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Theatre audio: creating perfect sound in 100-year-old buildings

Phil Ward investigates new layers of audio reinforcement for the theatre and discovers the latest trends in audio tech…

Let’s hear it for Frank Matcham. Between around 1880 and 1914 he designed, redesigned or refurbished something like 175 theatres across Britain, most of which have come down to us as iconic landmarks, cultural treasures... and acoustical nightmares. 
Working for Moss Empires, he gave us London’s A-list of period venues, including The Hippodrome, The Hackney Empire, The London Coliseum, The London Palladium and The Victoria Palace – all built between 1900 and 1911. For the provincial credentials, just consider The Tower Ballroom, Blackpool. Nothing Victorian or Edwardian, it seems, escaped his attentions.

Despite a hundred years of gradual – very gradual – improvement in acoustic design since those heady days of stunts and stucco, this is the hinterland of auditoriums awaiting the modern production as the industry dovetails itself in and out of them. And there seems to have been a figure like Frank Matcham for every country across Europe, meaning you can’t expect sleek Scandinavian ergonomics just because you’re no longer in Prince Albert’s backyard.

Column inches

Dealing with these spaces demands inch-perfect reinforcement, and the rental-installation sector has seized upon truly sophisticated measures only in the last few years.
It’s about to get even more sophisticated, and there may even be a fusion of column arrays and ‘immersivity’ that will change the game completely. But first, let’s find out what an old technology reinvented for the digital age is doing to tackle the nooks and crannies that older systems failed to reach.

Jamie Gosney is an audio system designer with Stage Electrics, the UK-wide specialist installer offering sound system design for every kind of live performance space – not least theatre. For him, the Matcham paradigm is bread and butter, with a side order of knowing your onions.

“We’re currently working on a classic old Victorian theatre designed by Frank Matcham, which is a No.1 touring house but they do their own productions as well,” Gosney tells PSNEurope. “The system has to cover every level of the auditorium – stalls, balcony, grand circle, dress circle – for these productions, while allowing for the fact that a touring company will always bring in their own system. It almost has to fit into the fabric of the building so it can’t be seen, blending in with the architecture as it should do – that’s a really important criterion for me.

“It also has to cater for comedy, jazz, drama and all the amateur musicals they put on each year, which means a full system able to cope with a typical theatre orchestra. There’s a number of good products out there right now, but I’ve favoured the K-Array: it’s very discreet, really good quality… not cheap, but it does the job in hand very well. It’s powerful, and the vertical dispersion from the column is very narrow – you’re able to direct it where it needs to be and keep it off hard surfaces like the front of the balcony.”

He continues: “Equally importantly, it fits into the fabric of the building architecturally and when a touring company comes in the theatre does not have to take it down. It really is a permanent installation, meaning it’s set up and tuned properly. There are certain systems you can install that might appear to do the touring jobs as well, but when the tours turn up they expect you to take it down in favour of what they have on board – even if it’s exactly the same system! Literally, I saw this happening recently at a theatre that had the same subs as were on the truck – but we were still obliged to swap them over.”

Gosney can’t explain the politics behind this, but he is confident that for most purposes his new systems are keeping the customer very satisfied.

“We’ve done The Bristol Hippodrome, The King’s Theatre in Glasgow and The Edinburgh Playhouse, and they’re all permanently installed theatre systems designed for whatever production they need to throw at it,” he explains. “We’re being asked to take down traditional theatre systems and remove all the black boxes – point source loudspeakers mounted on the prosceniums – and replace them with small, discreet columns very often covered in an acoustically transparent material that matches their housing. You actually can’t see them unless you look really closely. It’s a process we’re often being asked to do these days, and once they’re in, the reaction is always positive: it sounds great, you can’t see it – and you don’t have to take it down because it’s in someone else’s way!”

With or without a big touring system muscling in, this generation of theatre sound upgrade is essentially a switch from point source to line array.

“Inside these column speakers, like K-Array,” says Gosney, “is a line array in the purest sense: the ones we’re using at the moment are...

Read the whole story here: https://www.psneurope.com/installation/theatre-audio-creating-perfect-sound

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