Steve Haas Tag

Working with the Best, Pt. 3: Steve Haas

Working with the Best, Pt. 3: Steve Haas

Mention acoustics, and most people think of concert halls. Some, but not a lot, might also think of home theaters and listening rooms. The number of people who realize the importance for proper acoustics in domestic spaces beyond entertainment rooms is so small it barely exists.

 

But the number who are aware of noise, both inside and outside the home, is of course huge. Most people would love to tame those disturbances if they could, but don’t realize they can. That’s where Steve Haas comes in.

 

Top designers, architects, builders, and integrators, and wealthy individuals turn to his company SH Acoustics to make both performance and everyday spaces sound great and keep irritating noises at bay. Steve’s work includes well-known museums, concert halls, and other commercial spaces around the world, and he has designed the acoustics for some of Theo Kalomirakis’s most famous private theaters.

 

In the interview that follows, Steve discusses how he brought his early experiences in the commercial world to bear on his work in luxury residential environments, how high-end home-entertainment spaces have expanded beyond private theaters to live performance and jamming, and the importance of proper acoustics and noise mitigation throughout the home. 

—M.G.

(The text below is an abridged version of the podcast,
which you can hear using the player above.)

Would you consider your official title “acoustic designer”?

Depends on what day of the week it is. “Acoustic designer,” “acoustical consultant,” “acoustician”—it’s interchangeable.

 

While you began your residential career working on home theaters and other entertainment spaces, you actually operate under a much broader umbrella, right?

That is true. We’re brought into so many different types of spaces, inside and outside the home, that home theaters are obviously very important for us but we don’t just focus on them exclusively by any means.

 

Talk a little about how you evolved beyond those traditional entertainment spaces.

Well, it goes a little farther back than my residential experience because for 14 years I was part of an organization that did major commercial spaces—everything from concert halls to opera houses to Broadway theaters to houses of worship. Museums, especially. 

 

I fell into the world of residential by accident. A contractor simply called my office and said they were putting a home theater for I think it was the producer of Barbara Walters in an old historic barn—in the town I now live in, in Weston, Connecticut, ironically. So I just took it on on my own, in the outside hours, and found all these interesting challenges in the world of residential that I had no idea about. 

 

Even with everything I was doing in the commercial world, I quickly saw that dealing with this type of construction, and especially these types of clients—homeowners who wanted to spend a lot of time in this particular type of environment, an entertainment space, a home theater—very different from dealing with a symphony orchestra or the leaders of a big church or a museum director. I had to quickly decide if this was something that interested me and then realize what I had to do to change my mentality coming into this world if I wanted to continue with it, which I did.

 

It wasn’t long before homeowners started asking me, “OK, what can you do in my bedroom to quiet noise?” or “I have a lot of street noise coming into my house even though I live in a suburban environment. There are landscape trucks running up and down at 7 a.m. I don’t want to hear all that.” So, utilizing the skills and experiences I had in all these commercial environments, I realized there’s a lot more to addressing sound quality, sound control, than just in the home theaters.

Working with the Best, Pt. 3: Steve Haas
How much of this was a natural evolution from your commercial work?

To name-drop a bit, I had over-the-top experiences working on Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall [shown above] and Jazz at Lincoln Center’s new facility, where we had to isolate entire buildings on giant rubber blocks to keep subway vibrations from going up into the major performance spaces. That’s a tall task that we conquered, but it shows that bringing this type of experience to very challenging residential environments was a natural course of evolution beyond just thinking about the sound of a home theater or a media room inside the space. We were able to take those broad experiences in the commercial world with isolation or HVAC or electrical or plumbing noise and bring them to the level they needed to be in home environments.

 

The infrastructure in homes is evolving more in the direction of commercial spaces, with the increased sophistication of technology and with more people working from home, so I would imagine that’s another opportunity to tap into your early career.

It absolutely is. We have two major projects right now, one in Texas and one in Long Island, where the clients own commercial contracting companies that are building their homes out of concrete, steel beams, and all-metal framing. Having that commercial background, we’re no stranger to what we need to think about differently than your typical wood-frame, wood-joist construction. It’s a plus to not have to be concerned at all about the different mentalities and to be able to instruct my team of engineers on how to flip the switch on their thinking for these types of homes.

 

What impact did your background in live performance have on your interest in acoustics and how you approach your work?

Thanks to my grandfather, who was both a concert pianist and a violinist in some major orchestras both in Europe and the U.S., including the Cleveland Orchestra, I got a good start at age 7 playing piano. I took that as far as I could into a lot of different types of music such as musical theater and other types of groups and clubs. And then when I got to college, I was in 

bands and had a lot of fun. Even though I didn’t play out for many years as I was focusing on my career in the beginning, I always had the opportunity to go to a job site, whether it was a concert hall, school of music, or any other type of place where they had a piano, and just be able to play in some amazing spaces—when no one was around, of course. These days, I’ve really gotten back into performing live for people and doing live sound as well.

 

Having these talents and passions has been instrumental in advocating having spaces for live music in people’s homes, whether it’s for CEOs by day and closet guitarists by night jamming in a pretty awesome room or their kids learning to play their instruments and wanting the best-sounding environments. Or maybe bringing in Elton John or Lady Gaga for a million dollars to do their daughter’s bat mitzvah or wedding anniversary or something. It’s been so much joy and excitement to be part of creating these live music spaces throughout homes all around the world.

 

How did you cross paths with Theo Kalomirakis?

By accident. The first time I tried to cross paths was at a CEDIA book signing, but I stood in a long line and he ran out of books before I got to the front of the line, so I didn’t get to meet him. But I had been following all the great work he was doing and was fascinated by it, so I reached out, being local in the New York City area, and just made the call. And it was a fortuitous one because we’ve been working together very closely ever since.

 

I just had the right mentality coming into it from having worked with signature architects and designers on concert halls and theaters. I knew how to respect everything they were doing and how to get them to respect our side of the equation as well. You cannot tell someone like a Hugh Hardy how to design a Broadway theater aesthetically, because they would never bring you back. So I learned at a very early part of my career how to play that relationship very strongly. And it just worked with Theo. He was very open to that kind of approach, and it’s just been a great relationship all these years.

 

When I interviewed both of you about the Paradiso about a year ago, we talked about how the home theater had a live performance aspect as well. But you were brought in after everything was originally designed, right?

Yes. We changed a number of things to make it more optimized not just for cinematic use but for live music. We 

installed my Concertino system, which is basically electronic architecture to recreate sounds of different acoustic spaces. You press a button and it sounds like you’re in Carnegie Hall, but when you turn it off, you’re in a very dry, calm space.

 

But live music can happen in various ways, and that’s just one way to create a live space for jamming. For the big Texas project, we have about three or four different music performance and jamming areas—like a guitar jam room—right in the room, and it’s going to be awesome what they want to do with it.

 

Most home theaters aren’t very conducive to live performance. You can have people stand in there and play but it’s going to be far from optimal.

Most home theaters are on the drier side, acoustically—hopefully not too dead. Not too live, either, but you can have a good conversation in there. And so for certain types of music—amplified, for instance—it works OK. But you need a very different method of playback. You can’t use a home theater audio system, which would essentially be behind the performer, and if you had microphones, they would feed back tremendously. You need to think about what you need to augment the cinematic experience for live music.

 

And that goes beyond the sound to things like lighting. People don’t think about the fact that you have a screen producing a lot of light from the projector but you don’t have any light for a performer up there. We’re not lighting designers, but I know enough to be dangerous, as they say, so we know the basics of what you need to get good front and overhead lighting for even kids performing karaoke at the front of the room.

Steve’s residential work has included the acoustical engineering for many of Theo Kalomirakis’s theaters

It’s really about thinking through the aspects that make or break the multi-use function of these rooms. Again, I take that from my experiences with big multi-use theaters in the commercial world, about what we had to do to completely transform rooms from live acoustic symphonic music to Broadway-style shows in a few hours or a day, with the technical crew moving orchestral shells in and out, and so forth. You obviously scale that down for somebody’s private theater but it’s the same kind of thing. 

 

You want to make it simple, and the Paradiso was a great example of that. You could go to the iPad, press Concert mode—or Concertino mode, in our case—and so many things happened in the background to turn off the cinema system and turn on the live-music system and put the lights in the right positions and so on. You don’t want the client to worry about everything that’s happening in the background. You just want them to press that button and go from one mode to the other.

 

Given the diverse number of things you do, is there a typical project you’re brought in for on the domestic side or does it tend to be various different things?

Absolutely various things. Certainly theaters are always a lead-in because the AV integrators have those on the forefront of their minds to bring us into the projects, but it quickly expands beyond there. It’s everything from the theater to maybe a jam room to isolating a bedroom from street noise or outdoor equipment noise or a neighbor who has a barking dog or a band that the kids are playing in. It’s amazing, during COVID especially, the amount of awareness people have now of outdoor sound environments and how they impact their homes, especially when they’re working from home. 

 

Because what you do is somewhat specialized, do clients approach you directly or are you primarily brought in through another party like an integrator?

All of the above. We get our fair share from integrators but we have a lot of great architect and interior-designer relationships, mechanical engineer relationships, contractors, and then of course the clients. We’ve built a good network over as many years as I’ve been doing this, and so one client talks to the other, and that’s how it happens.

