Benaroya Hall Seattle Profile

Benaroya Hal Image

Facility Profile:
Benaroya Hall,

A Subtle Symphony
Sound System

Written by Mel Lambert in February 2002

The world-famous Benaroya Hall accommodates two performing halls in a complex that occupies an entire city block in downtown Seattle, Washington. Home of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, the centerpiece of Benaroya Hall is the S. Mark Taper Foundation Auditorium and the surrounding Samuel and Althea Stroum Grand Lobby. The rectangular, 2500-seat auditorium, built in 2004, offers a unique combination of architectural and acoustical design that meld into a seamless aesthetic experience.
   "Dark wood colors on the hall's enclosing surfaces — with ivory tones on its inner layer of balcony fronts, coffered ceiling panels and the stage enclosure — give the room a feel of intimacy, visually and acoustically," says hall director Patricia Isacson Sabee. "Our seating arrangement was carefully studied to provide excellent sight lines. And, in contrast to other rectangular concert halls, box seating along the sidewalls is oriented toward the stage. Height of the proscenium is also emphasized, to achieve the desired effect of intimacy with the audience."
For symphony performances, the hall is magnificent. But, as theater operations director Chris Miller explains, "There existed a need to provide announcements between musical sections — to allow the conductor to explain a section, for example — as well as a moderate-level P.A. system for light vocals that might accompany an orchestral performance."

   "Our major goal," Isacson Sabee stresses, "was to provide a [sound reinforcement] system that would be totally unobtrusive and could be hidden from view during non-amplified concerts. Any sound system we considered…had to blend aesthetically and emotionally with the hall's fabric."

Under the guidance of Theater Projects International, Benaroya Hall selected CCI Systems, based in Olympia, to specify, design and install a suitable sound-reinforcement system to meet their exacting demands. CCI has extensive experience working with large halls and spaces including Gund Arena in Cleveland, America West Arena in Phoenix, Safeco Field in Seattle, and many houses of worship around the world.
   The auditorium's main floor seats 1500 patrons, with the remaining 1000 audience seats located in the tiers and boxes. "We decided to fabricate a compact center cluster that could be mounted above the proscenium arch and provide primary coverage within the auditorium," says Ronald Simonson, P.E., CCI's principal consultant and executive vice president. "Because some box-seat occupants would be shadowed from the main cluster, we also decided to add fill speakers mounted within the first- and second-tier boxes. Speakers were also designed into the area under the first tier to cover main-floor seating shadowed by the box seats above. In addition, ingenious stage-lip speakers are used to cover the first three rows of the main-floor seating area."
   The voice reinforcement system represented phase one of a 2-stage installation. Under the direction of CCI Systems' senior technician, Dave Bradley, the center cluster and distributed system were installed over a 12-week period starting in April 2001. Phase two, a performance sound system made up of flown left and right JBL Vertical Technology (VerTec) line arrays, is planned for late spring/early summer of this year, just in time for the summer season, which begins July 15. The larger-format left-center-right system will be used for concerts requiring a full-on sound reinforcement system; the eight JBL VerTec VT4889 three-way line array cabinets suspended above each side of the stage area will be removed during all other concerts.
   CCI Systems worked closely with Harman Professional Projects Group and the JBL Professional Custom Shop. JBL fabricated the compact cluster components and stage-lip speakers. The total price of Benaroya Hall's first phase was about $400,000.
   "For us, the project had three complementary aspects," Simonson acknowledges. "First, the system had to offer outstanding sonic performance with excellent medium-frequency dispersion into the auditorium. Second, it had to respect the acoustics environment of Benaroya Hall. And, third, it needed to respect the hall's aesthetics. It was a unique challenge, and one that needed a particular sensitivity."

