Great Halls: Renowned for Sound

Please note:  It was originally my hope to have the following article published in a music magazine. With apologies to those interviewed, I present it here.

What separates good performance spaces from great ones, mediocre venues from superior places? We’re not talking about where you parked the car or how convenient and clean the bathrooms were. We’re talking about acoustics, a word Webster’s says has been in use since 1683. Acoustics is “a science that deals with the production, control, transmission, reception and effects of sound.”

The physical world’s musical and architectural heritage is still intact—and in use. There are all types of new and old places to hear music. Well loved by musicians, audiences and production staff members alike, these venues truly shine.

Nashville, Tennessee is home to one of those standouts. For many years, The Ryman Auditorium—known to audiences the world over as the longtime home of the Grand Ole Opry—began its life as a church. Designed by Hugh Cathcart Thompson and named for riverboat Captain Thomas Ryman, the hall was completed in 1892. Designed for preaching in-the-round, the interior delivered maximum sound reception to the assembled faithful, presided over by the famed evangelical orator Sam Bush.

“Pews originally sat where the stage exists today,” Museum Supervisor John Dowell explained via email. “Between that section and the current “Gold Circle” seating area rested a platform from where Reverend Sam Jones and other keynote speakers, stood to make presentations. Off of the platform sat a pump organ on one side and a grand piano on the other.”

Nashville's Ryman Auditorium

Back then, there was no stage. One was added in 1901 to accommodate the touring company from the Metropolitan Opera. Cost: $750.  Thus, the in-the-round features of the room changed. Later, the over-the-stage section of balcony was removed and a proscenium, curtain system and three floors of backstage dressing rooms were added. “With the baffling from ceiling to wall, the rounded balcony, the curve of the pews on both levels, and the curvature of the crows’ nest at both ends of the balcony, the auditorium appears to be a rounded room,” Dowell continues, “Yet the building itself is rectangular.” These various renovations have reportedly not compromised the sound—once second only to Salt Lake City’s Mormon Tabernacle.

The room is “live”—smooth wall surfaces and hardwood pews and flooring distribute soft sounds from the stage easily to every seat in the house. If anything, visiting acts and crew don’t need to crank the volume like they’re playing a basketball arena, or any other notoriously bad-for-acoustics space.

Resident Sound Engineer Les Banks sometimes explains to crew and talent: “You could actually turn down [the amplification] a bit and the room will sound just as friendly.” And he really enjoys the moments during shows when the room can truly show it’s best acoustic attributes.

“When Tony Bennett or Elvis Costello plays, there’s a moment in the show,” Les says, “when they make their sound guy turn off the P.A. completely and they step to the foot of the stage and just sing a cappella [without accompaniment], and it’s heard.”

Three of the world’s best known halls –revered by acoustics professionals and audiences for their superior acoustic qualities– are: Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, Vienna’s Musikvereinsaal and Boston’s Symphony Hall.

Amsterdam's Concertgebouw

Vienna's Musikvereinsaal

Symphony Hall, Boston








Professor Alex Case, Assistant Professor of Sound Recording Technology at the University of Massachusetts and Acoustic Society of America Fellow explained via email that beyond those three, many of the world’s halls are no match. In addition, halls that are designed for specific uses  –“purpose built” for symphonies, for instance– perform differently for other uses.

Our collective group of older halls cannot truly deliver all things acoustically to all people –and neither can new ones. Professor Case explains that both “purpose-built” and “multi-purpose” imply specific limitations. Either way, there is no such thing as perfect sound.

Many older halls  (usually built for a specific use or purpose) might be promoted as having “perfect acoustics,” Professor Case says, but what the people doing the talking mean is: “the acoustic signature of the space is noticeable and they don’t mind it”; and, “the hall is very quiet.”

And truly “multi-purpose” halls require exhaustive amounts of cash. For many communities, this type of building can prove to be extraordinarily expensive. Case explains that what is called “Variable acoustics” offer a less expensive alternative. Curtains and “elaborate systems for moving walls and ceilings and changing the acoustic size of the hall become necessary. Bass Hall, in Ft. Worth, Texas is a rare success on this front.”

That having been said, one of the notable examples of a successful “multi-purpose” room is the 7,100 seat Nokia Theatre L.A. Live, which first opened in October, 2007. Rooms like the Nokia are designed to be sonically efficient—in every way possible. The Nokia was also designed for production efficiencies too: crews can set up and tear down quickly and easily navigate throughout. Designed by the Berkeley, California firm of ELS Architecture and Urban Design, Kurt Schindler, one of the principal architects, explains that new buildings like the Nokia are really “flexible machines.”

