Magazine article The New Yorker

Wizards of Sound

Magazine article The New Yorker

Wizards of Sound

Article excerpt


Retouching acoustics, from the restaurant to the concert hall.

Meyer Sound's Constellation system performs the sonic equivalent of Photoshop.

On a recent visit to Oliveto, a nouvelle Italian restaurant in the Rockridge neighborhood of Oakland, California, I paid attention less to the food than to the sound. I was at a table of six, in the restaurant's upstairs section. It was a Friday night, and by the middle of the meal the room was crowded. Conditions were primed for restaurant cacophony: that inexorable crescendo of talking, barking, cackling, and clanking, which threatens to drown out any conversation and prompts diners to shout at one another, adding to the din. On this night, though, I found myself able to tune out the noise and hear only what I wanted to hear. When someone at a nearby table began guffawing at his own jokes, I could still follow the remarks of the calm-voiced man sitting next to me. Friends on the other side of the table spoke across the breadbasket without having to raise their voices. Although we were aware of a general buzz, it all happened at a comfortable distance. It was two hours of acoustical paradise.

The effect was premeditated. The man sitting next to me, a vaguely wizard-like seventy-one-year-old with a Tolstoyan beard, was the audio engineer John Meyer. With him was Helen Meyer, his wife; together, they are the proprietors of Meyer Sound Laboratories, which is based in Berkeley. They manufacture a range of high-end audio products, but they are particularly noted for their ability to enhance, through electronic means, the acoustic of an extant hall or space. When Oliveto underwent a renovation, last year, the owners called upon the Meyers to design a more conversation-friendly setting. The apparatus that the Meyers installed includes a version of the company's Constellation system, which employs microphones, a digital-audio platform, and loudspeakers to sample the noise of a room, modify it, and send it back out in altered form. The walls of the seating area are outfitted with what the Meyers call the Libra system: sound-absorbing panels that have an attractive facade, in this case images of olive groves by the Berkeley photographer Deborah O'Grady. Concealed in a back room is the system's digital processor, which can be controlled with a tablet.

"Each table is in its own sonic zone," John explained. "But it's not isolated." He mentioned a colleague's earlier attempt to address restaurant noise, which succeeded in suppressing chatter but led to a muffled, sterile environment: "Everyone hated it--the room ended up being completely dead." Instead, Constellation undertakes a process akin to the Photoshopping of an image, with undesirable elements removed. John explained that there are two components to a sound as it resonates: the early reflections, which contain most of the intelligible information; and the later reverberation, which is blurrier. "Right now, with those loud people right behind me, we're hearing only their reverb energy--it's not enough for intelligibility. Early reflections have been cut out: you can hear voices but not what they're saying." The effect is conviviality without chaos.

John became so absorbed in his explanation that Helen had to remind him to eat his crab dish. "I'm the timekeeper in this outfit," she said. "If we're going to make it to San Francisco tonight, we have to be out of here at seven-forty-five."

By nine o'clock, we had crossed San Francisco Bay and arrived at an event called SoundBox, presented by the San Francisco Symphony. Michael Tilson Thomas, the orchestra's music director, had long been contemplating an auxiliary series, in which his musicians would play smaller-scale repertory in a casual, clublike atmosphere. The challenge was to find a suitable venue. At the end of 2013, he turned to the Meyers, who installed a Constellation system in a cavernous rehearsal space, in Davies Symphony Hall, that is used by both the San Francisco Symphony and the San Francisco Opera. …

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