Study Hall

With a capacity of 1,100, Metro Chicago features a main floor and balcony. Significantly wider than it is deep, with only about 25 feet between the stage lip and the house mix position, no one is ever really at the back of the room. Interrupted by the pandemic, a multi-phase audio upgrade eventually introduced crowds to a new house PA built around d&b ALi60 loudspeakers flown horizontally next to the stage. Control for both the house and monitors comes via Allen & Heath dLive C3500 control surfaces and a pair of CDM48 MixRacks.

Attaining The Right Fit: Inside The Audio Upgrade At Venerable Metro Chicago

Detailing the design and installation process of new house and monitor systems providing a smaller footprint while doubling output at the 1,100-capacity live venue on the city's North side that's celebrating its 42nd anniversary this year.

Change can be a hard thing to accept, especially if you’re a venerated concert hall like Metro Chicago. Cherished by those who love live music, held in esteem by countless performers, and recognized far and wide, the room has witnessed the birth of the Smashing Pumpkins, blistering performances by Metallica, James Brown, and George Clinton, and Iggy Pop’s comeback (even though he never really went away).

In many respects, owner Joe Shanahan has good reason not to make anything about Metro different, given that his formula for success has yet to fail him, the public, or those who cross his stage in going on 42 years this July. Shanahan first came to this spot—the Northside Auditorium Building at 3730 N. Clark Street – back in 1982, when he opened the Smart Bar on the fourth floor.

Quickly moving on to booking and promoting a concert by R.E.M. on the venue’s main floor, Stages Music Hall, through Latest Creations, his own production company, it wasn’t long before he took over the whole place. Ultimately moving the Smart Bar to the basement, the main floor became the Metro as everyone knows it today.

Beyond Sentiment

For years, change came slowly to the room’s sound components. Prior to its recent upgrade, Metro’s sonic heart was contained in towering left-right groundstacks of Electro-Voice X-Array enclosures that had become iconic in their own right among patrons.

The concert hall’s much-venerated EV X-Array rig was retired with dignity and honor in February of 2022, after having stood witness to countless performances by name acts and up-and-comers. Members of the production team helping to provide a proper send-off for the tireless system included (left-to-right): Monitor engineer Benjamin Gordon, stage manager Robert Bock, house engineer Justin Yates, and lighting designer Haley Camacho.

“Joe Shanahan was attached to that X-Array rig, and rightly so,” says Ben Gordon, who first started at the Metro in March, 2017 at monitors and has since gone on to serve in a number of capacities onstage and in the house along with colleague and long-time house engineer Justin Yates. “It carried him and everyone else through a significant portion of the room’s history, so he was never acting as just a sentimentalist. Despite his personal feelings, he is also very dedicated to the future and doing what is best, and that’s what started carrying us into the digital age right around the time I started here.”

When Gordon took up his position at stage left back, the Metro was, in his words, “still analog at both ends.” There was a Midas in the house, an analog Crest console in monitor world, and only talk just beginning about going digital. “The Metro is a big venue,” he says, “but it isn’t as big as it seems when you get a full band onstage and you have this big analog desk up there with all of the outboard gear and amps living underneath it. It took six people to flip that console and carry it offstage. It was definitely a time-consuming task to clear the deck when we had to.”

As discussions between Gordon and Yates ramped-up concerning their transfer to a digital future, the pair decided that the monitor system should be upgraded first, given that if the house led the way it may well leave Gordon struggling to keep up onstage.

Metro Chicago’s digital future started with a rebuild at monitors. An eclectic collection of wedges was replaced by 10 d&b MAX2 enclosures prior to the arrival of Alen & Heath dLive C3500 control.

Taking advantage of a good deal on an Avid SC48, the future began taking further shape with the restructuring of the amp racks into slimmer proportions and the jettison of a mixed bag of wedges, which by July of 2019 had been replaced by 10 d&b MAX2 monitors powered by d&b 30D amps. Y Series components also culled from the d&b catalog were brought in for subs as well as drum and side fill at the same time.

Geometry Challenges

Once monitor world was fully aligned to provide a better tomorrow, the pair turned their attention to the house. At 80 feet wide, the Metro – which has a capacity of 1,100 including an upper balcony – is significantly wider than it is deep, with only a little more than 25 feet existing between the lip of the stage and the house mix position.

“The room is interesting in this regard,” Gordon explains, “because no one in the crowd is ever really at the back of the room. Everyone is spread out and has a close view of the stage. There isn’t a bad seat in the house in terms of sight lines, but we had a few issues sonically with the old EV groundstacked rig, as the top boxes were all we had throwing towards the balcony. As a result there were certain areas up there that were a bit lacking.”

With one of their objectives being to correct that situation, Gordon and Yates took to the task of upgrading the house with the addition of a Midas Pro2 digital console. New line arrays were considered next, but one of the challenges faced in that context was that the room didn’t require the long throw and control over distances the technology brought to the table. Hanging line arrays represented a fair share of problems as well in that they would block critical sight lines.

