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A Work In Progress: Charting The Ongoing Renovation Of Toronto’s Venerable Massey Hall

Checking in on the comprehensive renovation process for an iconic Toronto live performance venue.

In the past, McKendrick has summed up the overall project by saying: “Basically changing everything without changing anything.” Given that it’s literally a top to bottom renovation – including new rigging points and structural reinforcement of the basement and main floor to raise production weight capacity from 25,000 to 100,000 pounds – that’s a tall order.

Even obvious fixes, Cameron says, such as replacing a section of ceiling that collapsed in 1955 and has been reinforced with chicken wire, for example, aren’t straightforward: “I thought we’d have to import the horsehair lathe and plaster and was in a bit of a panic until somebody put me out of my misery and said we can get that specific material here.” He’s also wasn’t a fan of ripping the roof off the joint, literally, so a crane could be dropped right through to the basement. “But there was no other way to construct the addition. We couldn’t put the crane on the street.”

Continuing Apace

The partners involved inspire confidence, among them Heritage Toronto, Charcoal Blue, contractors Ellis Don, and architectural firms KPMB and Goldsmith Borgal & Company. While they’re doing much of the “heavy lifting” in terms of what’s being constructed and determining what can and can’t be altered during construction, it’s Toronto AV consultants Engineering Harmonics and UK-based acoustician Bob Essert (founding director of Sound Space Vision) whom the bulk of the sound design and acoustic work falls to.

McKendrick, a former touring sound engineer and tour/production manager, has been at Massey since 2012, prior to the beginning of phase one of the project. He’s worked closely on the design with the entire project team, and says he feels very comfortable with Essert and EH as partners.

Ongoing renovation work underway in the auditorium, including a crane through the roof (photo at left). Credit: Salina Kassam/Massey Hall

While construction of the new building began recently this past spring, the restoration of the auditorium is well underway and proceeding quickly. Acoustic work was then in the preparation stage and concrete had been poured for installation of new, deployable seating to replace the previous World War II-era seats.

The new seating will slide under the stage when needed, thus providing new space for standing room audiences. A new mix position was also created at house right, just off-center and 60 feet from the stage, to allow for additional accessible seating and to shorten the cable run from the stage.

Making the venue more comfortable, in general and particularly for performers, is where a lot of the challenges began, in part because the dome above the stage cannot be altered owing to heritage considerations. “There’s a flutter echo triggered roughly from where the snare would typically be with thirteen discrete repeats,” McKendrick says. “But we’re not looking to change how sound projects from the stage, but how it returns, because lot of energy reflects back to the stage.”

Consequently, a series of retractable drapes will be installed above the stage, and the ceiling and surfaces of the Moorish arches and rear wall facing the stage will be covered with sound absorbent plaster (material that wasn’t available in 1955 when the ceiling fell). The new wooden seating will feature padded cushions that, when flipped up, will mimic an occupied seat. “Overall capacity is still a moving target,” he adds. “There’s a little less than before in a seated configuration, but more in the standing configuration.”

An Important Piece

Until roughly two years before Massey Hall closed its doors, the venue didn’t have its own PA. Even when they did purchase a system, McKendrick says, “With the weight constraints we couldn’t hang another PA without taking ours down, so we put one in that was difficult for someone to say no to.” Going forward, the rig will be raised up using motors so incoming artists can hang their own production below it.

Installed by the Solotech Toronto office and designed by Martin Van Dijk, senior systems designer and partner at Engineering Harmonics, the auditorium’s main system is comprised of d&b audiotechnik loudspeakers hung in a left-center-right (LCR) array configuration. Left and right arrays both incorporate eight J8s (80-degree horizontal dispersion) and three J12s (120-degree horizontal dispersion), with six V-Series subwoofers (cardioid, 18- and 12-inch loaded) flown behind them. The center array reverses the order of the left-right, comprised of three J8s and eight J12s. More low-frequency horsepower comes via J-SUB triple 18-inch cardioid subs on the deck.

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