The Revitalization of a Community Landmark
The Greensburg Palace Theater

Copyright 1997, 1998 by Jim Brown
[Jim Brown is a principal of the Audio Systems Group. Inc., a 13 year old Chicago-based consulting firm specializing in the design of sound systems for churches, performance spaces, stadiums, and arenas. He can be reached at]

From the outside, the Palace Theater could be the traditional downtown movie house in any of hundreds of communities around the country. But when I told my wife's business associate about it over dinner at their home one night when we had just begun work on it, he exclaimed, "That's the old Manos Theater! My wife and I we went there on dates!" Turns out, that prior to moving to the Chicago area to take a job as medical director of the drug firm, the doctor and his wife had grown up in Greensburg, this town of 16,301 on the western slopes of the Alleghenies, just off the Pennsylvania Turnpike. And no, it's not a suburb of Pittsburgh, it's a community of its own, even as suburban sprawl inches its way east!

The history and memories of Greensburg, like hundreds of small and large cities in the United States, are portrayed in part by theatres exactly like The Palace. Built in 1926 by Michael Manos, resident of Greensburg, and his brothers, the theatre represents a personalized version of the typical vaudeville theatres of the era. Michael Manos himself selected the Grecian skyros and tinos marble from his homeland while hiring Architect Leon Rempert of Rochester, NY to develop the design. The completed building included extensive murals by Louis Grell of Chicago, contemporary rigging and lighting systems and a Wurlitzer theatre organ.

Like many arts projects, planning by the Westmoreland Trust (which purchased the theater in 1990) had begun many years before with feasibility studies, the preparation of budgets, and a long term plan. What came next was fund raising, and it soon became clear that the money wasn't going to come easily or all at once. So the plan was quickly modified to do the work in stages, over a period of years. All the while, the theater would remain open for most of year, closing just long enough during the summer to accomplish the next stage of work.

First came the most basic repairs -- this work was accomplished before we got involved. To get the theater moving with live shows, very minimal sound and lighting systems were installed, rigging was repaired, and the power system partially upgraded. Not long after this first phase was completed, the Talaske Group was brought on board to address acoustic issues, and the Audio Systems Group was hired to design audio systems.

At this point, almost everything was left to be done. Major work was required on the building -- its structure, the external and interior shell, the electrical system, and the mechanical system (heating and cooling). And, of course, all new theatrical systems were needed -- rigging, lighting, sound, orchestra shell, dressing rooms, work spaces, and all of the dozens of details it takes to make a theater work.

The master plan which had evolved based on the availability of funding, was to do the most critical work in as many of the elements as possible rather than concentrating on any one at a time. Instead of doing all the structural and cosmetic work first and leaving technical systems for last, the structural issues would be addressed, but cosmetic work could wait. Seating in the balcony that was so dilapidated that it couldn't be sold would be replaced, but orchestra level seating would wait for Phase III. This meant that during Phase II, new lighting and rigging systems would be installed, and about one-third of the sound system budget would be available. Assigning priorities for the audio system was our first task.

Looking around the theater, we noted that the local sound crew had done a good job of putting together a functional system with almost no money. An inexpensive mix console, mic snake, and accessories were in good enough shape to get them through a few years, but that's about as far as it went. What was needed was a versatile main reinforcement system that could support everything from local productions to the medium sized touring show that didn't carry its own sound rig. And if the system was powerful enough to convince the bigger touring shows to leave their loudspeaker system on the truck, so much the better.

During our first visit to the Palace, we spent a full day performing a detailed acoustic with TEF, doing both traditional TDS and MLS measurements. And we worked extensively with the design team, learning how audio systems would need to integrate with other construction. From the beginning, we knew that maintaining the spirit of the historic architecture had a high priority. The new audio system, while not necessarily invisible, could not be an intrusive architectural element.

