Implementing a new L-Acoustics sound system at the Hammerstein Ballroom


Implementing a new L-Acoustics sound system at the Hammerstein Ballroom

This article is reproduced courtesy of Live Sound International Magazine.  

In 1906, Oscar Hammerstein I (grandfather of the famed lyricist) opened the Manhattan Opera House, intended as a venue to make opera accessible to a wider variety of patrons than was typical at the time. In the century-plus since, it ’s also hosted vaudeville and concerts of all descriptions a wide range of special events, in addition to serving as a scoring stage for films and recording artists.

Now fittingly known as the Hammerstein Ballroom at The Manhattan Center, the elegant three-tiered, 12,000-square-foot facility located on 34th Street in Manhattan has a new sound reinforcement system, part of a two-year, phased renovation and upgrade of The Manhattan Center overall. Yet while the Hammerstein Ballroom was part of the project, the renovations were purely cosmetic and did not include acoustic treatment.

Discussions about the new system began in 2012, during which time representatives of the venue were considering various potential designs, comparing manufacturers and looking at the benefits of buying versus renting. The process culminated earlier this year with the installation of the system.

Initially, Peter Auslan, production manager for The Manhattan Center and the Hammerstein Ballroom, reached out to various manufacturers, including L-Acoustics, as part of the system comparison process, and had an ongoing relationship with NYC-based integrator See Factor, from whom they had rented systems previously on a regular basis.

“When I started looking at the feasibility of this project, it was about becoming more competitive,” Auslan explains. “In looking at the pros and cons and crunching numbers, it became apparent there was really only one other venue our size in the city that didn’t have an installed system – our main competitor, Roseland Ballroom. When that closed it also was clear that it was time to up our game considerably.”

In addition to its elegant appearance, the Hammerstein Ballroom is noted for a very good acoustic design. Capacity depends on the configuration of the room. It seats about 2,500 for theatrical productions and musical performances, and several thousand for events held within a central ring. 

The main floor is level, and the two main balconies, unusually close to the ground and gently sloped upward, seat approximately 1,200. There are also six shallow balconies on the sides, generally used by VIPs and celebrity guests. The 85-foot ceiling offers multiple rigging points for various audio, lighting and set design applications. It’s a decidedly multi-purpose space, with the addition of the system aimed at deepening the venue’s capability to provide top technology for musical artists as well as upping the level
of flexibility for other applications.

Key Factors
Auslan headed up the project, with colleagues Robert Carvell (production department supervisor) and Roy Clark (chief of audio) also integral to the process. The team began discussions with L-Acoustics, initially focused on implementing K1 arrays before shifting to the more compact K2 that better fit the room and application.

A benefit of the L-Acoustics platform is that it’s a staple of major touring artist riders. “Rider friendliness and support, how easy it is to get replacement parts, how robust it is – we thought about all of those things and L-Acoustics came up with high marks,”
Auslan notes. There was a fair amount of interviewing other engineers about the K2, Clark adds.

However, several major brands offerings were evaluated for sound quality, price point and post-purchase support. Another key factor in the team’s decision-making process was the ability to ‘steer’ output, to direct it where it needed to be with a high degree of accuracy. “Once we factored in all of those things, the K2 emerged as the all-out winner,” Auslan says.

The K2 incorporates a combination of proprietary Panflex horizontal steer- ing technology and Wavefront Sculpture Technology (WST) to heighten steerability, particularly important in being able to avoiding too much output reflecting off the ballroom’s large proscenium arch.

That proscenium definitely presents a challenge, notes Scott Sugden, L-Acoustics U.S. head of application, touring, who contributed design support on the project, utilizing pro- prietary SOUNDVISION 3D simulation software to help. “We spent a significant amount of time evaluating the design,” he says. “It’s a challenging space because it ’s a modified theatre that they’ve essentially made larger by encompassing a certain amount of the stage space as audio space.

“The proscenium, however, is in the same place it was 60 years ago, and the PA is 40 to 50 feet upstage of that, so you’re shooting through a narrow window to hit the rest of the audience,” he continues. “The other difficulty is that the stage isn’t permanent. There are multiple formats for it so the PA had to be modifiable depending on the type of show they’re doing.”

The ability to differentially control the horizontal coverage for different parts of the array with the same box and conse- quently avoid the proscenium – to narrow the directivity of the boxes in a symmetrical and asymmetrical format – was integral to achieving optimized coverage.

