Behind-the-scenes of eTown Hall and Recording Studio, Part 1

The eTown Hall and recording studio was set up by SIA Acoustics and Sam Berkow is here to give us a behind the scenes look at this fantastic place. 4/03/2014 6:43 AM Eastern

Behind-the-scenes of eTown Hall and Recording Studio, Part 1

Apr 3, 2014 10:43 AM, With Bennett Liles

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eTown is where it’s at for music. Every week Public Radio listeners tune in the music shows recorded before live audiences. The eTown Hall and recording studio was set up by SIA Acoustics and Sam Berkow is here to give us a behind the scenes look at this fantastic place. All that’s coming up next, right here on the SVC Podcast.

SVC: Sam Berkow with us on the SVC Podcast from the LA office of SIA Acoustics. Sam, welcome to the SVC Podcast and how about giving us a little rundown on SIA Acoustics.

Great. Happy to be here. SIA Acoustics is a design and consulting firm with offices in New York City, Los Angeles and Mumbai, India of all places. We are a firm dedicated to sound-critical spaces, mostly performing arts related – recording studios, production facilities and concert venues. We design sound systems, noise control issues, room shaping, layout, facility design and architectural acoustics. We also specialize in acoustic measurement. I’m the original developer of SIA Smart, a reasonably well-known acoustic measurement tool, or perhaps the best-known acoustic measurement tool in our field. [Timestamp: 1:43]

And working in acoustics, everything isn’t cut and dried and no two venues are exactly alike. It has gotten a lot more scientific but to make a venue like eTown Hall look and sound right can bring in some interesting challenges, I’m sure. How did eTown get started? What exactly did they want to do with this building? That was a complete re-build, wasn’t it?

Yeah. What happened is this project started like so many with a phone call. The owner/star of eTown, a guy named Nick Forrester, called me and said, ‘I’ve got a little project and I don’t know if it’s something you’d be interested in, but we want to take an old church and turn it into offices for our radio show and some studio spaces, some post-production spaces, performance space and a community-gathering space.’ I reminded Nick that about 20 years earlier we had had dinner together when his band Hot Rise, which was one of the better bluegrass bands around for a number of years, was playing in New York City where I’m originally from, and opening for the great John Hartford. And we reminisced about music we liked and got together in New York City where I was teaching at NYU a class on acoustics and control room design – studio design – and started down the road of building eTown Hall. [Timestamp: 3:08]

And that’s a pretty well-known place, especially to Public Radio listeners because they have a weekly show that I think includes all kinds of music.

The eTown weekly radio broadcast is heard on approximately 300 mostly public radio stations on NPR, some PRI, across the country with a weekly listenership of about a million listeners. I understand that the podcast version of the eTown show is downloaded between 80,000 and 100,000 times a week, so it’s quite a nice audience. And the show is based on Nick Forrester and his wife, Helen, and their band, the eTones, playing with well-known music artists particularly the songwriter or acoustic music person and a lesser-known or an up-and-coming artist. And Nick interviews the artist and asks about their inspirations and talks about their talents and their songwriting and their interests. It’s much more personal and insightful than your typical late-night talk show interview. Helen gives away an award to someone each week who’s made a non-profit contribution to their community called the E-Chievement Awards and that’s really – it’s actually pretty wonderful. It’s a really nice thing. So it’s a nice show to be part of. The show was celebrating its 18th or 19th year when we started the project and I believe we’re at 21-22 years now. [Timestamp: 4:37]

So they’ve got performances being taped before live audiences and SIA Acoustics had to make the room sound good right from scratch. They pretty much tore down the old church that it used to be and started over, didn’t they?

Yeah. What we did was we took the roof off and rebuilt the roof because it hadn’t been maintained or kept up for quite awhile. And the space was very funky and had been rebuilt numerous times and added on, so there were actually rooms on eight different levels. So there’s steps between each level and getting from space to space, particularly getting conduit from space to space was tricky. We also found out that the main floor of the main worship space, which was to be the main hall, had to be completely removed because its support system was really deficient and unsafe. So we took the main floor out, we added new steel, we added a new roof. We kept the sidewalls and most of the foundation, however. [Timestamp: 5:35]

Behind-the-scenes of eTown Hall and Recording Studio, Part 1

Apr 3, 2014 10:43 AM, With Bennett Liles

And SIA Acoustics came in and not only did the acoustical treatment but I guess they had you do the whole sound system and everything.

