This week on the SVC Podcast, Contributing Editor Bennett Liles finishes his conversation with Seth Waltz of AVL Designs about their Baldwinsville High School auditorium AV project including the installation of a Yamaha AFC (Active Field Control) system. Seth details the nuts and bolts of the project including the speaker installation and the setup and testing of the AFC.
This is the SVC Podcast from Sound & Video Contractor Magazine with Seth Waltz of AVL Designs.
In venues that need to simulate a variety of acoustic environments, Yamaha’s Active Field Control can be used to custom tailor the sound of the hall to the type of performance. AVL Designs in Pennfield, New York came in to set up AFC for the Baldwinsville High School auditorium. The results were amazing. Seth Waltz is back to finish his story on how they got it done. Next on the SVC Podcast.
Seth, good to have you back with us on the SVC Podcast. Last week we were talking about the Baldwinsville High School auditorium renovation project featuring Yamaha’s Active Field Control system that AVL Designs has installed plenty of times before. Remarkable how you can put this system in, push a button and change the whole acoustic nature of the room.
Once you’re used to hearing it and you turn it off, the whole environment turns a little disappointing. When you start this kind of project, what sort of acoustic slate do you need to have as far as the walls, floor and ceiling? Do you have to do any physical acoustic treatment first?
If you want it to work optimally you have to make sure the room does certain things and doesn’t have any real aberrations. So we do acoustic modeling because we do a lot of physical acoustic design. And one of the things a lot of places, if they have single-layer drywall throughout a room, for example, the room will be bass deficient because the bass is absorbed by the drywall cavity. So we do things like put in either masonry or double drywall or something to bring the low frequencies up because the system can only go a certain percentage above the natural conditions of the room. So we come up with target reverb curves that we want for orchestra, choral, different styles. And then we have to make sure the bass condition of the room meets the requirements for the system to be able to do what it needs to do. And then you’ve got to make sure there’s no echoes. There’s no slap-back echoes, no flutter echoes, other things that would then basically get back into the microphones again and the system and create problems. You can’t take things out of the room. It can only put things into the room. If you want it to be ideal you really have to have a room that is designed around just being part of the package. And when we talk with an end user we explain that to them; that if AFC is going to be in the job we design a room differently. If they weren’t going to do this the room would be some middle-of-the-road reverb time that would be completely different than what we do for AFC. [Timestamp: 2:50]
Now, contractors get to where they like certain makes and models of equipment because it’s worked in the past. What sort of speakers do you like to use on the Yamaha AFC for best results with that?
There’s a set of parameters that Yamaha has for loudspeakers and we used all Yamaha product on this particular job. They make an eight-inch surface mount speaker we used throughout the audience area. They make a very narrow, rectangular speaker – the 2205 – that we used on the stage rigging on stage. Then we used Yamaha subwoofers. We’ve had a few jobs over the years where due to physical conditions or some specific requirement we’ve used someone else’s speakers, but I’d say 90 percent of the jobs we used the Yamaha because the characteristics of it are really matched to the system; the dispersion, frequency response and everything else. [Timestamp: 3:38]
I would think that would be the thing, to stay with the manufacturer who came up with the whole system since they know how it works.
And when you’re adjusting this, where do you control it from or do you set it up from different parts of the building?
The tuning is done with Yamaha. They’ve got a couple of factory technicians – actually, one of them was the designer of the system, one of the primary designers. They come over and work on the tuning for about a week, and so working it out so that the reverb time at the top of the right seating is matching the time at the bottom of the seating as closely as you can. Doing all of those things is done working with factory people there. And then the presets in the system are determined in final setup with live musicians on stage. So you might tweak it up or down or do a little this or that. And then those presets are in a Crestron control system so it can be controlled from an iPhone, it can be controlled from the control booth, from on stage from a touch screen. So you can access those presets a number of ways. [Timestamp: 4:35]
Yeah, it would be interesting to do that from different places, in a balcony, under a balcony. Now you mentioned live musicians. I would think that you would have those people onstage when you do the testing. What did you use for this one? Did you have a presenter onstage or a musical group?
