Hear! Hear! The modern art of sound design.
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.”