Hear! Hear! The mod­ern art of sound de­sign.

The Washington Post Sunday - - MUSEUMS - BY KEVIN NANCE IN CHICAGO Nance is a free­lance writer. style@wash­post.com

One of the most com­mon sights at the Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art Chicago is a cu­ra­tor, do­cent or artist giv­ing a gallery talk. But at MCA, it wasn’t al­ways easy to un­der­stand what was be­ing said be­cause of the acous­tics.

With thou­sands of square feet of gran­ite floor, glass par­ti­tions and very high ceil­ings, the gal­leries are nat­u­rally re­ver­ber­a­tive, sounds bounc­ing from one sur­face to an­other like pin­balls. The tour guide’s voice, is­su­ing from cen­trally lo­cated speak­ers, of­ten lacked clar­ity; from the other side of a gallery, it could be all but un­in­tel­li­gi­ble.

“In the past, we tried things like mega­phone speak­ers on the shoul­der of an in­tern fol­low­ing the artist, or hang­ing speak­ers around the cu­ra­tor’s neck,” says Ja­son McNinch, a sound engi­neer and de­signer who han­dles live events for MCA. “Those never re­ally worked out very well.”

But with McNinch be­hind the scenes — and with the help of a state-of-the-art Sennheiser au­dio sys­tem ac­quired last year in the wake of MCA’s block­buster “David Bowie Is” ex­hi­bi­tion — the era of gar­bled sound in the gal­leries is over. Us­ing bat­tery-op­er­ated, wire­less speak­ers po­si­tioned through­out the vast rooms, McNinch de­liv­ers crisp, clear sound wher­ever vis­i­tors might roam.

“When the David Bowie ex­hi­bi­tion opened, cu­ra­tors from the V&A [Lon­don’s Vic­to­ria and Al­bert Mu­seum, which or­ga­nized the ex­hibit] re­marked how sound qual­ity is his­tor­i­cally an af­ter­thought in mu­se­ums,” says McNinch, a lanky, shy but cheer­ful man who bears more than a pass­ing re­sem­blance to Shaggy from the “Scooby-Doo” car­toons. “Those re­marks sparked us to buy the new sound sys­tem — which was very im­por­tant, be­cause you need in­tel­li­gi­bil­ity for vis­i­tors to be re­ally en­gaged with artists and cu­ra­tors in the gallery spa­ces. It’s made a huge dif­fer­ence.”

So has McNinch, who came to MCA in 2012 af­ter work­ing for sev­eral years on the live mu­sic cir­cuit, mix­ing sound for bands and their au­di­ences in night­clubs, in­clud­ing the Roxy in Los An­ge­les and the Note in Chicago’s trendy Wicker Park. “That’s where I cut my teeth as a sound de­signer,” he says. “I learned a lot in those clubs.”

But M CA was a much greater sonic chal­lenge than the night­clubs be­cause of the rel­a­tively “live” acous­tic en­vi­ron­ments in the gal­leries.

There’s a thresh­old at which the in­tel­li­gi­bil­ity of the am­pli­fied hu­man voice be­comes in­versely pro­por­tional to its vol­ume, McNinch ex­plains. “The more you in­crease the vol­ume, the harder it is to un­der­stand what’ s be­ing said. If you can stay un­der that thresh­old and work with it, as op­posed to against it, then you’ve re­ally got some­thing. With the new sound sys­tem, we can dis­trib­ute the sound at more man­age­able vol­umes and get bet­ter re­sults.”

“He’s re­ally helped trans­form the way we do a lot of things,” says mu­seum spokes­woman Karla Lor­ing, who of­ten works with McNinch on a va­ri­ety of pro­grams for the pub­lic. “The vis­i­tor ex­pe­ri­ence here is much im­proved in terms of the sound, and he’s been a big part of that.”

Heidi Reit­maier, MCA’s di­rec­tor of ed­u­ca­tion, agrees. “Ja­son ini­tially worked in our IT depart­ment, but we very quickly rec­og­nized that he had a tal­ent — a panache, re­ally — for work­ing with artists, in­clud­ing per­form­ing artists,” she says. “That’s im­por­tant, be­cause we’ve made a com­mit­ment at MCA to do much more pro­gram­ming in the ar­eas of mu­sic, dance and other kinds of per­for­mance.”