A pair of legacy EV Dx38 processors looks on as one of the venue’s racks is disassembled prior to the installation of the upgrade’s new components. The vintage rig was sold and began a second act at a new location.

“We spoke to consultants as part of our efforts to see if we could make some of the constant curvature line array boxes work,” Gordon says, recalling the level of effort they put into this portion of the project. “We seemed to be moving in a good direction, but when we got to talking about the rigging needed they moved to the idea of using a horseshoe truss. We’re all really concerned about aesthetics here – there are some interesting and very classical columns among them – so none of us were sold on the idea of a huge floating PA interrupting that.

“We wanted to uncover all the details in the room. I think the direction we ultimately took revealing more of the architecture was one of the bigger selling points for owner Joe Shanahan that allowed us to do what we did.”

Concurrently at about this time, d&b audiotechnik announced the release of its augmented A-Series loudspeakers, and after reviewing the specs on the new boxes, Gordon and Yates were intrigued. A demo ensued on-site and the pair was impressed, finding that the components sounded great across the listening field while offering excellent phase coherence between each enclosure.

Now envisioning what the room’s new reality would sound and look like in vivid detail, they were getting ready to move forward within the scope of a blueprint utilizing separate ground and balcony systems all existing in harmony on a single truss, and then the pandemic hit.

In With The New

With all of the live sound industry sent into purgatory for the rest of 2020 and into 2021, it was February of 2022 before the Metro could bid its stalwart X-Array-based PA a fond and loving farewell. Helping to initiate the separation process at this point was Chicago-based Ayre Productions, which brought in the new rig, disassembled the old one, and hauled it off-premises to be sold.

Chicago-based Ayre Productions installed the new house PA. With components of the new ground and balcony systems coexiting in harmony on the same truss, Ayre’s John Wagner notes that the d&b A-Series boxes brought tight focus to the main floor sound while bringing new sonic presence to the balcony as well.

Collaborating with Gordon and Yates, Ayre co-owner John Wagner added a few details of his own to the new design, which received approval all-around. Wagner’s crew constructed the main system using four d&b ALi60 loudspeakers per side flown horizontally next to the stage, all of which receive power from a trio of 40D amps. A trio of SL-GSUB subwoofers bring up the low-end, powered by a pair of D80 amplifiers.

“The Metro is a unique room, and truly remarkable on a number of levels,” Wagner relates. “The A-Series represented the best choice for its needs in that it worked well across the board, focusing sound onto the main floor where it needed to be and not beyond with even coverage. Adding the balcony fills transformed the blueprint even further. Now there’s a powerful and clean sonic presence in a space that never had that kind of performance before.”

Ceiling height at the Metro stands at roughly 22 feet, with the balcony wrapping around the main floor. Fitting perfectly onto truss towers, the new system is unobtrusive, leaving a fraction of its predecessor’s footprint while offering twice the output. Within this new order, balcony fill is provided by d&b 24S point source loudspeakers flown directly above the main arrays and a pair of 44S enclosures residing in front of the center balcony lip. To optimize all loudspeaker locations, d&b’s proprietary ArrayCalc software was used to obtain precise positioning and coverage.

“It was an exceptionally clean install,” Gordon reports. “Everything lives on a single piece of truss with outriggers for the main hang as well as the balcony, the only thing mounted to the ceiling are the pair of 44S boxes in front of the center balcony lip.”

More Like A Studio

The last chapter in the upgrade came in January of 2023, when consoles in both the house and for monitors were changed-out by Ayre Productions, which brought in a pair of Allen & Heath’s dLive C3500 control surfaces and two CDM48 MixRacks. Both the house and monitor system C3500s were outfitted with AES output cards that feed the venue’s amps with digital AES/EBU signals.

The view from front of house with the new dLive C3500 control surfaces in place.

“Now both consoles are fully digital after the split, which was one of our dreams from the beginning,” Gordon admits. “There’s a five-port output AES card at the monitor desk providing 10 AES channels in total. Sound out front and onstage has a more responsive low-end and a smoother top-end. Bands are way happier, and so are we.”

Gordon, who frequently steps in to mix the house when Yates is on the road touring, adds that, “I’ve really come to appreciate the dLive’s modern DSP. All the compressors have singularly unique sounds and a lot of character. It’s more like a studio setup in here now. Plus I have a million options, I can lay out the desk however I want. For guest engineers, the control surface is intuitive – it takes little time to get someone who has never even seen the board before up-and-running.”

Both dLive mix systems are outfitted with AES output cards that deliver AES/EBU signals to the amps. A five-port output AES card at the monitor desk offers 10 AES channels in total.

Among Chicago clubs and concert halls, the Metro stands upon hallowed firmament occupied by greats such as Schubas, the Hideout, Double Door, Park West, and the Green Mill. Today, the venue still books a balanced list of national headliners and up-and-comers. From alt-rock and grunge pioneers to Chance the Rapper, countless artists have made their mark.

“It’s an experience,” Gordon adds on a final note. “Proving that bricks and mortar still have the power to move people and provide sanctuary for creative talent of all description.”

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