Designing Effective Audio for Digital Signage

sound wave acoustics

When I was working in AV integration a few years ago, one of my vendors (thanks again, Matt) sent me a lead to follow up on and was able to meet the designer that day. We discussed his project (a build out in a new space for the USTA Stadium in New York). The end user wanted a simple 2×2 display, so I asked them one question: What is your audio strategy? This eventually caused a change in thought process and led to a significantly larger project approved by the client. The bottom line is this: Many clients don’t consider the entire end user experience. Instead, they tend to focus on one aspect of a project that stands out immediately, such as visual “put a few displays here, by the entrance to the luxury suite.”

See the first column that I wrote for rAVe [PUBS] to learn more about the components of a true immersive digital signage experience, including the benefit of adding an aural element to your project. Just to reiterate the definition, according to the 7Senses Foundation (and help prove my points):

Hearing or audition — is the ability to perceive sound by detecting vibrations, changes in the pressure of the surrounding medium through time, through an organ such as the ear. As with sight, auditory processing relies on how the brain interprets, recognizes, and differentiates sound stimuli.”

If I relate the total experience to a VMR (virtual meeting room) call, when there is only video, but no audio, everyone immediately goes crazy (can’t hear you, can you hear me now? – like a telecom commercial).

When I mention effective audio, there is the actual audio content, the type of audio playback devices and the placement of the audio devices to hear and experience the audio most effectively. I am reminded of my past, specifically watching the original “Get Smart” TV series with the reference to the “Cone of Silence” as I worked on a large AV project about 7 years ago with a reverse cone of silence (aka cone of audio). The executives on the open area floor wanted to make sure that only they heard the audio from their respected desktop systems via the ceiling speakers directly above their desks. I tested them myself by sitting in the CEO’s chair and then moving about 3 feet to my right and the audio cut out.

There are many different audio devices available, such as ceiling speakers, line arrays, sound bars that attach to the bottom or top of a display (or sit on a credenza) or speakers built into the devices and bundled together within camera/speakers/mic systems. Since most of my professional background actually included more of a focus on video than audio, I spoke to a consultant firm that focuses on acoustics and technology for high-end clients and projects, Henry Mestre, VP at AKRF to ensure my information is accurate:

Michael: What’s your process when a client comes to you regarding the audio portion for a digital signage project?

Henry: My process is all about design thinking. I always ask our partners/clients “What’s the vision?” so that we at AKRF are able to focus on the science and standards in our proposals. Their answers help us build and create an amazing experience for the audience. I have the belief that the quality of my questions will result in the quality of the outcome of the project. And because of that, my philosophy when designing digital displays is “Content first.” Agreeing on audio and video content will lead us to a final vision for design and installation.

Michael: What information do you need to get started?

Henry: For every project, I review the location, content & resolution, anticipated size of the digital display, and brands & models that will add value to the install. Pixel pitch and typical viewing distance will be considered, as this will impact the user experience. The venue will dictate the best methods for mounting the display. Considering your options from: wall mounted, ceiling mounted, or even large movable custom stand. And of course, bearing in mind ADA for public spaces to ensure you are compliant. I also think about accessibility of the displays from a service point of view and how that will be managed once installation is completed and the system is turned over to the service department. Lastly, investing in audio and video distribution is imperative, along with a robust content automation management software. This will allow for multiple inputs and outputs that will create a custom layout across your displays. It will give it a look & feel of something special for the audience.

Michael: How do you go about designing audio for digital signage?

Henry: It is crucial that we get the acoustics and the aesthetics correct from the start because it needs to sound great and look good. I would like to know the following: Where does the audience stand/sit and listen? Is the audio content speech and/or music? What kind of music? Are the speakers visible or hidden in the wall?

Michael: What tips can you give on acoustics for anyone that is thinking about going through this process?

Henry: You need to really look at your environment and what influences the space. Background noise needs to be measured and a discussion on how to treat noise is a very important part of the formula. For example: Traffic or a noisy mechanical room that is adjacent to your digital display will ruin the experience and that’s a negative influence.

Michael: I always hear people speaking about the acoustics in the room and speech intelligibility. Can you speak on that and give us some examples?

Henry: A well-designed room will take into account reflections from all surfaces. Reverberation is created when sound is reflected on a surface. Excessive reverberation will reduce speech intelligibility. An Acoustics team will measure reverberation and design the space so that the room sounds natural. It will create an environment that allows you to hear speech clearly and will make listening to music pleasurable.

Michael: How do you create a system that has a balance for clarity of speech and has great bass for dance music (is it all about the bass and no treble?)?

Henry: It’s all about frequency response. We need to be mindful of the specs of the equipment that we are choosing. Will we add a subwoofer? Are the speaker’s full range? Does the sound system have a cross-over? What we choose will characterize the dynamics of the system.

Michael: I have worked in spaces that were either very loud (i.e. echo) or too low in volume. It was extremely uncomfortable. How do you address volume?

Henry: SPL-Sound Pressure Level and dB-Decibels is how we measure volume. dB(SPL) is measured by a sound level meter. Audio engineers and acousticians will ensure that you are in the sweet spot of the room regarding volume. This will create an intimate natural sounding space that will engage the listeners. Commissioning the space with an audio engineer or an acoustician is imperative. I constantly get calls on great systems that don’t sound right because no one has completed a final commission of the sound system.

Michael: Is there anything that you would like to add as far as sound and acoustics?

Henry: Yes, contact your consultant, acoustics team, or your audio engineers first! I get calls all the time from someone that has completed an install and is now stuck and unhappy. To change acoustics after completion is costly and sometimes it’s not even possible. In some cases the client spent their budget on this amazing digital display which does not match their content and now will need to dive into fixing everything with an added cost. Giving us a call prior to the start of the project will give you better leverage going forward.

Note: In one of my previous columns, I included information on creating accessible solutions for those who have orientation challenges, that column is here.

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