Illuminating Acoustics - What is an Acoustic Consultant, Anyway?

All of the technical staff at dBx Acoustics, and at other consultancies, would describe themselves as acoustic consultants. Broadly speaking, we would define an acoustic consultant as a qualified specialist. They may work with a range of clients on the control of acoustic conditions in buildings and in the environment.

That may seem vague, but as we explain in this blog, we’re not deliberately keeping our role a secret!

So come on then – what do you actually DO?

No matter what sort of project we’re working on, the work we do boils down to the practical application of maths and physics to solve problems. When we aren’t out there measuring noise, we’ll be working to predict how it will behave. Or, using our knowledge and expertise to write reports for clients, explaining how they can get the results they want.

Where it becomes confusing is in the range of projects we work on. Whilst some consultants are specialists in a particular area (concert halls, environmental noise etc), many of us are generalists, able to turn our expertise to almost any project you can imagine!

Generally speaking, much of our work can be divided into either building acoustics, or environmental noise. Let’s look as some examples:

Building Acoustics

Building acoustics is – as you might have guessed – all about buildings! We can:

  • Calculate reverberation time in rooms and advise on how to control it.
  • Recommend materials for partitions to get a good level of privacy and separation between spaces.
  • Advise on what the external walls and roof should be composed of to keep out noise (or to keep IN noise, in the case of a bar for example!)

That’s all there is to it! The principles behind this are the same whether you want to design a recording studio, a school or an apartment block. The expertise in consultancy comes in understanding appropriate design targets to set for the specific use of a space or building, and in knowing what constructions and materials can be used to achieve them.

You can calculate the amount of acoustic treatment needed to control reverberation within a room. However, knowing where to place it within that room for best effect takes experience. We also have to think about the routes by which sound may bypass our carefully constructed designs. It can, for example, leak through at junctions between surfaces, or where pipes pass through a wall. We work with architects to make sure that these possible flanking routes are appropriately controlled.

Environmental Noise

All major building projects come up against the Local Planning Authority. A good LPA will look for a noise impact assessment. This work lets us quantify the existing noise climate, we look at:

  • how the proposed building will affect the acoustic environment for neighbours,
  • and how to design the building to best control noise.

Other environmental issues we might be consulted on are: noise impact for proposed new roads, railways, industrial estates, or machinery. We’ve been asked to think about how emergency helicopter flights can affect the sleep of residents (and hospital patients!), and to comment on how old industrial buildings can be turned into nightclubs without disturbing the neighbours.

But that’s not all…

Goodness no. We can find ourselves carrying out noise as work assessments in factories, troubleshooting ‘mystery noise’ issues in the community, and specifying noise control for building services plant both for the comfort of building occupants, and for the benefit of the neighbours.

I’ve worked on concert halls, schools, corporate HQ buildings and Government buildings. But, I’ve also done noise impact assessments for a cattery, measured noise levels within an underground sewage pumping station, and tried to predict the effect of noise on roosting bats close to a proposed sports pitch. One thing you can say about our job is that it’s never, ever, dull.

How do you become an acoustic consultant?

Traditionally, acoustic consultants have held a relevant degree from either Salford or Southampton University. The entry routes are finally starting to evolve, however, and we are seeing more applicants who hold the Institute of Acoustics Diploma. We hope that in 2017 we will see the first apprenticeships in acoustics!

Whatever entry route you choose, you’ll need to have strong maths and physics skills, but also good written and spoken English. A key part of our job is translating the technical into the useful for our clients. So, as a consultant, it’s no good being technically brilliant if you can’t then convey your findings!

It’s always worth getting some experience to be sure that you like the role. Many consultancies offer paid work experience, from a few weeks, up to a year-long placement. Don’t expect to find yourself working on anything glamorous on your first day, though – it’s likely you’ll be the one sent out on night time noise surveys and asked to crunch through some of the more standard calculations on a project.

What is a typical day for an acoustic consultant?

A consultant will typically be working on 5-10 projects at the same time, so needs to be good at balancing the demands of clients with prioritising deadlines. Even with clear project timelines, it’s not always possible to predict when an urgent request for information will arrive. So, we need to be adaptable to get things done! If we aren’t out on site carrying out a survey, doing testing, or in a design meeting with a client, you’ll find us at our desks.

The software we use

We still do a lot of calculations and data processing using spreadsheets. However, we also use software such as Odeon to look at room acoustics, and Soundplan for environmental noise predictions. We tend to resort to the computer modelling packages when a simple calculation won’t be sufficient to answer our questions. Although technology is always improving, a computer model can be time consuming and accuracy is vital. Sometimes using a little maths and a spreadsheet can give a more robust result.

You’d be forgiven for mistaking our office for an architectural practice as we rely on drawings of sites and projects we’re working on. There are plenty of A1 printouts scattered around, along with close up details of building elements that we are reviewing. The ability to read and understand architectural drawings is a skill that we all have to learn. Some find it easier than others to translate a 2D drawing into a 3D imagination. BIM and the increasing use of SketchUp by architects is making this easier, but often when we are involved in a project, detailed models are not developed. This means we’re working alongside the designers as they begin to develop details.

What else do you do?

A small practice, like dBx Acoustics, doesn’t spend all it’s time working on projects. We write fee proposals for new work, attend networking events, and of course, work on our marketing and social media. Someone has to walk the dog, and maintain the equipment to ensure it’s kept in calibration. We also keep a number of records to support our UKAS and ISO (9001 / 14001) accreditations and so have regular meetings to ensure we are up to date with our obligations there. Of course, there’s contracts and invoicing, as well as the day to day running of a small office to contend with!

Thanks, but I’d rather do something that changes the world.

We think that we do change the world for people – every day. During birth, death, and medical treatments in between, good acoustic conditions help people to feel more rested and to achieve better recovery outcomes. At school, kids do better when the acoustics are right. Similarly, in the workplace, we are more productive in a good acoustic environment. We all need a good night’s sleep, and that’s much easier when noise from neighbours and the exterior is reduced. You may not realise it, but acoustic consultants touch upon just about every stage of your life.

We hope this blog has given you some insight into what it means to be an acoustic consultant, day to day. If you’ve worked with us previously, perhaps this has given you an idea for other types of projects we could help you on! And if you’re not sure whether an acoustic consultant can help you – well, give us a call. The answer is quite likely to be ‘yes’!