There’s an old joke about the Royal Albert Hall, the venerable Victorian venue on the southern edge of London’s Hyde Park, that says it’s “the only place where a British composer could be sure of hearing his work twice”. In fact, the hall’s infamous echo – a consequence of its original glass roof – has been almost eradicated in the 148 years since it opened: first, by cladding the glass dome in fluted aluminium panels, and later with its famous disc-shaped fibreglass acoustic diffusers, known affectionately as the 'mushrooms', which were installed in 1969.
But jokes are not so easily extinguished, and when PSNEurope visits the hall in early April for the launch of its new £2 million d&b audiotechnik house system (the largest audio upgrade since the mushrooms), it isn’t long before the echo makes a reappearance.
“In the old days, they used to say you’d get value for money because you heard every concert twice,” says Royal Albert Hall (RAH) chief executive Craig Hassall, who gives a short welcome address before a demonstration of the d&b system. “The new system completely eliminates the echo."
Eliminates the echo it definitely does – and much more besides. Comprising 465 permanently installed loudspeakers (see box out) – the world’s largest single- room speaker install – the new set-up is nothing short of a revelation, with the main flown system augmented by circle, gallery and box speakers that ensure equal sound quality throughout the acoustically challenging 5,544-seat venue.
Hassall describes the d&b V-Series system, which is paired with Digico SD10 and SD7 mixing desks, as “democratising” the RAH’s sound by providing “access for all”, from the stalls right up to the upper gallery.
According to Hassall, the hall is the “world’s busiest venue” by number of events (a staggering 401 shows took place in its main auditorium last year, and more than 1,000 events in its secondary space, the Elgar Room), and, remarkably, AV partner SFL Group was able to carry out the install without closing the venue, by working overnight over the course of six months.
d&b audiotechnik’s Steve Jones praises the RAH team, as well as English Heritage, for giving d&b, SFL and acoustic consultant Sandy Brown – who created a 3D model of the hall that can also be used for further upgrades – the freedom to implement their “uncompromising” design, which involved drilling directly into the ceiling of the grade I-listed building.
“I’ve never worked on a project like it,” he comments. “Usually the first thing people say is, ‘I don’t want to see the speakers’, but we were allowed to design and put in a system where it has the most impact.”
Jones reckons the improvement is most noticeable in the circle, which sits above the boxes and below the gallery, describing how “the touring guys used to have to fire the audio from a distance, and you’d get this really mushy sound. It needed the most work, so it puts the biggest smile on my face [to hear the difference].”
In the venue’s 144 boxes, meanwhile, the front and rear speakers add reverb, so guests don’t feel like they’re sat in a “padded room”. Audio engineers have a choice of seven reverb levels, which can be tweaked to replicate different concert halls, such as the Großer Saal in Vienna.
With the RAH install, the sound team, Jones recalls, paid particular attention to getting speech right. “With a concert, the audiences know the music, so they know roughly what’s coming,” he explains. “But with spoken word you don’t know what’s going to be said next, so there has to be consistent sound for everyone.” (Hassall, an Australian, was effusive in his praise for the system’s skill in handling speech, joking that he “understood everything” when Clydebank-born comedian Kevin Bridges, who has a strong Scottish accent, gave a performance at the hall as part of the recent Teenage Cancer Trust shows.)
Speaking to PSNEurope after the launch, Jones asserts venues like the RAH aren’t alone in their pursuit of quality sound: According to him, d&b is increasingly dealing with artists directly, in addition to its usual noise- boy clientele.
“The creatives' connection to us as a manufacturer is getting closer and closer,” he states. “I’m now employing people in my technical support team for their creative element – people who can go and work alongside creatives instead of just the sound engineers. The landscape is changing.
“Technology is now available in sound systems that allows the creatives to not just play sound at the audience, but to immerse the audience in something much more creative and touchy-feely, if you like,” he continued. “We’re doing immersive sound, 360° sound, and object-based mixing technology, all really affecting the art that is being transferred to the audience creatively. Therefore, it’s natural that the creator of that art wants to delve in and make the choices.” Although d&b doesn’t seek artist endorsements, Jones continues, the likes of Kraftwerk and Imogen Heap are unofficial ambassadors for its Soundscape system, having used the immersive sound platform for recent tours. Festival clients, meanwhile, include UK event World of Music, Arts and Dance (Womad), where the company created a 900sqm (10,000sqft) marquee stage/arena, the d&b Soundscape Stage in 2018.
How does working directly with artists and events, PSNEurope wonders, differ from the traditional audio company–sound engineer relationship? “It’s a completely different language,” says Jones. “Rock’n’roll sound engineers are the most abrupt, in-your-face [people]: black T-shirt, ripped jeans, been drinking till late the night before...
“The creative world is a lot more flexible, with different terminology to describe a lot of the same stuff: you need a different vocabulary, a different view of the process of what we’re trying to do over what time period and in what way... It’s quite a different mindset. It’s a challenge to get into, but you just need the right people.”
Take-up by artists and concert promoters of the Albert Hall’s new d&b system has been “extraordinarily high”, confirms Hassell: around 96 per cent since it was completed last September. Hassall says he’s confident RAH hired the right people for its install, with the “groundbreaking” V-Series-based system laying its technological foundation. "This building will be here long after we're gone, so our job was to make sure we've futureproofed the next 150 years of sound delivery."
Jones reminds us that d&b’s ethos, both for the RAH and its other clients, is to deliver “democracy for listeners”. However, even with the new audio setup, audiences are to an extent “still at the mercy of the band and the engineers. If the artist is having a great night, and they’re playing a great show, with this system you can be confident you’ll be part of it."