Published in December 2008

Soundscape At The Plaza
By Shonan Noronha, EdD

Bygone era’s elegant style meets modern technology.

New York City’s legendary hotel, The Plaza, has been restored and transformed into a luxury lifestyle venue.

New York City’s legendary hotel, The Plaza, has been restored and transformed into a luxury lifestyle destination that evokes the grace and grandeur of its past while offering modern, unparalleled conveniences. The new hotel and condominiums property opened earlier this year, after a $400 million renovation that took three years to complete. The lobby, the Palm Court, and other lounge, dining and retail areas have been meticulously restored, and revitalized with a sophisticated multi-dimensional audio system.

Steeped in history dating back to 1907, The Plaza has played host to celebrated authors, world leaders, movie stars and musicians (including The Beatles). The unforgettable voices of Eartha Kitt, Peggy Lee and Liza Minnelli have been heard at the Persian Room, which also presented such renowned jazz artists as Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday and Miles Davis. So it came as no surprise when the new owners, who spared no expense to ensure that every detail of the renovation was of the highest quality, commissioned the creation of original background music and the installation of an innovative sound system to create a unique listening experience for the hotel’s guests.

The Players

The Plaza is owned jointly by El Ad Properties (a subsidiary of Israel-based El Ad Group) and Kingdom Holdings (a Saudi Arabian corporation), and is managed by Fairmont Hotels & Resorts. “The owners brought us in to design a unique system—something that almost nobody else had,” noted Ronen Brookstein, managing director of Barkai Benny Brookstein Ltd., a commercial AV design and integration company based in Israel. “Our vision was to provide a super high-quality solution that would be flexible for multi-purpose use, instead of just another top-of-the-line sound system for live performances.”

Brookstein had seen demonstrations of cutting-edge audio systems at several tradeshows and, having installed an LCS system (now a Meyer Sound product) at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center, was confident that it would offer the technical flexibility desired for the Plaza project. “That’s what led us to work with Meyer on the initial design and, on their recommendation, we brought Pro Sound and Video in to design, engineer and install the system,” recalled Brookstein.

Colossal Project


Subsequent system design meetings brought into play the various companies involved in the colossal renovation project, including Israel-based lead project manager Yaron Sorek, who relocated to New York specifically for the Plaza project, and Gal Nauer Architects in New York.

Miami-based Pro Sound CEO Rod Sintow said, “We worked in close collaboration with the renovation teams and the composer to deliver a soundscape that would transport the listener to a different world.”

Los Angeles CA-based composer Ariel Blumenthal recorded more than 70 musicians, including a 40-piece orchestra in Prague, a 17-piece big band in Venice CA and soloists in Tel Aviv, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and New York. Known for fusing traditional acoustic sounds with electronic elements, Blumenthal produced more than three hours of music for the project: 90 minutes of Sinatra-style big band for the lobby during the day, and two sets of electronic mixes for the Rose Bar in the evening.

“The idea was to take the original music and distribute it in the public spaces in a unique way. We wanted to give guests something like a 3D experience,” Blumenthal said, noting that the technology would be an essential part of the equation. “The key was in the mixing of several musical elements, which was not done in the studio as in any other job,” explained Blumenthal. “Instead, we mixed the different elements in the specific spaces where it will be heard. In a sense, it was mixing the music into the architecture…into the walls.”

Dynamic Relationship

Unlike general background music, the team aimed to establish a dynamic spatial relationship between listeners and surround sound at The Plaza. Blumenthal wanted the listener’s experience to be “as if one had a seat within the band.” He said a listener’s perception of the music would depend on where he or she was sitting or standing. “Different musical elements are married to different speakers, so the music is not coming out of a single source.”

From the first broad-stroke ideas through the detailed design phases of the project, there was a strong consensus on the need for both 5.1 surround sound and a flexible, programmable control system. The system also had to blend in completely with the elegance of the décor, and had to be easy for the restaurant and lobby staff to operate. And, most of all, the system had to sound great. “It had to provide a ‘wow’ factor, something significantly different and edgy enough to attract the next generation to this prestigious property,” said Brookstein.

At the heart of the system is Meyer Sound’s Matrix3 audio show control system equipped with the company’s Wild Tracks hard disk playback units and SpaceMap software for multi-channel surround panning. “It was the only appropriate system: Every single input and output is controllable,” Sintow said of this system, more typically deployed in high-end theater productions, stadiums and theme parks.

Discussing the mixing sessions for the Plaza project, Sintow noted multiple tracks of music were mixed on site. “We did it by using a Mac interface [running Meyer’s Cue Station Software] that talks to the Matrix3. A total of 72 Wild Tracks inputs and 64 outputs were utilized. We were able to take the 72 inputs and sequences on the three Wild Tracks playback units, and direct them to different presets for different areas.”

