On the surface, Westfield High School, located 20 miles north of Houston, TX, seems to be a fairly ordinary public high school, with successful sports teams and National Merit Scholars. But below the surface Westfield High is far from typical. In fact, it is at the leading edge of technology, as it houses one of the earliest installations of Meyer Sound's Constellation™ electroacoustic architecture, and the first installed in a public school.
Westfield High's Constellation system resides in the Philip K. Geiger Center for the Performing Arts, a new facility built by the school in 2004 and named for Westfield's recently retired legendary band director. Westfield's concert band has won competitions and awards year after year, many of them under Geiger's baton.
The 1,200-seat Geiger Center auditorium, located in the school's Music Building, hosts a very wide variety of internal events, from band and choir concerts to theatre performances, the school's one-act play competition, guest speakers, class meetings, senior talent and fashion shows, and an annual musical theatre production. It is also the site of regional events for state band competitions, an annual performance of The Nutcracker by an outside dance company, and music events for nearby elementary and middle schools. Meeting the extremely diverse acoustical needs of this range of functions posed a substantial challenge for the school; a challenge that went unmet until word of Constellation reached the ears of those at the school and the Spring Independent School District (SISD) of which it is part.
"The school said from the get-go that the primary purpose of the room is for band," says Reggie Keith, senior consultant for Hoover & Keith, acoustical consultants on the project, "but this room is being used for a number of other things, too. The reverberation was not long enough for band, but it worked really well for drama and assemblies, so the question we faced was: did we want to change that? We didn't, of course, we wanted to satisfy all of Westfield's needs."
Conroe, TX-based Hairel Enterprises, the system installer, was instrumental in bringing Constellation into the picture. "We heard the quality of the product and, being a Meyer product, we knew it would be well supported," says Daniel Wright, Hairel's project manager for the Westfield High system.
Though efforts to enhance acoustics with electronics date back decades, the concept is widely unknown, because no system before Constellation has successfully proved itself to be flexible, practical, and natural sounding, nor has any previous attempt used components having the linearity and consistency needed for the system to produce uncolored sound.
The newness of Constellation's concept necessitated some explanation in order to gain acceptance, but hearing was believing. "To be honest, we were all very skeptical about the system at first, because we hadn't heard about it before or experienced it," says SISD Director of Performing and Visual Arts Rick Ghinelli. "We had a lot of doubters because, for our applications, it absolutely had to have a very natural sound. But Meyer Sound's great reputation convinced us to give it a try. We figured that, if Meyer Sound was doing it, it really had to be high quality."
"Choosing Constellation became a no-brainer in terms of the flexibility that it provided," says Geiger, who was deeply involved in the selection process. "It was apparent that Constellation was the closest thing we could get to a guarantee that the solution we chose would successfully enhance the acoustics in the way we needed. It became even more apparent when we started digging into what the Meyer Sound technology offered that was not otherwise available."
Meyer Sound's Constellation team met with school officials to set goals and then designed a system that provided the auditorium with both early reflections and reverberation. The auditorium has a traditional orchestra shell onstage, inside of which the team specified omni-directional Constellation microphones be placed in spots calculated to pick up source sound for generating early reflections. Accurate pickup of the room's natural later reverberation was accomplished with careful placement of more omni mics in the house.
The system's Constellation processors provide the DSP horsepower and patented VRAS™ variable room acoustic system processing required to generate the early reflections and reverberation, as well as the mixing and routing required to drive the system's Meyer Sound self-powered loudspeakers. As one of the initial Constellation installs, the Westfield system uses an early version of what became the Stella-4 installation loudspeaker, plus UPM-1P ultracompact wide coverage loudspeakers and UMS-1P subwoofers. Three presets with varying reverberation times and early reflection content were set up by the Meyer Sound team and are selectable from a touch screen controller: one for use with spoken word, one for band, and one for choir. This gives the auditorium mid-frequency reverberation times ranging from about 1.1 seconds with Constellation switched off to about 1.8 seconds on the longest setting.
Since being installed, the system has been used for concert band performances, the school's production of Little Shop of Horrors, one-act plays, spoken word presentations, and choral concerts. To describe response to the system as enthusiastic would be conservative. "This new environment offers the listener a much better experience," says Jodie Rhodes, the current director of bands at the school. "We have done demonstrations for the audience on what the system is capable of, and it always leaves them speechless when we go from completely off to the 'choir' setting. It still brings tears to my eyes when I hear it. Amazing!"
Geiger is equally pleased. "I heard a concert in there recently and the acoustical improvement is just outstanding," he says.
"The most telling moment for me," Wright recounts, "was when the band was in there playing with the system on, and as soon as it got turned off, about half the children stopped playing because they lost the early reflection cues they had been hearing from it. The sound seemed to get sucked back into the stage with the system off."
"It's pretty dramatic to experience: you're looking at one room, then somebody pushes a button and you're hearing a different room," says Keith. "Constellation makes the room serve multiple purposes, and, from a construction standpoint, if you say that you've only got to build one room and not two or three, that's a huge gain. For the cost of this system, Westfield High School actually got three rooms."
While Westfield High is one of the earliest Constellation systems to be installed, the very first system was installed at University of California Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall, where it is used for the exceptionally broad range of world-renowned artists presented by Cal Performances, Berkeley's famed 102-year-old performance series, as well as concerts under the baton of internationally recognized conductor Kent Nagano, and university functions.