It used to be that community service was something handed out at the old Collin County Courthouse as punishment. Now, as the home of the McKinney Performing Arts Center at the Historic Collin County Courthouse, it’s something the facility provides itself to both local arts groups and the community at large.
Situated in the center of McKinney’s historic downtown, the McKinney Performing Arts Center (MPAC) offers a truly unique setting for its patrons. It’s a seamless blend of old and new; a setting incorporating many of the fixtures that were once integral to its role as a functioning courthouse, combined with staging, lighting and audio systems designed to preserve its historic charm and character.
Originally built in 1876 in the Neoclassical Revival Style, by the 1920’s the courthouse had fallen into a state of disrepair. The windows in its towers were broken, their shutters were in ruins and the county records contained within the building proper were in danger of being destroyed owing to a leaky roof. Since being reopened in March 2006, however, as a multi-purpose rental facility and performing arts venue featuring a 427-seat theatre and a variety of special event and meeting spaces, it’s become a go to destination for McKinney residents.
Although the building was completely remodeled in 1927 and served as a functioning courthouse through 1979, prior to its 2006 rehabilitation by the City of McKinney and the McKinney Community Development Corporation, after 25 years of neglect, it was once again in far from ideal condition.
McKinney in general, however, was in great shape, experiencing an ongoing growth spurt and becoming one of the fastest growing cities in the country. Ultimately, serving that growing community was a primary consideration in the community’s decision to finally find a use for the old Collin County Courthouse that would honour its history and ensure its continued use long term.
In every way, the production technology inhabiting the refurbished main courtroom/theatre space had to serve that mandate as well. Consequently, the theatre opted for an A/V system designed by Dallas’ based PMK Consultants and installed by the Whitlock Group, which features an LCS Variable Room Acoustics System (VRAS), as well as staging elements (created by Schuler Shook in consultation with architect, ArchiTexas Architecture Planning & Historic Preservation, Inc.) that are either concealed behind the courtroom’s historic finishes, or are entirely removable. The idea was to create a room that was extremely flexible; to balance the preservation of the courthouse feel against the growing community’s potential ongoing needs for the venue, and Tannoy loudspeakers are an integral part of that.
In fact, the project had to meet the strict requirements of The Texas Historic Commission and is described by MPAC as a partial remodel. Many of the fixtures that inhabited the court originally were retained to provide a unique atmosphere and for those occasions when the main theatre is still used as a courtroom, including the judge’s bench and witness stand. Seating along the sides of the main floor and on the balcony is new, but designed to complement the original 1920’s wooden seats located in the centre of the courthouse floor. Even the stage itself, which is roughly 40’ wide and 10’ to 20’ deep, depending on how other stage elements are configured, is removable and built over the existing prosecution and defense tables.
“It’s very intimate,” says MPAC Director, David Taylor. “The theatre is on the second floor. The balcony is on the third. It’s very Art Deco in its style — interesting light fixtures, marble wainscoting, original tile — unique, but with very clean lines. It’s very beautiful.”
Design began in 2004 (prior to the integration of LCS into Meyer Sound) explains audio consultant, Dave Stearns, PMK’s designer/project manager on the project, and incorporated a variety of Tannoy in-wall and in-ceiling loudspeakers as surround elements in the VRAS system.
Though often used in a stereo configuration the system can be configured as a 5.1 surround system for film presentations and other applications. “We have so many different types of performances,” says MPAC maintenance specialist, George Powell, and whether the full VRAS system is used for a specific event in the main theatre depends entirely on the needs and type of production being put on.
Even though not in use constantly, the choice of the VRAS system had to meet a variety of challenges and requirements – both aesthetically and sonically – as did the choice of the Tannoy speakers included within it.
Like the staging, the sound system needed to be low impact visually. “If you walk into the room,” Stearns says, “you’ll see the same columns and protruding beams that were always there. It’s just that all of the other surfaces in between them that used to be plaster and lathe are now cloth and fiberglass.”
Prior to that treatment the room was highly reverberant, he adds, in part because of its plaster and lathe walls. “You had to do some acoustic treatment to make the room usable. With all that plaster if anyone in the room made noise it drowned out what was coming from the stage. So they removed the plaster and put in the fiberglass and stretched fabric system over the walls and ceilings.”
The choice of Tannoy, says Stearns, was made for a variety of reasons, among them, their accuracy, low profile and his familiarity with the product. “There’s no phase offset because the horn’s above or below the woofer, everything’s right together there and you get kind of a mixing room’s accuracy. To get that out of a ceiling speaker, for the price, you just can’t beat that.”
There were challenges, however. Space for one, he explains, which was an issue when trying to find a place for the console, a Yamaha DM2000 at the FOH mix position and in physically placing the speakers. “Nobody sees any speakers anywhere in this room. Some of the walls had plaster over concrete, so you get into the wall and you go, ‘do I chisel the concrete all the way up to this point, slip a pipe in there vertically and then pop out somewhere in the exposed ceiling? The place is built like Fort Knox, so the three and a half inch depth of the back can of the in-walls certainly helped.”
