Living Sound Meets Living Art

I've always considered the high end to be industrial art. People who favor a certain brand are saying, in a way, "I like that designer's interpretation. I like his or her art."David Wilson

Last March, I had a rare experience akin to hearing the same recording through two different systems. I heard Andris Nelsons conduct the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in the same program—Haydn's Symphony 90, and Brahms's Variations on a Theme by Haydn, followed by his Symphony 3—in two very different venues: UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall and, 50 miles north, Sonoma State University's Weill Hall.

To say that the two experiences were miles apart is to speak more than literally. Zellerbach, a multipurpose theater designed with no regard for acoustics, is a dead shell of concrete. The installation of Meyer Sound's Constellation electronic acoustic-reinforcement system has added some much-needed air and reverberation, but there's no getting around the fact that, in Zellerbach, the VPO's famously rich sound was relatively flat and colorless.

Things couldn't have been more different in Weill Hall, whose 1400 golden seats are handcrafted of steamed European beech. From where I sat, at virtually the same distance from the stage as my seat in Zellerbach, the VPO sounded infinitely more illumined and alive. For the first time, I was able to hear why many consider it the finest orchestra in the world. The strings, which sounded undistinguished in Zellerbach, revealed their fabled silken essence in Weill. I could also finally hear that the VPO's historic brass, woodwind, and percussion instruments projected a more expressive color palette than their modern counterparts.

Most startling were the music's thrilling dynamic climaxes. Only in Weill could I hear how Nelsons had constructed his program as a dynamic ascent that began with reduced orchestral forces and built to a huge expanse. Compared with Zellerbach, listening in Weill was akin to upgrading from the squashed dynamics of CD via boom box to the soul-satisfying expanse of high-resolution audio through a superb system.

Weill Hall is modeled after Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood, in Lenox and Stockbridge, Massachusetts, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Ozawa Hall is, in turn, modeled after the VPO's own home venue, the Golden Hall of Vienna's Musikverein. Hearing the Vienna Philharmonic in either US hall is the closest one can get to hearing it in the Viennese hall to which it has tuned its sound to perfection since 1870.

It was for this reason that I sent word of the concert to Dave Wilson, founder of Wilson Audio Specialties, who has as a design goal for his loudspeakers the faithful reproduction of the sound of the VPO in the Golden Hall. Thus did Wilson and his wife, Sheryl Lee, join my husband, David, and me for one of the most memorable nights of music making I've experienced.

After the delicious encore, Seid umschlungen, Millionen! (Be Embraced, you Millions!)—an extended waltz by Johann Strauss Jr. that the VPO performed with such idiomatic relish that it felt as if we'd been transported to a 19th-century Vienna café awash in Gemütlichkeit—Wilson discussed the different acoustic properties of Weill and the Musikverein. Given that he'd spent entire days in the Musikverein during VPO rehearsals, and had also attended their rehearsal in Weill, Wilson was able to contrast the sounds of the two halls, then draw parallels to the challenges faced by speaker designers and recording engineers.

Wilson knew that both halls have similarly rectangular proportions and features. Each has a tall ceiling that provides an extended reverberation time of 1.7–2 seconds, and sound-diffusive architectural features that reduce glare. Their stages, both close to 65' wide, facilitate good early reflection of instrumental sounds. "As a result, the interval between the direct sound and the first reflected sound is not so long," Wilson said. "The direct sounds are connected with the reflected sounds, which are rich in harmonics. This enables both acoustics to convey sound in a musically correct way."

What distinguishes the Musikverein from other halls, said Wilson, is its brilliance of sound. "Weill doesn't have quite the high-frequency air to it that the Musikverein does. I think it's because of the Musikverein's high Surface Diffusivity Index (SDI). There's no objective measurement of SDI—it's generally ascertained visually. But one distinctive feature of the Musikverein is its 32 statues of buxom beauties, whose rounded features diffuse high frequencies in a way that the vertical diffusive features of Weill Hall cannot."

