Historic Webster Hall Gets a Sonic Makeover
Webster Hall, the venerable music venue in New York City’s East Village, has been many things to many people over the years. Starting in the late 19th century as a hub for bohemians, artists and anarchists, it became a hangout for hoodlums during Prohibition, including a purported ownership stint by Al Capone himself. During the 1950s, the facility did a turn as Webster Hall Studios, operating as RCA’s East Coast recording studio, where Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra and countless other icons recorded albums on the Grand Ballroom stage.
Since the 1970s, the 40,000-square-foot, four-story building has been best known as a concert venue and nightclub under an array of promoters and impresarios. In 1980, it became the influential rock and punk club The Ritz, where U2, Depeche Mode and The Cure all played their first North American shows.
That kind of sonic legacy is echoed in Webster Hall’s new sound system that was installed in the venue in late August, part of a larger renovation that also included lighting and video upgrades. In fact, the 128-year-old venue is like a recording studio once again with a truly audiophile new L-Acoustics KARA main P.A. in the Grand Ballroom, the venue’s biggest space that holds 1,500. This is mixed through a pair of DiGiCo SD10 consoles — one at front of house and one for monitors, their processing housed in two SD-Racks. A DiGiCo SD11i (with DiGiCo’s Little Red Box, which allows the SD11i to utilize the SD-Racks with the SD10’s) has been installed for DJ nights, preserving the SD10 for live music applications. And they never saw this in the 1950s: three Waves DiGiGrid Server Ones, the ultimate solution for employing low-latency processing of Waves plug-ins. Recording and virtual sound checking is seamless from the console through a Waves DiGiGrid MGB interface.
“No other space in New York has anything close to this,” says Stephen Wyker, technical director for Webster Hall Entertainment. “We moved the concert booking function in-house and the pre-existing L-Acoustics dV-DOSC system went with the previous booking company, so we had to start with a completely new system.”
They also had to do it quickly — a concert venue and nightclub can’t let a dark night happen if it can be avoided. So Long Island, NY-based AV systems integrator See Factor went into Webster Hall in the early morning hours of a Sunday, with the last wisps of Saturday night’s shows still in the air, and worked 24 hours a day, straight through until the next show was ready to roll the following Thursday, September 4, when Bleachers and opening act Misterwives hit the stage. “It was pretty crazy,” Wyker recalls. “It all had to be brought in, installed and tuned before show time on Thursday, and See Factor pulled it off.”
Today, the P.A. consists of 24 L-Acoustics KARA enclosures, eight flown SB18 subs, 10 ground-stacked SB28 subs, 18 coaxial 115XT HiQ (14 stage wedges as monitors and four under-balcony fills), four 8XT stage lip fills, six more KARA plus four more SB18 for side-fill, an additional SB18 as a drum sub, and 17 LA8 and four LA4X amplified controllers for power and processing (see sidebar for complete inventory). In fact, Webster Hall is a nearly all L-Acoustics facility, including ARCS elements and SB28 subs in its downstairs event space called “The Studio.”
The manic installation capped a six-month search process for the new system’s components. Wyker says the P.A. system candidates were a very short list. “Full-sized cabinets were not an option in the space, and there are just a handful of very, very good mid-sized cabinets available, so that was where we started from,” he says. But the KARA system quickly became the choice of everyone who heard it. “For its size, it has tremendous power, but it never stops being musical,” he says. “We needed a P.A. that would work for any type of music, and that can go from a delicate acoustic show one night to being a beefy EDM system in a nightclub the next. That’s what the KARA does for us.”
According to Mark Friedman, one of the principals at See Factor, which supplied all of the new audio gear right down to mics and custom patch panels, “KARA’s wide 110-degree horizontal coverage and sharp directivity really sealed the deal on it being the right choice for the room,” he says. “Webster Hall required a system that could deliver high-SPL, high-fidelity sound in a space full of challenging reflective surfaces. Aside from the presence of four ancillary speakers under the balcony, the KARA arrays very efficiently blanket the entire floor with superb sound.”
The FOH Mix Angle
The facility’s choice of the DiGiCo SD10 was a somewhat harder sell, Wyker acknowledges, citing a not-insignificant cost premium over the Avid Profile and Midas PRO6 consoles that were also under consideration. But as he polled FOH engineers and industry colleagues during those months of research, he encountered an interesting phenomenon: “There are plenty of consoles that I was told not to get, but when I mentioned the DiGiCo, they would say, ‘You would go for that? We’d love that,’” he recalls. “The sentiment is so positive for the DiGiCo. It’s the McLaren of consoles; the sound is second-to-none and, in terms of functionality, nothing comes close. It’s a complete fiber-optic connection between the two consoles and you can share buses and talkback, and engineers can bring their own plug-ins and get their sound. Plus Waves plug-in compatibility is a huge win for being rider-friendly.
“But, there was something else,” Wyker continues. “We put in a great P.A. system and needed a console that could match it in terms of sound quality, performance, functionality and marquee value. The only one that could do that is the DiGiCo. Price was an issue, for sure, but the owners here truly value sound quality and know that that’s a key differentiator for venues in this very competitive city. This system — the DiGiCo consoles and L-Acoustics P.A. — set Webster Hall apart from everywhere else.”
Wyker says these decisions have paid off. Engineers and artists who have played the club since the installation have confirmed that in droves. “It communicates to them that this is a venue that cares about their sound and cares about their music,” he says. “It adds a layer of comfort to them, knowing that they will be playing through and working on the best gear in the business. That’s a great message to be able to tell.”