Acoustical Design for Jazz Music

Apr 1, 2013 9:00 AM, By Matt Gallagher

SFJAZZ Works with SIA Acoustics


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photo of Chick Corea, Bill Frisell

Chick Corea and Bill Frisell performing at SFJAZZ Center’s opening night concert in the Robert N. Miner Auditorium on January 23, 2013. Frisell is a SFJAZZ Resident Artistic Director and is performing for three nights at the SFJAZZ Center, April 18-21.

Acoustician Sam Berkow of SIA Acoustics and front-of-house engineer Jeff Cressman—a veteran audio engineer and trombonist who is a member of Santana—each share their further thoughts about the acoustic design and Meyer Sound system specified for SFJAZZ Center’s two performance spaces: the Robert N. Miner Auditorium and Joe Henderson Lab.

The Miner Auditorium’s Acoustics
We were working as a team [SFJAZZ founder Randall Kline, architect Mark Cavagnero, and theater designer Len Auerbach of Auerbach Pollock Friedlander] to try and create a seating layout that would work acoustically, [accommodate] 700 seats and meet all the regulatory codes. A mix position is integrated into the rear of the seating, and the stage has different configurations that affect a number of seats. As a team we came up with these concepts. For example, what should the minimum stage size be that’s a fixed stage, and how far downstage can you push people before the sound system is in the wrong location? We debated all of these issues and worked out solutions.

photo pf Sam Berkow, Randall Kline

From left: Sam Berkow, SFJAZZ founder Randall Kline, FOH engineer Jeff Cressman, SFJAZZ Director of Production Cecilia Engelhart, and theater consultant Len Auerbach.

The room is asymmetric, which presented some other acoustical issues. Almost no seats are under an overhang, and this is an acoustical principle that we feel is really important: The farther under an overhang people are, the more they’re removed from the general sense of community. When you’re deep under an overhang, you’ll have a very different acoustical experience than you do when you’re sitting out from under the overhang. So in this room, there are only two sections of balcony at the rear and at the house-left. There’s no balcony on house-right. The height of the balcony above the seating is critical for us. We tried to make that height as high as possible and still maintain sightlines. It’s a good challenge.

Cressman: The room lets us start with a complimentary environment for the musicians. They can hear themselves well onstage and also get a sense that their sound is traveling to every seat without the burden of having to "shout" to the back of the house. No seat is further than 50 feet from the stage, I believe. The rake of the seating and the amount of seats around the side and back of the stage makes for a very intimate environment, especially for a 700-seat room.

photo of Sam Berkow

Sam Berkow is pictured in the Miner Auditorium during the construction phase.

Other Structural and Acoustical Considerations
There are two performance spaces in this building, with a second, much smaller performance space [the Joe Henderson Lab on the ground floor]. How do you isolate them so you can have simultaneous usage? You have to look at the way the building is constructed and the way all the technical systems connect these rooms, and make sure it’s not going to be a problem. That’s a substantial challenge.

Given the relatively small footprint of the building, we had to put things like bathrooms underneath the seating bowl, and that presents a challenge because you don’t want people to hear water sounds and flushing. So the level of detailing comes down to [how] commodes are mounted on floors and walls so that they don’t vibrate the main seating bowl.

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