The Nokia, part of The Staples Center, Los Angeles

Admittedly, Schindler notes, in many of the performance spaces built from the end of the 19th century through the first two-thirds of the 20th century, “there’s an architectural presence —many of the presenters have to fight that! Places like the Nokia, they can really do anything they want.” In addition to music, the Nokia is used for many televised award shows, among them, the Emmys, The American Music Awards and the ever-popular American Idol.

Ultimate acoustic perfection may be impossible, but that doesn‘t stop architects, musicians, production staffers and audiences from appreciating a wide variety of venues for what they have to offer. But, strictly speaking, –in life and in acoustics–what we all experience and usually accept is often the result of some  form of compromise. “The acoustic expectations for any space depends directly on the type of sound that occurs within,” Case observes. “The acoustics appropriate for amplified music [are] not the same as what would be appropriate for opera, chamber music [or] a jazz trio.”

Does that mean that places to hear live music are obsolete? No. But it does mean that no matter where in the world you go–with about three exceptions– no one space is close to perfect. Any place that we likely enjoy, we do so partly due to it’s imperfections. Audiences still love seeing shows in old movie houses, among them the Fox Theatre, in Atlanta and Detroit; and, The Paramount’s, one in Oakland, California and the other in Seattle, Washington.

Like Nashville’s Ryman, San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium was originally built as a church. Yet, under the auspices of rock impresario Bill Graham and others, The Fillmore became one the world’s finest rooms to hear music. The Fillmore possesses a truly unique sound– one that can’t be easily described, but one that can be heard on numerous recordings.

Chips Davis, acoustics consultant for the Nokia project, likes a lot of different venues –including The Fillmore and Oakland’s Paramount. For him, a successful show owes a lot to what the people in the Sound Department do. “Good [sound] mixers and sound people that are able to set up the way they should set up and mix the show the way it should be mixed can get some great sounds with just about any type of show.”

Davis cut his teeth in Las Vegas at venues like Caesar’s Palace, running sound for Frank Sinatra and many others. “It takes a lot of design and a lot of [acoustics] modeling to get this stuff right,” he says. Different venues present different challenges.

“Acoustics doesn’t just happen,” Davis emphasizes, “It’s a lot of physics behind this.”

The challenges posed at outdoor venues add another dimension to the work of sound engineers and production staff. Again, there’s no perfect outdoor venue, but there are a few that, for many, come close. The Gibson Amphitheatre, located in Universal City, California is one.

Another excellent example of an outdoor venue for great sound is Red Rocks, a spectacular and acoustically notable place to hear music. The 9,450 seat amphitheatre, designed by Burnham Hoyt, was officially dedicated in 1941. Carved out of ancient sea-bed sandstone, today Red Rocks sits in the hills near Denver at 7,000 feet above sea level. A show at Red Rocks is pretty hard to forget. The scenery is gorgeous  –and the acoustics, for anyone who’s seen a show there– can easily be called second to none.

John Dowlen has been running sound at Red Rocks since 1984. “Red Rocks is truly a unique place because it wasn’t built for anything other than natural acoustics. It’ll work just fine without an amplified system.”

“A lot of concert halls,” Dowlen continues, “especially orchestra places that are ‘purpose-built’ for symphonies—completely disintegrate as soon as you put a sound system in it. If you have the symphony on stage—that’s fine. A sound system just completely overwhelms the room and the sonics go to pieces.”

For Dowlen, Red Rocks does not suffer from the addition of a sound system –in any way. The two most challenging aspects of his job are pitching the sound system up steeply enough to get to the back row; and, making sure that production crews are aware of what it takes to navigate the approach to and from the stage’s loading dock.

Dowlen’s first gig at Red Rocks was in 1984, running sound for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.  For that show, he simply placed three AKG 14’s  –microphones that are ultra sensitive across a full dynamic range–  on the stage.

Back then, “There were no grids or overhead frameworks to suspend or ‘fly’ speakers from.” Dowlen says. “Before [we had] the ability to fly we had to stack.  We’d stack…and pitch it back and aim it up the hill. I had an old stacking rig that we could put a 4×4 under the front edge of the subs [subwoofers] and then we’d stack it into the bays—that worked real good.”

For the Run-DMC and Beastie Boys shows in 1987, Dowlen’s system was awesome. “That thing crushed,” he says. “In ’84, we proved [sound] could go up the hill. In ’87, we proved [sound] could go up the hill loud,” he laughs.

