Reflections… of sound and other things.

2 05 2012

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Over 20 years ago I was cutting my teeth on audio design for very unique environments.  I was extremely blessed to be handed the keys to the Tennessee Preforming Arts Center (TPAC) for nearly 2 months.  During that time I was the project manager for one of the most interesting audio system installations in the world.

TPAC was built with music in mind.  Being located in the center of the music capital of the planet, it’s patrons were super critical listeners.  So critical, that when the Nashville Symphony played there, complaints about the “feel” of the room were often heard. Because of that fact, the Symphony moved out.  They left their new home, moved back and set up shop at the much older War Memorial Auditorium. Older, as in, dedicated in 1925. Even though it was not nearly as nice or as comfortable as TPAC, it had the right “feel” for the sound of a symphony orchestra.

The people at TAPC needed to get the room “fixed”, but at the same time it needed to preserve the seemly dead acoustic space for acts beyond the classical variety.  Enter Jaffe Acoustics and their Electronic Reflected-Energy System (ERES).  It was a game changer over 20 years ago and it forever changed my understanding of acoustics for performing spaces.  The ERES system was comprised of over 100 speaker enclosures.  Most of which weighed more than 100 lbs. a piece.  Each enclosure reproduced a different, very select group of audio frequencies (or notes), and they were hung above the floating ceiling panels or hidden in interesting locations around the edge of the room.   Several microphones were hung out in the room and several were hung on the edge of the stage.  Using Jaffe’s magic processors and some rocket science, we were able to electronically make the room feel good.

Part of what makes a room feel good is the amount of reverb time it has or allows, and how the sound bounces off one wall and then another before it comes to rest in your ears. Like singing in the shower, classical music sounds best, and ultimately feels best, in a room where the sound takes a second or two to come to rest after the maestro has frozen his baton. Because of TAPC’s plush curtains, thickly padded seating and soft carpets, the sound was literally sucked right up like a Hoover as it flowed off the stage.

Using the tiny amount of sound that did make into the room, we were able to use the perfectly placed microphones to “mix” the sounds, add artificial coloring and route them to over 100 different locations in the room.  It was like night and day.  Upon final tuning, the Conductor came out into the seats and listened to his orchestra with and without the system activated.  The Nashville Symphony moved back the TPAC.

That was over 20 years ago.  Today I came across a video that caused those old memories to come forth.  This new origami-ish system does nearly exactly what ERES did, but with no artificial ingredients!  Of course there is a magic box that controls the “breathing” of the system, but still… it’s an amazing use of technology, art and science.


Obviously this post is totally geeked out. However, I wanted highlight this point.  We spend huge amounts of energy to create things to fix problems.  Problems that are caused by nearsightedness or sometime more than that… strong opinions.  TPAC was created for performance. But it fell short because it focused on comfort and ease of use.  War Memorial Auditorium was admired for it’s seemingly perfect acoustics. But if you ever sat though a show there or had to load in a set from back stage, you would find it lacking. People in 1925 never anticipated the need for HVAC systems nor were they concerned about ADA regulations.

This may sound backwards, but I think nearsightedness is okay.  Glasses, contacts and now surgery can fix that.  Innovation comes from fixing problems.  If there were no problems there would be no innovation.  Tweet that!


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