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Fascination With Sound Leads to Sonic Innovations

Russell Johnson was fascinated with sound. As a child, he crawled inside his church’s pipe organ to find out how it worked. By his teens he wanted to record classical music as a studio engineer.

Russell Johnson, part of the original team of planners for our performing arts center in Tampa.

He became a renowned architect of acoustics, sought out by opera houses and theaters around the globe.

Among the halls for which he’s designed acoustics are Jazz at Lincoln Center in Manhattan, the Lucerne Concert Hall in Switzerland, and The Straz.

Bringing in Russell Johnson to design the sound of the yet to be constructed center was undeniable proof of the founders’ commitment to The Straz having the finest sonics possible.

Johnson’s crowning work for The Straz is the acoustical canopy, or cloud, suspended over the floor seats in Morsani Hall. The cloud consists of 18 panels that can be adjusted to fine tune the hall depending on the performance – opera has different sonic needs than a Broadway show which has different needs than a pop concert.

The view looking straight up at the sound canopy – or cloud – suspended above the audience in Morsani Hall. (Photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.)

Johnson also can take credit for redeeming the title acoustician.

Following World War II, there was a boom in construction of new concert halls as well as in the refurbishing of older facilities. Unfortunately the results were often sonically subpar, which many blamed less on the acousticians than on the field of acoustic design itself. Johnson said that musicians who discovered Johnson was an acoustician “wanted to wring my neck.” That animosity faded quickly once musicians heard the results of Johnson’s work.

One might imagine Johnson plotting out his innovations with mathematical precision. But he considered what he did an art, not science. Johnson studied architecture but his approach to sonic design was determined more by his love of music than his knowledge of physics.

A view of the top of the sound canopy panels when lowered down into the hall for maintenance.

He was so committed to achieving ideal acoustics that he insisted architects build their structures around his sonic designs.  

He sought four qualities in his quest for ideal sound: loudness, clarity, warmth and reverberation. Johnson wanted that final, reverberating tone to sound as if were floating through the air into silence.

Johnson passed away in 2007 at the age of 83. Thursday, Sept. 14, was the 100th anniversary of his birth.

Next time you’re in Morsani Hall, say a little thank you to Russell Johnson for the sumptuous sound you’re enjoying. Just say it very quietly. Sound carries pretty well in Morsani. The acoustics are amazing.

Morsani Hall during a performance of Next Generation Ballet’s Nutcracker. (Photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.)

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