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The Sound Matches the Stature: A New Audio System & New Era at Toronto’s Massey Hall

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The article originally appeared in the June 2017 issue Professional Sound magazine.

By Andrew King

Photos by Neal Burstyn, NTBCreative.com

There are some big changes coming up for Toronto’s iconic Massey Hall.

For 123 years, the famed performance venue and National Historic Site at 178 Victoria St. in the downtown Garden District has welcomed acclaimed acts from within the city and around the world. All the while, it has seen decades’ worth of substantial transformation, and while most of that transformation has happened throughout the city surrounding its brick-and-stone-covered façade, over the years, some has taken place within its hallowed walls.

For example, in 1917, The Albert Building behind the hall was added to the structure and later converted into a backstage area. In the 1940s, Massey Hall underwent extensive interior renovations that brought the original seat count of 3,500 down to about 2,750. In 1994, in commemoration of the venue’s 100th anniversary, the basement was completely refurbished and Centuries, its onsite bar, was open for business.

But none of those transformations are as extensive or elaborate as the one that’s now underway. The Corporation of Massey Hall and Roy Thomson Hall has kicked off the most significant revitalization in its history, aiming to preserve and enhance the structure while adding new elements to better serve performers and patrons into the future. Those include improvements to accessibility, technical infrastructure, and the overall presentation environment.

Hangs of d&b J8 & J12 loudspeakers & V-SUBs

Hangs of d&b J8 & J12 loudspeakers & V-SUBs

The venue has adopted the slogan “Change Nothing, Improve Everything” for the $135-million project, and has already put that slogan to work ahead of the anticipated closure in July 2018 with the addition of a substantial new production technologies package – including a high-end PA system for the main auditorium – that will benefit upcoming productions before being reintegrated into the soon-to-be revitalized space. It was in early 2015 that The Corporation of Massey Hall and Roy Thomson Hall made the broad decision to incorporate a proper house sound system into Massey Hall’s main auditorium.

While the venue did have an existing house system – including an elaborate fill system designed to address the unique layout and subsequent acoustic challenges it presented – shows typically relied on the tour package of the incoming performers or a rental system for the main house PA.

“We wanted a system that virtually no one would refuse,” explains Massey Hall’s Director of Production, Doug McKendrick, about the mandate for the new solution. “It is possible to take it down, but we wanted people to walk in and it be a no-brainer that they would use it, so it needed to exceed what people would generally be carrying and provide better coverage than anyone could produce in a one-off scenario.”

The corporation enlisted the aid of Martin Van Dijk, a senior consultant and partner of Toronto-based audiovisual consultancy firm Engineering Harmonics, to put together a spec for the system, and when funding became available for the project in late 2015, the job was put out to tender.

Van Dijk has an intimate knowledge of venue, having designed the aforementioned infill system years earlier as an employee of PA Plus (which has since been absorbed by Solotech and become the Montreal-based sound and lighting company’s Toronto office).

Engineering Harmonics is also the audiovisual consultant on record for the major upcoming revitalization, “So there was a desire for continuity there,” McKendrick notes, “since this system will be the system used in the new hall.”

The spec was heavily based on research, including a look at rider requirements from visiting productions and input from a stable of touring audio engineers on their general needs and preferences.

“I wanted to be able to send our production list to anybody and have the questions stop there,” McKendrick states. That meant meeting the highest reasonable SPL demands while still providing the fidelity for more sensitive acts – so basically, ably covering everything from a whisper to a scream.

d&b Y7P lip fills

d&b Y7P lip fills

The resulting spec was built around d&b audiotechnik’s J-Series loudspeakers, the German manufacturer’s large-scale reinforcement solution. In addition to the main house system, it included a full complement of amplifiers and processing, a replacement of the existing house fills, a small but versatile digital console, and the incorporation of an Optocore fibre optic network.

Solotech Toronto was awarded the contract in January 2016, and as McKendrick notes, “It was a really compressed timeline,” with the system needing to be integrated and commissioned by the hard deadline of March 31st.

That would end up being the same timeline for the integration of a full stage lighting system a year later, in early 2017; however, the challenge was compounded for the sound system by the fact that it required some significant structural work inside the auditorium.

“The lighting was more of a tour-style package and less invasive of an install,” McKendrick says, noting the lights went up on three pre-rigged trusses akin to a rental package. “The PA system, though, involved a complete installation with conduit and a rigging upgrade to support the capacity.”

Previously, the venue didn’t have the necessary weight capacity or hanging points to support a line array system that could properly cover the house, and so work was done to reinforce some of the overhead beams to take on more weight and add new rigging positions. Even that presented a few extra hurdles because of Massey Hall’s status as a National Historic Site.

