As an architectural standout among the loblolly pines, live oak, crape myrtle, camellias, evergreens, and other leafy specimens bringing beauty to the 260-acre campus at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, VA, the Ferguson Center for the Arts is an exceptional venue that has been visited by more than two million people since its opening in 2004.
Designed by Henry N. Cobb of the architectural firm Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, the facility plays host to an eclectic mix of talent ranging from headlining acts like Tony Bennett, Wynton Marsalis, Jay Leno, and Ziggy Marley to Broadway shows, symphonies, student productions, lectures, and more.
On an operational level, the center has always valued keeping pace with the latest technology has to offer. “In some ways it seems we are always in a state of upgrading something somewhere,” says Eric “Ketch” Kelly, the facility’s audio engineer. “But another way to look at it is that we are just undergoing part of a natural, continuous evolution that strives to transform the way audiences hear what comes from the stage in a fashion that keeps getting better and better.”
Kelly followed an unlikely path to the Ferguson Center, landing at its doorstep in 2007. Drafted in the last year of the Vietnam War, he rode aircraft carriers and went on to become a “bubblehead,” a not-so-official name given to crew members on nuclear-powered submarines by their U.S. Navy peers.
After prowling the depths aboard the USS Nathanael Green (SSBN-636), Kelly returned to civilian life and began a touring sound career with Bob Marley and the Wailers, Peter Tosh, Jimmy Cliff, and others, living most of the time out of a suitcase or in Jamaica until he made his way back to the mainland to accept a gig in New York City at The Ritz, the legendary club/concert space founded by Jerry Brandt on 11th Street between Third and Fourth Avenues in the East Village.
“After all that time aboard the Nathanael Green I became very conscious of failure points,” Kelly relates. “There’s not much room for technical failure of any kind when you are 1,000 feet below the surface of an ocean, so you get very good at being proactive about spotting potential system troubles. I carried that philosophy over to my work in audio, and today it’s still a driving force propelling decisions I make here at Ferguson.”
Against this backdrop, Kelly assigns time values to the longevity of the venue’s gear. Based upon his experience and available data on such things, if a certain console is expected to last 10 years, for example, he may replace it in seven while it’s still working fine, moving it out of the facility’s 1,700-seat concert hall into one of the center’s two smaller ones for the remainder of its service, and then buy a new one for the main room.
“Working in this fashion, you never go down for the count,” he explains, “and you gain the benefits of newer technologies that will eventually make their way through the center on a number of levels.”
In The Beginning
When Kelly arrived at Ferguson, the main 1,700-seat Diamonstein Concert Hall had no main PA. A piecemealed assortment of gear was all that was available. Recalling the generic collection of boxes hung above the proscenium behind steel mesh that was part of this collection, he says, “It was really just for speech reinforcement and had limited coverage. We would rent PA for all our visits by touring acts, and as those fees piled up, I, in my inimitable way, was able to convince management to purchase a system of our own that would serve both our in-house needs and those of our visitors.”
From the roots of this first PA, the system evolved as time progressed, continuing with the implementation of 20 TTL 31-A loudspeakers from RCF along with a pair of TTS 56-A dual 21-inch subwoofers. Following the addition of another pair of TTS 56-As, and then the turning of the calendar to December 2021, Bruce Bronstein, the executive director of the Ferguson Center, agreed with Kelly that the main room needed an upgrade, prompting the addition of 24 RDNet-equipped, three-way active TTL 55-A cabinets deployed at a rate of 12 per side.
“We went with the RCF products based upon sound quality,” Kelly states, “and the unmatched support they had given us over the years.”
To buttress the low-end, Kelly brought in six TTL 36-AS active subwoofers, each equipped with a pair of 18-inch neodymium drivers sporting 4.5-inch voice coils that also incorporate RDNet networking. Stacked at stage level two high per side in the house’s standard configuration, three can be added per side as required to create a cardioid setup or used in other placements with legacy subs culled from the Ferguson Center’s extensive gear inventory to enhance forward addition and rearward subtraction via end-firing or gradient configurations with multiple boxes (see sidebar).
As time passed with the house’s original PA still in place, Kelly learned that many touring acts found it a bit undersized. “What impressed me about the TTL 55-A cabinets was that they are double-12s,” he notes. “As a result, even at low volumes you can feel the impact of our new, upgraded system. My take has always been that when you have ample headroom and power at hand it tends to keep engineers mixing at quieter levels, and that’s a valuable attribute in a theatre of our size.
