San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts (PFA) has a rich history that dates back almost a century. After the devastating earthquake and fire of 1906, the city launched a major renovation campaign, and the Panama Pacific Exposition hit the streets in 1915, with buildings stretching the length of what is now the city's Marina District. The Bernard Maybeck-designed PFA is the last standing of the Exposition's major buildings.

Over the years, the venue has served varied purposes. In World War II, it was used as a motor pool by the US Army, and it even housed upwards of 20 tennis courts at one point in time. Today, however, the PFA houses the Exploratorium, a hands-on science museum, and the 960-seat Palace of Fine Arts Theatre, operated by the nonprofit Palace of Fine Arts League, Inc. But the theatre has long struggled with sound system issues, and the time finally came to overhaul it, as well as to update the in-house lighting and projection gear.

Shortly after joining the theatre's staff as head sound engineer a couple of years ago, Ryan Snyder, a member of IATSE Local 16, notes, “The first time I walked the room and listened to the system, I found that the left and right speakers and center cluster were crossing over each other at about the fourth row in the audience seating, and everything behind it was a phase-cancellation nightmare. Removing the two outer speakers from the cluster gave the rig a little more equal definition to the zones, improving coverage, but not by much.” In an attempt to simply tune the old system, he used four channels of Meyer Sound CP-10 complementary phase equalization, but still, there weren't enough parametric bands “to make the boxes sound the way that they should have,” says Snyder. “Plus, on a good day, I was still getting maybe 40% coverage of the room.

“The complaint from clients was always, ‘Why does this seat sound fine, but six seats down, it sounds completely different?” adds Snyder. “It was a constant battle for me to try to explain this to our clients every show. There was only one solution, and that was a line array for more even coverage.” But the longer throws of line arrays at that time were not required for the venue.

Work had been done in the venue approximately 20 years ago in sound baffling and using reflective panels, primarily because there was no real sound system in place. This helped reflect sound into the audience without amplification, especially for operatic and other live productions, but it added to Snyder's challenge in what had become an overly reflective space. “When you have a 12-piece band in that sort of highly reflective space, for example, it can be very troublesome at front-of-house,” he says. “Things get out of control, and you can't really compensate via EQ or processing. The series of panels on the downstage edge on the house side of the fire curtain pointed upstage on the bottom edge, further reflecting sound into the house.”

In addition, the room is wide and shallow, and the absorptive baffles hanging from the ceiling made the room acoustically dead, especially factoring in the drape and padded seats. “And that's increased tenfold when the house is filled with people,” says Snyder. “On the flip side, the stage has no baffling and is very live and ambient. So it's exactly the reverse of any other venue.”

Realizing a lot more than a fine-tuning needed to occur, Snyder called upon former Pro Media/UltraSound colleagues, the late Don Pearson, co-founder, and Gavin Canaan, former operations manager, who is on staff at Meyer Sound. Snyder's goal was to retune the existing system and work out its many stubborn kinks.

It took two more years of ongoing communication between Canaan and Snyder before the final solution would come to life, and it came in a compact package. Snyder got word of the release of Meyer Sound's M'elodie ultracompact high-power curvilinear array loudspeaker, and that seemed like a viable option. Receiving potential designs created by Brian Long from Meyer Sound's Design Services in MAPP Online Pro, Snyder finally saw the system coming together, settling on nine M'elodie cabinets flown per side, four M1D ultracompact curvilinear array loudspeakers along the stage lip for frontfill, and two ground-stacked 600-HP subwoofers on each side of the stage, all driven by a Galileo loudspeaker management system. The upgrade also included new wireless microphones from Shure, as well as new effects and processing at front-of-house with gear from DBX, Yamaha, Drawmer, Lexicon, and TC Electronics.

Installers Pro Media/UltraSound worked with IATSE Local 16 to rig the system in the union house. There were restrictions, and collaboration between electrics and audio was required to squeeze everything into the space. “Ideally, the speakers should be on the stage maybe 5' more,” says Snyder. “We have a lot of lighting and followspot work from the catwalk, so I had to stay out of those paths, but still get the rig as far on stage as possible for coverage. We went through a few different MAPP versions to get the right positions, and I cover upwards of 90% of the room now.”

Snyder and theatre production manager Kevin Taylor insisted that the installation happen in time to give the system a true trial by fire. One of the venue's biggest clients, World Arts West and its Ethnic Dance Festival, has been performing at PFA for 30 years. “It's a really hard festival to mix, too, because you go from a Chinese lion dance team to a Swedish yodeling act to Bavarian clog dancers to a piece from Thailand or the Philippines with people banging on pots,” says Snyder. “It's not like a rock festival where you can tune the room to a particular aesthetic. You're going from one total extreme to the next in 15-minute increments. It was impossible for me to tune the room for the event.” The system had to be installed and tuned before the 2007 dance festival, but once the mission was accomplished, Snyder notes, “This was the first time in 30 years that everyone from World Arts West was doing back flips over the sound.”

As for settling in to the new system, Snyder concludes, “When I used to mix rock bands, I gauged my mix by always going out into the crowd. If people were obviously enjoying the sound, then I knew I didn't have to touch anything. I knew we made the right changes when the audience started noticing the difference in this theatre. We also do a lot of shows with the San Francisco Jazz Festival — a lot of audiophile types. When they thanked us for sounding so good, that started to ease a lot of stress.”

