Review: Royal Albert Hall sound system upgrade

posted on Wednesday, 3rd April 2019 by Steve May

Pro AV  Concert Hall  Entertainment 

London’s iconic Royal Albert Hall has completed what it describes as the world’s largest loudspeaker install in a single room. In total, 465 individual speakers, both large and small, have been installed.

The upgrade is hailed as the biggest improvement in sound the auditorium has seen since its famous fibre-glass mushrooms were installed in 1969.

Prior to undertaking the massive install, a full IR acoustic model of the hall was completed by leading acousticians Sandy Brown. This enabled the engineers from hardware supplier D&B Audiotechnik to work out just how the system would sound, prior to running cables (and there’s 15,291 meters of cable!).

For the first time, visitors to the Royal Albert Hall will benefit from dedicated Circle, Gallery and Box speakers, dedicated to bringing performance sound closer to all seats. The new speaker configuration raises the subjective level, combats the venue’s infamous reflections and reverb, and improves tone and clarity for every seat in the house.

The project cost just over £2 million and took 693 days of labour, during 28 weeks of overnight installation works.

Remarkably, the ambitious install was carried out without disturbing any of the venue’s scheduled events, by technical production services company SFL. By working at night, the SFL team avoided disrupting 327 shows during the project.

As a Grade 1 listed building, the new sound system required special building consent, in order not to disturb or change the Victorian venue.

The install involved 15,291m of new cabling, including 54km of individual loudspeaker cable cores and 14,640m of fibre core, in addition to 3,900m of Cat6.

The new loudspeaker installation comprises three forward facing main arrays, one flown sub array, one floor subsystem, two fill arrays, two choir fill array, 7 circle delay arrays and 23 gallery fills. For the first time there are also small front and rear speakers in all 144 boxes.

“This investment is about more than just updating the sound system, it’s about future-proofing the building as we approach our 150th anniversary in 2021,” says Chief Executive Craig Hassall.

The venue is famous for offering visitors a mix of eclectic events, from pop and rock to classical and cinematic.

“The cinema showings were particularly difficult, as the reverb in the hall often made the dialogue unintelligible,” we were told. It’s the reason why movies are screened with subtitles in the venue. “But since the upgrade, dialogue is completely clear.”

Royal Albert Hall

Inside CI toured the venue to check out the new sound system. The seven new hanging loudspeaker arrays have completely transformed the audio quality for those in the Circle - indeed, one insider suggested that was now the best place, at least sonically, to enjoy an event.

The upper Gallery, once characterized by profound echo, now sounds much cleaner. Yet more work is going on here, with the addition of drapes planned for the summer. These will be closed during classical recitals, and open during rock and pop gigs.

Perhaps the cleverest upgrade can be found in the Boxes. The addition of discreet front and rear speakers has improved the openness of the sound in these seats. The speakers carry only high frequency detail and ambiance (they don’t run full range, else they would be localisable), and effectively open the space up.

Engineers have the option of using the acoustic profile of up to seven other world class venues (measured by the Royal Albert Hall) to tailor the sound inside the Boxes. This DSP wizardry is now part of the sound engineer’s toolbox, and is used with discretion.

“The Royal Albert Hall presents a sound system designer with some of the most unique geometry in the world,” explains Steve Jone of D&B Audiotechnik. “It was essential that the final audio system design delivered a significant improvement to the amplified sound in this venue. Using the latest 3D modelling and simulation techniques we were able to pinpoint exactly how where and what speakers we needed to install maximising the clarity, intelligibility and musicality that the audience expect. Audiences can now expect a level of audio quality and consistency across all seats which was never before achievable.”

The Royal Albert Hall has always been a memorable venue for visitors, thanks to its amazing atmosphere, but now it can also claim to be amongst one of the best sounding concert spaces in the world.

A bit about SFL...

Supplier of technical production services and products in the event and entertainment industry. A partner of The Royal Albert Hall.

SFL

Unit 5, Headley Park 10

Headley Road East

Reading

RG5 4SW

Tel: 0118 969 0900

Website: http://www.sfl.live

Steve May

Inside CI Editor Steve May is a freelance technology journalist, who also writes for T3, TechRadar, Home Cinema Choice and ERT (amongst others).

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