It’s essential to every studio, but acoustic treatment can also affect our health — and that of the planet.
In this short series, I’ve been finding out what can be done to make the audio industry more sustainable. So far, we’ve encountered two companies whose primary business is in high‑value electronic goods. In this third part, we’ll look at how Portuguese manufacturers Vicoustic are trying to bring about change in a rather different market sector.
Historically, acoustic treatment has been made using one of two absorbent materials. So‑called ‘acoustic foam’ is produced from polyurethane or from extruded melamine foam, while mineral wool is manufactured by blowing air through molten glass or rock. Neither is a renewable material, and both are also controversial from a health point of view. As Vicoustic’s Gustavo Pires puts it: “Those products were designed only in terms of acoustic performance, and not with a holistic view of thinking about what the product will do when you put it in a certain place. And when you put a product in a room, for example, you need to think about several issues: acoustic performance, of course, but also safety and air quality.
“For example, we know that foam products release VOCs [volatile organic chemicals]. So, imagine that you have an audio engineer working for 20 or 40 years in a studio with foam. It’ll not be good for their health. So, we cannot say that that room will be fit for the purpose of audio engineering, because his purpose is to be in a healthy environment as well as an acoustically controlled environment. With mineral wool, we know that it releases particles to the atmosphere, and it’s hard to handle. It gets itchy, and causes problems for your skin. So, when you think of a product with a certain purpose, you need to think with a broader view and not only, ‘OK, let’s attack the acoustics.’ What about the rest?”
The health risks associated with acoustic foam and mineral wool are hotly debated, and officially, both are considered safe to use and to work with. When it comes to sustainability, however, they definitely fall short of the mark. Neither can easily be recycled or reused, neither comes from renewable sources, neither is biodegradable, and both are energy‑intensive to make. Inasmuch as mineral wool has green credentials, they have nothing to do with its being a low‑impact material in its own right, and more to do with its ability to save energy in its role as an insulating material.
This is becoming increasingly problematic, not only in the studio world but in the wider construction industry, where large‑scale building projects are often required to meet green building standards. These standards prohibit the use of non‑reusable, non‑renewable materials — but they also demand the use of acoustic treatment, as Gustavo explains: “Basically, there are four different acoustic criteria in green building certification schemes. One is environmental noise: we want to put buildings in sites where you don’t have a lot of environmental noise. And if you have, you need to think about how to deal with it. So, you have acoustic barriers, and you put the most sensitive areas in the central part of the building, so you have a shield from the environmental noise.
“Then you have sound insulation between different spaces within the building. And then you have reverberation time. So, for example, for schools or for offices, you have targets for the reverberation time in the medium frequencies, where speech occurs. And then you have noise control. You put things like HVAC and elevators that produce noise within the building, and you want those noises accommodated so that you don’t create noise nuisance to the people inside the building.
“And the step forward, I think, is to pick this mentality and go to the audio sector. Because the problem is the same. In terms of sustainability, it makes us want to have audio rooms fit for their purpose. And to have that, we need to think in a holistic way and not only in a performative way, like we were doing until now, I think. So, I think that is starting to come in in the audio world as well.”
This situation has created both an opportunity and a challenge for manufacturers like Vicoustic. Now that buildings are designed with acoustics in mind, demand for acoustic products is potentially much higher. However, that demand can’t be met using traditional materials, because they are ruled out by the same green building standards that mandate acoustic treatment in the first place. A manufacturer who can find a sustainable alternative thus has the potential to exploit not only traditional markets such as recording and broadcast studios, but new markets too. But what could that alternative be?
Polyethylene tetraphthalate or PET is a hard plastic which is typically used for drinks bottles. It’s widely collected for recycling, but not widely enough, and discarded PET bottles are endangering marine ecosystems around the world. At one of the many trade shows Vicoustic attend, César Carapinha encountered a company from Belgium that took in PET waste, processed it, and turned it into new raw materials — among them, a wool‑like substance with a density appropriate to use in acoustic panels. The seeds of a new product range were sown, but getting it to market has been a painstaking process.
What’s difficult is to create professional‑looking finished products from PET without compromising its acoustic performance or its sustainability.