McNinch also have in­stinc­tive un­der­stand­ing of how vis­i­tors move through and ex­pe­ri­ence the build­ing, Reit­maier says. “His back­ground with mu­sic venues and mu­sic pro­mot­ers makes per­fect sense for some­one whose job is to pro­duce the qual­ity of sound that our au­di­ences ex­pect. If we have some­one speak­ing in a gallery, we now have a sound­scape that vis­i­tors can walk through and still hear the com­ments and think more deeply about an ex­hi­bi­tion, even when they can’t see the com­men­ta­tor. Ja­son has led the way for us to be able to do that.”

A na­tive of Michi­gan’s Up­per Penin­sula, McNinch is known around the mu­seum as a man of few words who lets his ac­tions speak for him. “He’s pretty re­served, pretty quiet, but he’s al­ways think­ing,” Reit­maier says. “If you need some­thing, he’ll lis­ten, he’ll con­tem­plate, but he won’t say much. Then he’ll go away and solve your prob­lem.”

McNinch’s thought­ful ap­proach to prob­lem­solv­ing is at least partly a prod­uct of his ex­pe­ri­ence in a dif­fer­ent cre­ative field. Be­fore mov­ing to Chicago a few years ago, McNinch also worked on tech­nol­ogy sys­tems at L.A.’s Gehry Part­ners, where he re­calls the founder, ar­chi­tect Frank Gehry, teach­ing him and oth­ers how to use crit­i­cism as part of the cre­ative process. “He used to talk to us about the im­por­tance of not fall­ing in love with your work,” McNinch re­calls. “He stressed how you needed to be able to step out­side it and see it for what it is.”

Some of that phi­los­o­phy is ev­i­dent in McNinch’s so­lu­tions for the chal­lenges posed by the weekly Tues­days on the Ter­race jazz se­ries on MCA’s east lawn and ter­race. In ear­lier years, live mu­sic con­certs and other gath­er­ings in the lo­ca­tion — a serene clear­ing in a for­est of high-rise build­ings in Chicago’s Streeterville neigh­bor­hood — were ham­pered by its com­pli­cated acous­tics.

“His­tor­i­cally, we had the band over there ,” he says, point­ing to the ter­race’ s north­west cor­ner. “Be­fore we had the wire­less equip­ment, we had to keep the sound there and in­crease the vol­ume. But we’d get this huge slap­back com­ing off of the build­ings nearby.”

Com­plaints about the sit­u­a­tion reached McNinch’s ears from var­i­ous di­rec­tions, at which point he lis­tened, contemplated, and solved the prob­lem. He moved the band to the south­east cor­ner of the ter­race, and po­si­tioned the wire­less speak­ers at strate­gic points around the lo­ca­tion to achieve max­i­mum sound clar­ity.

“It’s a bit lower over there, and you get this dif­fu­sion of the sound across the trees and fo­liage ,” he says with a look of sat­is­fac­tion .“And since we’ve got half a dozen wire­less speak­ers down on the grass, you’re spread­ing the sound around, and we re­ally achieve high-end au­dio re­sults across this en­tire space.”

As word of McNinch’s acu­men in sound en­gi­neer­ing and de­sign has spread around town over the past year or so, he has been ap­proached by other arts in­sti­tu­tions — in par­tic­u­lar some of Chicago’s lead­ing theater com­pa­nies — who covet his ex­per­tise. But he has thus far re­sisted such over­tures, be­cause he’s quite happy where he is, due in no small part to the fact that the Sennheiser au­dio sys­tem makes his job eas­ier and more cre­ative.

“It’s such a per­fect cut­ting-edge tech­nol­ogy as­set, and it helps me ap­proach my job less as an engi­neer and more as a de­signer,” McNinch says. “Now that I have that at my dis­posal, I want to use it.”

Cer­tainly he isn’t tempted to re­turn to the demi­monde of mu­sic clubs, where late nights, ex­cit­ing as they might be on oc­ca­sion, have largely lost their ap­peal for him. “I’m 42,” he says. “Now that I’m get­ting a lit­tle older, I think I’ll stick with mu­se­ums.”


Ja­son McNinch, sound de­signer/ engi­neer at the Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art Chicago, started out in night­clubs. “That’s where I cut my teeth as a sound de­signer,” he says. “I learned a lot in those clubs.”

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