Shuffle: Why Do Musicians Like Going To Their Rooms?

Jan 4, 2018

Musicians have certain nightclubs and concert halls where they love to play. Sometimes it’s the look, the feel and the history. But what’s even more essential is the sound. WKSU’s Kabir Bhatia finds out more in this week’s “Shuffle.”

Groups like Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, The Cars and Badfinger loved Cleveland’s old Agora. The dark, crowded, low-ceilinged club was once one of the most famous music venues in Northeast Ohio. But the Agora burned down in 1984.

'Sometimes it may not sound the best it can on stage, but, man, when you're out listening, it sounds amazing.'

Twenty years later, Cleveland started building a musical reputation for itself again, this time among jazz musicians who play The Bop Stop in Ohio City. Saxophonist Bobby Selvaggio plays there frequently.

“They might have food, but they were built for the music, which means that the owner cares about the music. Some people might not think that’s a big deal, but let me tell you: it’s a huge deal.”

Designed for sound
That’s why the club – or “room,” as musicians call it – was designed with soft lighting and cabaret-style seating in a long, narrow and slightly curved room that’s dominated by the stage.

“When they built it, they had people come in specifically to say, ‘This is for music; what can I do to acoustically make it work for the music?’ And not just for musicians, because the interesting thing is ... acoustics are a funny thing. Sometimes it may not sound the best it can on stage, but, man, when you’re out listening, it sounds amazing. As far as I’m concerned, that’s more important. I want it to sound great out.”

Sound and vision
The designers of the Bop Stop positioned the mirrors over the bar to reflect sound evenly or to have it absorbed by porous bricks on the back wall. Plus, Selvaggio likes that the musicians can all see and hear each other.

That’s important for all types of music. Cleveland Orchestra violinist Katherine Bormann even uses visual cues to describe the sound at Severance Hall, which she calls magic.

“There’s a beauty in the sound. It showcases that beauty very easily. I can remember my audition here. See, it’s honest because if you play something out of tune, you’re all alone on stage. And you play an out-of-tune note and then it comes back at you, and you’re like, ‘Ewwww. That was out of tune.’ You can hear it right away.”

The concert hall opened in 1931, and that’s also part of what makes it inspiring for Bormann.

'They might have food, but they were built for the music"

“I think part of it is knowing the history of this orchestra. To me, this is kind of hallowed ground. It’s kind of like the Stradivarius violins, right? And Guadagninis and Amatis and Guarneris: Why could they do this so well, hundreds of years ago; what is it that’s so special about that?”

Tuning the room
Severance Hall underwent redesigns in 1958 and 1998, which involved everything from replacing certain types of carpets to installing an acoustical shell behind the orchestra to provide audiences with better sound. The work seems to have paid off for the audience and the players.

“Severance Hall has been known for years as having one of the best-sounding stages,” says Tom George, director of installations at 8th Day Sound, a sound design company in Cleveland.

“One of the reasons it makes the Cleveland Orchestra so good, I’m told, is that everyone can hear each other. That’s not necessarily good for a rock and roll show; however, for an orchestra that’s incredibly important.”

'Everything was orchestral or a band. So everything was designed with the idea that you would be projecting off the stage'

George recently completed the renovation of the Goodyear Theater in Akron, which was built for speeches, lectures and plays.

To “tune” the room for music, his design included a new sound system and plenty of acoustical foam.

“Back a hundred years ago, everything was designed differently. There weren’t electric guitars; everything was orchestral or a band. So everything was designed with the idea that you would be projecting off the stage. Theaters were designed [for] the person speaking; sound would be easily projected off the stage and be heard out into the audience. So the ideas of this have been around for a long time, it’s just now taken to a new level.”

So, whatever the type of music, whatever the venue -- old or new -- when someone like George takes that “room” to the next level, it not only looks good, it sounds better. And that’s nirvana for musicians and audiences alike.