Then Wilson began to draw parallels between the work of acousticians, recording engineers, and loudspeaker designers. First, he mentioned that the best speaker designers incorporate diffusive features, similar to those found in great halls, to break up standing waves. Then he noted how important it is to enable a loudspeaker to reproduce a sound akin to the mix a good recording engineer achieves when blending feeds from microphones placed close to instruments with others placed farther back in the hall. (It may not be the same mix of direct and reflected sound that one hears in one of the sweet spots of a great concert hall, but it's certainly a valid artistic variation thereof.) In the end, he implied, designers of loudspeakers and other audio equipment can faithfully reproduce what has been recorded only to the extent that they are familiar with both the sounds of live music and the means by which the best recording engineers capture those sounds.

Some audio systems deliver dark, romantic sounds; others sound far more illumined and detailed. Having now heard the Vienna Philharmonic in two radically different acoustics, only one of which delivers sound close to what's heard by the engineers who record the orchestra in its Golden Hall, I know which system I'd choose.—Jason Victor Serinus

Osgood Crinkly III's picture

Zellerbach is one of the worst halls I've ever heard. Its ugly, grey, bare concrete walls, with their endless angles, corners and projections, soak up sound like foam. The room is acoustically dead. And the seats creak loudly, adding to the already prominent audience noise. It's even worse than Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco, home of the SF Symphony, which was designed so poorly that large sheets of plastic had to be hung from the ceiling, high above the stage, to reflect sound. In both these halls, appearance takes priority over function, which is typical of Bay Area structures (e.g., the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge and San Francisco Public Library).

Much better is Hertz Hall, also on the UC Berkeley campus. Its a wooden room, much smaller than Zellerbach, with a warm, intimate, detailed and natural sound. It's smaller size, however, limits the performances it can accommodate.

Robin Landseadel's picture

Not quite. I've recorded concerts in the general vicinity of Berkeley many times, Zellerbach, Hertz, Wheeler, First Congregational Church and so on. Hertz Hall has an outstanding flaw—the walls are far too parallel, no curve, no ornaments. This results in major phase cancellation if one is performing in the usual spot of center proscenium. What reverb there is manages to be as threadbare as Zellerbach. Jordi Savall, Montserrat Figueras and the rest of Hesperion XX were all collected on far stage left during their performance at one of the Early Musical Festivals about twenty summers ago. Much more impact and volume than the sound coming from dead center. Wheeler is a nice place for something small and low in volume, nothing to write home about, nothing terrible either. First Congregational Church, modeled after a Church in Leipzig famed for its acoustics, is wonderful in the first few rows, great in the balcony, becoming more blended and vague further in. Wonderful for vocalists with big voices. Probably the best sounding edifice suitable for musical performance near U.C. Berkeley. Too bad it's also a bus stop, about 30 feet from audience left, one announcing its presence about every 10 to 20 minutes during every concert held there.

On Fleetwood Mac's "Rumors", just Christine McVie singing and playing "Songbird", you can easily hear the "Sound" of Zellerbach.

Osgood Crinkly III's picture

You, Mr. Landseadel, and I are talking about 2 different experiences. You're talking about hearing performances thru mics & earphones, I'm talking about listening to them as an audience member. Never heard any dropout due to "phase cancellation" anywhere in Hertz Hall, Berkeley. It's just not perceptible in the audience, and I've sat dead center a few rows from the stage, as well as everywhere else in the hall.

Zellerbach is just flat out awful, the worst. I've sat everywhere there, too, including on-stage and in the balcony, and it still sucked. And the room is butt-ugly.

First Congregational is nothing special, just a room. You might as well talk about Trinity Chapel, St. Marks, the old Maybeck recital hall, or any of the other classical music venues in Berkeley and environs: they're all the same, just rooms, nothing special. Isn't it typical that Berkeley elevates its nondescript mediocrity to something it isn't?