We actually had kind of a unique option on this one that I had never even seen before. On most of the jobs we’ve done we get a live orchestra, brass ensemble, percussion ensemble, choral group. We usually have one of each of those in the final tuning. This one was finishing during the summer of the school year and we had a hard time getting anybody to show up. So we got a choral group, which was helpful, but Yamaha brought a thing with them – and I don’t even remember what they call it – but this thing was spectacular. It was a loudspeaker array that was, I think, eight individual loudspeakers on a weird-looking frame that simulated the actual acoustic output of actual musicians playing specific instruments with a proprietary recording technique that they do in some lab they’ve got. They take a violinist and record him with these microphones, and I’m walking around this thing on stage and it literally sounds like I’m walking around a live player. I can hear all the changes that I would hear walking around a live violin or a live acoustic guitar or a live saxophone. The back sounds different than the front. The side sounds different from the other side. So they brought that in with them – and I’ve been pestering them because I want to buy one. I want to own one of these things. I guess it’s very expensive. It’s a proprietary product that they’ve developed for this so when they don’t end up with live musicians they can do live musicians. And we used that on this one since we didn’t have some of the other instrument groups available. We were able to do strings, brass, woodwinds, other things in the room – including voice – that were done that way and we had the live choral group to kind of give us a bigger sound for some of the things we were tuning for. [Timestamp: 6:30]
That would really be something to see them record the things that they later used for source material.
Yeah. I think it was an eight-channel recorder with some kind of spatial microphone array that they used in some kind of studio. I have a feeling it’s going to probably get some press down the road. It was awesome. It was so realistic that it was hard to believe there wasn’t a person sitting there – other than the fact that it looked like a robot. [Timestamp: 6:52]
In any of these projects you have to deal with what’s there so let’s just say for instance, how does AFC work for improving the sound of an under balcony area?
There’s two odd uses. One is under a balcony and the other is occasionally we get somebody who wants their sound booth to be behind glass. And one of the things that’s horrible as a sound guy is to ever mix audio for a room where you’re not in the room. So we’ve used it under balcony where we can take the reverb time from under the balcony and get it to sound a lot more like the rest of the house. And we’ve used it to five the reverberation of the room to the guy mixing in the control booth behind glass where he’s just listening to a pair of monitor speakers. But then we bring that reverb energy back into the room through a bunch of speakers so that they actually can mix far more accurately than they can any other way. And it’s been great for both. The under balconies have always been a problem in every live venue. And you can also do other little tricks. You can pump a little bit of early reflection into the balcony as well as reverb to kind of raise the sound pressure level and tweak the frequency response, not using the PA to do that so the PA is still run by the sound guy as an independent device. But the room itself, you can balance some of those frequency problems you get in under balconies with this as well as bring the reverb time up. [Timestamp: 8:10]
It’s incredibly tough to mix sound from outside the acoustic environment. I’ve had to mix PA a few times from outside in a TV remote truck and that can really get weird.
Have you ever had a really challenging say, irregularly shaped venue where the AFC doesn’t just make a difference but actually makes it possible?
We had a venue that was probably the most difficult ever because (1) it was professional players. It’s a college that was building a recital hall in the space in a building where we had 12 feet of ceiling height period. Rectangular room, extremely long, extremely low. And these were classically-trained, professional musicians who were picky, picky, picky. And we took them to a venue we had this installed in, let them hear it. They were skeptical it could make this room work, but we told them you’re just going to have to throw away your brain when we get this thing running and just enjoy the room. So we did this specific one with a large number – I think we got 64 loudspeakers in this particular one – and were able to take this 12-foot height room and make it sound like it’s got a 23 or 24-foot ceiling with all of the detail and energy. And these classical players, who are very picky about what they hear, were thrilled. They were absolutely thrilled with it. And secondarily, the electronic music department through Dante is able to access all of those speakers for electronic music performances with surround sound spatial mixing. So they’re doing some crazy stuff with their system because we gave them the Dante link back to all of the individual loudspeakers in the system. That was probably the most challenging one because it wasn’t pleasing the audience, which is easier. It was pleasing the players on stage who were very critical and very skeptical of the idea of electronics as opposed to physics. But we explained with 12 feet of ceiling height, that’s all we got and we can’t make this sound like a recital hall the way you want it to be unless we do this. And they have been one of the – actually a huge proponent in this market where the guy that runs that facility has said great things about us and about it to all kinds of people, which has really opened up some doors with closed minds who don’t like electronics. Let’s put it that way. [Timestamp: 10:32]
I think if I were going to have a testimonial about Yamaha’s AFC I would want it to come from some very discerning professional musicians. You installed AFC plenty of times but I guess you still learn something on each one so what did you learn on the Baldwinsville High School project?
