Saturday, April 25, 2015

Activated Sound: An Interview with Steve Haas

Steve Haas, owner of SH Acoustics, is the leading specialist in acoustics and audio for museums, exhibition galleries and themed entertainment venues. Steve works with architects, exhibit designers, multimedia producers and systems integrators to achieve optimum quality and control of sound in many types of spaces. In his projects, he addresses room acoustics, sound isolation, noise control and audio delivery for performance spaces, interactive exhibits, multimedia theaters, public event spaces and many other areas common in museum facilities.

Steve took a moment from his travels to provide this interview for ExhibiTricks readers:

What’s your educational background? I’ve been involved in sound and music most of my life, but knew that I wasn’t talented or disciplined enough to make it as a full-time professional musician, so I went to school for mechanical engineering at Cornell. Halfway through, I became not so interested with thermodynamics and heat transfer, and knew that I had to do something with sound for my career. That’s when I discovered the world of acoustics, which offered me the perfect blend of sound and engineering. I remained at Cornell, but created an independent study program for myself in acoustics.  

What got you interested in Museums? Truthfully, I never thought much about sound in museums as a kid, nor had any special museum-related interests, other than the typical field trips with school to all the museums in the Cleveland area, which is where I grew up. It was not until I started my career after college at a major acoustical consulting firm that I was first assigned to be part of a museum project. It happened to be the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, so it was a great opportunity to “cut my teeth” with a prominent facility and top-level designers. I definitely learned a lot and, as they say, never looked back since!  

Can you tell us more about your acoustics work with museums? My firm and I address all aspects of sound quality and sound control within museums and exhibit spaces. This means that we not only design the physical aspects of a gallery or theater, as they relate to sound, but also the audio delivery methods to ensure that there is great synergy between the way sound is delivered and how the space receives it. Our work compliments that performed by AV designers and integrators, since we primarily focus on how the sound behaves in a built environment.

We also go even further and interface with the media producers to help them understand how their audio content will perform in the actual gallery space, and then guide them to optimize the recording and mix accordingly so that everything works well when it is time for us to calibrate the installed sound programs.

Tell us a little bit about how your “non-museum” skills/activities inform your museum work? Besides pulling relevance from all of the challenges that I have faced and overcame over the last dozen years just by being a small-business owner, the one thing that my wife and I both are very good at is studying how people behave in public spaces and interact with the environments around them. This awareness actually has allowed me to develop our overall process and design philosophies relative to the sonic experience even further in our projects, simply by better predicting how patrons would listen to a particular interactive exhibit or react to a blend of immersive sound programs. 

What are the most interesting audio technologies changing museum installations today?  From an audio delivery standpoint, the growing number and improved sound quality of focused speakers is encouraging. About 15 years ago, my mentor for all-things-audio in museums – the late Bill Lobb – and I pioneered the development of the first electronically focused 2-dimensional steerable array for museum applications, which is still being manufactured and sold worldwide by multiple companies.

Other manufacturers have ever-improving devices that use ultrasonic frequencies to create tight containment of audio. One final category of technology is what we call “activated sound”, involving the transformation of architectural and exhibit surfaces into virtual loudspeakers. Our extensive use of this technology has allowed for better integration of sound into objects such as display cases, multi-touch tables and more without aesthetic compromise.

What do you think is the “next frontier” for museums? I think the next frontier is already here – continuing to find ways to make museums more appealing to a broader range of people, when there are so many other “experiences” competing for their time and money. While media technology certainly costs money, we are all so accustomed to having great videos, interactive games and music/sound right on our phones that we carry everywhere. Yet, many museums still seem to ignore this fundamental fact and create underwhelming interactive experiences that seem more like a throwback to 10-20 years ago, in terms of sophistication.

What are some of your favorite museums or exhibitions? Well, because of my background as a musician and love for music history, I tend to like exhibits that focus in that area and am happy to have been part of the creation of a number of institutions that continue to tell the story of different genres and cultures of music. Beyond that, now that I am a new father again after a long time, I am sure that this will give me more reason to visit a wide range of historical, science and other museums beyond just the projects I work on.

Can you talk a little about some of your current projects? We have a nice blend of museum and exhibit projects right now, including the National Museum of African American History & Culture and the Museum of the Bible, both in DC. Also, the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia and the new Air & Space Center at the California Science Center in LA. We just recently finished the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg and are in the midst of wrapping up the USA Pavilion at the World Expo in Milan, Italy.

If money were no object, what would your “dream” exhibit project be? One of two things – either an exhibit involving the history of music performance, where virtual reality-based sound, video and motion technology can take small audiences back in time to be part of some of the most memorable music concerts ever performed – or a museum of superheroes that portrays the evolution of many of the major characters in comics, TV and movies with lots of supporting media and soundscapes included!

Thanks Steve for sharing your insights with ExhibiTricks readers!

You can find out more about Steve's company, SH Acoustics,  by visiting the SH website.   Steve is also a member of the Praxis Museum Projects Group, a collaborative group of professionals striving to improve museum practice. 

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