But even without the structural work, the venue’s age and unique nature presented some inherent challenges. “Massey’s not an easy place to work,” McKendrick admits, “particularly the conduit runs and rack locations and transformer locations, which are all upstairs, so it wasn’t a brand new, modern building where you could roll in pre-built racks. Virtually everything had to be brought in piece by piece and put into place.”

The main d&b J-Series system features left and right arrays with eight J8 and three wider-dispersion J12s per side, plus six V-SUBs flown behind the main hangs. The centre cluster includes eight J12s and three J8s. On the deck are two J12s and two J-SUBs per side.

As for the delay system, it includes: six d&b Vi12s as the gallery delay cluster; eight Y7Ps as lip fills; eight E6s under the balcony; six Yi7Ps as proscenium fills; four 10S-Ds as corner fills; four Y97Ps and four E8s on the balcony sides; and a single Yi7P at the main mix position.

Side stacks of two d&b J12s & 2 J-SUBs

Side stacks of two d&b J12s & 2 J-SUBs

All of the DSP and tuning is handled within the d&b amps – a large complement of 24 d&b 30Ds plus four D80s and two 10Ds; however, the goal was to offer a degree of control and EQ capabilities to visiting engineers without them having to mess with the sophisticated internal tuning. Subsequently, three Meyer Sound Galileo 616 AES loudspeaker management systems were installed at the front end, offering easier access to basic EQ, zoning, and delay control functions.

The venue also incorporated an Optocore fibre optic network for a full digital path from the console to the amplifier outputs. That includes an Optocore X6R-FX-8AE/8LI network module for the FOH drive rack, three X6R-FX-16AE network converter units – one per amp rack – and an X6R-FX-8LI/8LO network converter.

The package also included a Soundcraft Vi1 digital mixing system, which McKendrick says was chosen for its smaller footprint and flexibility, as it will typically be used for opening acts, simple spoken word applications, or as a monitor console.

As for the fill system, while it is indeed extensive, the replacement wasn’t as complicated as it could have been. After all, it was Van Dijk himself that had designed it years earlier, and McKendrick says it was replaced almost one-for-one with new boxes this time around, with a few extra locations added. They were even able to use much of the existing cabling.

“Martin really is an unbelievable source of knowledge and experience,” McKendrick shares, praising his collaborator’s performance. “I’ve met very few people in my life that know as much about audio as Martin.”

Senior Systems Designer Mark Radu was Solotech’s lead on the project, and says his team largely stuck to the system spec. “It was a thorough, well-thought-out design,” he says. “So much of it is rider-driven, and they’d made their decisions based on what riders were dictating for speaker choice, so it was pretty straightforward.”

Addressing some of the inherent challenges in the historic hall, Radu says the room’s configuration meant there’s more triangulation with the delays – particularly around the corners and sides – than is ideal.

For example, the hall’s support pillars are square to the venue, so delays had to either be placed straight along the balcony railing, or sideways 90-degrees out from the main arrays. “So we couldn’t get that ideal position where you might want to put them underneath the balcony and shoot them in the same direction,” he says.

The ultimate result was a lot of care put into time alignment, “so we played a lot with psychoacoustics in terms of level and time and the Haas effect,” Radu notes.

This is one key consideration that will be addressed in the upcoming revitalization, but Radu says that, all things considered, “the current solution works very well in the room.”

He adds that the Meyer Galileo loudspeaker management system is the ideal solution to give simple control to guest engineers. “We’re basically feeding the PA and fill system with eight matrix feeds,” Radu begins. “If someone just wants to give a left-right feed, you need a way to get that to all the amplifier sends, so the Galileo is great for that.”

Everything is networkable, with access available from a single computer via the Optocore network and Meyer Sound’s CompassGo iOS app. “So it’s easy for someone to walk the venue with an iPad and adjust zone levels,” Radu adds.

He concurs that the tight timeline was a significant challenge, though adds that putting a lot of work into the front-end design made things a lot easier on the integration side.

“Between Martin, Trevor [Nash of d&b audiotechnik Canada], Doug, and myself, there was a lot of time spent in the prediction software,” Radu says. “We could take as much time as we needed finessing the elements, pre-programming the amplifiers, and finessing the EQ curves, so all that time in the front end was great for accuracy. There wasn’t a lot of playing around with splay angles when we came to the real-world application. It was pretty much bang on the money when we turned the system on.”

