The Apollo Theater Harlem sounds better than ever with d&b.
"People come here from all over the world. Our audiences are incredibly diverse. From Asia, Australia, Japan, Europe, and we continue to be well supported by a very loyal local community. The Apollo is truly international." General Manager Joe Levy has an infectious enthusiasm for this legendary theater, and well he might. While many know New York's Apollo Theater in Harlem, for James Brown's iconic 'Live at the Apollo' recording from 1963, it is salutary to reflect that those who have trod the boards are as diverse as the audience Levy mentions; Aretha Franklin, Richard Pryor, Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck, Mahalia Jackson, to name just five. While the walls resonate with exalted memories the contemporary experience is no less impressive: emerging and unknown artists continue to grace the stage every week in Amateur Night and other presentations. The last few years witnessed performances from some of our contemporary greats, including Bruce Springsteen and Paul McCartney. Last September saw Metallica play a blowout concert, marking the first use of a new d&b audiotechnik sound system in the iconic theater.
"It can be a difficult venue," explained Metallica's long time sound engineer 'Big' Mick Hughes. "With a raked stalls as well, from the mix position, when the crowd stand up, you're lucky if you can see the band's head and shoulders on stage." Fortunately for Hughes, an engineer with the looks of a grizzly bear yet possessed of truly Machiavellian skills capable of whipping a performance out of a rusty tin can, the Apollo had just been treated to a new sound system. "But you know what? It was absolutely fine, and the house audio team couldn’t have been nicer."
What was Hughes using? Therein lies a tale. Tom Clark of Acme Professional Inc was first contacted by the theater in early 2013. Joe Levy explains, "The existing house sound system was dated technology and occupied a lot of real estate. Many artists would opt to hang their own system and that's a situation I wanted to fix. I wanted a PA that could deliver the best in twenty first century sound."
Clark identified a d&b audiotechnik V-Series coupled with Midas desks as an ideal solution, "In terms of size, power and quality of delivery the V-Series hit all of the Apollo's criteria. The Theater is an old vaudeville era house with two balconies, the mid level presents a very narrow slot to the stage as 'Big' Mick described, and although the sightlines are good, getting sound from the stage to the seats is limited by the slot. For that reason we have the arrays rigged low, the bottom cabinet is just seven feet above the stage deck. That points loudspeakers directly to the back. Because the V-Series is such a narrow box the visual impact is perfectly acceptable; also we at Acme are conducting something of a crusade to have reinforced sound emerge from the same physical location as where it originates on the stage. Reducing the delta in time between the array and the performers makes for a more natural listening experience. The Apollo confines gave us the perfect excuse to do that."
Of course, being a venerated building Clark's proposed installation wasn't all plain sailing. "The difficulty is when you're working in a Landmark protected building you have to consider the architecture. There were no good preexisting hanging points, the former system had hung from a truss six feet downstage of the proscenium; that location put the bottom loudspeaker of our proposed arrays out beyond the third row of the stalls. To demonstrate how beneficial a more upstage position would be we had beam trolleys rigged beneath the truss so that the V-Series arrays could be hung, then moved upstage as close to the fire curtain as possible. That proved the point but was not attractive to look at. Fortunately we were able to arrange for the side walls to be excavated and brackets installed from which to suspend the arrays. The fact that the whole array including flying bracket came in at under 800 lbs made that a lot easier to do. The specially fabricated brackets were installed long after the Metallica visit that inaugurated the new V-Series. The bracket position is actually even better than we anticipated; the bottom of the array covers the front row so well we just use the front fills for imaging, we already have all the SPLs we need in that position."
How is the system working out on a day to day basis? Head of house sound Ollie Cotton was blunt, "Good audio doesn't just happen, I know how it's supposed to go down and I see guys come in here and they turn on the system, listen, then they stand there with their mouths open. They say things to me like 'This is a great system, I'm free to concentrate on what I'm really paid to do; focus on the band and get a great mix.' One engineer said to me the other day, 'I'm hearing things I've never heard before.'"
Clark had an explanation, "The fidelity of the V-Series is foremost, combined with the Midas (Pro9) console it's ideal. Fact is the Apollo handles sound really well, it is flexible and porous enough to handle the low end where a newer more solid building with this sort of interior architecture can present problems."
The total audio refurbishment is part of a longer term plan to move the Apollo forward and position it as a viable and active theater more than capable of presenting and hosting all types of events, as Levy explains. "The first phase of the Apollo Theater's restoration was completed in 2006, with the installation of more than 1,500 new house seats, a restoration of the 125th Street façade and new marquee, and a new stage. Most recently we announced the public phase of the Apollo 21st Century Campaign, a $20 million campaign, of which we have already raised $10 million. The funds from the Campaign will primarily be used to expand the Theater's programming and also its education and community offerings. All of the different steps we have taken over the last few years to ensure that the Apollo is able to continue to be the stage 'where stars are born and legends are made' - from the renovation, to the Campaign to build out new programming, down to this wonderful equipment that has given the Theater a new sound, will help us tremendously as we look to the future of the Apollo for decades to come."
Meantime d&b has a little surprise in store. "The installation will be upgraded by the addition of d&b's new D80 amplifiers, and we are really looking forward to it," said Clark (Acme it should be noted, maintain a healthy long term relationship with venues to which they apply their expertise). "It's exciting to imagine what the benefits of the D80 will be. I doubt anyone will want it to be louder than Mick had it for Metallica, but that promised +4 dB the D80 can deliver through the V-Series would surely tempt him."