Working closely with CCI, Brad Ricks from Harman Professional Projects Group supervised specification and design of components for the center array, with technical assistance from JBL's Custom Shop. "CCI was responsible for designing the mechanical assembly," Ricks offers, "while HPPG designed the speaker elements and ensured that the system would cover the hall as evenly as possible and also fit into the small space we had available."
   To fulfill the design brief that called for a single speaker cluster for voice and vocal performances, what was needed was an entire system that could fit into the compact 4×10-foot space above the proscenium (see diagram right). The speaker cluster also had to be retractable, so it could be hidden away during orchestral concerts. (A moving scrim mounted in front of the array ensures that the audience remains unaware of the cluster's presence.)
   HPPG developed a specification that included separate HF and MF enclosures, plus angled HF horns. "Another consideration," Simonson stresses, "was future compatibility with the [phase two] VerTec Series cabinets, so that the final system could be run as a left-center-right configuration with full compatibility between all three arrays." As a result, CCI and HPPG selected JBL Model 2250 mid-range drives, identical to those used in the VerTec VT4889 three-way line array system. (Each VT 4889 enclosure includes two 2255 15-inch LF drivers, four 2250H 8-inch MF drivers and three 2435 HF drivers on WaveFormers.)
   In the center cluster, a pair of LF cabinets house two JBL Model 2226 15-inch transducers in separate 46×15.6-inch cabinets. "That was quite a feat," says Simonson. "Because of tight space restrictions, we had to make each cabinet as narrow as we could. There was simply no extra room available in the aperture." Each of the four 2226 drivers can handle 600 watts AES continuous pink noise. They feature a 4-inch edge-wound aluminum ribbon voice coil in an SFG magnet structure using JBL's vented gap cooling technology.
   High frequencies are handled by a total of five assemblies aimed at sections of the audience. On each side of the array are mounted a pair of JBL Model 2352 medium-format, optimized-aperture bi-radial units splayed 45° off-axis, along with a pair of Model 2352s and an additional 2352 horn aimed downwards. The 2300 Series comprises 1.5-inch throat horns with different coverage patterns: Model 2352 offers 90°×50° nominal dispersion. Each horn receives a Model 2451H-SL compression driver that incorporates a 4-inch pure titanium diaphragm with radial-rib topology and a 4-inch edge-wound aluminum voice coil. The design offers a quoted 100 watts of continuous program power handling when used above 500 Hz, and 150 watts above 1 kHz.
   Nine Model 2250J 8-inch midrange cone transducers are mounted within a separate MF cabinet measuring 23.5 inches wide by 40 inches tall. The lower left corner has been truncated to accommodate the dispersion pattern of the HF horns. Capable of handling 350 watts, the 2250 midrange cone driver features dual voice coils, neodymium magnet and large heat sinks.
   "HPPG's Brad Ricks designed the mid-frequency line array using the [Model 2250J] 8-inch drivers," Simonson explains. "Brad created an MF line array design that worked fabulously in the hall. He worked with me for the first couple of days during commissioning, and I was very impressed with this product. HPPG's ability to develop custom products like this for specific applications has really enhanced our resources when we tackle unique and difficult projects."
   "The MF array works from 300 to 1100 Hz," Ricks says. "It provides a single, vertically asymmetrical lobe of energy into the room that evenly covers 90 percent of the audience areas to within ±2 dB throughout its bandwidth. This coverage was crucial to the system's success since, due to space constraints, we could not consider using mid-frequency horns."
   According to Andrew Rutkin, director of custom project engineering at JBL's Custom Shop, "The project was [like] trying to squeeze a quart into a pint pot. With space being at such a premium — resulting in small cabinet sizes — heat buildup was a critical consideration. We needed to make sure that the boxes were well-ventilated. It was fortunate that we needed to cut away the front corner of the MF cabinet to offer better HD coverage, since it also allowed for more cooling to internal components."
   The design team used physical spacing, aiming and extensive Soundweb digital signal processing to ensure adequate vertical coverage from the cluster. The process, from specification to design and fabrication of the cluster at JBL's Custom Shop, took around a month. "It was a one-shot deal, so we had to get it right the first time."


The entire center cluster needed to be able to extend some 42 inches into the auditorium, and be retractable during orchestral performances. "Per the client's request, we designed and fabricated a hand-operated trolley system with flexible cabling that would not become snagged during movement of the speaker array," Simonson recalls. CCI also needed to add extra security straps. "Working with the consulting structural engineer, SWMB of Seattle, we integrated safety restraints so the system would be safe during earthquakes, and we ensured that the cantilevered trolley could not fall forward into the auditorium."
   System viewDesign of the extension trolley system was handled by CCI's John Garrison. "We CAD-designed the rig in-house," he offers, "and then had it fabricated out of house. We pre-assembled it here in our shop, took it apart and then reassembled it on-site (pictured left). The installation process in Seattle went very smoothly. We were able to rig the system in just two days, using a crew of four."