In designing the sound system for MPAC, PMK opted to use approximately 32 Tannoy iW6 TDCs in the walls on both the main theatre level and balcony, roughly 22 CMS601 DCs used for over and under balcony coverage and six Tannoy CMS 12s placed in two rows of three in the ceiling over the central audience area. “That gives us a little bit more low end; the 12s provide far more low frequency extension than the in-walls.”
Other system elements include QSC CX amplifiers and QSC BASIS DSP. The house’s three-way center hung speaker cluster is made up of EAW AX series boxes. “This was prior to the release of the Tannoy VQ Series,” Stearns adds. The subs are also EAW products. Whether the full VRAS system is in use or not, the CMS601 DCs – located over and under the balcony – are used to provide additional coverage.
The mic package is comprised of Shure SM58s, Sennheiser e965s and AKG C3000Bs and 12 Shure ULX-P wireless microphone receivers and ULX1 Bodypack transmitters.
Video components specified by PMK include a Christie projector mounted in the balcony fascia wall in a temperature-controlled enclosure and a screen that may be placed at the front of the room for video applications.
“The courtroom system is tied into the rest of the building, so what’s broadcast in the theatre can be broadcast to other areas,” Powell adds. Correspondingly, additional Tannoy loudspeakers – thirty Tannoy CMS 601DCs – provide distributed audio to various other areas of the building. There is also a single Tannoy i6T AW in MPAC’s Artist Studio.
“We’d done a fair number of VRAS installations, even in large church applications and the use of the Tannoy as surrounds is fairly common in this type of system,” Stearns says, referencing a Cincinnati area church that PMK’s Jerrold Stevens had worked on. “That application was primarily done with the CMS 12s overhead because the room was so large. In this situation the iW6s were better for concealment in the walls, and given that the room is narrow and isn’t very deep we weren’t asking the speakers to throw sound very far. We got real familiar with how they sound and how well they tune up. Steve Ellison, who was with LCS at the time, came out on two occasions to do an initial tuning and a fine tune.”
In all the VRAS system incorporates 7 Countryman microphones hung twenty to twenty-five feet apart from each other; two over the stage area, two in the middle of the room and three in the rear, 54 loudspeakers (all Tannoy in the walls and ceilings) and provides 3 delay/reflection settings and 3 volume levels. “Essentially, they have the capability of going from a dry room with about a .9 second RT 60 for standup comedy and that kind of thing,” Stearns continues. “And then you’ve got the various performance types where you can ramp up to as high as 4.5 seconds.”
The system is very user friendly. “The end user just has to pick what type of event he was doing and the room will automatically set up for it. You get a very consistent RT and balance of low, to mid, to high frequencies. No matter which preset we popped the system to it sounded consistent, and all this was operated from an AMX touch screen.” The touch screen is located at the main level FOH mix position.
That’s a huge plus given that the usage of MPAC is highly diverse, hosting shows that run the gamut from artists like Eileen Ivers and Paula Cole, to stand up comics and off-Broadway shows like the 2010 production of Sisters Christmas Catechism: The Mystery of the Magi’s Gold. Local arts groups like the McKinney Repertory Theatre and the local chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society – who often put MPAC’s restored Wurlitzer organ to use – are also regular users.
As successful as MPAC has been, the old Collin County Courthouse might never had been put to such a use had the town opted to use the funds it applied to the refurbishment elsewhere, such as joining other nearby communities in building a larger arts facility to serve the entire county – another initiative under consideration before this project got underway. “But it’s a growing community,” says Taylor, “and they wanted have a place where people can come together to celebrate and where local arts groups can have space.”
Beyond the main theatre, additional event spaces and conference rooms are located on the ground and first floors, Taylor adds. “Ninety percent of what we do is rent the facility for weddings, birthdays, meetings, art classes and the courtroom obviously hosts theatre, concerts and lectures. We celebrated the five-year anniversary April the 9th 2011, with a concert by Michael Martin Murphey, a chalk walk and an art exhibit. Last year we did 159 activities in the theatre. I bring in about nine professional acts per year based on input from the community.”
Although Taylor wasn’t around for the installation, he’s been with MPAC since its opening and five years on continues to speak highly of the system’s sound, its flexibility and its role in allowing MPAC to expand their mandate for providing entertainment that compliments the activities of local arts organizations. “It’s very versatile and the VRAS system really compliments the space well. They did a great job. MPAC is a Texas Historical Archeological Landmark and that is the highest declaration in the state. All the designers worked closely with the Texas Historic Commission to make sure that anything installed was done as discreetly as possible.”
In doing so, they could have chosen another product for the surrounds, Stearns says. “We saw a lot of competitors about the time Tannoy started to move their products into the ceiling market; other people who all of a sudden had to step up and make ‘or equals’ as we like to call them. But using Tannoy is kind of like ‘dancing with the one that brung ya’. You know what to expect and what you’ll get in sound and service. You may go and use another product if it’s cheaper and the install dictates that, but the go to is Tannoy."