Working with the Best, Pt. 3: Steve Haas
Mention acoustics, and most people think of concert halls. Some, but not a lot, might also think of home theaters and listening rooms. The number of people who realize the importance for proper acoustics in domestic spaces beyond entertainment rooms is so small it barely exists.
But the number who are aware of noise, both inside and outside the home, is of course huge. Most people would love to tame those disturbances if they could, but don’t realize they can. That’s where Steve Haas comes in.
Top designers, architects, builders, and integrators, and wealthy individuals turn to his company SH Acoustics to make both performance and everyday spaces sound great and keep irritating noises at bay. Steve’s work includes well-known museums, concert halls, and other commercial spaces around the world, and he has designed the acoustics for some of Theo Kalomirakis’s most famous private theaters.
In the interview that follows, Steve discusses how he brought his early experiences in the commercial world to bear on his work in luxury residential environments, how high-end home-entertainment spaces have expanded beyond private theaters to live performance and jamming, and the importance of proper acoustics and noise mitigation throughout the home.
(The text below is an abridged version of the podcast,
which you can hear using the player above.)
Would you consider your official title “acoustic designer”?
Depends on what day of the week it is. “Acoustic designer,” “acoustical consultant,” “acoustician”—it’s interchangeable.
While you began your residential career working on home theaters and other entertainment spaces, you actually operate under a much broader umbrella, right?
That is true. We’re brought into so many different types of spaces, inside and outside the home, that home theaters are obviously very important for us but we don’t just focus on them exclusively by any means.
Talk a little about how you evolved beyond those traditional entertainment spaces.
Well, it goes a little farther back than my residential experience because for 14 years I was part of an organization that did major commercial spaces—everything from concert halls to opera houses to Broadway theaters to houses of worship. Museums, especially.
I fell into the world of residential by accident. A contractor simply called my office and said they were putting a home theater for I think it was the producer of Barbara Walters in an old historic barn—in the town I now live in, in Weston, Connecticut, ironically. So I just took it on on my own, in the outside hours, and found all these interesting challenges in the world of residential that I had no idea about.
Even with everything I was doing in the commercial world, I quickly saw that dealing with this type of construction, and especially these types of clients—homeowners who wanted to spend a lot of time in this particular type of environment, an entertainment space, a home theater—very different from dealing with a symphony orchestra or the leaders of a big church or a museum director. I had to quickly decide if this was something that interested me and then realize what I had to do to change my mentality coming into this world if I wanted to continue with it, which I did.
It wasn’t long before homeowners started asking me, “OK, what can you do in my bedroom to quiet noise?” or “I have a lot of street noise coming into my house even though I live in a suburban environment. There are landscape trucks running up and down at 7 a.m. I don’t want to hear all that.” So, utilizing the skills and experiences I had in all these commercial environments, I realized there’s a lot more to addressing sound quality, sound control, than just in the home theaters.
How much of this was a natural evolution from your commercial work?
To name-drop a bit, I had over-the-top experiences working on Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall [shown above] and Jazz at Lincoln Center’s new facility, where we had to isolate entire buildings on giant rubber blocks to keep subway vibrations from going up into the major performance spaces. That’s a tall task that we conquered, but it shows that bringing this type of experience to very challenging residential environments was a natural course of evolution beyond just thinking about the sound of a home theater or a media room inside the space. We were able to take those broad experiences in the commercial world with isolation or HVAC or electrical or plumbing noise and bring them to the level they needed to be in home environments.
The infrastructure in homes is evolving more in the direction of commercial spaces, with the increased sophistication of technology and with more people working from home, so I would imagine that’s another opportunity to tap into your early career.
It absolutely is. We have two major projects right now, one in Texas and one in Long Island, where the clients own commercial contracting companies that are building their homes out of concrete, steel beams, and all-metal framing. Having that commercial background, we’re no stranger to what we need to think about differently than your typical wood-frame, wood-joist construction. It’s a plus to not have to be concerned at all about the different mentalities and to be able to instruct my team of engineers on how to flip the switch on their thinking for these types of homes.
What impact did your background in live performance have on your interest in acoustics and how you approach your work?
Thanks to my grandfather, who was both a concert pianist and a violinist in some major orchestras both in Europe and the U.S., including the Cleveland Orchestra, I got a good start at age 7 playing piano. I took that as far as I could into a lot of different types of music such as musical theater and other types of groups and clubs. And then when I got to college, I was in
bands and had a lot of fun. Even though I didn’t play out for many years as I was focusing on my career in the beginning, I always had the opportunity to go to a job site, whether it was a concert hall, school of music, or any other type of place where they had a piano, and just be able to play in some amazing spaces—when no one was around, of course. These days, I’ve really gotten back into performing live for people and doing live sound as well.
Having these talents and passions has been instrumental in advocating having spaces for live music in people’s homes, whether it’s for CEOs by day and closet guitarists by night jamming in a pretty awesome room or their kids learning to play their instruments and wanting the best-sounding environments. Or maybe bringing in Elton John or Lady Gaga for a million dollars to do their daughter’s bat mitzvah or wedding anniversary or something. It’s been so much joy and excitement to be part of creating these live music spaces throughout homes all around the world.
