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An acoustical engineer, or sound engineer, applies the science of sound and vibration to real-world technologies. The field is primarily concerned with reducing unwanted noise, which is called noise control. It also involves amplifying desired sounds and manipulating sound vibrations for measurement purposes. The acoustical engineering field shares common ground with the more established fields of mechanical, electrical, and civil engineering.
The science of sound is called acoustics and has several underlying processes. One, absorption, is the loss of energy that sound waves experience when reflecting off of a surface. Diffraction is the phenomenon of sound waves bending around small obstacles in a medium and spreading out again after passing through small openings. Reverberation is when sound echoes linger after the original source is gone. Refraction occurs when sound waves are bent after passing, or propagating, through a different medium.
Many acoustical engineers seek to control sounds within buildings in a process called architectural acoustics. It is typically focused on reducing the level of noise that travels through walls. Rooms may also be designed to reduce sound reverberation times, or how long it takes sound to fade, for improved speech clarity. Some large auditoriums, however, are designed specifically to amplify sounds across the room. Concert halls and public meeting spaces employed this technique before microphones were widely used.
Noise control is not just confined to individual buildings. An urban planner may enlist the services of an acoustical engineer to reduce traffic noise from highways or airports to residential areas. This may be accomplished by installing noise barrier walls, which can be seen along many highways in urban areas. Buffer zones can also be designated for noise control. Industrial or commercial zones are often placed between airports and populated regions.
The acoustical engineer may also be involved in sonar and medical imaging technology. Sonar is a technique used by ships to determine local water depth. It works by bouncing sound waves off the ocean floor and measuring the time they take to get back. An ultrasound is a technique used to produce an image of a fetus during pregnancy. It is similar to sonar in that it measures the reflection of generated sound waves. The name comes from the frequency of the sound waves used, which is above the limit of human hearing.
Specific degree programs for an aspiring acoustical engineer are rare, though graduate-level degrees can occasionally be found. The field is usually integrated within a mechanical or electrical engineering curriculum. Acoustical engineers generally find employment as consultants to civil engineers and architects and work on a variety of building projects.
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