The awe-inspiring Red Rocks Amphitheater, near Denver.

Dowlen did the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s sound when they were on top. During a Dirt Band show, he had the good fortune to meet balladeer John Denver, who showed up one day as a guest, and Dowlen, already with a good rep growing the business, later ran sound for Denver’s summer shows. “Those stick out ‘cuz they really had a Colorado connection.”

One other acoustical challenge at Red Rocks is adjusting for atmospheric and temperature changes. Weather can be tricky. The first show of the season at Red Rocks is usually Easter Sunrise service, a tradition first started in 1947. The venue continues to host shows into the first week of October. After that, acts are taking their chances. By Halloween, in the Rockies, it’s usually snowing.

Engineering the shows, Dowlen says, “You have to pay attention to how things are behaving. A typical summer evening, the temperature changes about 20-25 degrees. But in the fall, you can actually see it go from 80 degrees during the day to the 50s by the end of the show.” Thinning air means “You need a lot more P.A.” he explains, “And I’ve had to come up with different tunings than I would at sea level, because the time alignments [sound arrival times throughout the venue] sometimes shift at this altitude.”

In his college days, Dowlen studied electrical engineering at the University of Denver. His many years of experience mastering both the electronics and mechanics of his job have given him a unique perspective. “It all has to be one cohesive piece,” he says.

“As far as Red Rocks goes, it’s perfect. It’s a beautiful place to see a show. Everybody who’s played there has enjoyed it.” He’s appreciative of the opportunity to work in this special place, in a setting once known as one of the seven natural wonders of the world. “Everyday I get to work there is a great day.”

Another popular and well respected venue for music is back east, in Boston. Established in 1630, the Bay State city is renowned for its many fine educational institutions, among them Berklee College of Music. The Berklee Performance Center, one of five performance halls on campus, seats 1,200.

Housed in what was once known as the Fenway Theatre, the 37,500 square foot building was originally designed by architect Thomas Lamb. Purchased by Berklee in 1972, extensive renovations were completed in 1975. The interior was gutted—down to the brick walls—and converted to an auditorium, with Cavanaugh Tocci Associates handling the acoustics.

A view from the stage, Berklee Perfomance Center

Production Manager and Berklee professor Brad Berger began teaching Sound Reinforcement classes at Berklee in 1982. At that time, he recalls, “There was really no sound system. There was a little central cluster that was installed in ’75, just for voice. We installed the first real sound system in ’86, ’87.”  That system was unchanged until 2008, when Berklee installed a Meyer M’elodie line array system coupled with Galileo, “a system controller,” Berger explains. “It’s designed to go with the Meyer speakers. It’s basically a crossover, equalization and dynamics control.” For all things related to amplified sound, different venues employ different systems.

At Berklee and other venues,  another popular devise is used by sound crews to adjust or ‘tune’ the room. The “Tablet” as it is known, is a wireless, portable PC, that may be used to monitor, adjust or “tweak” the system while an engineer or an assistant walks the room.

At Berklee, “Horn” shaped walls project sound effortlessly from the stage outward. “You can whisper on stage and hear it in every seat of the theatre,” Brad says.  Parallel walls begin at about 25 feet from the stage. Surprisingly, all the auditorium’s wall surfaces are covered in hardwoods. Acoustical panels and “clouds” reflect sound from the ceiling; and angled walls in the back of the hall eliminate standing waves. Since the room is covered with sound absorbing materials, Berger terms it “pretty dead.”

Two other examples of well-loved performance spaces call New York City,  home: Carnegie Hall and Avery Fisher Hall. Among the multitude of places to hear music, Carnegie Hall is an unrivaled beacon of international cultural excellence. Unlike Carnegie  –occasionally noted for it’s ‘dry’ (also known as ‘dead’ sound, particularly once an audience has been added)– Avery Fisher Hall has been plagued with many acoustic problems from the start.

While specific designs and ‘variable acoustics’-type features help, Avery Fisher Hall remains an acoustics albatross. Ironically, this acoustically-challenged performance space bears the name of one of the world’s preeminent high-fidelity electronics manufacturers.

A graduate of N.Y.U., Avery Fisher began his career first in advertising and later publishing. From a musical family, violin was his chosen instrument. Though he never turned professional, he counted numerous musicians as his friends and devoted much of his more than generous philanthropic efforts toward furthering their careers, notably, pianist Emmanuel Ax and cellist Yo-Yo Ma, among many others.

