Rick Talaske heads the Talaske Group, Inc. (TGi), an Oak Park, IL-based team of consultants in acoustics, reinforcement, and theatrical sound effects systems, communications, and paging systems, telecommunications systems, and noise control. TGi has created and managed acoustics for over 100 spaces, including performance venues, corporate facilities, houses of worship, and recording and broadcast studios. His firm often uses innovative computer modeling techniques, something that has occasionally motivated other acoustic firms to seek TGi's advice.

A past chairman of the Technical Committee on Architectural Acoustics (1992) and fellow (1996) of the Acoustical Society of America, Talaske has co-edited three books: Theatres for Drama Performance: Recent Experiences in Acoustical Design, Halls for Music Performance: Two Decades of Experience: 1962-1982, and Acoustical Design of Musical Education Facilities. Talaske spoke with contributing editor Davi Napoleon.

Davi Napoleon: I understand your clients can listen to a room before it's constructed. How do you do that?

Rick Talaske: The acoustic characteristics of a space are defined by a room's size, shape, and materials. By creating a model within the computer using AutoCAD, we are able to predict the timing and strength of individual sound reflections within a room. The result is what acousticians call an 'impulse response,' a graph that allows us to assess the acoustic quality of a room much in the same way a doctor might look at an EKG to understand the health of your heart.

DN: Then what?

Talaske: We define each surface as an individual plane, which is then assigned a particular acoustic attribute relating to its sound reflection, sound absorption, or sound diffusion properties. We combine the impulse response with music recorded in a reflection-free environment, a process called auralization. The combined room or impulse response and the dry, or anechoic music is then played from the computer using headphones or loudspeakers.

DN: You built a virtual room for the Shenzhen Concert Hall in China without going to the site.

Talaske: The output from the computer was burned onto a compact disk and delivered to China, so the jurors could hear the acoustic quality of the room in organ, chamber music, and full symphonic modes.

DN: In the late 80s, you built a scale model for the California Center for the Arts, Escondido. (CCAE) Today, do you ever find it useful to construct a room model from wood or masonite, or do you rely entirely on computers these days?

Talaske: Now we use computer modeling to develop the design for larger concert halls, or for the analysis of rooms with unusual shapes. Physical modeling still better represents the influence of sound diffusion and diffraction around balcony faces and other elements within the room shape.

DN: The Steppenwolf Theatre developed in small, found theatre spaces in Chicago and wanted to maintain intimacy in its present home, partly by avoiding voice reinforcement amps. How did you accommodate this?

Talaske: For small theatre spaces, speech clarity is accomplished by the introduction of sound-projecting walls and ceiling surfaces and the control of reverberation. We also develop our designs to return sound to the stage that is heard by performers. Achieving a very quiet environment is also very important.

DN: When you plan for an arena stage, such as the one you did for the Actors Theatre of Louisville, how do you make sure all spectators can hear all performers, no matter which way they face?

Talaske: We shape our thrust and arena theatres to transfer sound across the room so patrons seated behind actors can hear. Early integration in the design process is the key for successful integration of the needed sound reflecting surfaces. This experience has helped us design stages and rehearsal rooms so symphonic musicians can hear properly when they play.

DN: Sounds as though you transfer what you learn from one kind of project to another.

Talaske: Recently, we have been applying what we have learned from theatre design into the design of our music facilities, and vice versa. Our music building projects have made us very adept at developing proper isolation between rooms and has advanced our research and computer modeling efforts.

DN: The main stage of A Contemporary Theatre in Seattle has a thrust stage below and rehearsal and shop spaces above. Similarly, Central Michigan University's Music Building features adjoining recital halls, rehearsal spaces, and practice rooms. In situations like these, how have you protected one space from another?

Talaske: Theatres and music buildings represent one of the greatest acoustic isolation challenges because most of the rooms are both noise-producing and noise-sensitive. Achieving an appropriate level of isolation first involves close collaboration with the architects during the planning process so that rooms are coordinated to make use of natural buffering spaces and wall thicknesses are anticipated early. Another important element is the use of Acoustic Isolation Joints, structural separations that cut through the building from footings through the roof to avoid the transfer of structure-borne noise.

DN: You've had to deal with some unique isolation issues. The new Goodman theatres are above a train, I understand.

