Rick Talaske has turned a fascination with sound into a thriving Oak Park business

It's music to his ears

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By John Rice

Contributing Reporter

The halls are alive with the sound of music, thanks to an innovative team of sonic experts from Oak Park. The Talaske Group, Inc. has its headquarters in the historic atrium building at 1033 South Blvd. For the past 23 years, Rick Talaske and his crew have crafted the acoustics and sound systems for concert venues from Winnipeg to Barbados. Their crowning achievement was designing the state-of-the-art system at Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park.

Another notable triumph was their design for Wentz Concert Hall, which opened at North Central College in 2008. The hall is so stunning visually and sonically that it has attracted top professional musicians to its stage. At a recent concert, world-renowned cellist Yo Yo Ma turned to the audience and said, "I love this hall."

That was music to Talaske's ears.

The Detroit native grew up during the heyday of Motown. His grandfather and father owned a music store but dad wanted Rick to become an engineer. Talaske started out in this direction, obtaining a bachelor's degree in Science and Engineering from the University of Michigan. But, as often happens, a significant part of his education occurred outside the classroom.

Talaske was sharing an apartment with some fellow audiophiles when they decided to pool their stereophonic assets. Each was assigned to contribute a quality component to the communal stereo system. Talaske chipped in an excellent turntable. The roommates found that their high-powered stereo was a social "drawing card." More importantly, it shifted Talaske's focus from engineering to the science of sound.

He earned a master's degree in Architectural Acoustics from Penn State University and spent eight years as an acoustic architect for a firm in Chicago. In 1988, he launched his own company and moved to 1033 South Blvd. in 2006. The building used to be home to a furrier. His conference room is located near a door that once led to a walk-in vault.

The building has another unique feature, courtesy of Talaske — a sound testing lab.

"It's a totally isolated space, constructed on Neoprene pads, so it doesn't shake when trains go by," Talaske said. It has curtains and rugs that can be removed to create more reverberation and a ceiling grid for suspending panels and hangers for loud speakers. Also hanging in the lab is a light fixture from a concert hall in Calgary. Talaske is testing it for rattling.

The Talaske Group is one of a handful of firms competing for prestigious projects locally and internationally. They helped shape the sound at Chicago's Symphony Center, Chicago Shakespeare Theater at Navy Pier and the Adler Planetarium. They designed the old performing space at the Old Town School of Music and are currently working on the school's new concert facility.

The group designed the sound for the new Arena Stage Theater in Washington, D.C., the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Ft. Lauderdale. Overseeing all of these far-flung projects keeps Talaske on an airplane 2-3 days a week.

The Pritzker Pavilion was one of the most challenging venues to tackle. Working with Architect Frank Gehry, Talaske faced the problem of providing a quality audio system for an outdoor concert space that holds 10,000 people. Many of these concertgoers would be lounging on the pavilion's spacious lawn.

"I knew the loud speakers had to be placed high," Talaske recalled, "but we were told there could be no visual obstructions." They toyed with idea of a perimeter sound system around the lawn but this wouldn't be adequate. Gehry then came up with his design for a cross-cross trellis over the great lawn. Talaske attached his speakers to the trellis, enveloping the lawn crowd in sound and drowning out some of Chicago's ambient noise.

They also designed the acoustics and sound system for the Pritzker's concert stage. "It's world-class," Talaske said, "excellent for the performers being able to hear on stage, a very microphone–friendly environment."

Every space Talaske undertakes has its unique challenges. The most difficult test is to design the acoustics and sound system for a multi-purpose facility.

"Designing for spoken word is very different than designing for musical performance," he said. "Clarity is important for both but music needs more reverberation." Talaske has extensive experience in meeting the dual-purpose challenge, as many of their designs are for music education facilities.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater presented its own problem. "The performers are 'moving targets.' Their words have to be distinct no matter which direction they're facing." Talaske had to find a way to "democratically distribute the sound" from the theater's thrust stage.

