Toronto’s Historic Massey Hall Shines with New Audio System

by Thomas S. Friedman
in Installations
The ceiling and side balcony seating presented challenges that called for an intricate solution. The venue now features a versatile and modern d&b audiotechnik system. Photo by Neal Burstyn
The ceiling and side balcony seating presented challenges that called for an intricate solution. The venue now features a versatile and modern d&b audiotechnik system. Photo by Neal Burstyn

If Toronto was the capital of the U.K., then Massey Hall might reasonably be named the Royal Albert Hall. This is no fanciful comparison. Both are, in the absolute sense of the word, iconic venues for their respective cities and share a common era, being built within just a few years of each other in the late 19th century.

Massey Music Hall, as it looked back in 1910.

But in terms of acoustics, both are bedeviled by what (in polite circles) might be called an “idiosyncratic” character. Venue management opted to address these quirks by embarking on phase one of a $135 million (Canadian) revitalization project. And by using technologies that didn’t exist a century ago, they have improved the listening experience for contemporary — and future — audiences.

“My ambition as a sound guy was to see Massey have a system of its own,” says Martin Van Dijk of Toronto-based consultants Engineering Harmonics, noting that his long association with Massey Hall. “Before I became a consultant, I was a sound engineer, so I’ve known this venue as a user and consultant for decades.”

The venue now features a versatile and modern d&b audiotechnik system.Photo by Neal Burstyn

‡‡         Acoustic Challenges

Massey’s director of production, Doug McKendrick, credits Van Dijk for his work on the venue’s behalf since at least 2003. Having designed its original fill system, Van Dijk’s knowledge of the venue’s unique acoustic character, McKendrick adds, made all the difference for the venue’s design and installation of a new d&b audiotechnik system.

“Since the early days of amplified performance, a lot of the touring acts that visited had typical systems; left/right mains, and in the last couple of decades maybe a bit of frontfill,” McKendrick explains. “But nothing that could address the unique acoustics of the venue.”

At Massey Hall, McKendrick notes, “sound radiates off the stage via the barrel-vaulted roof into the back of the balcony and the peripheral seats. A loud monitor system on stage could lift off into the room and ruin the sound in the upper gallery. As a venue, you do get stray reflections, and at Massey, more than many — not least from those ornate roof beams. So over time, we designed a fill system and center hang that could support such touring systems.”

‡‡         Selecting and Installing the System

The selection process was rigorous. “With such a major refurbishment to consider, we did a lot of research,” says McKendrick. “Two things came out of that. Massey doesn’t have the ability to hang another system, so if a touring production doesn’t want to use the house P.A., we have to pull ours out, and that’s not an easy option. So we really wanted to make sure the new system was as universally acceptable as possible. We also noted that many higher-profile artists that play here with their own systems frequently brought in d&b J-Series.”

To optimize audio quality for visiting artists, the venue made use of the Van Dijk-designed proscenium fills combined with various rented left/right mains. “We offered visiting shows up to three different brands via our preferred audio vendor, Solotech,” McKendrick says. “So what we had wasn’t always J-Series, but when we offered the three options, the most consistent choice was J-Series.”

A former touring engineer himself, McKendrick followed the tide of opinion. “Selecting d&b was a decision I was comfortable with. I’d used J, V and even the older Q-Series and C4 point source systems in my career, so I knew the d&b approach. I liked the consistency of their equipment.”

To help implement Van Dijk’s design — and meet stringent time constraints — McKendrick turned to Trevor Nash of d&b Canada and Mark Radu of Solotech. “With Solotech’s long association with the venue, engaging them in the process made sense,” McKendrick says. “The installation would be an extremely accelerated process. We had about one month from beginning to end.”

Within that time frame, Radu notes, “we basically had 10 days to get all the hardware in and up. With the fill system, we were able to use about 75 percent of the existing cable and were able to pull the new wire beforehand.”

‡‡         A Complex, but Successful, Setup

The key to the new system’s success, McKendrick says, is the way the new fill system and center array works with the L-R main hangs. But with all those components, the system “is bigger than anything we’d put up before, and we didn’t have the structural capacity for that. So we had work done in the roof to ensure we could rig the system we wanted. That’s another reason for bringing forward the P.A. change into the first phase of refurbishment, so we didn’t have a destructive influence on phase two.”

d&b Canada’s Trevor Nash details the complexity of the final setup, which makes use of an inverted sequence of system components from left to center to right. “Mains are left/right hangs of J8, with three J12 at the bottom. The center array is an inversion of the mains — a hang of J12, with three J8s at the bottom.”

The system is powered with d&b’s 30D, D80 and 10D amplifiers, Nash notes, which offer onboard DSP and networked control/monitoring. LF punch comes from 12 d&b V-SUBs and four J-SUBs; all are cardioid.

The J8 component at the bottom of the center array serves as the starting point of Van Dijk’s intricate fill design, Nash adds. “That’s entirely his concept, and the fills really are the key. The proscenium wall has a single point source Yi7P at three levels each side: orchestra, gallery and balcony. Lower sides of the balcony have a pair of E8s either side, and Yi7Ps do the same job as the E8s but for the sides of the gallery. There are also 10S-Ds, one at each corner of the balcony and gallery. For under-balcony fill, we use E6s, and across the stage lip for frontfills we have Yi7Ps. Finally, for the top center section of the gallery (where there is a little lift to the seating, adding maybe 12 to 14 extra rows to the upper center section), there are six Vi12s for a delay fill.

“We applied [d&b’s] ArrayProcessing to the center array to maximize and unify its performance across the listening area,” Nash says. The resulting system, he says, helps the space optimize sound for a wide variety of acts and artists. “A solo artist with an acoustic guitar, using just the center array and the fill system, can cover the room perfectly. For a full-on rock show, bring the left/right mains into use, back off the center array to a fill role, and use the fills elsewhere to energize the room.”

The 121-year old Massey Music Hall is the pride of Toronto.

‡‡         Ready for the Future

Solotech’s Radu, as an outside contractor, offered his own personal perspective on the outcome. “Between us, Martin and Doug, we have maybe 50 years Massey Hall experience. That meant we all have a good understanding of what does and doesn’t work in that venue. I think we really nailed it — the new system sounds absolutely amazing.”

Van Dijk was also pleased with the result. “The fill system, as designed and installed, is a set of tools that allows the system to respond to a variety of performance types,” he says. “The center array is a really important instrument in that equation; its role is to cover much of the audience, rear of house, and upper gallery. The advantage of this set of tools is that not only is the current experience improved, we can also respond to other performance styles that the hall intends to bring in later, once phase two is completed.”

By investing it its new, versatile sound system, Massey Hall appears to be better prepared to showcase a variety current and future performances. “We already do a wide range of performances in here: spoken word, rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, comedy, classical, classical pop and corporate — everything, in fact,” McKendrick says. “And we are even more ambitious for the future in what we might offer. That’s what this new system allows us to do.”

Inside the Massey Music Hall

  • Opened: July 1894
  • Capacity: Approx. 2,750
  • Key Components: d&b audiotechnik J8, J12
  • Consultants: Engineering Harmonics
  • Designers: Martin Van Dijk, Doug McKendrick, Trevor Nash, Mark Radu
  • Integrator: Solotech