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Big Sound Check for Clair C15

The Fillmore, Philadelphia, PA

May 2015
Originally published at philly.com

Some might have torn their hair out over the precarious state of the Fillmore Philadelphia in Fishtown.

When it was being scoped out a few days before its opening - Thursday night with Hall & Oates - TV monitors weren't up, and stage lighting hadn't been installed. And the crucial sound systems going into the lobby bar, the smaller, 450-seat Foundry music room, and the main, 2,500-seat concert hall were just a pile of boxes on the floor.

But no worries. "The hard work is in the planning and building" of the audio and video systems, said Dustin Goen, a project manager with the legendary Lititz, Pa.-based sound production company Clair Bros., who first toured the space two years ago, when it was a rusting wreck of a metal-smelting plant. "We've been thinking and working on the project ever since with the goal of making this facility . . . the 'crown jewel' of their concert venue group."

As for things going down to the wire at the new site, at 1100 Canal St., that's been "business as usual for 50 years," CEO Roy Clair said with a laugh. That is, the norm since he and his late brother Gene, as teenagers, set up their small public-address speakers for shows at Franklin and Marshall College, then hit the road with Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.

Getting the show-going experience right from night one is pretty critical for the Fillmore and its nearly 200 full- and part-time employees. About $31 million has been poured into this complex, dubbed Penn Treaty Village and also to feature a nonaligned bowling alley, distillery, and Italian restaurant (opening 2016).

Already, 49 shows are booked to play Fillmore Philadelphia rooms from now to New Year's Eve, while rival Electric Factory's recently announced schedule includes about 30 concert dates in the same busy period.

"In the long run, the real differentiator is if it's the room people would prefer to go to," said Gary Bongiovanni, CEO of the trade publication Pollstar.

During a return inspection of the Fillmore on Wednesday, the team was a full day ahead of schedule, with most speakers hanging.

While not as innovative as the 360-degree, ceiling-mounted sound system they've done up for the current U2 tour, Clair's audio for the Philly Fillmore features refined "curved line array" speaker boxes and "wave guide" technology "that focus the sound so it hits where it should be. Nobody else in the industry builds this stuff like us," maintains Clair.

Speakers at the back of the big concert room were being digitally tuned Wednesday with time delay software to keep in sync with the sound reaching from the stage zone. "We'll stay around for a few days, listening to how the room sounds with people in it and different acts playing, and adjust things accordingly," Goen said.

Rough-hewn, Springsteen-esque English rocker Frank Turner plays Friday; a thumping EDM (electronic dance music) bill takes charge Sunday.

Levels were being set lower in the lobby bar area, "so the music you hear on arrival will be welcoming but not so loud you have to shout to get a drink" or order some Wolfgang Puck-catered food, said Dan Schartoff, Live Nation vice president of production.

The goal for the main room is "to distinctly hear, feel, and vividly remember the experience, sonically and emotionally, from every seat, every place in the room," he said.

Bartenders will be well-supplied with complimentary earplugs (just ask). And there's a massive power substation and backup generator on site to keep the show going even if the EDM crew goes crazy with the sub-woofers and strobing light show.

Not coincidentally, the local Fillmore's main rock hall competitor - the 20-year-old (in its second iteration), 2,500-capacity Electric Factory - has just upped its game with a "new-improved" L-Acoustics sound system that will finally eliminate dead spots under the balcony, house production manager Jerry Market said.

But he waved off a reporter's suggestion that Electric Factory upgrades had been undertaken in response to the new game in town. "We're always tweaking the club," he said, "and can't help it that their opening is timed to our anniversary celebration."