‘World’s Busiest Venue’ Gets World’s Biggest Single-Room Speaker Install

The Royal Albert Hall
Andy Paradise
– The Royal Albert Hall
Visitors will get used to the permanent speaker installation

The Royal Albert Hall in London, which sold 1.8 million tickets across some 1,500 events in 2018, invested £2.1 million ($2.8 million) in a brand-new sound system for its main 5,272-capacity auditorium. 
The Hall’s chief executive Craig Hassall and representatives from the companies involved – leading audio company d&b audiotechnik, digital sound engineering experts DiGiCo, acoustic consultants Sandy Brown and production supplier SFL – unveiled  the new system on Tuesday, April 2.
To clarify: the Royal Albert Hall sold 1.8 million tickets across 401 auditorium shows as well as more than 1,100 additional shows beyond the Hall’s main stage, taking place in surrounding spaces.
As far as the sheer amount of tickets is concerned, London’s O2 outsold the Royal Albert Hall in 2018, reporting record ticket sales of two million. Seeing, however, that it took the 21,000-capacity arena far less shows (209 performances) to reach that figure, Royal Albert Hall chief executive Craig Hassall took the liberty of crowning the Hall the world’s busiest venue at the unveiling. 
The new speaker installation comprises 465 individual speakers, which make it “the world’s largest single-room speaker installation,” according to Hassall. It’s the most significant improvement to the fabric of the Hall’s auditorium since the last acoustic upgrade 50 years ago, which consisted of hanging fiberglass acoustic diffusers, simply dubbed mushrooms, from the ceiling in order to tackle an unfortunate echo caused by the cove of the ceiling. 
The Royal Albert Hall
Andy Paradise
– The Royal Albert Hall
23 gallery fills will take care of the reverb on the Hall’s upper level

“In the old days they used to joke that you get value for money [at the Royal Albert Hall] because you hear every concert twice,” Hassall said.

The news speakers tackle sound issues in three of the Hall’s main areas in particular: the boxes, the circle right above them as well as the gallery, the top-most area from which to watch a show at the Royal Albert Hall. 
The Hall’s acoustics are ideal for classical concerts, especially on the gallery. During the BBC Proms people can be seen lying on the gallery floor, basking in the music, because the reverberation from the walls on the top level is so intense.
It’s an unwanted effect at amplified shows, though, which is why d&b audiotechnik installed 23 gallery fills that highlight certain aspects of the sound and compensate for the reverb just enough to make the echo disappear. This leads to a much clearer sound, which will be particularly noticeable during spoken word or movie screenings.
The front and rear speakers installed in all of the Hall’s 144 boxes achieve the opposite: they add reverb, so guests don’t feel like they’re sat in a padded cell. The Hall’s audio engineers have seven different reverbs to choose from, simulating different concert halls, from small to large, classical and modern, depending on the performance.
The collection of main arrays includes seven circle delay arrays that are hung from the ceiling and provide an even sound around the Hall’s circular auditorium. The goal was to make every seat in the building sound like the mix the audio engineer at any given show is hearing, so that his mix translates to every audience member everywhere in the room as clearly as possible.
d&b audiotechnik’s Steve Jones said the Royal Albert Hall had the hardest geometry of all the concert halls he’s worked on so far. “The fact that the circle is an actual circle. Normally it’s just a balcony. But this is a circle. The seats actually bend back on themselves, that’s a really hard thing for a sound system to cover.”
To figure out which speakers to use and where to install them, d&b consulted with Sandy Brown, leading consultants in acoustics, noise and vibration. They created a 3D model of the Hall, which will also serve to gage the impact of future changes made to the Hall’s sound system. As Hassall pointed out, the new system wasn’t the end of it. “It’s really just the start of the journey,” he said.
The Royal Albert Hall will be looking into drawings for the gallery next, which can be brought out for amplified shows and put away for the classical shows. The Hall celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2021, and according to Hassall, “this building will be here long after we’re gone. So our job now is to make sure we’re future proofing the next 150 years of sound delivery.”
Installing all of the 465 permanent loudspeakers took 693 man-days of labor, including six months of overnight installation works in order to leave the Hall’s schedule unaffected – a feat that cannot be underestimated given that 2018 was the Hall’s busiest year yet. Of the 401 shows hosted in the main auditorium last year, 327 took place during the installation.
The total cable mass utilised in the install is estimated to amount to four metric tons.
A 3D acoustic model of the Hall
– A 3D acoustic model of the Hall
Courtesy of acoustic consultants Sandy Brown

All involved in the project were pleasantly surprised that English Heritage the UK charity managing more than 400 historic buildings and sites in England granted all requested alterations to the Hall, which included drilling through 40 to 50 different walls. “They understood that we’re making improvements to make the venue contemporary and keep it as contemporary as possible,” Hassall said.
Jones said, “I’ve never worked on a project where I was allowed to design and put in a system that was so uncompromising. Usually we’re told from day one, ‘I don’t want to see speakers,’ because architects don’t want to see speakers.”
He is sure that the new system serves audience members on a level that they’ve never been able to hear. “We’re still at the mercy of the band. Does the band have a good night, do they play well, is the engineer in a good state or was he out drinking until three o’clock in the morning.
“Bad input into the system will lead to bad output of the system. But on a good show it will be pristine everywhere. You can be confident that when a good band and engineer are having a great night, you will be part of that.”