As classical music venues go, there are concert halls, and there are Concert Halls. Certainly, many of the world's most renowned and respected orchestras are hardly slumming it when it comes to the venues they call home. For the most part, the landmark opera houses and symphony halls built by most major cities command almost as much respect and admiration as the orchestras they host.

But while many symphony halls can boast stunning architectural design and excellent sound, there exist only a handful of halls designed and purpose-built from the ground up as exquisite world-class acoustical environments. Of the world's top four symphony halls, Dallas' Meyerson Symphony Center is in fact the only one located outside Europe.

Owned and operated by the City of Dallas Office of Cultural Affairs, the Meyerson is home to the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Dallas Wind Symphony, and Turtle Creek Chorale, as well as host to numerous benefit concerts, festivals, and religious services. Opened in September 1989, the 2,062-seat Meyerson Center has proven to be a major component of Dallas' revitalized central Arts District, drawing both business and culture to the area.

Over ten years in planning and construction, the building was designed by world-renown architect I.M. Pei, famed for such daring structures as New York's Javits Center, Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the Pyramide du Louvre in Paris. In contrast to the more traditional insular concert hall designs, the Meyerson's bright, open lobby features a restaurant, garden court, and sculpture gallery, creating an elegant yet inviting presence that reaches out to the surrounding downtown environment.

“The Meyerson really has changed the cultural environment here,” remarks Lamar Livingston, Meyerson's technical director. “There really was no life in downtown Dallas after dark. Now, it's becoming a very appealing area for urban professionals. Major corporations who were scouting for a new home base in the 1980s and ‘90s were influenced by the city's planning for a cultural center.”

Meyerson Unplugged

Pei worked closely with acoustician Russell Johnson and associates Nick Edwards and David Kahn of Artec Consultants on the concert hall's detail, creating an environment unmatched for the presentation of acoustic music. The team's innovative design includes features such as a 40' hollow area beneath the stage to increase resonance, an acoustical chamber with 72 doors to vary reverberation, and an over-stage canopy system that not only can be raised and lowered, but also tilted up to seven degrees to focus and direct the sound.

Today, Edwards and Kahn are principals in the New York and UK offices of Acoustic Dimensions. With the company's main offices located in Dallas, it's hardly surprising that there has been an ongoing relationship with the Meyerson, and the company has recently been working with the venue to address sound reinforcement issues.

While the Meyerson is pretty much unequalled as a venue for acoustic music, its design was less than optimal for amplified sound. “The room is very responsive, very reverberant,” explains Acoustic Dimensions principal Craig Janssen, “and over the years there have been issues with speech intelligibility.”

“The room's original design concept was certainly that of an exclusively acoustic venue,” agrees Livingston. “I think it was a smart idea, in that the reputation it garnered was phenomenal. Right off the bat, the Meyerson became the new benchmark for other concert halls to attain.”

A very rudimentary sound system was installed early on, primarily intended for announcements. “On a few occasions they'd fly some additional cabinets, but for the most part they would just put some stacks on the stage,” Livingston continues. “The people in the top rows didn't have any coverage at all, and there were complaints about not being able to hear the announcements.”

Diversity Breeds Discord

Over time as the Meyerson gained increased prominence within the community, its use expanded beyond the traditional classical concerts to include pop concerts, jazz and ensemble performances, lectures, and other events. “One of our goals has been to make sure we serve the diverse cultural needs of the entire community, and create the public perception that this is a place for everyone — we never wanted to be perceived as elitist,” explains Livingston. “To that end, we're always looking for new ways to use the facility — from corporate events, shareholders' meetings, and debutante balls to religious ceremonies and musical production.”

“We get a lot of repeat business,” Livingston continues. “People return because the concert hall is an architecturally grandiose venue, and the lobby's a great place for a high-quality catered function. Because of the limited seating, we do tend to attract mainly upper-scale events. There are other places with greater capacity, but this building's stunning design is pretty much unequalled.”

Of course, with a more diverse mix of amplified program material, the existing sound system's shortcomings began to become more pronounced. “Imaging and intelligibility were definitely major issues,” explains Livingston. “The old system was a central cluster with two speakers on the sides, and when we would try to push the level to reach across the hall, the side speakers were blasting off the walls. We had far too much reflectivity and limited gain before feedback.”

“The original system exhibited poor sound coverage consistency around the room and compromised speech clarity in many seating areas,” Janssen elaborates, “particularly in the second balcony and grand tiers. They realized they needed to do something, but it had to be done properly.”

Not Seen, But Heard

Indeed, doing it properly called for addressing a plethora of issues, both sonic and visual. “When the venue was new, no one wanted speakers in here at all,” Livingston recalls. “It's a very beautiful space, and we've taken great pains to protect the aesthetics of the room.”

“The Symphony Association was very concerned in the beginning with being both acoustically and aesthetically pure,” recalls Ron Stanley, the Meyerson's chief sound technician. “They didn't want to see mikes or speakers, so they designed a retractable speaker cluster that goes up into the canopy, with paneled doors that came together so you couldn't tell it was there. Visually, it was very impressive — here was this large, imposing speaker system, built to completely disappear during an acoustic performance.”

As the hall's calendar began to reflect a growing diversity, the need for compromise on sound reinforcement became increasingly clear. “The hall is absolutely an acoustic venue at heart, and for more traditional concerts the sound system is not used at all,” Livingston says. “Over the years, Ron and I have worked with the room, experimenting with canopy heights, with reverb settings, extending curtains in the right places, in an attempt to maintain speech intelligibility. Until recently, the appropriate loudspeaker technology simply didn't exist.”

