SFJAZZ Center: A High-Tech Home for Jazz Music in San Francisco

Billed as a “sanctuary for jazz,” the SFJAZZ Center (, located only blocks from San Francisco’s City Hall, received national press coverage and rave reviews when it opened on January 4/01/2013 5:00 AM Eastern

Pianist Kenny Barron and bassist Dave Holland perform as a duo on February 8.

Billed as a “sanctuary for jazz,” the SFJAZZ Center, located only blocks from San Francisco’s City Hall, received national press coverage and rave reviews when it opened on January 23, 2013, with a gala star-studded concert emceed by Bill Cosby. Purpose-built from the ground up for presenting jazz, SFJAZZ Center is the culmination of a vision developed by the SFJAZZ organization, which for 30 years presented the SFJAZZ Festival in rented venues. SFJAZZ founder Randall Kline says the new center is “the first freestanding building for jazz in the country.”


The two-story 35,000-square-foot facility stands at the corner of Franklin and Fell Streets on the former site of an auto-repair shop. Its centerpiece is the Robert N. Miner Auditorium, which seats up to 700 in an amphitheater setting that’s designed to feel and sound as intimate as a small club. The main hall has an Avid Venue Profile console at front-of-house and an Avid SC48 for monitors. On the ground floor, the Joe Henderson Lab seats up to 80, hosting concerts as well as workshops, rehearsals, clinics and lectures for the organization’s Education Department. Practice rooms and a digital lab are also available. Every room is connected via a cabling infrastructure that wires the building for audio and video recording and broadcast.

The acoustic canopy and Meyer Sound loudspeaker system designed by SIA Acoustics

The acoustic canopy and Meyer Sound loudspeaker system designed by SIA Acoustics

Designing and building SFJAZZ Center was a completely collaborative process. Acoustician Sam Berkow, the founder of acoustical consulting and design firm SIA Acoustics (—along with his colleagues Jeff Friedlander and Adam Schulman—worked closely with Kline, architect Mark Cavagnero, and theater designer Len Auerbach to define the bowl-shaped auditorium’s dimensions and develop optimal acoustics to coincide with optimal sight lines for both musicians and audience—acoustics that serve the nuances, dynamic variations, improvisation and interaction that are particular to jazz music.

“It’s rare that a client tells you, ‘We want to aim for greatness.’” Berkow says. “Randall Kline has a vision where technology serves the music, and not vice versa. [SIA Acoustics] got involved early on, which we feel is always the best way to do it. It’s almost impossible to solve the problems once the rooms have been designed. We feel very strongly that successful acoustics are built into the design of a room, not done to a room. Once they found a site, Randall brought us in to work with the architects to talk about their needs: how big a stage do you need, how are we going to do seating in a way that’s acoustical. Audiences want uniform sound.”

Berkow devised a system of variable acoustics to aid in this goal. “Behind all these wooden slats are a series of different treatments that redirect, scatter and absorb sound,” he says. “The upstage wall has a series of sound diffusers. We were trying to do a much smoother, softer type of reflection—much more advantageous for microphones and musicians. When they bring in louder bands with lots of stage monitors, we can drop a series of acoustical banners behind the stage.”

Sam Berkow, founder of SIA Acoustics

Sam Berkow, founder of SIA Acoustics

A key component in the auditorium’s acoustical design is a rectangular shaped diffusive acoustical canopy that is suspended above the stage. Constructed of steel tubing and measuring 25 feet wide and 15 feet deep, it holds 68 RPG Diffusors that measure 2x2 feet each. The tiles are each positioned 90 degrees relative to one another to form an uneven surface. Sound that travels upward from the stage is then diffused, which “makes the stage much acoustically cleaner,” Berkow says. “Secondly, [the canopy] is tilted at 14-and-a-half degrees, so it’s projecting sound very uniformly to almost all the seats in the house. It gives you that sense of envelopment. Lastly, it holds a 24-foot-wide video screen that can be dropped down.” An 8-by-8-foot hole in the canopy’s middle allows sound to fill the area above the canopy to “use all the cubic volume in the room to create the most uniform sound we could,” Berkow says.


“In every seat in that hall, you’re listening to the sound from the stage, and the sound system is used to augment that sound, not overwhelm it,” Berkow notes. “If you turn the P.A. off in a rock venue, the sound goes away. In a jazz venue, the use of a sound system is done with great discretion.”

For SFJAZZ, SIA Acoustics specified a Meyer Sound system comprising 32 MINA loudspeakers configured in two line arrays of 16 speakers each positioned at stage-left and stage-right; a center cluster of five 500-HP subwoofers, with three firing forward toward the audience and two firing backward to form an electronically adjusted cardioid array that creates a null onstage to lessen the low-frequency energy there; eight JM-1P arrayable loudspeakers; and four M1D-SM loudspeakers that are used as frontfill. “We use two Galileos [616 Loudspeaker Management Systems] to do all the equalization and delays,” Berkow says. “And we use their Remote Monitoring System to make sure each speaker is performing properly.”

Exterior SFJAZZ Center

Exterior SFJAZZ Center

Berkow adds that the venue’s primary FOH engineers, Jeff Cressman and Masanori Yura, “have really embraced the philosophy of the system, which is to use the sound system primarily to provide tonal balance and uniform coverage, rather than just increasing volume.”

“The sound system smoothly covers the transitions from the close seating all the way to the top floor,” Cressman says. “The zones allow for a very natural experience up close where you don’t want to be distracted by the P.A., to the areas where the power of the sound system can make up for the drop-off of the acoustic energy from the stage. The room’s warmth by controlled design of absorption and diffusion makes it a joy to mix in.”

“Having built a number of venues for jazz, including Jazz at Lincoln Center’s facilities and the Jazz Standard in New York, among many others, I’m really happy to be involved with these projects,” Berkow says. “This one seems to be off to such a great start.”

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