 

How much of your first meeting with a client is education? Does the groundwork tend to be laid by whoever brought you in or do you have to explain exactly what you do and what you can do for them?

It depends on the client—and I’m sure our integrator friends can relate to this. Some clients want to know every detail; others say, “Give me the best, and call me when it’s done, and I’ll write you the checks.”

Working with the Best, Pt. 3: Steve Haas

right: workmen apply fabric acoustic treatments to the
ceiling of the private
ballroom shown above.

Working with the Best, Pt. 3: Steve Haas

We love educating our clients—especially because so much of sound is subjective. Two people don’t think about sound in the home in the same way, including married couples. We’ve had husbands and wives get very heated with each other when talking about what does and doesn’t concern them when it comes to sound. 

 

We had one home in Park City, Utah where the architect was pretty much done with the design, and things were getting built and duct work was being fabricated, and we discovered that the mechanical systems—all 31 of them—were being built like jet engines because of special filtration needs. The house would have sounded like a factory. And the wife literally stood up and shouted, “We are so sensitive to noise, and my three kids are too!” and the husband was just shaking his head, like “Why didn’t I know?” We barely got in, put the project on hold, and quickly rectified all that so they could continue the process, and we managed to create a very quiet home. But just by the skin of our teeth because another month and it would have been way too late. It would have been an ugly situation because nobody paid attention to noise in a home where the wife and the three children were extremely sensitive, because nobody asked the question.

 

Who drops the ball in a situation like that? Who has to have that initial conversation and educate them about the need for this?

Yeah, well—who’s listening to this? In some respect, the clients need to do their own research. If they are sensitive to noise, they need to bring that to their architect and designers first and foremost. But even if they don’t, we often educate the architects in how to ask in how to ask the right questions. And sometimes we even prepare an assessment of the early design of a new home or renovation that brings out all the potential issues, from a containment and quality of sound perspective,

and then let the client decide what’s important to them and to what degree.

 

It’s important to have this up front so the whole team goes into it knowing, “Here are the things we’re going to address, and here are the things we just don’t care about,” so it doesn’t come back to bite anyone. The clients don’t want to move into a beautiful new home and all of a sudden they’re saying, “We’re hearing the kids running upstairs and every time they drop a toy or something, it sounds like a boulder.” Then we have to come in and say, “Would you rather rip up your beautiful wood floors or your ornate plaster ceiling—pick one.”

 

These are real problems homeowners have all the time

Working with the Best, Pt. 3: Steve Haas

where we get brought in after the fact—to the point where they literally are crying because they can’t sleep because of noise and vibration issues. Acoustic wellness is part of the other wellness movements because of its impact on people’s health and stress levels. And the pandemic brought this out in so many ways with kids schooling from home, and multiple partners, spouses, working from home. People are recognizing, “Wait, our home doesn’t always sound that great,” and we can do something about it.

 

I would assume most integrators’ knowledge of acoustics is related to entertainment spaces. Given the diversity of things you can address, do you consider yourself unique in the universe of people who deal with residential acoustics?

We’re certainly diverse. It’s not often you find someone from the design and consulting and calibration standpoint who will do bedrooms, do living rooms, mechanical noise, and so on. We like being able to come into projects in various ways. And I think that does make us fairly unique—not to mention all the commercial work we are still doing, flipping our brains several times a day to go back and forth between the high-end residential and the commercial.

 

How much of your work is commercial?

The percentages vary from month to month or year to year. Usually, we’re 50/50, but with the pandemic bringing out so many domestic opportunities, I would say we’re currently 60 to 65 percent residential. I’ve really trained my consultant team—I have such a great team now at all levels—to flip their mentalities, because you just cannot bring a commercial mentality wholeheartedly to the residential world without thinking about what’s practical. We’ve been brought on to high-end residential projects where they had a commercial consultant on board who got fired because they brought things to the home builders as solutions that just had no place even in the highest-end home because they were keeping myopically in the commercial mentality without saying, “Wait, how do we bring these two worlds together and determine what is still practical within the realm of what a high-end home builder could and would do.” That’s important.

 

And the same thing with the AV integrators. They’re resi-mercial, right? They always have to think about what’s appropriate as they go from one end to the other.

Working with the Best, Pt. 3: Steve Haas
It’s inevitable that anyone who does much traveling has come across your work at some point. They obviously haven’t been aware of it, but they’ve probably encountered it.

Hopefully they have, and hopefully they have some good things to say about it.

 

For instance, you did the Statue of Liberty museum, right?

That’s right. That finished about two or three years ago—with COVID, I’ve lost track of time. And we’re about to work on the Ellis Island re-do as well. 

 

Would either of those be the highest traffic-volume venue you’ve done?

Probably the biggest traffic one would be the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture. That stayed packed for at least three years beyond its opening in 2016. We just could not believe how long it lasted. But it was phenomenal to see that, and phenomenal to think about how audio and acoustics hold up with that kind of visitation. You don’t have to worry about that in homes. 

Michael GaughnThe Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

PODCAST EP. 21
QUICK GUIDE

 

  0:55  How his work extends well beyond

           providing the proper acoustics for home

           theaters

  1:21  His early experiences working on

           commercial spaces

  1:41  How a random phone call led to his initial

           involvement in home theaters & residential

           acoustics

  4:40  How his experiences working on major

           performance spaces helped him to expand

           his residential work beyond home theater 

  6:12  How homes are becoming more like

           commercial spaces

  7:21  The influence of his and his family’s

           experiences as musicians on his work 

  9:47  How he met and began working with Theo

           Kalomirakis

11:47  The Paradiso home theater as an example of

           a space that can handle both movies and

           live performance

13:30  What needs to be done with a home theater

           to make it conducive for live performance

16:49  How he’s typically approached to address a

           number of residential acoustic issues

           beyond home theaters

17:45  How the pandemic raised people’s

           awareness of the amount of noise in

           and around their domestic environments

18:24  How he is typically retained for a project

19:12  What the initial conversation is like with a

           client, and how much of it involves

           educating them about what he has to offer

21:48  The importance of the client researching

           the benefits of proper acoustics in the

           home

24:59  He offers a broader ranges of services

           than a typical AV integrator

26:21  How much of his work is commercial vs.

           residential

28:32  He has worked on so many landmark

           cultural institutions that most people have

           likely encountered his efforts at some point 

REVIEWS

Life in Color (2021)
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
The Mitchells vs. The Machines (2021)
Those Who Wish Me Dead (2021)
The Martian (2015)

ALSO ON CINELUXE

HBO Atones For Its Streaming Sins
The 75-Inch Revolution
Atmos Music: A World Beyond Movies
The Cineluxe Hour

Working with the Best, Pt. 1: Theo Kalomirakis

Working with the Best, Pt. 1: Theo Kalomirakis

Only a handful of people have the creativity, taste, knowledge, and experience to create a luxury home entertainment space. This new series of podcasts and features offers a unique look at the artisans who represent the pinnacle of each profession that goes into crafting these ultimate systems and rooms.

 

We focus on the collaboration with the homeowner, and what it’s like to retain and work with the best in the field. There’s no shop talk here, no inside baseball, no speeds and feeds. This is the closest you can come to engaging with one of these experts without sitting down with them in your home.

 

It would have been wrong to begin the series with anyone other than Theo Kalomirakis, who not only created the whole idea of home theater but showed its promise through his best-selling coffeetable books and continues to create the most innovative, opulent, and stunning private theaters in the world.

—M.G.

(The text below is a slightly abridged version of the podcast, which you can listen to using the player at the top of the page. Podcast listeners will find photos and graphics illustrating some of Theo’s examples by scrolling down the page.)

How do you typically approach designing a theater?

I usually get a project either directly from a client that read about us in a magazine or whatever or from an audio/video integrator. Getting it from the client is usually the most satisfying because either they’ve done their homework or they realize we are the ones that do it professionally. And they’re usually more amenable to do it the way I suggest we do it.

 

But even if the job comes from a custom installer, I like to have direct feedback from the client. You need to have that kind of access, otherwise you design in absentia. You don’t know what they want. You have to be able to interview them.

 

The first meeting with the client

The first meeting starts with sitting down with them and communicating my enthusiasm for the space, and with helping them to feel that I’m not selling them something. I’m just bringing them into my world, because I’m immersed in home theater architecture and I want them to be part of my excitement about it. I want to be able to communicate my ideas to them and make them relax so they can listen to me. I usually start the design process after I feel like I’ve connected with the client, after

he and I are on the same page.

 

Integrating the theater design into the rest of the house

Once our visions align, I start the work. Early in my career, the client would say, “Hey, I want an Art Deco theater because I’ve seen your theaters, and I like that style—it’s cinematic.” And I would usually say, “Yes, I love that style too. Let’s do an Art Deco theater.” But after I saw Deco theaters happening in very traditional environments, I started to feel embarrassed. It’s like when you go to Epcot Center and you go into the French pavilion or the Spanish pavilion—it had that kind of phoniness.

 

So I started putting my foot down, in a gentle way. I directed the client’s attention to the fact that the theater should echo the identity of the rest of the house—but without imitating it. You don’t want the theater to look like a living room or a dining room or whatever. You want it to look like a theater—but within the same language.

