|The historic Walker Theater in Winnipeg, Canada has a history stretching
from the old, turn-of-the-century vaudeville era to the new, almost turn-of-the-century
pop culture. Getting the sound right from a building designed for the needs
of yesteryear falls to Dave Cousins, Korey Sherwin and the engineering
staff of Sound Art, a Winnipeg-based audio company. With its unusual architectural
design, the Walker Theater poses a unique and continuing sonic challenge
for contemporary one-off shows from the likes of Crash Test Dummies (engineered
by Paul Tozer) to a traveling Canadian Christmas extravaganza named "Huron
Carol" (engineered by Darrel Edwards).
"The Walker Theater is unique in the fact that it is a super-old building," says Cousins, owner of Sound Art. "It was built sometime around 1903 as a vaudeville theater. After it closed as a vaudeville venue, it was changed into a movie theater."
The spectacular Walker Theater was originally a three-level building with stratospheric "cheap" overflow seats in the upper balcony. This was suitable perhaps for nearly vertical views of vaudeville performances, but unacceptable for viewing films.
"They closed off the upper balcony during the movie era by putting in a dropped ceiling. This really destroyed the original atmosphere of the place," Cousins explains. "Eventually, the movie theater closed and a promoter here in town purchased the vacant building and, with the city behind the project, refurbished it to its original state including removal of the dropped ceiling and opening up the second balcony. It has attained the original role of a live performance venue but with modern acts, a seating capacity of 1,750 people and a restoration right down to the gold leaf."
As the shows are mostly one-offs, with tight schedules and sometimes multiple sound systems to interface, creating a system design that works for the Walker has been a work in progress for Sound Art, a company in business since 1983. The problem is how to get everybody to hear the same quality sonic performance in a venue that is very short front to back yet very tall.
"It is very high up there," says Korey Sherwin, Operations Manager for Sound Art, “And I’m always amazed at the steepness of the upper-balcony seats. It measures 120 feet on a diagonal from the back of the stage to the nose-bleed upper-balcony section with a floor-to-ceiling distance of about 75 feet. The upper balcony is also pitched down almost 40 degrees from front to the back -- very steep. You wouldn't want to be falling from the second balcony. Getting the sound up there is interesting because if you stack a system on the floor, the speakers feeding the second balcony are aimed almost vertically."
The Walker Theater offers a range of different acoustic environments designed for vaudeville intelligibility, not Rock 'n' Roll. Cousins describes the ground-floor section as a normal theater environment while the upper balcony and the big, rounded plaster ceiling over it becomes a natural horn. "That is what they built back then so the vaudeville guys could bellow away and be heard without a PA. They did Ben Hur on that stage. That was their big claim to fame. They had a turntable and the full chariot and horses."
Meeting the needs of each acoustic environment of the theater is accomplished by literally creating three different PA systems utilizing new equipment designs from speaker systems to computer modeling.
"When you are in the top balcony, you are looking straight down on the top of the performers heads." says Cousins. "To get any kind of uniform coverage, you virtually need to hang three systems, or hang two and stack the ground floor. We treat them all as separate PA systems feeding three distinct zones. We ended up hanging left/right top balcony clusters, left/right first balcony clusters and left/right ground clusters."
The speakers of choice are the new Electro-Voice DeltaMaxTM series including the new DMS-1183 18-inch three-way system, the DMS-2181T dual 18-inch trapezoidal sub woofer system and the new flagship DMS-2122, a long-throw, mid-bass/high frequency system with a 400 X 200 degree rotatable coverage pattern. The amplifiers are all the QSC PowerLight series, a new unit that offers a dataport and significantly reduced weight.
The upper balcony clusters, the toughest acoustical spot, consist of six cabinets arranged left and right with DMS-2122s on top, the DMS-2181T subwoofers in the middle and the DMS-1183s on the bottom. The first balcony system employs only the DMS-2122s and DMS-1183s. The DMS-2181T subwoofers were left out because, "We have subs from the second balcony and the main floor clusters that basically filled the bass spot up. We also have low end coming out of the first balcony 1183s," Cousins points out. The ground clusters consisted of four 600 x 400 degree rotatable 1183s and four 2181Ts, since the main floor is short and wide.
"As for powering the rig, the DeltaMaxTM 2181T's have a PowerLight 1.8 bridged per cabinet to drive the two EVX-180A, 18-inch woofers. The 18's in the two 1183 cabinets , also EVX-180A’s, receive a bridged QSC. The mid and horn amplifiers are run in stereo to take advantage of the current sharing capabilities of the PowerLights. The cabling is easy as we use one Socapex connector and 12/18 cable for each cluster of six speakers connected to one amp rack. We only have to run the one cable and break out the different speaker assignments at the cluster. The only thing we change on the EV cabinets is the Neutrik NL8 connector pin assignments to simplify our particular cabling process."
