What is wrong with London's concert halls

Sir Simon Rattle is to join the London Symphony Orchestra in 2017, and has been doing some strong lobbying to get a new concert hall in London. What is wrong with the current venues? And is it worth £100-200 million to build a new one?

Symphony Hall Birmingham

Simon Rattle has been lucky to have been resident in two high quality concert halls. Pictured above is Symphony Hall in Birmingham, which was opened in 1991. The acoustic design was done by the late Russell Johnson and is often quoted as having the best acoustics in the UK. Unlike most large concert halls, this was not a one-off design created by a starchitect. This is one from a small family of halls around the world with a similar design based around the traditional shoebox shape, with each newer hall being a refined and improved version. The first was in Dallas and the last in Lucerne. This gradual refinement meant that Lucerne is often seen as one of the best auditoria in the world rivalling the best classical halls.

Photo: trevor.patt, Flickr

At the moment, Sir Simon is conducting in the iconic Berlin Philharmonie. Opened in 1963, this was the first example of ‘music in the round’ for large classical venues. As the architect Hans Scharoun described, ‘The orchestra and conductor stand spatially and optically in the very middle of things; if not at the mathematical centre then certainly completely enveloped by their audience’. To accommodate this radical idea, the acoustic designer Lothar Cremer broke the audience into blocks now known as vineyard terracing.
While undoubtedly a landmark hall, the acoustics of the space still divides opinion because a third of the audience are behind the orchestra. For instruments that predominately radiate their sound forward, such as a singer’s voice, the balance of the sound is wrong, although for some this is compensated for by being able to watch the conductor’s face. (You can here sound samples illustrating this point in this Radio 4 documentary). Abner was not a fan, writing in The Architect he observed, ‘The logic of Scharoun’s music in the round leads us to trumpets, for instance, with four bells pointing to all quarters of the compass and to singers with mouths in the back as well as the front of their heads.  Alternatively, I suppose it leads us to people like Stockhausen, whose music breaks out like a civil disturbance all over the place.’

How do the three major large venues in London, The Barbican, Royal Festival Hall and the Royal Albert Hall compare to Birmingham and Berlin? Unfortunately, from a purely acoustic standpoint, the London halls all have flaws.

Royal Albert Hall

The Royal Albert Hall, photo Yuichi from Morioka

The most famous architectural acoustician is Leo Beranek, who has produced a rank ordering of concert hall acoustics from around the world. Unfortunately, the vast Royal Albert Hall (RAH) is at the bottom of the list. Built in 1871, RAH pre-dates Wallace Clement Sabine’s pioneering work  applying modern scientific methods to room acoustics, so maybe the acoustic failings are understandable. Even with today’s extensive scientific knowledge of how sound behaves in rooms and is perceived by the listeners, no-one would attempt to make such a large hall for orchestral music.
While the orchestra is radiating music into the hall, at the same time the audience members and their clothing is causing this sound to be absorbed and removed. In a large hall, nearly all the sound absorption comes from the audience because the walls, ceiling and every other surface are made to reflect very efficiently. The only exception is the seating, which has to be padded to be comfortable, and so is designed to offer the same absorption properties whether someone is sat in the seat or not.

If there are too many audience members, then the orchestra has to play harder to get the sound impressively loud. But there is a limit to how loud an orchestra can play, and consequently there is a limit to how many people should be in the audience. A typical maximum number of people that can be accommodated before the acoustics suffer, allowing for modern comfortable seating, is around 2,200.
The Royal Albert Hall has over 5000 people in the audience. To get a loud enough sound in the hall, requires a huge orchestra, double the size normally used. Even if it could be made economic to use such a huge orchestra, the elliptical shape of the auditorium causes problems with focussing and there would still be insufficient surfaces reflecting sound quickly to the audience.

Despite being a space that, as Beranek puts it, ‘is much too large ever to be fully successful [as a concert hall],’ the Royal Albert Hall annually hosts the hugely popular BBC Proms, which is probably the largest classical musical festival in the World. I have been to a couple of Proms and enjoyed the concerts. Why? Although it pains me to admit it as an acoustic engineer, there is more to a concert than just the sound. Seeing a concert in the iconic hall is a great social event.

‘Mushroom’ diffusers in Royal Albert Hall. Photo Egghead06 (talk)

Ironically, the RAH probably has the most famous acoustic treatment of any auditorium. The mushrooms lit up in blue in the picture were designed in the 1960s to stop sound reaching the concave dome above. These stop most of the focussed, very long delayed echoes that otherwise happen. For example, without them, the Prince of Wales struggled with his opening speech in 1871:
‘The address was slowly and distinctly read by his royal Highness, but the reading was somewhat marred by an echo which seemed to be suddenly awoke from the organ or picture gallery, and repeated the words with a mocking emphasis which at another time would have been amusing.’