And sorry, anyone who quotes Bill Clinton's campaign music, "Rumors," is suspect for lack of taste AND judgement. Am sure neither you nor Mr. Clinton ever heard the real thing, Peter Green's original Fleetwood Mac.

Robin Landseadel's picture

It's not as if I wasn't listening in the room at Hertz Hall, with other people, who were setting up for performance and also noting the phase cancellation in the room. A number of performers moved from their usual center spot after sitting in the room, hearing what the other members of their ensemble sounded like dead center. I recall a Chanticleer performance at Hertz Hall that didn't take off essentially because the room made it hard for the group to hear each other. I've recorded at the other sites you mentioned. I'm not certain why you are displaying such attitude in your response but it sounds pointlessly contentious to me.

Osgood Crinkly III's picture

Misinformation on the internet is truly tedious and deserves nothing but contempt. The walls of the stage of Hertz Hall, Berkeley are not at all parallel, as you state. They are closer together at the back of the stage and wider apart at the front of the stage. Here's a picture of the stage:

I've seen lots of performances at Hertz Hall, Berkeley, including quiet, delicate harpsichord and clavier recitals, where performers sat in the center of the stage.

corrective_unconscious's picture

Have a web site? I did a limited search and didn't come up with anything but posts under your claimed name at a couple of sites.

Robin Landseadel's picture

I started [very amateur] in the late 1980's. In the 1990's I was recording engineer primarily for documentation for grants and radio re-broadcast. This included the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra, The Woman's Philharmonic, the San Francisco Early Music Society, the San Francisco Bach Choir and Kitka. I've got credits on about 20 CDs. Probably the best CD I worked on was Kitka's "Nectar". You can find that at Kitka's website:

I stopped recording in 1999. I do not have a web site, do not intend to return to recording concerts.

And for the record, Zellerbach is a nastier sounding room than Hertz. I never said, and would never say, that Zellerbach has better acoustics than Hertz. I am saying that Hertz has some serious sonic problems, perhaps more of a burden for performers than the audience.

Osgood Crinkly III's picture

I respect that. I know Hertz Hall only as a listener. In the San Francisco Area, to my knowledge, it's easily the best venue (which isn't saying much).

Halls fall roughly into 3 categories for me. Category one includes halls which enhance the listening experience and become part of it. These are few in number. Examples are the old Carnegie (prior to renovation), the recital auditorium in Julliard, Chicago Symph Hall, Westminster Abby (where I heard the Mass in Bm), and a 15 century church in Paris where I heard an organ recital (don't recall the name). Category two, into which the majority of venues fall, includes rooms that don't significantly effect the experience of music one way or another. In the Bay Area, this category includes First Congregational, St.Johns Presbyterian, St. Marks and Old First Churches, Julia Morgan Theater, Trinity Chapel, and the Green Room, Herbst Hall and the Opera House in San Francisco (the latter two being barely tolerable, but tolerable nevertheless). Category three consists of venues that seriously detract from the music; it includes Zellerbach (at the top of the list), Davies Symph Hall, and Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center. I'd have to really want to hear a particular performance to attend a concert in any of these latter halls.

jonahsdad's picture

Could someone explain it to me?

Where prior to that last paragraph is there any discussion of "dark romantic sounds"? Are you characterizing Zellerbach, earlier described as acoustically dead,flat and colorless, as dark and romantic? Is "dark and romantic" synonymous with "acoustically dead"?

corrective_unconscious's picture

Look, audiophiles flaming one another over venues for acoustic music performances rather than over cables.

As I live and breathe....

Robin Landseadel's picture

Can't exactly claim to be in a flame war as I have skirted the hyperbolic and the hostile. If this is a war it's pretty one-sided. I simply was making a few observations based on a decade's worth of recording at the venues mentioned. They seem in keeping with Jason's remarks about Zellerbach having too many plain surfaces, too much symmetry, not enough ornamentation/architectural features to offset standing waves and other sonic mishaps of modern performance spaces

For what it's worth, one of the jokes performers would make—"You why they call it 'Hertz' Hall? Because of the sound it makes."