"All the EV clusters are in vertical arrays," says Cousins. "They are just above each other and spaced apart quite a bit to feed the two balcony areas. We chose the Electro-Voice DeltaMax because they were the best-sounding boxes we listened to, and they have large-format horns in the right-size footprint. The cabinets are relatively lightweight and they all look the same, so large clusters are aesthetically pleasing. This allows us to pull off some setups that we couldn't do before because of line-of-sight problems. This is a show venue after all, and people go to see it as well as hear it. The entire sound spectrum is lifted into the air and pointed into the specific audience area instead of pointed up from the ground at the walls or ceiling. Since we started with this design approach, the room sounds great."
Sound Art employs the Electro-Voice Dx34 digital sound system processor for crossover functions, parametric EQs and time delay on each band. "We keep a database of parameters for our new boxes because we are the first people to have these boxes in a large scale format," Sherwin claims. “Dave Carlson at Electo-Voice has provided us with the parameter data obtained in their anechoic chamber and then we have been tweaking it from here. We have come up with our own programs that work really well in the less than perfect real world.”
"We also do a lot of listening tests," continues Sherwin. "We go into an empty hall, set up the rig and play with it. We work with different box combinations, array angles and processor settings. Then we have a band come in the next day, do a show and see how it works. We gather data like that. It is an ongoing process and it all gets loaded into our Macintosh laptops."
Optimizing each unique zone of the Walker Theater falls to the Klark Teknik DN3600 remotely programmable EQ system with the DN3698 wireless controller. With this tool, a Sound Art engineer can sit anywhere in the venue with the wireless remote and trim the EQ and levels.
"One thing that is great about the Klark Teknik system for the Walker Theater is being able to refine the sound during the show," says Sherwin. "In the case of the upper balcony, everything is very bright during the pre-show sound check because of the hard ceiling and the wooden pew-type seats. The tendency there is to turn down the horns. With the DN3600 system, we can sit up in the audience and optimize the sound for each area in real time. The resulting EQ curves for all three areas are amazingly different from each other, even though we are using the same speakers and amplifiers. This points up the difficulty of providing quality audio for the Walker."
The house mixing console is a Midas XL3-48 with a Soundcraft SM16-48 handling monitor duties. Sherwin is very pleased with the performance of both consoles and states, "I don't think the XL3 can be beat except with maybe an XL4. As far as I am concerned, the Midas walks all over everything out there as far as the sound and the EQ. It is just a great console and it is laid out exactly the way you want for live performances. The SM16 gives us 16 auxiliary channels that can be used as either stereo sub-groups or auxiliaries for the monitor system - lots of flexibility for the different monitoring needs of the performers."
Sound Art stocks a range of microphones from Shure SM58s to Electro-Voice N/D408Bs, but usually they adhere to group specs, according to Cousins. The 16 stage monitors employed by Sound Art are Jason Sound J17 wedge-shaped "Stealth" floor monitors that are biamped with two 12-inch speakers.
"Some musicians like a stereo monitor mix with a wedge on either side of them, plus a third wedge with another mix up the center," says Sherwin. "The mixes add up pretty quick in that situation. Once again the current sharing of the PowerLights fit the bill, we load one channel with four 12's for a 2-ohm load and the other with two horns at 8-ohms, the amplifier will deliver the extra current to the 12's where you need it."
The Crash Test Dummies concert posed an additional challenge for Sound Art as the band's equipment was stranded in Los Angeles. The band had to rent all their stage equipment locally. The smooth performance of the entire system in a high-pressure situation like this is a testament to the design Sound Art created for the Walker Theater.
Freelance engineer Paul Tozer works with many Canadian bands including Katrina And The Waves, Chalk Circle and Barney Benthall. Tozer worked the Crash Test Dummies show that night. "It was a nice sounding rig to work with, under a difficult situation, Tozer recalls. “I didn't actually have anything to do with flying it or putting it up, but it looked like it was a tidy flying package. That is very important these days. Flying systems should be trouble free, simple and sturdy. The system that night was a nice sounding, manageable array. I think EV has a pretty good box going there.”
Sherwin adds, “As the show went that night, nobody in the crowd would have known that they didn't have their own gear."
For more information on Sound Art, please visit their web site at http://www.soundart.com.