April 15, 2015
With SoundBox, San Francisco has a new, vibrantly alive space for music performances, and its Opera, Symphony, and Ballet have a rehearsal hall in which they don’t have to fight for great sound.

As part of a 2011 initiative to find new ways to attract and interact with an expanded audience, the San Francisco Symphony’s music director, Michael Tilson Thomas, suggested using a rehearsal hall beneath and behind its Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall as a performance space. He envisioned a new, experimental performance venue where late-night small group concerts of eclectic mixes of music could be offered to “culturally adventurous listeners” in a nightclub-like setting.

The hall, formerly known as Zellerbach Rehearsal Hall A, had been something of a headache for musicians and singers who have rehearsed there since its opening in 1981. It was built to mimic the footprint of the stage, fly system, and orchestra pit of the War Memorial Opera House across Grove Street from Davies Hall. The San Francisco Opera, which uses it for five or six months a year, finds it can almost “rehearse in rep” with productions in preparation, since the space is identical to the stage on which they will play.

When the Opera isn’t using it, you might find the San Francisco Ballet or the San Francisco Youth Orchestra preparing for performances. What you might have heard in the past was the murmuring of discontent as the performers complained that they couldn’t hear their colleagues from one side of the stage to the other. Zellerbach A had become famous for its dead acoustics. Turn this into a performance space? Invite the public in to listen? How?

Tilson Thomas already had experience with digitally generated acoustics. In addition to his post in San Francisco, he is the founding artistic director of the New World Symphony in Miami. Concerts performed inside the 756-seat main performance hall of the Frank Gehry-designed New World Center are simulcast to a 700 sq-ft. exterior wall visible from the neighboring SoundScape park, where a Meyer Sound Constellation system creates indoor acoustics in an outdoor space.

If Constellation could give a park suitable acoustics for a symphony, why couldn’t it give a dead 7,600 sq-ft. concrete and steel hall with a 50' ceiling the sonic ambience of a concert hall?

The short answer to that question turned out to be “it can.”

I attended a February concert featuring musicians from the symphony’s percussion section performing music for a wide variety of instruments, including marimba, cymbals, cello, clapping hands, and even John Cage’s Third Construction composed for drums, tin cans, cowbells, ratchets, and a conch shell. It was hard to imagine that the vibrant, pulsating room could ever have been considered dead.

This was the third of five concerts presented this season in what has been dubbed “SoundBox.” At the first concert in December, Tilson Thomas presented a kind of time-travel exploration of music from the 16th century to today. Using the Constellation’s capacities to their fullest, the acoustics of the hall were changed for each of the pieces performed, and at one point, the system was actually turned off so the audience could judge for themselves just what a difference it made.

The Constellation system of digitally generated acoustical effects—what the Berkeley-based company’s founder John Meyer calls “electroacoustic architecture”—is not simply the adding of a delay track to imitate reverberation. Instead, it processes the stage sound to calculate behaviors of the early reflections that would come from surfaces within the created space and the repeated but decaying re-echo of those reflections that constitute reverberation. Different halls provide different aspects of both of those characteristics, although often people simply talk about reverberation when referring to the richness of a space and its suitability for a particular type of program. For example, chamber music is often best performed in a space where the reverberation decays by 60dB (or down to the noise level of the room) in one second, while a symphony might sound best at two seconds, and a large choir would be most at home in a sacred space with three full seconds of decay.

Constellation builds on the Variable Room Acoustic System (VRAS) algorithm for reverberation calculations developed by Dr. Mark Poletti of New Zealand’s Industrial Research Limited. Using hardware evolving out of the product lines of LCS (Level Control Systems), which Meyer acquired in 2005, the input from multiple strategically placed microphones is processed in order to replicate both early reflection and reverberation for a given acoustic environment.

That “given acoustic environment” can be changed at the flick of a switch (or, more to the point, at the touch of a spot on an iPad or touchscreen) from one setting to another. What sounds like a Gothic cathedral one moment can sound like an intimate jazz club the next.

To turn Zellerbach A into SoundBox required 28 microphones and 85 Meyer Sound speakers of various kinds. Meyer senior acoustic engineer Pierre Germain oversaw the design and installation of the system, working with the client as the overall plan for the venue began to take shape. Germain has led Constellation installations around the world and in many different applications: concert halls, religious spaces, classrooms, and most recently, restaurants. He handled Meyer’s first restaurant project with Constellation in 2012 in Berkeley at Comal, John Paluska’s modern Mexican restaurant, where Matt Gandin is the executive chef. Oliveto in Oakland came next in 2013, and three more restaurants are underway. Germain says that Comal has turned out to be great as a means of impressing potential patrons. “We’ve gotten some projects through demonstrations at Comal or just by taking potential clients to dinner there.”

Meyer also has a Constellation system installed in its own theatre and demonstration room at the company’s headquarters in Berkeley. The 57-seat Pearson Theatre not only can be switched from classical concert hall ambience to that of an intimate boardroom, but it can also demonstrate the effectiveness of Constellation’s speech enhancement setting to make even soft-spoken presenters clearly understandable without having to hold a microphone. 

