It’s not uncommon at a Bob Dylan concert to have to guess which song he’s singing. Fans seated in the upper decks for the inaugural Metrodome concert in 1986, however, also had trouble recognizing tunes by the show’s other acts, the Grateful Dead and Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers.

How bad were the acoustics at what should’ve been a landmark concert in Minnesota history?

So bad, many fans walked out mid-show looking for refunds. So bad, Deadheads didn’t even want bootlegs of their favorite band’s set. So bad, the commission that ran the Dome hired sound specialists from Minneapolis’s renowned Orfield Labs in the aftermath to try to fix the problem.

“It was really a disaster, and the place never really got over the bad reputation,” said lab founder Steve Orfield, who would go on to craft a guidebook for sound engineers on the best ways to amplify Dome concerts. It helped, but acoustics there were forever problematic.

As U.S. Bank Stadium prepares for its first two concerts — Luke Bryan on Friday and Metallica on Saturday — Minnesota music fans’ bad memories of the football stadium that came before it are still reverberating.

Surely, the new $1.1 billion stadium has to sound better for concerts, right?

(Insert echoing “Right? Right? Right? …”)

Officials at U.S. Bank Stadium say they have invested ample resources into guaranteeing the concerts there offer top-quality audio and better production overall.

“We definitely had the multiuse purpose of the stadium in mind from the very beginning, and in particular put a lot of thought into concerts here,” said Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority Chairwoman Michele Kelm-Helgen.

Acoustic testing on the stadium’s design was done even before construction began, Kelm-Helgen said, and has continued in earnest over the past month.

The challenges are clear (literally): More than half of the new stadium’s roof is made up of see-through ETFE panels to let in sunlight, which could not be covered with acoustic treatments like the other half of the roof. There’s glass on both ends of the stadium, too, which is bad for sonic bounce. Also, the venue is boxlike in shape, with a lot of sharp corners that could add to the echoes.

Kelm-Helgen said the designers compensated for those sonic challenges with a top-of-the-line, angled in-house speaker system and other acoustic treatments around the room to lessen the sonic bounce. Giant curtains also will be placed behind the stage for these concerts, covering up the largest portion of glass on the west side of the stadium.

“It wasn’t and couldn’t be designed to be a perfect concert venue, but as NFL stadiums go, it’s going to be one of the better ones for concerts,” pledged the stadium’s lead architect, John Hutchings of Dallas-based HKS Inc.

HKS also designed the replacement for the Dallas Cowboys’ notoriously echoey Texas Stadium. The behemoth AT&T Stadium has been relatively well-received as a concert venue. As with concerts there, he said his firm’s acoustic experts have been in contact with Metallica’s and Bryan’s sound engineers and will work with them next weekend.

“That helps a lot,” Hutchings said.

Added Kelm-Helgen, “We’ve come a long way from the Metrodome.”

Sound objections

The acoustic scientist hired to make the Dome into a workable concert venue, however, is not so optimistic about the new stadium sounding much better.

“To me, it looks like the architect had a dream, but did not have acoustics in mind at all,” said Orfield. He is particularly concerned about the large amount of glass and the angular roof: “It looks like there’s a lot of potential for a lot of nasty reverberation.”

Jeff Marcovis, an experienced sound engineer who heard Jennifer Hudson and Mint Condition perform at last month’s Purple Gala, isn’t singing the design’s praises either.

“On the field, the sound was great, but on the concourse level it sounded like a reverberant acid trip,” said Marcovis, an engineer/producer at Minneapolis’ Hideaway Studio and a musician. He likened the stadium to “a massive echo chamber.”

Building expectations

In the 13 years since concerts finally stopped coming to the Metrodome, stadiums have earned a better reputation as music venues in Minnesota, thanks to well-received shows at the Gophers’ TCF Bank Stadium and the Twins’ Target Field.

A key difference between those two venues and the new mega­stadium: U.S. Bank has a roof, which adds greatly to the acoustic bounce in any venue, as do side walls leading up to the ceiling. Human bodies help absorb sound and soften the bouncing acoustics at the Gophers and Twins stadiums, where seats go all the way up to the top.

Orfield said one of U.S. Bank Stadium’s most prominent features, the five giant glass doors, could help if they are kept open during concerts. However, those doors will be closed and behind the stage for at least these first two concerts.

Thanks to Orfield’s guidance after Dylan and the Dead, some of the Dome shows sounded better, including Pink Floyd and Paul McCartney, who brought along top-of-the-line sound engineers. But sound problems persisted up to the final concert there in 2003.

That last Dome show was headlined by none other than Metallica.

Not only was sound an issue at Metallica’s 2003 show, but the band’s arsenal of pyrotechnics shot up toward the Dome’s dingy old fabric roof, seemingly one stray firework away from going up in flames.

“This has to be an improvement over that place,” said Daniel Boron, of Oakdale, who was at that concert. Two weeks ago he went to the opening soccer match at the new stadium. “It’s impressive,” he said, “but we’ll have to wait and see how it sounds for a concert.”

While he’s not a Luke Bryan fan, country music lover Tom Lindsey of St. Paul said at the soccer game that he’s optimistic about attending a concert at the new stadium in the coming years.

“They can do a lot to make the acoustics decent in a place like this nowadays,” Lindsey said. “They’ll always be a little off in a place this big, but it’s not like we’re going to see a piano concerto.”

A lot of the responsibility for making concerts sound good comes down to the artists’ own sound engineers. Even bands with experienced crews usually lower their expectations the bigger the room gets.

“Stadiums are built for sports,” Kiss frontman Paul Stanley said when he was in town for a recent charity concert. “It would be pretty impossible to compromise sports venues to make them acoustically effective. [At concerts], all you hope for is volume. Fidelity is not something you can put in the equation.”

Veteran concert promoter Randy Levy of Rose Presents — who accusatorily called himself “the guy who booked that Dylan and Dead show” in 1986 — believes the new stadium will be a vast improvement on its predecessor.

“The Dome was built as cheaply as possible with no thought for concerts or acoustics,” Levy said. “Now, concerts are a big part of the modern stadium package. I’m sure they studied the acoustics and considered [band] load-in areas, how to get power to the stage and everything else that comes with major concerts.”

Of course, there is only one way to know how well the big new Vikings palace sounds for concerts. Let’s hope we don’t have to ask for a refund.

 

Jon Bream contributed to this report.