Back in the office, we continued our analysis. First, we studied the acoustic data, and, with project architectural drawings in hand, got the Palace modeled in EASE. [Ease is computer number-crunching software developed by German acousticians, Drs. Wolfgang Ahnert and Werner Feistel, which allows a detailed analysis of how sound behaves in a specific room. It allows the electrical and acoustic properties of loudspeakers, wall surfaces, shapes, and other details to be entered in a very flexible way. Different loudspeakers, loudspeaker positions, and arrays can be tried, and their results carefully analyzed. A companion program, EARS, even allows the designer to listen to results!] Once a promising solution is found, we'll be able to study the budget implications of our findings.

During our initial survey and discussions with the architect, L. P. Perfido Associates, of Pittsburgh, it became quite clear that there wasn't much space for loudspeakers above the proscenium, but that's exactly where they needed to be to achieve good imaging and coverage of the main floor! As project manager, lead architect Sheldon Goettel set his team to work to determine exact clearances for loudspeakers behind the framing of the proscenium arch. After a lot of dirty work in the ceiling, we knew we had space for at least one good-sized horn per cluster, but probably not more. And there would be room for some healthy bass boxes if we shoe-horned them in carefully.

An approach we often use is to take as much "weight" off the front clusters as possible, supplementing it with sub-systems to cover seating in and under balconies, and even very close to the stage. Luckily, the room is relatively narrow, so, using this technique, the stereo system we hoped to make work would need only one horn per side at the proscenium. Stereo makes the job easier two other ways, too. Because the cluster is off center, its view of the audience subtends a somewhat smaller angle than if it were on centerline. And, with two of them, we get the combined SPL contribution of both, providing 3 dB more level than one would alone. We'll specify EV or JBL horns and drivers here. This will make it possible to find more good bidders for the sound contract, and we'll be happy with either of these very good manufacturer's product.

For bass, it will be custom 12" and 15" boxes, based on Craig Janssen's powerful bass array concept. The 12" loudspeakers will be close spaced and run from 500 Hz down to about 220 Hz; the 15 inchers will take the system down to 80 Hz (or, if the sub-woofer falls out of the budget, down to 40 Hz). Between 80 Hz and 500 Hz, these revolutionary new boxes will keep the cluster off the stage, providing much improved freedom from feedback with foot mics and lavaliers, while also tightening up the bass throughout the audience. There will be one of these bass arrays in each of the three clusters. The sub-woofer will be a custom JBL box, located next to the center cluster. It will run from 80 Hz down to about 25 Hz, taking some weight off the 15" loudspeakers to further improve the system's low frequency punch.

A word here about stereo. It's been our experience that a well-designed and well-mixed stereo system of moderate cost will provide a vastly superior listening experience as compared to a much more costly monophonic system. Certainly, we'll try to work a center cluster into the design if we can, but, given a limited budget, the left and right clusters will get the priority. What the central cluster offers is a strong center image for a star, plus 1.7 dB of headroom. Nice to have, but far from a make or break element. In the Palace, the center cluster needs two horns, arrayed left and right to cover the front of orchestra level seating, plus one of the same custom bass boxes used in the stereo clusters.

The Palace has a deep underbalcony and the clusters see only the first few rows of it, so a powerful sub-system is needed there. Here's where the historic architecture gave us our first surprise. Although it wasn't visible during our survey because it had been plastered over, there was originally a large oval dome in the ceiling under the balcony! Underbalcony loudspeakers had to be forward of the dome if they were to provide coverage to all the seats under the balcony where listeners couldn't see the clusters. But, this far forward, they were going to fall short of covering the last rows of seating.

We've often used PAS 12-inch coaxial loudspeakers in this application, but they wouldn't fit in the limited space above the ceiling. Instead, custom enclosures are required, each mating a relatively large Renkus-Heinz SR-series complex conic horn with a compact woofer from their TRC-series. And, above the last rows under the balcony, the solution was a row of Sound Advance SA2 architectural loudspeakers, installed flush in the ceiling and concealed behind painted vellum. Although they couldn't supply full range sound at the levels required, the SA2-s effectively provide the 3 dB of mid- and high-frequency presence needed. Their limited power handling at low frequencies, and that of the smaller Renkus woofers would not be a problem, because the clusters would still provide plenty of bass.