He also echoes McKendrick’s statement about the venue’s layout being a challenge in terms of getting gear into the space. “We’d typically pre-build the floor-to-ceiling racks [at our facility], test them, and bring them all to site,” he explains, “but you can’t drag a 44 U amp rack weighing 600 pounds into Massey Hall.”

Instead, they had to bring in the components almost piece-by-piece and compile them onsite. “I think, from start to finish, it was 10 days to pull the old system out, tune it, commission it, build all the racks, test all the fibre, and then do the programming for the Galileos and Optocore network,” he recalls.

Ultimately, Radu and some of his Solotech Toronto colleagues – including Senior Audio Engineer John Lacina – had a significant advantage by way of their intimate knowledge of the venue from their time at PA Plus.

Massey Hall from the stage

Massey Hall from the stage

“The amount of shows we’ve done in there … I’d hate to guess,” Radu says after a brief ponder. “John Lacina is still with the live sound and rental division at Solotech, and he’s probably done more shows in there than anybody over the years. He’s tried all these little nuances, tweaking the installs we’ve done as we go, so he knows what works in that room and what doesn’t, and how to best tie everything together.”

Lacina spent three days onsite during commissioning, which both Radu and McKendrick admit was a big help. “He was really our liaison between what looked good on paper and the real-world application,” Radu notes, “so that was a big advantage.”

Radu and McKendrick also praise Nash and d&B audiotechnik for their involvement in the project, which Radu says went above and beyond what could have been expected, especially considering the compressed timeline.

McKendrick is proud to report that the comments they’ve had about the sound system have been “universally fantastic,” adding: “Those Galileos have basically not been used because people typically walk in and say, ‘That’s great,’ and carry on with their day.”

He credits the team at Solotech for successfully pulling everything together in the allotted timeframe. “They were handed a pretty tall order here, especially with the timeline, which had to work around our show activity, and they delivered perfectly,” he states. “It far exceeded my expectations.”

Radu thinks back to the first show he attended with the system in use – an early April affair with Smashing Pumpkins – “and man, it sounded phenomenal,” he enthuses. “To be honest, since that first show, we haven’t gone back there to do any refinessing of the system whatsoever. It was bang-on from day one.”

Massey Hall is now amidst the earliest stages of its $135-million enhancement, which will see its doors close in mid-2018 for about two years while the auditorium is significantly revitalized and a new building is added to the rear of the hall on its south side. The overhaul will include a proper loading dock, new lobby and performance spaces, and some other technical enhancements, including better capabilities for live broadcasts and remote recordings.

“This is our first step towards a much different Massey Hall – one that will be a lot friendlier to visiting productions,” McKendrick says, though of course, the new sound and lighting systems will also heighten the experience for the venue’s esteemed patrons, now and as the iconic landmark enters a new era of entertainment in Toronto.

Gear at a Glance

Main Left & Right Arrays

8 x d&b audiotechnik J8 Loudspeakers (per side)

3 x d&b audiotechnik J12 Loudspeakers (per side)

6 x d&b audiotechnik V-SUBs (per side, flown behind main arrays)

Deck Stacks

2 x d&b audiotechnik J12 Loudspeakers (per side)

2 X d&b audiotechnik J-SUB Subwoofers (per side)

Centre Cluster

8 x d&b audiotechnik J12 Loudspeakers

3 x d&b audiotechnik J8 Loudspeakers

Gallery Delay Cluster

6 x d&b audiotechnik Vi12 Loudspeakers

Lip Fills

8 x d&b audiotechnik Y7P Loudspeakers

Under Balcony

8 x d&b audiotechnik E6 Loudspeakers

Proscenium Fills

6 x d&b audiotechnik Yi7P Loudspeakers

Corner Fill Speakers

4 x d&b audiotechnik 10S-D Loudspeakers

Balcony Side Speakers

4 x d&b audiotechnik Yi7P Loudspeakers

4 x d&b audiotechnik E8 Loudspeakers

Mix Position Fill

1 x d&b audiotechnik Yi7P Loudspeakers

Amplifiers

24 x d&b audiotechnik 30Ds

4 x d&b audiotechnik D80s

2 x d&b audiotechnik 10Ds

Front End Processing

3 x Meyer Sound Galileo 616AES Loudspeaker Management Systems

Digital Signal Distribution

1 x Optocore X6R-FX-8AE/8LI (FOH drive rack)

3 x Optocore X6R-FX-16AE (one per amp rack)

1 x Optocore X6R-FX-8LI/8LO

Console

Soundcraft Vi1 Digital Mixing System (with fibre package & remote 48 x 16 x 8)

END

Andrew King is the Editor-in-Chief of Professional Sound.

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