Crystal Ballroom in Portland, OR: Natural Sound for a Loud Rock Venue

by Yu Howe
in Installations
The venue, now run by local brewpub company McMenamins, was originally built as a ballroom in 1914.
The venue, now run by local brewpub company McMenamins, was originally built as a ballroom in 1914.

Portland, Oregon’s Crystal Ballroom has enjoyed a storied existence since opening on the eve of World War I as Ringler’s Cotillion Hall. A live music venue since the 1960’s, when artists such as the Grateful Dead, Ike & Tina Turner and Buffalo Springfield performed, the historic building is starting a new chapter with a major audio equipment refresh, courtesy of design, sales and integration company Tone Proper AV, located in nearby Gresham, OR.

The latest incarnation of the ballroom began in 1997 when McMenamins, a family-owned Pacific Northwest hospitality business, acquired the 20th-century Romanesque building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Buildings. After experiencing a ShowMatch system, they made their decision to go with Bose. “Everybody said it was a huge improvement,” says Nick Moon, owner of Tone Proper AV, the integrator who installed the system. “And all of their guys were freaking out about how much better it was” than the previously installed speaker system.

The room, which accommodates 1,500 standing customers, is not without its challenges. The trapezoidal floor plan measures approximately 130 feet front to back and tapers significantly in width from the semi-circular stage, tucked into a front corner, to the rear bar. Adding to the challenge, the angled wall features eight massive windows.

Switchfoot performs through a Bose Professional ShowMatch loudspeaker system at Crystal Ballroom, Feb. 2, 2017.

“If you were to install a traditional line array in this room, you would have wasted 50 percent of that array’s energy just blasting the glass,” observes Moon. Working with Bose Modeler software in consultation with the team at Bose Pro, he configured the left and right hangs with eight modules each: six SM5 (with 5°of vertical dispersion), one SM10 (10°) and an SM20 (20°) per array.

The horizontal waveguides on each module of the stage right array direct the energy away from the windows. “It’s asymmetrical, that blows people’s minds a little bit,” he says. The waveguides on the upper six SM5 boxes are set at 55° and 70° , and the SM10 and SM20 at the bottom are 100° and 120°, respectively.

“What’s cool is that they do it mechanically, not with DSP; a lot of manufacturers are going in the opposite direction,” Moon adds. “Doing it mechanically with the waveguide is cost-effective, and it works. And the proof is in the pudding, because we’re putting the energy where we want it, and it sounds really good. Many experienced mix engineers have stated it’s the first time in that room that they’ve heard a stereo perspective; I agree.”

Twelve ShowMatch SMS118 subwoofers are ground-stacked six wide and two high against the curved front of the stage. “We time-aligned all of them and got everything phase-aligned,” he says. “We deployed a cardioid array to create a null at the lead singer position on stage. If you’re playing bass-heavy music and you’re where the singer is, it’s tight, not boomy.”

A closeup of a Bose Professional ShowMatch array at Crystal Ballroom in Portland.

To cover those audience members standing front and center, Moon installed two SM20 modules for front fill; they sit atop the subs. “There’s a balcony about a hundred feet back where we have three Room Match Utility RMU208s providing under-balcony coverage,” he notes.

“We’re running the whole thing bi-amped with 12 PowerMatch PM8500N amplifiers, so we’re able to do high frequency shading on each module,” says Moon. There is power to spare: “We’re 10 dB away from clipping, so we have tons of headroom.”

Processing for the PA includes a Bose ControlSpace ESP-00 II engineered sound processor configured with a single AES3 8-channel input card as well as one Dante card, one ESPlink 8-channel output card, two four-channel mic/line input cards and two four-channel line output cards. This configuration provides a high level of flexibility for visiting engineers when they bring their own desks to the venue,” says Moon.

“Bose ControlSpace software gives you the ability to really do whatever you want. They have limiters set to where they need to be, and we have a very modest EQ, along with the cardioid subs. But if you’re not super familiar with everything, you could damage things, so we’ll give them a basic laptop to log in under the approval of whoever is running the rig that night, in case they want to defeat the cardioid subs, or simply have real-time monitoring capability.”

One of the prerequisites for the new system was that there needed to be a lot of floor monitors, and they needed to be loud, says Moon. “One of the guys there is a JBL fan, so we demoed the JBL VTX M20 system about six months ago. There are 12 monitors — six are VTX M20 powered by Crown iTech HDs, the others are VRX 915Ms.”

Having plenty of floor wedges makes a lot of sense now that wireless mics and in-ears are having to move out of the 600 MHz band. “We do have a Sennheiser 300 Series G3 system with active antennas, but if a show has as many as six handhelds and then you do four channels of in-ears, you’re using up the 500 MHz slice pretty quick,” he says.

A Midas PRO2 console at FOH and another for monitors drive the system. “All of the I/O to the DL251 interfaces is side-stage at monitorworld,” says Moon. “We’re doing an analog split, because no one is comfortable with the digital thing and who has control of the head amp. You’re not dealing with software. It’s a ProCo 48x8 with transformer isolation. The transformers are expensive, but it’s important for a venue like this, doing almost a show every night, to keep it as bulletproof as possible.”

Moon, a big fan of custom cabling, has built four 200-foot assemblies using ProCo Duracat harnessed in braided material, with Neutrik EtherCon connectors shrink-wrapped on either end. “So we have a great redundant Cat 6 system that has enough bandwidth to do anything,” he says.

Tone Proper AV has also implemented a Motion Labs power distribution system. “We put in our own custom power setup. We have a Camloc 208VAC 3-phase distro. That shoots to MotionLabs’ non-customizable RackPacks setup — one at monitorworld, one at front of house and three in the amp rack. Then there’s a couple for stage power, big steel boxes with an L2130 and six PowerCon outs, all 20-amp breakered.”

In summarizing the installation, Moon stated “ShowMatch is a very natural-sounding box, and, for a loud rock venue, you can put a lot of power in a very small footprint,” he says. More importantly, anyone playing both venues could take the show file from one show to the next and be ready to go in next to no time.

“That’s a big selling point. I’ve been on tour as a front-of-house guy, a monitor guy and a production manager, and that would be music to my ears.”