“As the audience gets closer and we gain proximity, we’re able to make the PA wider on the onstage side, but not the offstage side, and can prevent energy from hitting this giant brick wall,” Sugden explains. “Generally speaking in a theatre environment, one of the biggest challenges is vertical coverage. You need to get 50, 60, 70 degrees in vertical coverage and the K2 is able to do up to 10 degrees between enclosures, which is quite a lot for a system of this size.”

Simple Flexibility
The capacity of the ballroom varies, with two primary configurations available. Concerts with seating and stand- ing room accommodate 3,500, while a diverse assortment of special events can be served with a flexible setup that can host up to 1,000. In addition, the venue’s 24-foot-deep “hard” stage suffices for most events, but it ’s usually extended 16 more feet into the house for concerts. This results in two different positions for the main system’s left and right arrays, depending on the depth of the stage.

Moving the arrays, which are flown via CM motors with Motion Labs control, is relatively straightforward. “We change roughly one-third of the angles on the array, keep the rest the same and drop the rig using six motors to change position,” Clark notes. “I should also mention that the K2 does go down to 35 Hz and therefore has the ability to throw deep lows to the back of the room, which is helpful. So when guests walk in they hear amazing low end right away.”

The K2 arrays are made up of 12 boxes per side. “With that configuration, there’s the ability to set the horizontal dispersion differentially,” explains Chris Sullivan, application engineer, East Coast for L-Acoustics, who performed the system calibration in August. “The top three boxes are set to 70 degrees, which is the narrowest dispersion for the top two balconies. The bottom nine we actually go into asymmetrical output and are doing 90 degrees asymmetrical dispersion onstage. So that ’s 35 degrees offstage and 55 degrees onstage, which is advantageous in avoiding the proscenium.

“Additionally, since the mains extend down to 35 Hz, we’re getting the majority of the musical content from them and low and high frequencies are similar in output across the venue,” he continues. “It also sounds more musical because the source, say the kick drum’s attack and impact, is coming from one place.”

A dozen L-Acoustics SB28 dual- 18-inch subwoofers on the ground provide what Sullivan characterizes as “infrasonic” support: “Moving air, but not necessarily providing a whole lot of musical content, as we’re able to get most of that out of the K2.” The subs are usually on end, six per side, tightly packed, but can be re-arranged depending on the room configuration, with a cardioid mode available to reduce the amount of back-firing energy concerts.

Up to six L-Acoustics KARA line source loudspeakers can be deployed for front fill. “Sometimes four of these function as front fills and two sit on top of the subs, so you can do the DJ version of ‘Texas headphones’ if you want,” Auslan notes. And, the stage is now served by up to 16 L-Acoustics 115XT HiQ active monitors and HiQ subs.

Five LA-RAK modular touring racks, each containing three LA8 amplified controllers, drive all main system loudspeakers and subwoofers. The mobile touring version of the racks, as opposed to the install version, were chosen for portability in meeting the neds of the different configurations.

Completing The Process
Both house and monitor systems are now headed by Avid VENUE Profile digital consoles, selected because they provide plenty of capability in addition to being rider-friendly. System integra- tor See Factor, involved with the project from the outset, also provided all equipment and implemented a custom fabricated snake and split system. 

“It’s an analog split because it needs to be with these consoles, and there’s a copper fan-out for the stage rack and then coax running out to the house console,” explains Mark Friedman of See Factor. Also on hand now are four Shure UR4D+ dual-channel wireless microphone systems and what Fried- man terms an “industry standard” com- plement of Shure and Sennheiser wired microphones.

The project was completed in September of this year, with the new audio infrastructure making the venue eminently more functional for all manner of applications.  "There are two main things to take into consideration in any installation," Friedman concludes. “One of them is providing the most appropriate equipment to suit the venue and the room. The second – particularly for a venue that has multiple uses and applications – is providing something that ’s as close to ‘all things to all people’ as possible.

“Obviously, you need the best fit from a technical standpoint, and then the most universally accepted products out there. In this case the K2 was truly the best fit for the room, regardless of market acceptance, and I dare say there’s probably not going to be one band ever that comes through there that’s not going to accept it.” 

Based in Toronto, KEVIN YOUNG is a freelance music and tech writer, professional musician and composer.