How will stereo work under the balcony? Pretty well, for the most part. The underbalcony system is delayed so that sound from the clusters arrives first in all seats, so precedence provides a surprisingly strong stereo image for most listeners. To understand this, it helps to know that although high frequencies are strongly shadowed by the overhang, low frequency sound still diffracts around the obstruction. And, fairly far back, the listener hears multiple spaced loudspeakers in the front delayed row (the Renkus-Heinz's). At worst, it's still good, dynamic full range mono.

During Phase III, there'll be a line array of small loudspeakers at the front edge of the stage to provide about 3 dB worth of fill in the front couple of rows. The line array had to be deferred until Phase III, because construction around the stage won't happen until then. In the meantime, the front rows will lack a little presence. Loudspeakers will also be needed in side boxes which won't be constructed until Phase III. Our design and budget will need to take these sub-systems into account.

Now that the toughest part is out of the way, it's time to turn our attention to the very tall balcony seating, which extends all the way back to the lobby. Help comes in the form of a pair of lighting ladders, situated just forward of the lip of the balcony, and ten feet in from the side walls. They're a bit more widely spaced than we prefer, but loudspeakers mounted here can be made to work very effectively with the clusters providing strong precedence (the first arrivals of sound the brain uses to unconsciously determine where sound is coming from).With these loudspeaker locations, we can use a left/right pair to maintain stereo almost all the way to the last rows.

This delayed pair won't do the job alone, however, and will need help from additional loudspeakers higher in the balcony. About midway up the balcony, there's a soffit which was originally a return air plenum, with a gingerbread grille. Again, a lot of work by the Perfido field crew brings back the word that we have room for a row of 15" PAS coaxial loudspeakers, in their standard trapezoidal boxes. The gingerbread elements offer a bit more obstruction than we like, so we'll use about half again more loudspeakers to fill the gaps caused by the obstructions. As under the balcony, the coaxes will be delayed so they arrive at the listener's ears a bit later than the stereo pair on the lighting ladders, and enough of the stereo pair is getting up here to maintain the stereo image.

EASE tells us, however, that the PAS's won't quite make it all the way to the top rows, so one more set of loudspeakers is needed. Again, it is Sound Advance to the rescue, this time in the form of a row of CT10's, flush in the ceiling above the last rows. These smaller loudspeakers will work well here, because, at this low ceiling height (only 4 ft above the listener's ears), a wide coverage angle is required, but not so much power handling. And. just as under the balcony, they are primarily needed to provide about 3 dB worth of presence above about 500 Hz.

Well, that's the reinforcement system. Now it's time to work on the effects playback system. Our goal is a system which can provide a relatively diffuse sound field which a theatrical sound designer can utilize to cause the listener to localize anywhere around the perimeter of the audience. The need is to project sound across the room without blasting patrons seated close to a loudspeaker. In most theaters, this means a lot of smaller loudspeakers that can be combined to produce the sound field, protecting nearby listeners.

The solution again comes from Renkus-Heinz, this time with their ultra-compact TRC-series loudspeakers that can be integrated into side walls and soffits at the rear of the balcony. Although the master plan calls for them to be installed during Phase III, the design has to be worked out now, so we drawings are sent to the Perfido team to expedite that process.

Now we must think about an in-house mix position, control room, and tie lines. The client has been mixing from deep under the balcony for years, and can't understand why that can't continue. A compromise ensues. Tie lines will be installed to what we hope will be the "real" in-house mix on the main floor just forward of the balcony overhang, and extended to the existing mix position at the rear of the balcony. We'll recommend use of a very compact console at the proper in-house mix location for programs having less complex sound requirements, so that fewer seats need be removed and the operator can be more unobtrusive. A custom tabletop frame can facilitate this setup.