How did you cross paths with Theo Kalomirakis?
By accident. The first time I tried to cross paths was at a CEDIA book signing, but I stood in a long line and he ran out of books before I got to the front of the line, so I didn’t get to meet him. But I had been following all the great work he was doing and was fascinated by it, so I reached out, being local in the New York City area, and just made the call. And it was a fortuitous one because we’ve been working together very closely ever since.
I just had the right mentality coming into it from having worked with signature architects and designers on concert halls and theaters. I knew how to respect everything they were doing and how to get them to respect our side of the equation as well. You cannot tell someone like a Hugh Hardy how to design a Broadway theater aesthetically, because they would never bring you back. So I learned at a very early part of my career how to play that relationship very strongly. And it just worked with Theo. He was very open to that kind of approach, and it’s just been a great relationship all these years.
When I interviewed both of you about the Paradiso about a year ago, we talked about how the home theater had a live performance aspect as well. But you were brought in after everything was originally designed, right?
Yes. We changed a number of things to make it more optimized not just for cinematic use but for live music. We
installed my Concertino system, which is basically electronic architecture to recreate sounds of different acoustic spaces. You press a button and it sounds like you’re in Carnegie Hall, but when you turn it off, you’re in a very dry, calm space.
But live music can happen in various ways, and that’s just one way to create a live space for jamming. For the big Texas project, we have about three or four different music performance and jamming areas—like a guitar jam room—right in the room, and it’s going to be awesome what they want to do with it.
Most home theaters aren’t very conducive to live performance. You can have people stand in there and play but it’s going to be far from optimal.
Most home theaters are on the drier side, acoustically—hopefully not too dead. Not too live, either, but you can have a good conversation in there. And so for certain types of music—amplified, for instance—it works OK. But you need a very different method of playback. You can’t use a home theater audio system, which would essentially be behind the performer, and if you had microphones, they would feed back tremendously. You need to think about what you need to augment the cinematic experience for live music.
And that goes beyond the sound to things like lighting. People don’t think about the fact that you have a screen producing a lot of light from the projector but you don’t have any light for a performer up there. We’re not lighting designers, but I know enough to be dangerous, as they say, so we know the basics of what you need to get good front and overhead lighting for even kids performing karaoke at the front of the room.
Steve’s residential work has included the acoustical engineering for many of Theo Kalomirakis’s theaters
It’s really about thinking through the aspects that make or break the multi-use function of these rooms. Again, I take that from my experiences with big multi-use theaters in the commercial world, about what we had to do to completely transform rooms from live acoustic symphonic music to Broadway-style shows in a few hours or a day, with the technical crew moving orchestral shells in and out, and so forth. You obviously scale that down for somebody’s private theater but it’s the same kind of thing.
You want to make it simple, and the Paradiso was a great example of that. You could go to the iPad, press Concert mode—or Concertino mode, in our case—and so many things happened in the background to turn off the cinema system and turn on the live-music system and put the lights in the right positions and so on. You don’t want the client to worry about everything that’s happening in the background. You just want them to press that button and go from one mode to the other.
Given the diverse number of things you do, is there a typical project you’re brought in for on the domestic side or does it tend to be various different things?
Absolutely various things. Certainly theaters are always a lead-in because the AV integrators have those on the forefront of their minds to bring us into the projects, but it quickly expands beyond there. It’s everything from the theater to maybe a jam room to isolating a bedroom from street noise or outdoor equipment noise or a neighbor who has a barking dog or a band that the kids are playing in. It’s amazing, during COVID especially, the amount of awareness people have now of outdoor sound environments and how they impact their homes, especially when they’re working from home.
Because what you do is somewhat specialized, do clients approach you directly or are you primarily brought in through another party like an integrator?
All of the above. We get our fair share from integrators but we have a lot of great architect and interior-designer relationships, mechanical engineer relationships, contractors, and then of course the clients. We’ve built a good network over as many years as I’ve been doing this, and so one client talks to the other, and that’s how it happens.
How much of your first meeting with a client is education? Does the groundwork tend to be laid by whoever brought you in or do you have to explain exactly what you do and what you can do for them?
It depends on the client—and I’m sure our integrator friends can relate to this. Some clients want to know every detail; others say, “Give me the best, and call me when it’s done, and I’ll write you the checks.”
right: workmen apply fabric acoustic treatments to the
ceiling of the private
ballroom shown above.
We love educating our clients—especially because so much of sound is subjective. Two people don’t think about sound in the home in the same way, including married couples. We’ve had husbands and wives get very heated with each other when talking about what does and doesn’t concern them when it comes to sound.