Seven surround sound 5.1 systems and several stereo systems are installed in the public areas. The main facilities served are the Champagne Bar in the lobby and Rose Club (with lounge/dining area and Rose Bar) on the mezzanine level. The audio system also serves the Palm Court restaurant and the bookshop on the lobby level, as well as upscale retail stores in the hotel’s lower level.

Hidden in the architecture are 204 compact Meyer MM-4 speakers that were relatively easy to conceal. “We also used the larger UPM-1p and UPM-2p directional speakers to focus tightly on certain open areas, such as the split-level Rose Club.

To complement the system, we selected QSC Audio amplifiers,” reported Sintow. To simplify the operation of such a powerful and complex system, Pro Sound programmed seven Crestron touchpanels with a simple user interface, for use by restaurants and lobby managers.

Mixing Music Onsite


Having spent six months recording and editing the original music, composer and producer Blumenthal worked with sound designers in New York over two 10-day sessions to mix the final tracks at each space within the hotel. The result is an awesome 90-minute soundscape.

This custom-music feature consists of five long music sequences, with three different arrangements for each. “We have mixed the tracks so the different arrangements are all playing simultaneously; one in each sub-space,” Blumenthal said. “So it is the same music, same song. But, as you move between the spaces, say from the reception desk to the 58th Street entrance, it’s as if you have a personal theme score walking with you. It creates a very special feeling.”

As you move from one area to another, the change in what you hear is gradual. Depending on where you are, your perception of the same music is different because you are listening to a different set of instruments from the speakers that are embedded in the architecture in that area.

Rose Club

“In the Rose Club, for example, the tracks are mixed slightly differently between the separate seating areas. The drums, guitars and vocals are coming at you from different speakers, so your perception is different depending on where you are seated. You experience the music as if you are sitting between the instruments, as if you are part of the happening.”

While mixing the tracks for the soundscape, Blumenthal was constantly aware that it was not just to create ‘a musical show.’ It had to deliver the desired ‘wow’ factor, as well as serve as background music, even though it is much more engaging than standard background fare. “Where is the fine line between taking over, which is not good, and maximizing the experience for guests who are involved in a conversation?” he mused. “We strove for perfect balance.” And, with a hint of pride in his voice, he added, “Listening to the music for the first time in the spaces where it was designed to be heard, with all the elements sounding perfect, was a moment of triumph for me.”

Because the technology was powerful and complex, Pro Sound automated the audio system to turn the music on and off at different locations at preset times and play at preset volumes. In addition, the integrator designed a simple graphical user interface and programmed simplified controls for music selection and volume control on Crestron touchpanels, making it easy for hotel staff to operate. This was achieved by directing a Crestron PRO2 processor to the Matrix3 via Ethernet, to recall the stored “cues” or “scenes.”

The touchpanels display music options (big band, classical, electronica, down time, chill out theme variations and stereo playlists). At certain times of the day, the highly customized 90-minute musical feature or soundscape automatically starts to play.

“There are overrides on the Crestron touchpanels. Entry-level access offers simple volume control. Password access offers start/stop and music selection options. Management-level password access enables switching the music around to different zones, as well as a choice of different music genres,” Sintow explained.

Although it initially seemed sensible to offer the user full volume control or “granular” control, it was not ideal for the soundscape. “For the highly structured custom music, if the volume was changed in one area, it would negatively affect the overall listening experience. So the composer insisted that we put in hooks for global volume level changes,” Sintow said. “By programming volume low/medium/high options, we ensured that, if volume was changed, proper balancing of musical elements of the soundscape would track automatically.”

After several months of use, Fairmont also wanted the return of the full volume control capability back on the touchpanels, so Pro Sound reprogrammed the touchpanels to offer both types of volume control options.

Programming A Renaissance

With multiple contractors involved in the renovation of such a historic property, listening and responding to various needs and mandates was a critical part of the system design and installation process. “Although we had designed an easy-to-operate user interface, we had to help the hotel operators understand how the custom music and audio system is intended to work,” noted Sintow. Pro Sound’s Kelly Prince explained that such a unique music installation is not typical for a majority of hotels. “Even the architects wondered why we needed to install so many speakers,” he said.

High-level communication was required throughout the project. The Plaza Hotel is designated a New York City Landmark as well as a National Historic Landmark. During the restoration phase, the chairman of the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission took the unprecedented step of designating eight of the hotel’s interior spaces as landmarks. Brookstein reported that there were massive landmark issues, and multiple bureaucracies at the city, state and federal level, dictating what could and could not be changed. “Communication and collaboration with all the parties involved, especially the architects who had to deal with the challenge of embedding modern technology within a classical design, was a hallmark of our team,” Brookstein noted.

