d&b with savvy. Seeing the forest for the trees at Tanglewood
It seems entirely appropriate that the Boston Symphony Orchestra should relocate west each summer to the opposite end of Massachusetts from Boston and take up station at a location named Tanglewood. Resonating something mythical, Tanglewood was named after Nathaniel Hawthorne’s cottage on the grounds where he wrote the children’s book ‘Tanglewood Tales’. Tanglewood is at once mysterious and beguiling; mix the words Koussevitzky, Jazz Fest, Boston Pops and Seiji Ozawa and you already have an emerging etymology for Tanglewood if only in the confusion of cultures. Frivolous? Maybe, but the fact remains that no sooner do you attempt to nail down what Tanglewood is all about, than something new will spring up; if nothing else the outdoor summer season provides an invigorating refresher for all concerned. Head of Sound for Tanglewood, Dr. Douglas McKinnie has been working at Koussevitzky Hall, the main venue there for over twenty five years, “I started here as an intern during my student days. The music is of such outstanding quality that I have contrived ever since to be part of that summer season,” and who can blame him?
“The Tanglewood amphitheatre, the Koussevitzky Music Shed, first opened in 1938; in1959 the acoustic was modified by Leo Beranek,” through his company BB&N. “The hall now has better acoustics than many modern halls I might say. The ‘shed,’ as these places are commonly known, is in fact one of the first such band shell summer sheds built in the US. It is open vertically for approximately nine meters, then there is a large enclosed volume above.” The open sided canopy covers a seated area for five thousand people. Unlike later sheds that have steep grassy embankments, Koussevitsky is surrounded by flat open lawns where, on a good night, another fifteen thousand people can enjoy a concert. “There exists a reverberation of several seconds and there are plenty of reflections around the band shell; it’s ideal for orchestra, especially if performing with operatic singers; not so good for sound reinforcement.”
But sound reinforcement has been required almost since day one, as Dr. McKinnie explains. “There is something like three performances a week by the Boston Symphony; often before they play there will be a speech based event, perhaps a panel discussion of the program, or a music lecture; with a reverberation time of several seconds and seven or eight open microphones on stage these can be highly problematical. Over the years we have lobbied to address this situation. The initial premise by the administrators was ‘Why do we need a big PA system for some speech reinforcement?’ The answer is about directivity. We had a musicologist who came regularly, he gave many presentations in lecture halls and typically only ever needed two speakers on sticks, ‘Why, he asked, is the sound so bad when I come and present in this shed?’ An influential man, he had the ear of the administration so through him we persuaded them to try a larger point source solution. I approached Mike Weirich and John Geritz at SAVI and took the stance of someone without knowledge of sound reinforcement and asked him, if you wanted to provide two speakers on stands for such a presentation and wanted to achieve good intelligibility in this hall what would you do? John introduced two rolling stacks of C4/C7 d&b audiotechnik loudspeakers as a portable system for the speech events and we did a season. It was a big improvement. It was then a process of taking things to a more logical conclusion including flying the system and furthering its development to fit more of the venue’s needs.”
“Never-the-less there was a dilemma. For many of these speech based events the audience might only be fifty percent. Although most of them would sit close by the stage, there would still be a significant number who chose to sit at the rear. When full, a delay was required. The dilemma was if the house is half full do we leave the delay on and mess up the intelligibility, or turn it off and have all those people in the distant seats not hear. The answer was a bigger system, and perhaps one that could stay up for most of the time. We trialed that scenario for a couple of years; SAVI were very helpful in that respect; it was a time of advancing technology and so we were inclined to experiment, presenting several different systems rented in for specific weekends over a summer season. One system stood out in that everyone who used it said they preferred it to any other; the d&b J-Series line array. What made it most suited was the elimination of that delay scenario I outlined. We were able to get rid of the old house system delays and the J-Series could still deliver to most of the seated areas. Yes, there remained some areas that required delay, but by addressing them much more locally and directively with d&b Q7s dotted around the roof a few meters in from the lip, we were able to present a proper solution.
As indicated in the introduction this is a story of many intertwining strands, not least the influence of the Boston Symphony and its head of sound Steve Colby. His contribution to the evolution of the eventual installed system design was promulgated on a combination of experiences; his thirty five plus years as principal sound engineer for the BSO, Boston Pops activities occurring outside of Tanglewood, and during the summer seasons a variety of events within the Tanglewood shed system for Boston Pops and the Jazz Fest which is staged within the Ozawa Hall. “As a house engineer for the Jazz Festival what I most appreciate is good even coverage that also provides a strong directional location back to the performers,” said Colby. “Smooth transitions through crossover points in the vocal range and a PA with easy tuning attributes and tools installed in the amplifiers, is why I find the d&b systems ideal for both venues.”
“As with Koussevitzky, we put a temporary system into Ozawa first of all,” explained Weirich. “Again we started with d&b C-Series; space for sound reinforcement is tight and frankly the C-Series was physically too large, so when d&b developed the Q-Series it was an ideal opportunity for us to readdress the system design. As with Dr. McKinnie, it seems that Tanglewood gets under your skin and our system engineer Dave Harris has made Ozawa his own. It’s a small but complex design with Q7 loudspeakers at each level for the side seating, Q1s eight deep to the main hall, and Q7s to the rear, with further towers of Q1s and Q-SUBs out on the lawns.”
“SAVI has become the go-to contractor for seasonal audio needs at Tanglewood,” concluded Colby. “In that capacity I have done many projects with them through the years including larger installs where I was the designer and many ‘PA du jour’ projects for the BSO. For the larger arenas and outdoor performances that are such a highly visible part of the Boston Pops touring activities, d&b is also the speaker of choice.” Tanglewood celebrates its 75th anniversary this summer.