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A Line Array for the Munich Philharmonie
Even at top cultural institutions, there's no escaping the need to keep an eye on the bottom line. So when the management of the Gasteig Kulturzentrum, Munich's boldly modern concert center, realized the impact that sound reinforcement rentals were having on their budget, they decided to invest in a smarter way of meeting their needs. Newly equipped with a line array of self-powered Meyer Sound loudspeakers, the facility is now not only covering its own performances, but has actually been able to offset sound reinforcement costs by hiring out its sound system for performances. We recently had the opportunity to see and hear the new, meticulously-crafted system in its home at the Gasteig, and to interview Peter Brümmer, the sound engineer in charge.
A towering presence on the bank of the River Isar, the Gasteig serves many functions in the city's cultural life. It's home to the Municipal Library (the largest in Germany), the Volkshochschule (adult education centre), and the Richard Strauss Conservatory. It's also the main venue for the Munich Film Festival. Additionally, the structure houses no less than four performance halls, including the Kleine Konzertsaal (the Small Concert Hall), the larger Carl-Orff-Saal, and the Black Box Stage for music, theatre, lectures, often used as an experimental venue for more avant-garde works. At the core of the building is the Munich Philharmonie, a classical concert hall with 2,387 seats on several offset levels accessed via a labyrinth of staircases.
The Philharmonie made do without its own PA system for many years, but that doesn't mean that the sound was satisfactory to every listener. Very soon after construction was completed in 1985, a system of acoustic "sails" was installed to shorten the length of ceiling reflection times in the hope that orchestra musicians would be able to hear each other's playing more precisely. Even so, experienced audience members attending concerts without sound reinforcement could often be seen migrating shortly after the start of the music to unclaimed seats in areas with the best acoustics.
In addition to classical music, the Philharmonie has been used steadily for other performances including rock bands, famous jazz artists, tap dancers, and quite a few pop stars. Until recently, the PA system for such events was rented on a show-by-show basis.
On the day we visited, the Gasteig's rust-colored exterior offered a warm contrast to the chilly gray skies overhead. Inside, Brümmer explained that the old system had been rented from a German manufacturer. "The sound was OK," he said, "but the transmission was nowhere near as consistent as now. You could hear several transitions between coverage zones just like with conventional speaker clusters."
With the new Meyer Sound system, the first two-thirds of the room are served by M1D ultra-compact curvilinear array loudspeakers, a total of 18 in all. The back part of the auditorium is reached via bigger M2D compact curvilinear array loudspeakers. The speakers are grouped in three speaker clusters that each hang on a traverse. When they are not in use, they can be either moved up under the ceiling to hide them from view or easily removed. Horizontal alignment is facilitated by laser pointers integrated into the grid and pointed at distinct locations in the auditorium seating area.
The main system also uses two 650-P high-power subwoofers, each positioned on side lighting gondolas, tucking them out of sight from below. The subs cover the 28 - 55 Hz frequency range using dual 18-inch speakers.
Working together with the mains are a dozen MM-4 miniature wide-range loudspeakers installed close to the stage as front-fills. The tiny enclosures (edge lengths of just 10 cm) are so visually unobtrusive in their aluminum housings that one person in our group didn't notice them, observing after the presentation: "Meyer did without near-fills." They are, however, an important part of the system. Using a four-inch cone, they can handle up to 600 Watts for each set of four speakers, and they offer exceptionally large headroom to ensure that they don't clip and suddenly make a bad impression.
To show us what the system can do, Brümmer inserted a CD, and the Philharmonie blossomed with sound. We climbed the stairs and strolled from one side to the other, listening as we went. We found the transitions to be smooth not only in the horizontal but also between the individual clusters and towards the top. And the consistency of the speakers is really incredible, with the smaller systems having the same sound characteristics as the large line arrays. That's not just the manufacturer's advertising slogan; you can really hear it! The precision and clarity of the sound was simply astonishing, making us wish we'd brought along our own current favorite CDs for a listen.
Sound Engineering + Acoustics: An Interview with Peter Brümmer, Gasteig
Peter Brümmer is the sound engineer in charge at the Munich Gasteig. He achieved the extraordinary sound in the Philharmonie by collaborating with Michael Pohl and Thomas Mundorf, who conducted a series of meticulous SIM tests.
pma: What were the reasons for choosing Meyer Sound?
Peter Brümmer: Two or three years ago, the management here was thinking about installing a comprehensive PA system. The system was to be installed in such a manner that it could be moved into the roof so that it was invisible, but that would have been really expensive. So after a while it became clear to us that if we were to proceed in that way, having our own system just wouldn't happen. A construction planning office did tests with the systems that we had rented at the time and it was established that it didn't make sense to work with delay lines here.
At that time, line arrays were just being introduced, and I suggested that we give them a try. So we tried out dV-DOSC from L-Acoustics and the large VerTec from JBL. We came up with the idea of inviting the different manufacturers to come here, check out the hall, come up with a concept, and present their individual solutions.
