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Those who perform in Foellinger Great Hall say ‘hear, here!’

Foellinger Great Hall
Photo by
L. Brian Stauffer

Acoustics perfectly designed to enhance orchestral instruments make Foellinger Great Hall, seen here through a fisheye lens, one of the best concert halls in the world and thus a popular recording studio as well.

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7/19/2012 | Dusty Rhodes, Arts and Humanities Editor | 217-333-0568; rhodes8@illinois.edu

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – The sound was softer than a whisper, the aural equivalent of a tiny speck of dust on the lush soundscape of Heitor Villa-Lobos’ “O canto do cysne negro.” It was loud enough, however, to catch the ear of flutist Jonathan Keeble as he listened to a recording of what would become the title track of the Aletheia Duo’s new CD, “Song of the Black Swan.” Ann Yeung, Aletheia harpist, heard it too.

Rory Murphy

Rory Murphy, assistant audio director at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, sits at the mixing board in the Foellinger Great Hall audio booth. Murphy said this small, seemingly awkward recording booth was planned with other priorities – namely keeping the length of the wiring as short as possible. | Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

“We were editing,” Yeung says, “and Jonathan kept saying, ‘Huh. What’s that pop? Let’s try another take.’ ”

But the soft little “pop” popped up on every take they had recorded.

The duo finally solved the mystery – ironically, the pop was a direct result of their efforts to avoid extraneous noises. They had made the recording on the stage of Foellinger Great Hall, and, because the stage is known for its resonance, Keeble and Yeung purposely had not worn shoes while performing. As Keeble played, he naturally rocked from one bare foot to the other, inadvertently causing the joint in a small toe to pop. The stage and the Great Hall amplified that seemingly insignificant sound into something audible.

“I must have moved the same way every time, because every take had the pop,” Keeble said. “If you listen hard on the CD, you’ll hear my pinkie toe crack.”

Keeble’s story is just one illustration of the acoustical properties that have made the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts’ Foellinger Great Hall a legendary space not only for performing but also for recording. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, in the years before its home in Orchestra Hall was renovated, would transport more than 100 musicians to the UI to record in the Great Hall. Yeung, a harp professor at Illinois and former chair of the string department, said the hall helps the School of Music’s faculty recruiting efforts.

“When we had people interviewing, they were just amazed,” she said. “It’s something that attracts people here.”

Pianist and conductor Ian Hobson, who has performed on concert stages around the world and made scores of solo piano and chamber orchestra recordings in the Great Hall, said he sensed its special qualities when he toured Krannert Center as a prospective faculty member in 1975. He is now emeritus Center for Advanced Study and Swanlund Professor of music at Illinois.

“When the piano faculty showed me the center and I saw the Great Hall, I immediately recognized it as one of the great halls in the world,” Hobson said. “I mean, it’s a magnificent hall, and it’s certainly unique among concert hall facilities in university towns.”

Outstanding acoustics depend in some small part on luck; there are a few major concert halls, which, despite the efforts of experts, have been plagued by mysterious “dead” zones, or areas with too much echo. For the Great Hall, nothing was left to chance. It sits on a foundation that’s isolated from the rest of the 10-acre Krannert Center complex, to guard against any unwanted vibrations interfering with music being played in the Great Hall. The climate control units are mounted on the roof of a building across the street, to eliminate the noise of their motors. And since symmetry enhances acoustics, the hall’s left and right halves perfectly mirror each other, down to the false door that can be seen in the back of the left balcony, reflecting the door in the right balcony that leads to the lighting booth (the doorknob of the inoperative door was removed, to avoid potential confusion in an emergency).

Constructed in the late 1960s, the Krannert Center was designed by UI alumnus Max Abramovitz, the architect who also designed Assembly Hall and Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center in New York City. In planning the interior of the Great Hall, Abramovitz hired acoustical engineer Cyril Harris, who had worked on the Metropolitan Opera House and Avery Fisher Hall, as well as Powell Symphony Hall in St. Louis. Harris was known for his ability to bestow the resonant qualities found in many ornate 19th-century concert venues upon the kind of sleek, modern halls that became popular in the 1960s.

