Arts & culture, Performing arts, Berkeley Voices

Podcast: The carefully crafted sound of Zellerbach Hall

By Anne Brice

trumpet player

Nick Antipa, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in electrical engineering, has played the trumpet in UC Berkeley’s orchestra since 2009. (UC Berkeley cinemagraph by Stephen McNally)

That’s UC Berkeley Symphony Orchestra trumpet player Nick Antipa playing Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 2 in Zellerbach Hall. The sound is rich, resonant, heroic. It’s the sound of Zellerbach.

But the acoustics that make this sound possible didn’t just happen. The sound has been created with an acoustic system of some 40 microphones and 140 speakers, all intricately placed throughout the hall. It’s called Constellation by Meyer Sound.

audience in Zellerbach Hall

Constellation in Zellerbach Hall uses more than 140 small speakers discreetly placed throughout the concert hall and some 40 tiny microphones hanging from the ceiling to create its signature sound. (Photo courtesy of Cal Performances)

Constellation allows you to digitally create multiple environments in one space by changing the length of reverberation, strength or loudness. It can even change the perceived height and width of a room.

So, if you close your eyes, it can transport you to a big, open space like a cathedral. Turn off the reverb and it becomes a normal stage. Antipa says the difference is striking.

“It makes me feel very comfortable. Like playing is fun and easy, so I can really just think about the piece of music that I’m doing. Whereas if I’m in someplace that feels like a closet, then I hear every little mistake.”

Matías Tarnopolsky is the director of Cal Performances. He says when he was first told about Constellation, he was deeply suspicious of any acoustic system — one that used unnatural means to create a sound — especially in a concert hall. But he was soon convinced.

“I went from being a skeptic to being a convert to being an advocate,” says Tarnopolsky. “You can have everything from a solo violinist to a full symphony orchestra and chorus sounding absolutely glorious.”

In 2006, Zellerbach was the first space in the world to have Constellation installed. At first it was just temporary, but in 2009 the system became permanent, a decision that Tarnopolsky says has transformed the hall, which opened in 1968.


Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex at Cal Performances in Zellerbach Hall in October 2016, a re-creation of one of the opening concerts in the hall in 1968, when Stravinsky was in attendance. (Photo by Zoe Lonergan)

“The acoustics of the hall weren’t great from 1968 to 2006. It was fine but it wasn’t gorgeous. And it needs to be beautiful. I mean, it needs to be absolutely beautiful. And now it is.”

After the system was installed, it took about two years of tinkering with all the parameters within each setting to find the perfect sound, which Tarnopolsky says is fantastic whether it’s a taiko drumming ensemble performing or the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra or a solo trumpet player.

Now, it’s just the sound of Zellerbach.

But the settings are still changed on special occasions. Recently, the First Congregational Church in Berkeley suffered a fire, and Cal Performances moved three musical performances to Zellerbach Hall — Choir of Trinity Wall Street and Trinity Baroque Orchestra , Jordi Savall and Hespèrion XXI , Nicola Benedetti and Venice Baroque Orchestra because of the hall’s ability to create acoustics similar to the church.

Now, there are more than a dozen installations of the acoustic system in the San Francisco Bay Area and some 100 across the world in spaces that range from concert halls to restaurants to conference rooms.

But you’ll never know. Because when Constellation is working, it’s invisible. It’s creating an acoustic experience that just feels right.

For a schedule of upcoming performances in Zellerbach Hall, visit Cal Performances .