The story starts out like any musician’s documentary: a young child loudly playing some oversized instrument, stumbling through incoherent songs and grinning ear to ear. In this case, that instrument was a piano and the boy is a young C. Russell Todd, no older than four or five. Soon after, Todd gets a guitar and hotwires his parents’ stereo system to make himself an amp. An aunt gifts him her 45 record collection. He listens to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Sound of Silence by Simon and Garfunkel over and over again.
“And Sound of Silence, it struck me in a lot of different ways,” said Todd, an affable man with graying hair and sleek, sculpted eye glasses. “But it’s kind of ironic.” Todd explained, “The idea that everything that we know comes out of this silence or darkness. And so the silence—you have to create that in what we do –it doesn’t just happen.”
That young boy did not grow up to be a traditional musician, but an acoustician — the person in charge of making sure, in any given room, that sound is best understood. He works in very large spaces, mostly museums, theaters and concert halls, including the Hollywood Bowl. His mark is all over Nashville where he and Akustiks, the acoustic consulting firm where Todd is one of three principals, designed two performance halls at Belmont University, the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, and the Country Music Hall of Fame’s CMA Theater and Event Hall. Most recently, and perhaps most famously, Akustiks oversaw the sound design at the Lincoln Center’s beleaguered David Geffen Hall, a venue whose acoustics had only ever received lukewarm reviews at best, and even got a hefty feature in a New Yorker article out of the job. Todd may not be a rockstar playing in front of tens of thousands of people, but that doesn’t mean his craft is not a high stakes performance. It’s Todd’s job to make some of the world’s most important music venues — and the musicians who play them — sing.
Todd was born in Florida and grew up following his dad’s job as a soil scientist, moving between Florida, Alabama and D.C. In high school, he played in a jazz band good enough to win a competition. The prize? An opportunity to open for legendary jazz swing musician Count Basie. When the day came, Todd and the band played, followed by Count Basie and his orchestra, which included another legend and favorite of Todd’s, guitarist Freddie Green. Both bands played into microphones, but the reverb was so bad during the Count Basie performance that the sound technician disabled the sound system.
“All of a sudden, the sound of the Count Basie Orchestra all came together naturally, the natural acoustics of it.” Todd said. “And it sounded just amazing.” When the sound technician turned the mics back on, “everybody booed.” Conceding to the will of the room, the technician shut the microphones back off.
Todd was introduced to acoustics.
At first glance, the definition of acoustics appears deceptively narrow. Encyclopedia Britannica defines acoustics as “the science concerned with the production, control, transmission, reception, and effects of sound.” As most would guess, this encompasses music. Todd’s first job after graduating from Georgia Institute of Technology College of Engineering in 1991 was for Panasonic, outfitting Hondas, Acuras and the Ford Mustang with stereo systems. But acoustics is an integral part of broader physics; vibrations and sound waves are everywhere, not only in the body of a guitar or the belly of a singer. There are also medical uses of sounds. Cataracts are broken up using ultrasonic vibration — sound of a frequency too high for a human to hear.
It was an acoustician who determined that airplanes must make a fast and steep ascent after take off to limit harmful environmental noise.
After Panasonic, Todd followed his wife, Jill, to Houston where she got a job with a bank, and he worked with OSHA studying environmental noise produced by the petrochemical industry.
If you look at the invention of the internet, an acoustician is right there, too. Leonard Beranek, the original acoustician to work on David Geffen Hall, and his firm, Bolt, Beranek and Newman, were crucial to the development of the Arpanet, a precursor to the internet.
In 2016, when it was announced that Akustiks would take over the sound at David Geffen Hall, Beranek called and they talked for an hour.
With so many useful, and sometimes odd, applications, there is no such thing as a correct sound, but there are sounds better suited for certain situations than others. Just in the realm of architectural acoustics, a rock concert should sound differently than an orchestra, which should sound differently than a political debate. All require different room configurations. Designing a space that can accommodate each of these performances individually is one thing, but designing a space that can make the plucking of harp sound as exciting as an electric guitar riff — what the industry calls a multi-use hall — was for years an elusive goal.
In 1994, the Todds moved from Houston to Dallas where he began designing spaces for the entertainment industry, mainly at Universal Studios’ Islands of Adventure in Orlando. In nearby Fort Worth, a new multi-use performance hall, Bass Performance Hall, was under construction and the Connecticut-based acoustical firm designing its sound needed a local acoustician to perform some measurements. They contacted Todd, who agreed to help. Bass Performance Hall became the first multi-use hall to veritably excel in its purpose: making different kinds of performances with different acoustic needs all sound great. “That really was kind of groundbreaking,” Todd said.
