a paper-based, spray-on acoustical treatment. "Usually someone complains about the echo effect, and then we enter the picture," he says.

Gymnasiums generally have high reverberation times because of the materials used to construct them. While people absorb some of the sound, a gym or arena's reverberation time-meaning the span of seconds that noise hangs in the air-usually remains quite high. Acoustical treatments can significantly reduce reverb time while also keeping a space quieter when the sound system is not operating. The type of floors, placement and composition of wall and ceiling studs, use of paints and other coverings, type of seats, ceiling materials and other elements all contribute to a facility's reverb time and must be taken into consideration when determining acoustical needs.

ICC's spray-on material, which adheres to a facility's ceiling with a patented acrylic-based adhesive, covers the entire surface with a textured look. The sprays typically provide 65 percent noise reduction, which results in a reverb time of about two seconds, enough to keep the sound lively without deadening it too much, Baeza says. Fans can hear the whistle blow, and players can hear the home crowd. Most natatoriums, by comparison, have reverb times around eight seconds, largely because water is a great sound reflector.

Other acoustical-treatment options include tiles or panels. These pieces enhance low-frequency sound absorption through installation on the ceilings and walls of gymnasiums, natatoriums and other noisy areas. Panels, while much more costly than spray-on treatments, do not need to cover 100 percent of the surface. Rather, their usage is determined by calculating 20 to 25 percent of the ceiling's square footage. For example, in a 10,000-square-foot area, roughly 2,000 square feet of panels would be needed. Because panels typically come in 10-foot pieces that cover 25 square feet, 80 panels would be required. Of those, about two-thirds would be attached to the ceiling, with the balance installed at least 10 feet from the floor on one long wall and one short wall-preferably opposite the bleachers if seating occupies only one side of the gymnasium.

If the panels are disbursed uniformly, they should absorb enough sounds to bring reverb times into the desired 1.5- to two-second range, says Alan Eckel, owner of Eckel Industries, a Cambridge, Mass.-based maker of acoustic panels. "When you hit three seconds of reverb, you cannot understand what people are saying," he adds. "It becomes a cacophony of voices."

Sometimes, however, that cacophony can be muted too much if acoustical treatments are incorrectly installed or applied - rendering the concept of home-court advantage inconsequential. Like most areas relating to a facility's sound, determining acoustical needs is best done in cooperation with a professional. Unlike sound-system planning, though, manufacturers of acoustical treatments usually work more directly with facility operators than do the makers of loudspeakers and other components.

Despite the recent advances in hightech arena and stadium sound - including prototype software programs that will be able to predict how speakers will sound in a facility, based on importing various specifications into computerassisted drawings-not all facility operators believe sporting events require state-of-the-art sound to make them special. In fact, some college administrators, while still desiring excellent audio capabilities, shy away from extravagant systems because they believe excitement should be generated by the pep band, the school's tradition and the game itself - not force-fed by whatever sounds pump through the audio system, Wrightson says.

He cites a conservative sound upgrade at Notre Dame Stadium and a more entertainment-driven upgrade at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas' Sam Boyd Stadium as two facilities that have taken entirely different approaches to stadium sound-both with impressive results. "Every facility operator has his or her own priorities," Wrightson says.

Regardless of how extreme or traditional the system, eventually-if for no other reason than through attrition - all athletic facilities will have some sort of high-tech sound system in place, Young predicts. But that's still a long way off. In the meantime, creating quality sound will continue to challenge athletic facility operators who must increasingly compete with other forms of high-tech entertainment. That's a challenge that extends to those in the pro-audio industry, as well. "This is not clear-cut, and it's not 100 percent guaranteed," Young says about taming acoustics. "No one is really able to predict how things will sound."