Located on Broadway in downtown Oakland, CA, the Paramount Theatre is a slice of living history that also embodies the end of an era. Back in the Golden Age of film when Hollywood studios owned every major theatre and completely controlled film distribution, ornate and impressive theatres like the Paramount were the order of the day. However, the Great Depression changed that, and the Paramount—with its magnificent, 2,992-seat, Art Deco design—was the last studio-owned movie palace built in the nation. Over the years, the theatre changed hands several times as both the downtown film market and the building itself slowly decayed, and in 1970, the doors were shut for good. Or at least until 1972, when the Oakland Symphony (now the Oakland East Bay Symphony) purchased it and restored it to its original grandeur, reopening it as a performing arts center. Shortly thereafter, it was declared a National Historic Landmark, and ownership was transferred to the city.
Flash forward to today, and the Paramount is one of the Bay Area’s prime spots for high-profile concerts, lectures, theatre, and film—recent entertainment has run the gamut from B.B. King to the Oakland East Bay Symphony to a series of lectures by legendary film figures such as Robert Redford and Pulitzer Prize-winning authors.
But while the acts booked have been strictly A-list, one recurrent complaint has dogged the theatre in recent years: mediocre sound. “Over time, people were complaining more and more about the sound quality," says theatre operations manager Jeff Ewald. "They were making the automatic assumption that it was our equipment or sound engineer that was the problem, which it wasn’t. We would tell them that bands were bringing in their own sound equipment and people, and that they didn’t always mix their sound ideally for the building, but they didn’t want to hear that. So we decided to get a system of such quality that everyone would want to rent it.” When the time came to find the ideal system supplier, the Paramount crew needed to go less than four miles up the road to a local legend of concert and live audio, Berkeley-based Meyer Sound .
Brand reputation and experience were definitely big factors in recommending the company. “A lot of the top acts fly MILO® rigs,” Ewald explains. “The Meyer and MILO reputations are of a very high quality level that’s instantly recognizable in the industry, like the Bentley name in the auto world. We've watched Bruce Springsteen, Alicia Keys, Sting, and other very high-end acts bring MILO in here over the years, and it’s good stuff.”
Even if the Paramount installed a high-quality system large enough to cover the acts with the most extensive system needs, many of the bigger bands build their shows around their own systems, making them unlikely to want to use the Paramount's system instead. This sent the Paramount back to the drawing board.
"We rethought the general idea of the system and decided it should be something that could supplement the setups of large touring acts, and operate as a standalone system for smaller acts," Ewald explains. "Then we figured out the things we would need to start covering those type of shows.” The plan was helped by the fact that many top acts were bringing in MILO systems themselves, and the consistency and self-powering of Meyer Sound loudspeakers meant that the Paramount's system integrated smoothly and easily with the incoming systems.
Given the age and overall floor plan of the building, though, installation of a new system would be no cakewalk, so the Paramount team retained Lewitz and Associates to help design and tune the system. “The whole design, installation, and fine-tuning took about six months, on and off. We started with a Meyer demo in this building for the theatre staff, and from there it slowly took shape,” says Robert Lester, Lewitz’s principal sound system designer for the project. “When we started designing the system, we had no electronic drawings to work with, just older drawings in poor shape that we had to try to salvage and get information from, so that was an issue.” Lester and crew used MAPP Online Pro™ acoustical prediction software in combination with other design techniques, and created a three-dimensional model of the theatre to help plot loudspeaker positioning.
Building shape was also an issue, as Lester details. “The theatre poses some problems because of the balcony design and shape," he says. "It’s extremely deep, so, from the position of the center speaker cluster, you don’t have a line of sight to most of the area under the balcony, and if you compensate by hanging the speakers lower, you can’t reach the top of the balcony, so it’s tricky.”
Ewald concurs, saying, “To get sound into the balcony with a single cluster, you really have to spread the sound out very, very fast and wide, because it’s not a tremendous distance, only about 60 feet from the first row of the balcony to the cluster."
"That was the initial factor which led us to Meyer in the first place: the fact that they have a 120° MILO box (the MILO 120 high-power expanded coverage curvilinear array loudspeaker)," Lester chimes in. "Plus the MILOs just sound great.”
Lester recommended installing the system as a “portable permanent” setup, to better accommodate the Paramount’s needs, which often change nightly. The center cluster consists of one M3D-Sub directional subwoofer flown over three MILO cabinets and one MILO 120 unit. Identical left and right arrays of one M3D-Sub subwoofer and three MILO cabinets flank the sides of the building. The arrays are swapped between a “wide” configuration for spoken word presentations, concert support, and theatre; a “cinema” configuration for films; and a simplified “graduation” setup. A Galileo loudspeaker management system keeps the system in tune no matter what the application.
Mark Roos of San Francisco-based BBI Engineering headed up the installation. "We very much enjoyed the Galileo," says Roos. "It was the first time we used it and we found the user interface to be very well-designed. Tuning went smoothly with it." Roos also voices his appreciation for the help provided by Meyer Sound's technical support staff. "We were very pleased with the support we got from Meyer throughout the project. The factory support was a big enhancement to our work."
Achieving this balance between applications wasn’t easy. Says Lester, “It definitely was a tuning challenge. First and foremost, they needed high-quality speech intelligibility, but their number two priority was music reinforcement. If it sounded great with music, but there were 50-100 seats where you couldn’t understand spoken word, that wouldn’t work. We had to spend a lot of time walking around, isolating individual boxes, and using our ears in order to find the perfect compromise.”
Despite those obstacles, the system went up in record time. “After power was in, which took about a month, the sound system was up in about two weeks. We started at the end of July, and it was in and running for our first show of the season (Redford's appearance) on September 5, so it was quite quick,” says Ewald.
The simplicity and ease of setup provided by a self-powered system was also a huge factor in the system choice, according to Ewald. “We do a lot of lightly-produced shows, as well as high school graduations, which have no money for production. Consequently, we don’t run a lot of staff during these events, and a system like this gives us a lot of advantages. The idea that you roll the speakers out, plug them in, and you’re good to go was a huge positive when considering our options. We knew that the system would often need to be rolled out and installed in a very short period of time by only two people, and with just two lines of support for each speaker—signal and power—it makes it much easier to install it on a compressed timeline, especially for graduations.”
Thus far, thumbs have been raised all around at the system's performance. “Feedback has been basically a standing ovation," says Ewald enthusiastically. "Everyone who’s been around it has loved it. It’s kind of like with microwave ovens, where people now ask ‘what did we do prior to this?’ Now we can say to shows that have brought their own sound in the past, ‘You know, we’ve got this Meyer MILO system specifically tuned to the theatre,’ and we’re finding already that many of them say what we have is better than anything they would bring with them. Also, we really think we’ll be capturing a lot more events with this, between the smaller concerts, comedy shows, spoken word events, corporate gigs, and so forth.”
The Paramount Theatre is currently celebrating its 75th birthday. Its season runs from September to late June each year.