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Great Acoustics: Weber Music Hall - 2002-11-13

A new music performance center has opened on the campus of the University of Minnesota in Duluth, in the American Midwest. The $9.2 million Weber Music Hall was getting rave reviews for its sound even before its October 25 debut. The hall had been carefully tuned ... to perfect its already near-perfect acoustics. The process was a balanced blend of artistry and engineering.

The Weber Music Hall is a stunning addition to the look of the Duluth campus. Its dazzling copper dome towers above the cluster of campus buildings. Designer and architect Cesar Pelli expects the hall's tonal qualities to be as striking as its visual impact.

For acoustician Russell Cooper, there are two ways to tune a hall ... a high-tech way and a low-tech way. Mr. Cooper works for Jaffe Holden Acoustics, a Connecticut sound engineering firm. The company worked alongside the architect to create near-perfect sound. The results are a happy surprise for Mr. Cooper. "I ... I'm blown away. I really am," he said. "This is a small hall. 350 seats. And yet it has the sound of a symphonic hall. It's really quite amazing."

Mr. Cooper measures the hall with meters, sound generators, and a stack of audio speakers at center stage. He tests reverberation with an electronic noise maker called a "shotgun." "This is the blast, the impact, or the impulse sounds," he said. " It is an indication of any echoes, or any acoustic anomalies in the hall. Because you can hear, you can hear the pulse. And then if you can hear the return of the pulse, well that's not good."

But we're not hearing any pulse coming back.

Another test is low-tech. Mr. Cooper claps his hands ... first from the hall's balcony level, and then from the main floor. "It's interesting. I don't know if you heard that, but when I clapped from up there, you heard what's called a flutter echo ... ticka, ticka, ticka," said Russell Cooper. "Which is really no problem, because no one is really creating music up there. But down on the stage here it really doesn't occur."

But the real test is high-tech. It's a loud, obnoxious noise, called pink noise, that sounds like gas jets filling a hot air balloon. "And then we're going to stop it," he said. "And we're going to measure the time that it takes for the sound to go to inaudibility. And that's called the reverberation time. And that's the classical kind of measurement of room acoustics for concert halls." That's the effect that's most pronounced in the nation's greatest music halls, like New York's Carnegie Hall. "You know, Carnegie Hall is probably one of the best concert halls in the world' he said. "Well, the Grateful Dead never sounded good in Carnegie Hall, because it's too alive. But the orchestra sounded good."

With baffles and curtains, UMD's Weber Hall can be tuned for the orchestra, or the Grateful Dead. Weber Hall's exterior dome creates a high, capped ceiling, which creates the volume of a much larger hall. It's a long peaked oval with a thin window running its length. As Jack Bowman, Dean of the School of Fine Arts says, it's shaped "like a gem." "Because of the high dome, and the shape of the dome, the sound from the stage goes up," said Jack Bowman. "It blends in the rafter area and then comes down, so you get a wonderfully rich sound in the hall.

Over several days, the hall is checked with each of the University's performance groups. Today the 106-member concert band is warming up for a sound check. Band Director Dan Eaton is delighted with the new digs. "I think it's very cool," he said. "It's something we've really needed for a long time. You can do whatever you want basically in here. You can make it dead. You can make it really live. It's excellent for our band."

As noteworthy architecture, Weber Music Hall is in good company. Architect Cesar Pelli is better known for Malaysia's Petronas Twin Towers and the World Financial Center and Winter Garden in New York City. He predicts that Weber Hall will be the finest small concert hall in America.

Weber Hall opened with a weekend-long musical celebration, featuring clarinet concert and solo artist Richard Stoltzman. 50 more performances are scheduled through the coming year. Every seat is perfect, although acoustician Russell Cooper admits that some are more perfect than others. "The best seat in the house is first row balcony, said Russell Cooper. " You will find that almost in every hall. If you want the best seat, even in poor halls if you want the best seat in poor halls, sit in first row, balcony."