Rensselaer Alumni Magazine - Fall 2017 - 37
beauty of the sound and the ugly of the sound," notes Xiang. "Back
in the 1960s, noise level averaged 60 or 70 decibels. Now one finds
easily 90 or even 100. You have to get rid of the ugly side of the
sound if you're near a highway or an industrial operation, where a
lot of activities are."
The built environment remains largely steered by architects,
but Xiang and others see increasing demand for acousticians with
architectural expertise. They point to the impressive arenas and
opera houses that gain notoriety for their terrible acoustics. Also,
as scientists master the physics of sound, research increasingly
points to the therapeutic value of quiet, restful hospital rooms,
operating rooms where all parties can hear, and classrooms in
which teachers' voices are clear to the back row.
Today, acousticians use computer models to simulate sound
with great accuracy. They measure it in every corner to prevent
echo or dead zones. They can recommend how far to go to control
noise levels, and how much quiet might be too much. Recording
studios can block all outside sound and distribute it inside as
Noise-absorbing materials are improving. Xiang has developed
methods that broaden absorbing ranges and is advancing a new
generation of micro-perforated absorbers that can be easily
disinfected-of particular importance in hospitals. He and research
partners have invented wallboards incorporating light-weight, lowcost aerogel materials that reduce sound transmission loss.
And architectural acousticians are adapting to vast changes in
"We're not using stereos anymore. We are using our i-Pods
and smartphones. The Internet has become a new 'room'," notes
Braasch. "We have to assess sound over these virtual spaces."
Rensselaer students use computer-aided design to simulate
sound. They examine how it propagates and behaves in various
settings. They can treat a room to suit specific needs.
Just as important, they learn psychoacoustics-how humans
perceive sound. Among other things, students study the auditory
system. Braasch and his students are using a National Science
Foundation grant to research how the brain decodes sound.
Aditya Alamuru '11, an acoustics consultant in Mumbai,
India, and California, who produces electronic music, says
psychoacoustics was the most intriguing part of the program.
Specifically, Alamuru says he has benefited from understanding
how to create well-balanced sound spaces. Braasch says this is
precisely the goal.
"The technical solutions mean nothing if we don't see how
humans react to them," he says. "Most programs focus on the
technical side or the perception side of sound. We do both."
ne graduate is Matthew Azevedo '11, who left
the recording world when CDs were on the
decline. He is now a staff scientist at Acentech,
who has won acclaim for using acoustic modeling
to recreate John Donne's 1622 Gunpowder Day
sermon at London's St. Paul's Cathedral.
"He was one of the best listeners I have ever met in my life,"
Another graduate is Elizabeth Teret '15, an accomplished
musical instrument builder who devoted a class project to how the
Stradivarius violin would have sounded in the studio where it was
built. Braasch says the project hinged in part on her knowledge of
instruments of the day and spaces in which the master would have
worked. Teret is now an assistant professor at the Berklee College of
Music who teaches architectural acoustics.
Braasch says students routinely enter the program with an
expertise that far surpasses others, including the professors. "You
have to accept that people come in with a lot of knowledge," he
says. "It's very exciting. We learn a lot."
Cameron Fackler '10, who studied physics as a Rensselaer
undergraduate, went on to earn a Ph.D. in architectural acoustics
in 2014. He devoted his dissertation to evaluating various sound
absorbing materials in hopes of advancing products that would look
better and be easier to sterilize.
"One of the things I really liked was the opportunity to work
with people with such a wide range of backgrounds and experiences
that were all related to acoustics," says Fackler, an acoustical
engineer at 3M who develops hearing protection products. "We
were all together to learn a topic we cared about and got to
contribute our own little niche."
Rensselaer graduates are now represented in every influential
acoustics consulting firm, and they expect to see one another at
conferences and association meetings worldwide. For all the hard
science they have learned, they sometimes speak with wonder about
Markham, for example, has made acoustical modifications to
classrooms in the Boston area to support students with cochlear
implants. They now have the same opportunity to learn and thrive
as their classmates, he notes. At Washington University in St.
Louis, Markham and his colleagues consulted on a building with a
lecture hall sunken into a five-story atrium-applying the computer
modeling he learned at Rensselaer.
"It could have been a disaster," he says. "But the simulation we
created helps the team understand the importance of the acoustical
treatment and evaluate the efficacy of various design options. More
important, it helped users understand the nature of the space they
would be getting. And, they're thrilled. The room works very well
for the wide range of functions it hosts."
Guthrie was recently touched by the feedback from a concert
musician in Greece.
"I had a cellist say, 'I've played in spaces all over the world
and this is one of the few places where I can clearly hear musicians
from across the pit," she says, referring to her work on the Stavros
Niarchos center. "It was such a cool moment, to have someone
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