Lighting The Palace

Along with the sound system renovation, tweaks were made to lighting and projection. Taylor worked with general manager Kevin O'Brien, house electrician emeritus Marty McGee, and Snyder to upgrade the visuals here and there.

First on the list was a new lighting console. The team went with an MA Lighting grandMA light to complement the existing eight Vari-Lite VL3000 spots and the various conventionals, including ellipsoidals from ETC, Berkey, and Altman, Strand Fresnels with Wybron Forerunner Color Changers, and various Altman PARs and cyc units. The projection was also bulked up, as the house formerly had two Sony XGA 3,500-lumen video projectors, but supplemented these with two Panasonic WXGA 5,500-lumen video projectors. “Next on the list is remodeling the dressing rooms, new paint, carpet, mill work, and lighting,” says Taylor. “We also plan on updating the Internet network to support improved wireless connectivity for road managers and their crews. We may even break down and buy new shower curtains.”

PALACE OF FINE ARTS THEATRE HOUSE GEAR

SOUND SYSTEM

MAIN SPEAKERS

18 Meyer Sound M'elodie Ultracompact High Power Curvilinear Array Loudspeakers

4 Meyer Sound M1D Ultracompact Curvilinear
Array Loudspeakers

4 Meyer Sound 600HP High Powered Subwoofers

1 Meyer Sound Galileo Loudspeaker
Management System

Meyer MAPP Online Pro

MONITOR SPEAKERS

6 Meyer Sound UM-1 monitor wedges powered by:
Meyer Sound M1-A processors
Crest 4801 amplifiers

Meyer Sound UPA-1As powered by:
Meyer Sound M1-A processors
Crest 4801 amplifiers

4 Clair Brothers 12AM monitor wedges powered by:
Carver CBA 1000s

FOH CONSOLE

Midas Legend 3000

EQUALIZERS

1 Klark-Teknik DN 9340 stereo digital equalizer

1 Klark-Teknik DN9344 quad graphic equalizers

1 Klark-Teknik DN360 dual graphic equalizers

PLAYBACK

1 Numark CDN-88 Dual Professional CD Player

1 HHB CDR-830 Compact Disc Recorder

1 Sony MDS-JE510 Mini Disc Player/Recorder

1 Yamaha K-903 Dual Cassette Deck/Recorder

PROCESSING AND EFFECTS

3 DBX 166A Dual Compressor/Limiter/Gate

6 DBX 160A Mono Compressor

1 Yamaha SPX2000 professional multi-effects processor

1 Drawmer DS404 Quad-Gate

1 Drawmer DL441 Quad-Compressor

1 Lexicon PCM 91 reverb and effects

1 TC Electronics FireworX reverb and effects

1 TC Electronics D-Two Digital Delay

MICROPHONES, WIRELESS

4 Channels Shure UHF-R series J5 frequency wireless microphones

2 Shure UR4D dual channel receivers

1 Shure UA845-US Antenna Distribution system

2 Shure UA830WB Antenna amplifiers

4 Shure UR2 Handheld transmitters with BETA87A capsules

4 Shure UR1 Beltpack transmitters with Shure 184 Lavalier microphones

MICROPHONES, WIRED

1 AKG D-112 Kick Drum mic

6 AKG C-1000 condenser mics

4 Shure SM 58

4 Shure Beta 57A

8 Shure SM 57

4 Shure SM 77

1 Shure 565SD

3 Sennheiser K3U/ME80 shotgun mics

1 Sennheiser 825S

5 Crown D-160 PCC floor mics

4 Crown PZM area mics

DIRECT BOXES

4 Countryman Active Direct Boxes

3 Passive Direct Boxes

COMMUNICATION

1 Clear-Com MS200 Main Station

6 Clear-Com RS-501 single-channel beltpacks

4 Clear-Com RS-601 single-channel beltpacks

1 Clear-Com RS-502 dual-channel beltpacks

9 Clear-Com single muff headsets

2 Clear-Com dual muff headsets

LIGHTING SYSTEM

CONTROL/DIMMING

MA Lighting grandMA light

144 AVAB DDII digital dimmers (2.4kW and 4kW)

AVAB 24-channel digital-to-analog converter (0-10V DC)

AUTOMATED LIGHTING

8 Vari-Lite VL3000

4 High End Systems Cyberlight 1,200W MSR

CONVENTIONALS

12 ETC Source Four 26° ellipsoidals 575W

10 ETC Source Four 36° ellipsoidals 575W

6 ETC Source Four 10° ellipsoidals 575W

6 Berkey 10° ellipsoidals 575W

30 Berkey 40° ellipsoidals 575W

16 Berkey 20° ellipsoidals 575W

8 Altman 20° ellipsoidals 575W

12 Strand 8" Fresnels 2kW w/Wybron Forerunner

Color Changers

36 Altman PAR 64 MFL 1kW

6 Altman 2-Cell Far Cycs 1kW each

6 Altman 1-Cell Far Cycs 1kW each6 4-ckt R40 striplights 150W

PROJECTION EQUIPMENT

2 Panasonic WXGA 5,500-lumen video projectors

2 Sony XGA 3,500-lumen video projectors

2 35mm motion picture projectors

1 19.5" × 44.5" front projection sound screen

1 14.25" × 19" rear projection screen

1 Oppo DVD Deck

1 Sony VHS VCR

FOLLOWSPOTS

2 Phoebus Ultra Arc Titans, Long Throw

EFFECTS

1 Le Maitre Neutron XS Hazer

1 High End Systems F-100 Fogger