“These double-12s are mounted in a clam shell band-pass loading configuration as well, and that makes the box actually not much ‘bigger’ horizontally than most others it competes with. Bottom line, the visual impact isn’t huge at all, but the physical impact is.”
Combining modeling and prediction done with Rational Acoustics Smaart v8 and a FLUX:: Pure Analyzer, as well as good old-fashioned critical listening techniques, Kelly, assisted by RCF’s Tarik Solangi and Oscar Mora, tuned the upgraded system while using RDNet to examine and shape the characteristics, and performance of the loudspeakers individually and in groups.
Used in conjunction with RDNet, FiRPHASE, the company’s proprietary finite impulse response (FIR) filtering, utilized an accurate measurement of each loudspeaker’s phase to correct both phase and amplitude (if necessary) while taking into account the physical characteristics of the transducers as well as the resonances and cancellations produced by the cabinets.
“FiRPHASE makes a difference,” Kelly reports. “Especially when you consider the number of guest engineers that pass through here. Everyone mixes differently, and every show requires different mixing. Now it’s nice to be able to hand an engineer a tablet and have them be able to use the filters instead of doing a lot of EQing when they can.”
Kelly provides a standard – or what he calls benchmark tuning for all his guests. He keeps that simple then provides a tablet for accessing either RDNet or the room’s Lake LM26 and LM44 processing, which remains part of the equation for signal routing. Whatever tunings are set, a touch of a button returns the rig to a default setting at the end of the night.
Form & Function
Stage monitoring currently relies upon a combination of RCF TT 20-CXA dual 8-inch and TT 45-CXA dual 10-inch wedges as well as six Shure PSM 1000 P10T transmitters and 13 P10T beltpacks for personal monitoring. Drawing once again from its large collection of in-house inventory, Kelly’s input list is peppered with a variety of mics including a DPA d:facto II, Shure KSM8, KSM9, and SM58 transducers joined by an assortment of DPA lavalier and headset mics.
“I’ve used DPA microphones for a long time,” Kelly notes. “Given the origins of our newly updated PA, I don’t know if I can claim any influence over RCF’s decision to buy the company at this moment, but I gladly will after a few drinks at a bar.”
Wireless microphones include four holdover channels of Shure Axient Analog using four handheld transmitters and four beltpacks, eight channels of ULX-D that can be used with any combination of eight available handheld transmitters or eight beltpacks, and four channels of Axient Digital accessible via four handheld transmitters and a pair of beltpacks.
While developing his wireless blueprint, Kelly brought in engineers from Shure who scanned all three of Ferguson’s theatres. Declaring the smallest “probably one of the safest RF rooms in the world,” the main hall didn’t fare as well according to their analysis and remains a challenge based not only on the large amount of broadcast interference in the area, but also the outsized military presence within a 30-mile radius that includes Langley Air Force Base, Naval Air Station Oceana, and Naval Station Norfolk.
“I would never suggest that someone in a military aircraft might be in a backseat testing their jamming equipment overhead right during a show,” Kelly says, still expressing his jocular side. “But sometimes you just might believe it. Shure’s Wireless Workbench is vital to our RF efforts, and as far as antennas go we have a paddle located downstage and an omnidirectional upstage. This combination provides high gain and a high surface area in terms of reception, and both are located 15 feet in the air while still keeping sight lines clear.”
Meeting Multiple Needs
As with other aspects of the system, consoles were chosen for the theatre with the idea of providing something for everyone and every application. Generally used at front of house, a 64 x 32 Solid State Logic L200 Plus is joined by a 64 x 32 Yamaha CL5, a 48 x 32 Avid VENUE Mix Rack (the oldest among the group), and a recently added Allen & Heath SQ-5.
“The thing that really differentiates this PA from our previous one is that it’s very linear,” Kelly says on a final note. “It doesn’t matter if you’re running it down quiet around 65 dB or jumping up north of 100. There’s a nice consistency, increased power, vocal clarity, and remarkable imaging. Having the double 12s, the 10, and the horn in the TTL 55-As translates into an added richness we lacked before. The sound is very fluid, very rich, and as I noted earlier, has impact even at low volumes, and then well beyond.
“You can feel the air moving when a kick drum hits, along with a thump in your chest. This kind of performance isn’t typical of the smaller drivers found in many other systems. I’ve enjoyed the positive remarks of everyone who comes through here from teachers doing lectures to some of the best touring engineers around.”