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Audio for the Arts

Feb 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Charles Conte

The theaters of the Gallo Center for the Arts provide optimal sound for live performances.

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A Closer Look at the Mary Stuart Rogers Theater

Mary Stuart Rogers Theater

The acoustic design and technology of the Mary Stuart Rogers Theater in the Gallo Center for the Arts accommodates both amplified and unamplified performances. Photos: Bill Wood

A decade ago, the city of Modesto, Calif. dreamed of building an arts center. Existing theaters — high school auditoriums, the Modesto Junior College auditorium, and the State Theater — were inadequate to accommodate the variety of performance events the community wanted to host.

In 1997, Marie Gallo, who was married to the son of winery co-founder Julio Gallo, convinced her family to donate a $10-million endowment toward a state-of-the-art venue. While the city of Modesto declined to participate in direct funding for the project, Stanislaus County (population 500,000) agreed to contribute $15 million in land and money. The county became the owner of the new entertainment facility.

The rest of the accumulated funds came from private donors that have local presence: $5 million from the Mary Stuart Rogers Foundation; $3 million from the Foster family; and several donors contributed up to more than $500,000, including the George Lucas family. More than 3,400 individuals in the area also contributed funds to the cause. At the same time, the project underwent a few setbacks and a number of budget-based redesigns — including a deferred art gallery and garden courtyard.

In the end, with a $55-million final budget, Modesto was able to realize its goal for the Gallo Center for the Arts — especially with regard to architecture and acoustic quality of its two theater spaces: the 1,250-seat Mary Stuart Rogers Theater and the 444-seat Foster Family Theater. Arts Center Chairman Fred Silva says the board decided early on not to skimp on quality but to try to build a world-class facility, recruiting top design professionals to make that happen.

Acoustic consultant and AV designer JaffeHolden (Norwalk, Conn., and Santa Monica, Calif.) — working with Executive Architect Steve Gaffney (Nestor+Gaffney Architecture, Santa Ana, Calif.) — assisted with the design of the two theatrical spaces from the beginning to ensure that the theaters presented optimal sound for both amplified and unamplified performances and were insulated from outside noise.

Mary Stuart Rogers Theater Yamaha PM5D-RH mixing console

For front-of-house monitoring, the Mary Stuart Rogers Theater is equipped with a Yamaha PM5D-RH digital console. A second Yamaha PM5D-RH handles monitor duties for the Rogers theater, but that console can also be moved to the Foster theater where it can cover FOH while that theater’s Yahama M7CL console is used for monitor mix.


JaffeHolden provided room-acoustics consultation on the design and construction for the Mary Stuart Rogers Theater and the Foster Family Theater. Both halls host a wide variety of programs — both acoustic and amplified. The Rogers Theater is home to the Modesto Symphony Orchestra, which performs opera and ballet performances without amplification. However, Broadway shows and pop concerts held there are amplified events. The Foster Theater hosts numerous family theater productions and other dramatic events that emphasize unamplified vocal clarity, but some performances do require amplified sound.

For symphonic music and opera, the general acoustic requirement of a hall is a degree of reverberation that allows performers to balance an articulated style of playing with a fullness and richness of tone. For the audience, this balance results in a sense of immediacy and involvement in the music. For amplified programs, the acoustics need to be fairly dry with a relatively low reverberation time. A dry acoustic environment supports amplified voice projection — providing a high level of speech intelligibility — and amplified music.

JaffeHolden's solution to this challenge was first to provide sufficient volume in the hall to develop the degree of reverberation needed for classical music — approximately 2 seconds at mid-frequency, occupied. “The means to adjust the reverberant character of the hall was provided in the form of retractable, sound-absorptive draperies,” says JaffeHolden acoustician Mark Reber. “For most classical music programs, the drapes will be fully retracted, allowing reverberation to develop. For theater and amplified programs, the drapes will be deployed in varying amounts, giving a range of flexibility down to a dry condition suitable for speech alone — between 1.4 to 1.5 seconds at mid-frequency.”

This ability to tune the room acoustics gives a great range of control and choice to theater directors, conductors, and performers. In late August, JaffeHolden construction project manager Robin Glosemeyer Petrone and principal Christopher Jaffe spent a day in the Rogers Theater recording sound levels in order to determine different configurations for draperies and acoustic panels that would be suitable for many types of performances. Additionally, a demountable concert enclosure can be used on stage to create the proper room acoustics essential for natural music performances. “The concert enclosure provides sound reflections that enhance on-stage hearing for the musicians,” Reber says, “as well as project a balanced and properly timed series of early reflections to the audience.”

The acoustic requirements for the Foster Family Theater are as varied as those for the larger Rogers Theater, but there's a much heavier emphasis on dramatic performance. “Proper projection and intelligibility of unamplified voices were the key acoustical design goals here,” Reber says. “The design approach was again to provide sufficient volume in the hall to develop the degree of reverberation needed for classical music with variable drapery deployed to adjust the reverberant character of the hall down to levels appropriate for speech and amplified performances.”

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