For the control room, which must be off center at the rear of the main floor, we design our standard monitor system. A pair of Crown PZM's approximately 15 ft apart on the face of the balcony will feed a stereo pair of loudspeakers in the sound control room. The combination will be equalized and matched in level to the sound in the audience. The system is designed to let the control room be used effectively for sound effects playback, and for mixing simple programs like lectures and meetings. It isn't intended to replace the in-house mix for a performance with live mics.

At first (Phase II), the only wiring at these mix positions will be basic inputs to the main system. Existing portable snakes will be pulled in and left in place until Phase III, when permanent mic level, line level, intercom, and video pairs will be installed in boxes protected beneath the floor. Then, a large patching rack downstage left will collect mic and line inputs from around the stage and catwalks, providing routing and channel delegation for house and stage mix consoles, and a transformer isolated split. The location was chosen in coordination with Theater Consultant Darryl Ziegler, project leader for the Roger Morgan Studio team, to provide the most efficient working conditions on the stage.

Rick Talaske and Dave Prince, acousticians for the project, have concluded that an electronic reverberation enhancement system would significantly improve the musical acoustics for the Westmoreland Symphony, which presents more than a dozen concerts a year in the theater. Although the funding for this system is not yet approved, as part of our design we will include conduit, power, and space in the equipment racks for adding this system in the future. In addition to dedicated loudspeakers and microphones, this system will utilize as many as possible of the reinforcement and effects loudspeakers, minimizing architectural impact and reducing costs. [This system is now being planned for Phase IV.]

Electrical matters are the next to consider. We'll need clean technical power through our own isolation transformer fed directly by the main service, distributed to the room where sound equipment racks house system electronics, to disconnect switches for touring sound at the stage and a recording truck parked next to the stage door, and to the many outlets needed for portable sound equipment around the theater.

A technical ground system will be required too. It will begin with the usual bussing of isolation transformer neutral, building steel, cold water, and lighting protection at a single point. This technical ground common point will then become the center of a star, with spokes extending to equipment racks, the control room, disconnect switches, mix position, breaker panels, and finally, the power outlets for equipment. The entire ground system will be connected to ground only at this single common point, making it an isolated ground system.

We must also prepare a drawing showing requirements for the conduit system. Most of the electrical work won't be completed until Phase III, but like other elements of the project, it must be designed now so that it won't have to be reworked during the next Phase.

Our attention now turns to system electronics. First we draw a functional diagram for the system, showing the mixing, combining, crossovers, equalization, signal delays, compression, limiting , and interconnection needed. The system could be constructed with conventional analog components, but the new generation of digital signal processing will provide much more flexibility should the system need to be modified to meet changing needs. Both the Toa DACSYS system and the Peavey MediaMatrix system will accomplish everything required. The MediaMatrix system will provide much more flexibility and expandability, but at slightly greater cost. Also, few contractors are franchised for it, so our choice of qualified bidders will be limited if we specify only the Mediamatrix. With the budget as tight as it is, we decide to write a specification which accepts either product.

Now we're ready to develop solid cost estimates for the installation. Our spreadsheets take every detail of the installation into account, from the length of wire runs to the time it takes to hang the loudspeakers, install the racks, test the wiring, and tune the system. Even the time to produce system documentation and provide warranty service is accounted for. We've been able to convince the client of the need to have a single sound contractor involved for all phases of the work, so this means we have to design and bid the entire system all at once, even those which won't be installed until Phase III proceeds several years later. The main reinforcement system looks like it will be just slightly over the budget available for Phase II (the first work to be done), so the sub-woofer will have to go into an Add-Alternate. And, the Center Cluster will also be an Alternate so we won't have to rebid it if something goes wrong in the bid process.

