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Alexandra Palace: London’s Oldest New Theater

by Thomas S. Friedman • in
  • April 2019
  • Installations
• Created: April 5, 2019

The restoration project abided by rules prohibiting changes to historically significant elements, including the stage itself.

Alexandra Palace is an iconic building with a history absolutely linked to the narrative of London and Londoners. After years of planning and construction, the original Alexandra Palace Theatre opened on May, 24, 1873, only to be destroyed by a fire 16 days later that also killed three staff members. Undaunted by the tragedy, the public vowed to rebuild and the Alexandra Palace was reborn in 1875 — just two years later as a grand Victorian public gesture — “the People’s Palace.”

HD Pro Audio’s Andy Huffer (left) with the Palace’s Steve Brookes.

‡‡         A Storied History

Since then, the complex story of the building — affectionately known as “Ally Pally” — was marked by another fire, vandals, removal of a large balcony seating area, substantial war-time damage, conversion to a BBC transmission center, a charitable rescue and many political sagas.

In 2012, the decision was made to restore the Palace to its former glory and, with grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the London Borough of Haringey, work on the ambitious project to turn the crumbling space into a state of the art working theatre began in 2016.

In December 2018, after 80 years of slumber and two years of careful restoration, the Alexandra Palace Theatre has opened again. As part of the process, a complete technical infrastructure had to be installed, including a substantial sound system upgrade that brings a fitting quality of sound to the beautifully reborn venue.

The Alexandra Palace Theatre itself is part of the building’s East Wing. It had an original capacity of 3,000 and the stage was a marvel of Victorian engineering, incorporating a variety of innovative stage machinery. The BBC leased the Palace in 1935 and the theater went unused until performances started again in 2004, in a limited way, though it wasn’t until 2012 that the Alexandra Palace and Park Trust contemplated a thorough restoration of the building, starting with the East Wing and the theater.

One of the people brought in to help the project through reconstruction and on to a healthy, 900-capacity commercial theater was Steve Brookes, now head of production and technical at the venue. His aim was to bring a full, modern production infrastructure to the space so that no company or touring production would hesitate to perform at the Palace, but at the same time to honor the heritage of the building.

“There were restrictions,” Brookes notes, regarding the historic nature of the building. “While the theater itself is Grade II listed, the stage is Grade I listed, meaning it cannot be demolished, extended, or altered without special permission. However, it had to be strengthened and is now supported with a scaffold structure. Then, it was a case of bringing in all the systems that we needed; P.A., lighting and trussing.”

Two hangs of nine L-Acoustics Karas are flanked by three SB18 subs, with two X15 HiQ as outfill providing coverage for the entire auditorium.

‡‡         The Audio System

“Before my arrival, there wasn’t any kind of production infrastructure at Alexandra Palace — the Great Hall, which hosts many concerts, is a receiving house and doesn’t require any permanent facilities,” Brookes explains. A DiGiCo SD12 and SD-Rack, along with an L-Acoustics loudspeaker system and Sennheiser microphones, were on the top of his list.

The audio system, based around a Kara line array enclosures and a new DiGiCo SD12 digital console, was supplied and installed by HD Pro Audio under the direction of the company’s Andy Huffer.

“Andy and the team at HD have been a huge help,” notes Brookes. “Although audio isn’t my main area of expertise I have always had a preference for L-Acoustics. Andy’s input has been invaluable, and I was pleased that we have been able to install an amazing system that works so well in this room.”

The P.A. system was designed in conjunction with L-Acoustics, settling on an optimum combination that worked both in terms of budget and coverage of the auditorium. The all L-Acoustics system comprises two hangs, each with nine Kara line array speakers, flanked by three SB18 subs, with two X15 HiQ as out fill. The system is powered by four LA4X and three LA12X amplified controllers, which are housed backstage in custom-built racks.

L-Acoustics’ P1 AVB processor — offering an EQ station, delay and dynamics processor — takes the FOH console inputs and links to the amplifiers via AVB. Unique on the market, the P1 combines front-end processing, audio bridging and signal distribution as well as system measurement and tuning in one convenient, solid package.

Onstage, seven L-Acoustics X12 speakers provide monitoring along with an SB18 subwoofer as a drum fill. All are run from two LA4Xs in a custom mobile rack.

A DiGiCo SD12 offered the perfect combination of flexibility and power with a compact footprint

‡‡         The FOH Perspective

“Audio isn’t my speciality, but I had heard a lot about the DiGiCo SD12. I conferred with my geekier friends, weighed up the pros and cons — price included — and the SD12 was the best fit,” Brookes explains. “Also, it’s on most riders and the majority of engineers are familiar with it, so anyone on this sort of circuit will be able to work with it easily, which is really important.”

The SD12 sits at the front of house position, which is in a gallery high up in the rear of the auditorium, and is connected to the SD-Rack via Optocore. It has proved such a hit that there are plans to add an SD11 as a monitor desk during the second round of procurement which, Brookes adds, is being selected for easy integration into the existing system. Its ultra-compact size will allow it to sit neatly next to the stage and its portability means the board can also double as a satellite desk in other areas around the site.

‡‡         Wrapping Up

“L-Acoustics did the final tuning of the system, which is perfectly balanced for the room,” Brookes says. “There isn’t the need for much EQ as we have the right placement and the right type of boxes. We have achieved complete coverage, with the main arrays pretty much doing the entire room, with six 5XT for lower SPL shows, or six X8 for louder shows, providing fill for the front few rows. This means there’s no need for additional, confusing sources.”

“It sounds beautiful in here,” adds Huffer, who also notes the advantages of the L-Acoustics brand to a theater when it comes to bookings: “Any rider you get coming through, they are first or second on everything, which means no one will say they don’t want to use it.”

“The key for incoming productions is to make it as attractive and as easy as possible for them. Having such flexibility that makes this a space people will want to hire, that’s the key thing for any incoming production wanting to come into these venues,” Brookes concludes. “If it’s nice and simple and you’ve got a box-ticking P.A., it makes the whole thing a lot easier. That’s what we were aiming for and, with the help of HD Pro and the equipment they have installed, we have certainly achieved it.”

 

Inside the Alexandra Palace Theatre

Built: 1865

Capacity: 900 seated; 1,300 mixed standing and seated

Key Components: L-Acoustics Kara line array; DiGiCo SD12 console

Audio Integrator: HD Pro Audio

Audio System Designer: Andy Huffer

Visit the Alexandra Palace at http://theatre.alexandrapalace.com.

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