Sound Check

More than visual, the biggest challenges were of course sonic in nature. “One of the major factors in designing sound reinforcement is that the room itself is incredibly quiet, below the 10dB threshold,” explains Livingston. “Considerable attention had to be directed toward making sure the system itself didn't generate audible self-noise.”

“There are things in here that simply would not be an issue in a more typical room,” adds Stanley. “When the room is empty, you can actually hear the lighting filaments rattling. If someone opens a candy wrapper during a quiet passage, it can literally be heard throughout the entire hall.”

Between the noise threshold, the reflectivity, and the room's shape and seating arrangement, it was apparent early on that a typical loudspeaker array was not the answer. “The hall is very tall, and it's a complex room in terms of where the seats are,” Janssen explains. “Normal concert speakers can't provide the coverage needed, and in fact cause more problems than they solve.”

“The ultimate goal has always been to make the sound system as invisible as possible,” adds Livingston. “One of the reasons we really wanted to work with Craig Janssen and Acoustic Dimensions is that we knew they would take pains to protect the sonic integrity of this space.”

In Tune with Technology

Janssen recommended the EAW KF730 line array system. “The design of the EAW line array is somewhat unique, and fit well with the equally unique needs of the hall,” he says. “Because the EAW is a 110° box, we were able to use a single center cluster firing down the center of the hall. The positioning of the side walls, coincidently, works with the pattern control of the boxes — the closer you are to the stage, the more off-axis — hence the more quiet — the speakers' output. We selected a line array because we wanted a solution with very good pattern control that would limit sound projections onto the ceiling and stage achieving simple sound coverage.”

Other areas presented their own unique challenges. Janssen explains, “because there are technically three balconies, we needed to provide coverage along those areas as well. We could not reach the front of the room with the line arrays, so we adopted a proscenium distributed line form — three sets of EAW KF300 speakers, suspended stage left and stage right, to cover the side wall seating for each balcony area, and a pair of EAW MQV1364e speakers for the Grand Tier. Rather than trying to do a single speaker cluster, we wanted to do localized coverage for the first 10-15 seats before the line array picks up. We're playing with delays and DSP, using psychoacoustics. If we do it right, you won't even know these speakers are on.”

The main DSP is handled by a Peavey MediaMatrix system, addressing crossovers, speaker delays and EQ. “It's great to be able to make changes so easily,” Stanley remarks. “Different DSP settings are being saved for various applications.”

“A big part of the solution is in setting delays correctly,” adds Janssen. “We're also doing some frequency shaping in the line array, using EAW's F-chart to do predictive analysis on the cause and effect of various frequencies.”

Working the Staff

The Meyerson staff all come from strong musical backgrounds. Ron Stanley in particular has considerable experience in audio systems installations. Thus it made sense from both an economic and practical perspective to install the new system themselves. “We felt strongly that we wanted to be very hands-on with the system,” Livingston says. “We take a lot of pride in knowing the system inside and out. Also, in being both the client and the installer, we're able to implement the system in a deliberately gradual manner, to observe the effect of every aspect.”

Beyond the initial installation, the staff's expertise has proven invaluable in helping to orient visiting crew to the hall's unique characteristics. “Lots of pro sound people and musicians alike are simply unaccustomed to working in an environment of 10db and below,” explains Stanley. “Even in their beds at night, it's not that quiet. These are people who are accustomed to pushing the stage volume to get what they need, and in this hall it's very easy for the stage volume to get out of control.

“You have to work with the room, or the room will bury you. Lots of times we use psychology with performers, sometimes putting mikes out there we know we may never turn on. Sometimes, for example, we may have a solo classical guitarist whose rider specifies a high-quality microphone and sound system. The best thing we can do is to talk them out of it.”

Audiences too are sometimes unaccustomed to the experience of hearing music presented in a venue of this nature. “Today's audiences are, for the most part, used to having their program material amplified and in their face,” Stanley continues. “This is an audience that has grown up on Dolby THX and subwoofers. That's not to say we don't approach it with finesse — if something only needs a little amplification, that's what we give it. But in this room you can do a lot with letting the acoustics work for you, just supplementing with selective amplification.”

The Sweet Sound of Success

Thus far it appears the approach has been a success. “The new system has resolved virtually all of our intelligibility and coverage problems,” Livingston confirms. “The only remaining issues are our own future plans to address coverage on the apron of the stage. We're very pleased with the way the line array covers all the way back to the Dress Circle, and with how we've utilized the existing speakers in the various supplemental zones. We still need to do a bit more tweaking with the orchestra on stage, but that's to be expected.

“It was great to have Craig involved. He came to the party with no preconceived notions, and was able to meet our objectives. His priorities were acoustic first, aesthetic second. We also had valuable input from others at Acoustic Dimensions, including Robert Rodgers, who created the 3D modeling, and Rick Lavin and Casey Sherred, who commissioned the system.”

“We've really endeavored for the system to be as transparent as possible,” Janssen comments, “and have taken a very minimalist approach in both the design and voicing of the system. The line array allows us to be very neat, clean and low-profile. Frankly, it's a pretty straightforward project. We're hoping the end product is a more than straightforward result.”

Stanley agrees: “We're extremely happy with the new system overall. It's been a great cleansing process, getting rid of the excess processing and cabling and moving to a DSP-based system. It's a nice clean setup, and it's great to get control over the system.”

Janssen sums it up: “Elegance in design is often represented by simplicity in design. My hope is that what we've done is what you would expect from a room of this nature.”