Onsite Challenges

Architect Nauer has referred to the demolition process as the “unveiling of The Plaza,” and the complex deconstruction process provided many surprises. The stripping down revealed layer upon layer of previous owners’ renovation efforts. “Behind the walls, in some places, there would be a five-foot cavity where there was thought to be only three feet, and in others there would only be three inches,” recalled Sintow.

Pro Sound’s detailed AutoCAD drawings showed exactly where the speakers would go, how they had to be integrated into the architecture and how they would be wired together. “Because actual architectural elements changed throughout the course of the project, we had to make real-time changes constantly,” Prince said. “For example, the plans called for subwoofers under the Grand Staircase, but the furniture plan for that area changed, and the wall finishes would have prevented the subs from directing the sound to the correct location, so we installed the subs elsewhere.” Another installation challenge involved getting the numerous speakers to fit into their correct locations. “We had to custom-build back boxes for many speakers and worked with the carpenters to ensure these would fit in their intended slots.”

The architectural redesign provided for an additional lobby entrance to the condominiums, and some public spaces were revamped. This translated into less available space for technology. “Audio racks share space with lighting dimming gear in a very small room,” noted Prince. “We put the four audio racks on casters so they can be moved around for easy servicing.”

Discussing equalization and sound tests using the Meyer SIM 3 system, Prince said the reception desk area required careful adjustment because it was a multi-channel zone, and also presented special setup issues due to a high ceiling.

Sweet Moments

It was during system equalization that Prince felt the rush of exhilaration. “When I heard the system for the first time after tuning, even before the mixing sessions, I knew it was going to be terrific,” he said. “The second great experience was after composer Ariel Blumenthal completed the mixing in the Champagne Bar. It was just phenomenal.” Prince noted with pride that there are no dead spots, and there is consistent coverage everywhere, despite the complexity of the space and the variety of content.

The newly reopened historic hotel has already received widespread recognition for its superb restoration, seamlessly blending the great style of a bygone era with the most modern technology and conveniences. The Soundscape at The Plaza contributes to this magical transformation, adding a subtle but substantial new dimension to the rebirth of this Big Apple landmark.

 

Pro Sound and Video
From its headquarters in Miami FL and branch offices in Orlando and North Hollywood CA affiliate, Pro Sound and Video provides AV design, engineering, systems integration and service of automated systems for sound, video, broadcast and live performances nationwide. The company’s commercial installations encompass corporate facilities, luxury hotels, mega resorts, sports stadiums, theme parks and other entertainment venues.

“Dating back to 1975 when we did sound projects for the likes of Frank Sinatra, Paul Anka and Ann-Margret, our work entailed crisp, clear audio reinforcement that represented these great voices as truly as possible,” noted Rod Sintow, CEO. “As we evolved, we grew our slate of services to provide commercial audio, video, lighting and show technologies, and matched it with engineering expertise. We have a staff of 65, including nearly 40 technical specialists who boast an average of 15 years of experience in the industry.”

From initial concept to complete facilities, Pro Sound and Video has designed and integrated systems for Walt Disney World and Universal Studios in Orlando, the US Congress, and Bellagio and Wynn hotels in Las Vegas. “It is from these types of projects that we have become the recognized authority in integrated systems that we are today,” Sintow said.

For additional information, go to www.prosound.net.
 

Equipment

1 Apple Mac Mini rackmounted computer
Belden Wire & Cable cabling
1 Crestron PRO2 pro dual bus control system
1 Crestron TPMC-8X Isys i/O 8.4" WiFi touchpanel w/docking station
6 Crestron TPS-2000L Isys 5" wallmount touchpanels
1 Linksys wireless accent point
5 Marantz PMD580 pro installation recorders
204 Meyer Sound MM-4 speakers w/wall-mount brackets
30 Meyer Sound MS MM-4 CEU control units
1 Meyer Sound MS-LX300 Matrix3 primary processor
5 Meyer Sound MS-M3EXP816 expansion processors
3 Meyer Sound MS-WTHD Wild Tracks dual hard disk systems
12 Meyer Sound UCS-1P subwoofers
11 Meyer Sound UMS-1P subwoofers
14 Meyer Sound UPM-2P speakers
4 Middle Atlantic WRK-4432 44-space racks w/accessories
1 Middle Atlantic RM-KB-LCD17 17" rackmounted LCD, keyboard,
integrated touchpad
15 QSC Audio CX404 4-channel powered amps
12 QSC Audio CX902 2-channel powered amps


List is edited from information supplied by Pro Sound and Video.


Shonan Noronha, EdD, an independent writer/producer and training consultant, is the author of books and articles about television, AV, instructional technology, multimedia and music. Send comments to her at shonan@optonline.net.
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