 

Earning the client’s trust

One of the key elements of bonding with the client is getting them to trust me so that if I have to steer them someplace other than what they think they want, they realize it’s not because I’m trying to play the prima donna but because I have their best interest in mind. I’ll tell them, “I don’t want to give you a theater where some of your guests will go ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ but the more sophisticated guests will say, ‘What the hell is this theater doing in this house?’” I always seek approval—not only from the client but from the guests who might be more sophisticated than the client. I protect my ass from being accused of being a gimmicky guy.

 

Learning & assimilating the client’s taste

You have to know who the clients are as people. The first step is to learn what their tastes are. The next step is to make sure you guide them to things they may not have thought of. They may know what they like, and what they like may be perfectly legitimate, and you go with it. But if I sense that I can guide them to something they might

like just as much, I protect my integrity by also protecting the client from something that would be a liability.

 

The woman who wanted “gaudy”

I was doing a theater for a well-known baseball player, and I met with his wife somewhere in Georgia. The lady came in made up in a way that made Tammy Faye Bakker’s makeup look demure—huge eyelashes, painted lips, big bouffant hairdo. She was a caricature of a nouveau riche wife.

 

So I interviewed her to find out what exactly she liked, and it turned out she wanted something very, very ornate—all the kind of stuff ladies of the South associate with an expression that they’ve made it, they’ve arrived. “I want the theater with a lot of gold,” she said. “A lot of gold.” I took a step back because I was surprised and said, “You mean you want an opulent theater.” She said, “No, honey. I want it gaudy!”

 

Good for her. She knew what she was looking for. You can’t fight that kind of person. You can’t persuade someone with a gaudy house to do something more understated. You listen to them, and 90% of the time they make sense.

 

The client who wanted the Acropolis

There were two or three times when I really hit a wall and didn’t know what to do, like at another house in Jupiter Island. It was fairly traditional—not particularly gaudy—with a typical Floridian richness.

 

When I saw the space for the theater, I asked the wife, “Do you have a particular style you want?” “Yes!” she said. “We want the Acropolis!” I almost swallowed my tongue. I said, “What do you mean?”  She said, “You know—like the Versillis.” She didn’t even know how to say “Versailles.” Now, what the Acropolis had to do with Versailles, your guess is as good as mine. I decided there was no way I could do anything there, that I would be responsible by association.

 

How do you translate the client’s idea into a theater?

I usually crank up the volume. They come with some kind of concept that’s in the right direction but it’s not full-fledged. My role is to start from their concept and improve it, enhance it, and make it more exciting.

 

The importance of a proper theater environment

If I react negatively to a client, it’s usually because they say they want a comfortable seating layout. “We don’t want anything structured—we want a sofa here and an armchair there, an ottoman there.” I try to be very restrained in my response because it’s their choice—that’s how they watch movies. I make an effort to educate them that if they do that, they’re getting a living room in the guise of a theater. You have all the accoutrements of a theater but it’s literally a living room.

Theo originally designed the space above to accommodate traditional theater seating but
modified the design to honor the client’s preference for living-room-like seating arrangements

The classic example of that was the house in Vegas [shown above], where I couldn’t persuade them to do something that was more theatrical. That was a very well-defined theater that focused on the screen, the stage, and everything, but the wife put sofas in it like in a living room.

 

This is a typical contradiction I have with the client. They want a theater but they also want comfortable seating. I’ll tell them, “By doing that, you have one foot in your living room and the other foot in my theater language.” I can’t reconcile the two.

 

My clients usually have a living room and a media room, so I try to tell them, “We can do that in the media room, where it makes sense. But let the theater be a theater, with comfy seats spread apart with big arm rests, and you can kick up your legs because of the recliner. You still have the comfort of a living room.” 

 

When I go down to my theater and I recline, it’s ideal. You see the movie. You have good sight lines. You don’t lose that luxury of a theater, where you’re meant to be able to watch a movie with people in front of you and behind you. You shouldn’t be facing each other in a position that’s meant for chit-chatting, not for watching a movie. 

 

Casual seating is meant to accommodate unruly owners who want to talk to each other while the movie’s playing. When someone comes into my theater and starts talking, I stop them, as polite as I can. “Don’t talk. Let’s watch a movie.” So when my clients want something casual, I try to persuade them to do theater seating. Do I always win? 90% of the time.

 

Have you seen a big shift from movie palaces to more contemporary designs?

There are people who want to have the movie experience without reference to the grandeur of the old movie palaces. Figuring out how to create that same kind of excitement in a room that is expressed using contemporary architecture has 

Working with the Best, Pt. 1: Theo Kalomirakis

been my Holy Grail. It’s very difficult because our minds are filled with images of ornate palaces with chandeliers and everything, which creates the ambience of wanting to see a movie. Creating that ambience using a more contemporary language is very difficult because it’s, by its nature, more stripped down.

 

But I’ve found out that you can achieve that mostly through lighting, which creates that excitement. 

Just add lighting to a room—not sconces on the wall but strip lighting or columns with backlighting—and it brings the architecture to the level of a theater.

 

Who assembles & supervises the team to create one of your theaters?

For the big projects, I usually bring the people, like acoustic designers and lighting designers—not interior designers because I usually do that myself. It’s like making a movie—you get specialists to do the various tasks. You get a crew that works together synergistically to divide the elements of the theater into their various expertises.

 

For lighting, I usually work with Howard Werner, who is a lighting designer on Broadway. He did Spider-man with Julie Taymor. For acoustics, I’ve worked very extensively with Steve Haas because he knows my ways. And he’s compromising in the same way that I’m compromising, to accommodate the acoustics. When you work with experts like that, you have to respect each other’s trades.

 

How do you accommodate the client’s or integrator’s equipment requirements?

If the job comes from an audio/video integrator, I ask immediately to get the list of equipment and the placement of the speakers. I design around what they want and where they’re going to  position the speakers on the wall. I totally respect the science of someone who has to put the speaker in exactly the right location to the left or the right of the subwoofer. So I’m very accommodating.

 

What happens when the equipment gets in the way of the design?

Sometimes you have to go back to the integrator and say, “That wasn’t what I proposed”—like a recent project in Texas. The manufacturer put the subwoofers all the way to the floor but I specified a 6-inch baseboard there. I said, “Come on, guys. Lift the woofer off the floor 6 inches. Will that create havoc? Is it going to ruin the room acoustics? I gave you a room that’s 90% transparent to put the speakers wherever you want.” The whole room is stretched fabric, so they could put the speakers pretty much anywhere, but I wanted a baseboard so people wouldn’t kick the fabric, or especially the subwoofer, when they went down down the steps.

 

Does the screen choice sometimes compromise your design?

It’s usually easy to get a client to go with the right screen. If it’s a low-ceiling room, I tell them to avoid using a 16:9 screen because it will need to go all the way to floor, so you won’t be able to see the bottom of the image from some of the seats. I tell them to use a wide screen because it will fill the room width-wise but it doesn’t need to go all the way down.

 

If they get a wide screen, they can watch epic movies like Lawrence of Arabia without bars at the top and bottom, and they’ll be able to move the image inside the screen if they want to watch 16:9 content. If they say, “We don’t watch movies—we watch sports,” then they’re meant for a 16:9 screen. But if I have my way, I push for the wide screen because you get a bigger screen in a smaller space.

 

Have you seen video walls being used more frequently in home theaters?

Not yet because they’re very expensive, around $300,000 to $400,000. But a nicely calibrated set will give you the same performance as a projector—and probably an advantage, because you’re going to produce a brighter picture. When I watch 

3D movies in my theater, they suffer. Even though I have a bright projector, the level goes down. You don’t have that problem with a display.

 

You like to create a sense of anticipation before people enter one of your theaters. Have clients ever objected to that?

Nobody has rejected that because I usually remind them of what it’s like to go to a movie theater. When you go there, you don’t expect to open the door from the sidewalk and find yourself in the middle of the theater. Why? Because going to a movie is like riding a submarine. As you go up in the water, you have to go through various compartments of decompression before you get to the very top.

 

So you need to go from a small space to a larger space to an even larger space—and I usually bring up the example of the Roxy Theater in New York. The Roxy had an incredible corridor with movie posters right on 50th St. and 7th Ave. that was like 10 

Working with the Best, Pt. 1: Theo Kalomirakis

Theo’s design for the Ritz Theater in Texas takes visitors down a long hallway and through a series of lobbies before they arrive at the theater proper, which is placed right next to where they first entered

feet high. From that you would get to the ticket lobby, which was grander—like 15 feet high. Once you were past that, you went down into a tunnel that was 8 feet or 9 feet high that led to the grand rotunda, which zoomed up to 70 feet.

 

It’s like an orchestral piece. You orchestrate the crescendos and the pianissimos to create variation and a sense of anticipation and a sense of excitement for when something big happens. You can’t have a symphony that starts with a big crescendo and just stays there.

 

I explain to the client that, even if they have the smallest space in the world, they should let me subdivide it. I’m not taking away from the space—I’m giving them a more nuanced approach to the theater. I haven’t met anybody who’s said “No,” unless they just don’t have the space.

