Every city has a theater that seems to comprise its essence. For instance, the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles captures the synthesis of that city’s cinema heritage and cinema technology. New York City’s Apollo is a layer cake of racial and cultural history. Downtown San Antonio’s Majestic Theatre was built in 1929 and preserves the classic Spanish Mediterranean architecture of the region. Atlanta’s rococo Fox Theatre literally had its own resident phantom.
In Houston, it’s the Alley Theatre that, like the city itself, has withstood the busts and booms of the city’s petro economy. Founded in 1947 and at its current downtown location since 1968, the 824-seater recently completed a $46.5 million building renovation, including support for new audio and video equipment that enables the venue to mount productions designed for any stage in the world.
With systems and acoustic design by consultant Jaffe Holden’s Houston office and AV systems integration by Houston-based LD Systems, the project was comprehensive: The overall AV design included installation of backstage and lobby audio systems, as well as an entirely new AV cabling infrastructure for the building. LD Systems installed Meyer Mina line arrays and Meyer Ultra Series speakers for center cluster, delays and theater-surround audio. System processing and control uses both BSS Soundweb London and Symetrix DSP processors, along with a Yamaha CL5 digital mixing console. Multiple large LED displays are installed in conjunction with a Spinetix digital signage system to complement the renovated box office and lobby areas.
Granted protected landmark status on September 23, 2015, by the Houston City Council, the newly renovated Alley Theatre is expected to produce more than 500 performances annually.
Thrusting Deep & Wide
When first confronted with the Alley Theatre project, AV consultants and acousticians from Jaffe Holden identified the venue’s single biggest challenge: a deep and wide stage thrust that extends past the first few rows of the auditorium’s two side-seating sections. The thrust is so salient that, at times, a production’s actors may be performing with their backs to the audience. The theater dealt with this by installing microphones at foot level, so the performers’ voices could be pumped into the PA for the audience, which created more acoustical issues.
“The room acoustics were not well designed to support speech,” said Garth Hemphill, Associate Principal for Audio/Video at Jaffe Holden. “It created a lot of problems in terms of speech intelligibility.”
The venue also had a surfeit of low frequencies rolling around inside of it. These issues were tackled by company acousticians Carlos Rivera, Associate Principal, and Mark Holden, Principal, who devised an acoustical treatment strategy that includes bass traps from Creative Materials for Acoustics (CMA) that are two inches thick and arranged in clusters to boost low-frequency sound absorption. In addition, four-inch-thick Owens Corning SelectSound black acoustic board was applied to areas of the underside of the roof deck over the audience seating, and Novawall stretched-fabric systems of various thicknesses are installed on wall surfaces. In the area around the stage, one-inch-thick Tectum noise-control panels were installed on vertical wall surfaces.
‘A Lot Of Loose Bass’
“There was a lot of loose bass rolling around the entire room,” Hemphill recalled. “It required a lot of carefully chosen and placed treatment.”
Acoustical treatment was also placed over the stage thrust, consisting of custom-made sound reflectors. The underside of the “ring” catwalk, as well as key areas within the thrust zone, were treated with glass fiber-reinforced gypsum panels with a project-specific profile, Rivera explained. “These are designed to help send early sound [reflections] from the stage area to the various audience seating sections,” he said. These panels were manufactured by Casting Designs, Inc. (CDI).
The loudspeaker layout was designed to accommodate the large stage thrust, to cover the fan-shaped seating area as efficiently as possible and to provide the flexibility that the Alley Theatre requires for the various different styles of theater it produces. For left/right stereo systems, main line arrays hang on either side of the stage, consisting of seven Meyer MINA cabinets per side, topped with two Meyer 500-HP subwoofers per side. The main arrays provide a source more rooted to the stage area. Along with the main arrays, each of the three seating areas has a “presentational” stereo pair of loudspeakers. They serve a dual purpose: They provide a more presentational stereo source and also serve as opposite-side delays for the main arrays so the main arrays do not have to fire across the thrust. This increases gain before feedback for reinforcement, as well.
For vocal reinforcement, a set of three Meyer UPA-1Ps, one for each seating area, create an “exploded” center cluster. They are supported by a delay ring of 10 Meyer UP Junior loudspeakers that cover the rear rows of seating, and eight Meyer MM-4XP loudspeakers that provide front fill for the first three rows of seating. For surround effects, a set of 12 Meyer UPM-1P loudspeakers is distributed along the curved rear wall of the theater, firing back toward the audience and stage.
“The biggest challenge getting the infrastructure in was that, although the renovation was extensive, it didn’t entirely gut the building, so there were a lot of spaces and turns that the cabling had to go through to get from point A to point B,” Hemphill explained. “Maintaining the proper separations between the different AV conduits and the rest of the building power and systems conduits was a real challenge for the contractors, but they did a very good job.” There are several dozen custom wallplates for audio, video, comm, data and AV technical power scattered throughout the venue now, providing connectivity between the stage, back stage and the control room.
Ron Jones, LD Systems’ Project Manager for the Alley Theatre Project, said this was due to the building’s landmark status, which meant that conduit runs that could have been accomplished in 150 feet in many cases ran to twice that and more. LD Systems Project Engineer Tom Smith added that, in several instances, Cat6 cable runs exceeded 100 meters. In such cases, LD used Veracity Outreach Lite PoE extenders mid-span to overcome the distance issue.
