Zellerbach Hall is one of the jewels of the University of California Berkeley campus. Housed in an American Institute of Architects Honors Award-winning building, the 2,014-seat hall is home to Cal Performances, the largest presenter of performing arts in the San Francisco Bay Area. Cal Performances brings to the hall a wide range of performances, including orchestral, chamber music, jazz, theatrical, dance, spoken word, operatic, and all variety of ethnic performances from around the world. The university also makes use of Zellerbach for graduations and other major university events. Plainly, Zellerbach Hall is the definitive multipurpose venue.
This diversity of program material imposes immense demands on the hall’s acoustics, as the needs of orchestral performances, recitals and graduations are at odds with each other. While the hall has an orchestra shell that helps sound project and aids musicians in hearing each other, erecting and striking it is a laborious and time-consuming process that makes it difficult to hold events of different types of material even as close together as consecutive days, not to mention accommodate events mixing genres on the same program. What’s more, the shell does not enable the hall to fully meet the range of acoustical requirements, as it cannot sufficiently alter the hall’s basic reverberation characteristics.
“We have been grappling with this issue of maximizing the hall’s sound for a number of years,” says Cal Performance’s Director Robert Cole. “We know the acoustics are quite good, as they are–many wonderful artists have performed here with great success. There are, however, some instances, such as when a period orchestra like Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra performs, that I have wished we could modify the architecture of Zellerbach to better replicate the space in which the music was originally meant to be performed. Luckily, we’ve had the great good fortune of working with John and Helen Meyer of Meyer Sound as our partners in designing a solution.”
“There is a great demand now for venues like Zellerbach Hall to be multipurpose,” says John Meyer, president and CEO of Meyer Sound. “That creates a real challenge: how can one room be made to sound right for many different kinds of performances? It seemed to me that the answer for existing venues like Zellerbach was in good planning and appropriate use of digital technology in harmony with existing acoustics. Our VRAS™ technology gave us the core of what we needed to solve this puzzle, and we went from there.”
The situation at Zellerbach Hall reached a turning point as Cal Performances approached a gala celebration of its 100th anniversary. The program for the evening was intended to portray the range of events presented by Cal Performances, and featured the Mark Morris Dance Group; San Francisco Symphony Music Director and pianist Michael Tilson Thomas accompanying Phantom of the Opera star Lisa Vroman; contemporary music ensemble Alarm Will Sound performing works of John Adams; and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra with a chorus of over 200 voices composed of the University of California Alumni Chorus, University Chorus and Piedmont Children's Choir.
The logistics for this spectrum of performance styles made it untenable to consider using the orchestra shell, while, at the same time, exemplifying the need for different acoustics that would compliment each performance. Cal Performances’ Gala came just as Meyer’s vision for multipurpose venues coalesced into a new approach to the challenge of their acoustics: Constellation™ electroacoustic architecture.
A longstanding relationship between Meyer Sound and Cal Performances had already resulted in installation of a substantial Meyer Sound system in Zellerbach hall. With Constellation, Cal Performances and Meyer Sound would go beyond the concerns of sound reinforcement to tackle the issue of the hall’s reverberation characteristics.
“Constellation solved a major problem for us as we planned our Centennial Celebration Performance and Gala comprised of dance, music and a large orchestra and chorus, all in one evening,” says Cal Performances Director Robert Cole. “It was the only way we could pull it off.”
Constellation electroacoustic architecture is a complete package of equipment and services, provided exclusively by Meyer Sound and powered by the company’s VRAS™ technology that enables a venue to provide acoustics appropriate to the needs of each program at the touch of a button, yielding numerous benefits.
Constellation employs Meyer Sound’s VRAS variable room acoustic system processor in combination with newly designed Stella™ loudspeakers and Constellation microphones certified by Meyer Sound. The VRAS technology, originally developed by Dr. Mark Poletti of Industrial Research Limited, employs a powerful DSP engine capable of generating multichannel reverberation and early reflections, as well as mixing, processing, and routing them.
The hardware and software components of Constellation serve as enabling technology. What makes a Constellation system powerful and natural is that each installation is designed and specified for installation, and rigorously tuned by highly trained professionals certified by Meyer Sound. Since Constellation incorporates a regenerative component (meaning that the hall’s acoustics are an integral part of the system), design and tuning must be carefully performed to the specific needs and characteristics of each venue.
A Constellation system in Zellerbach Hall enables an audience to experience a music concert with all of the warmth and resonance of a concert hall, while a play in the same space exhibits increased intelligibility. Musicians enjoy an improved ability to hear each other, creating an onstage acoustical experience conducive to ensemble musicmaking.
Meyer Sound President/CEO John Meyer and a hand-picked team of high-level Meyer Sound staff with expertise in acoustics, signal processing, and sound reinforcement worked with Cole and his team to define the system’s goals and design. The system that was installed included an onstage “orchestral shell” system to provide musicians with the all-important early reflections that promote a sense of ensemble, as well as the house system, to give audiences supplemental reverberation and early reflections.
“Enhancing the sound system in Zellerbach Hall has been a labor of love on the parts of many talented people—not the least of whom is Robert Cole,” says John Meyer. “His initial decision to allow to set up a prototype of Constellation ‘a leap of faith.’ Robert and I agree that through our collaboration, we’ve taken the audio experience to new levels.”
As the quintessential multipurpose venue, Zellerbach Hall was the perfect candidate for the Constellation system. The system has now proven itself with the Gala and recently with the highly successful US premiere of Mark Morris’s production of Henry Purcell’s King Arthur.
“Given the huge range of events we have coming up this season,” says Cole. “We are looking to Constellation to give us flexibility in pursuing our ongoing objective of achieving the finest possible musical and artistic results in every performance we present.”