The rise of the Fisher companies in the late-1930’s paralleled improvements in sound reproduction technologies. Beginning with his own refinements to existing radios, Fisher’s attentions soon included speakers, tuners and other components –custom crafted at the request of many of his friends. In 1969, Fisher sold his pioneering electronics company, returning to his alma mater to repay “old debts.” There, Fisher underwrote the Avery Fisher Listening Room within the Bobst Library.

At Lincoln Center, Fisher devoted much of his resources to the Avery Fisher Artist Program, something he was especially fond of. Later, the performance space then known as Philharmonic Hall, built in 1962, was named in his honor. With continued investments in musical artists, Fisher also agreed to direct funds toward improving the acoustics in the hall named for him, originally designed by architect Max Abramovitz. The firm of Bolt, Beranek and Newman handled the acoustics, with the end result including another irony: Beranek and company modeled much of their design on one of the world’s top performance spaces, Boston’s Symphony Hall.

The acoustically-challenged Avery Fisher Hall

The acoustics team was pressured to make allowances for additional seating, which was feared to have unknown acoustical consequences. Excessive cost overruns were also a factor. The modified design complicated matters  –the intervening years resulting in various plans to straighten out the acoustics.

Four different teams have attempted to revise the space for the better, to no avail. Noted acoustician Cyril Harris tried, as did venerated architect Philip Johnson –of glass house fame– with mixed results. Seating, sidewalls and ceiling panels continued to negatively impact sound.

A proposed merger of Carnegie Hall and Fisher Hall failed to gain traction in 2003. Discussions continue regarding what to do with the hall. Currently, there are plans in place to try another re-design, scheduled to begin in 2010.

By contrast, one of the acoustical highlights contributing to Carnegie’s hallowed sound include this significant fact: the building was constructed utilizing the Guastavino process, a structural masonry design featuring walls more than five feet thick. The principal architect was William Burnet Tuthill, an accomplished cellist, with consultants Dankmar Adler, Louis Sullivan and Richard Morris Hunt. Adler specialized in acoustics and had closely studied the Mormon Tabernacle design, shaped like an upturned boat –also called a “turtle back form.”

Carnegie Hall was initially envisioned as a home for both the Symphony Society and the Oratorio Society. Prior to Carnegie being constructed, these organizations vied for time and space in the Metropolitan Opera House, one of the only available venues in town –usually reserved for the Met’s resident company. Waiting in second position, The Philharmonic Society took precedence over other takers. The Oratorio Society was usually left out and resorted to giving performances within neighboring piano manufacturer showrooms, among them Chickering and Steinway, located on 14th Street.

Prior to its opening in the spring of 1891, streets adjacent to Carnegie’s site on  Seventh Avenue were as yet unpaved. The location, at the edge of Goat Hill, near Central Park, was so far uptown it was considered suburban.

Carnegie Hall in New York City

The hall’s storied past encompasses a wide range of musical performances and includes artists from the classical world as well as folk, jazz and rock. Rachmaninoff, Horowitz, Rubenstein and Van Cliburn have graced the stage, as have Pavarotti, Leontyne Price, Beverly Sills and Marion Anderson. Also, jazz icons Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, John Coltrane have been heard here, as have folk legends Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Joan Baez. Rockers The Doors, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles too. Carnegie was their third tour stop in February, 1964.

In 1938 and ‘39, promoter John Hammond brought his “Spirituals to Swing” program to Carnegie. Originally, bluesman Robert Johnson was scheduled to appear along with Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Sonny Terry and Mitchell’s Christian Singers–the all-star line up illustrating the many different influences fueling swing. Robert Johnson died in August of 1938,  and promoter Hammond found a suitable replacement: Big Bill Broonzy.

Recordings of the concert were not originally issued. The liner notes to a 1970’s era re-issue (on the Vanguard label), written by Charles Edward Smith, state that: “The original disc acetates from which this recording was made were privately recorded for Mr. John Hammond as a memento of the concerts. They were played and replayed many times at his home. Then with the passage of time it became apparent that these recordings were of great historical and musical significance, making it imperative that they be preserved for posterity.”

Posterity, preserving what is important for future generations, is a noble goal. The cold facts surrounding acoustic perfection will likely never dampen our enthusiasm for music, enjoyed in some of our favorite places.

Even if a few tolerable compromises may be required, the world’s performance spaces retain their power to captivate us and transport us. Through the synergies of architecture, acoustic design and sound technology, great rooms can deliver great sounds. Paraphrasing Chips Davis: “It all comes down to who’s mixing the show.”

Published in: on June 16, 2011 at 4:01 pm  Leave a Comment  

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