Art of the Sound Install

by Bryan Reesman
Masque Sound had to keep a system operational for services, even as they completely upgraded the sound for St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.
Masque Sound had to keep a system operational for services, even as they completely upgraded the sound for St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.

Programming, infrastructure and gear choice all play a part when designing a house system

Before a theatrical production and its sound designer can step into a venue and work on a show, the facility itself must be outfitted with the right equipment to ensure that it is well suited for all its clients’ needs. Sound installation is obviously more than just setting up an array of speakers, picking out good mics, and hooking up a solid console. It is a layered process that requires a good analysis of what the venue needs and what it will best be suited for.

“The first major topic to consider when designing a permanent installation is taking into account all of the event types that take place in the venue,” says Matt Peskie, Installation Department manager at Masque Sound. “The system in its entirety can be very limited if installed for only one type of production. Then, of course, you run down the list of functionality that is required at the facility and begin talking about the specific systems—audio, video, paging, intercom, etcetera.”

If the venue will serve multiple functions, one must explore what they are so that the sound consultants and architects can factor that into their plans. As David Bateman, principal consultant for acoustic consulting firm Acentech, notes, a venue could have as diverse a purpose as featuring a single presenter onstage to a concert with a 100-piece orchestra that requires no amplification. Discussions of the acoustics of the hall follow “to meet the majority of the hall’s use cases,” says Bateman. “Music requires different than speech requires different than opera requires different than live bands.”

Making sure the venue gets a permanent system that works for them is essential, but it is also important to know about the capabilities of the staff. Some theatres may have a technical staff that understands the ins and outs of the gear. Others might just have a technical director who is the sole gearhead, with either freelancers brought in per show and/or the road crew of a touring show taking over when they arrive.

The knowledge of the staff plays into what kind of sound system the venue will receive. Bradlee Ward is the in-house AV/theatrical systems designer for architecture firm Westlake Reed Leskosky, which he notes is “an integrated architecture firm with all of these disciplines in house, which is unique for an architecture firm.” He likes to know who will be engaged at the venue—“if they’re going to have a trained staff work or if it’s going to be volunteers that operate the equipment or it’s going to be the house manager that turns on the system and they will like an automatic mixer,” he says. “I figure out what level of system to design with and what kind of budget they have. I’ll make my choices between a decent sound system or a really high-quality one. I figure out how often it’s going to be used for which kinds of events.”

Ward tries to interview the technical staff and talk with them about their goals and expectations. “If it’s a renovation or if it’s a new building, I sometimes ask if they have any preferences on which manufacturers to use,” he says. “Usually they don’t give me any stipulations, so I go with what I think is best for that job.”

He pushes for venue involvement in the programming phase of a project—determining what the theatre will be used for—because, as he notes, staff members may forget that they need basic infrastructure and support spaces like equipment rooms and control booths, and how big those need to be. Things like the positioning of the FOH mix console can affect the sound quality in the theatre. “Sometimes owners and architects don’t think about those things because their expertise may not be in designing the theatres,” notes Ward.

“A common misstep when it comes to permanent installations is missing the mark on the amount of infrastructure that is put in place,” says Peskie. “It could be as simple as not taking into account the amount of audio tie lines at FOH or not accounting for fiber lines. There is such a thing as too much infrastructure as well, but the ‘better safe than sorry’ motto seems to be the default when it comes to laying out a system in a facility.”

Peskie adds that the major factor to systems upgrades is the requirement for more conduit. “The addition of more cable paths that require conduit can cause major issues in existing buildings, as the pathways just might not be there to allow for it,” he says. “Sometimes your choices of equipment may be limited to what new wire can be put in place utilizing existing conduit.”

Nail the Transition

One aspect of dealing with a venue renovation is making sure it says functional during its technological transition, as when Masque Sound recently upgraded the audio system at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in midtown Manhattan. “In this instance, the most challenging part of the project was always maintaining a completely functional system for the multiple services that take place daily,” reports Peskie. “There were times we had 28 EAW JF80 speakers as a temp system while the new system was brought online. The change over to the new system happened in phases, while always maintaining full system operation.”

Communication during the job is also crucial. WRL and Ward are currently working on the North Bund Theatre in Shanghai, and he says it is the biggest job he has ever done. The main challenge has been interfacing with their Chinese clients through a translator who may not fully understand all the technical information he needs to impart to them. At least Ward has the advantage of working with the project architects in the same office and they can coordinate from a mechanical and electrical standpoint, although he has the additional challenge of having other co-workers on the job working out of Cleveland—AV Systems Designers Richard Ingraham and James Krumhansl and their collective supervisor, Raymond Kent, director of the Innovative Technology Design Group. 

Acentech recently guided the David A. Straz, Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa through an audio upgrade.
Acentech recently guided the David A. Straz, Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa through an audio upgrade.

Sometimes a venue upgrade takes on a larger scale, which definitely requires strong, clear communication and coordination. Acentech and Bateman recently gave the David A. Straz, Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa a purely technological upgrade (sound, production communication systems, and some video monitoring) in all three of its theatres. The previous analog system had audio snakes running throughout the infrastructure, and while a Dante digital snake network was installed, the Center chose to leave large analog input and output bays at stage left and right in each theatre exposed to use as an analog backup in a worst case scenario situation. As Bateman says, working with a new building and infrastructure allows one to go in fresh, whereas when one renovates an older site “it’s harder to get those pathways so there are usually some concessions that have to be made.”

Each of the three theatres in the Straz Center received sound system upgrades. “With the digital snake, there’s also a large monitor rig that goes along with it so they can move between the different venues,” says Bateman. Each venue has matching Yamaha CL-5 mixing consoles. “If one goes down they can grab one from one of the other venues and bring it in. The monitor desk is the same as well. The managing director of the theatre is an audiophile of sorts, and that was his preference.”

For their 3,600 seat main hall, the Straz Center has the desire to convince touring companies to use their house system, which has been tailored for the audience there, thus allowing a traveling road show to save some money by not loading in their own gear. But not every situation is the same. Many touring Broadway shows, for example, spend a lot of money on their sound design. “It may be an integral part of not only the sound but it’s built into lighting trusses on stage left and stage right, and it’s just not easy to separate the two pieces,” notes Bateman. “So they’ve allowed for accommodations so the road show can still bring in their system.”

The main speakers in the main hall can fly up and out of the way. This flexiblity in terms of the audio gear lead to another discussion point in the development of the project. “If these are going away or going to come down and disappear, is there storage for them backstage or is there a way that they can just remain or do they visually have to disappear from the space?” offers Bateman. “In this case, they go way up into the rafters and disappear from view. But there are supplemental speakers for under balcony and upper gallery and side box fills that are part of the house system, so a lot of the touring shows that would come in don’t have necessarily have the coverage that would hit a fourth-tier gallery. They’re really looking at orchestra level, mezzanine level, and if you’re lucky maybe a balcony in the sound design as they’re touring around to a variety of different venues. This one has the luxury of having a fourth-tier gallery, so they can tie into the house system and feed those supplemental areas and still get good sound even from their road stuff into the house stuff.”

Both new venue installs and older theatre upgrades have their challenges, but in the end they offer their gratification. “I think the projects that are the most challenging in the end are also the most rewarding,” believes Peskie. “I am always amazed to see how a facility one day is a rough construction site and a couple months later is a finished performing arts center.”