This particular one had a new set of algorithms in it from the stage shell. If you’re standing on a stage and there’s shells bouncing overhead, you get to hear the snare drummer over in the stage left corner of the stage and it sounds like it’s coming from the back of the stage. And we noticed in the latest algorithm that that spatial condition is so good that it really – everything references well on the stage. And we’re looking at using these in some different applications where we’re looking at doing rehearsal spaces. We’re looking at doing some private practice rooms. I’ve even had some discussions with people about doing private ones in their homes so that if they’re a professional musician and they want to rehearse for a concert and they don’t want to keep running down to the concert venue to rehearse, they could rehearse in a relatively large living room. It’s gotten so good at being able to fool you. And when I say fool you it’s being sound natural. It’s gotten to the point where there’s so many applications that we’re looking at, one of which is actually recording studios. Because a lot of schools – and we’ve done a couple of these recently – the live rooms that they’re giving us in terms of physical space are not big enough for an orchestra and not tall enough for an orchestra. So what they do is they record it and they add electronic reverb in the mix. I’m telling them you’re not learning how to do mike technique because you’re not miking in the kind of room that this stuff would really happen in. So we’re trying to convince some of these engineers to let us put one of these in where we can take the live room where they’re recording and simulate an environment where their students can learn how to use mikes differently. Instead of close-miking it and throwing reverb on the mix, learn how to mike in a reverb environment. I’ve got one that may let us do it. There’s a lot of hesitance with these guys because they’re kind of purists, too. But they like the idea. He said that way I’m able to teach people techniques they can’t learn in this little tiny space that we’re working with. [Timestamp: 12:40]
No substitute for actual experience especially with a system that’s this complex but it’s in, it’s done and it works so what has AVL Designs got planned coming up next?
We’ve got a lot of projects. One of the more unique ones we’ve got a school that we’re doing with a large performing arts center that’s being built from the ground up, and three large rehearsal rooms and orchestra and choral where we’re putting AFC in all of them. We’re going to be able to take the acoustic condition of the stage and transfer it into the rehearsal rooms so they will literally be able to rehearse as if they were on the stage in their individual practice spaces. And then the one in the audience area, the main auditorium – it’s a very large, a very unusual auditorium with a big under balcony and all the things that we were talking about with the system – and a sound booth with the guy mixing behind glass. So it’s going to be kind of like an AFC system on steroids. It’s just going to be racks of these things. And they have one in their district now. We redid their high school auditorium a few years back. It was kind of a retrofit fix, but the room was dead. It sounded horrible. We put what I would all a bass-design AFC in, which was just enough within their budget to really improve the room. They were thrilled. So now that they’re doing their whole new music wing and their whole new performing arts center they wanted it done properly – full design with all the spaces done. So it’s going to be kind of exciting to actually get a music department where any room you’re rehearsing in can sound like the stage or can sound like the house. So if you’re going to be the choral group in front of the stage on risers, that condition can be programmed back into the choral rehearsal space. So when they come to tune it they’re transfer it. [Timestamp: 14:24]
You’re the go-to guys for an AFC setup and it worked for Baldwinsville High School’s new auditorium. Seth Waltz from AVL Designs in Pennfield, New York. It’s been very interesting hearing about what you can do with Active Field Control and I’m sure we’ll be talking again about more of these projects. Thanks for being here.
All right. Thank you.
Good to have Seth Waltz with us to explain Yamaha’s Active Field Control and what it can do with performance venue acoustics. We’ve got the notes and product links on the Web site at svconline.com. There’s always another interesting AV installation project out there so get back with us for the next SVC Podcast.