The Southern Theatre is said to be the most acoustically pleasing venue in town. That's not just hearsay-it's science.
In 1896, the Southern Theatre opened as an opera house. "I think right there is the key reason it has such great acoustics," says Todd Bemis, vice president of operations at CAPA, "because it was being built for opera and for amplified sound." "The rounded ceiling creates a megaphone effect from the stage out to the chamber," Bemis says of the shape of the room. Six layered arches line the ceiling in front of the stage, adding to the megaphone effect. Other than the main curtain, the theater doesn't have soft materials like heavy curtains and draperies, which absorb sound instead of reflecting it. When the Southern hosts chamber concerts, the stage crew sets up five wooden "orchestra towers" near the middle of the stage (they help direct sound toward the audience, and they're decorative) and pulls down a retractable black wall behind them. Black panels above the stage fold down to effectively lower the ceiling around the performers, boxing in their sound. "You can stand at the front of that stage and talk in a normal voice, and everyone in the room can hear you," says Kevin Campbell, who was the sound engineer at the theater during its $10 million restoration in 1998. While earlier theaters were built with wood, the Southern, which was built to be fireproof, was constructed with iron, steel, brick and concrete. "To use those harder materials, you got better natural acoustics," Bemis says. The theater has a sound system but is still used for performances sans microphones. "That's the beauty of it. Back in the days before microphones, it was all about the acoustics," Campbell says. Two angled walls in the balcony direct sound. "The sound reflects off of those plaster walls and comes back to the stage," Campbell says. "It's a natural monitor because singers can hear themselves," adds stage manager Greg Bryan.