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The Egg cracks open a new sound system

By MICHAEL ECK, Staff writer
First published: Sunday, September 29, 2002

When The Egg was completed in 1978, it was an architectural wonder. You could see as much.

But it was not an acoustical wonder. Anyone who set foot inside its two theaters could hear as much.

This isn't a revelation for the 24 years' worth of music fans who have plunked down their ticket money only to find themselves sitting in a dead spot or enduring a lopsided sound mix.

All of that changes this week, Egg managers promise. An all-new, state-of-the-art theatrical sound system will make its debut tonight in the Kitty Carlisle Hart Theatre, the larger of The Egg's two performance spaces, during a concert by pop music star Bruce Hornsby. It will be given a further workout -- and, officials hope, demonstrate its range -- on Saturday, when singers from the Blue Hill Troupe join the Albany Symphony Orchestra for a revue of Gilbert & Sullivan songs.

Among those in the audience for tonight's show will be Dick Stock, Richard Dalbec, Peter Lesser and Richard J. Miller Jr., all of whom have vested interests in hearing the expensive new gear on its maiden run.

"When The Egg was being planned," says Stock, project manager for the state Office of General Services, which is responsible for the physical aspects of the state-owned building, "it was originally going to be used for lectures, not music and entertainment."

Despite the lack of top-notch in-house sound systems, the Hart and the smaller Lewis A. Swyer Theatre were used for arts from the start, beginning with a 1978-'92 residency by the New York State Theatre Institute, then called the Empire State Institute for the Performing Arts.

It was Stock's job to make the Hart more fit for music. He hired the consultants who designed the system as well as the technicians who installed the new equipment and moved the best of the the Hart's castoffs downstairs to the Swyer.

Analysis, revamp: Tonight's show will mark the end of a year-and-a-half journey for Stock. To get the job done he had to learn more than he ever cared to know about subjects like the "dirty power" that made even rented equipment crackle and hiss, the "dry acoustics" that left the Hart sounding flat and the "parametric equalization" that will finally help liven up the space.

Stock worked from an acoustic analysis of the Hart by Jaffe, Holden, Scarbrough Associates of Norwalk, Conn. Jaffe's evaluation, completed a year prior to Stock's arrival, suggested one of two options: major physical changes to the structure of the uniquely shaped theater or the installation of an up-to-date sound system. The latter tack was taken, to the tune of $800,000 from OGS coffers, according to Stock's estimate. (The state owns the building; the facility is managed and events are presented by a nonprofit corporation called The Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza Performing Arts Center Corp., which receives about one-third of its annual funds from the state budget.)

Sage Engineering Associates of Albany, in association with Michael Cusick, the internationally recognized audio systems designer of Clifton Park's Specialized Audio-Visual Inc., mapped out the new Hart system; Comalli Group of Albany rewired the theater; and Dalbec Audio Laboratory of Troy installed the speakers, processors and mixing boards.

Dalbec and his four employees had a three-week period in August and September in which to work in the Hart. It took hundreds of man-hours to hand-wire the patch bays, truss the speakers and run all of the necessary cables to connect the hardware together.

Earlier this month, he demonstrated the system by flipping a switch and sending the music of Stevie Ray Vaughan pumping through the Hart. It sounded clear, rich and powerful, without being overwhelming.

"Every seat in this house will get a specific response from the speakers," Dalbec says. "It's a blessing. I think the room deserves it."

In all, 54 loudspeakers have been installed, including a full array of new stage monitors and a battery of small speakers that can be used for film presentations and orchestral performances.

"It's like surround sound in your house," Dalbec says, "but for 982 people."

Three clusters: At the heart of the system are three, 1,300-pound clusters, each with five Meyer Sound Laboratories self-amplified speakers. They are tuned to the room for optimum response. And all are hung above the stage to offer better audiences sightlines than the floor-standing speakers The Egg had to rent in the past for shows requiring amplification.

Each individual unit can be tracked for temperature, performance and equalization from a computer screen by the mixing desk at the rear of the hall.

"These are amazing," says Dalbec. "They're all the rage."

All this tech talk means the average Egg patron will experience better sound at individual shows, of course, but it means something about overall programming as well.

The new sound system allows Lesser, now in his third season as executive director, to bring in a wider array of artists and performance groups.

In his previous post, as head of the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, Lesser was responsible for booking one of the most acoustically perfect venues in the world.

He admits that coming to The Egg was "was basically a 180-degree difference."

One of the attractions of The Egg, however, was that, with two theaters and a more flexible stage in the Hart, it gave Lesser more options. And he knew from the start that The Egg's sound deficiencies could be tackled.

"The advantage to a room like this," he said, "is that with electronics you can do just about anything. So as a professional arts presenter it allows me to offer a much wider spectrum of arts."

In the past, the solution to The Egg's acoustics amounted to renting equipment to supplement the Hart's subpar sound reinforcement.

"We could not use the old system for any kind of live music concerts," Lesser said. "It was still OK for playback and for dance performances and theater, but for anything with live instruments it really did not work."

A new situation: Lesser is clearly pleased that "the new situation" gives him the opportunity to book orchestral events and light opera programs, like this weekend's Gilbert & Sullivan, "with the potential of it sounding the way it's meant to be."

He says, "We realize and accept that the Hart is never going to be a naturally reverberant room, but this will get us as close as we can get in this day and age. The goal will be for someone to sit in that room for a symphony concert or an opera and not be thinking about the sound system at all -- for it just to sound natural."

Lesser also notes that the Hart equipment that has been transferred to the 450-seat Swyer will augment the existing sound reinforcement in the smaller room, which is often used for intimate cabaret-style performances.

Richard J. Miller Jr. will be thinking about Gilbert & Sullivan while he watches the Hornsby show. Miller is the chairman of the board of directors at The Egg, but he also sings in the Blue Hill Troupe, a New York City-based operetta society. He has high hopes for the new Hart system.

"I think it's going to be very exciting," he says.

When Miller was appointed chairman by Gov. George Pataki in 1998, he spearheaded a proposal between the governor's office and OGS to make various capital improvements on The Egg, with a focus on fixing the acoustics, especially in the Hart.

"The board made it clear at that point that we wanted to attract more classical artists to perform in this great venue," Miller says. "We've now fulfilled that objective."

Miller then goes further: "The improvements will make The Egg, certainly, the pre-eminent performing arts venue of its size in the region."

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