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Aug 19, 2013 3:13 PM, By Cynthia Wisehart

Live sound meets live streaming at Fenix

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Technically speaking, the first thing you notice about Fenix is the control room. Perched above the stage and reaching into the 25ft. ceilings, it’s a small, acoustically isolated space that is a broadcast booth, a recording studio, and probably one of the quietest nightclub offices in the world.

The control room says a lot about what owner Laura van Galen intended Fenix to be. She wanted her online patrons to be just as important as her inhouse guests. And she wanted the artists to be supported with quality infrastructure for both their live and virtual audiences.

For the San-Francisco area club, streaming was not an afterthought; it was a core part of the Fenix business and musical plan from the moment van Galen envisioned it five years ago. The systems had to be built as production-level infrastructure and carefully integrated with the front of house so that multiple people, including guest engineers, could work together; alternatively a single operator can control the house mix, recording, cameras, and the streamed audio and video. Merl Saunders Jr., executive director of the Fenix Entertainment Group, headed the build and technical design with a viewpoint honed in production and in the Grateful Dead family. During the two-year design/build, a unique system evolved that didn’t follow the usual playbook and which prioritized acoustics equally to electronics.

Both Saunders and acoustic designer John Storyk think they got the room right. Grammy-wining record producer and recording engineer Leslie Ann Jones agrees. “I have never heard a small room sound so good—very intimate and hardly anything coming off the stage. I could mix at a good listening level, and I know the audience felt they were in someone’s living room.” That quality, Saunders says, set the recording part of the business up for success. “I didn’t quite realize how important the quality of the room was going to be to the online experience until we were done. It really is pristine and out of that we got a great room for recording.”

It was an unlikely space. A former clothing store, it’s high asymmetrical ceilings had to stay, and Saunders and Storyk agree that was ultimately a good thing. “Laura liked the oddball geometry,” Storyk says, “and the room had great bones. The more we studied the ceiling, we saw a nice scattering and we just used a little treatment to control the low frequencies.”

The acoustics exploration started early on. Charles Salter took the first pass for permits, establishing the lay of the land and some of its quirks. Then Saunders’ pal John Meyer rang in, and evaluated the space for a Constellation system—out of reach of the budget as it happens, but Saunders says the process and Meyer’s assessment and detailed technical information was “invaluable.”

When a local Bay-area consultant was unavailable, Saunders called the opposite coast—Walters-Storyk Design Group (WSDG) in New York. John Storyk was flying out for a kid’s soccer game in Larkspur, Calif., and planning a detour to Point Reyes for oysters. Fenix—in San Rafael—was on the way.

“There were a lot of challenges on this project,” Storyk remembers. “They’re not the first club to want to record performances. But in this case it was truly an imperative, and really core to Laura’s overarching vision. To the front-of-house engineer, it’s a jazz club; to the streaming engineer, it’s a webcasting project; to the chef, it’s a restaurant; to the video guy, it’s a television station. It depends on what side of the board you’re on and what side of the business plan you’re on. This was not my first rodeo, so to speak. But the more I realized what was going on there, the more exciting it got. It had to be a lot of things to a lot of people. You sometimes risk the possibility of being mediocre for all of them. That was not the outcome anyone wanted.

“For me, the first thing is we had to get the room to sound good. If that doesn’t work, everything doesn’t work. It’s small and it had to work for acoustic instruments and reinforced instruments. It had to sound good for all the chairs and had to record well. Sometimes those characteristics are in conflict. Acoustic information in small clubs really wants to be bright. I think we were successful in getting a balance. So what does that mean? Adequate separation on the stage, yet you still hear the room, and you get the room in the mix.

“And we wanted people to be able to talk, because it is a supper club,” Saunders adds, “so we had to attack every reflective surface, and even the HVAC. John was very thorough.”

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