 

I did a theater called The Ritz in Texas [shown above]. It’s in my book Great Escapes [page 136]. The client gave me the attic, which was a big space—2,000 square feet—and he said, “How many seats can we fit in here? I have a big space and a big 

Working with the Best, Pt. 1: Theo Kalomiraks

Max Fleischer’s 1934 cartoon tour of the ultimate movie palace

family.”  I said, “Wrong question. It’s not how many seats. It’s how do you create a home theater environment?”

 

So I created a layout that was like a maze that was opening up. The theater ended up right next to the left of the entry, but you had to go all the way to the back and snake around and go through inner lobbies—a big lobby and a grand foyer—and then a smoking room, and then two corridors. And finally, breathlessly, you arrived at the theater.

It’s just like what Disney does with the theme rides where they have you waiting in line for two hours and you watch different things on TV or you go from one room to another before you get onto the ride. They prepare you. That is not done to showcase the architecture of the various rooms; it’s to create a sense of anticipation, which is what I do by capturing the grandeur of arriving at the Roxy in a simple theater—which is what that Max Fleischer cartoon accomplishes so well.

 

Working with the client’s interior designer

I usually don’t talk to the client while I’m working with the architect and contractor. But when the construction is underway, I meet with them to select things. That’s a very important part of the job because usually there’s a designer in attendance, and they don’t want the theater to be too far away from what they’re doing in the rest of the house. I tell them not to use bright colors in the theater, and that they can’t use a carpet design that jumps out of the floor because it makes the seats prominent.

 

Scaling the seating to the rest of the theater

The seats are probably the most damaging element in a theater because they’re large. Everything else I do is kind of miniaturized to create a sense of scale, so the wrong seats can throw my work out of proportion. The most typical example 

of that is the theater I did that was a recreation of Ocean Drive in Miami Beach. But when you see the seats, which are as big as the buildings, you say right away, “That’s fake.” Your sense of disbelief is eliminated and you suddenly see the artifact, that it’s all miniatures to create an effect.

 

I was watching the Netflix documentary Martin Scorsese did with Fran Leibowitz, and there’s a scene where she sits in

Working with the Best, Pt. 1: Theo Kalomirakis

the miniature of Manhattan that’s in Queens. And then she steps into the set, and her shoes are as high as some of the shorter buildings. She becomes like Gulliver among the Lilliputians.

 

How does your approach differ from other theater designers?

I don’t really know because I haven’t really worked with them. All I know—and this is a very generic observation—is theater designers with a technical background tend to start from the technology. And that is Sam Cavitt, and that’s Keith Yates. They’re very protective of technology, and they should be. Traditional designers are the opposite. They start with the interior design, and they tend to be technology adverse. I see myself as sitting in the middle, between acoustical or technical designers and those who decorate. If I were to put a label on my principal contribution to home theater design, it’s that I became a bridge between technology and design by respecting both.

 

How did you learn to balance technology & design?

When technical or acoustic designers like Steve Haas began to get involved, I had to start listening to them. I didn’t want to because I wanted to decorate, but slowly I realized it’s not just decoration. They would pressure me—“We can’t put that speaker too far behind the seats. We want it here.” So you have to work with the integrator, or with clients who are sound-savvy.

 

And I learned to pay attention to materials. You can’t make a theater using all wood. It looks fantastic, but wood is very reflective. So I learned to use materials that aren’t reflective—not only in terms of material but of color. If you have a white surface, it reflects too much color off the screen and makes you aware you’re in the room. You want the room to disappear.

 

The extreme case of wanting the room to disappear is [video-calibration expert] Joe Kane. He doesn’t want to have anything other than a black room, which is going to the one extreme. Having a room that’s very bright and colorful would be the other. There’s got to be a middle ground, where the room can look attractive when the lights are on but disappears when you watch a movie, like in my theater downstairs.

 

I can change the color of the walls to give the room a different personality because I have LEDs, but when the movie begins, the room disappears. So, everything can be done if you know the tricks of the trade, and I developed them by making mistakes and figuring out what works and what doesn’t.

Michael GaughnThe Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

PODCAST EP. 17
QUICK GUIDE

 

0:32   How do you typically approach designing a

          theater?

1:55   The first meeting with the client

3:00   Integrating the theater design into the rest of

          the house

4:42   Earning the client’s trust

6:00   Learning & assimilating the client’s taste

6:57   The woman who wanted “gaudy”

8:39   The client who wanted the Acropolis

10:20  How do you translate the client’s idea into

           a theater?

10:58  The importance of a proper theater

           environment

15:12  Have you seen a shift from movie palaces to

           more contemporary designs?

16:53  Who assembles & supervises the team to

           create one of your theaters?

19:33  How do you accommodate the client’s or

           integrator’s equipment requirements?

20:51  What happens when the equipment gets

           in the way of the design?

21:20  Does the screen choice sometimes

           compromise your design?

23:23  Have you seen video walls being used more

           frequently in home theaters?

24:42  You like to create a sense of anticipation

           before people enter one of your theaters.

           Have clients ever objected to that?

30:14  Working with the client’s interior designer

30:51  Scaling the seating to the rest of the theater

33:04  How does your approach differ from other

           theater designers?

34:51  How did you learn to balance technology &

           design?

REVIEWS

Nashville (1975)
Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
Nomadland (2020)
Gattaca (1997)
The Ten Commandments (1956)
The Long Goodbye (1973)

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Learning When to Let a Good Thing Die
Oscar-Nominated Films 2021
John Sciacca's 4K HDR Wish List
The Cineluxe Hour

Cineluxe Trendsetters: Steve Haas

Steve Haas is a member of the very small group of people who know how to put the ultimate acoustic polish on a luxury entertainment space. As he discussed in “Acoustic Designer Steve Haas on Media Rooms,” there are all kinds of ways to make a high-end room sound good, even great. But it takes special training, experience, and acuity to know how to wring the last drop of performance out of an acoustically complicated space.

 

While Steve has built a reputation from his work on challenging, high-profile public venues like New York’s Statue of Liberty Museum, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, he is equally well known for his work on private rooms—especially home theaters, and especially his work with Theo Kalomirakis (which both he and Theo discussed in “Inside the Ultimate Home Entertainment Space”).

 

We recently had a chance to talk to Steve about what work has been like during the pandemic, when people are spending more time using their entertainment spaces and are actively making plans to upgrade but are reluctant to have people who aren’t members of their immediate family in their homes. We also talked about the need for good acoustics in rooms other than entertainment spaces (which he has also discussed in “Every Room Deserves Great Acoustics”).

 

This video also touches on one of his favorite subjects—private concerts in people’s homes, which have almost come to a complete stop because of the virus. Steve had so much to say about this, and the large potential market for virtual private performances, that we’re going to make his comments the subject of a followup video.

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CINELUXE TRENDSETTERS

Inside the Ultimate Home Entertainment Space

photos by Randall Michelson

Legendary designer Theo Kalomirakis and acoustician Steve Haas have collaborated on a number of cost-no-object home theaters, but probably none of those efforts has been as ambitious, versatile, or well-realized as the Paradiso. Seventeen years in the making, this Southern California gem is actually an entire home-entertainment complex built around an Italianate piazza. The reference-quality 15-seat home theater doubles as a fully-fledged concert hall. The nightclub features a hydraulic stage and can handle anything from a rock band to a jazz group. Next door to the club resides an arcade, containing the homeowner’s extensive collection of pinball machines and video games. There’s even a g-force flight simulator.

 

At a time when people are developing a new appreciation for what home entertainment has to offer, the Paradiso provides the ultimate example of what can be done when you venture outside the home theater box. I recently talked to Steve and Theo about the project’s genesis, execution, and legacy.

—Michael Gaughn

THEO KALOMIRAKIS: The client had been dreaming about doing a theater with me and asked me to do the basement of his house, which is next to where the Paradiso is now. It had a seven-and-a-half-foot ceiling, so it was only a modest room. I did it because I liked the guy very much. He was passionate about doing something, but there was not much I could do with the space. So he sensed I was kind of compromising.

 

One day, he called me and said, “Theo, I have good news and bad news for you.” I said, “What is the bad news?” He said, “I have to pull the plug on the theater downstairs because I cannot see myself working with you in such a compromised space.” 

“So, what’s the good news?” “I bought two lots next to my house, and I want to set you free to design whatever the hell you want. Let your mind soar. I trust you.” It was the best thing I was ever offered to do.

 

Since the house is located in an Italianate enclave, he said, “We need to do something that would be very much in keeping with 

the neighborhood.” Which is fine, but I realized the size I had in mind for the theater exceeded the one-story height that would be allowed there. That started our endless process of digging down to create a subterranean environment.

 

Originally, there were going to be two more floors below the piazza level, and he kept pushing. “Let’s dig some more. Let’s put the bowling alley there. Let’s have a restaurant for 30 people.” I said to him, “If we dig anymore, we’re going to reach China before we do the theater. So let’s put a stop on it.”

 

And then 2008 came. When the bubble burst, he called me and said, “There is no budget to excavate, so we have to scrap the basement. Can we limit the scope to make it into just the piazza level?” And of course, we redesigned the whole thing.

Inside the Ultimate Luxury Home Entertainment Space

click on the image to enlarge

The idea of adding multiple environments is an extension of what I have described in my book, Great Escapes, as my need to break away from the constraints of a very limited room where you only watch TV. I was dreaming of spaces where before you go into the theater, you have to go under marquees and through lobbies and other areas. And now, here I had the room to do it.