Herman and Ellnora Krannert, who funded the entire UI performing arts complex, took a personal interest in the details of the Great Hall. For example, Mrs. Krannert didn’t like the look of acoustic “clouds” she had seen used in other large concert halls to absorb and reflect sound, so Harris created a plaster ceiling suspended on springs from the true ceiling, which is 30 feet above the plaster at the back of the hall, and 90 feet above it near the front. For the hall’s paneling, Mrs. Krannert dispatched a carpenter to a friend’s farm in Southern Indiana to search 6,000 acres for the 90 best butternut trees.

No two surfaces in the hall are parallel, but instead are angled to reflect sound to the audience. The seats are upholstered with foam that mimics the human body, to help the hall’s reverberations remain consistent whether there’s a full audience or not. The density of the foam varies throughout the hall to adjust for places where the sound is particularly “live” or “dead.”

The floor under the seats and the stage floor are covered in white oak. The stage itself is built over a hollow box – a design Mark Rubel, the owner of Pogo Studio in Champaign – compared to the clay amphora used as resonators and amplifiers in ancient Greek temple and amphitheater designs. “It makes for beautiful resonance,” he says.

Rory Murphy, assistant audio director at Krannert Center, demonstrates how all these measures work in harmony by standing on the empty stage and just whistling a short tune. “Hear how that just hangs?” he asks. “There’s a really long reverb tail in here, close to four seconds, so things like strings and brass sound really full and epic.”

Hobson, who has recorded more hours of music in the Great Hall than anyone else, says it makes the Sinfonia da Camera ensemble he directs sound more like sinfonia da stadium. “In the chamber orchestra, we have a very small number of string players – just 22 – but in that hall it sounds much fuller than that, like there are many more players,” he said.

Still, the hall is not perfect for every instrument. “Things like percussion and instruments that have lots of sharp transience tend to get lost in that huge room,” Murphy said.

William Moersch, the chair of the percussion division at Illinois, has found ways to cope with those acoustical quirks. Moersch has recorded about 15 chamber music CDs in the Great Hall, and is working on his second solo marimba recording in the hall (he is the first marimbist to receive a National Endowment for the Arts solo recitalist fellowship). “It is wonderful for recording marimba, if not drums, just to give the instrument the resonance it deserves,” he wrote in an email from Argentina, where he was performing at a summer festival. “Recording is different than listening to a live concert, mainly through choices of where you are listening from. With careful microphone placement … the sound of the hall can be tailored to fit the style of the piece.”

Compared to the micro-planning that went into the hall, the recording booth looks to the untrained eye like it might have been an afterthought. Tucked into a side wall at balcony level, the room is about the size of a freight elevator and shaped like a wedge of pie. Its main furnishings – a desk and a small couch – might have come from a yard sale, and a collection of LPs stashed under the speakers add to the 1960s dorm-room feel. To optimize the sound quality, the mixing board sits in the middle of the room, facing the wall of speakers instead of the small window overlooking the hall. Thus, a mirror propped on a music stand next to the window provides the engineer’s only sightline to the stage.

However, Murphy said this small, seemingly awkward recording booth was planned with other priorities – namely keeping the length of the wiring as short as possible. “Having it close to the stage, there’s a lot less copper running between here and there, so the mic lines are all shorter, which helps,” he said. “As you increase the length of a cable, it takes more sound to drive a signal down that line. Plus you can run into grounding issues. Really long cables start to act like antennae and introduce radio frequency noise into your system. Keep things short – it keeps things simple.”

The hall’s Midas Venice mixing board is likewise simple (it retails for about $3,400), but Rubel, who has occasionally rented the Great Hall to record classical clients, remembers the original board – a Studer, made in Switzerland. “Being a European console from the 1960s, it had an ashtray built into it at each end – something you would never see on professional recording equipment now,” Rubel said.

His fondness for the hall’s unique qualities inspired Rubel to try the tricky business of recording electric guitars there, when the rock band Hum made an album for RCA Records in 1997. Rubel recorded most of their CD “Downward Is Heavenward” at Pogo, but they cut a slow, spacey, shoe-gazing track called “Apollo” in the Great Hall.

“They couldn’t hit any wrong notes, since sound hangs in that room for so long,” Rubel said. “You can really hear the hall on the snare drum.”

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