“It sounds easy to come up with this idea,” says Per Larsen, “but it’s been a long journey to get to the quality and to the acoustic performance that we have today.”
This journey has involved working with their suppliers to optimise the acoustic performance of the material, as well as ensuring that it can be delivered in appropriate sizes and shapes. But in order to meet green building criteria, Vicoustic’s products don’t only need to be made from recycled material: they need to be capable of being recycled or reused themselves. This has meant taking a new approach to the design of the panels.
In a sense, the decision to use PET as an acoustic material is the easy part, and Vicoustic are by no means the only manufacturer to do so. What’s much more difficult is to create professional‑looking finished products from PET without compromising its acoustic performance or its sustainability, and that is the challenge Vicoustic have addressed with their unique, patent‑pending Virtual Material Technology.
In order for acoustic treatment to be acceptable in any work or domestic environment, it’s vital to have control over its appearance. In commercial acoustic panels, this is often achieved by glueing fabric over the absorbent foam, mineral wool or PET — but doing this creates a mixed material that can no longer be recycled or considered sustainable. Other methods of creating coloured PET panels, meanwhile, involve injecting resin and other substances throughout the material, compromising its acoustic performance and using large quantities of industrial chemicals. The problem facing César and his team was to find a way of making PET‑based panels look good without compromising their performance or their green qualities.
The solution was ingenious. A friend of César’s ran a T‑shirt printing company which used a process called sublimation to transfer patterns onto clothing. The process works rather like a temporary tattoo. The pattern is printed onto a sheet of paper which is placed, printed side down, onto the material. Pressure, heat and moisture are then applied in controlled circumstances, and the pigment migrates from the paper onto the material, after which the paper can simply be peeled off. Making this work reliably and repeatably took a lot of work, but the payoff is that panels in the VMT range are 100‑percent recyclable, and can be given almost any appearance imaginable, from simple block colours to surprisingly convincing wood, marble and concrete patterns (hence the name Virtual Material Technology). Custom colours and patterns are also straightforward to produce.
“For putting an image on an acoustic panel, the standard technique is to print on fabric and then glue the fabric into the panel,” explains Gustavo. “We were able to overcome that by using only raw material, and then the process that puts the ink in the panel. So, you don’t need anything else other than the ink and the raw material.”
Making the sublimation technique work on their recycled PET panels required a lot of experiment, as Per explains. “I think most of the machinery we have is bought off the shelf. But it’s the combination of how to use it in a proper manner: the heat you use, the pressure you use to produce this panel. It took a lot of trial and error to get there.”
Another issue with traditional acoustic panels that tends to make them non‑reusable is mounting. Panels are often simply glued to the wall, which obviously makes it hard to reposition them without damage. For this reason, Vicoustic have also invented a new mounting system for the VMT range.
“We changed from the standard glue process to a mechanical fixation for at least two reasons,” explains Gustavo. “One is that if you want to move your room, you can take your panels. So the investment is a long‑term investment. It’s not only for that room. But also, it gives you the possibility of changing acoustic treatment configurations.
“Imagine that you have a room with diffusers and with absorbers. By having this mechanical fixation system, you are able to change the acoustics of your room. For example, having first reflections treated with absorption is a completely different experience from having first reflections treated with diffusers. With electronic music, with faster tempos that change very quickly, maybe it’s better to have absorption and to have more control, to be able to distinguish all the changes. With classical music, maybe it’s more pleasant to have diffusers there. So, this system gives you that possibility as well.”
Vicoustic will have even more scope to realise their green ambitions when their new factory is completed in a year or so’s time. “One of the reasons why we are moving into a new building is so that we can invest in being more productive, and being more sustainable as well,” says César. “Today we already have a lot of machines that are using waste. For example, in the wood factory, one of the press machines uses waste wood to heat the boilers, and these boilers are used to glue the laminate on the MDF, for example. But the heating that we have in the winter still uses gas, so we’re going to change that to use more waste again. We’re going to have a system to capture rain water to use in the toilets and also on the garden, so we don’t need to use purified water for this. And of course we are making a very big investment in solar energy as well, so that we lower our dependence on [non‑renewable] energy.”