The project goes to bid in the spring of 1996. Our research finds four well qualified contractors within about 150 miles of the project site, and all are invited to bid. Two bids are received within a few percent of the project budget, and the work is awarded to Faranda Audio of Erie, PA. Tony Faranda decides to use the Mediamatrix system. Although the equipment cost is a bit greater, he feels that, in addition to the system's added flexibility, he can much more effectively provide emergency service from his shop more than 100 miles away. The general construction bids are over budget, however, and a decision is made to purchase the audio system without the center cluster or sub-woofer, but to allow space above the proscenium to add them in the future.

To use the Mediamatrix system, it was also necessary to utilize custom software for it. A major shortcoming of the system is that it's current software does not provide for forcing cluster outputs to a very short delay time. Peak Audio, developer of the system, worked closely with us to provide custom software to provide a "band-aid" for this problem. Unfortunately, it's only a band-aid, and we look forward to new software that really fixes it.

When working on an historic restoration, it's vitally important that the architectural team understand that the original design was conceived to provide only for the technical systems and performance types of its day, and acknowledge that minor changes in certain details will be required if the resulting theater is to be artistically and commercially viable. This means that the mandate for restoration must be interpreted as calling for maintaining the spirit of the original design, and trying to do what the original architect would have done if called upon to design a theater for today's performance types, and integrating today's technical systems. It should be clear to all who visit the Palace that Perfido Architects responded to this mandate in the most positive manner we can imagine. During design meetings, there were no absolutes, and every technical need was viewed as a challenge to be met.

We're quite proud of the entire team who worked on the Palace. When the project is complete, Greensburg will have not only a beautiful theater, but one which will provide a wide range of creative possibilities for all who work within it. And the scheduling of every element of the work has been carefully thought out to provide the improvements as early in the construction process as possible consistent with the availability of funding.

Fast forward nearly a year. It's been two years since we began work on this project. As I write this, the system has been in and working since September, but for most of that time with only a temporary connection to building power. Fitting the clusters within the very tight space above the proscenium presented real challenges to the Faranda Audio crew, but they got the job done masterfully. The perforated metal grilles which conceal the clusters and underbalcony loudspeakers were also very difficult to design and implement. Sheldon Goettel and the Perfido design team are responsible for making it all work.

Now, permanent power has been installed, and I'm about to hop a plane to inspect Faranda's work and tune the system. I can't wait to hear it! Once on site, it doesn't take long to determine that the trust placed in them was well justified. Our design is cleanly implemented, and the system does sound good. One detail, however, did get lost in translation. The loudspeakers on the lighting perches serving the balcony are not properly cross-aimed, and thus can't provide the directional cues needed to extend stereo to the upper balcony. Re-orienting them is not an easy task, but the crew gets the job done. A bit of rebalancing to adjust for the difference, and the system is now providing full stereo, all the way to the last seat at the top of the balcony! And the loudness and sound quality are the same in every seat, from the front rows to the last.

Erich Bucholtz is the Palace's lead sound technician. As Tony Faranda puts it, "Erich is blessed with great musical ears, and has been a big help to our crew in fine tuning the system. It would have taken a lot longer to get it sounding this good without him! And he's a fine mixer. Having him behind the console makes our system really shine!"

Erich says, "This system really cooks! Touring productions are amazed by what it can do. Before a show begins their load-in, we fire it up and let them hear it. They look around, and all they see are the relatively small stereo loudspeakers on the lighting perches. Then we tell them what's concealed within the architecture, and they're amazed we can get this much clean, evenly distributed sound with nothing in the way of their rigging or stage lighting. It makes it so much easier to mount an effective production. A touring show almost never takes their house system off their truck!"

Postscript: The Palace has been using its new system for a year now, and the community is quite proud of it. Privately, Erich admits to winning more than a few small bets from touring sound crews looking for the sub-woofers that had to be cut from the budget. Comments from the Waylon Jennings crew are typical of the rave reviews the system has been receiving. "We really appreciated how clean the stage sound was, with no slaps from the back of the house, even with the main system cooking. There is no reason for any country act to bring a house system into this building."

Acknowledgements: Historical background and photos by Rick Talaske and the Palace Theatre.