Sound Hounds: How One Research Team Is Helping Preserve the Acoustics of Historic Places
Most days at Columbia Studio A in Nashville’s Music Row involve students from nearby Belmont University scurrying in and out, learning about acoustics and audio engineering in the very same recording studio once frequented by the likes of Bob Dylan, Brenda Lee, and Simon & Garfunkel. For three days this past May, however, the studio was occupied not by undergrads but by a dummy head known as “Fritz.” It’s a much better listener than speaker and has many fans in the sound engineering community.
Fritz is a Neumann KU 100 binaural microphone, meaning that it captures sound as it’s perceived with two ears. “It has microphones inside of the ears, so when you record sound and then listen to it with headphones, it sounds like you are right there,” says Doyuen Ko, an associate professor of audio engineering technology at Belmont.Fritz looks like the last thing that one might find useful in the context of historic preservation. But for Ko and his co-investigators, including Sungyoung Kim (an associate professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology) and Miriam Kolar (a visiting scholar from Amherst College), it’s an indispensable tool. They are in the early stages of an ambitious three-year research project centered around aural heritage preservation, thanks to a $350,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities awarded last February, and Columbia Studio A is the perfect place to begin their work. It boils down to answering a few questions: What are all the different methods of capturing a space’s acoustics? Which are the most efficient and cost-effective? And how do you share those best practices with the public so that they can save, in a unique way, the places that matter to them before they are lost?
The Music Row neighborhood’s origins can be traced back to brothers Owen and Harold Bradley, who established the first studio there in 1954. Within a few years their Quonset Hut Studio was joined by RCA Studios, Decca Records, and Cedarwood Publishing. Music Row has been the heart of Nashville’s musical community ever since, home to major record labels, publishing firms, and recording studios. Nashville may be most commonly associated with country music, but the pop, blues, and R&B genres all found their place in Music City, U.S.A.
The same was true of Columbia Records. They purchased a building from Quonset Hut in 1962 and turned it into their Studio A (they later bought the main Quonset Hut building as well, which became Columbia Studio B). The steady stream of celebrated artists who came to record there, such as Bob Dylan for his hit album Nashville Skyline, bestowed a mystique on the space that endures today.
“There’s a magic there that’s not quantifiable,” says Ko. “For many years, certain musicians always wanted to record their instruments in that place, in that studio.”
Which is what makes the current threat facing Music Row, Columbia Studio A included, all the more unfortunate. Real estate prices have skyrocketed in and around Music Row, forcing music businesses to seek cheaper locales to ply their trade. To replace them, developers are constructing condos and luxury apartment buildings that exacerbate the issue. Out of the more than 400 properties that compose Music Row, 54 were demolished between 2008 and 2018—43 of them music-related. In other words, the very industry that came to define Nashville now finds itself an outsider in its own home.
The National Trust included Music Row on its 2019 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, having previously designated it as a highly significant yet threatened historic place through the National Treasures program. The comprehensive Music Row Vision Plan, which outlines a strategy for the neighborhood’s future and makes several recommendations for preserving its key properties, is under review by Nashville’s Metro Planning Commission as of publication. Although Music Row is firmly in the spotlight, there are no guarantees—not when so many significant buildings have already been lost.
Ko believes that his work will help in an unconventional way. Preserving a building’s aural heritage has two clear applications: it can guide the restoration of a demolished or severely damaged building, and it results in a virtual reconstruction of a building’s acoustics. The value of the former is currently on display with the Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral, which burned in a fire this past April. Despite suffering catastrophic damage to its roof and spire, Notre Dame had its acoustics measured back in 2013, ensuring that choir hymns and organ hums will sound close to the same as they always did once the rebuild is complete.
As for the latter—imagine finding out what your singing voice sounds like in a historic space halfway across the globe, or a building lost to the wrecking ball, without having to pay for airfare. Virtual reconstructions enable us to make recordings that sound as if they were captured in a different place. If a place like Columbia Studio A is threatened, the reconstructions preserve part of what make it special at a relatively minimal cost.
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With those benefits in mind, the primary task at hand is “developing a protocol to preserve and capture those important places.” Ko and his team aren’t reinventing the wheel; the theory and techniques that undergird their project have been around for decades. An opera house in Italy called La Fenice (“the Phoenix”), for example, had its acoustics measured a year before burning down in 1996, the second time it had done so in its history. As with Notre Dame, the results proved invaluable in its reconstruction. But no one has tried to create guidelines for how best to perform aural heritage preservation with modern technology, until now.
In their three days at the studio, Ko’s team measured brief, impulsive sounds with microphones set up around the studio. They tested different kinds of microphones (such as Fritz), moved them to new positions, and changed the quantity. They explored different ways of creating impulsive sound, from using high-end speakers to simply popping a balloon. Each test gave them “a fingerprint of the space” with those specific variables. Soon they will analyze the data, scrutinizing all the results and especially those of the lower-budget setups. The cheaper and simpler a setup can match the expensive ones, the more practical it would be for researchers in other disciplines to use.
Ko emphasizes that their work is not specifically about saving Music Row; it’s about saving places around the globe. Once their work is complete in Nashville, they will move on to the Rochester Savings Bank in Rochester, New York, and the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Chavín de Huántar in Peru. This will give Ko’s team three distinct, endangered case studies to test their strategies, allowing them to make stronger conclusions.
So why start with Columbia Studio A? It’s an ideal testing ground for the work that lies ahead in Rochester and Peru. Bringing hundreds of different microphones to Chavín de Huántar would be impractical, not to mention exhausting, but it’s hardly a problem on Music Row. “We can test a lot of different equipment and methods and different methodologies in a safe environment [at Studio A],” explains Ko. The studio is also leased to Belmont by musician and former lieutenant governor of California Mike Curb, making access easy.
The team hopes to complete analysis of the data collected at Music Row by summer’s end. Measuring and evaluating the sites in Rochester and Peru will keep them busy through 2020. Then in 2021, everything will come together. They’ll finalize and publish their guidelines, hold public workshops and events to educate the greater community, and create a website that displays the fruits of their labor. It’s a long way down the road, but Ko knows that the impact their work could have worldwide will be worth the effort.
“We often forget about the special characteristics of a space. And as sound engineers and researchers we are really interested in those kinds of characteristics,” he says. “There are many, many buildings like Columbia Studio A around the world. Hopefully we can provide some tools for people who want to do this kind of work.”