Interview #1 : Shimby McCreery from Kirkegaard Associates

Here is my very first interview with an acoustical consultant in the US ! I would like to thank Shimby McCreery for having accepted to be interviewed and I also apologize for the cheap audio and video quality. That was the first time I was using Google Hangouts and now I know I need better microphone and connection.

This talk was very interesting because I discovered some personnal traits that match with Shimby’s description of an acoustical consultant. The main one is the will to find a job that can mix our passion for music and our engineering studies. At the end of the interview, he also shares some tips for people like me.

In case you can’t hear perfectly our talk, here are the main points we spoke about :

General Presentation

Kirkegaard Associates

Founded by Larry Kirkegaard 30+ years ago after a past experience in Bolt Beranek and Newman, Kirkegaard Associates is based in Chicago, IL. They are specialized mainly in performing arts, but they also work for worship spaces, university campuses or residential and administrative buildings.

Shimby’s job in particular

Shimby is a consultant in acoustics and noise control. His main role is to meet clients, architects or engineers to build a project (sometimes using computer model, depending on its size). He handles several projects in the same time, either under a principal or on his own. His projects range from room acoustics, which is issues related to sound isolation, to noise control, which is the control of unwanted noise from mechanical or electrical systems.

Why acoustics ?

He owns an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering. He has always been a musician (so as me, but I think he didn’t get it due to my horrible microphone). During his college years, he took a special course on architectural acoustics in the European Campus of Georgia Tech (in France !). As he says “I got just incredibly excited about it”. To him, working in acoustics was the best link between the engineering studies and his passion for music.

His best project so far ?

The Sydney Opera House, which is the moment when he knew why he got into acoustics. The SOH asked Kirkegaard Associates to do a study for a renovation. Therefore, he travelled to Australia and attended rehearsals for a week. Acoustical Consultant seems like a good job, right ? But though it’s the most known hall he worked for, he also worked for spaces that sound as good or even better than the SOH. For each space, the underlying idea is to find its strengths and the weaknesses.

sydney opera house

The Sydney Opera House. Click to enlarge;

An acoustical consultant in particular

The profile of an acoustical consultant

Like most of the jobs, there are no hard rules. At Kirkegaard, everybody has a different background, from musicians to engineers and even biology undergraduates ! But you have to be passionate about music, and excited about what you hear and experience. You also have to be detail-oriented. Though you have to know the theory, you also have to focus on details that make the acoustics of the space good. The strength of companies like Kirkegaard Associates is that people learn from each other thanks to their background differences.

If you have those two, you can grow.

A typical day in the life of an acoustical consultant

There are two kinds of days : Those in the office and those outside the office.

  • In the office, his role is to study or developping drawings and specifications for each project. Communication is also important so he uses e-mail and phonecalls a lot to discuss and coordinate design elements with his team.
  • Outside the office, his role is to travel to the projects so as to take some measurements or meet the client face-to-face. Currently, most of the clients don’t understand the importance of acoustics. So he has to explain why it’s important for a room to have good acoustics because some people just care about the price of the project without considering the comfort acoustics can bring.

At Kirkegaard Associates, a project is conducted by a 2 to 4-person team : a principal (most of the time an architect), followed by a consultant and 1 or 2 A/V staff. But if the project is bigger, so will be the team. The team will include for instance a mechanical engineer, an electrical engineer, a structural engineer, a theater consultant, an acoustician, and civils or people representing the client.

20140615-02

A part of the work of Kirkegaard Associates for the University of Chicago. Click to enlarge

Perspectives

His short-term projects

He is currently handling between 5 and 10 various projects (so you need to master multitasking apparently), such as university projects (renovation of lecture halls or performing arts facilities), work for historic buildings and work for a residential tower near the Chicago external train line. Many types of projects and many locations around the world.

His long-term projects

The job of an acoustical consultant changes, but not fundamentally. What changes really is the caliber of the project or its quality. Even after 8 years at Kirkegaard Associates, he wants to stay so as to lead a project one day. As you start, you follow, and when you become senior, you lead. Thanks to the flexibility of his job, he can save some time to record his own band or others.

And what about his ears ?

Ears are the main tool of an acoustical consultant. Along your life, you lose audition. The best you can do is protect your ears as best as you can to lower the speed of this loss. Sometimes, acoustics is not linked to what you’re hearing. But if you work in performing arts, a solution can be custom-molded earplugs.

For the love of God, protect your ears.

earplugs

Custom-molded earplugs to protect your ears.

One more thing : Some tips for people like me

  • Be persistent. Reach out companies as far and wide as you can and build your network.
  • Understand acoustics, architecture and engineering. Acoustics is a growing field. Take some courses to have the fundamentals.
  • Getting a job is a mix between luck and skills. For example, Shimby asked for this job during 3 to 6 months and finally got a call when someone left.
  • Keep an eye out for alternative routes to your end goal. The place where you start is not necessarily the place where you end up.

One more time, thanks again to Shimby McCreery from Kirkegaard Associates and sorry for the audio and video quality, I will work on it ! But that will be for the next post !

Thanks for reading and tell me if you spotted any English mistake =)

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