The historic Miller Brewing Caves suffered from lots of echo and reverb, and badly needed acoustic treatment. The catch: no impact could be made to the original aesthetics of the caves.
Back in January of 2007, Jim Logan of Logan Productions placed a call to ASC, needing help with an upcoming project for Miller Brewing Co. His problem was simple. He was putting an audio system into the historic Miller Caves that were used to store beer 150 years ago. It would be a new visitor center and reception venue. The caves had lots of echo and reverb, and needed acoustic help so that large groups of people could enjoy their visit.
They still had their original caves which ran under the hill behind their headquarters in Milwaukee. In those early years, horse drawn delivery carts pulled into the caves to get loaded up with cave cold beer. One of those caves had become a tourist center, a Mecca for beer devotees. Miller management also wanted to use it for high-brow invitation-only dining events, just like they used to do back in the roaring 20’s.
ASC Founder and President Arthur Noxon booked a plane and flew out to Milwaukee to make tests and see the Caves first hand. The long brick lined cave walls were punctuated by lime stains and years of soot. This cave tunnel had a concrete floor and all brick walls with a rounded brick roof. And the reverb noise was awful.
They obviously needed a few sound panels and we thought the job was going to be a slam dunk. But their architect had different ideas. We changed colors and patterns and it was still NO. We proposed large acoustic bezels for the hanging “oil” lamps and it was still NO. How about a large sound panel down the length of each side of the tunnel with an old time picture gallery mounted over top? NO. It was NO-NO-NO to every proposal.
Understandably, Miller had reached the conclusion that the existing brick look had to stay, so Mr. Noxon went to work on a brick surfaced absorption panel concept that would maintain the look and feel of old cave brick while improving speech intelligibility. No one could stand the idea of changing the appearance of this historic tunnel.
At least we finally knew what the YES would be, doing nothing to the appearance and still getting something done acoustically. We began to play with making sound absorbing half bricks and imagined gluing them onto the original brick lining of the tunnel…Close, but no cigar. By now we were running out of time. Invitations had already been sent out for the big dinner debut of the renovated tunnel.
We tried another approach. We took photos of the tunnel surface, had them printed on fabric, cut tiny slices of Styrofoam to match the shape of each brick and glued it all together. The architect signed off on the demo sample.
Ultimately, we had developed an acoustic transparent relief surface that looked exactly like the brick wall it would eventually cover. We also had to invent at the same time a bendable sound panel so we could match the ever-changing curve of the tunnel and install it with bolts so it wouldn’t fall down.
Phase 1 of the project involved front wall absorption panels to eliminate head-end ringing from the audio system. Phase 2 involved brick lined panels set like ribs to run the length of the Cave to act as acoustic “speed bumps”.
A high power audio system was a key part of the Miller Caves project, and Mr. Noxon had to design hidden acoustics to prevent the head-end ringing this would produce in the Cave. This entailed absorption panels that were made to look like part of the woodwork. The 16 custom panels were then incorporated into the stage area woodwork and display case. These were comparatively easy to build and ship, but Phase Two would be more daunting.
The existing cave walls were distinctive in that no two bricks were alike. The walls were also streaked with long lime stains, and the bricks weren’t the classic red, they were a brownish yellow. Adding to the complexity, the cave walls were curved, arching high over head. Not only would ASC have to match bricks, we also needed a flexing panel that would follow the arching curve without buckling. It was decided that we would use the same technology as the ASC PicturePanel, using actual photographs of the cave walls, to perfectly match the existing bricks. A flexing fiberglass panel was also custom designed for the job by Mr. Noxon. ASC technician Buddy Sawyer applied his unique skills as a former scenic artist to come up with a working sample which Miller approved.
The acoustic plan called for 12 acoustically absorptive panels in the Cave, each one being 24″ x 12′ and covered with fabric “bricks”. The panels would curve across the ceiling from both side walls, detailed with fabric covered “stone” footers and keystones. After numerous tries, photos and colors were matched to the cave and the fabric brick panels printed. To increase 3-D realism, the bricks were given a raised treatment complete with texture and fractures. Each panel got mounted to a thin layer of foam, before being shipped to the Caves and applied to the curved absorption panels. It was quite an undertaking to say the least, and the ASC/Logan team pulled it off.
With deadlines looming and a Grand Opening scheduled days away, We fabricated the brick panels over the weekend on overtime and overnighted them to Milwaukee. It took the local sound contractor two days to put it up. 15 minutes after he was done cleaning up, the invited guests in their tuxedos began to arrive for the inaugural dinner.
The Grand Opening events went off perfectly. Arthur Noxon and Jim Logan breathed a huge sigh of relief, and the Miller Brewing people couldn’t believe how improved the Cave acoustics had become with such a minor footprint. The official re-opening of the Caves were recently featured on the local Milwaukee TV news.
More information about the Miller Caves: