GOOD VIBRATIONS: Stellar acoustic spaces in West Michigan and what makes them great

Whether it be a performance hall, cathedral or taproom, the most divine acoustic experiences occur in spaces where the very inner workings of a human ear are taken into account. But that’s not exactly a simple science, according to West Michigan audio engineers.

“There is very complex math behind acoustics,” said Jean-Yves Munch, a professional sound recordist with a studio home-base in Saugatuck. “There are different formulas to compute sound, but a great acoustic space is not only connected to formulas or brick and mortar — it’s connected to how we hear as human beings.” 

Munch travels around the world, recording sounds for the film, video and music industries. His recent work with Felix & Paul Studios brought him to the White House, where he recorded the sounds that can be heard in a VR tour narrated by former-President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. He is also the principal recording engineer for the Grand Rapids Symphony.

“There have been studies of classical music recordings for a long time, and there is still a lot we don’t know about creating the perfect acoustic environment,” Munch said. “Some spaces are more complex than others, but there are always adjustments that can be made.”

Some of the adjustments Munch mentions involve adding materials to dampen reverberation (the length of time it takes for a sound to disappear in a space). Carpeting and drapery, for example, can prevent sound waves from amplified performances from bouncing off the walls and creating a muddled sound. 

However, a reverberant sound that envelops the audience can be more desirable for classical and choral performances that don’t use technology to boost volume. That’s why King’s College Chapel in Cambridge has a long reverb, while a room filled with cushy furniture will have almost none.

It may seem contradictory, but Munch said achieving a good silence within a space is also important, especially in spaces where concerts are recorded. 

“It’s quite the challenge these days, as technology is always improving,” he said. “There are many sounds that can distract from music — traffic, humming lights, sounds traveling through HVAC systems. Microphones can pick up all of these sounds.” 

Some newer concert halls sacrifice sound quality for flashy architectural design, impressive size and comfort for patrons.

“One of the problems with really nice spaces in America is that they’re too big, such that the sound gets lost or is not the same kind of immersive feeling that you get in a smaller space,” said Drew Elliot, director of recording arts at Hope College. 

Elliot oversees all the audio recordings of faculty, students and guest performers at the college, and teaches its audio engineering classes. 

“When a space is the right size, a large ensemble can fill the space with a rich, lush sound,” Elliot said.

Fortunately for West Michigan musicians, the region offers plenty of acoustic spaces — just a few of which we will highlight here — with the flexibility and sonic control needed to produce variable and dramatic music experiences.

Jack H. Miller Center for Performing Arts

Now in its second year of operation, the Jack H. Miller Center for Musical Arts at Hope College includes two performance venues: an 800-seat concert hall and a 150-seat recital hall for more intimate performances. 

The center also holds classrooms, practice rooms, a recording studio, faculty studios and office space for the Department of Music. The concert hall features a Casavant Brothers concert pipe organ and several rooms are equipped with Steinway pianos. Essentially, the building is a one-stop shop for any kind of musical need.

“It’s pretty remarkable to have a facility like this in West Michigan,” Elliot said. “It’s an extremely versatile space that can be changed based on the music being played.”

The building is carefully soundproofed with triple-pane glass and thick concrete walls, an important factor given the bustling campus and a railroad line about 100 feet away. The building employs several strategies to ensure that unwanted sounds are dampened. All air vents are situated directly above suspended sound panels so that sounds can be absorbed and dispersed. Mechanized curtains are a theme throughout the building, and can be retracted or exposed to control reverb with the push of a few buttons.

“All of the architects and acoustics engineers were all extremely happy with how it turned out,” Elliot said. “As the music wafts out over the audience, you can hear a really nice, clean balance of sounds and all the different parts of a piece.” 

The Royce Auditorium at St. Cecilia Music CenterWhen St. Cecilia Music Center launched its Music Lives Here campaign to renovate its building, the leadership knew the acoustics of its main performance space needed to be considered. 

“(Royce Auditorium) has always been revered as a phenomenal acoustic space,” said Catherine Holbrook, executive director at St. Cecilia. “The building needed a facelift, and part of that would include new seats in Royce. First, we needed to make sure we wouldn’t affect the acoustics in the hall.” 

Seating can be an important factor when developing acoustic spaces — seats do need to be comfortable, but they also must absorb sounds that would otherwise be stopped by curtains, carpeting and human bodies. 

The St. Cecilia team contacted Acoustics By Design, a leading consulting firm based out of Grand Rapids and Portland, Ore., to see if the seats they had selected from Irwin Seating Company would have a negative effect. After receiving the green light from the consulting firm, they proceeded with installing the seating. 

The historic facility also was upgraded with a new sound system that’s ideal for its jazz and folk series concerts. Speakers are hung from the ceiling and are calibrated to reach every seat in the hall. 

“It provides a better coverage of sound, but also more control and balance,” Holbrook said. 

The Frauenthal Center for Performing Arts

The trained ear can detect a sharp distinction between new concert halls and those constructed in the 19th century. It remains a mystery as to why the architecture of acoustic gems like the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, the Grosser Musikvereinsaal in Vienna and Symphony Hall in Boston provides a more transformative listening experience — especially since their had little knowledge of the science of acoustics. 

The Frauenthal Theater in Muskegon, home to the West Michigan Symphony, has much in common with renowned 19th-century music halls. Built in 1927, the 1,700-seat theater allows the sound to fill the space and envelope audience members. The features of its Spanish Renaissance architectural styling — ornate carvings, intricate plasterwork, and velour carpeting and seat coverings — scatter and diffuse sound within the space. If the Frauenthal had also been designed in a rectangular, shoebox configuration as were many old halls, West Michigan would be home to quite the sonic wonder. 

Sacred Spaces

Western music history traces back to the Gregorian chants performed in churches and chapels, so it only makes sense that churches would be fitting for classical music performances today. Two West Michigan favorites for choral groups are the Basilica of Saint Adalbert and the Cathedral of Saint Andrew in Grand Rapids, though they may not work as well for other shows.

“In some ways, modern concert halls can be more versatile than churches and offer better sightlines for the audience,” Elliot said. “Although churches aren’t specifically designed to be acoustic spaces, the way they are constructed allows them to be because they are highly reverberant.” 

According to Munch, European churches are quite different than American churches in this respect. Newer churches in the United States are designed for clear verbal communication and contemporary musical styles. 

“Many churches built here have no intention to deal with an ambient acoustic signature, like HVAC systems and noises from the outside,” he said. “At the same time, the big reverb in traditional churches doesn’t work for every kind of music.”

In the end, when it comes to constructing new acoustic spaces, Munch said experience is paramount. At this point, the art is so old that acoustic engineers have nearly perfected the craft and are now “hitting a ceiling,” he said. 

In spaces like this, it’s up to the show itself to provide the best possible experience. On the flip side, acoustic spaces that aren’t up-to-snuff clearly limit how great the show can be.

“The quality of the show is ultimately reflected by the space,” Munch said.