Germain says that his team began the Zellerbach A project by starting from the plans for the very first Constellation installation, one that was for another hall that shared the name, the University of California, Berkeley’s 2,005-seat Zellerbach Hall, home of the Cal Performance series that hosts everything from symphonies to solo acts. “We treated this like a giant orchestra stage using Zellerbach Hall as a starting point since the layout of the space was up in the air through most of the planning,” he says, adding that it only came together at the last minute, “so we didn’t really know where the performing platforms might end up or how the seating would be arrayed.”

Optimum placement was determined for 28 suspended microphones, with four zones that enabled the performance stage to be placed along any wall or multiple stages to be used simultaneously. Once Germain and his team had finished designing the system, it was installed by BBI Engineering, Inc. of San Francisco and calibrated by Dr. Roger Schwenke, Meyer’s senior scientist, and Melody Parker, associate acoustic engineer. Then Constellation project director John Pellowe came in for the final tuning of the multiple settings to match the particulars of the room. Pellowe, a Grammy Award-winning engineer who had been the sound engineering director for Luciano Pavarotti and The Three Tenors for many years, is what Germain calls “our golden ears.” Coincidentally, he had also done the final tuning for the Constellation system at Miami’s SoundScape, where Tilson Thomas first experienced its capabilities.

Of course, Zellerbach A’s dead acoustics were not the only issues involved in creating SoundBox. The space had never been designed for public events in the first place, and it was constructed a decade before the passage of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the setting of specific accessibility requirements. A ramp leading from the street level entrance to the elevated stage area had to be constructed, new ADA-compliant restrooms added, and a great deal of improvement had to be made to the HVAC system. San Francisco Symphony director of operations Andrew Dubowski said the old heating system was so poor that he “literally had to call building operations a week before a rehearsal and ask them to start warming the room up.”

The effort to improve the acoustics of Zellerbach A is not the first time the San Francisco Symphony has had to tackle the sound quality of a space. A decade after its 1980 opening, its main performance space in Davies Hall itself underwent a multi-million dollar aural and structural renovation under the guidance of acoustician R. Lawrence Kirkegaard and renovation architect David Larson. Its interior volume was reduced by nearly 5%, while center aisles were added to the main floor, walls reshaped in fiberglass backed by sand-filled tubes, and the orchestra playing space given risers and a back and side shell with resonating diffusers. Most importantly, an array of 6'-square moveable Plexiglas panels was suspended overhead.

Dubowski points out that the Davies Hall project had constituted a structural fix that “would have been way too expensive for what became SoundBox. We explored adding a shell and other architectural improvements, but we hit on using Meyer’s Constellation, which MTT [Michael Tilson Thomas] had experience with in Florida.” Eventually, they went with a virtual fix, using Constellation’s digital technology.

The result? “We’re having a blast,” Dubowski says, adding that the system has more than exceeded expectations. “I think everyone who had doubts when we first opted for an audio-based acoustic fix has come around.”

In addition to the Meyer team, theatre consulting firm Auerbach Pollock Friedlander worked on plans covering room configuration and seating as well as overhead rigging, lighting, and projection systems design. Individual concerts this season feature lighting designs by different noted designers. Luke Kritzek, the director of lighting at the New World Symphony, handled some of the early concerts while three-time Emmy Award winner and lighting director of Olympic Opening Ceremonies and Super Bowl Halftime Shows, Travis Hagenbuch, handled the later ones.

The Symphony wanted to have full-motion projection available on what turned out to be three rear-projection screens: a huge 23'x40' screen and smaller 6'2"x18' screen from AV Stumpfl, and a 13'x7'6" screen from Screenworks. These screens display moving images through one Barco and three Panasonic projectors controlled by a Dataton Watchout v.5 multi-display software suite.

Adam Larsen, frequent video design contributor to the San Francisco Symphony—he devised the projections for the performance of Debussy’s Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien, which Live Design profiled in 2012— developed the specifications for the video and has been engaged to create content for all of the SoundBox concerts this season. In addition, he devised the opening footage that kicks off each concert, a montage of clapping hands set to the composition “Clapping Music” by Steve Reich, one of the modern composers often featured by Tilson Thomas in concerts upstairs in Davies Hall.

SoundBox concerts will only utilize the space for ten evenings this season, but the addition of the Constellation system is expected to make a real difference for the use of the space as a rehearsal hall as well. The San Francisco Opera hasn’t yet rehearsed in the hall with the Constellation system installed, as the current season’s fall offerings ran through last December, and the summer program doesn’t kick off until June. The San Francisco Ballet, on the other hand, has used the space with the new Constellation system.

Martin West, the Ballet’s music director and principal conductor, who says he’s “always lamented the fact that the room was essentially dead,” reports that they have had one rehearsal using Constellation and “it totally transforms the sound space.” He adds that, while the system is not yet set up with presets for an orchestra of his size, “we will be hoping to fine tune the settings so that we can match it more closely to the acoustics that we experience in the opera house.”

But for now, whether for rehearsals or for performances for as many as 500 audience members, SoundBox sounds great.

Breathing Life Into A Dead Space