Four manufacturers showed up. Each had one day to install a system here and demonstrate it. This strictly subjective audio test happened in September and October of last year. For the tests, we asked about certain standards, played certain CDs, made our own measurements with a small test site, pink noise and voice files at a certain level and at different locations. We were able to use these different snapshots for comparison purposes. We also included external parties, and even had some vocational school classes here, mostly event-engineering students, but, of course, also the Gasteig's experts. We passed out questionnaires to all of them, and I made my decision based on the overall feedback. It became clear that Meyer was a good choice, and that's what happened in the end.
pma: Was the decision difficult?
PB: Yes, I spent quite a few sleepless nights over it. There was a colleague, a sound technician, who had a different opinion, but I managed to convince him in the end, and now all of us are very satisfied. When the system was installed and we did the first few jobs, I was really happy.
pma: When you compare the four systems that you listened to here, which factor was the most important for your decision?
PB: There were many different factors. This product offered very consistent horizontal coverage, for example. The speakers have a very broad dispersion angle of some 100 degrees. Other manufacturers offer big angles, too, but only Meyer Sound really keeps their promises. The performance of systems from other manufacturers during practical tests was just not as good. Another point was the consistent transition between the speakers as you ascend vertically. We can do that really well here. And we had quite a few problems with speakers from other manufacturers, where you could hear the vertical transitions quite a bit.
When Meyer Sound installed their system and we put a CD in and played it, the first impression was simply amazing. When you're a sound engineer, you're not used to hearing high frequencies like that. And when you hear that for the first time, you think: Oh my goodness, isn't it a little bit much on the top end? But when you have gotten used to it and start to appreciate the fact that you can get voice clarity at lower levels without having all those hissing sounds from boosting high frequencies at the mixing console, but, rather, clarity, you don't want to go without that anymore.
Another important reason for our decision was Michael Pohl's incredible customer service. They installed in only four weeks after our order, and it only took them two days. And in our preferred color! Other manufacturers wanted an additional fee for a custom color or could only offer the custom color for part of the system, i.e. the handles and fittings would still have been black, only the wood and the front membranes would have been in our color. At Meyer Sound, they simply said, "Of course you can get the system entirely in the color you choose."
Another factor was the guaranteed delivery date. Other manufacturers said, "February would be good for us, we can do it then." But, by then, the Meyer Sound system had already paid for part of its cost.
pma: Paid for its cost? What do you mean? Are you renting the system out?
PB: Sure. When a touring production wants to perform here, we also offer them the PA system. Of course, it's up to them to decide whether they want to use it or not. Many use our PA, because they get the perfect system for this particular concert hall, plus they save two hours of setup. Of course, others say that they only use their own PA, and they install their system alongside ours. If we have to uninstall our system, we have to charge for it, of course.
pma: At which types of events do you use the system?
PB: At all kinds. We're more or less a multi-purpose hall here. Yesterday we had some light opera, so we had to amplify the singers, then we had a tap dancing event.
pma: The Meyer Sound line array is an active system. Was it your favorite from the start?
PB: Well, at first I thought about three-phase current on the traverse and then the amps up there where you never get to, and the sound from the fans — you have so many prejudices. But I got over these concerns and simply trusted the guys from Meyer Sound. And now I know that nothing is ever going to go wrong, it's just a really good quality system.
pma: Is there a way to control the system?
PB: Yes, that's what the remote monitoring system (RMS) is for. You can use it to view the individual speakers on your laptop via the network. The smaller MM-4s are not monitored, because they are passive, but all other systems' drivers can be monitored, you can read the fan speed and you see at what time the limiters respond, as well as the temperatures of all amplifiers. It is so detailed that there is no way manufacturers of passive systems could possibly keep up.
pma: Do you really use the detailed information? Is it really useful?
PB: Well, at the Gasteig, we just started doing so. Recently we had the Shaolin monks here, and their sound engineer knew the system and used it accordingly. However, I'm sure that we will use it more and more ourselves in the future.
pma: Can we expect to hear the Munich Philharmoniker playing over your line array system?
PB: No, definitely not. Don't forget that the Philharmonie was especially built for a large orchestra. There are exceptions, of course. Once, we were supposed to amplify a cello, but that was a bit of a comical occurrence. Although it did work pretty well.
pma: But you could help a little here and there.
PB: Yes, we did that with the light opera recently. All the singers had microphones, because they just didn't cut through the large orchestra. On the other hand, we had to support the orchestra a bit in the back of the auditorium so that it could compete with the amplified voices. We were able to because it's possible to run the system with up to eight individual signals. So we covered the orchestra with hanging Schoeps microphones and transferred the signal only to the upper M2D, the ones that radiate only to the far back. The result was simply perfect.
Original PMA Story (in German) (177k PDF)