We had one home in Park City, Utah where the architect was pretty much done with the design, and things were getting built and duct work was being fabricated, and we discovered that the mechanical systems—all 31 of them—were being built like jet engines because of special filtration needs. The house would have sounded like a factory. And the wife literally stood up and shouted, “We are so sensitive to noise, and my three kids are too!” and the husband was just shaking his head, like “Why didn’t I know?” We barely got in, put the project on hold, and quickly rectified all that so they could continue the process, and we managed to create a very quiet home. But just by the skin of our teeth because another month and it would have been way too late. It would have been an ugly situation because nobody paid attention to noise in a home where the wife and the three children were extremely sensitive, because nobody asked the question.
Who drops the ball in a situation like that? Who has to have that initial conversation and educate them about the need for this?
Yeah, well—who’s listening to this? In some respect, the clients need to do their own research. If they are sensitive to noise, they need to bring that to their architect and designers first and foremost. But even if they don’t, we often educate the architects in how to ask in how to ask the right questions. And sometimes we even prepare an assessment of the early design of a new home or renovation that brings out all the potential issues, from a containment and quality of sound perspective,
and then let the client decide what’s important to them and to what degree.
It’s important to have this up front so the whole team goes into it knowing, “Here are the things we’re going to address, and here are the things we just don’t care about,” so it doesn’t come back to bite anyone. The clients don’t want to move into a beautiful new home and all of a sudden they’re saying, “We’re hearing the kids running upstairs and every time they drop a toy or something, it sounds like a boulder.” Then we have to come in and say, “Would you rather rip up your beautiful wood floors or your ornate plaster ceiling—pick one.”
These are real problems homeowners have all the time
where we get brought in after the fact—to the point where they literally are crying because they can’t sleep because of noise and vibration issues. Acoustic wellness is part of the other wellness movements because of its impact on people’s health and stress levels. And the pandemic brought this out in so many ways with kids schooling from home, and multiple partners, spouses, working from home. People are recognizing, “Wait, our home doesn’t always sound that great,” and we can do something about it.
I would assume most integrators’ knowledge of acoustics is related to entertainment spaces. Given the diversity of things you can address, do you consider yourself unique in the universe of people who deal with residential acoustics?
We’re certainly diverse. It’s not often you find someone from the design and consulting and calibration standpoint who will do bedrooms, do living rooms, mechanical noise, and so on. We like being able to come into projects in various ways. And I think that does make us fairly unique—not to mention all the commercial work we are still doing, flipping our brains several times a day to go back and forth between the high-end residential and the commercial.
How much of your work is commercial?
The percentages vary from month to month or year to year. Usually, we’re 50/50, but with the pandemic bringing out so many domestic opportunities, I would say we’re currently 60 to 65 percent residential. I’ve really trained my consultant team—I have such a great team now at all levels—to flip their mentalities, because you just cannot bring a commercial mentality wholeheartedly to the residential world without thinking about what’s practical. We’ve been brought on to high-end residential projects where they had a commercial consultant on board who got fired because they brought things to the home builders as solutions that just had no place even in the highest-end home because they were keeping myopically in the commercial mentality without saying, “Wait, how do we bring these two worlds together and determine what is still practical within the realm of what a high-end home builder could and would do.” That’s important.
And the same thing with the AV integrators. They’re resi-mercial, right? They always have to think about what’s appropriate as they go from one end to the other.
It’s inevitable that anyone who does much traveling has come across your work at some point. They obviously haven’t been aware of it, but they’ve probably encountered it.
Hopefully they have, and hopefully they have some good things to say about it.
For instance, you did the Statue of Liberty museum, right?
That’s right. That finished about two or three years ago—with COVID, I’ve lost track of time. And we’re about to work on the Ellis Island re-do as well.
Would either of those be the highest traffic-volume venue you’ve done?
Probably the biggest traffic one would be the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture. That stayed packed for at least three years beyond its opening in 2016. We just could not believe how long it lasted. But it was phenomenal to see that, and phenomenal to think about how audio and acoustics hold up with that kind of visitation. You don’t have to worry about that in homes.
Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtable, marketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.
PODCAST EP. 21
0:55 How his work extends well beyond
providing the proper acoustics for home
1:21 His early experiences working on
1:41 How a random phone call led to his initial
involvement in home theaters & residential
4:40 How his experiences working on major
performance spaces helped him to expand
his residential work beyond home theater
6:12 How homes are becoming more like
7:21 The influence of his and his family’s
experiences as musicians on his work
9:47 How he met and began working with Theo
11:47 The Paradiso home theater as an example of
a space that can handle both movies and
13:30 What needs to be done with a home theater
to make it conducive for live performance
16:49 How he’s typically approached to address a
number of residential acoustic issues
beyond home theaters
17:45 How the pandemic raised people’s
awareness of the amount of noise in
and around their domestic environments
18:24 How he is typically retained for a project
19:12 What the initial conversation is like with a
client, and how much of it involves
educating them about what he has to offer
21:48 The importance of the client researching
the benefits of proper acoustics in the
24:59 He offers a broader ranges of services
than a typical AV integrator
26:21 How much of his work is commercial vs.
28:32 He has worked on so many landmark
cultural institutions that most people have
likely encountered his efforts at some point