The David H. Koch Theater, part of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City, has been home to the finest ballet and opera performances since opening in 1964. Formerly the New York State Theatre, the historic structure was originally built as part of New York State's cultural participation in the 1964-1965 World's Fair.
During a multi-million dollar renovation that began in 2008, funded by billionaire philanthropist David H. Koch, the massive overhaul encompassed structural and architectural improvements, and eventually included a revamp of the theatre's main audio system from analog to digital. Abe Jacob, a world-renowned audio mixer/sound designer and the theatre's Sound Supervisor worked in tandem with Lew Mead, Director of Autograph A2D, and Group One Ltd, both U.S. DiGiCo distributors, to spec in an SD8 console. Both decided that the SD8 was the perfect fit, in terms of size and onboard features, for the theatre's numerous requirements. Through his work at the theatre, Jacob had enjoyed a long relationship with Autograph, and in fact, employed one of the first DiGiCo D5T's in the city on the production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Cinderella" in the spring of 2004.
For the majority of his lengthy career, Jacob has been instrumental in moving the profile of theatre sound to the forefront, in part due to his extensive background working in the rock and roll arena mixing for iconic bands such as The Mamas & Papas and Jimi Hendrix. On the suggestion of Hendrix manager, Mike Jeffries, he moved to New York City in 1971, taking over the management of the guitar legend's Electric Lady Studios. At the same time, Jacob was extensively involved in designing theatrical events, eventually transitioning into theatre full-time.
"My goal early on was to approach theatre sound like that of a concert," he muses, "not in volume or in the extensiveness of it, but merely that the operator should be in the same room as the audience to hear what was going on. Up until that time, the theatre soundman was usually the assistant electrician who usually just turned on and off the power from a simplified power mixer from backstage. I think what I brought to the theatre was involving the sound operator as part of the production."
When an extensive renovation of the Koch Theatre began in 2008, it was an opportunity for Jacob to wield his influence on the sound component of the theatre, even though the audio equipment was never part of the initial revamp discussion.
"Two years ago, the first part of the renovation was in essence to increase the size of the orchestra pit and to allow for a better stage for the performers," explains Jacob, who is also the audio consultant for City Opera. "At the same time, the stage was put on a lift so it could be raised or lowered to various heights, and the electrical infrastructure for the lighting, sound, communications and video was replaced. As the renovation got more detailed, the work included architectural renovation to the theatre sidewalls and removal of the carpet to make it more acoustically friendly for the onstage vocals, which has always been a major problem since the theatre was originally designed for dance.
"A section of the original continental seating was removed to include two side aisles, which did improve the acoustical response, but still nothing in respect to the sound had been discussed. As we got more involved, bringing the theatre up to code for ADA accessibility requirements, an epaulet in the new area had to be installed. The only place to do so was the area of the existing sound booth. What was small to begin with, was literally cut in half in overall size. I was able to use that as a pressure to replace the existing analog console, which would've been too large for the new space, with the DiGiCo SD8."
The desk proved to be the right product for the theatre. Not only did it physically meet the requirements for the space, but also could also handle the sound enhancement and reinforcement required by the City Opera and the New York City Ballet, who are the two main constituents of the theatre. "Even though I'm from the old world of the theatre," Jacob laughed, "I was adamant that we had to go digital. It was the thing to do, even though I was scared to death of what could happen between layer one and two. But the SD8 has proven that, without difficulty, I could sit down and make sound out of it. And if I can do it, anyone can!"
The primary function of the SD8 is to provide 14 channels or so of orchestral microphones that feed the onstage monitors for the dancers and singers, and another 6-8 area mics depending on the show or the opera, to feed backstage program, listening-impaired system, and various program needs throughout the building. "We are using internal effects in the desk for some reverbs, a lot of the audio delay and EQ functions," Jacob details, "but some of the other internal effects haven't gotten a lot of use—not to say that that we're not going to use them in the future, but we've got no absolute requirements for them at this point."
In addition, the SD8 is used for the stereo direct-to-disc archival recordings of each of the first performances. "The Ballet records on DVD and the Opera records directly to audio," adds Jacob, "and so we have a simple stereo mix out of the desk to those audio capturing devices. Also, in the renovation, both companies desired to have a complete high definition audio/video capture suite included so they can do their Webcasts, TV broadcasts and archival recording for both DVD and 5.1 audio, so we do a stereo feed back and forth to them, but they're recording to multi-channel audio capture that is totally separate to our usage of the SD8."
Since its installation last year, the SD8 has proved a great fit for both the theatre and for Autograph. "For us," says Mead, "it was so important to develop the relationship with DiGiCo, A2D and Abe, and it proved to work out well. We loaned desks for a while, did a few productions and made sure the desk worked well work for them, and then we were there for them when it came time to purchase."
"I have a great deal of respect and trust in the personnel behind DiGiCo's manufacturing (digico.org), and in my lengthy relationship with Autograph's Lew Mead and Andrew Bruce. With the quality of sound that we were able to achieve previously with the D5T, it seemed that the SD8 would be the natural progression. We've had it in operation since last November and it has proven over and over again to be exactly what we wanted. The sound has become a vital part of the theatre; I think it's now the fourth design element—aside from costume, scenery and lighting—and in some instances, is as important as anything else. It allows producers to do productions with the benefit of a sophisticated sound reinforcement system."
To wit, the Koch Theatre hosts the New York City Opera with revival of the French comic opera, L' Étoile du Nord, as well as Puccini's Madame Butterfly and Handel's Partenope. At the end of April, the City Ballet begins its spring season with a festival of 7 ballet premieres, 5 of which are world-premieres from the orchestra.