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Blueprint for Success in Corporate Boardrooms

The tony corporate boardroom is a well-trod market for AV integrators, but not the most hospitable one. Some rooms are older than the oldest board members, barely wired for speakerphone, let alone stereo surround sound and high-definition plasmas. Others, the new rooms, are so image-conscious they're built without regard for the way AV and architecture must play nicely together.

The Sound of Business As Usual

At Newmont Mining Headquarters, Image Audiovisuals of Denver integrated the boardroom's audio system into the table and put all racks in a central location.

At Newmont Mining Headquarters, Image Audiovisuals of Denver integrated the boardroom's audio system into the table and put all racks in a central location.

Credit: Julie Solomon, CCS Presentation Systems

Besides presentation technology, audio remains a common AV element in all boardrooms. But Tarry says it increasingly plays second fiddle to videoconferencing and architectural glitz when corporations set out to design new boardrooms. This is unfortunate, because oversized, AV-hostile rooms can make meetings less effective, especially if participants become fatigued from trying to listen through poor acoustics.

Audio decisions, such as microphone and speaker placement, become critical. "As you double the distance away from a speaker, you get one-quarter of the sound," Tarry says. Place a microphone twice as close to the HVAC system as to the speaker that's transmitting its output, and you can end up with a 16-times increase in ambient noise. Though it is possible to overcome such problems by throwing money and technology at them after the fact, it is better to control the entire design of the room up front, Tarry says. Often the simplest solution is a few well-placed ceiling speakers.

Not everyone has videoconferencing, but everyone has audioconferencing, commonly in the form of the tabletop "speakerphone." Thus the closet will contain an audio DSP that mixes inputs and outputs and reinforces sound, and has the capacity to handle all the microphones in the room.

Few things are as annoying as having remote voices drowned out by the incessant clatter from typing too close to microphones. To ensure that everyone in the room or at the remote site can hear, audio engineers must carefully model or calculate acoustic conditions, such as the ambient noise from HVAC systems, as well as direct-to-reverberant ratios and signal-to-noise ratios, says Scott Woolley, director of product marketing for professional audio at ClearOne.

"There's no guessing involved," Woolley says. "If I don't know the answers, I engineer it. Do the math."

It's also important to understand the corporate culture and provide a reality check about the acoustic impact of client requests, Woolley says. For example, a client who specifies ceiling microphones to accommodate movable furniture might need to be dissuaded because the microphones will pick up more ambient noise.

Sound reinforcement is sometimes needed to aid communication just among people in the room, especially in larger spaces.

Mixers have "voice lift" features that let you raise the decibel level of ceiling speakers. DSPs like ClearOne's ConvergePro and Polycom's SoundStructure can balance the audio conditions of remote and local conferees while handling sound reinforcement within the boardroom. For example, ConvergePro can turn off echo cancellation, which introduces a tiny amount of latency that is unnoticeable during remote conferences, but undesirable when the amplified participants are only in the boardroom, Woolley says. He cites as an example ClearOne's Converge 1212A, an amplified matrix mixer with feedback elimination but no echo cancellation.

SoundStructure's dual-reference capability provides similar benefits, according to Jim Smith, Polycom's technical channel manager. "You can have the two systems working simultaneously with no echo at the far end," Smith says. "There are active reference points for both the telephone and audio and video sources. The inputs and outputs of SoundStructure act like transformers."

SoundStructure is unique in that it allows remapping of wiring changes by a simple drag-and-drop operation in software, without having to make physical changes on site, Smith says.

Boardrooms often have double doors that keep sound inside. Cape says a common tool for designing sound-proofing is the sound transmission class (STC) rating, a measure of the decibel reduction provided by partitions. Higher ratings of doors and walls can help ensure privacy between the boardroom and adjacent rooms and corridors. Adds Woolley: "Some people put speakers out in the corridor and run white noise."

It's more important than ever to enable reliable audio recording due to corporate accountability laws such as Sarbanes-Oxley. That typically means a dedicated media server that uses PC hardware and software to record on hard disks, with perhaps extra levels of redundant disk storage if fail-safe archiving is needed.

Woolley says a good matrix mixer can handle the extra audio path that must be dedicated to the recording devices alongside those for local and remote audio. "You need microphones that are automatically activated when someone speaks," he says, along with a mixer that can bypass feedback elimination and echo cancellation on the dedicated audio path to ensure they don't block voices that must be recorded. Woolley cites the FTR Gold family as an example of media servers targeted to courtroom and boardroom recording. Video-conferencing vendors also offer archiving servers. Polycom's, for example, is called the RSS 2000, Smith says.

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