Music to her ears

Samantha Chavanic
May 04, 2017

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Room sound quality matters. With joint appointments in the Graduate Program in Acoustics and the Department of Architectural Engineering, Penn State Assistant Professor Michelle Vigeant understands just how important the psychological and physiological effects of room acoustics and noise are to humans.

Like many of those who specialize in acoustics, Vigeant has always had an interest in music. She combined her passion for piano and clarinet with her love of math and science to become an expert in the field of architectural acoustics — with a specific focus on concert hall design.

Vigeant uses her musical and engineering expertise to better understand and quantify the characteristics of late-arriving sounds in auditoriums and to develop reliable and measurable design procedures for these spaces in order to improve the perceived acoustic quality. She also studies the effects of office acoustics on productivity and perception of sonic booms and uses functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to evaluate the brain’s response to different types of acoustic stimuli.

Vigeant’s efforts were recently recognized by 3M Company, a company which focuses on reshaping the way people live their everyday lives, as she was named a recipient of the 2017 3M Non-Tenured Faculty Award. This award is presented to outstanding faculty based on research, experience and academic leadership. It was established to encourage the pursuit of new ideas among tenure-track university and college professors.

Distributed by 3M’s Research and Development Community, the award includes an unrestricted gift of $15,000, with the possibility for two additional $15,000 renewals. Recipients also receive an invitation to 3M’s annual Science & Engineering Faculty Day in June.

“I’m completely ecstatic that I received this honor. It’s exciting that a company like 3M is interested in supporting a researcher in this very specialized field of room acoustics,” Vigeant said.

She will use funding from the award to extend her research in improving concert hall design for better room acoustics. Currently, there are several quantities that can be used to predict the perceptual response to the acoustics of concert halls, but no clear link between these values and overall preference has been established. For example, the attribute of reverberance, which is the perceived amount of time that sounds linger in a space, can be predicted by reverberation time, or the amount of the time it takes for sound to decay. This value can vary significantly depending on a hall’s geometric shape and its surface finishes.

Vigeant’s NSF CAREER Award research project, “Importance of Late-Sound-Field Properties and Listener Envelopment to Room Acoustic Quality and Design,” divides room acoustic attributes into metric numbers that are able to be measured, predicted and perceived. Reverberance is a metric that is perceivable, as humans can recognize how clear a sound is. Vigeant is particularly interested in listener envelopment, or perception that room sound surrounds the listener.

“Research has shown that envelopment is one of the key pieces of overall preference in halls. If we don’t have a good number to predict envelopment, then we’re missing an important component to predict overall preference,” Vigeant said. “Ultimately, the goal is to provide a better way of designing optimal values for envelopment depending on the type of hall.”

Vigeant, along with acoustics doctoral candidates Dave Dick and Matthew Neal, reproduce simulated and measured sound fields from concert halls in the AUralization and Reproduction of Acoustics Sound-fields (AURAS) facility located at the University Park campus. These sounds are then presented to subjects to rate envelopment, preference and other attributes. Vigeant said funding from the 3M award will allow her team to measure more halls across the United States and in Europe than originally planned.

“Our end goal is not to create a ranked list of halls from poor to excellent, but to gather a set of signals that have a range of acoustics to investigate how the individual attributes contribute to overall preference and the overlap between attributes. We’re excited to grow our concert-hall measurement database that we’ll be able to hear with literally the touch of a button in our lab,” she said.

Measurements of halls in both the United States and Europe will occur in summer 2017.

  • Eigenmike

    Assistant Professor of Acoustics Michelle Vigeant and student researchers use an Eigenmike, pictured here, to collect acoustic data from concert halls.

    IMAGE: Michelle Vigeant
  • Pritzker Pavilion concert

    From left, Martin Lawless, doctoral candidate in acoustics; Michelle Vigeant, assistant professor of acoustics; and Matthew Neal, doctoral candidate in acoustics, attend a concert at Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago, Illinois.

    IMAGE: Michelle Vigeant
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Last Updated May 05, 2017