Royal Festival Hall

Photo Ungry Young Man

The Royal Festival Hall (RFH) in London was built as part of the Festival of Britain in 1951 using state-of-the-art acoustic science. Unfortunately, the figures available for how much an audience absorbs sound was wrong. The number used was about 60% of the true value. This explains why the RFH is often described as having an acoustic that is ‘too dry’, especially for bass instruments. Or as Simon Rattle put it slightly more bluntly, ‘The RFH is the worst major concert arena in Europe. The will to live slips away in the first half hour of rehearsal’. With 2900 seats, there are just too many people in the audience. Hope Bagenal, the original senior acoustic consultant for the hall, recommended removing 500 seats as a remedial measure to improve the acoustic. But this wasn’t done.

Back in the 60s, a revolutionary solution was sought, to use electronics to artificially enhance the acoustics. The assisted resonance system was a remarkable feat of engineering considering the crude electronics available. The use of artificial enhancement with classical music is so controversial that when the assisted resonance system was first installed it was brought in gradually without telling the orchestra, audience or conductors. Once the full system had been covertly used for eight concerts, the engineers then dared to reveal its presence.

The electronic enhancement was removed in 1998 and what is heard now is the natural acoustic. Extensive remodelling was undertaken from 2005-2007 that raised the reverberation time. The reverberation time is a measure of how long the sound lingers in a space once the orchestra stops playing and is a crucial indicator of acoustic quality. In the RFH, the sound still dies away a little too quickly for large symphonic works, but for chamber music and much modern music, the hall has a good sound.

The remodelling of the RFH has gone as far as is possible using the natural acoustics of the space. The best way to improve it further would be to reinstate a electronic enhancement system. Modern digital systems can sound wonderfully natural, and this could be done at a fraction of the cost of building a new hall.


The Barbican’s Hall, photo pam fray

Simon Rattle recently described the Barbican’s Hall as ‘serviceable‘, and that is probably a fair description of the acoustic quality both from scientific listening tests and from detailed measurements in the hall published in the literature. The ceiling is too low, a hangover from the space being originally conceived as a conference facility rather than an auditorium for classical music. Without sufficient volume, the sound in the hall dies away a little too quickly.
The other problem is the shape. The first few reflections to arrive at a listener are crucial to the quality of a hall. In a shoebox auditorium like Symphony Hall Birmingham, the first reflections off walls reach the listener from the side (see figure below). The music at both ears is then subtly different. It takes longer for each reflection to reach the furthest ear, and it is attenuated because the sound has to bend around the head. This gives the listener a sense of being more enveloped by sound, something that has been shown to significantly improve the music.

diagram Howard and Angus, Acoustics and Psychoacoustics

The Barbican is a fan-shape with splayed walls. Such a design naturally lacks wall reflections arriving from the side (see diagram below). In the Barbican, this has been partially compensated for by angled wooden panels placed in front of the side walls. But this can only ever be a partial solution to the problem.

Side wall reflections in a fan-shaped hall, diagram Howard and Angus, Acoustics and Psychoacoustics

The sad thing about the Barbican is that there was sufficient scientific knowledge in 1982 to avoid many of the problems. Maybe what was lacking was enough case studies where science ensured a good sounding hall to convince the architect that he should accept what the acoustic designers were saying.

A refit to the Barbican at the start of this century helped improve the acoustics. But like the Royal Festival Hall, there are fundamental issues in terms of size and shape that can not be solved with further tinkering. Like the RFH, however, a modern electronic system would be a good solution if only the classical music aficionados would accept it.

Does London need a new hall?

Undoubtedly, Simon Rattle and the LSO would sound better in a modern hall constructed following acoustic engineering. But is it worth the money? Is there evidence of soloists avoiding London? Is there a problem selling tickets? What do you think?

