Validation: Caring About The Process Is Key

My manager at a hi-fi store years ago told me the secret to selling anything. First, recognize that the customer already knows what he wants. Your job is to get to know your customer and validate the decision he’s already made. He will then trust you.

One of the more complex aspects of being a consultant lives on the periphery of this concept. One occasionally is asked to review the work of others in an informal setting. I came across a complicated one recently. It was an already-completed theme park project that likely will win many awards: a clever idea coupled with an even more clever execution.

During an industry showcasing, the project manager and I walked to the attraction. It was obvious something was on his mind. When we arrived, he asked me my opinion of the audio. My retort was to ask him to close his eyes and just listen for a few seconds. I asked a few questions:

  • Is the music enjoyable?
  • Can you understand the microphone pages clearly?
  • Do you consider this a world-class listening experience?

His response was dead accurate: “This is a disaster. I can’t understand a word my people are saying, the music is badly distorted and I’ve spent a lot of money on it.”

His next question, with an anticipatory grimace, was, “How much will this cost to fix?” I answered, “It should be free. You have all the right hardware already in place. This is the result of poor programming. You paid for a service you did not receive.”

In an attempt to assuage his perplexed look, I suggested that his system likely was tested and adjusted by a single person while the facility was vacant. My recommendations included:

  • Have two people adjust this properly.
  • Use the audio processor you already have. Duck/dim the music 12dB when a paging mic Push-To-Talk button is engaged. The best theme parks ramp the attenuation more than a second for an elegant touch.
  • Lock the paging system access so only one microphone can address the audience at a time in any acoustic zone.
  • Ensure that two different music tracks are elegantly attenuated near their audio intersection. There is no faster way to annoy your guests than having two audio tracks playing at the same time.

Yet the more fundamental question remained. This was supposed to be an entertainment technology showcase and it reflected poorly on our industry. We can’t blame the manufacturers, the design team or the installers.

The sole culprit here is poor Test and Adjustment of the system under real-world conditions. When you see four-year-olds plugging their ears during pages, that should be a good clue you’ve failed.

Any post mortem would quickly identify that a proper Test and Adjust procedure must allow for sufficient time and resources to observe and adjust the system under real-world conditions. Changing your internal processes to include this should be relatively easy.

However, a more important issue was left unresolved and undiscussed: Any manager with a pair of functional ears should have easily detected the poor performance and complained immediately. Project managers need to learn audio, too!

This situation is indicative of an aspect of our profession that has hovered in the background for generations now. Although difficult to quantify, I’d venture to claim that 35% of the installed audio systems in the United States are annoyingly bad…and this was a typical example. Slightly more effort on the part of the Test and Adjust team would have paid off handsomely. Corners were cut.

Cutting corners is not atypical of our industry and does not reflect well upon us. Any reader of this magazine could no doubt point out dozens of similar issues:

  • Is there any reason some restaurants can’t afford acoustical absorption?
  • Why are theater ticket windows universally unintelligible?
  • Why can’t you carry on a conversation in many museums?
  • Why are some retail stores and sports stadiums so loud?

However complicated providing quality audio may be, our profession demands that we care about the entire process from beginning to end. Ultimately, you may have to sell your client on the fact that the extra money they’ll have to spend is worth the expenditure. The time to sell this is at the beginning of the project when budgets are being allocated.

It is sad to think that we are still not providing what the customer wanted in the first place.

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