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Nasher Museum project shows how a beautiful but highly reverberant building
can be tamed by precision beam shaping.

By Christian Doering, Marketing Partner, Dynamic Market Systems


The pentagon-shaped courtyard at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University in Durham, NC.

A spectacular Renkus-Heinz ICONYX installation at Rafael Viñoly’s Nasher Museum of Art – completed last fall using the first ICONYX production models – has dramatically emphasised the abilities of this new Digitally Steerable Array technology by conquering the supposedly ‘impossible’ acoustics of this beautiful modern space.

The Nasher Museum is the newest addition to the architecturally distinguished campus of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. The faculty says the creation of the Nasher at Duke “marks the first time that Duke’s collections, programs and research initiatives in the arts are housed within one facility specifically developed for presenting and exploring art”.

One facility, five pavilions or “platonic boxes,” as the architect calls them. While the pavilions are “monolithic forms with limited fenestration,” they are tied together by a bright and open central courtyard that links the individual pavilions to each other and to the surrounding environment.

The pentagon-shaped courtyard, canopied with glass and steel, serves as the museum’s lobby and sculpture gallery, and hosts a variety of university and community activities, offering views to the outside through full-height glass openings between the pavilions. However, acoustics were not a primary or even a secondary consideration in the design. This became abundantly clear as the building neared completion.

“We were about a month away from the Grand Opening,” recalls Allin Foulkrod of Creative Visions, Inc., “and the courtyard had no sound system. The backbone and source equipment (wireless microphones, CD playback, etc.) had been installed by another systems integrator, but the atrium had no loudspeakers. No one could find a solution that could reasonably be expected to work by everyone involved.” This part of our tale will be familiar to many designers and installers of sound systems for architecturally distinguished buildings: visual aesthetics creating acoustical problems that can compromise the functionality of the space. “Both of the acoustical consulting firms that the museum had hired told them that there was no way to provide effective sound reinforcement in that space without adding acoustical treatment,” reports Foulkrod.

“The architecture is so beautiful, however, that covering it with acoustical treatment is not an option.” In such a visually stunning environment, moreover, loudspeakers themselves had to blend in. “Other speakers were demonstrated in the atrium,” says Foulkrod, “but nothing that looked acceptable, sounded acceptable.”

Headquartered in Raleigh, North Carolina, Creative Visions was formed to provide event production services. More recently, Creative Visions has expanded its business and its skill set into the systems integration area. Allin Foulkrod and most of his key employees have obtained the ICIA’s Certified Technology Specialist designation, and Integration Engineer Andrew Evans is a CTS-D.

Creative Visions has supported many events at Duke University in recent years, and was hired to provide sound, lighting and other audiovisual services for the Nasher Museum of Art’s Grand Opening: two weeks of lectures, dinners, dining and dancing. The events were intended to thank major donors, to introduce the University and its surrounding community to this major new cultural resource, and to showcase the atrium, which is available for rental. Quite a challenge in a venue that features “30 foot high glass ceilings, tile floors, nothing that’s acoustically your friend,” as Foulkrod puts it, “and 400 people clinking glasses.”

“The issues with sound and intelligibility in the courtyard brought us into another discussion with the Nasher Museum,” says Foulkrod. “We basically told them that we could go on as long as they wanted us to bringing in black boxes as rental systems for events, but we would like to have our Integration Manager John Linden come in and take a look at the problem.” Linden, also a CTS, is famous in his office for breaking the speed record on an acoustical design problem that is part of Renkus-Heinz’s EASE training curriculum.

Creative Visions’ pragmatic, problem solving approach, honed during years of event production, helped them discover a way out of the impasse preventing the Nasher Museum from installing a working sound system in its most public showcase area. “Our attitude is, there’s nothing you can’t do,” Foulkrod emphasizes. “Let’s educate the client, let’s manage expectations. Let’s understand their need and find a solution with appropriate technology.”

John Linden (left) and Ralph Heinz align the new ICONYX system
In this case, appropriate technology was the ICONYX Digitally Steerable Array System from Renkus-Heinz. Although it looks very similar to column loudspeakers that have been around almost since the start of professional audio, ICONYX integrates some of the most advanced technology available today.

In fact, when John Linden began investigating alternatives for the Nasher Museum’s atrium, ICONYX did not officially exist: the two IC16 arrays now installed at the Nasher Museum carry serial numbers 2 & 3 (#1 was reserved for testing and development and has never left the factory in Foothill Ranch, California).

A close working relationship between integrator and manufacturer was another key to solving the Nasher’s problem.

“We had been anticipating ICONYX for some time,” says Foulkrod, “because Renkus-Heinz has been very helpful in solving acoustical problems for us in the past. But watching and hearing these arrays was something entirely different. The IC8 modules (assembled to form IC16 columns) arrived just eight days before the first official event.

Ralph Heinz flew in to help us out with the demo, and he had just 45 minutes to tune the system. We had no time to mount the arrays, so they were flown from aircraft cable. As soon as the Duke people heard the system, they said ‘Yes, this is what we’re going to use.’ It’s like magic."

ICONYX is not magic, of course, but there is a lot of hi-tech wizardry inside these rather plain-andordinary- looking columns. While vertical dispersion is controlled in software, the horizontal coverage of an ICONYX array is set the old-fashioned way: by the characteristics of the transducers.

ICONYX uses high performance co-axial transducers with 4” cones and 1”dome tweeters, resulting in consistent horizontal dispersion of 150°. Wide coverage is useful in many applications: at the Nasher, the entire atrium is covered with two ICONYX IC16’s.

The co-axial drivers also produce full range frequency response, making ICONYX suitable for music as well as speech. During the Nasher’s Grand Opening, events included live bands and CD playback as well as speeches and lectures. “The ICONYX system passed all these tests with flying colors,” Foulkrod reports. “The client has told us that the Nasher Museum’s atrium sounds far better than they ever thought it would.”

In fact, the University and the Nasher Museum were so pleased with the initial results that Creative Visions began the process of permanently installing the ICONYX IC16’s while the Grand Opening festivities were still in progress.

At times the production division trucks on the way in to set up lighting for the night’s event would pass the installation trucks on the way out after working on the sound system. “For us, it’s a great example of the synergy between event production and AV systems design and installation,” says Foulkrod.

For patrons of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, the two ICONYX arrays in the atrium are almost unnoticeable: and that’s just the point of Creative Visions’ solution to this difficult architectural and acoustical problem. As is so often the case, sound systems only capture the attention when they’re not working properly.

Creative Visions and the staff of the Nasher are confident that the Renkus-Heinz ICONYX system will remain thoroughly unremarkable. Given the difficulty of the acoustical challenge posed by the atrium’s bold architectural statement, that’s a remarkable achievement.

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