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0 responses to “What is wrong with London's concert halls”

  1. I believe the reluctance of the majority of the classical music community to accept any type of electronic assistance, whether it is based on a discreet acoustic enhancement system or high-quality reinforcement is naive and consistent with the genre’s unnecessarily ‘elitist’ image. There are those, such as the late Luciano Pavarotti, who have fully understood the need for the use of enhancement in order to convey their art to greater effect whatever the venue, whatever the acoustics, and in doing so have been able to perform to audiences far greater than the maximum 2,200.
    Sir Simon Rattle would do well to take a leaf from Pavarotti’s book – having once been responsible for the reinforcement (not amplification) at a major classical event in the Royal Albert Hall at which he was conducting, he insisted, despite advice to the contrary that I switched off the sound reinforcement system during his piece. Who am I to argue with Sir Simon Rattle? The result was crashingly disappointing in comparison to the rest of the event and did nothing but make his sound small, lacking in depth and presence and left the audience wondering what was going on.
    Modern economics dictate that any new hall to be built in London or anywhere else in the UK will never be used exclusively for classical music – KKL in Lucerne being a prime example. Surely the best policy would be to design a hall that has a well-controlled, balanced natural acoustic, and where digital electroacoustics, in whatever format, combined with flexible acoustic treatment form the basis for what the hall sounds like for any given genre.
    Is there a forum where architects, musicians, acousticians and sound system designers meet to exchange ideas? I don’t believe there is, but if Sir Simon is to be granted his wish, somebody needs to be there to make sure neither he or the architect run away it and we get a hall that everybody can benefit from.

    • Totally agree. Build a Concert Hall that is equipped for any genre or settle for all classical concerts worth listening to being performed at Symphony Hall in Birmingham.

  2. Thank you for this article ! I have been to a BBC Prom too and I experienced that acoustics wasn’t the best in the RAH. However, I agree on the fact that this is a amazing social event ! I have waited for hours to get Arena tickets and I didn’t regret being just in front of musicians !
    As a French however, I must admit that the recent Philharmonie de Paris and Maison de la Radio Auditorium sound much better 😉
    Corentin, from http://acoustics-in-the-us.com/

  3. Problem with London is the property prices are completely and utterly insane. Trying to make a 2400 person venue financially viable, especially when thinking about the financial viability of the resident orchestra, and the state of arts funding in the UK, it’s basically unthinkable.
    It’s likely that given another 15 years of development work in multinodal soundfields and how to manipulate them with various active metamaterials, then we’ll just be able to hang up a bunch of stuff in the Royal Albert Hall which will to a large extent render the large audience soundfield well isolated from the dome’s soundfield, allowing well controlled and relatively arbitrary control over reinforcement level.
    Purists will probably detest active noise control combined with reinforcement, especially for music which is supposed to be purely acoustic in nature, but certainly the idea of being able to have a small string orchestra play an enormous space is appealing, especially from the perspective of making the venues pay – there is always the issue of the ratio of performers to listeners being defined by the acoustic output of the instrument, which is fundamentally limited in scale. Using active reinforcement of various designs makes the actual productivity in terms of sound output of music commercially more viable. The issue with reinforcement is the quality, not the quantity (as with all other industrialised methods).
    The ideal for large scale classical music events employing active noise control to produce the required acoustic is, to my mind, a temporary structure built outdoors, with the reflective surfaces being a combination of active materials and passive materials.

  4. It’s a fascinating subject that I hadn’t thought much about. I fully understand the aversion to electronic reinforcement, and I know that I would certainly feel prejudiced against it in a classical performance – if I was told it was there.
    I could see myself accepting it in the case of overtly ‘electro-acoustic’ performances, and I think it would be a beautiful thing for smaller, less prestigious venues to have the option of switching on a better acoustic – without informing the audience, preferably. But when it comes to a major concert hall and orchestra, the thought that I am listening *directly* to the handiwork, not of skilled craftsmen with decades of wood shavings and brass filings in their fingernails, but technicians, gaffa tape, cable ties, polymer cones and MDF boxes… it makes me feel a bit queasy. Superficially it may be indistinguishable from a superbly-designed concert hall acoustic, but surely it could not truly simulate the acoustics of a real concert hall for every member of the audience in a way that was completely consistent. If so, then that knowledge would destroy my enjoyment of it.
    Also, somehow in my mind, such a calculated, direct folding back of the audio adds one layer too many of ‘contrivance’ to the performance.
    Yes, I would certainly struggle with this!

  5. I can only agree with the comment that there are not enough case studies to allow people to discern the difference between a full symphony orchestra and a chamber orchestra. Smaller quartets and others together with various choral groups come into this as well. Where do they perform? Is it a new-build or a conversion? How big is their audience? So many questions to be answered.

    • Birmingham has built the Bramall Music Building in 2013 which is perfect for a small chamber orchestra, cost £16m. Birmingham Conservatoire is building a new £60m concert hall that is to open in late 2017. There is no reason why London cannot build a small hall to seat 500 people. Symphony Hall Birmingham is to undergo a £10m transformation in the next year or so, a few refinements to make it sound better and look more contemporary.

