The State Theatre in Modesto, CA has received a total sound system upgrade. Originally named the Art Deco State Theatre, and built as a movie house in 1934 by noted architect S. Charles Lee, the building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The seating area is long and narrow with rear seating that rises about 20' above the main floor. The sidewalls are notable for their gold leaf murals depicting greyhounds and gazelles. Sadly, the building fell into disrepair over time, and its sound system was badly outdated. In June of 2005, the non-profit State Theatre of Modesto, Inc. was formed and planning for a comprehensive renovation project commenced.
When general manager Lora Unger got the green light on the project, she knew she had a challenge ahead of her. In order to revitalize the theatre, the new audio system would need to accommodate both movie showings and live music performances. For films, that meant upgrading the facility’s existing 4.1 surround capability to handle Dolby Digital 5.1, but the live music system would be entirely new. Complicating matters was the decision to restore the theatre’s signature murals, which meant that there could be no acoustical treatment on the sidewalls.
In speaking with designers and consultants, Unger learned that live music and film sound are not generally considered compatible, and that two separate and distinct systems would be required. “Most people we talked to said it was just too complicated,” Unger recalls. “But we really wanted to find a comprehensive system, so we made it part of our bid request, hoping someone could make it happen.” The only bidder offering to provide a dual-purpose system was Deck Productions of Stockton, CA, which proposed a system based on Meyer Sound loudspeakers.
Deck owner Elton Halley and lead designer Gunnar Andersson met with officials of the State Theatre, and it quickly became apparent that the group was hoping to accomplish champagne goals on a beer budget. “We knew the system could be designed with unlimited funds,” says Halley, ”but doing it with the impact they wanted and the budget they had—that was the key. The thing that’s great about the Meyer Sound product line is that it’s a full selection of tools that have amazing sound quality. It’s really all about finding the right box for the space you’re working in.”
Andersson agrees, “The products are more affordable than most people think, especially when you start looking at the installation aspect,” he says. “You’re eliminating the amps, a lot of the copper and cable, and also a lot of the labor that goes into installing. When you can do one termination point instead of four to get the signal through to the speakers, you save a lot of time and money. There’s a huge gain in that.”
For Deck, the most difficult part of the design process was creating a system that would work in the shape of the theatre. Initially, a line array was considered, but the need to create a distinct left-center-right (LCR) pattern for the films within the room’s 55’ width made that impractical, especially with the need to maintain clean sightlines to the screen. The situation called for a powerful enclosure with a tight, penetrating horn pattern. Andersson suggested the MSL-4 horn-loaded long throw loudspeaker and used Meyer Sound’s MAPP Online Pro™ acoustical prediction program to confirm it as a viable solution. “The horn dispersion on the MSL-4 is 40? horizontal by 35? vertical, so it seemed like the right kind of box for this long, narrow space,” Andersson explains. “When we put it in MAPP and did some predictions for the LCR configuration, we knew right away it was the right model to base the system around.”
Hung high to avoid interference with sightlines to the screen, three MSL-4 cabinets provide the primary house sound for both film and live events. A pair of 700-HP ultrahigh-powered subwoofers deployed under the stage also does double duty. The cabinets are situated off-center left and right, in Deck-designed enclosures.
Even with a design solution in hand, the theatre’s goals and limited budget remained a challenge. This time, the solution came directly from Meyer Sound, in the form of a phone call from executive vice president Helen Meyer. “She told me this sort of multipurpose room for 5.1 surround was something they had been working on, and they were interested in taking an unconventionally stronger role in it,” recalls Unger. “Long story short, they offered to help develop a groundbreaking system for us, and we agreed to become their beta-test site. Part of the design team from Meyer worked with Deck, who had no real experience on the film side. We knew that they would not let it fail, and with the high quality of the products they provide, we knew we were very fortunate to be working with them.”
Meyer Sound president/CEO John Meyer and his team got directly involved in the design and execution of the cinema system. The core of the surround sound system is a pair of UPJ-1P compact VariO™ loudspeakers located on the rear walls. However, this standard deployment cannot hope to provide the same intensity of surround sound to the whole audience. To enrich the experience, 12 MM-4 miniature wide-range loudspeakers were spaced along the sidewalls. “The MM-4s have incredible, wide-range sound, and they’re amazingly small and discreet, perfect for surround sound,” notes Halley. To integrate them into the design, each MM-4 had to be carefully mounted and color-matched to the gold-leaf murals. Dialog localization is achieved with a single UPA-1P compact wide coverage loudspeaker mounted behind the screen to augment the center MSL-4 cabinet mounted high above the stage.
To take full advantage of the new system, the theatre upgraded the sound heads on its projection system from a two-channel optical head (used to play Dolby Surround soundtracks) to a Dolby Digital head, while also upgrading their Dolby CP500 cinema processor to enable them to utilize digital soundtrack information. In addition, a new Sanyo digital video projector was purchased, letting DVD players, VCRs, and computers be used as image sources. This allows the use of PowerPoint slides to promote coming attractions and sell advertisements, and enough flexibility to make the State Theatre attractive to a much wider array of potential rental clients, including corporate presentations and small film festivals.
For live events, the main system is augmented by four M1D ultra-compact curvilinear array loudspeakers, used individually across the lip of the stage for frontfill, necessitated by the height from which the MSL-4s had to be hung. Monitors available on stage for performers include UM-1P narrow coverage stage monitors and USM-1P extended range narrow coverage stage monitors. When sidefill monitoring is needed, the UPJ-1P surround speakers are easily moved from the back of the house to the stage.
Previously, live performances at the State required rental of a full sound system, from microphones to loudspeakers. “Not any more,” says Unger. “When I’m booking artists and send them our tech rider, I tell them that we’re a Meyer Sound venue and there are no questions and no negotiations. It’s a very rider-friendly system.”
To make both sides of the system work in the hands of a crew that is new to the setup, Deck devised a foolproof switching method. “We used a matrix switcher with 16 inputs and eight outputs. By using this to switch between the outputs from the two DSP boxes going to the sound system, we could make it easy for anyone to operate and understand. We installed a key switch with two LEDs, a blue and a red, indicating live or cinema. By switching this, you take the whole matrix to either live or cinema. It’s simple, it’s easy to understand, and you can’t make a mistake.”
To help resolve the differing system equalization and delay requirements for cinema sound and live music performance, Meyer Sound brought in a SIM® 3 audio analyzer. “That’s why we used two separate DSP boxes,” notes Andersson. “Even if they need to make changes to the live sound system, the cinema sound stays the same. The projectionist never has to worry because when they turn the key it’s not just switching speakers, it’s switching the whole system, tuning and all.”
The big test came on opening night, and Lora Unger remembers it vividly. “It was a community celebration with different performing groups. We also wanted to showcase our new surround sound system. I was really nervous because it was the first time we really went back and forth between the systems. But it’s so easy. We were able to have 30 minutes of a live performance, then just turn the switch, turn the projectors on, close the piano lid, and run the film. We used a clip from Master and Commander, which is a great film to test and showcase surround sound.”
As far as the impact of the new sound system in revitalizing the State Theatre, Unger says the people of Modesto have made their opinion known. “People come out of the movie theatre wowed by the sound system. They literally say ‘I can feel the sound in my stomach.’ It sounds so real in this theatre; it really heightens the entire experience. Which was kind of the point, you know?”