"Perfect amplification means the sound should not seem amplified. It should sound so natural and undistorted and defined and clear so that you can focus on the artists on stage."
- Andrew Dubowski, Operations Director, San Francisco Symphony
Davies Symphony Hall, home of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), opened in 1980. A major acoustic renovation completed in 1992 has since offered a pristine environment for artists to hear each other on stage and provided uniform audience coverage—for unamplified performances. For concerts needing amplification, the PA system installed during this renovation was no longer up to current standards.
This past summer, Davies became the first performance venue to permanently implement LEOPARD and 900-LFC, the newest line array system from Meyer Sound.
Here, three members of the Davies audio team discuss the new LEOPARD system: how it will be used, and what it can achieve for the San Francisco Symphony and its audience. Taking part in the conversation: SFS Operations Director Andrew Dubowski, Stage Electrician Jim Jacobs, and Head Sound Engineer Hal Nishon Soogian.
Dubowski: Davies Symphony Hall is a very live hall, and it's easy to overdo amplification. The resonance that feeds back can become a muddy wall of sound. That's what we aimed to solve by implementing LEOPARD.
Dubowski: LEOPARD will support any concert that requires amplification, such as our Film Series and holiday concerts or traditional subscription series that feature contemporary composers such as Mason Bates. We are also presenting more artists requiring pop-style amplification like Chris Botti, Pink Martini, and Johnny Mathis.
Dubowski: Absolutely, because we're focused on what today's audiences are expecting when they come to a concert, which is different from what they expected 25 or 30 years ago when the hall was first built. We are also presenting programming that we did not have 25 or 30 years ago.
For example, if patrons of the Film Series have bad experiences—the sound is too loud, or they can't understand the dialogue in a movie—they're not coming back.
Jacobs: Our old Meyer Sound MSL-3 cluster system was state of the art in 1992. But because many people now have high-quality sound available in their home or car, and Meyer Sound has also taken technology to a new level, the old PA wasn't competitive anymore; it didn't give enough presence over the balance of the orchestra.
Line arrays appeared in the mid- or late '90s, and they've gotten more sophisticated. With a line array, you can deal more specifically with certain reflective qualities and certain zones—with small pieces at a time. You can tailor each one of the 14 loudspeakers on each side to provide a specific quality and detract from certain problem areas for each throw of each loudspeaker.
It's exciting, after so long trying to solve some of these problems, to have a system that puts sound presence so clearly in every seat.
Soogian: In addition to the MSL-3 at Davies, we have also used Meyer Sound's newer MILO system at open-air shows in the Shoreline Amphitheatre to great success. Then more recently, I heard Metallica mixed on a Meyer Sound LEO system. I jokingly said, "That's great when you're in a stadium or outdoors. Let me know when you build a rig that fits inside Davies." At [Music Director] Michael Tilson Thomas's 70th birthday concert at the beginning of this year, we hung the more compact LYON rig, and it was incredible.
Dubowski: Then LEOPARD was demonstrated in May for performances of John Cage's "Renga" narrated by actor Tim Robbins. LEOPARD provided excellent clarity for his voice.
Jacobs: We have always liked Meyer Sound systems, and the latest generation has some interesting things in it. The way the drivers are arranged, where they cross, gives them a much wider spread. In this hall, we have the complexities that arise with the use of the acoustic canopy—sightline considerations for film and semi-staged events, and the existing stage lighting positions in Davies—therefore larger systems like LEO or even LYON are too big, and the MINA loudspeakers are a little too small. LEOPARD fills that gap in the Meyer Sound lineup and works beautifully in this hall.
Soogian: It's extremely comfortable and reassuring in that, when I'm mixing, I'm not getting boxed in by the system and its capabilities. The system isn't fighting me. If I need some higher end, it doesn't get brittle. I use very little EQ on my inputs. I try to pick the correct mic for the correct instrument and do very little to it, so you get no coloration.
Dubowski: "Perfect" amplification means the sound should not seem amplified. It should sound natural and undistorted and defined and clear so that you can focus on the artists on stage.
LEOPARD can fool me into thinking the sound is not really amplified, even though I know it is—that feels like magic. It's got a lot of punch. It can rock the hall. But it can also be delicate, and can hold its own.
Having a system that's state-of-the-art and accurately represents how the orchestra sounds is an exponential improvement in how we're able to offer amplified concerts.