A few years after the great earthquake and fire of 1906, the city of San Francisco was eager to show the world that it was back in action. The result was the Panama Pacific Exposition, which stretched the length of what is now the city’s Marina district. After the exposition, the last building left standing was Bernard Maybeck-designed Palace of Fine Arts (PFA), the unique exterior of which has made it one of San Francisco’s architectural icons.
The PFA today houses the Exploratorium, a hands-on science museum, and the 960-seat Palace of Fine Arts Theatre, which is operated by the non-profit Palace of Fine Arts League, Inc. The theatre has long struggled with sound system problems, but the historic, red-draped venue now features crystalline sound from a new system based on Meyer Sound’s M’elodieâ„¢ line array loudspeaker.
Shortly after joining the theatre’s staff as head sound engineer, Ryan Snyder, formerly an engineer at Hercules, Calif.-based Pro Media/UltraSound, brought in his old Pro Media/UltraSound colleagues, the late Don Pearson (UltraSound co-founder) and Gavin Canaan (now Meyer Sound’s education program manager), to clean up the sonic problems by retuning the existing system. But the theatre proved a tough case.
“This room is different from a lot of other venues in that it’s really wide and very shallow,”? Snyder says. “It’s also different in the respect that there are lots of absorptive baffles hanging from the ceiling in the house that make the room really dead, along with all of the drape and the padded seats. And that’s increased tenfold when the house is filled with people. 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.
“As a result, when we tried tuning the old system, we used four channels of (Meyer Sound) CP-10 (complementary phase equalization) and still didn’t have enough parametric bands to make the boxes sound the way that they should have. Plus, on a good day, I was getting maybe 40 percent coverage of the room.”?
Over the next several years, Canaan and Snyder kept up an ongoing dialog about what kind of system might work in the room. When Snyder got word of M’elodie’s small footprint and wide, 100-degree horizontal coverage, he called Canaan to try M’elodie in the theatre.
Meyer Sound’s Design Services group drafted several potential designs using MAPP Online Proâ„¢ acoustical prediction software, finally settling on a system of nine M’elodie cabinets flown per side, four M1D line array loudspeakers along the stage lip for frontfill, and two groundstacked 600-HP subwoofers on each side of the stage. The system is driven by a Galileoâ„¢ loudspeaker management system.
The system was installed by Pro Media/UltraSound, who worked with IATSE Local 16 (the San Francisco Bay Area’s stagehands union) to rig the system in the union house. According to Kate Serb, Pro Media/UltraSound’s project manager for the installation, the entire job was problem-free. “We worked very closely with Meyer Sound and with Ryan, and things couldn’t have gone smoother,”? she reports. “It’s a fabulous theatre and we really enjoy doing that kind of local project.”?
Although he left a center cluster from the theatre’s old system in place for the first two weeks after the M’elodie arrays were installed, Snyder soon pulled it down when he realized that the new system covered the entire width of the room alone, even though lighting restrictions had forced the arrays to be flown further to the sides than would have been optimal. “As you walk from house right to house left, the coverage is completely seamless,”? says Snyder.
Snyder was pleased with the width of the coverage, but he was equally impressed that the system’s tight pattern control prevented sound from spilling farther than he wanted it to go. “It’s amazing that you can sit in the leftmost seat in the house and hear great, but if you stand up and lean over the barrier at the end of the seating section towards the wall, the sound just drops right off,”? he says.
The Galileo system also draws strong praise from Snyder. “The ability to mute everything by zones quickly and efficiently blows me away. It’s so easy to go to the matrix section, knock the frontfill down 10 dB, and strap it over left and right, but keep the sub out of left and right because it’s being fed straight from an aux on the console. If I’m doing a dance show where the music is all off of CD, I do want to strap the sub over left and right, and I can change that very quickly. Galileo is very intuitive, very efficient, and really easy to learn.”?
Snyder and theatre Production Manager Kevin Taylor gave the system a true trial by fire when World Arts West’s Ethnic Dance Festival convened at the theatre. “We have done the festival here for 30 years,”? Snyder says. “Every year, one of their biggest issues has been sound, primarily coverage issues. 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. 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.”?
Snyder worked with the festival’s engineer Cuco Daglio to mix the show and manage the new system with Galileo. The result, boasts Snyder, was that “this was the first time in 30 years that everyone from World Arts West was doing backflips over the sound.”?
Robert Williams, Jr., head sound engineer at Lincoln Theatre in Yountville, Calif., who is also a Local 16 stagehand that works closely with Snyder, thought the acrobatics were fully justified. “The first time I heard the M’elodie rig in this room, it was like I was finally hearing a band onstage. It’s as pristine and clear a rig as I’ve heard, and it improved this space a hundredfold. It’s exactly what this theatre needed: a nice tight pattern, not too crisp on the high end, but with enough body to fill in what you need when bands play. The system disappears, so that you don’t even notice that it’s there. It’s almost like standing on stage.”?
Snyder thinks the transformation of the room’s sound is so complete that it has gone from notoriously problematic to one of the area’s best-sounding venues. “I’ve worked in pretty much every venue in San Francisco many times,”? he asserts, “and I’ll put this rig and this room up against any of them as the best sounding room in the city, if not the Bay Area.”?
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