Big Voice in a Small Room

Stephanie Blythe Records American Popular Songs at Meyer Sound

Big Voice in a Small Room

Stephanie Blythe is an A-List opera singer with a big voice who’s used to performing in big rooms. Blythe, who was Musical America’s Vocalist of the Year for 2009, performs often at the 3800-seat Metropolitan Opera House, including the role of Fricka in the Met’s new Ring cycle where she must be heard above the din of an enormous Wagnerian orchestra. So imagine the mezzo-soprano’s surprise when she was led into the 1500-square-foot, 57-seat Pearson Theater in Berkeley, California, to give a fundraising recital of popular songs inspired by the artistry of the great American songstress Kate Smith. But moments after stepping into the small hall, Blythe’s skepticism turned to amazement. For this is not like any other 57-seat concert hall on earth.

The Pearson Theater is located at Meyer Sound Laboratories, Inc. John Meyer is a pro audio pioneer who, 35 years ago with his wife Helen, started a company to provide state-of-the-art gear for sound reinforcement and recording. Long-term clients included The Grateful Dead and Luciano Pavarotti. As time went by, Meyer discovered that the spaces that musicians were asked to perform and record in could, perversely, affect the music-making itself. “After 50 years of recording, we’ve learned that musicians actually interact with their spaces,” Meyer told me in a wide-ranging phone conversation. “It’s not a source and reverberation event—it’s one event talked about in two different ways.” Meyer set out to design a sophisticated electronic system that could adjust the aural environment of a performance space. The result was the Constellation Acoustic System.

Constellation is a custom-designed installation of a large number of miniature microphones and self-powered loudspeakers connected with advanced digital processing software. It should be emphasized that this is not sound reinforcement. There is no pickup of direct sound; Constellation deals only with reverberation and early reflections. A powerful computer is processing 20,000 echoes per second to, in Meyer’s words, “make them go where they’re supposed to go.” It’s complex all right. For example, the Constellation implementation at Zellerbach Hall at the University of California involves 44 microphones and 105 (!) speakers of various sizes. The result is far more acoustic flexibility than can ever be achieved with physical modifications to a hall—curtains, shells, moveable walls, chambers, etc.—and at much lower expense. A multipurpose venue could use one setting in the morning for an orchestra rehearsal, another in the afternoon for a solo piano recital, and a third in the evening for a klezmer band concert. Dozens of rooms, big and small, have been equipped with the Constellation technology all over the world, from California to Austria, China, and Saudi Arabia. Audiences can experience a performance optimally, musicians can better hear each other and the room they are playing into, and there’s the potential to make superior recordings.

After the benefit concert in the Pearson Theater—immediately after, in fact, over dinner—Stephanie Blythe enthusiastically volunteered to participate in any “experiments with recording” that Meyer wanted to conduct in the hall. Blythe and her gifted accompanist, Craig Terry, had the perfect material with which to test the room’s possibilities. The singer and pianist had been presenting their program of songs from the repertoire of Kate Smith (1907-1986) to enthralled audiences for several years. The concert was twice heard at Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series, once in April of 2011 and again two years later. (The PBS TV special that derived from the latter performance can be viewed in its one-hour entirety at Blythe, in addition to channeling the earlier vocalist’s musical style and sound—the New York Times critic reviewing one of the Lincoln Center performances called her “an even better Kate Smith than Kate Smith”—is articulate, funny, and sexy as she introduces selections including “The White Cliffs of Dover,” “Look for the Silver Lining,” “Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams,” “We’ll Meet Again” and, of course, “God Bless America.”

Stephanie Blythe has long been dissatisfied with the way she has sounded on recordings. Two factors are responsible, the singer explained. “As an opera singer,” she told me, “I’ve spent my whole life learning how to project my voice into a space. The up-close sound, for my particular voice, doesn’t capture the whole sound. Sometimes it sounds like it’s all treble and no bass. In the Pearson Theater, I realized that the entire space was like a microphone, that you could ‘play’ the room. Because there was no closeup miking for me or my pianist, all the ‘mixing,’ all the choices were ours. It wasn’t something that was created post-recording, in the editing room.” John Meyer feels that more distant microphone placement is preferable for basic acoustical reasons as well. “What happens in the near-field does not happen in the far-field, and vise-versa. The things that happen close to an instrument are completely different than what happens 15 or 20 feet away. You can see that with speakers, too. You can take a 15-inch speaker and put broadband sound into it. If you measure it very close, you see all these cancellations, but if you move away, they disappear.”