SAN DIEGO — The San Diego Sports Arena has played host to some of the biggest names in rock music: Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Bob Seger, the Grateful Dead, Jackson Browne, John Cougar Mellencamp, Stevie Wonder and Neil Diamond. Locally, it has long had the reputation of booking some of the best acts in the business. But, its critics say, it's a good news-bad news proposition.
The bad news? It may be one of the worst arenas in the country for hearing music, according to Rudy Paolini, an architect and the senior vice president of Wagner-Hohns-Inglis Inc., a firm based in Pasadena, not far from the Rose Bowl.
To put it mildly, Paolini said, the acoustics at the Sports Arena are woeful--not much better than those in a big tin can. (Ironically, the ceiling--the big offender--is made of corrugated metal.)
Paolini's opinion counts not just because he's an opera buff with a trained ear. He once drove to the Sports Arena to hear his favorite tenor, Luciano Pavarotti, who brought in his own high-priced sound system to try to override the bad acoustics.
That's why John Cougar Mellencamp may have sounded clearer and more resonant in his recent San Diego appearance than Bob Dylan did in his. Paolini said some groups are able to compensate for bad acoustics with elaborate sound systems and state-of-the-art road-show engineers. But they are clearly in the minority. Fans, meanwhile, often leave Sports Arena shows with the look of having seen and heard a mixed blessing.
Paolini's opinion matters a lot--he's recently been hired to thoroughly revamp the arena's acoustics at a cost of $400,000.
He said the good news is it can be done--the arena is capable of approaching concert-hall quality. At the least, he predicted, its sound will be radically improved.
Come March 1, Paolini said, the Sports Arena will be one of the best in the country for hearing live music--whether it's Pavarotti or the punkish Pretenders or the Bolshoi Ballet (which has expressed interest in coming provided the sound gets better). Construction, expected to take eight days, begins in February.
Word of Paolini's project is now rumbling through the music world. Sports Arena officials have a large ad scheduled to run in the program for the upcoming Grammy Awards.
"We Just Broke the Sound Barrier," the ad announces in bold black letters.
"There's nothing better than playing in front of (a capacity of) 15,000," the copy reads. "Unless the quality of sound is something no one wants to hear."
Paolini thinks he can change that. He said "on paper" the project is already a huge success.
"The sky's the limit," said Sports Arena President Vin Ciruzzi, sounding the optimistic note on expected new acts. "We'd even love to have the symphony play here, provided they can work out their problems. We could have any orchestra play here."
Phil Quinn, longtime manager of the Sports Arena, said the Spectrum, a large sports arena in Philadelphia, recently was host to an operatic production of "Aida," complete with camels and elephants. He's hopeful his building can do the same.
The Sports Arena lacks a major-league sports franchise in basketball or hockey, its original uses. Ciruzzi said that behind-the-scenes efforts are being made to lure clubs from both the National Basketball Assn. and National Hockey League. Even so, such a tenant could be years in coming.
In the meantime, the San Diego Sockers, a professional soccer team, and the men's basketball team from San Diego State University are primary tenants. Those evenings, combined with rock shows (now the major renters), produce about 180 dates a year.
"That's a lot of dark nights," Quinn said. "We've got to do better."
They hope to make up the difference with even more rock acts--which bring in more money than sports teams, Quinn said--while also appealing to symphonies, ballets, even operas. Quinn and Ciruzzi turned to Paolini for help when they realized they needed a quick acoustical fix.
For $2 million, Paolini's company--which is primarily involved in construction claims litigation, as expert witnesses--oversaw a recent complete refurbishing of the building. The work included repairs to the roof, installation of new seats, repainting of the entire structure, as well as numerous minor considerations.
Hearing of the acoustical woes, Paolini drove down for the Neil Diamond show to "scope out" the problem. He was horrified.
"I couldn't stand it," he said. "I'd never heard anything worse."
He didn't mean the quality of the presentation--merely its acoustical embellishment.
For assistance, Paolini brought in a recognized genius in the field, Michael Klasco, an acoustical engineer and the president of his own company, Menlo Scientific of Berkeley.