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In the Beginning, It Was the Room | by Michel Vanden Broeck

In the Beginning, It Was the Room

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Man has been designing theatres for the enjoyment of music for centuries.  Wikipedia states: 

“About 20 BC, the Roman architect and engineer Vitruvius wrote a treatise on the acoustic properties of theaters including discussion of interference, echoes, and reverberation - the beginnings of architectural acoustics.  In Book V of his De architectura (The Ten Books of Architecture), Vitruvius describes sound as a wave comparable to a water wave extended to three dimensions, which, when interrupted by obstructions, would flow back and break up following waves.  He described the ascending seats in ancient theatres as designed to prevent this deterioration of sound and also recommended bronze vessels of appropriate sizes be placed in theatres to resonate with the fourth, fifth and so on, up to the double octave, in order to resonate with the more desirable, harmonious notes”.

In more recent time, Toronto’s historic Massey Hall was built - circa 1894.  The new and more modern Roy Thomson Hall superseded Massey Hall in 1982 yet this classic historic venue was still favoured by many famous musicians including:  Montserrat Caballe, William Booth, Maria Callas, Enrico Caruso, Winston Churchill, George Gershwin, Glenn Gould, Vladimir Horowitz, Dalai Lama, Gordon Lightfoot, Luciano Pavarotti, Ravi Shankar, Bob Dylan, Cream, Neil Young, Thomas Mann, The Kinks, Billy Joel, Lenny Kravitz, Oscar Peterson, Joe Satriani and Arturo Toscanini and many, many more.  

Massey Hall had very nice natural reverb so virtually all performances sound very good there!  Massey Hall is currently undergoing the most significant renovation in its 124 year history and is closed for two years as of the beginning of July, 2018.  The revitalization will protect and celebrate Massey Hall's heritage and build a lasting legacy for artists and fans alike.

The project will restore and renew both the interior and exterior of this national historic site, modernize patron amenities and accessibility, open two new music venues, and see the return of the original 124 year-old stained glass windows.

Roy Thomson Hall was initially referred to as the “new” Massy Hall before the name had been officially chosen.  Three top professionals firms were chosen to design the new home for the Toronto Symphony:  

  • Arthur Erickson, global architect / master planner; 
  • Mathers & Haldenby, local Toronto architect
  • Francisco Kripacz, interior designer.  

These three firms oversaw the design and building of one of the most ambitious concert halls in the world at the time using a number of aesthetic and functional innovations including adjustable / tuneable ceiling acrylic sound reflectors , acoustic membranes under the foundation to decouple the noise during performances from noisy street cars on King street and seats designed acoustically to sound the same whether empty or occupied - so a practice had the same acoustics as a sold out performance!

With all these innovations promising exceptional performances, no one could foretell the opening night experience.  The sound of the performance was  sounded virtually dead with no natural reverberating whatsoever!  I was in attendance on the third night and concur completely with this assessment!  Each note simply disappeared almost immediately after being plucked or played!  Adjustments were made to the acrylic sound reflectors thereafter but the adjustments could never correct the sound properly.  Finally, in 2002 a complete redesign of the acoustic treatments was undertaken properly with a price tag of $20 million.  You may be interested in a Globe & Mail article that chronicles the before and after:

www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/fine-tuning-roy-thomson-hall/article1025561/

I mention the Roy Thomson Hall debacle as an awareness lesson regarding the complexities of room acoustics.  If three leading firms given a completely blank piece of paper and a sizeable budget could not build a proper sounding hall, how does an audiophile expect to sort out the performance problems of an audio system at home?  One would think that we would have a better understanding by now since man has been studying and building listening venues for over 2,000 years!

Obviously acoustics is both art and science and sometimes the best innovations come with their own risks.  The ear/brain processes sound different then what is measured by equipment, room boundaries interplay with direct and reflected sounds of the performance, different construction materials absorb and reflect and even items of furniture impact the overall sound as heard by both the audience and the performers.

