As workers begin to rebuild the interior of Little Rock's Robinson Auditorium, a key goal of the nearly $70 million renovation is to greatly improve its acoustics.
There had long been complaints about how live music sounded in the venue, which is the home of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra. There were "dead spots" in the hall where the audience couldn’t properly hear the orchestra or all the instruments. That’s why the facility has been gutted and is being rebuilt inside the existing structure as part of the voter-approved project, funded with a two percent tourism tax.
"For our intents and purposes, it’s a new hall, it’s a new space. It’s a new home for us and I’m thrilled for our state and I’m thrilled for our orchestra," said Philip Mann, music director of the ASO. "I think one thing that surprises people when I talk about this renovation is the scope and scale of it. For those people that have long-standing memories of attending performances in the Robinson, if you were sitting in that orchestra level right in the middle, that floor doesn’t exist anymore. That floor will now be 36 feet below that, almost down on the LaHarp level."
He says the renovation has been a collaborative effort, with those overseeing the project working with the orchestra and acoustical experts to make sure the design will provide the best sound possible.
"To the city’s and especially the mayor and Gretchen Hall’s great credit, they involved me from the very beginning, even to the extent of flying out to New York and meeting with architects and acoustic engineers and things like this, they really have listened to the tenants and what our respective needs are," Mann said.
Hall is CEO of the Little Rock Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, which manages the auditorium that is owned by the city. She says there are a lot of nuances to consider with this kind of project.
"All of the details on the finish work, of course, have an acoustic attribute to them, whether it be wood, whether it be the type of plaster used, the carpeting, everything is a fine detail with how that house will perform for the acoustic," Hall said.
"One of the key pieces to providing a great acoustic house is the volume and so that was really the underlying reason why we dropped that stage all the way down 36 feet. It gave 36 feet of volume and height in that house and it was really needed in order for that sound to circulate through the house."
Mann believes that will make a significant difference for the sound of the orchestra.
"The hall in a way is, if you think of the end of a trumpet or the shape of a violin, a hall is designed to reflect sound from the stage to the listener. But then there’s also the physical proximity that we’re excited about, that the seats will be generally be closer to (the) stage," Mann said.
While there are best practices for building an auditorium that sounds good, it’s still not an exact science. Mann notes that there are plenty of modern, carefully constructed venues that didn’t live up to expectations.
To allow for modifications, there will be variable components built into the structure that will be adjusted to find the best sound.
"The new Robinson will have an acoustic tuning period where once the hall is done being built, we still have to tune it, we still have to tweak things here and there. It might mean changing reflective surfaces, adjusting certain covering on things, whether it’s flooring or the positioning of people on stage.”
The renovated auditorium will feature a new conference center on top of the structure and a new entrance on Broadway. It will also allow the facility to host productions that it couldn’t in the past thanks to an easier loading entrance.
Gretchen Hall is confident Little Rock voters who approved the project won’t be disappointed.
"It’s going to provide a wonderful acoustic experience for the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra that is home here. It’s going to be able to attract larger and newer Broadway productions and we’re excited about that and then, of course, the conference center is going to be used for all kinds of meetings, events and activities, so that’s going to be the new kind of modern face to the grand historic structure on the south side," Hall said.
It's scheduled to open in November 2016.