Beyond City Limits For ACL: The Sound And Broadcast Systems

Steve Durr of Steven Durr Designs, LLC was responsible for the architectural acoustics and concert sound system for Austin’s new Moody Theatre, home to Austin City Limits (ACL), a PBS program recorded live by KLRU since 1976.

“I’m in the emotions business,” he says. “Amplified sound is simply the transfer medium and the way we convey the emotions of music.” That said, Durr’s goal at the Moody Theatre was to “allow the artists on stage to connect completely with the audience. Nothing must come between the artist and the audience. It is a concert venue and a taping facility, not a traditional television studio. The artist must feel comfortable on stage, or the sound in the house will never be right.”

The end result is a compromise between what ACL enjoyed in its original studio for 35 years and a new state-of-the-art concert venue. “We spent a great deal of energy making sure we recreated the feel and sound they had before, and as a concert hall, it sounds excellent,” says Durr. On opening night, Willie Nelson was accompanied by an orchestra, and afterwards, conductor David Campbell expressed that “he felt like he was on a cloud guiding the orchestra around,” notes Durr, who feels fortunate to have come into the project in its earliest stages. One of the challenges was eliminating sound leakage both from the inside-out and the outside-in, since the ballroom of the W Hotel is the next-door neighbor. “Rather than uncouple the building or float the entire performance floor, we used common sense and only floated the stage area itself on a Kinetics Noise Control isolated slab floor,” explains Durr. “Plus about 10' extra on all sides of the stage location is uncoupled from the building. That means the sound source, or the band, is not attached to the building structure. By containing the sound and the vibration in this area, you can’t hear anything from inside or outside.”

The sound system was designed to accommodate performers “from Tony Bennett to Janet Jackson and everybody in between,” Durr says. From 45 annual ACL televised tapings to SXSW showcases to the live concert series, the room meets or exceeds the technical riders for 95% of the acts. “The intent was so they would use our system rather than feel the need to hang their own,” adds Durr, who was asked to design a black box to accommodate anything from boxing to corporate events. “The room has a lot of flexibility, and that was always the goal,” he says. The biggest challenge for Durr: “To take the great ACL team out of the venue they had worked in for 35 years and move them into a new space and maintain the same warm and real sound they are famous for and loved. We successfully moved them into a much larger new space, not leaving the intimacy behind and still making it sound as they intended on TV, radio, and live. We could take what they had and transfer it to this new facility, and yet not lose the emotional quality. The sound and feel of the room is still warm and provides a strong emotional experience for the audience.”

Big House Sound of Austin provided the equipment and integrated the sound system, including what Durr calls “an exceptional group of loudspeakers” from Meyer Sound, including MICA compact high-power curvilinear arrays for a warm concert experience. “ACL has a long-standing relationship with Meyer from the old studio,” Durr adds. In addition, five custom designed “scoop” subwoofer cabinets sit under the stage on the floor, each enclosure with a JBL 18" driver. Four Crown Micro-Tech 5000 amps power the subwoofers. “These are custom subwoofers used in a proprietary array I have developed over time,” says Durr. “They are on the floor, while the Meyer line arrays are all hung in the air. The customs have a big, warm tone.” No delay was required for the upper balcony, and Durr balanced the sound arrays so the entire audience experiences the same sound. “The only delay speakers are under the balcony in a VIP area,” he says. “The Meyer UP-4XP ultra-compact delay systems were tweaked to have the same tonality as the line arrays.”

The system also comprises an assortment of Shure microphones and Canary cables. “The analog snake was custom-made to our design specifications utilizing Lundahl transformers,” explains Durr. “Numerous digital snakes are in place for use by company shows.” Restrooms, porches, green rooms, and dressing rooms have Bose and Tannoy Speakers, QSC power amplifiers, White Instruments processing, Peavey auto mixers, and TOA processing and mixers. The room has somewhat fixed acoustics. “You must marry the sound system to the natural acoustics of the room,” Durr asserts. “The art form is marrying them together so they complement each other.” In this case, he manipulates the sound through a process developed in conjunction with High Emotion Labs, so that it is consistent for every seat in the house. Also using High Emotion Labs techniques, he modified the signal path with specific analog devices to negate as much of the digital harshness as possible. Consoles are rented on an as-needed basis from Big House Sound. One unique tool that Durr employs: “I use music on a limited basis to set up the sound system,” he notes. “I prefer dialogue. It is harder to fool people with the spoken word. Most bands are vocal groups, and you want to hear the words. No one comes to hear the bass drum, and I have never seen the kick drum on any merchandise. Once you get the vocal sound correct, it is easy to fill in the rest.”


Beck Associates installed the full broadcast package, including one Movie Engineering Wally 2 Axes camera support system holding a Sony HDC-P1 studio camera, six HDC-1400 studio cameras, one Sony MVS-8000G production switcher, and seven Sony PDW-HD1500 XDCAM HD decks, which are used for back-up of seven camera ISOs, program mastering, and archiving. All seven cameras and the line cut are streamed via fiber optic cable to the KLRU-TV station several miles away and into Avid servers. Broadcast audio is multi-tracked via an Avid Euphonix digital audio console into an Avid Pro Tools digital audio workstation. Since its debut in 1976, Austin City Limits has become the longest running music series in the history of American television, and in 2003, it became the only television show to receive the National Medal of Arts. Now settling into its new venue, more people than ever before can enjoy the live concerts, as well as taped television broadcasts and showcases for SXSW. With its flexible lighting, rigging, audio, and broadcast systems, ACL should be set for the next 35 years at the Moody Theatre, continuing to put Austin on the map as the musical capital of Texas.

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