When we understand the nature of acoustics in our listening room, one realizes the challenging aspects of our hobby in creating optimal sound.  I have known many audiophiles who have invested in very expensive equipment to be installed in a room that simply does not support this level of investment.  Most audiophiles become frustrated at this point and simply blame the equipment and react to the compromised sound by continually changing one piece of equipment out for another - not realizing the problem is the room!

Contrary to my early popular belief on room acoustics, I learned a very important lesson from a customer.  Some thirty years ago, a University of Toronto lecturer and successful chiropractor, John, taught me a very important lesson.  He had purchased a modest but nonetheless good system from my store.  Being very excited about this purchase, he couldn’t wait for me to install the system after work so he decided to take it upon himself to go home and install it.  After my store closed, I visited him to insure everything was installed properly.  I arrived at his beautiful century home where I was led immediately to his study where he proudly showed me the prowess of his installation skill.  It was a relatively small square room with the typical 13’ vintage ceilings - popular in houses of that era.  Beautiful wooden bookcases were built in the two front corners of the room with two floor mounted hot water radiators enclosed as part of the overall cabinet design.  John had installed these floor-standing loudspeakers midway in the corners on a shelf immediately above the radiators!  Best practice tells me they should have been on the floor as they were designed to be.  After all they were floor-standing loudspeakers.  But here they are now on a shelf surrounded by books from above and radiators below.    

I awkwardly waited for the moment to tell him that this installation was not suitable but before I could say anything John asked my to listen.  John went on to say he believed it sounded quite good.  Now then, my bad news was going to be even harder to deliver.  I kept silent knowing this was not going to be good.  By Jove it happened to sound not just good but fantastic!  This old dog just learned a new trick!  Don’t be afraid to experiment with loudspeaker placement and never assume everything has to be done by the book!

So I stand corrected in loudspeaker placement - after all of my years of experience!  Since that time I have read much more on room acoustics and have experimented liberally with numerous installations to mostly positive effect.

Room acoustics is a burgeoning industry today.  I have experimented with so many during my life that it is actually a little embarrassing thinking of how much money I have spent and perhaps wasted as a result.  I constructed one of my listening rooms from scratch using the Dead End Live End (DELE) theory in vogue at the time.  I have no problem telling you right now it was my worst sounding room experience ever!

I have friends who have spent exorbitant amounts on room treatments too!  Their rooms more times than not ended up sounding dead - just like the anechoic chamber used for laboratory acoustic measurements.  For those who don’t know, an anechoic chamber is a room designed to absorb sounds of all frequencies and is typically used for designing loudspeakers and measuring sonic performance.  These chambers are usually detached (floating) from any other adjoining structures so there is minimal external sonic contamination as well.  You hear only the direct sound with all other sound being absorbed.  These chambers are useful in determining the loudspeakers sonic output and performance without the side-effects of a room.  One could never listen to an audio system in these chambers as it would sound lifeless and not enjoyable at all - very much like the original Roy Thomson Hall I must add!

Today my best practice is to move your loudspeakers into various locations in your room to find where they sound (and look) best before you think of adding room treatments of any kind.  Remember, you have to live in this room so add furniture to experiment with the sonics.  Your last option is to add small amounts of room treatment with the axiom that less is more!

Lately I have discovered many loudspeakers benefit when placed on the floor in close proximity to the corners of the front wall  (unlike John who had them set higher on a shelf).  This helps primarily with bass response and pressurizes the room so it sounds more like a live performance venue with the room preforming  a natural expansion of the loudspeaker - working together in harmony.  Until a few years ago, This would have never occurred to me.  

Having heard a pair of vintage Klipschorns recently with a vintage Tenor OTL 15, caused me to listen differently and to compare the home performance to the known live performances I have attended.  In fact, this experience may have changed my audiophile life as I have a better reference from which to make decisions now.  These wonderful loudspeakers were introduced to the market in 1946 by visionary Paul Klipsch and have been in continuous production to this day!

In closing my advice is simple.  Keep an open mind on everything audio and, most importantly, experiment!  Let your ears be the judge!  Purity of sound is what we are all after so learn to trust your ears!  Most importantly, enjoy your room and find its maximum potential by experimenting.

Happy listening!

Cheers, 

David

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