Osgood Crinkly III's picture

No, you said that there is "phase cancellation" in the center of the Hertz Hall, Berkeley stage because the walls are parallel. I proved you wrong, with a picture which shows the walls are anything but parallel. Rather than admit you are wrong, typical of a passive-aggressive Berkeley snob, you pull a superior attitude because a) you claim you are directly involved with performances (can I get your autograph?) and 2) as you repeatedly remind us, you recorded music here and elsewhere. So what? Recordings are routinely made in these venues, not for professional release, but by amateurs, for amateur use, with amateur equipment. And then you pretend to be above the fray, but continue to take digs at me. So Berkeley.

I only mentioned Hertz Hall in passing. My main point was in support of the article, which holds that Zellerbach is an acoustic hell hole, which you denied (must be due to the reverberant glory of its prison-grey cement walls, floor and ceiling, eh?).

As for the moron who chaffed at people arguing about venues, this is an article about venues, not cables.

corrective_unconscious's picture

"As for the moron who chaffed at people arguing about venues, this is an article about venues, not cables."

Yes, that's what's so surprising...because it's audiophiles we're talking about.

corrective_unconscious's picture

Someone else used the headline, "Cream Puff War."

I've heard that spaces such as these concert halls are too large to have standing waves. They may have audible problems at various frequencies, including low ones, but the dimensions are too great to result in standing waves at audible frequencies. I heard.

Would you be willing to share some of your professional insights on this point?

Robin Landseadel's picture

I'm probably using the wrong term. Suffice to say that some rooms are easier for performers to hear each other, some not. Often to get good results, one has to use the room in ways that might seem unusual. Hertz Hall is one of those venues.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Let's put this whole thing to rest. Hertz Hall is not rectangular; the walls curve out, and the rows widen as you go farther back. Nor are the wood-paneled side walls flat; they consist of narrow vertical strips that stick out maybe 1/2 or 1 inch from the surface, with small spaces in between.

I can't speak to the issue of people not being able to hear each other onstage, because I usually attended vocal or piano recitals there. But, whenever possible, I moved toward the center, where the soundstage better coheres, and closer to the front. I had some truly great experiences there.

For recitals - for anything that fits on its stage, really - Hertz is far better than Herbst in SF. It's a crying shame that, once Herbst reopens, people will discover that only some of the acoustical modifications recommended by Larry Zellerbach have been done. The closure is for earthquake retrofitting, not remodeling. The sound will be about the same as it was after the first set of modifications. Anything short of ripping out the life-sucking paneling on the side walls will not do. A crying shame.

Robin Landseadel's picture

Hello Mr Serinus! We met some time ago, when we were both working for a Non-Profit in San Francisco. I recall an audio/musicophile visit to your digs in Oakland where you introduced me to the joys of classic opera voices of the '30's. Elizabeth Schumann, someone I never have heard previously comes to mind in particular. And for that I thank you. For what it's worth, I've been the proud owner of a Melodiya LP box of the complete recordings of Feodor Chaliapin since 1988. I doubt that would have happened without your musical influence.

As for being a congenital idiot, my apologies. I would like to point to something Jason Serinus scribed in article:

. . . What distinguishes the Musikverein from other halls, said Wilson, is its brilliance of sound. "Weill doesn't have quite the high-frequency air to it that the Musikverein does. I think it's because of the Musikverein's high Surface Diffusivity Index (SDI). There's no objective measurement of SDI—it's generally ascertained visually. But one distinctive feature of the Musikverein is its 32 statues of buxom beauties, whose rounded features diffuse high frequencies in a way that the vertical diffusive features of Weill Hall cannot." . . .