When it comes to testing a facility they've been contracted to renovate, "nothing beats attending a performance," Talaske said. He typically scatters team members to five different locations in the concert hall. They're equipped with computer-based acoustic measuring devices. "We measure the timing and strength of individual sound reflections to obtain the 'acoustic signature' of the room."

Later, when the space is empty, they "introduce impulses with loud speakers." Sound travels at a constant speed and reflects off surfaces. "The size and shape of the room, along with its materials determine the acoustic environment," Talaske said, "We determine what size, shape and materials are needed to design a 'path' that leads to favorable sound reflection."

During new construction, Talaske advises architects on features that will promote quality sound.

"Good architects," he said, "know acoustic success is fundamental to a building's success." This doesn't just apply to music venues and theaters, which make up 75 percent of Talaske's business. Good acoustics are also crucial in offices, conference rooms and churches.

Acoustic design is half the process of achieving good sound. The other half is audio design. Talaske's eight employees are divided into two teams: architecture and AV. Aaron Downey heads up the latter.

Downey got his professional start in middle school, when he operated the sound system for his church in Saginaw, Mich. He was returning some sound equipment to a supplier when the proprietor asked, "Hey kid, need a summer job?" As soon as Downey got his driver's license, he began traveling the state installing sound systems.

In 1996, he enrolled at Wheaton College, partly to study electrical engineering in partnership with the Illinois Institute of Technology. After graduating with degrees in Mathematics and Computer Science, he went on a world tour as the keyboardist for a band called The Continentals.

"For six months, we traveled to 48 states and 16 countries," Downey fondly recalled. "Being a touring artist helped me understand sound from both sides of the microphone." A classically trained pianist, Downey caught the "jazz virus" from The Continentals. Now when he plays a piece, he can't resist improvising.

Downey joined the Talaske Group in 1998. "This job is a dream come true," he said. "I live and breathe sound. The testing lab allows me to do real-life experiments." He admits that being "hands-on" in the lab beats sitting at his desk. Downey also appreciates the wide variety of projects they take on.

"Monday was a house of worship, Wednesday was a concert hall, and Friday was an education building," he said, describing a typical week. "They are very different clients with different needs. But I've been in their shoes. I have a good understanding of what to do but still have to be innovative."

Innovation is needed when budgetary concerns keep the client from achieving the sound quality they're seeking.

"If the money isn't there to solve the problem immediately," Downey said, "I still provide a wiring infrastructure for ultimate capacity." He has trusted contractors to install the wire and conduit and the most essential sound equipment. "That way they can add the bells and whistles later, without tearing holes in walls."

Video systems are a "different animal" altogether. "The formats are ever-changing," Downey said, "It's a lot to keep up with." This is why he chooses to simplify at home. "We're not cutting edge. All I want is a good sound and a good picture." As for his own musical tastes, "My iPod has everything from Bach to Lady Gaga."

The Talaske Group's work has many fans. Ramona Wis, chair of the Music Department at North Central College described Wentz Hall as a "wonderful addition" to their campus. "Everyone says they love the hall, pianists and vocalists alike. It's visually striking also."

One of the pianists who appreciates the Talaske touch is senior Liz Kelly. "I was absolutely floored when the hall opened my freshman year. It has provided so many amazing performing opportunities, as well as performances, that would not have been as special if it weren't for the sound that Wentz Hall provides. I love how full it can make a small group sound. Dr. Wis always tells us we don't have to sing so loud that we're straining our voices. That hall does a lot of work for us."

Reader Comments

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James Leonard from Oakbrook Terrace  

Posted: December 1st, 2011 8:50 PM

@ Jose....What a shame that you allowed a petty concern to stand in the way of knowledge. The article was well written, and highlighted the successes and backgrounds of the people that make the company a success. Perhaps you'll reconsider, and give it a read.

Jose from Oak Park  

Posted: November 30th, 2011 3:31 PM

The words thriving and Oak Park Business should never be used in the same sentence. Sorry, I din't even read the article. The headline seemed too implausable.

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