   The central array is powered by a number of existing amplifiers located in an adjacent equipment room, plus additional Crown Macro-Tech VZ Series MA5200 units. A number of BSS Soundweb 9008 ii networked controllers handle signal distribution for the central cluster, including DSP, delay and EQ.
   Since the front section of the audience would fall outside of the cluster's primary dispersion pattern, CCI decided to add supplemental speakers mounted along the lip of the stage. "Since sight lines were so critical, the JBL Custom Shop developed some amazing portable speakers that are only 5 inches tall," Simonson says. "The eight JBL UCF 2531 units are powered by a Crown MA3600 amplifier, with all cabling recessed into the stage."
    "The lip speakers were designed to a tight size and performance specification," says Andrew Rutkin of JBL's Custom Shop. "For each cabinet, we specified dual 4-inch low-frequency drivers, plus a pair of 1-inch dome tweeters stacked vertically. We needed to maintain vertical pattern control as much as possible and eliminate feedback by attenuating high frequencies." Despite the components it includes, the design features a small frontal area. "Squeezing 4-inch LF drivers into a box that only measures 4.5 inches tall was some achievement!" Rutkin enthused.

To provide adequate sound coverage to patrons in the first- and second-tier boxes, who would not have line-of-sight with the primary central cluster, CCI Systems developed a distributed system that would put more direct sound energy into these areas. Simonson explains, "We specified a total of 56 JBL Model HTI6 box speakers powered by a bank of 6-channel Crown CP660 power amplifiers located in the lighting control room. A total of seven BSS Soundweb 9008ii signal processors/controllers, which provide individual delays, equalization and signal processing for each loudspeaker/amplifier combination, control the entire system to ensure patrons hear sound that is in sync with the onstage performance. Project electrical contractor, Burke Electric, pulled speaker-wiring runs from each individual speaker back to the amplifier rack. Ron Long, Burke's project manger, had the unenviable task of directing his crew in installing all of the system wiring in a fully finished space where one mistake could damage rare finishes that were critical to the hall's acoustics.

   "We spent a month determining how to best integrate the box-seat speakers with the complex and critical architecture of the hall," Simonson continues. Led by Benaroya's project manager, Andrew Clapham, the team worked closely with Benaroya Hall's acoustical designer, Dr. Cyril M. Harris, and project architect Jim Cade of LMN Architects [Benaroya Hall's designers]. The LMN design was unobtrusive, acoustically correct and blended in directly with the hall's architecture. According to Simonson, at one point Benaroya Hall's board members were brought in to see if they could detect any of the 80 or so new speakers. They were pleased to report that they saw no evidence of them whatsoever.

"The new vocal reinforcement sound system performs extremely well," Simonson states. "We wanted to provide high-quality sound reinforcement coverage throughout the entire auditorium, and we accomplished that. We spent three days aligning the central cluster with the distributed speakers to ensure high intelligibility in each of the boxes.
   The result was a true team effort," he continues, citing the talents of CCI Systems, Harman Professional Projects Group and Benaroya Hall's staff under project manager Andrew Clapham. "We received excellent feedback from the hall and gave them more than we said we would. The team met weekly from three months before the project started to two months afterward."
   The positive feelings are mutual. States theater operations director Chris Miller: "Working with CCI has been a very positive experience. We had one or two inevitable technical problems — including those hard-to-track electrical issues that always happen when you undertake a project of this complexity — but CCI worked doggedly to eliminate them for us. They were absolutely concerned that we were happy with the results. In that regard, the project was a great experience."
   Isacson Sabee echoes Miller's favorable opinion. "We are very pleased with the natural sound of the new system. And we like the fact that it is totally invisible to our patrons, yet capable of providing coverage across the entire audience area." She added that Benaroya Hall's acoustical designer Cyril Harris also agreed the system was a success, because of the quality of the installation and the way it blends with the hall visually.
   The system was unveiled in mid-September, with Danny Glover reading Abraham Lincoln's speeches and letters during Aaron Copland's Lincoln Portrait. During the pre-Christmas season, the system was used for the Yuletide Pops Concerts to amplify the choir and lead singers.
   Since the unveiling, Benaroya Hall has hosted a number of key performances, including Ravi Shankar and his daughter, and the Seattle Arts & Lecture Series with playwright Edward Albee and scientist Stephen J. Gould. Future opportunities to show off the system include the upcoming 44-week Seattle Symphony season, which will feature a number of pop music performances, similar to those during the Symphony's season last year with artists such as Natalie Cole and Nina Simone.
   "All in all," Chris Miller concludes, "the new system has exceeded our expectations."


Facility photographs (c)2002 Benaroya Hall. All rights reserved


©2023 Media&Marketing. All Rights Reserved. Last revised: February 20, 2023