 

We ended up creating a city environment based on his desire to bring in Italian architectural influences. He sent me to Italy and I spent 10 days in Siena. I took about 2,000 photographs in nearby villages for reference. I came back and showed him some incredible charcuterie stores that sold cheeses, and pizzerias, and this and that, and he said, “Let’s do it.” The only things that were dictated by him were the arcade, because he had a very nice collection of pinball machines and video games, and the nightclub because he wanted to have gigs for jazz.

 

He basically gave me permission to go crazy. He didn’t ask me to do this village or do this or do that. I presented the ideas that he gradually grasped and accepted. It’s usually a collaborative effort. The client lets his imagination go to think about the things that mean something to him, and I put them into context.

 

Steve, you were obviously heavily involved in the theater space, but I would imagine you worked on the nightclub as well.

STEVE HAAS: We were involved in all the spaces, really, because acoustics and audio mattered in the pizzeria, the arcade, and even the lobby. For all of these, we provided general noise control, sound containment, and acoustic treatment, as well as audio system design and calibration. But the premier spaces were the cinema, the nightclub, and the pizzeria. This wonderful client was just so open in sharing his goals and desires. In addition to his love for arcade games, he also loved live music. His daughters were both learning to play string instruments, so he wanted the ability to have everything from a more formal concert environment to a loose hangout-type of club where you can have rock bands or jazz groups come and play. He can have a chamber trio performing in the theater and a rock band in the club with no sound bleed between them.

 

Somebody coming into the theater cold would think it’s just for watching movies, but it’s actually a fully-fledged performance space as well.

TK: I want to remind you, Mike, that the theaters that have inspired me over the years were never just for watching movies. The movie palaces were mixed-use spaces where you could have an orchestra and also acrobats or a comedy act or whatever, which is exactly what the Paradiso can do. So it’s not like we suddenly came up with the novel idea of using a

theater this way. This project brought us back, completed the circle to what the movie theaters were supposed to be.

 

Does the desire to be able to do live performances in a home theater come up very often with clients?

TK: Yes, but usually at a much more elementary level.

 

SH: It doesn’t happen nearly as often as it should. And, yes, that’s a biased perspective, but I think a lot of people just don’t realize what can be done. 

Inside the Ultimate Home Entertainment Space

And even if you don’t go to the nth degree like we did with the Paradiso, there are many ways to upgrade a theater space, and it starts with the layout. You have to have the space to be able to have one to four people be able to play and perform, and have a system that can support it—not just audio, but lighting, because that’s different from what you need for a home theater system.

 

TK: Because live performances require specific lighting, we brought in a very well-known lighting designer with a background in theater. This is probably the only project I’ve done in the US that incorporated so many different disciplines. It’s not just the clients who don’t realize all the possibilities. Even the designers cannot wrap their heads around how many wonderful things you can do in a space like that.

 

Steve, the theater had to have a traditional surround sound system for watching movies, but you also have your Concertino system in there for live performances. Are they two discrete systems or is there some overlap?

SH: I think we did share a couple of components. Maybe some of the subwoofers were relay switched back and forth, but inherently quite independent.

 

There was a lot of control programming. If you could see all the bells and whistles switching behind the scenes, it would be amazing. Almost a dozen processes switched in a sequenced manner to go just from theater mode to live concert and back, 

but the user interface was as simple as pressing a button for the initial selection and then there were custom presets within each mode.

 

What did the Concertino system bring to this project in particular, given what the client wanted to do?

SH: The Concertino, which is in the nightclub and pizzeria as well, expanded the ability to have various kinds of live music in an acoustically dry room. As Theo knows, we don’t design “dead” home theaters. However, even a mildly dry diffused home theater appropriate for cinema presentation doesn’t provide the right acoustic for many types of live music.

 

This acoustic-enhancement technology allows the performance space to become a true-sounding

concert hall, cathedral, or any other space you can imagine. So if they want to have a choir, string orchestra, or even a jazz group with a bit livelier sound, you can do that and then blend it with more traditional amplified sound as needed.

 

I’ve heard that people have been in that space and didn’t even know there was processing going on because it sounded so authentic, or is that an exaggeration?

SH: That’s exactly right. This is a world of difference from the Concert Hall and Cathedral modes you get in your car stereo or home receivers. This is recreating in the digital virtual electronic world exactly what a real hall of a different size, different shape, a different acoustic will do to enhance sound—the early reflections, reverberations in the proper timing and frequency manner. The technology can be described for days, but in the end it’s all about what happens when somebody presses a button and sits down and that string quartet, that cellist comes out, and just like, “Wow.” It’s just a great experience for performers and audience alike.

 

Theo, you weren’t here when Mike and I discussed how things are changing with music performances over livestream during the pandemic, but having spaces like this, whether it’s to this degree or even one or two degrees lower—I think a lot of affluent homowners are going to say, “You know what, I don’t want to be in a theater with 1,000 or 2,000 other people for quite some time. So why not create great-sounding spaces that will allow me to bring that type of experience home, literally, for not just movies, but for live music and other types of live entertainment?”

 

TK: I am hearing from people, “I don’t want to go to the movie theaters and catch a disease. I want to make my house be more like a theater.” This is an incredible new opportunity. And it’s up to us to capture it and relay the message that you can have this kind of theater space in your home.

 

SH: Am I hearing Theo saying he’s getting back into custom theaters again?

 

TK: I do want to do custom theaters but very, very selectively. If there is something of the caliber of the Paradiso, I will do it.

Theo Kalomirakis is widely considered the father of home theater, with scores of luxury
theater designs to his credit. He is an avid movie fan, with a collection of over 15,ooo discs.
Theo is the Executive Director of Rayva.

Steve Haas is the Principal Consultant of SH Acoustics, with offices in the NYC & LA
areas. He has been a leading acoustic and audio design & calibration expert for more
than 25 years in high-end spaces ranging from home theaters, studios, and live music
rooms to major museums and performance venues.

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs,
couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Who’s Doing Livestreams Right?

Ben Folds takes requests—and gives piano lessons to kids—while stuck in Australia.

The audience for livestreams has exploded in recent weeks as people have exhausted their options for more traditional mainstream entertainment and musicians and other performers have embraced online performance as the best near-term solution for engaging their fans. I talked to acoustic designer Steve Haas about who’s doing a good job of broadcasting from the internet and what musicians can do to up the sonic quality of their streams.

—Michael Gaughn

Thanks to the boom in livestreams, a lot of people are being exposed for the first time to the idea of famous musicians doing intimate performances, but you’ve been aware of and helping to arrange home performances for a while now, right?

Yes. I’ve been very passionate about promoting house concerts, and have been creating private concert venues in people’s homes for a long time. Before the pandemic, hosts of house concerts were putting on monthly shows with some really great 

artists. It was just amazing, the quality and caliber of musicians you got to see several feet from you in someone’s living room. They would clear out the furniture, put 50 people in there on some loose chairs, and have a suggested donation of 15 to 20 dollars per person.

 

But of course now that can’t exist for a while in any environment, commercial or private—hopefully not as long as everybody’s predicting. Certainly when Mozart did his house concerts in the palace, he didn’t have to deal with a pandemic, and certainly didn’t have the internet to be able to convey his music to the masses. But people do now, and it’s amazing how many performers have jumped on this. They understand that the only way they can keep their music and their talents alive in the minds of their fans and the general public is through online presentations.

 

Whether it’s prerecorded videos or live streaming, some bands will go to great lengths to individually record their parts and overdub the video. And then somebody will put it together through video editing software and create a pretty amazing production.

 


In general, what is the level of quality you’ve been coming across over the past couple of months, from an acoustics perspective?

Most people are just finding a room in their home or their apartment—sometimes the bathroom, which everybody thinks has great acoustics. But that’s a little iffy—sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s not. It can also be their kitchen, their living room, wherever they can set up an iPhone or a simple microphone. That’s the bare bones.

Performers are realizing they need to use this vehicle to get their music out there. And some are realizing they have to rise above the tide and separate themselves from the masses.

 

I get dozens of livestreams every day on my Facebook and other feeds, but I just don’t have time to listen to all of them. And that doesn’t even include the highly produced streams, like the Together at Home concert with Lady Gaga, Elton John, and others. So there has to be a way for artists—not just musicians, but actors and dancers, too—to convey their craft. But they have to step up the production. And the thing is, the ones I’ve seen do that haven’t had to spend thousands of dollars.

 

It’s really about thinking, “OK, what can I do to create an environment that will give me something better than what sounds like a typical living room? How can I get a little better balance? How can I get some good audio equipment? What do I need to do 

to make sure my video and audio are in sync?” I’ve seen some videos that were out of sync, which is very annoying.

 

They also need to think about lighting. How many people are doing livestreams with a window behind them? I’m not a lighting designer, but Lighting 101 tells us don’t have a window behind you.

 

 

I realize it’s difficult to advise people on acoustics from a distance, but is there any general advice you could give? For instance, they should probably take a moment to listen to the room they’re thinking of using and get a sense of its sonic characteristics.

Most normal rooms—living rooms, kitchens, bathrooms—don’t have a neutral sound, but tend to sound very colored. Bathrooms usually have an excessively bright sound because you’re dealing with porcelain and plaster and other hard surfaces with nothing to absorb it. Kitchens can sound like that too because they don’t have any soft furnishings, so they tend to emphasize the higher frequencies.