The original speaker design for the Alley’s performance system was an unpowered system with speaker cable for the line arrays, exploded center cluster, zone fills, delay fills and surround fills running to the main amp room on the third level. When the decision was made to change the system to a Meyer powered system, it was also decided to retain the unpowered speaker system’s cabling infrastructure. As Jones pointed out, “This gives the theater the flexibility to augment the powered system if or when deemed necessary for a specific show’s sound design. At the same time, this redundancy created another installation challenge in that it essentially doubled the amount of cable being pulled from the third-level amp room to all of the speaker locations.”
Making this system work is meticulously programmed DSP. BSS Soundweb London DSP processors are used to drive the main PA system, with Symetrix Radius DSP used for paging and auxiliary audio. The two interact via a Dante digital audio network that allows, for instance, the stage/show audio to be routed from the BSS to the Symetrix, which can then feed it to the lobby system.
“Each set of PA speakers, and each speaker within each cluster, has its own set of delays and EQ, and some have two separate sets of delays and EQ for different feeds into the matrix,” said Hemphill. “It’s very complex matrixing that was programmed when we tuned the room, making sure that every configuration acts as it’s supposed to automatically, so the front-of-house mixer doesn’t have to do that.”
LD Systems Engineer Jon Schroeder did the programming for both DSP systems. “Within the BSS processing, there is a 42-in by 80-out matrix mixer that essentially lets you route anything pretty much anywhere from the new Yamaha CL5 console,” he explained. “All of the speakers, including the monitors and the exploded center cluster, are accessible through the DSP control pages, so sound designers for shows won’t have to drill down deep into the DSP. Flexibility for them was the goal of the programming process.”
One unique aspect of the speaker system is that the line arrays are hung from trolleys on a custom beam just down stage of the proscenium opening above the stage. This allows the line arrays to be moved on/off stage, depending on the proscenium opening for that particular show. In addition, the custom bracket that attaches the arrays to the trolleys allows the arrays to be re-aimed (i.e., swiveled) on/off stage, depending on the show’s sound design. This allows the theater’s audio staff to relocate/re-aim the system’s line arrays and re-tweak the system tuning as needed.
Jones stated that the default locations of all speakers in the performance system are marked so the system can be restored to the default configuration easily. “We also provided a baseline setting in the DSP for this,” said Schroeder, who added that the extensive acoustical treatment helps this by making the room’s broadband frequency response essentially flat, which minimizes the amount of EQ required when speakers are repositioned.
Hemphill amplified that, noting that the combination of acoustical treatment and a highly customized and programmed PA system has essentially “taken the room out of the equation” for the Alley Theatre’s sound, creating a tight acoustic room that supports spoken word without need for reinforcement in most cases.
Compared to the audio, the Alley Theatre’s video renovation was relatively tame. Its primary focus was to provide an extensive tie line cabling infrastructure throughout the performance and backstage spaces. Part of this video renovation also consists of two NEC 46-inch displays and several displays in lobby areas using Chief mounts, Blackmagic Design HD-SDI converters, Spinetix media players and SVSI encoders/decoders. In addition to the video cabling infrastructure, there is also a massive audio cabling infrastructure, with both video and audio comprising miles of Corning fiber and Belden coaxial, Cat, line and mic level audio cable, and intercom cable.
Much of the audio wiring is there to support the PA system and its complex left-right configurations, but there is also significant audio cabling feeding the JBL Control 47s, Community D4s and Tannoy CMS ceiling speakers in the lobby, the bar and other common areas, as well as to provide audio and video ties to the Neuhaus Theatre, a black box-style theater in another part of the building, and miscellaneous integrated components such as Panasonic stage-shot and Ikegami security cameras.
Another interesting aspect of the audio is the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) system. Show audio is routed to two Listen assistive-listening systems (ALS). One of the show feeds routes to a traditional RF-based ALS system, while a second routes to a Listen phased-array inductive-loop system. “Two Listen MLD9 loop-drive amplifiers feed this inductive loop system,” said Jones, who noted that installing these loops on the floor presented a major challenge due to the overlap in work schedules between AV integration, the general contractors still welding steel above them and carpet layers waiting to get in. “The biggest nightmare was protecting the copper loops for the assistive-listening system,” he recalled.
Carpet laying proceeded, closely following on the heels (literally) of the copper-loop installation. But the carpet layers’ sharp knives, which nicked the cabling on several occasions, presented a concern for the wiring underneath. LD Systems Engineer Jon Schroeder came up with a unique solution to monitor loop integrity by installing LEDs on each loop circuit as it was installed; if a loop was cut, the relevant LED would go off and a small buzzer would also sound, indicating a loop circuit had been interrupted. “It worked perfectly,” Jones noted.
“The whole thing works incredibly well,” agreed Hemphill, speaking of the overall project. “The theater brought the actors on the stage for the first time to get a feel for the new room acoustics. They were astonished that they could hear themselves and that the audience could now hear them, even with their backs turned to certain sections of seating as happens on a thrust stage. It’s a great experience for the people on stage and the people in the seats.”