During the design process, Todd met Paul Scarborough, a principal at the firm contracting him, and took a job with his firm. In 2001, he left with Scarborough to found Akustiks, the Connecticut-based acoustic consulting firm, that they, along with Christopher Blair, still lead today. Multi-use halls have become one of their areas of expertise, including David Geffen Hall and Belmont University’s Fisher Center for the Performing Arts — a less famous hall, but one that Todd described as “an evolution of all the multi-use hall concepts.”
The design for Belmont Hall began like it does for any other space, with very many, very educated guesses. Acousticians do not know what a hall will sound like until its built. They use science to advise the building plans, sure, but the end result is ultimately a mystery until the walls are up and the orchestra is in the pit.
“When we open a concert hall, we’re walking on the tightrope,” Todd said. “Everybody’s waiting to see if we’re gonna fall or not. Literally, sometimes it feels like that.”
The design process typically takes about two years and involves extensive conversations with the architect, the theater consultant, and whoever will be consistently using a space, like an orchestra. Physically, every inch must be considered. Sound is not unlike light from the sun; it emanates inexorably from a source and hits everything in its path, and it will crawl into any space it finds. “Every little detail matters,” Todd said. “Every surface, the shape of the surface, the materiality, every duct or pipe that goes through a wall has to be sealed up so the sound doesn’t leak in. The doors have to be detailed.” Akustiks has even shot a shotgun over the roof of a building to make sure they couldn’t hear the boom in the performance space.
Todd was, of course, trying to ensure silence, a feeling he said is not unlike what a skier might experience alone on a slope after a freshly fallen snow. If the animals stay still and the planes stay out of the sky, sound will not be created nor reflected. It’s just the skier, the white snow. “Think about the last time you’ve been in a space where you can hear your blood going through your veins and your heartbeat, just by sitting here.” Todd said. That’s what he’s trying to achieve.
This silence, once secured, becomes the canvas on which Akustiks builds the sound. By changing the shape and materials of a space, they can dial in the emotional experience of a performance. Qualities that feel intangible to the average listener, part of that ineffable joy of live music, are a measurable and manipulatable science to Todd. He can make us feel close, overwhelmed, warm, stark, dull, alive, soothed by the sound of a room. Intimacy, a cherished barometer of kinship, is measured by the time it takes a reverberant sound to travel from source to listener. In a room where that time is 20 milliseconds or less, a listener will feel close to the performer, at least physically.
“Something that we aim for is creating that complete silence, but also creating that great impact to sound,” Todd said. “So when you hear the orchestra, or if you hear an actor doing King Lear you can hear that full dynamic range … and then when you create that impact, now you’re connecting to people.”
After the space is designed, construction typically takes another two years. Then tuning begins. Theaters and performance halls function almost like an instrument in an ensemble, shaping every sound produced, and, like any instrument, must be tuned. Even after construction, Todd can change the acoustics by, among other things, altering materials in the room or using panels to change the shape of a room. At Belmont, the Akustiks team brought in soft, sound absorbing material “not only around the walls of the room, but up in the ceiling, but you don’t see [the ceiling] change. You see a beautiful dome ceiling that happens to be sound transparent,” Todd said.
Tuning can involve dozens of private, live performances with a full audience — necessary because human bodies absorb sound and change the acoustics of a room. At least a few of the tunings are “hard hat” shows with an audience made up of the people who built the space. 30 or 40 years ago, Todd said, halls were built for too large of an audience, disrupting the sound quality. A number of times, Akustiks has removed seats from a space as part of a redesign. At David Geffen Hall they removed 500 seats and pulled the stage 25 feet forward, among many other renovations. After his first few visits to the David Geffin Hall Zachary Woolfe, The New York Times classical music critic, said “a mighty improvement is already obvious … Now the sound, like the whole experience of being there, is far more immediate and warm.”
In the emotional sense, warmth, as well as intimacy, are part of why acoustics matter to Todd. He has a special affinity for the museums he’s worked on, including the Jimi Hendrix Experience in Seattle and The Gig, a guitar museum in Nashville. These aren’t just spaces for loud, clear music, but places meant to be slowly traversed, for community to transpire. He likes to dive into the history of subject matter he’s designing around and carry that history with him through his work in the museum. “If I can create a space or help create a space that helps to connect people through art, through music, then I think we’re doing something,” Todd said.
When Todd isn’t designing music, he seeks silence, mostly by going for walks in the woods around his home in Old Lyme, often with his wife and dogs. “The magic that happens as it comes out of that silence,” Todd said. “I didn’t get that at the age of five. I just love the song.”