  6. London…and any city with a symphony orchestra…needs a concert hall that has a live sound similar to the old Kingsway Hall sounded on all those Decca and EMI recordings from the 1960’s and 1970’s.

  7. Why on earth didn’t they rebuild the old Queens Hall exactly as it was, after it was bombed during the second world war??? …..typical of us not to do this.
    it was renowned for having superb acoustics, and rivalled Vienna’s Musicverein in this respect. Any other European country would have rebuilt the hall – but apparently it wasn’t deemed important enough, as many other public buildings, not to mention housing were destroyed aswell.
    I still think there was money available that could have been put aside. But we’ll never find out the real truth behind the decision not to rebuild it.
    Moving on, I agree that London does need a really top notch state-of-the-art Concert Hall that not only has the ‘wow factor’ visually, but crucially has superb acoustics to match. If such a hall could ever be built then I really think it could become one of the world’s great modern concert halls.
    But knowing how fast things move here, where anything ‘cultural’ is concerned, it’ll be at least 2030 before any new hall opens. In the meantime London has to make do with the vast and impressive (but barn like) RAH, and the minimalist and flat sounds projected from both the RFH and Barbican.
    The irony will be that by the time a new concert hall opens, Rattle will be bowing out of conducting. Let’s hope this doesn’t happen, and that he gets to conduct in the new hall, whenever it is going to be built.

  8. Unless it’s been taken out, Barbican has had an Acoustic Enhancement system for quite a while now. ACS. Also, it’s hugely important to draw a very wide distinction between sound reinforcement systems, which are about increasing direct-to-reverberant ratio while avoiding feedback, with Acoustic Enhancement systems, which work in the reverberant field and harness broadband feedback in ways more akin to the walls and ceiling of the architecture than to the speakers and mics of the SR system. In fact, both can co-exist and operate independently in the same space.

  9. Or simply get on the M1 and come up to Nottingham’s Royal Concert Hall, judged one of the best concert halls in Europe by, amongst others, Bryn Terfel and Mark Elder… Designed, like Brum’s Symphony Hall, by Russell Johnson et al, it offers warmth and clarity and beats all the London halls into a cocked hat – and gives Symphony Hall a run for its money too!

  10. I think Michael Browne has hit the nail on the head. The fact is a new concert hall can be built that will offer superb acoustics at a fraction of the cost of these overblown “starchitect” monsters like the Paris Philharmonie etc. It’s pure ego on behalf of politicians and architects (who demand insane fees) and totally unnecessary. Unfortunately I can see London following this trend just to keep up with this nonsense so it’s better to just shelve the idea altogether, the Barbican & RFH are nowhere near as bad as many critics would have us believe.

  11. Do nothing in London before seeing if electronic correction is successful in the existing three halls

  12. I live in Helsinki, we have a modern vineyard hall from 2013 with acoustics by Toyota. I and many others would gladly change it to Barbican. Because when you loose the smoothness and body of strings, you loose a lot.
    So beware of vineyards and toyotas!

  13. Hopefully when Croydon Council re-open the Fairfield Hall the LSO/Rattle can be persuaded to visit. Somewhat smaller version of the RFH but much warmer sound. (Also has the pipe organ lacking in the Barbican). Excellent transport connections back to central London.

  14. I just went to a concert in Birmingham, which has been getting so much lovely press here and elsewhere. There is certainly much to admire about the place, especially the general clarity of sound. It is also true, however, that there is a glare on much of the sound that reminds one of the worst days of early digital or florescent lights. Would carpet on the floors help a little? Symphony Hall in Boston uses judicious amounts, balanced against its austere seats. Maybe plaster walls, if they weren’t expensive fire-traps. All those metal pipes can’t be helping matters much.
    Some of the older, impractical halls often sound quite wonderful. There is Sanders Theater, at Harvard University. Originally made for unamplified lectures, you can see that in the BSO’s TV broadcasts from the 60s and before. The Sheldonian at Oxford likewise offers remarkably good quality for players and auditors. Jordan Hall in Boston (nearly 1,000 seats) is one of the world’s best, especially for smaller groups. Mechanics Hall in Worcester MA is magic to play in, once you forgive the lack of permanent stage and green room.
    The recommendation above to rebuild Queen’s Hall is an interesting one. You can detect some of its fabulous sound in the BBC/Toscanini recordings from the 30s. Maybe not the clinical “hearing a pin drop” that makes Birmingham proud, but the players are clearly being invited to deliver their best, and making the results heard and felt.

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