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The Audio Experience Hierarchy: A framework for designing an exceptional experience

By Ben Boeshans
Starlight Theatre Kansas City

Take a minute and think of an awesome concert you attended.  You know, the one you’ll never forget.

What made that event so unforgettable?  Was it the kickoff to the summer of your dreams?  Was it singing along to your favorite artist’s hits?  Was it the time you spent with your best friends?  Or perhaps it was hearing the latest and greatest in speaker technology?  Not likely.

In today’s technological age it is not technology that defines an experience and shapes our memories. Rather it is well designed and executed technology that enable experiences to be created.  A key part of a concert or any other event is and will continue to be audio.   For audio to keep pace with ever changing audience expectations, a shift is required from a mentality of defining quality audio as good coverage and tone to one defined by effective engagement and unforgettable experience.  From checking boxes defined by the left brain, to creating experiences craved by the right.

The Audio Experience Hierarchy

In 1943 psychologist Abraham Maslow laid out the framework for what has become known as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.[1]  The foundation of the Hierarchy is built upon physiological and physical needs that are required to be met before advancing to ascending levels.  Each level’s needs must be met before one’s fullest potential can be reached at the top of the pyramid, Self-Actualization.

The world of audio also has a hierarchy.   Like the fundamental physical needs of Maslow’s Hierarchy, the fundamentals of audio must first be achieved before pursuing higher levels with a goal of creating transformational experiences.


Level 1:  Fundamentals

The base of the Audio Experience Hierarchy is made up of the fundamentals of audio:  adequate level, proper coverage and the ability to understand.  In the first edition of The Handbook for Sound Engineers, Chris Foreman posed four now well-known questions to help evaluate a sound system[2]:

  1. Is it loud enough?
  2. Can everybody hear?
  3. Can everybody understand?
  4. Will it feed back?

The importance of these issues has long been established and several resources exist to help practitioners meet these goals.  AVIXA, the Audiovisual and Integrated Experience Association, has several standards in publication and development to help the industry better define these fundamentals and bring common language and expectations to industry.

Level 2:  Tone and Fidelity

Once the fundamental needs have been met, a system can be further improved by focusing on tone and fidelity.  As Forman pointed out in the fourth edition of The Handbook for Sound Engineers, it is now appropriate to ask a fifth question, “Does it sound good?”[3].  Tonal balance and the overall feel of the system are addressed here.  An example is the difference between a limited-bandwidth paging horn and a rock-n-roll concert system.  Audiences can hear both systems, but one sounds far better than the other.  When this level has been met, the system is in a good state, but improvement can still be made.

Level 3:  Accuracy

The third level of the hierarchy address the accuracy of an audio system.  It addresses space, timing, and perception.  A well designed and configured system has been properly time aligned and is able to create a sonic image.  An example of working to achieve this level is making a shift from a mono or rock-n-roll stereo system to a cross-matrixed left/center/right system.  Now, rather than audio merely reaching listeners, it arrives with spatial information.  Instruments and voices can be panned or moved in the stereo image to create what would be described as width and depth in a stereo field.  The details and elements in this level make a good audio system a great one.  It begins to bridge the left brain’s science with the right brain’s art.  The bridge is fully crossed on the next level of the hierarchy.

Level 4:  Audience Engagement

When this level of the hierarchy is achieved, an audience is no longer focusing on or consciously hearing an audio system.  Rather, they are experiencing and engaging in what the system is producing without realizing the system is even there.  Our industry is starting to acknowledge the level of importance that should rightly be placed on engagement.  Products such as L-Acoustics’ L-ISA and d&b audiotechnik’s Soundscape are striving to expand the concept of a traditional stereo field to create accurate spatial location.  They aim to erase the speaker’s presence in favor of focusing the audience experience of listening to performers.  This style of system aims to engage an audience but also to disappear as standalone technology elements.

It is a challenge to achieve this level because slight technical difficulties, such as feedback or a missed microphone cue can break engagement and cause a user to start thinking about left brain topics once again.  In his book, Mixing with Your Mind, Michael Paul Stavrou writes about the art of mixing, “There are hundreds of things to do in each mix.  Some are right brain (creative) things while others are left brain (technical) functions.  Switching from one hemisphere to the other interrupts the momentum of the creative train of thought.  Our goal is to maintain and deepen our creative intent without technical, left brain, distractions.”[4]  The same holds true for those listening to an audio system.  Only once the technical is accomplished can the artistic be communicated and thrive.

Level 5:  Transformational Experience

The ultimate experience for listeners is a transformational one.  These are the moments when an audience becomes unaware of its surroundings and is completely immersed in the experience.  It is an experience not measured in minutes or SPL, but in memories.  Because all other facets of a system must perfectly meld to reach this point, these experiences are uncommon.  Industry can get so focused on the technical that it neglects to think about the experience.

To get to this level in the hierarchy, our industry needs to make a fundamental shift in thinking about products and solutions to experiences and lasting impacts.  Systems which satisfy the requirements of the first three levels of the hierarchy will be a natural biproduct of experienced-focused thinking.  The hierarchy will have been mastered.

Engaging and transformational experiences are those which draw us in as listeners and create memories we won’t forget.  That awesome concert you attended may have been made possible by the latest in speaker technology, but it certainly wasn’t defined by it.  Only when we shift our thinking from specifying the technical to enabling and creating the artistic will audiences to shift from merely attending to fully experiencing.

[1] Maslow, A.H. (1943). “A theory of human motivation”. Psychological Review. 50 (4): 370–96

[2] Ballou, G. and Foreman, C. (1987). Handbook for Sound Engineers. 1st ed. Indianapolis, Indiana: Howard W. Sams & Co., pp.1005-1006.

[3] Ballou, G. and Foreman, C. (2008). Handbook for Sound Engineers. 4th ed. Oxford, UK: Focal Press, p.1239.

[4] Stavrou, M. (2003). Mixing with Your Mind. Mosman, Australia: Hyde Park Press, p.153.


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