 

Living rooms, family rooms, and dens can have a very midrange boomy sound because you typically have all of the low-end sound sucked out—that is, absorbed—by the windows and the thin sheetrock and plaster. The high end can also be muffled by some of the furnishings, especially if you have carpet or area rugs.

 

And that’s really indicative of what I’m hearing on a lot on livestreams—that midrange honkiness that’s left once the highs and the lows are sucked out. It’s better to simply try to soak up or absorb some of that sound. I joke about it, but bringing every pillow and blanket in your house or apartment into the room while you’re recording will actually make a difference. But it depends. If you have a huge living room, just having three or four pillows is not going to do it.

 

If you want to take it to the next level, you can buy or make 

A BRIEF SAMPLING OF STREAMS
Steve Haas on High-Quality Livestreams

Brad Paisley and special guests perform
in real time on Facebook 

The Doobie Brothers perform a video
sync-up of “Black Water”

Steve Haas on High-Quality Livestreams

Singer Maysa Leak (of Incognito fame)

your own acoustical panels. It’s pretty easy, getting some insulation boards, which are typically about one or two inches thick, and wrapping fabric around them. It doesn’t have to be pretty, but it certainly can be very effective.

 

As a practitioner and somebody who designs spaces to sound fantastic, I don’t typically advocate the DIY approach to acoustical treatment. But, my goodness, in this situation we’re in, why not get something that will improve your recordings, improve your livestreaming, and set yourself apart a bit for a modest cost?

 

 

I know there are a lot of variables, but in general, should they be using smaller spaces?

It really does depend on what a space is giving you sonically. It’s all about the balance. Does it sound neutral? You can get a large space that has enough furnishings and other things to create that neutral sound, and have the added benefit of giving 

you a really nice visual backdrop, too.

 

There’s this thing going around the internet, a father and daughter out of Utah—Shaw, I think is their last name. They’ve gotten millions of hits for the songs they sing together. They sound wonderful and they’re in a very nice, voluminous living room. And yet you don’t hear excessive reverberation or other imbalanced sound because they seem to have paid attention to their room’s acoustics.

One option is to create the performance in two parts. I’ve heard people say they’ve recorded their audio literally in a closet to get the best sound possible and then dubbed it on the video. There’s nothing wrong with that, especially if you’re trying to get high-quality sound and visuals. They may not always go hand in hand.

 

 

I don’t want to go too far into the weeds, but how much impact does microphone selection or placement have on all this?

If they’re recording the audio and video at the same time and their space isn’t perfect, it makes a huge difference. There are professional artists where you can see they’re using closely held wireless or wired mics. And if you don’t have a balanced room, that allows the sound to be picked up much better without getting too much of the room. You want to make sure you have the best-quality microphone you can find with what you have to work with. You also want to make sure the mic’s control pattern is fairly narrow so it’s not picking up too much of the area around you.

 

 

I realize no one can know the future for sure, but where would like to see all of this go from here?

It’s great that during these difficult times people are still keeping that sensation of live music. We’ve been witnessing what I call the one-to-many type of presentations, whether it’s a single artist or band delivering a song or a performance or the big 

production concerts such as Together at Home. The Metropolitan Opera just did one. And I heard of a hip-hop artist who actually did one on Fortnite, a gaming platform. So everybody’s finding unique ways to deliver that one-to-many experience.

 

I do think the next step, as this continues, is that homeowners who can afford it will say, “You 

know what? I want a private concert.” Even if they have to do it on the big screen in their home theater and have Elton John or another type of artist use two-way communication where the performer can hear them applaud and they can interact in conversation between songs, ask questions, or whatever. That way they can react to the performance in a one-to-one or one-to-a-family or small-group situation.

 

I look forward to that happening because it really is amazing when you can have that experience with an artist. If they can’t physically be in the same room with you, then get the next best thing and have them be on Zoom or another stable platform. Have that same type of experience and same type of two-way communications instead of one-way. Feel the intimacy of the performance.

Steve Haas is the Principal Consultant of SH Acoustics, with offices in the NYC & LA
areas. He has been a leading acoustic and audio design & calibration expert for more
than 25 years in high-end spaces ranging from home theaters, studios, and live music
rooms to major museums and performance venues.

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs,
couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Acoustic Designer Steve Haas on Media Rooms

Cineluxe Showcase: A Tribeca Trendsetter

photo by John Frattasi

Steve Haas is the person you call when want to make sure your home theater will sound better than any movie theater. His extensive body of work for various commercial venues and high-end private viewing and listening spaces has established him as one of the world’s leading acoustical engineers. And his collaborations with legendary designer Theo Kalomirakis have made him synonymous with the highest-quality dedicated home theaters.

 

But media rooms (also known as entertainment rooms, multi-use spaces, or communal spaces) are increasingly becoming the movie-watching venue of choice in the luxury market—even though they’re in many ways the antithesis of what you would want for a reference-quality home theater. They tend to be part of an open floorplan, need to serve other forms of entertainment beyond movies, are frequently flooded with ambient light, and feature serious acoustical challenges like hardwood floors, huge plate-glass windows, and large stone and concrete surfaces.

 

None of that changes the fact that the high-end market really likes these kinds of rooms. Fortunately, things like larger, brighter video displays, innovative projection-screen materials, digital room correction, and way more sophisticated lighting and shading control are helping to tame what would have until just a few years ago been impossible spaces for watching movies at any real level of quality.

 

But advanced tech can’t do everything it takes to make a room exceptional, or even acceptable. Which is why we wanted to talk to Haas about what he does to bring these often resistant spaces into line.

—Michael Gaughn

Media rooms can vary dramatically but clients are looking for great performance regardless or they wouldn’t be engaging you. How do you typically handle something like that?

One of the first steps we always employ is understanding from the homeowners how they and, if applicable, their family use their homes—or how they intend to use it, if it’s a new home. Will they all gather in the media room at the same time to watch a movie? In that case, it’s more about dealing with the quality and not so much worrying about whether the sound spreads to the kids’ bedrooms.

 

 

To ensure the acoustical quality of a media room, I would think it would be crucial for you to be brought in early in the planning for a new home or a renovation. Otherwise, you could be dealing with a badly compromised space. Are you usually advising from the beginning or do you find yourself having to make do?

That’s a great question because it really is all over the map. More often than not, the architectural design and interior design are already well underway or nearly completed; or worse, it could be that the construction has already started. And as 

Acoustic Designer Steve Haas on Media Rooms

This multi-use media room in Connecticut contains a home theater . . .

sheetrock starts going in, the homeowner gets a sense of just how much this house is going to sound really “bouncy”— reflective and reverberant—and maybe they should get somebody to deal with these spaces.

 

That happened to us with a project in Westchester County recently. It was a gut renovation well underway; and that’s when the homeowner just realized, “Wow, we really need somebody.” We had to come in and do a lot of massaging to the interior design and the architectural design to 

Acoustic Designer Steve Haas on Media Rooms

. . . billiards lounge . . .

get what we wanted.

 

That project had two different rooms—a two-channel listening room and a media room that were both very open to the surrounding spaces, pretty much flanking the kitchen and breakfast-nook area. The entire right wall of the two-channel room was stone, surrounding a fireplace—which, of course, there’s nothing we can do about that—and the media room itself had a lot of glass, very much glass. So we’re always dealing with compromises in situations like that.

Acoustic Designer Steve Haas on Media Rooms

. . . and recording studio. Unique acoustic treatments and acoustically transparent finishes—including metal mesh, micro-perforated clear shades, and both exposed and concealed wood diffusion panels—were employed to achieve the desired aesthetic and acoustic performance. (photos courtesy of Audio Command Systems)

A lot of luxury homes, especially out west, favor very open floorplans and almost exclusively hard surfaces like wood floors, stone walls and fireplaces, and floor-to-ceiling plate-glass windows. And often the client wants their great room to double as a media room, which is usually the least conducive space in the home. That has to be a worst-case scenario for you.

We’ve certainly worked on rustic media rooms in Colorado, Utah—all that part of the country. And there are solutions, like monolithic plasters and 

micro-perforated woods, that can be used in an open-plan home to at least tame the sound, to help ensure it’s not just one echo chamber, one reverberant nightmare bleeding into the rest of the home. Also, trying to achieve as much tonal balance in the way the architectural materials are absorbing sound between low, medium, and high frequencies is essential. You have a fair chance of at least being able to enjoy a controlled room, even if it’s not dialed in with the level of finesse we would have in a dedicated room in a different type of architecture. It’s really important to understand that not every architectural style is going to lend itself to a fabric-wrapped room.

 

 

Home theaters are designed to be isolated, but in an open floorplan, the great room is often the physical center of the home. I would imagine you have to worry as much about the sound bleeding into the rest of the house as you do about the quality of sound in the room itself.

Because media rooms are outside that dedicated area, we often design them as part of the whole-house acoustic design. So we’re looking at various spaces throughout the home, not just for a high level of performance, but basically for general acoustic privacy.

 

If somebody wants to play a movie loud or have other types of entertainment, such as watching TV or playing video games, there’s really no way to stop that sound from completely taking over a good portion of an open-plan home. And that’s where we really have to think about the compromises. We have to think about it very holistically in terms of the

usage of the home.

