Student, faculty researchers collaborate to improve sound quality at local church

From left: Assistant Professor Heather Lai, David Foote ’18, and Father Andrew Wyns

Two SUNY New Paltz faculty and one May 2018 graduate have been working over the last two years at Christ the King Church in New Paltz, to study and help address a significant echo that was having an adverse effect on church services and events.

The interdisciplinary effort was led by Assistant Professor of Engineering Heather Lai, Associate Professor of Communication Disorders Anne Balant, and student David Foote ’18 (Mechanical Engineering).

The researchers worked with church officials to observe the unique acoustic conditions at Christ the King, and build a dataset that ultimately informed the church’s decision to invest in sound-absorbing panels.

“Some echo is kind of nice in a church, because it gives it a sort of cavernous, cathedral feel,” Lai said. “But when we first came in, there were some parts of the room where we couldn’t hear each other clearly over the echo.”

While they worked to obtain measurements, Foote was also using Odeon and SolidWorks, two widely-used software programs in acoustic engineering, to generate a virtual representation of interior of the church. These tools made it possible for the researchers to simulate changes to the space (like adding sound-dampening panels), and make predictions about how these changes would be received by human auditory systems.

“It’s what you would call psycho-acoustics,” Balant said. “You can take what know about human perception and try to understand what it was about the echoes in this room that were so disruptive. It’s really a combination of art and science. The people who are really good at this use measurement techniques and pursue things in a quantitative way, but they also sort of know what needs to be done.”

In 2018, after the team had built a robust set of acoustic measurements for the room, Lai offered informal consultancy to the leadership at Christ the King Church, as they prepared to invest in sound panels.

“Initially they wanted to put panels all over the walls, but I recommended based on our measurements that they just mount them on the ceiling – in part to save money, but also because too many panels might deaden the sound in the room too much,” she said.

So far, the change has been well-received.

“The difference with the panels is substantial, but we still have some of that reverberation that gives the feeling of being in a large space,” said Father Andrew Wyns of Christ the King Church. “We were well-advised to add only a few panels on the ceiling.”

The research had an impact on the quality of the experience at Christ the King, but it also proved central to Foote’s final year at SUNY New Paltz. He got reps not only conducting the research, but also presenting it at the College’s Student Research Symposium, the Senior Design EXPO at the College, and the 2017 meeting of the Acoustical Society of America in Boston, Mass.

“I ran into one of my friends from RPI, who was like, ‘You guys can do research at New Paltz?’” Foote said. “He told me I was so lucky, because he didn’t have time for research. That’s what I like about New Paltz – it’s a balance, so I was able to do my classwork and a fair amount of research, too.”

Learn more online about undergraduate research opportunities at SUNY New Paltz, and visit the Division of Engineering Programs for information about programs in mechanical, computer and electrical engineering.