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Future-Proofing SummerStage in Central Park

By Clive Young. The 5,500-capacity outdoor venue in NYC is often overlooked, but it hosts 190,000 people every year for 50-plus productions, plus ABC’s televised Good Morning America summer concert series. Now it’s getting a $5 million refurbishment that includes bringing its aged audio system up to date.

New York, NY—When you think of iconic venues in New York City, Madison Square Garden or perhaps the Apollo Theater might come to mind, but one of the most popular performance spaces in Manhattan is actually free to all: SummerStage in Central Park. The flagship of the city’s SummerStage program, the 5,500-capacity outdoor venue has resided at Rumsey Playfield at 72nd Street since 1990, and this spring will see it undergo a massive $5 million across-the-board refurbishment—an effort that will include its audio system.

The CityParks SummerStage program serves all five boroughs, presenting more than 100 performances during the summer months (May through October) in 15 to 18 neighborhood parks. Annually, 85 or more of those shows are free and are seen by more than 250,000 people. The goal of the outdoor festival is to present iconic and emerging artists from widely diverse genres, reflecting the diverse population of New York City.

The SummerStage in Central Park venue tackles the largest share of those shows, hosting 190,000 people every summer at 50-plus productions. More than 30 of those concerts are free, but helping fund the SummerStage program, the venue also hosts 22 ticketed shows booked by The Bowery Presents, and additionally rents the space out to corporate clients like ABC’s Good Morning America, which broadcasts its summer concert series from the site.

As the venue acts as a calling card for the SummerStage program and the Big Apple itself via the GMA series, this spring’s refurbishment couldn’t come at a better time. The stage is 18 years old and can no longer bear the weight of many productions’ lights and scenic elements. Similarly, the venue’s audio system is pushing 10 years as well. As the technical specs for concert and TV production have changed, the venue’s specs, too, will change to keep up with the times.

Related: At PL+S, d&b Debuts SL-Series, GSL System, April 11, 2018

With future-proofing a primary goal, the refurbishment will take into account the needs of productions, artists and audiences. This spring the venue will get a new stage canopy 20 percent larger in diameter, with reinforced foundational support, allowing it to bear a greater weight load of production elements. Beneath that canopy will be a new stage with a front thrust, expanded wings and improved production access ramps, and hanging from the canopy will be new lighting designed by Al Crawford of Arc3Design, new LED screens on stage and to the left and right, and a new P.A. system.

The new audio system is the result of a collaboration between the venue’s audio staff of the last eight years—Jon Hiltz and Jason Volkman—and consultant Roger Gans of Acoustic Distinctions. Working together, their key goals for the project have been to anticipate what audio requirements the venue might have in the years to come, update the existing system with those requirements in mind and to fine-tune it once the gear is installed.

“I’ve been working closely with Jason and Jon on this, and the way I’m looking at it is that I’m here to help them get the tools they need to go forward into the future,” said Gans. Those tools are primarily the speaker system, house console and monitor console, though stage signal distribution and power distribution will be upgraded as well.

The new P.A. will be a d&b audiotechnik KSL system, chosen after a series of system demos last summer during the 2018 SummerStage season. Each tested system was loaded in on a Thursday, tested on Friday and then put through its paces over the weekend on actual shows, before being taken down on Monday.

Related: Foster the People Packs Central Park, by Clive Young, June 4, 2012

In the d&b system’s case, as the KSLs weren’t available during testing, the company’s new flagship GSL touring boxes were used. “The feeling was that they would be representative of d&b’s new technology,” said Gans. “At the end of the demos, the decision was made to go with this system. There will be a seven-element-per-side KSL system for the audience, with d&b Yi10Ps for VIP sidefills and frontfills, and four J-Subs.”

One of the biggest considerations while demoing systems was ensuring the P.A.s covered the audience but little else—and that had a lot to do with the neighbors. Central Park is surrounded on all sides by some of the most expensive real estate in the world, with high-powered homeowners who are more than capable of ensuring their voices are heard if they are displeased with the concert venue in their front yard.

“The goal here is not power,” Gans confirmed. “There are sound limits in the neighborhood. There are—on rare occasion—complaints from over on Fifth Avenue that we’re trying to deal with, so I’ll continue with the new installation once it’s in, using d&b Noise Calc software to help fine-tune it.”

Other factors are in place to ensure visiting engineers use the P.A. with discretion. Prior to doors opening, there is a strict 85 dB limit as measured 110 feet from the stage—roughly where the FOH position is located—helping ensure that soundchecks don’t go overboard with volume. During shows, that limit rises only to 95. Additionally, all tours have to use the house P.A., and no supplementary sidefills or monitors are allowed.

Tours carrying audio systems can still use their own consoles, but there will be a fresh pair of house desks for engineers to use if needed. The house mix will be handled with an Avid Venue S6L-32D control surface and a pair of stage boxes, and a Yamaha RIVAGE PM7 96×32 digital console package will be used in monitorworld. Other new audio gear for the venue includes Lake processors for various jobs, a mic splitter system, custom loudspeaker cables, mic stands, work boxes and a Motion Labs power distribution system.

The system is expected to be installed this April, in time for the SummerStage in Central Park season to kick off in June. Coinciding with that effort will be other changes to the venue that will make life better for visiting productions, including improved backstage accommodations with new greenrooms, a private viewing area for artists and guests, upgraded dressing rooms with showers, and a backstage patio area.

d&b audiotechnik •

SummerStage in Central Park •