That notion of "Surface Diffusivity Index", I think that might have been on my mind as regards Hertz Hall. I would have to say that Hertz Hall's relative clarity and comparatively short reverb times would make it better for the audience than the microphone. Note that Harmonia Mundi recorded a number of Philharmonia Baroque's offerings at Hertz Hall, with variable results. In any case, I'd think it's safe to say that Hertz Hall has a low "SDI".

I wonder how much "SDI" might play into the physical design of a speaker? I also wonder how important reflected sound generated from bipolar or omni patters from speakers is in playback of Orchestral music? Magnapans and Quad ESLs come to mind.

From Osgood Crinkly III:

"Halls fall roughly into 3 categories for me. . ."

Agreed. I think it's meaningful in the context of the article—the notion of reproducing not only the performers, but the sound of a particular venue seems to get to the heart of the matter as regards a so-called "S.O.T.A." speaker design. And if a S.O.T.A loudspeaker can't reproduce Westminster Abby, then what's the point?

Mind you, I came to appreciate the wide variety of recording venues initially via recordings. The Astree recordings of Michel Bernstein were an ideal, the classic Argo Choral recordings being something of a benchmark for Choral sounds. Conversely, I've been in L.A.'s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and the Met in NYC and would place both in category 3. If I retained excessive fondness for Berkeley's First Congregation Church, it probably has something to do with the following:

It is very true that a place that's good for recording might not be good for an audience. And vice versa. The best example I can cite is Grace Cathedral, San Francisco. As a recording venue, it's like Manfred Eicher's dream. The main spire is built like an exponential horn. Very long echo. But there's few reflective surfaces with that previously cited "Surface Diffusivity Index" anywhere near the performers. But a lot of hard surfaces. Using ORTF [Neuman 140's] around eight feet from the performers, the sound pops from the speakers with wonderfully focused imaging. But if you're in the audience, you're hearing mush from the performers and a lot of breathing all around you.

And just in case anybody's still interested, Saint Stephen's Church, in Belvedere, has been happily deployed as a recording site for many Early Music/Chamber Music recordings. Not such a good acoustic for the audience. Too much "room sound."

Yes, reverb time was the important, critical factor I forgot to remember. I recorded a lot of choral music, choral groups generally like rooms with longer echo times. And longer reverb times aren't always so great for the audience.

Osgood Crinkly III's picture

Grace Cathedral has huge echos ("reflective sound"). It works only for limited types of music, for example, small choral or chamber groups and small-scale, new-age music, like Sheila Chandra, but it would be disastrous for most other types of music. As beautiful as the surroundings are, one could never listen to, say, a Shostakovitch symphony in that space. Because of its limitations, I don't even consider it a concert venue. In fact, there are only a limited number of concerts there every year.

Robin Landseadel's picture

As it was, Jan Gabarek and the Hilliard Ensemble were hard to hear in the middle of the room—most of the echo managed to blur the initial sound and the shuffling of the audience was far too audible. But I'm a recording of that performance with the microphones relatively close to the performers would sound fabulous.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

I thank you for doing your best to refresh my memory. All the brain cells that were firing when we met many years ago have long since met their maker, but Elisabeth Schumann remains in heavy rotation in my head and heart, and sometimes on my system. The reference system is down, but I've just put together a little living room set-up that gives hope of hearing her again soon.

Perhaps our paths will cross again at an audio show in the future, or at SFO in November if I make it down to cover a few opera openings for San Francisco Classical Voice. Until then, I'm glad to learn that my love of music brought Chaliapin into your life.

corrective_unconscious's picture

Reverberation time would principally be what determines whether musicians can hear one another or not.

You don't know that, you don't that standing waves are not a factor in large spaces, you don't know the basic geometry of the hall you are criticizing. You deny flaming anyone while yourself employing that subject line.

There is an entry with your moniker/id here at allmusic. That doesn't necessarily mean you're that person, however, or even that that entry is correct.

I'll be highly skeptical of anything you have to, uh, offer.