Jack Wrightson, WJHW, on Stadium Audio
Jack Wrightson is a founding principal at Wrightson, Johnson, Haddon & Williams, an acoustical consulting and electronic systems design firm in Dallas. While well known for work in sports, convention center, and concert venues, WJHW also provides services on corporate, educational, and performing arts projects.
Quick bio: Jack Wrightson is a founding principal at Wrightson, Johnson, Haddon & Williams, an acoustical consulting and electronic systems design firm in Dallas. While well known for work in sports, convention center, and concert venues, WJHW also provides services on corporate, educational, and performing arts projects. Jack is a member of the ASA and AES, holds degrees from Rutgers University, University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, and Southern Methodist University, and is an adjunct professor of acoustics in the architecture school at the University of Texas Arlington.
Sam: You've been designing sound systems for sports facilities for the past 25 years. What's the latest trend?
Wrightson: There are two trends that aren't particularly new, but continue to evolve. The first is for highly distributed loudspeaker systems in outdoor stadiums and line arrays for arenas. We're also designing many more line array installations for end cluster system, particularly in large collegiate football stadiums. As all of the facilities-especially the collegiate and minor leagues-up their electronic game presentation with more audio for video content, roving in-game hosts, etc., the pressure to deliver good-and most importantly intelligible- audio increases. Our real problem is not the equipment, design, or installation, but the audio content and operations, which is often, unfortunately, the limiting factor.
Sam: How much do you work with equipment manufacturers to tell them what you need and how responsive are they?
Wrightson: We listen to and make requests of manufacturers all the time. We have to so we can understand what's possible, which our clients all want to know. In general, the manufacturers are understandably limited in what they can produce and modify to items they can make money on. For this reason, we see more responsiveness from loudspeaker manufacturers, where they can re-use many of their existing kits of parts and processes, than we do with electronics, where there can be some really custom and potentially one-off work required. As a general rule, we don't want to specify products for a large public assembly building that would require the owner to rely on fully custom products for their systems to work, especially if there could be an issue with service, support, or replacement parts. In many cases, it's better to be conservative as regards reliability.
Sam: Do sports audiences really want better sound, or just louder sound?
Wrightson: Given the demographics of sports, we're starting to get topped out on the loudness element. It's not uncommon to be at an event and hear the 20-something game presentation/marketing manager yelling "louder" into the intercom while the customer service manager is yelling "turn it down" for 45-year-old season ticket holders who are want to have a conversation with clients and friends. As for quality, the game presentation industry has some catching up to do. You don't see a top concert playing eight-year-old, 8-bit MP3s as their walk-in music, but you will find that at a brand-new sports facility. There is a wide range in the quality of content-especially field-recorded audio for video-and operator competence out there. Some are outstanding. In other cases, the facility operators and owners need to realize that every aspect of the game presentation needs to be at the same level.
Sam: With all of the tools available for mapping loudspeaker coverage, what are the challenges in actually getting a properly designed system into a finished product?
Wrightson: While the loudspeaker modeling tools are great, and have become indispensable, they are not perfect. We still are faced with practical limitations in both the modeling software and the product data the software uses. There is a degree of "designer calibration" art, experience, or judgment, whatever you want to call it, so you can recognize what the model is not telling you and make design decisions that reflect what one has learned in the real world. During installation, the challenges are typically the construction schedule (audio is usually one of the last trades in, but is no less mission critical on opening day), and the inevitable day-to-day construction challenges of "you can't put that there!"
Sam: From the 1960s and into the 1980s, long-throw outfield or endzone clusters dominated sound system design for sports facilities. With the arrival of affordable and reliable DSP, almost all major league facilities built since the 1990s have used highly distributed loudspeaker designs. Now a few old school outfield cluster designs have re-appeared using modern long throw devices. Is this the new trend?
Wrightson: I wouldn't say that DSP was the impetus for the highly distributed systems; it was more a matter of sound quality and larger budgets that allowed the change to occur. You know, there were highly distributed systems built in sports facilities in the '60s. The state of equipment, budgets, and processing just didn't allow them to be successful. We've had the same full-circle experience with the single point and end zone clusters. We now have products that work better for long-throw applications than we did several years ago-greater output, improved directivity for arrays, etc. The great news is that we have better options all the time; there's not just one way of doing things. This is a wonderful situation for both owners and designers to review the application, the pros and cons, and the budget and have multiple solutions that have a chance of working well for the customer.
Sam: Would a new sound system help the NBA's Knicks win? I ask because you designed the sound system for the new home of my world champion New York Yankees?
Wrightson: Let me put my NBA season ticket holder hat on here. No, but it will make things sound better through those paper bags. We are working on the Madison Square Garden renovation project and I think Knicks and Rangers fans are going to have some pleasant surprises to look forward to.
Sam Berkow is the founding partner of SIA Acoustics, an acoustical design firm with offices in New York and Hollywood, Calif.