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Massive Audio Makeover for London’s Royal Albert Hall

Thomas S. Friedman • InstallationsJune 2019 • June 17, 2019

The new system in the Royal Albert Hall is comprised of more than 450 d&b audiotechnik speakers. Photo by Andy Paradise

Built in 1871, the Royal Albert Hall is located just off Hyde Park in London’s fashionable South Kensington neighborhood and is one of the U.K.’s most cherished and famed buildings. Although breathtaking and lovely in scope, the 5,267-seat venue is acoustically difficult to work in and has long been in need of a modern sound system to provide world-class performance.

BBC Concert Orchestra with the Maida Vale Singers conducted by John Mauceri performing Danny Elfman’s Music from the Films of Tim Burton in the Royal Albert Hall.

‡‡         Issues and Answers

The venue’s acoustical issues are nothing new. In fact, the “now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall” line from the Beatles 1967 song “Day in the Life” was a whimsical reference, but it certainly could have applied to the difficult sound character of that storied venue. The building’s interior is a rounded oval, and three sides of the main floor audience are surrounded by 144 individually walled box seating compartments nestled within five tiers of seating divided by three hard balcony front edges. That alone would be problematic enough, but the high, rounded coved ceiling added to the chaos, with accompanying delays and persistent echoes.

Over the decades, numerous attempts at improving the Hall’s acoustics were attempted. The most notable of these was a massive overhead canvas velarium. In 1941, the Hall’s acoustics were modified again, this time by considerably lowering the fabric to reduce the room’s “ceiling height” and also by constructing a shell-style onstage orchestral reflector. In the post-war years, fluted perforated aluminum panels were installed in place of the hall’s original glass dome, which solved certain issues while creating others.

The first serious stab at fixing the Royal Albert Hall came in 1969, when 135 curved acoustical diffusors (known as “mushrooms”) were suspended, a solution proposed by Ken Shearer of the Acoustical Investigation and Research Organization. The front of each mushroom was reflective, while the concave rear surface of each was fitted with absorptive fiberglass wool. Although this did not completely solve the Hall’s sonic issues, it greatly reduced the annoying slap echoes.

Acoustical analysis tools had greatly progressed by the late 1990s, and Peutz Group, based in the Netherlands, came in to take a fresh look at the Royal Albert Hall. They recommended reducing the number of mushrooms from 135 to 85 and rearranging the placement of the remainder to yield more diffusion, resulting in a smoother, more even response throughout the venue — definitely improved, but not quite perfect.

Custom-colored d&b 4S speakers feed each of the more than 140 box seating compartments. Photo by Andy Paradise

‡‡         Back to the Present

“Previously, the audio experience often did not meet our high standards,” explains Ollie Jeffery, RAH’s head of production and technical. “We wanted to bring sound in-house with a properly implemented system and make it so good that the majority of productions would feel comfortable using it. Everyone who has ever played here wants to get it right; some audio teams would spend hours on the day taking speakers up and down, up and down, trying to achieve that end, but it was always a compromise. Our service providers weren’t doing anything wrong — but the challenge of delivering world class audio within the demanding geometry of the room could only be met with a different approach to the goal.”

In a massive £2 million (about $2.6 million) project that began 18 months ago, U.K.-based SFL (Sound Foundation Ltd.) installed a new permanent sound system for the RAH with more than 450 d&b audiotechnik loudspeakers. The job ranks among the world’s largest single-room audio system installations and includes the venue’s first-ever Circle, Gallery and Box loudspeakers. Installing this game-changing system at the world’s busiest venue in its busiest year, with no interruption to its schedule, was no small task.

