(The Townsend grand opening, featuring Kathy Valentine and the Bluebonnets, SJ Reid Photography)
The Townsend, Austin: A Case Study
From the art deco Kessler Theater in Dallas to the historic San Francisco Armory, clubs and concert halls of every shape and size are taking root in older buildings across America. And, with each renovation comes a unique set of acoustical challenges.
One recent project, The Townsend in Austin, involved transforming a narrow 1870s Victorian Italianate building into a high-end, street-front bar with an intimate, acoustically superior, 20×40-foot performance space in the rear.
Superior sound and acoustics were the mandate from the start. One of The Townsend’s co-owners, Scott Samson, is an acoustician who spent 22 years working with his mentor Charles Bonner, President of BAi, LLC, a Texas-based acoustics, sound reinforcement and AV consultancy firm with more than 80 years of designing for concert halls, stadiums, museums, convention centers and churches to its credit.
Additionally, two of The Townsend’s other co-owners are musicians—Kathy Valentine is from the band the Go-Go’s and Steven Weisburd is a drummer–turned lawyer–turned entrepreneur—and were committed to creating an acoustically singular music space in a city that calls itself the “live music capital of the world.”
In the year since The Townsend opened, it has featured every conceivable combination of jazz, rock, blues and the spoken word. With room for only 120 people to stand, or 80 to sit, performances never fail to feel like a private event where the listening experience and connecting to the artist are top priorities.
“The first thing we considered,” said Scott “were the genres of music that the room would be used for. We were interested in all kinds of acts, but acoustically, we needed to gear the room to the loudest application. We were putting rock ‘n’ roll in a 40 by 20-foot room with 16-foot ceilings, and it had to sound great.”
When Scott and Steven first inspected the building, they were struck by its dismal condition. “We had to tear out all the old wood and sheetrock and gut it to the stone walls,” recalled Scott. “All that was left was part of the original floor and the bar top. Since the music space is long, narrow and built on a hill, it’s literally underground; our sidewalls are solid rock.”
Given the shape, it was easy for the pair to layout where the stage and audience should be. The entrance was through a pair of heavy metal double doors that would help isolate some of the noise from the bar area, and the stage would be at the far end of the room.
They started with a 2 by 4-foot sub-wall, wired it, plumbed it, ran air conditioning, electric, video and audio, and then insulated and finished with a layer of sheet rock that became a blank slate on which to acoustically optimize the space. Given the size of the room and its hard surfaces, the goal was to control the reflections of sound waves that could otherwise muddy the audio experience.
While direct sound, emanating from instruments, voices or loudspeakers, is what they primarily intend for listeners to hear, controlled reflections can be used to enhance depth and spatial cues. Loud unmanaged reflections, however, make it difficult to hear the direct sound and can drastically impede intelligibility. In a small room with hard walls and an untreated ceiling, reflected waves can be all the more damaging to sound quality.
“The most important element in a room of our size is the design of the ceiling. It needed to be covered with really absorptive materials,” explained Scott. “We attached 1 by 3-inch pieces of fur down (furring strips) to the ceiling every 16 inches and put 6-inch thicknesses of fiberglass in the 3-inch gaps. We then covered the ceiling with Tectum (laminated acoustical fiber panels that look like pressed spaghetti). The idea was that instead of sound waves bouncing off the ceiling, they could move through the Tectum and get trapped in the six inches of fiberglass we compressed down to three inches. As a final step, we used water-based black spray paint on the Tectum, being careful not to fill the gaps. It needed to remain very airy.”
The next consideration was the back wall, which is opposite from the stage and the first reflective surface in the room. While loudspeakers are aimed at the audience, directly behind them is a hard surface that, if left untreated, would reflect sound back to the stage. There are two methods of preventing the reflection—deflection or absorption. In order to avoid sacrificing any space by angling the wall, Scott opted for absorption.
“I decided to hang black, heavy-duty absorptive curtains (27 ounces per square yard) on three of the walls—the back wall behind the audience, the wall to the right of the stage that extends across the length of the theater and the wall behind the drummer,” said Scott. “If the drummer hits his snare and tom-tom, and the sound reflects off the wall behind him, it’s annoying to everybody on the stage. So, going for a little more elegance, the back side of the stage is covered with black velvet button tuck over four inches of foam.”
The club’s remaining wall—directly to the left of the drummer—is hard sheet rock and mirrors. In order to avoid a flat wall reflection, Scott added a virtually unnoticeable curve. However, from one end of the 40-foot wall to the other, the 5-inch curve is just enough to deflect the sound. Instead of creating a standing wave, the reflection hits a curtain and is absorbed.
The ceiling and wall treatments have resulted in such a pristine sound that locals have dubbed The Townsend a “Listening Room.” However, in order to accommodate acts that may want to increase the reverberation time and allow the room to ring a bit, Scott introduced some adjustability into the acoustics. The 40-foot curtain is actually divided into four separate panels that can be tied back to expose the sheetrock. “Let’s say we’re having a solo acoustic guitar player one night,” said Scott, “gathering the curtain keeps the room from being too dead.”
“This is a total flex space, we can accommodate everything from jazz to rock ‘n’ roll to the spoken word where, from anywhere in the room, you can hear every syllable. That really defines the value of the space.”
Learn more about The Townsend at thetownsendaustin.com.
Are you an acoustician, theater designer or musician with experience producing great sound in a unique space? Share your tips and tricks in the comments.