The New Battle Over Acoustics in Performing Arts Venues

This resistance is not a small thing.

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Liberty University Concert Hall. Photo: Liberty University and David Greenberg.

There is a revolution occurring in the world of room acoustics — how an indoor performance space sounds to audiences and performers — as new technologies allow for the electronic adjustment of any sound environment. With these innovations, tiny microphones and speakers are distributed throughout a hall and controlled by powerful computers, allowing engineers to instantly adjust sound in the space specifically for the style of music and desired affect.

Before these systems existed, performing arts venues were designed, in their shape and materials, for a particular acoustic set-up. Traditional shoebox concert halls and horseshoe-shaped lyric operas each created a certain sonic environment. In multipurpose venues, giant orchestra shells were deployed to project sound out from the stage into the hall. There might have been some acoustic adjustment with draperies and moving reflectors, but the range of possibilities remained limited.

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Change won’t come a moment too soon.

Nowadays, a sound engineer need only swipe a computer screen to change the sound for both audiences and musicians. Those giant orchestra shells, which force the enlargement of the stage and the loading capacity of the fly system, can be replaced with a virtual shell — a small array of speakers and microphones that is almost invisible.

When these systems first emerged 10 years ago, they were expensive, complicated and prone to failure. Today they are dependable, affordable and easily mastered. Companies like Meyer Sound, with their Constellation system, aggressively market these solutions in all sorts of complex situations. For example, a Constellation system will soon be installed in the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland, OR, allowing this former vaudeville house with a tiny stage to become a fine venue for acoustic music.

Installation forces huge additional expenditures.

What I find particularly interesting in this technological revolution is the continuing resistance from many musicians, conductors, architects, clients and funders who remain vehemently opposed to electronic acoustics — despite their obvious benefits. This camp claims that the technology and underlying power supplies are not dependable, that the complexity of the system is beyond them, and that the sounds are just not good. This resistance is not a small thing. Installation of these new technologies forces huge additional expenditures and investments in order to create the volumes of space, proper materials and reflecting angles required.

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Think of the opposition to new acoustical technologies as another example of being change-resistant. Remember when digital photography was in its early stages? There were expensive cameras, unwieldy storage systems — and lots of resistance at the professional end of the business. Even as the technology advanced to the point where its benefits far exceeded its costs, there was still resistance. Then a tipping point was reached, and there was broad adoption of the technology as if there had never been a problem in the first place.

I predict a similar narrative for room acoustics in the performing arts. The change won’t come a moment too soon as we struggle to manage escalating costs when developing new facilities for arts and entertainment, and as we increasingly consider the ways to convert existing spaces into the performance halls of the future.