Talaske: In association with another acoustics consulting firm, Wilson-Ihring Associates, the Goodman theatre spaces are constructed on 5"-thick carefully engineered natural rubber pads. Also, we avoid all rigid connections between the walls, floors, and ceiling of the theatre with the surrounding structure. During the construction of the isolation system, we were at the site inspecting the lower portions of the building about a dozen times and literally had to crawl into the construction rubble to make sure no rigid connections existed.

DN: For January's ED, you spoke about protecting Chicago Shakespeare Theatre from outside noise. Now you're doing acoustics for the Frank O. Gehry Millennium Park Music Pavilion in Chicago's Grant Park. What are the challenges of designing for an outdoor venue?

Talaske: When you have an outside performance in the city, there is not much you can do to control environmental sounds beyond some simple barriers. The pavilion area will be recessed, and many of the audience members will be located 10' below the adjacent street elevation. An acoustic enhancement audio system, which delivers sound from the sides and rear of listeners, will also serve to mask peripheral noises. The design will allow for connection to broadcast and recording equipment and minimize weather-related effects to the amplified sound.

DN: What is the acoustic enhancement system?

Talaske: In the concert hall, the symphony patron hears sound not only directly from the musicians on the stage, but also reflected from the walls, ceiling, and floor of the hall. When sound-reflecting surfaces are minimal, nonexistent, or very distant from performers or listeners, for musicians it's like playing in a Victorian funeral home, where all sound is absorbed.

DN: And you've brought them back to the world of the living?

Talaske: Jonathan Laney, senior audio consultant for TGi, designed a new system that is configured to synthesize sound reflections for the creation of reverberant and enveloping sound that is so important for the enjoyment of classical or choral music. Through specialized electronics and digital processing, virtual walls and ceilings simulate the acoustics of a concert hall.

DN: I understand Gehry didn't want to suspend the speakers from poles?

Talaske: When we first met with Randy Jefferson, Gehry's partner, we explained the technical reasons why loudspeakers need to be spaced at particular intervals, and we recognized their concern for visual impact of poles. We recommended that if poles were not desirable, loudspeakers would have to be suspended. Gehry took that challenge with a creative spirit and recommended a 600'-long, spiderweb-shaped-trellis to cover the pavilion, a solution we fully embraced.

DN: I've seen photos of the pavilion, with its bandshell frame of stainless-steel curls that curve under like a pageboy cut, with a fishnet of steel above. What's it like acoustically?

Talaske: The surfaces that serve the performers most are within the pavilion and are made of wood. The shape of the pavilion will provide excellent hearing conditions for musicians and singers, and will allow physical adjustments to the stage area in order to adapt it for a variety of performance types, from amplified popular events to the symphonic orchestra.

DN: How did you handle the interior spaces of the pavilion?

Talaske: The warmup and percussion rooms have been isolated to avoid transfer of noise and vibration associated with the trains.

DN: What's it like to work with Gehry?

Talaske: His design is based on liberal use of curving elements, which offers a wonderful palette of shapes and materials for the acoustician to work with. Furthermore, Gehry and his associates are very interested in merging form and function to create a beautiful facility both visually and aurally.

DN: What's the downside of your business? How do you work within existing structures?

Talaske: We're at the mercy of the overall room size, shape, and to a certain extent, of the materials. Preservation issues, seat count, or other existing conditions often limit our ability to optimize the design.

DN: What do you do about that?

Talaske: Either we recommend that a client consider a new facility, or, for communities that are young in the development of their performance arts programs, we occasionally resort to acoustic enhancement to improve the environment for at least the symphonic orchestra users. Vaudeville theatres are prevalent throughout the US and represent a typical case of a community wanting to do more within a room than it was originally designed to do.

DN: From an acoustic standpoint, how do you define a successful room design?

Talaske: Well, it depends on for whom. For users, I feel a room acoustic design is successful for a reinforcement system if no equalization is necessary. Likewise, if an orchestral musician can hear the desired tone of his or her instrument and also hear other performers, I have done my job correctly. For the audience, excellent clarity, appropriate liveliness, and freedom from noise are what define a room's acoustic success.

Two or three things you may not know about Rick Talaske: He lives in Oak Park, IL, in one of the first prairie-style homes Frank Lloyd Wright designed. His father and grandfather both owned music stores and he once played percussion, a joy rekindled on his last birthday when his wife and three children gave him a drum set.