 

Are we able to implement engineered absorptive/diffusive treatments, like we would in a dedicated room? Sometimes, but often not. Your left wall relative to the screen might be completely treatable because it’s just going to be bare sheetrock, but then the right wall is that huge stone fireplace we talked about.

 

 

Is it more important to get sonic symmetry—which is usually one of the key criteria when designing a 

Acoustic Designer Steve Haas on Media Rooms

Steve Haas with the Father of Home Theater (and
Cineluxe contributor), Theo Kalomirakis

listening room, media room, or home theater—or do you just place treatments where you can and not worry about the symmetry?

I would argue that symmetry is extremely important because even if the sound is compromised, you don’t want it to change drastically when you go from left to right across the room. As long as we can treat other surfaces (ceilings especially) and achieve overall control, this approach can get decent results.

 

 

A lot of these homes have large, open stairwells that feed directly into the great room area. That has to be a particularly big challenge.

That’s always a very important issue to raise, and there are a lot of times where the designers will say, “You know what? Yeah, we have to close off the stairwell. Otherwise, they will hear everything everywhere in the home.” And you can do that when you’re in early enough in the design process. There are creative ways to design contained stairwells that provide that type of sound control.

Acoustic Designer Steve Haas on Media Rooms

Steve calibrating a 38-channel audio system in a large event space for a private residence in Sydney, Australia

Some people would say that digital room correction—not the kind found in mass-market receivers but the higher-end implementations—can compensate for a lot of the problems you’ve been describing with media rooms.

Well, it can fix a lot, certainly—or I shouldn’t say “fix,” because it’s a matter of just taking what is already there and reducing what the physical space has done to compromise it. If you know your speakers are behaving fine out of the box, then you have to understand what makes them not perform optimally at those particular seats. And that has a lot to do with their interaction with elements of the room that aren’t perfectly controlled because of the compromises we’ve been talking about.

 

With today’s processors, whether it’s mid-level or certainly the higher-end processors, there are a lot of tools in place to do this. But it cannot be done fully in an automated fashion even with the best processors. They just don’t work well without somebody with trained ears and skills looking at their results and saying, “OK, that got me a fair distance forward. Now here’s what we need to do to tweak it. Here’s how to optimize it with a manual calibration to get that last 10 to 20%.”

 

It’s easy to understand why the processors some manufacturers claim are perfect and get perfect results really don’t. There are things acoustically that can be overcome with electronics and there are things that just cannot. If you have a room that is

all hard and reflective surfaces, whether it’s glass, sheet-rock, stone, you name it, there’s just nothing a processor can do to overcome the excessive reflections and reverberations.

 

Yet there are those who will claim they can. The end users and AV integrators really need to understand that you can bend the laws of physics, but you can’t break them. If you have speaker interactions with nearby hard surfaces that cause what’s called “comb filtering”—short delayed reflections that combine with the direct sound to cancel a series of frequencies—no  processor eliminate that. That is absolutely a physical correction that needs to be made to the interaction of the speakers with the surrounding room and the surfaces close to the speakers.

 

 

So, when you talk to a client, what do you tell them is the best you can achieve with a media room, compared to a dedicated home theater?

We can say that on a scale of 1 to 10, that it’s not going to be a 10. No media room I’ve ever worked on is a 10—essentially flawless acoustically. Now, do we have solid 9’s? Absolutely, because we’ve worked hard with the entire design team to make intelligent compromises that achieve a well-balanced experience that thrills the end user.

 

If something is going to be well below an 8 or 9, then the client needs to understand that. They need to get to the point where they say, “I’m OK with a 6 or 7 because I’m gaining all these other functions. I have these beautiful vistas of the mountains out this glass window. The stone fireplace is just over the top. Wonderful. All these things.” We have to always remember it’s not just about what we do and what we bring to the table. It’s the overall experience. And people sometimes are OK with balanced compromises.

 

 

Since you often find yourself being brought into a project later than you would prefer, what needs to happen to change that?

First of all, it’s educating homeowners and architects on what happens when you ignore the need for proper acoustics. And fortunately there are a lot of case studies, a lot of horror stories, we can share that say, “OK, here’s what happens when you ignore acoustics in any regard.” Either the quality in some cases or the privacy, the isolation of just general noise, allowing exterior noise or mechanical equipment noise to infiltrate the rest of your house.

 

I really do think the answer lies with the architects and designers because they have to be on board with saying, “You know what, we don’t want our houses just to look good or feel good. We want them to sound good as well.” And that is a stretch for a lot of visual designers. That’s no secret because it’s just not something they’re used to. And they also have a lot of preconceived notions about what it means to implement acoustics.

 

What we’re trying to do is basically quell those misconceptions to say, “There is a way to do this without turning your beautiful house into a science project or burlap panel or whatever.” The biggest challenge and biggest effort one can make is to let the designers understand that we can give homeowners a much better sensory experience and also add to the wellness factor of their home from multiple senses and not compromise in any appreciable way.

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs,
couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Every Room Deserves Great Acoustics

Every Room Deserves Great Acoustics

When most people think about good acoustics, the first area of a home that comes to mind is an entertainment room. The audio in this space should be pristine—from clear, intelligible dialogue to realistic, three-dimensional special effects. You feel as if you’re in the middle of the movie action, and proper acoustical engineering and treatment of the space contribute just as much as the equipment to delivering this experience. If the acoustics of the space are off, the listening experience will suffer.

 

To prevent this from happening, it’s important that a home theater include properly engineered and installed acoustics customized for the unique sonic attributes of the space. The floor, ceiling, walls, furnishings, etc. often require some level of modification to ensure that the movie audio sounds its very best, without reverberation, echo, or disruption from other sources of sound.

 

But why stop at the home theater? The same acoustical principles of a home theater can be applied in bedrooms, home offices, living rooms . . . really any space that suffers from unwanted external noise or acoustical conditions that conflict with the intelligibility of conversations. Just as a noisy heating and cooling unit can distract you from the plot of a movie, it can be a

literal nightmare when you’re trying to get a good night’s sleep.

 

And that’s just brushing the surface of the annoying sounds that can plague a household. Homes of all sizes and designs can be affected by excessive noise, lack of sound privacy, and an abundance of sound propagation.

 

Think about the things you hear at home on a daily basis: A delivery truck backing out of a neighbor’s driveway, the lawn maintenance crew working at the park across the street, barking dogs, the thump of the home gym treadmill at 5 a.m., and the incessant beat of your son’s garage band are just some of the many examples. They all add up to a lot of racket—most of which you’d probably rather not hear or at least muffle a bit. An acoustical engineer can minimize these audible distractions from any area of the house—not just the home theater.

 

Years ago, all of this commotion may have fallen on deaf ears. Most people worked in an office outside of the home, went to the neighborhood cinema to catch a show, and worked out at the gym. Today, though, we are home a lot, 

using it for a myriad of activities besides just eating and sleeping. We work in home offices, exercise in home gyms, entertain in home theaters, dine in gourmet kitchens, and shop online—subject to all of the audible chaos in and around the home. We cringe when the kids arrive home during a conference call, cover our ears during our son’s gaming marathon, and wait until the baby wakes up from a nap to throw in a load of laundry. Noise can disrupt our lives in so many ways. Thankfully, proper acoustical treatments applied by a professional can help.

 

Often, the remedy necessitates a structural modification of the ceiling or walls. Most homes are built in a way that allows sound to easily transfer from one room to another. Sheetrock is attached directly to studs and joists, which allows sound to move from one material to the next, one room to another. Separating these surfaces through the addition of isolation clips and hangers mitigates the sound propagation. It’s an expense, certainly, and more easily implemented during the construction of a home, but there’s no better way to preserve your sleep and sanity.

 

Other, less extreme remedies to tame the propagation of sound throughout a home involve adding aesthetically pleasing sound absorption materials to a room, such as acoustical plaster on the ceiling surface, fabric on the walls, specialty ceiling tiles, and even furnishings. If it’s sound from outside that’s bothering you, thicker, double-pane windows and heavy draperies can help.

 

Sound quality has an impact on more than just our ability to become fully immersed in a movie. It’s part of our everyday life, in good ways and bad ways. We might like how our audio system sounds in our home theater, but we’d rather not hear it in the bedroom upstairs. The same goes for other noises. They’re a part of the house and our lifestyle, but left untreated, they can interfere with work, play, and even our health. A professionally trained and experienced acoustical engineer can make these issues disappear, creating a more peaceful and healthy home environment.

Steve Haas

Steve Haas is the Principal Consultant of SH Acoustics, with offices in the NYC & LA
areas. He has been a leading acoustic and audio design & calibration expert for more
than 25 years in high-end spaces ranging from home theaters, studios, and live music
rooms to major museums and performance venues.

Luxury Made Easy, Pt. 1

Cineluxe Showcase
THEATER PHOTOS BY Phillip Ennis

Legendary designer Theo Kalomirakis not only created the whole concept of home theater but has been the standard-bearer for luxury home cinema for his entire career. His two best-selling coffeetable booksPrivate Theaters and Great Escapesare filled with lavish theaters created in every imaginable style.