Yeah. We like to do both. We like to do the sound system and the room design because we believe the two are very tightly integrated. The venue itself is a relatively generous stage of about 35 feet across and about 26 deep, which is very big for a room with only 200 seats. The sound system is designed to both keep sound off the stage, making it very, very clean for the microphones for the radio broadcast, and making it very easy for the engineers. The front-of-house people like it because the sound system gives a really full, clean sound that emphasizes the nuance of acoustic music throughout the 200 seats. [Timestamp: 6:27]

What did you have to do acoustically when the building was ready to go and you came in to make it a good sounding place. What did you have to do first?

Well actually before the building was really to go we had to make an important decision. And that was we took the old gymnasium which was behind the stage but down about a level and a half, decided to turn that into the recording studio space; presented a particular challenge which was how do you isolate a studio from a stage where you can have everything from acoustic music through rock and roll? The types of bands they get range from singer-songwriters with acoustic instruments solo through bands like Los Lobos and Bruce Hornsby and a whole list of – the Mississippi All Stars and on and on. There’s just a great long list of musicians who have played eTown. But some of them get loud and the question was did you want to design simultaneous use of the studio space and the main hall? Additionally, did you want to be able to have small events downstairs in the gathering space, which is now called the Bohemian Room, with events in the main hall? And when Nick decided that simultaneous use for different functions was an important design goal, that meant that we had to design a system to physically isolate the main hall from the studio. [Timestamp: 7:58]

Yeah, I would think that kind of upped the degree of difficulty right there.

That ups the degree of difficulty right there, for sure. And an old building, for example, what we had to do was take the block wall that was the upstage wall, go back and put grout into it, because it wasn’t originally a grout-filled wall, then the studio uses six-inch studs that are free standing and on an isolated floor. And then on the stage side we floated the steel that’s holding up the stage and the main floor so that the main floor is isolated from the rear wall by decoupling the steel using isolators. That was issue number one. Issue number one was coming up with a scheme that would allow for isolation and that turned out to be both tricky to build and expensive to do but it became an important criteria for how the facility was to operate and so it was really important for us to be on site a lot to watch all the isolators and the installation to make sure they were all right. Construction oversight is a very important part of what we bring to a project. [Timestamp: 9:11]

Well, it was great to have the chance to do that without having to come in later and do some kind of retro-fit.

Yeah. We’re lucky, I mean, in some ways having the expense of having to pull out the first floor anyway made it easier to justify. I mean once you’re into a six-figure number to demolish and the replace a floor, making that floor isolated, seems like a relatively smaller number than trying to do it as a rebuild. [Timestamp: 9:36]

And how long did it take you to get all of the acoustical work done and have it ready for the sound system installation?

Construction went fairly quickly. It was about 18 months.

Well, getting it all acoustically set up right I’m sure made it a lot easier when it came to running cable and getting the speaker system set up and all of that.

One of the things you have to do is come up with a scheme for how the cable paths are going to go. You can’t have conduit cutting through sound-sensitive walls. This upstage wall, for example, we couldn’t allow any conduit through that wall, so there’s conduit surface mounted, but it has to come from the sides. And that turns out to be tricky as well because we had a limited amount of space to fit things. It was like a jigsaw puzzle where a lot of the pieces didn’t have the picture on them. It was tricky. It was actually a lot of fun. Fortunately Nick was able to bring on a really talented architect named Jim Walker who really spent a lot of time working with us and studying the details and solving problems. He was onsite almost every day. And then our contractor was very conscientious. I was very pleased with their performance as well. [Timestamp: 10:46]

With all of that going on and all of those people to coordinate, did you have any surprises or did you have to take any detours on anything?

I think the surprise of finding out that the first floor had to be replaced was a big surprise. One of the things about eTown is that they have a very green ethos. They really support the idea of being green. Everyone has a responsibility to use resources wisely. So their decision to use solar panels on the roof to generate electricity was important. The problem was that while in the midst of it, the laws in Colorado changed and in order to take advantage of the law we had to have the panels up by a certain date, which meant we were doing things out of sequence and that presented some pretty interesting challenges. [Timestamp: 11:37]

I’m sure that when you’ve got that many things going on in a facility coming right from the ground up, there can be some very expensive surprises but when we get into part two, I want to get into the sound system installation and how that actually works for the shows. We’ll talk more about their recording studio, too. It was great having you, Sam, to get us started on this. Sam Berkow from SIA Acoustics talking about eTown in Boulder, Colorado and the music show that comes out of there every week. So now everybody will sort of know what goes on behind the scenes.

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