Why Bags of Fiberglass Improve Billie Eilish’s Sound

Billie Eilish sounded fantastic inside the arena that the New York Islanders hockey club now calls home, as Drew Thornton was surprised to discover.

It might have been the thick, slender fibreglass sacks snuggled against the roof of the recently opened UBS Arena. Or the panels that have been purposefully pierced with holes to collect strong noise. Or the “bass trap” built above the broadcast booth that absorbs sound, or perhaps the cushioned seats.

The pop sensation Ms. Eilish performed at the UBS Arena in February, and Mr. Thornton, the front-of-house engineer in charge of sound, says, “I was just genuinely astonished at the low end.” Man, getting that crisp, deep, hip-hop low sound was practically effortless, I just remember thinking.

It was previously unimaginable for an audio engineer, such as Mr. Thornton, to compliment the acoustics in a space that can accommodate 19,000 people. Since long before the Beatles performed at Shea Stadium, bands, promoters, and audience members have lamented the poor sound quality in big venues.

However, sound engineers, architects, and business leaders have come up with various strategies for coping, from using industrial-strength draperies to testing a venue with Seal recordings.

A significant issue, according to Jack Wrightson, an acoustics expert who has spent more than 35 years working on major facilities like UBS, is the way sound creates an echo when it bounces off flat, vertical surfaces in the opposite direction of the stage. Such barriers abound at arenas and stadiums, including giant screens, walls, stairs, poles, and opulent suites.

According to Mr. Wrightson, arenas can reduce echo in current venues by using draperies with maximised absorbent pleats. The ancient roof of what was most recently known as KeyArena, which is supported by a concrete structure that has led to some acoustic issues, was kept in place at Seattle’s new Climate Pledge Arena, which is home to sports organisations like the Seattle Storm women’s basketball team. The venue responded by carefully positioning draperies around it.

Front-of-house engineers like Mr. Thornton must contend with temperature and humidity changes as well as louder fan screams than the sound system in order to make music enjoyable in venues.

Working for the Pittsburgh band Ghost Hounds, Michelle Sabolchick Pettinato performed as the Rolling Stones’ opening act in Milan.
For the Pittsburgh band Ghost Hounds recently, including some European opening concerts for The Rolling Stones, Michelle Sabolchick Pettinato has been in charge of sound. She claims that one of her tactics is to play the same few songs over each venue’s sound system in advance of performances to get a sense of how the space sounds and anticipate the kinds of tweaks she’ll need to make.

She claims she plays Seal’s “Bring It On” to see how the song’s “low-frequency energy” reverberates through the space.

Mr. Thornton claims that because Ms. Eilish is a quiet vocalist, he must constantly make real-time adjustments to prevent background noises from interfering with her performance, such as when she approaches her fans.

He explains, “I will always have these screeching chicks just going crazy and screaming into the microphone. And they are much louder than Billie at that point.

On the current Rage Against the Machine tour, Sean “Sully” Sullivan, the front-of-house sound engineer, says he needs to talk to some vocalists about holding the microphone closer to their mouths so the mike doesn’t pick up amplified sounds in the rooms.


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