When B.B. King walks onto Durham Performing Arts Center's stage for the theater's opening night Nov. 30, Jonathan Parke guarantees that the stately room will sound perfect. But that's because Parke, a New York City sound engineer hired by DPAC, will augment the theater's $900,000 sound system with $1 million of his own equipment. Otherwise, he says, the sound emanating from the house system might not satisfy all the ticket holders.
Due to budgetary constraints, DPAC is missing an estimated $600,000 of sound equipment that's crucial, several experts say, to the room's audio fidelity. Initial plans called for 30 speakers to supply sound on both sides of the 119-foot stage, but the city hasn't purchased them.
To date, Durham has spent $906,995 on sound equipment for DPAC. Dominic Sack, vice president of the Yonkers, N.Y.-based firm Sound Associates, designed and installed the sound system. He says it's top of the line, from the dozen Meyer Sound speakers hanging in a vertical cluster at center stage to the Midas equipment that connects the system's central components. Midas equipment is the international standard for digital sound; Meyer speakers support Kanye West, Metallica and dozens of Broadway hits. Parke agrees that the system's basic quality is good, with the acknowledgment that if Sack's full plan were at work inside DPAC, the sound system would have been "second only to The Met."
"It's a perfect hall for everything the city did pay for," says Parke, who will be behind the sound board for comedian Lewis Black and a three-day run of A Christmas Carol.
Parke has run sound for five years for Raleigh's nonprofit Theatre in the Park, which presents A Christmas Carol, and has also been the resident sound engineer for North Carolina Theatre. "I think it's too bad they ran out of money to fulfill the rest.... The left and right cluster are absolutely essential."
However, Alan DeLisle, assistant city manager for Durham's Office of Economic and Workforce Development, says the city and PFM/ Nederlander, the company operating the center, decided that those 30 speakers were less important than more than $2.5 million in other late additions to the project. Those additions include architectural woodwork in the VIP and green rooms, as well as a wooden wall-panel in the lobby and a second elevator.
In an e-mail, DPAC publicist Rachel Gragg wrote, "All the big shows, like all of our 2009 touring Broadway musicals and concerts like Harry Connick Jr. and John Legend, always travel with their own speakers that audiences see to the left and right of the stage."
It is true that most Broadway-style touring shows, which constitute 70 percent of DPAC's announced bookings through May, bring most of their own sound equipment. Omitting the main left and right stacks won't affect those shows because performers often replace or augment the speakers in the hall. Indeed, many venues, including Raleigh's Meymandi Concert Hall and Memorial Auditorium, require organizations to supply some of their own speakers. But DPAC's optimal system was designed as one piece by one engineer. Sack agrees the space would be best if his entire design were included.
These extra audio components are critical not only for optimal sound in the $46.8 million center, but also because many of the touring comedians and musicians scheduled to perform at DPAC—such as B.B. King—don't travel with their own speakers. In many cases, performers rent them from an outside sound company. According to a local production company familiar with the facilities, fully equipping the room could cost $2,500 per show. The user would pay that cost, not DPAC or the city, says DeLisle.
While that amount may seem insignificant for big shows, it pushes the minimum expenses for non-profit organizations hoping to use DPAC for a performance to $8,350.
Asked if the DPAC speakers would be sufficient for his production of A Christmas Carol, Stephen Larson, technical director of Theatre in the Park, laughed before concluding, "No, not with good sound."
The missing speakers are the city's top priority for purchase, DeLisle says. The $600,000 will come either from surplus funds—although according to DeLisle, it's uncertain when there will be any—when DPAC construction is complete or when the theater begins yielding a net profit for the city.
DeLisle and Sack agree DPAC was a bargain build. Sack designed the sound system for the renovated Westport Country Playhouse in Connecticut, a 600-seat, $31 million project. Much of that money came from public donations in a fundraising campaign led by the late actor Paul Newman and his wife, Joanne Woodward. DeLisle says he fields calls from city officials across the country wondering how Durham built a 2,800-seat theater for $46.8 million.
"People are coming in saying, 'I've never heard such a deal.' I don't think you'll find anything like it across the country," says DeLisle. "We had limits to what we could afford.... We tried to really focus on the theater itself and the lobby. We said, 'This is what we really need. We don't need this.'"
Beginning Nov. 30, maybe you can hear the savings, too.