“The RAH is an incredible building and it is a privilege to work in, but it’s constantly throwing new challenges at you,” recalls SFL project manager Pat Smith. “It’s a product of a different architectural era: beams that go one way on the
original architectural drawings go another way in real life; there isn’t always a lot consistency throughout the building, so you never quite know what you’re going to find. For the speakers in the box seating, we had to lift floorboards in every box on the Grand and Second tiers, lifting ornate and delicate carpet with the knowledge that, if it was damaged, we would have to replace the whole lot. We’re pretty sure that, at times, we were working in areas that haven’t been disturbed since the venue was first built. That was a profound realization and a lot of responsibility. At one stage, we even discovered an antique beer bottle (now in the RAH archives) that must have been left by the original construction workers.”

There were other complications as well. “Every aspect of the installation had to be subject to heritage approval and finished in a way that was cosmetically invisible,” Smith explains. “For example, as you make your way round the circle corridor, even RAH staff who have spent years in the venue failed to notice the new amplifier cupboards that were installed to service the speakers in the boxes. The trick is always in the detail and Adrian’s [Adrian Eves, carpentry] team did an incredible job of making sure that everything ties in naturally to the original features. It’s truly impressive.”

The venue’s Gallery speakers are an interesting example of adapting to a difficult situation. Here, SFL worked closely with system designer Steve Jones (from d&b’s application support team) and the RAH staff. “Steve is a great system designer to work with and always brings an innovative approach. He really thought outside the box, ensuring that the unique opportunities available on a permanent installation weren’t missed,” Smith continues. “However, he also pushed us hard throughout the project, challenging us to deliver a solution with absolutely minimal compromise. For the Gallery, Steve wanted to float a loudspeaker in front of each Gallery bay, in a location where there was no existing rigging position. By way of a small miracle we got heritage approval to create 23 new penetrations in the ceiling. We worked with (Northhampton-based) Unusual Rigging, who managed to suspend a small access platform from a concealed RSJ [Rolled Steel Joist] that was fortunately in almost the perfect location so that we could get to the underside and drill in the desired place.”

On April 7, the 2019 Olivier Awards, celebrating the finest performances in British theater, served as official launch for the hall’s new system, although the P.A. had actually been operational for some months and was used on a number of prior events. So far, the reactions to the system have been overwhelmingly positive, providing exceptional coverage and flexibility, significantly enhancing the overall listening experience inside the auditorium.

The ceiling is treated with 85 overhead “mushroom” acoustical diffusors. Photo by Colin

‡‡         System Details

Jones explains the approach. “The room and the system is split vertically into three levels. You could just put in a very long line array and cover the whole thing vertically, but you suffer — as many have discovered in the past — from over-exciting parts of the room you don’t want to. Instead, through rigorous modeling, we secured speaker locations for all three sets, allowing for coverage, imaging, level and control. The separation of the three levels has worked so well that you can sit in the stalls mixing a show and barely notice if you mute the gallery and circle when the system is balanced in terms of level. To add icing on the cake, we use d&b’s DS100 signal engine, with its cross-point delay ability, to separately matrix the left, right and vocal channels to the front fills, circle and gallery, providing incredible timing and clarity to all areas of the hall.”

The mains system is comprised of left, center and right hangs, each with nine d&b V8 and three V12 line arrays. Left and right outfills each have hangs of eight V8s. Four of d&b’s triple-21 cardioid SL-SUBs are flown with two more on the ground. Circle delays have seven hangs of six d&b Y8s; the gallery system has 23 d&b Ti10Ps. Front fills can be varied depending on any event’s needs and include d&b 16C column (used horizontally) and d&b Y10P speakers. Floor side and choir fills include d&b 24C, Y10P and 16C units. To add detail and vocal intelligibility, each of the 144 boxes has compact, d&b 4S in custom colored enclosures as individual delay fill speakers and rear surrounds (for effects or immersion purposes). The project also involved the installation of new
audio facilities panels and a substantial audio data network to support the integration of the Hall’s new DiGiCo SD7 Quantum (with Waves DMI card) console at FOH and an SD10 at monitors — both supplied by London-based Autograph Sales. The digital audio transport infrastructure supports both a DiGiCo Optocore fiber loop and a redundant Dante Cat-6 Ethernet network, with a Cisco network backbone designed and configured by SFL. Amplifier control is via the DS100; all amplifiers are d&b — a selection of the installation-specific 10D and 30D, with D20 and D80 touring amps for the V-Series mains and subwoofers. Monitors include d&b M4 wedges, with E6 and E5 stage fills.

