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Crosscurrents

Inside San Francisco’s Secret SoundLab

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Have you noticed how the way a space feels really depends on how it sounds? Take the California Academy of Sciences for example. With all the hundreds of visitors running around you’d think it would be crazy loud. But the voices aren’t overwhelming at all. 

That’s because a San Francisco company designed the sound in here. Yes – designed the sound! There’s people who do this everywhere. They’re called sound architects. At engineering firm ARUP’s SoundLab they can listen to the sound of buildings before they’re even built. 

When you go into the SoundLab, it’s like you’re walking into a cave, but instead of rock, the walls are made of foam and instead of bats, there are speakers.

“The system we use here is called Ambisonics,” says Josh Cushner, Associate Principal of the SoundLab. “So that’s effectively having a sphere of sound: it has four speakers on the floor, four speakers at ear level, and four speakers on the ceiling.” 

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Ambisonics is basically a fancy term for an audio technique that makes you feel fully immersed in sound.  It’s almost like you’re wearing headphones on your whole body.

Cushner says, “The difference between the experience you get in the SoundLab and just listening to the sound over the speaker system is similar to drinking a glass of water vs. taking a shower.”

But how does Cushner and his team get the money to afford such a fancy toy? Well, since it’s a sonic simulator, people pay Cushner and his team to simulate sound. 

They go to the site of the new design, take recordings, and calibrate them. Then they bring those recordings back and pump them into the SoundLab to hear exactly what the space — a space they have yet to build — would actually sound like. The building’s architects take that info, design to spec, and make the perfect sounding hotel rooms, symphony halls, museum spaces, and the like. 

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They’ve got lots of high-end clients like San Francisco’s Opera, the California Academy of Sciences, the new SF Moma, and audiophiles like Lou Reed.

Want to experience what it sounds like in the SoundLab? Cozy up with some nice headphones and listen to the audio above to experience some sound magic that'll bring you inside the SoundLab.