“In the new factory we will have new machines to cut the PET waste into small pieces and include that in new products,” adds Marisa Cruz Duarte. “Right now, after the VMT process, the waste goes to the operator [to be recycled] or into the packaging. But in the future, we want to take those small pieces of PET and use them ourselves.”
“The waste PET that today we are sending to the recycling companies to be transformed again, we will shred it, and we will use it to make acoustic panels out of shredded PET,” agrees César. “We cannot do that now because we don’t have the space.”
Nearly all new Vicoustic products now use VMT rather than conventional absorbers, and some older products have also been updated to use the new material, which now accounts for more than half the company’s sales. But as is often the case with new technologies, there are still challenges associated with selling VMT. In some sectors, innate conservatism means there’s a tendency to resist change (“We have a lot of products that we want to change, but our clients want those products,” says Marisa); and the costs involved in developing and producing the new material mean it’s a premium product at a premium price.
“At Vicoustic we make market‑leading premium products and can handle the expense that recycled materials bring with them because, honestly speaking, it’s the right thing to do, and it is a price worth paying in our opinion,” says César. “We focus on sustainability and quality.
“The next step that we are thinking about is to use PET that is captured 100 percent from the seashores and from the sea. The problem is that the price would be so high that then the products would be too expensive. And there must be a balance, because if we don’t sell the recycled products, then the recycling doesn’t happen. So there is a balance between a commercial viable product and being 100‑percent super sustainable.
“I always tell people when we talk about recycling that I don’t believe in changing a plastic bag into another plastic bag, because you are giving it another five days of useful life, but then it will probably end up on the trash again. So our vision is to have the plastic transformed into long‑lasting products.”
“It’s not just Vicoustic,” agrees Per. “It’s actually a bigger mission, being a part of solving a big problem in the world with the plastic waste. At least for me, that made a huge difference when we discovered this material and we realised we can actually make an impact here. We have turned over 250 tonnes of plastic waste into fantastic products. I think that’s a great mission.”
Two areas where sustainability issues arise for almost all companies are logistics and the supply chain. The former is a particular issue for a manufacturer such as Vicoustic. Acoustic panels are bulky yet fragile, so packaging and shipping makes up a much higher proportion of their cost than is the case with most studio equipment. And as Gustavo Pires says, the greenest packaging is that which most reliably delivers the product undamaged. “Quality is paramount to avoid the product going somewhere and arriving with damage. So, we pay a lot of attention to protection, and we use waste materials to form that protection. That reduces the footprint a lot, because it guarantees that the first product you receive is OK. And that is a big difference.”
“When it comes to logistics and transportation, it’s a question of working efficiently with your distributors,” explains Per Larsen. “One of the challenges with Vicoustic is that we have a lot of products and there’s a problem sometimes with distributors ordering too widespread a range. So, they end up with huge warehouses of hundreds of different articles, but they’re always missing something and having to reorder. It sounds strange, but we are actively trying to steer them to have a smaller assortment, but to always have in stock the things that they think are right for the market. And then I think the next step is to always get them to order not 20‑foot containers, not air freight, but to try to do high 40‑foot containers to get the shipment as efficient as possible.
“In the long term, with the amount of plastic waste in the world, my vision in this is that five years from now, we have local production of VMT in North America and in Asia, and maybe it’s licensed out to manufacturing partners over there. And we use raw material coming locally, being produced locally and being shipped locally only.”
When it comes to their own supply chain, local sourcing is already high on the agenda for Vicoustic, as Marisa Cruz Duarte explains: “Our idea is always to think globally, but act locally. So the first concern is to think about suppliers that have the same issues, the same goals, that are oriented to the environmental issues, and that can work with us in that. It’s not easy to find, but there are some things that we can do. We choose suppliers that are near us or in Europe to reduce our footprint, and choose also suppliers that can sell to us raw materials that are also recycled or that we can recycle after use.”
“There is only one component in the history of Vicoustic that we couldn’t get away from China,” says César Carapinha, “which is the small stickers that say Vicoustic in metal. There is only one manufacturer in the world who does that well, and they do for all the brands that you probably know. So we couldn’t find an alternative, and we couldn’t run away from it. But the rest, as much as we can we do locally; if not locally, in Europe for sure.”