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An Exquisite Ear

The memoir of BBN cofounder and acoustics pioneer Leo Beranek

2 min read
Cover of the book "Riding The Waves: A Life in Sound, Science, and Industry"
IEEE Spectrum

Cover of the book 'Riding The Waves: A Life in Sound, Science, and Industry'Riding The Waves: A Life in Sound, Science, and Industry  By Leo Beranek; MIT Press, 2008; 256 pp.; US $25.95; ISBN: 978-0-262-02629-1

This memoir, by a pioneer of psychoacoustics, is a salient reminder of how business and social collaboration can drive technological innovation. For sure, people skills aren’t enough; you also need an understanding of the underlying science to judge which contracts to accept, never mind with whom it is best to collaborate. It is the rare individual who has all the qualities needed to succeed at all these things. Indeed, Leo Beranek’s character, as much as his talent, is the (usually understated) leitmotif of this book.

After his Depression-era upbringing in a financially pressed Iowa family, a chance encounter with a well-connected Harvard alumnus set the stage for Beranek’s move to Cambridge, Mass., for graduate school. There, during World War II, Beranek and his Harvard colleagues worked under contract for the U.S. military on a project to reduce cockpit noise so that pilots could communicate during flight and battle. This research constituted foundational work not only in noise reduction but also in the intelligibility of speech, and it required marshaling the talents of engineers, technicians, and psychologists.

Later, at the Cambridge consulting firm Bolt, Beranek and Newman (now BBN Technologies), Beranek and his colleagues shifted their focus from noise control to architectural acoustics, a decision which now seems natural and obvious, but which required imagination and courage at the time. There were triumphs, such as improvements to the Tanglewood Music Shed, and there were also qualified failures, such as the saga of Philharmonic Hall (now Avery Fisher Hall) at Lincoln Center, which the author goes to some length to analyze. This section of the book is primarily about business and social relationships, including encounters with famed musicians such as the conductor Herbert von Karajan and the violinist Jascha Heifetz.

The discussion of architectural acoustics, however, is disappointing, at least to this reader; I found it too abstract and marred by gaps. It proceeds as if the Sabine reverberation formula (developed by Wallace C. Sabine in the 1890s), in combination with Beranek’s pathfinding work on the acoustical absorption characteristics of building materials, were all that is known about concert hall acoustics. It gives scant attention to the research of Yoichi Ando and Manfred Schroeder on the directionality of echoes and their effect on the cross-correlation of signals at the two ears. Still, it is clear that Beranek’s knowledge and love of music informed his engineering efforts, and this synthesis certainly contributed to concert hall successes.

This is a memoir, not a treatise, and you will not find in it a deep explanation of acoustics and its application as an engineering discipline. But if you are looking for a fascinating glimpse into a time unique in American industrial history and into a life well-lived in pursuit of the rewards offered by that era, you could do worse. It is the spirit of Leo Beranek that shines throughout this book—a spirit of confidence, open-mindedness, and intellectual adventure.

About the Author

ROGER ZIMMERMAN reviewed the memoir of renowned acoustics expert Leo Beranek. Zimmerman, an occasional trombonist, works on automatic speech recognition and natural language processing for eScription, of Needham, Mass. He’s also an avid amateur brewer: the last beer he helped make had a luscious hoppy bitterness.

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