Anechoic chamber provides student research opportunities

Physics graduate student Aaron Vaughn conducts research in BYU’s anechoic chamber. (Hannah Miner)

Professor Tim Leishman described the sensation of walking into an anechoic chamber as being similar to stepping outside on a winter day after a heavy snowstorm, away from buildings and other people. It sounds dead and is very quiet.

The Eyring Science Center holds an anechoic chamber deep within its basement where students and faculty can conduct research on sound and acoustics. According to the BYU acoustics website, the chamber absorbs 99 percent of sound, making it an ideal place to hold experiments and analyze data.

BYU is also home to the Acoustics Research Group (ARG), which holds the “largest university-based acoustics and vibrations research facility in the intermountain west,” according to the Explore Sound Acoustical Program Directory.

Physics professor Brian Anderson is a member of the ARG, which conducts experiments in the anechoic chamber. He said the main purpose of the chamber is to purely record the sound that comes out of a sound source.

“Anechoic means no echo, so it is a room without walls, if you will. So, all the walls, the floor and the ceiling absorb at least 99 percent of the sound,” Anderson said. “The floor is absorptive so it is like the ground is not there.”

As a professor in physics, Leishman specializes in acoustics, focusing specifically on audio, architectural acoustics and active noise control. He said the chamber is meant to provide a “free field,” or a field with no reflections. The chamber is mostly used by students, faculty and the ARG.

Graduate student Aaron Vaughn conducts much of his acoustic research in the anechoic chamber. He and other students process the data retrieved from within the chamber.

“Over the years there have been many projects that without the anechoic chamber could not have occurred,” Vaughn said.

Anderson said physicists are trying to understand how sound is radiated from an object. He gave an example of the flute and the fact that as it is played, the sound can escape through the various holes within the body of the instrument.

The BYU anechoic chamber is home to many different research projects. According to the ARG website, the room is 8.71 x 5.66 x 5.74 m, and is “anechoic down to approximately 80 Hz.” (Hannah Miner)

“That sound made by the flute interferes with itself and it makes a complicated sound radiation pattern, and so the anechoic chamber allows us to measure that radiation pattern and thus figure out how that sound interferes with itself,” Anderson said.

Physics graduate student Brian Patchett is working to generate high-amplitude focal sounds by using reverberant environments. He must be in an echo-free location to characterize and classify his sound sources.

“We have to go into the anechoic environment where there are no interferences and all there is is the sound coming off of the device, no matter what it is,” Patchett said.

It is important that students studying in applicable fields have access to an anechoic chamber because of the rarity of the environment, according to Patchett. He said the accessibility of the anechoic chamber on campus allows BYU to receive funding and grants to do research.

“It provides opportunities for the students to do research that is meaningful in a way that will contribute to their careers in the future,” Patchett said. “It really helps them understand what they would be doing at large corporations and national laboratories”

Traci Neilsen is an associate professor who researches acoustics. She said part of the professors’ jobs is to find fundable opportunities to give students the best skills, contacts and networking ability.

Neilsen said it is great for students to have the opportunity to see there is learning beyond books when they are able to measure, write the codes or analyze the data for themselves. She said the anechoic chamber is a good example of the mentored, experiential and inspired learning that happens at BYU.

Graduate student Aaron Vaughn measures sound waves in the anechoic chamber. The quiet nature of the room allows him to conduct research within the chamber. (Hannah Miner)

“People in general also need to understand the caliber of research that undergraduates can get involved in at BYU. This is really top-notch,” Neilsen said. 

Retired physics professor Scott Daniel occasionally gives tours of the anechoic chamber to groups and other organizations upon request. He worked on documentation on the electronics instrumentation of the chamber when he worked on campus.

“Without an anechoic chamber, you are going to be crippled with a lot of the parameters that we like to know and we depend on, especially in noise quieting,” Daniel said.

Anderson said one the best ways for students to get experience with the anechoic chamber is to take PHSCS 167, Descriptive Acoustics of Music and Speech.

The professors said the class is a general education course focusing on the concepts of acoustics instead of math. This allows students to learn about the physics of human hearing, speech and musical instruments.

“Students should recognize that it is primarily a research facility and we do want to allow people to see it to generate excitement about acoustics, but we also have to make sure that experiments can get done and that we do not have to interrupt them,” Anderson said.

The anechoic chamber provides a unique opportunity for students to retrieve the data they need for projects, according to Anderson.

“In terms of giving our research students access, I think what we are doing here at BYU is pretty exceptional,” Leishman said. “It is a special thing for BYU to have the anechoic chamber.”

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