 

Seeing the interest in dedicated theater rooms decline over the past few years, Theo has helped form Rayva, a company devoted to dramatically simplifying the whole process of designing, engineering, and installing high-end theaters. Rayva recently completed a signature installation in Westchester County, north of New York City, that’s meant to show that the company’s streamlined approach to theater design can yield a luxury result.

 

In Part 1 of our interview, Theo talks about some of the challenges and triumphs of creating this strikingly contemporary space.

—Michael Gaughn

 

Did this begin as a Rayva theater?

 

No. The client saw a custom theater I had designed for a friend of his and said, “Let’s do something like that for my house.” I told him, “We can come up with something based on one of the designs we are developing for Rayva. There is one I think would fit your house very well.”

 

The room was above the garage, in a new space, and it was ready for the theater. But it was perforated with windows on three sides. So I said, “It’s not good to put a home theater in a room with windows.The light creates a problem, but more importantly, the sound will bounce off the glass of the windows.” He said, “I don’t mind if you cover the windows. It’s the garage. We don’t need to touch them from the outside. You can close them from inside.”

 

That was an interesting challenge. I wanted to cover the windows but I wanted the client to still be able to have access to them. So the windows dictated the design. And because Rayva panels are in increments of four feet, I could place one in front of a window and have it removable if access to the window was needed.

 

I felt very vindicated that this process we have developed allows even difficult rooms to become theaters. Because of the flexibility of our design elements, we can deal with difficult design challenges.

 

What were the client’s expectations for this room?

 

He just wanted to have a great theater. He said, “Cost is not the issue. I would just like to have the best technology, the best design, the best seats.” I shared with him brochures with Cineak seating. He selected one of the best-looking seats, and picked the finest leather. He wanted the softest, more plush leather, which is what he got.

 

And then we selected the carpet. Usually that happens at the end of the design process, and the clients are overwhelmed with all the expenses of equipment and woodwork and everything. So I automatically suggested just a plain grey industrial-quality nylon carpet that in a room like that would cost, at most, five, six thousand dollars. But I also showed him something that was plusher, like wool. He immediately went with the wool. He said, “Listen—I’m not going to use a nylon carpet. I spent so much money on the theater, I want the carpet to match the quality of the rest.”

 

I was trying to protect his budget, but clients who know what they want are different from clients who do things just because they want to save a penny here and a penny there. I respect how the former type of clients focus on the ultimate quality.

 

What was the installation process like for this theater?

 

Rayva doesn’t do the actual installation, so when we started the project, we reached out to Nick Di Clemente, the owner of Elevated Integration. When Nick introduced himself to the client, it turned out the client had additional needs. This was a newly renovated house and he needed whole-house audio. So Nick got the contract for the rest of the house, and he was happy about that.

 

What are some of the highlights of the theater?

 

The client selected our Origami design. The good thing about the triangles of the Origami design is that they allow flexible placement. We were able to use Wisdom Audio speakers—and there were lots of them and they’re big—without any conflicts with the room design.

 

This theater has a very different, outside-the-box design. In home theater, you expect to see columns and panels repeating themselves. You expect moldings that are gilded, and walls panels that are upholstered with brocade fabric. With Rayva, we tried to move away from that aesthetic because we wanted to change the perception of what a home theater looks like.

 

That’s why we bring in artists and architects that are not related to home theater to create the Rayva designs. With our guidance, their visions can be turned it into something that’s functional and can work with a variety of room sizes.

 

Also, this theater used acoustical treatments specified by Steve Haas’s company, SH Acoustics. Steve worked to get the best possible distribution of acoustical treatments within the limitations of the design. When the theater was finished, he spent two days calibrating the Wisdom Audio speakers and made the theater sound unbelievable.

Luxury Made Easy, Pt. 1

What was the client’s reaction to the theater?

 

The client is very happy. He told me that his kids practically live in that space.

 

Was there anything else you wanted to mention about the theater?

 

I want to tell you something. We put pictures of the theater on Houzz, where we can monitor which pictures resonate with end users. We were surprised to find out that we got a lot of likes for the interior of the theater but got more likes for the marquee outside. Go figure. I didn’t take that as an insult but as an indication that clients still relate to having a marquee outside the theater. So we will be creating a marquee as a Rayva product and make it available as an accessory to the theater.

In Part 2, Theo talks about how Rayva is ramping up to offer luxury theaters that can go from ordering
to installation in just a week.

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs,
couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Theo Kalomirakis

Theo Kalomirakis is widely considered the father of home theater, with scores of luxury theater designs to his credit. He is also an avid movie fan, with a collection of over 15,000 discs. Theo is the Executive Director of Rayva.

REVIEWS

Taylor Swift Reputation Stadium Tour
Black Mirror: Bandersnatch
Venom
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

ALSO ON CINELUXE

Why You Have to Have Dolby Atmos
Luxury Made Easy, Pt. 2
The Rumors of the Death of Home Theater

CINELUXE SHOWCASE

Cineluxe Showcase: A Tribeca Trendsetter
The Cineluxe Hour

The Key to Home Theater Sound Quality–Pt. 2

home theater sound quality

In Pt. 1, I talked about how you can’t assume that something on a lossless source like a CD, DVD, Blu-ray Disc, or high-quality download will sound great just because it was recorded, mixed, and mastered by “name professionals.”

 

While I won’t publicly call out any aurally-disappointing disc titles out of respect for my colleagues in the recording industry, I did recently have an opportunity related to a friend who has grown into a world-famous Grammy-winning jazz vocalist but didn’t have a concert video yet. I encouraged him and his manager of the importance of not only having one but making sure the sound quality was top notch. (Of course, I told him I’d promote the heck out of it, if done well, in the world of CEDIA demo material.)

 

They agreed, and his label brought an A-list production team to the table to make the video during one of his concerts in Europe. When the time was right, the artist sent me the final edit of the surround mix to evaluate in some of my favorite local-area private theater rooms.

 

Much to my surprise (or maybe not), the balance between instruments was way off. Even more astounding, the editor had the same mono mix of all voices and instruments playing on the left, center, and right speakers! (Is this a new mode called Tri-ono?) No matter where you sat in the theater, the entire audio program was coming directly from the speaker in front of you, regardless of where the actual visual images of the voice and instruments were coming from!

 

Of course, I gave critical feedback to the production company, and the response I received from the lead engineer was:

 

My mix is essentially a 3.1 mix with some bled into the center speaker and the documentary
elements entirely in the centre speaker. This was deliberate, as 98% of people listen in their
living room on stereo or not well set up 5.1 systems and they will hear this mix as intended.
Those of us lucky enough to have full blown cinema rooms would possibly be better served
with a traditional 5.1 mix with the vocal in the centre speaker etc. as I would do if this were a
cinema release. The decision as to whether it should be a mix suitable for the majority or a
cinema-style mix I shall pass on to others. Happy to do either but would recommend the former.

 

This was the eureka moment that began to let me see first-hand just how disconnected the world of production can be from consumer audio. (I’m sure my video colleagues have many similar stories about video quality.) And why I always listen to new discs on known systems first, so I never have to wonder about the quality of what I’m evaluating.

 

Maybe it’s time we demand better recording/editing standardsespecially on consumer releases of media contentto ensure we all receive the best quality in our private theaters and listening environments.

—Steve Haas

Steve Haas is the Principal Consultant of SH Acoustics, with offices in the NYC & LA areas.
Steve has been a leading acoustic and audio design & calibration expert for over 25 years in
high-end spaces ranging from home theaters, studios, and live music rooms to major museums
and performance venues.

The Key to Home Theater Sound Quality–Pt. 1

Home Theater Sound Quality

You’re probably all thinking this is going to be another blog post about acoustics, right? Well . . . I guess it could be, but, no, we’ll have to save that for another entry.

 

There’s something beyond the room, the acoustics, the system, and the calibration that most people don’t realize can have a significant effect (positive or negative) on the experience of listening to music or movies in your theater—the quality of the source media itself!

 

While many people realize the compromised quality of compressed audio like MP3, the average consumer just assumes that a lossless source like a CD, DVD, or Blu-ray Disc must have the best tonal and level balances and spatial quality because it was recorded, mixed, and mastered by “name professionals.”

 

Most of the time, that’s true. But there are plenty of occasions where I’ve acquired a stack of new discs to try out on my reference system for my own listening/viewing pleasure and am incredibly surprised that the quality is all over the map. This seems to be especially true with concert videos, where the recordings of even well-known artists have turned out to be very underperforming when it comes to imaging, surround placement, noisiness, dialogue clarity, and other quality factors.

 

I’ve even been in the final stages of calibrating the audio of a theater and the client urges me to try out the concert-“X” Blu-ray that I’ve never listened to before. And after a few minutes of listening, we both sit there and look at each other in disbelief at how mediocre the system sounds. Fortunately, I know to quickly grab my Top 5 sound-quality reference movie and concert discs and play them so we can (hopefully) breathe a sigh of relief that everything is all good with the calibration and our ears!

 

In Pt. 2, I’ll tell the story of a Grammy-winning vocalist I know whose concert video didn’t turn out the way I thought it would.

—Steve Haas

Steve Haas is the Principal Consultant of SH Acoustics, with offices in the NYC & LA areas.
Steve has been a leading acoustic and audio design & calibration expert for over 25 years in
high-end spaces ranging from home theaters, studios, and live music rooms to major museums
and performance venues.