154th ASA Meeting, New Orleans, LA

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Digitally Enhanced Practice

Ron Freiheit, ron.freiheit@wengercorp.com
Wenger Corporation
Owatonna, MN 55060

Popular Version of Paper 1pAA2, “Changing the paradigm of practice rooms and music teachers coaching studios”
Presented 1:25 p.m., Tuesday afternoon, November 27, 2007,
154th ASA Meeting, New Orleans, LA

Traditionally, the ideal music practice room was an isolating environment where the musician was not distracted by others’ sounds, nor a distraction to others. The practice room gave the musician the freedom to practice his/her instrument while hearing themselves clearly, without disruptions. Acoustically, the room was very dry and absorptive, which meant musicians often overplayed in an attempt to hear their “true” sound.

The traditional practice paradigm was focused on isolation. But that missed half of the story – the performance. Think of athletics for a moment. Where do tennis players practice? The tennis court. Football players? The football field. Why? Because athletes understand that the best place to practice is where they’ll be performing.

Musicians are no different. Logically, it doesn’t make any sense for musicians to practice in a closet-sized room when they’ll eventually be performing onstage in a larger venue with a significantly different acoustical response. Most school performance venues, however, are heavily scheduled for a variety of activities, making individual practice time inconvenient and impractical.

Digital Signal Processing, or DSP, is the answer. In its early days, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, DSP was primarily known as “digital reverb” for recording applications. David Griesinger and Lexicon were pioneers in applying the technology to live environments, such as enhancing the acoustics in historic theatres. Griesinger has been on the forefront of these developments, moving DSP beyond simple reverb to other designs involving time variant gain before feedback. This provides greater sound system gain in a live environment while minimizing the build-up of feedback.
Hearing your true performance sound requires a performance environment. In a small space, the sound arrives at your ear too quickly – it’s impossible to hear yourself accurately. The delay of sound and reflected energy in a performance space enables musicians to hear and learn timing, phrasing and intonation better.

Before the application of digital signal processing (DSP) technology, musicians in a practice room were not able to experience the sensation of performing in a large space. With DSP, a practice room can now offer the best of both worlds. Built-in sound isolation means musicians can practice without being disturbed or disturbing others; DSP technology gives the practice session a realistic performance feel, providing musicians with a practical laboratory to learn how acoustics impact musical performance.

The newest practice rooms with DSP from Wenger Corp. offer an integrated learning environment for music, featuring a built-in recording/listening environment, active acoustics for “virtual reality” simulations of different performance environments and guaranteed sound isolation.(1)

For example, the integrated digital record/playback capability enables teachers to easily and accurately evaluate an individual student’s instrumental or vocal performance. This follows the assessment strategy outlined in the National Standards for Music Education, which recommends audiotaping or videotaping students in grades 5-12 twice each semester. Immediate playback provides students and professional musicians alike the opportunity for instant self-critique.

Audio transfer of audition or competition recordings is possible through the built-in USB connection in standard stereo .wav format (44.1 kHz, 16-bit). Accompaniment music may also be uploaded via the USB connection, so musicians can play along.

Musicians can choose to record in the active acoustics environment, thus capturing their performance plus the acoustical simulation. Or a musician may choose to record the dry performance without acoustical enhancements. Recordings can be accessed immediately, or archived for future evaluation and study.

My own contributions on this subject center on applying DSP technology to a practice room environment. In the early to mid-1990s, I worked with Lexicon to apply their large-venue technology to suit a small practice room environment, specifically the modular, sound-isolating music practice rooms that Wenger has sold, primarily to schools, since 1969. For this initiative, I was issued a U.S. Patent #5,525,765 in 1996. Today, Wenger Corp. markets this innovative music practice space as VAE™ (Virtual Acoustic Environments) technology.

At this ASA meeting, rather than reporting new results, I will describe how practice room technology continues to evolve to better suit musicians and music students. Our ongoing research is aimed at developing beneficial tools and technologies for music education and performance. First came the “real-world” acoustical simulations made possible through DSP. Now, recent advancements in digital-recording systems enable musicians to record their performance, upload accompaniment music, archive it, download the audio file – all maximizing the benefit of DSP technology.

Technology continues to evolve, offering new opportunities and applications for learning and musical skill development. By applying DSP technology to a traditional sound-isolating environment, music students learn more accurately, faster and better. Most importantly, music practice becomes more enjoyable. When students enjoy practicing, they’ll likely practice longer.

A prominent aural historian cites Wenger’s active acoustics practice room (with DSP) as illustrative of “postmodern acoustical technologies” …that “summon forth the sound of space so easily and in so many varieties…” Emily Thompson is an associate professor of history at the University of California, San Diego. The above quote is taken from the coda section of her award-winning book, The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900-1933. This book earned Thompson the 2002 Acoustical Society of America science writing award. In 2005, she was awarded a $500,000 Macarthur Foundation fellowship.

(1) Typical construction techniques often do not lend themselves to good sound isolation because there are many opportunities for either escaping sound or sound intrusion. Modular, sound-isolating practice rooms offer repeatable, consistent acoustical performance through proper materials and design, along with carefully engineered ventilation and electrical systems.

Wenger created a website about VAE technology at www.wengercorp.com/vae. It includes an on-line demonstration.

Additional Background & Photos

One of the first installations of VAE technology in a music practice room was in Red Deer, Alberta, Canada. Below is a quote from the band director there:

“I used our two VAE rooms for assessment purposes this spring. It was excellent – the rooms worked very well and made my life a whole lot easier. While I was testing students individually in my office, other students took turns recording their tests in the VAE rooms. My students are assessed four times a year, and this approach really saves me time – I’ll definitely do it again!”

Jennifer Mann, Band Director. Lindsay Thurber Comprehensive High School, Red Deer, Alberta

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