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Making the pitch for good sound

Late last year, would-be donors marched up and down the aisles of the Yukon Arts Centre's main theatre as part of a Business After Hours event. There wasn't a show.

Late last year, would-be donors marched up and down the aisles of the Yukon Arts Centre’s main theatre as part of a Business After Hours event.

There wasn’t a show. Instead, the speakers broadcast what’s known as “pink noise,” a steady, nondescript, sound.

But what people heard was far from steady.

The arts centre’s CEO Al Cushing describes the sound as being like washboarding ripples on a road.

Areas where the sound is clear are next to sections with poor quality sound. It’ll get really loud and then drop off to nothing. People separated by one or two seats can have a completely different listening experience.

Some of the sound equipment at the arts centre dates back 22 years to when the theatre opened. It’s a piecemeal system of old analog equipment rigged up with new newer digital pieces. The system badly needs an upgrade, as technology is improving and the old equipment is wearing out, said Cushing.

For about the last two years, the Yukon Arts Foundation - a fundraising group for arts in the territory - has been trying to raise at least $300,000 (ideally $350,000) to buy and install a new sound system at the arts centre.

So how do you sell sound?

It’s much easier to pitch something if you can show someone option A next to option B, to give a sense of the difference between the two, said Cushing.

“We can’t do that, because you don’t got B. It ain’t here.”

So people march through the aisles and listen.

He says that led to a lot of “aha moments.”

Sound waves are funny things.

Sound reacts differently when it comes out of speakers and collides. In some cases that collision will double the amount of noise. In other cases it will cut the sound in half. It all depends on the frequency, explains technical director Josh Jansen.

Talented technical crews do the best they can to make things sound great, Cushing said.

But the Yukon Arts Centre wasn’t designed to do everything that’s expected of it now. It was designed for traditional theatre.

“We’re a presentation house, where we have rock and roll and country and western and folk and blues and jazz and theatre and everything else in between,” Cushing said.

“The system that we need needs to have that flexibly. The system that was built here was built for a single purpose and does not have that flexibility.”

In 2013 the foundation brought in a consultant to map out sound in the theatre.

“You plunk a speaker in the middle of the stage and you broadcast pink noise through it,” Cushing said.

“Then you run around and measure exactly what’s happening with those frequencies all over the room. And that enables you to create a computerized map of how sound moves in the space.”

Enter data off the various speakers you’re considering, and the computer can tell you how the sound is going to behave.

From there a wish list was created. It’s got about 90 speakers on it, 13 different types.

The foundation wants to replace everything from the back row of seats forward.

“Basically everything that the audience hears will be replaced,” Cushing said.

To improve the sound for people sitting under the balcony, a row of tiny speakers will be installed above their heads.

For those sitting in the front few rows, new speakers will be installed along the stage.

Also on the wish list is a rig on a dolly to roll behind the movie screen, and speakers on the side designed to help choirs hear themselves.

It’s about more than esthetics, both Cushing and Jansen agreed.

Two summers ago an old crossover, a critical piece of equipment that converts sound to the right frequencies to be picked up by the speakers, died two days before a show.

Cushing said the theatre was lucky that one of the local audio shops had the right piece. That’s not always the case when you’re dealing with equipment this old. It cost them $1,000 to rent and crews had to get it up and running in a day.

Cushing is not new to selling sound. As vice-president of operations at Calgary’s EPCOR Centre he led the sound redesign for four different stages with a price tag of about $1.5 million.

When Cushing did the larger project in Calgary, he estimated a savings of $10,000 to $15,000 a year thanks to the upgraded system, by reducing the amount spent annually on things like maintenance or equipment rentals.

The arts centre’s 428-seat main stage theatre was being used 85 per cent of the year, according to the centre’s 2013-2014 annual report.

It’s hard to estimate how much the new equipment would save the arts centre. But typically the team at the arts centre has been doing the equivalent of four to six weeks of maintenance over the course of a year, said Cushing. That should drop to one or two with the new gear. Jansen estimates they’ve been spending $3,000 to $6,000 a year on maintenance or replacing equipment.

It takes two to four person hours to set up for a film, Cushing said. Once the new equipment is installed it shouldn’t take any time, there will just be a button marked “movie.”

“Will we attract acts here that wouldn’t have otherwise come?” Cushing asked. “I have no idea, I’m hoping we do. But you don’t know until you see.”

Jansen says right now they sometimes have to ask acts to compromise.

“They come up and sometimes they’re happy with just the Yukon reaction and visiting Yukon,” he said.

“But a lot of the times their crew are definitely not happy that they’ve been asked to compromise to that extent. It makes it hard on them and it makes it hard for them to achieve what they need to do.”

When the Western Canadian Music Awards came to Whitehorse, organizers didn’t like any of the equipment here. They shipped up their own.

“It was a big sound system they trucked up, solely for the purpose of putting on a show here,” Jansen says. That’s not something a lot of acts can afford.

For artists who have never been to the Yukon, looking at the arts centre on paper can be deceiving, Jansen says.

“We do get artists, performers and crew coming in and they only look at our specs, right? They don’t look at what our theatre actually looks like,” he says.

“So it’s actually pretty funny watching a crew. They’ll come through backstage, walk on stage and go, ‘Oh, it’s a real theatre. This is a great space.’”

So far fundraising is going pretty well. If the foundation can raise $90,000 on its own, they are hopeful that money will be matched by federal and territorial grants and grow into the full amount.

So far they’ve got about $60,000. Companies have contributed, and some individual donors have given as much as $5,000, while $20,000 is coming from the arts centre itself.

“My hope is that between now and the end of August we will raise the rest,” Cushing says.

They’re aiming for an installation that month.

The old equipment will be given to other performance venues in the territory.

With a firm budget in hand, Cushing expects multiple sound companies will be willing to trek north with their gear to put on a show-and-tell. Then all the mapping and planning will be put to the test.

Contact Ashley Joannou at