WITH THE TABLE CLEARED at the 2013 Meyer family Thanksgiving dinner, talk turned to business. As Denny Meyer explained an exciting product his company was developing, it struck a chord with his identical twin, Don. The Meyer boys grew up immersed in music. Denny even taught it at the elementary level before being recruited to Wenger Corporation, a leading manufacturer of music and performing arts products. When Don, Wartburg College’s senior gift planner, learned the groundbreaking product promised to liven the sound of dry performance halls, he thought of the perfect test case. Soon, talks materialized for Wartburg’s Neumann Auditorium to be a beta site for Wenger’s TranscendTM Active Acoustic System, a first-of-its-kind product that produces customized reverberation. The technology, featuring a processor crunching advanced algorithms, seemed as otherworldly as the promise: Select one setting, and the auditorium could boast the perfect vocal acoustics of a cavernous cathedral. Tap another, and an instrumental number could feature the sound of a world-famous orchestra hall.
“I was quite skeptical,” said Dr. Lee Nelson, Wartburg Choir conductor and Patricia R. Zahn Chair in Choral Conducting. “I didn’t think it was possible to create a virtual acoustic. My initial reaction to Don was, ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’”
But as Wartburg’s comprehensive fundraising campaign, Transforming Tomorrow, took shape, a commitment to renovating the facility emerged. Neumann Auditorium was intentionally built with dry acoustics to accommodate spoken- word events like convocations and worship services. However, it is not conducive to performances for many of Wartburg’s widely recognized music ensembles. Don Meyer pitched the potential solution to Joanne Shipman ’69 and Lindley Jones, Waverly residents who had expressed interest in supporting fine arts at Wartburg. They agreed to join several music faculty, the Meyers, and others on a visit to a Minnesota high school whose rehearsal room features a Wenger active acoustic system. The technology’s effects were obvious, and though the space was smaller than Wartburg’s 1,200-seat auditorium, the field trip proved a catalyst.
“For me, that’s when things changed,” Nelson said. “I was really impressed. I got pretty excited about the project after that.”
The Joneses, too, were all in.
“We were astounded at how this system not only improves the acoustics in an auditorium, but also enhances the interaction of the participants in the performance,” Joanne Jones said. “We are very excited to be able to help transform Neumann Auditorium into a great-sounding hall.”
Updates to the 55-year-old auditorium spanned this summer. Prep work for the Transcend installation uncovered more asbestos than expected and the need for comprehensive improvements to the electrical system. The Joneses increased their gift and other donors came forward, allowing the project to continue in its full scale and on schedule. The Transcend system went live at an open house Oct. 19 after Wenger engineers spent weeks fine-tuning speaker placement, adjusting algorithms, and tweaking presets to the liking of Wartburg’s conductors. Nelson couldn’t help but test Transcend’s capabilities during the Meistersinger All-State Choir Camp in August. He activated it for a final chord, and the reverberation stunned the hundreds of music campers.
“You could hear a pin drop when the choir cut off and then a collective gasp of excitement from the participants,” he said.
The implications are many. Traditions like Christmas with Wartburg and Homecoming worship will sound better than ever as several presets are employed throughout the event. Combined choral-orchestral performances become feasible. The auditorium could even emerge as an alternative location for choir concerts if the demand for space outgrows Wartburg Chapel.
“The sky’s the limit now in terms of what we can do for programming, and that is very exciting,” Nelson said. The upgrade represents an ideal fit in the college’s long-range plans, Don Meyer feels. “We could spend $20 million and build a new performing arts center, have it acoustically designed, and then those are the acoustics you have,” he said. “With this, it’s almost like getting a new performing arts center with these beautiful acoustics, but it’s flexible. It will serve so well for the many different events we hold in Neumann Auditorium.”
Not to mention for publicity and exposure. As a beta site, Wartburg agreed to regularly host acoustic consultants for whom Wenger will showcase Transcend. Thus, Wenger will maintain the system and keep it on the cutting edge. Already, Wenger has promoted the Neumann Auditorium project in its marketing materials and industry journals. The system also is making waves in local music circles. It was the buzz at all-state camp, even attracting teachers to experience it after seeing chatter on social media.
“It’s going to give us exposure we’ve never had before, in some ways how The W impacted athletics. Many schools and music organizations will be looking to Wartburg to hold their events,” Nelson said. “I’m hoping that we’ll be a destination for music festivals and concerts so others can experience this new technology. It’s definitely going to be a great asset for the college.”