Making Waves—of Sound
For her Senior Capstone Experience, Katie Gordon ’17 is using the physics of sound to analyze improvements to the acoustics of Decker Theatre.
Katie Gordon ’17 grew up singing and performing, so it was a natural for her to join WACapella (she’s the current president). But one of the first things she learned is that the acoustics in Decker Theatre were deadly for the singing group’s sound.
“When I got here, I got into WACapella and saw that we couldn’t have concerts in Decker,” she says. “The sound wasn’t as live in there, and we didn’t sound as good.” Most students likely wouldn’t have thought much more about it, but Gordon is a double major in music and physics. For her, the problem presented itself as a quandary that perfectly combined both of her academic interests, and now she’s using the challenge as the basis for her Senior Capstone Experience.
“It’s the physics of sound, and you’re working with the arrangement of the room. A lot of the details of the room give way to better sound effects and worse sound effects. I learned from the acoustician who designed Decker that they initially intended it to be for speakers and plays, so they didn’t make the room very live,” she says. Hotchkiss Recital Hall, on the other hand, utilizes the glass wall, as well as different textures and angles of the paneling on the other walls, and an entirely different layout and seating arrangement, to refine and improve the acoustics for music.
“Your ears like to hear sound coming in differently,” she says. “So if the sound comes in your right ear differently than your left, then you think it’s more pleasing than if you hear things at the same time in the same way.”
For her SCE, Gordon is using a microphone that she can connect to her computer, as well as specialized software, that let her analyze the amount of time it takes sound to travel from and to the source. “From that you get reverberation time, which I have been reading is the most important part of making a better acoustic space.” She was spending time first in Hotchkiss to analyze its sound, then comparing it to Decker.
“The reverberation time is too short in Decker right now. Short reverberation times make a space sound dead. Longer reverberation times make a space more echo-y. If I can get the reverberation time in Decker more like it is in Hotchkiss, we’d be able to do anything in there.”
Modifications like making the space more textured, which works to bounce sound around the room and shorten reverberation time, could make a difference. “The upholstery of the chairs, the carpet in the floor, the material around the room can affect sound.”
Gordon, who in addition to WACapella was a president of Alpha Omicron Pi and a peer mentor, wants to become a sound engineer, and eventually she intends to attend graduate school for that. In the meantime, after graduation in May, she’s moving to Texas where she has a job opportunity with Data Display Audio Visual, a company that does audio-visual for major national events.
“I’ll be working with their soundboards and altering their sound, so it’s a step in the right direction but it’s not a concert hall, which is what I want the end goal to be,” she says.
Gordon grew up singing and playing classical music, although “any and all music is great to me.” She didn’t believe a career in music was in her future, though, so during high school she took some physics classes and loved the subject. Washington College at first wasn’t on her list of schools, but when she visited, “you know it’s like everyone says, you set foot on the campus and you feel like you’re home.” Being able to double major in physics and music was logistically easy on the campus because she didn’t have to jump between colleges, which frequently is the case at a large university.
“Being able to have such flexibility with the programs has been great,” she says. “It’s still been difficult—I pulled a 26-credit semester one time, and I’m usually averaging around 22 credits per semester.”
It’s also been fun for her to see the physics program grow since the College recently added the Combined Plan Program with Columbia University, letting students obtain dual degrees in physics and engineering. This spring, only three seniors will graduate in physics—and she will be the only female—but the program now has two students at Columbia who will graduate next year, as well as 14 sophomores and a strong freshman class taking prerequisites for the major.
“It’s quite a shift,” she says. “It’s cool to walk out with it being like that, though.”