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SFMOMA: Sound in a Space

I spent more time in museums, and thinking about museums, over the past month than I typically do.

I spent more time in museums, and thinking about museums, over the past month than I typically do. First, there was a press opening in advance of the public opening of the stunning new SFMOMA, following its three-year, 10-story, triple-the-square-footage expansion, making it the largest institution devoted to modern art in North America. Pop art, op art, photography, sculpture and everything you might expect in a thoroughly open and airy series of gallery and public spaces.

Then the following week I was off to Boulder, Colo., for my daughter Jesse’s graduation with a master’s of science degree in anthropology/museum studies. The ceremony took place amid the famed Triceratops skull and dinosaur fossils in a room of the Colorado Museum of Natural History, not far from the newly discovered Mahaffey Cache of Clovis man and the interactive, family-friendly room of Butterflies. Downstairs is my daughter’s own curated display of tiny baskets of the Northern California tribes. Artifacts and art and education and everything else you might expect in a more tightly packed and closed series of gallery and public spaces.

Two very different experiences, in two very different environments, each fulfilling their purpose and intent. Now back to SFMOMA.

The scope and scale of the new addition is both aesthetically and functionally magnificent. It was designed by the internationally acclaimed Norwegian firm Snøhetta, and you can read all about it in any number of stories; there was no lack of advance press. But we were there as guests of Meyer Sound, to view the audio-video infrastructure that feed its theater, performance and educational spaces. Sound and vision, and the way the public interacts with them, were part of the design from the beginning.

The 275-seat Phyllis Wattis Theater, with lead design by Duncan Ballash of local firm EHDD, incorporates three different Meyer Sound playback systems—Constellation, Acheron cinema, and full sound reinforcement P.A.—so that audio for any type of program can be optimized for that audience. That’s not simple to implement. The theater is not large; there are a lot of speakers and microphones in the walls and ceilings. But there will be lectures, film screenings, musical performances, and they’re still figuring out what else. Sound was a priority. And Meyer Sound certainly has a reputation for bringing quality audio to high-end event spaces, from aquariums and exploratoriums to concert halls and, of course, studios.

There is much more at SFMOMA, including a Meyer-equipped White Box multipurpose performance space, the Koret K-12 Education Center, and a CAL columnar line array for the massive glass and stone lobby. Those are the dedicated sound spaces, the details of which are common throughout our industry. But there’s also the idea of sound in a space, the way that architects think, as I’ve learned over the years in numerous talks with studio designers and found reinforced in a brief discussion with Ballash. It’s not just the absorption and diffusion and isolation that they deal with; it’s the way that sound interacts with the audience, in every space throughout the building, from the murmurs in the galleries to the string quartet on stage.

This is what the talented studio designers featured in this month’s issue of Mix do: They work with sound in a space. Whether it’s a two-story tracking room for a composer who needs to record string sections, or a compact, gear-infused Atmos production room for deadmau5, each is about the right sound for the right space. The audience, in this case, is the engineer, producer and musician. For each and every one of them, it’s about how they work with sound, in their space, to make great music.

The interaction of sound and music in a studio is not all that different from the interaction of sound and audio in the real world. It is more controlled, built to a higher standard, tailored in general to be flat across all frequencies—but the concept and approach is the same as when you walk through a museum, visit a concert hall or take in a Broadway show: It’s all about working with sound in a space.

Tom Kenny

Editor, Mix magazine