Among the shows held prior to the system’s official unveiling was the Teenage Cancer Trust fundraiser, which featured Doves (shown here) along with Rudimental, Take That and others.

‡‡         Success… At Last!

SFL installed more loudspeakers in six months at the RAH than it typically would in a several years of installs. “It was a huge effort by the team,” Smith concludes. “Everyone across the company played a role in making this happen, with over 40 members of our team directly contributing to works on site. Almost all the works had to be completed overnight, with public and client areas completely clear without any sign of the ongoing installation between shifts. And 2018 was the Hall’s busiest ever year, with over 300 events hosted without disruption during the project.”

For touring production managers and sound crews, the logistical headache of reconfiguring touring audio arena systems for the idiosyncrasies of the RAH is a thing of the past. “This is the biggest improvement to what our audiences hear since the mushrooms went in during the 1960s,” concludes Jeffery. “Everyone is using it — orchestral, pop, rock ‘n’ roll. And we expect that uptake to increase. We already have things in place to carry this system into the future as that demand and expectation arises.”

“Kylie Minogue, Take That, Frank Sinatra… are just some of the incredible artists who have played the hall, and like them, the hall constantly has to challenge perceptions and reinvent itself for modern audiences,” said RAH chief executive Craig Hassall. “This investment is about more than updating the sound system. It’s about future-proofing the building as we approach our 150th anniversary in 2021, so that it’s fit for another 150 years.”

Royal Albert Hall — Audio Gear

Detail of the LCR mains, each with nine d&b V8, three V12 and four flown (plus two ground) d&b SL-SUB cardioid subs. Each side hang has eight V8’s. Photo: Andy Paradise

P.A. GEAR

Mains: LCR hangs, each with (9) d&b audiotechnik V8 and (3) d&b V12

Outfills: Left/right hangs each with (8) d&b V8

Circle Delays: Seven hangs of (6) d&b Y8

Gallery System: (23) d&b Ti10P

Choir Stalls: Left/right hangs each with (4) d&b Y8

Subwoofers: (6) triple-21 d&b SL-SUBs — four flown/two ground

Front Fills: d&b 16C column (laid horizontally), d&b Y10P

Floor Side Fills: d&b 24C, d&b Y10P

Choir Front Fills: d&b 16C column

Box Delay Fills: (144) d&b 4C delays in front; plus 4C’s used as rear surrounds in each

Amplification: d&b 10D/D20/30D/D80

 

FOH GEAR

FOH Console: DiGiCo SD7 (Quantum) with Waves DMI Card
Networking: DiGiCo OptoCore Loop via fibre; redundant Dante network over Ethernet; Cisco network backbone

System Drive: d&b DS100 Signal Engine/DS10 Audio Network Bridges and main system elements under d&b Array Processing

 

MON GEAR

Monitor Console: DiGiCo SD10 with Waves upgrade kit

Stage Racks: (2) DiGiCo SD Racks, (2) SD-Mini Racks, DiGiCo Orange Box

Monitors: (8) d&b M4 wedges; (8) d&b E6 and (8) E5 stage fills

Wireless IEM: (8) Stereo channels of Shure PSM1000

RF Mics: (2) Shure Axient Digital AD4Q 4-ch receivers with (8) ADX2 handhelds, (8) ADX1 bodypacks

Hardwired Mics: AKG, Audix, beyerdynamic, DPA, Neumann, Sennheiser, Shure

D.I. Boxes: (12) Radial Engineering J48

 

The Royal Albert Hall has been a London landmark since 1871. Photo by David Iliff

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