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Why's It So Hard to Build A Decent Music Hall?

Posted November 21, 2016 12:00 AM by Hannes

On October 31 construction work on the Hamburg Elbphilarmonie concert hall officially ended. The magnificent glass façade sits atop an abandoned warehouse on the river Elbe and is now the tallest inhabited building in Hamburg. The 2,039-seat hall will officially open in early January.

Despite its grandiose appearance, the Elbphi (as it’s popularly called) was something of a budgetary disaster. It took over nine years to build, six more than planned. While construction was initially estimated to cost €77 million in 2007, the final cost of €789 million was 10 times the original figure. The project was subject to some blistering media criticism and public scorn as a result of these setbacks.

Anyone well-versed in modern music hall construction would expect nothing less from such a project. Building a concert hall is characteristically expensive and time-consuming, often beginning with reasonable estimates that quickly spiral out of control. For example, the famed Sydney Opera House broke ground in 1959 and could have been finished as early as 1964 at a cost of $7 million Australian dollars. Due to a variety of setbacks, including weather, site drainage and miscommunication, the hall was opened in 1973 after construction costs ran to $102 million AUD, nearly a billion AUD in 2016. In Los Angeles, the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Hall took 12 years to build because of the need for a $110 million underground parking garage and stalled funding in the mid-1990s.

Why are concert halls so difficult and expensive? Many critics point to the demands levied by famous conductors and classical music impresarios; indeed, all three halls discussed so far are iconic, breathtaking spaces worthy of hosting great music (and huge egos). Others point to the often faulty economics of selling classical music: a hall must have enough seats to justify its cost, and perhaps be architecturally grandiose enough to attract people to fill them.

Taking a hall’s acoustics into account creates an interesting interplay between architecture and seating capacity. Most of the concert halls judged to sound the best—including Vienna’s Musikverein, Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, and the Birmingham (UK) Symphony Hall—incorporate a “shoebox” design in which their auditoriums are simple rectangles with the performing group stationed at one end. In a shoebox hall, the first sound perceived by a listener has reflected off either wall, so the sound heard in each ear is subtly different. Because the sound from each wall takes slightly longer to reach the far ear, the signal attenuates to bend around the head and gives the listener the impression of being enveloped with sound. One perceived drawback of shoeboxes is that listeners in the very back, farthest from the performers, experience a less satisfying aural and visual performance.

The alternate design pioneered in Berlin in 1963 is the “vineyard” hall in which the orchestra is effectively enveloped by their audience. This design is sort of the musical version of a theater in the round, with terraced groups of listeners spread throughout the space, including behind the orchestra. Vineyard halls have a few cool advantages, including the ability to see the conductor’s face from your seat behind the orchestra, but acoustics are not among them. To begin with, many instruments (including trombones, trumpets, clarinets and oboes) project their sound straight out from a bell or pipe. Those seated behind the ensemble would perceive much less of these instruments but much more of the horns, whose bells face backward. Most vineyard halls have angled walls, so they don’t experience the same enveloping reflections of shoebox types. To make matters worse, vineyard halls were originally conceived to increase the amount of seats (and tickets sold). Bodies and clothing act as natural dampers, so the larger the audience, the quieter and duller the sound.

A glance at London’s famous halls shows that designing an economically successful hall that sounds “good” has always been a difficult proposition. The famed Royal Albert Hall, which hosts the popular BBC Proms, is typically judged an acoustical failure due to its enormous, 5,000-seat size. (Granted, it was built in 1871, before acoustic design was a true science.) London’s Royal Festival Hall was built within a reasonable time and on-budget (18 months and for £2 million) using state-of-the-art acoustical figures in 1951, but the designers failed to take audience absorption into account, so it’s now judged as one of the driest—and worst-sounding—halls in Europe.

Sir Simon Rattle will become conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra next year, and it’s no surprise that he’s already lobbying for a brand new £100-200 million concert hall to replace the vineyard-style Barbican Centre. If he gets his wish it’s likely that the new building will be an architectural behemoth, hopefully with just enough seats to satisfy the orchestra and the audience.

Image credits: a as archictecture | Santa Fe University of Art and Design

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#1

Re: Why's It So Hard to Build A Decent Music Hall?

11/21/2016 4:00 PM

The reason it is so difficult is due to the properties of sound (vibrations) in air.

If sound stopped at the first object it came in contact with (anechoic chamber) it would be easy, but very boring to listen to.

Sound emanates from the source in all directions in a free field.

But add walls, chairs, people other sounds and you have a real acoustic soup on your hands.

Pitch a single stone in still water and waves will propagate all around and diminish.

Throw two stones in and you've got a mess of waves hitting each other changing the character of the resulting product.

Walls? Now throw that stone in a small pool and the waves go to the wall and then are reflected back at some angle reeking havoc with the waves they meet.

Now throw 20 stones of various sizes in the water and you've got a mini music hall.

It just ain't easy folks.

Modern electronics can help, but making a perfect music hall is impossible.

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#2
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Re: Why's It So Hard to Build A Decent Music Hall?

11/22/2016 12:58 AM

"Modern electronics can help, but making a perfect music hall is impossible." Try telling that to the ancient Greeks.

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Re: Why's It So Hard to Build A Decent Music Hall?

11/22/2016 1:06 AM

I can't, they're all dead.

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#15
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Re: Why's It So Hard to Build A Decent Music Hall?

12/04/2016 6:49 PM

I think this may be of interest to you. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/233658596_The_Acoustics_of_Roofed_Ancient_Odeia_The_Case_of_Herodes_Atticus_Odeion My knowledge of accoustics is nil. I had only recently seen a TV presenter at this ancient greek theatre extolling the virtues of the accoustics. It is open air ( i guess that helps ) BUT it is also limited in that the actor MUST be in a the sweet spot. A mere 1 meter off that spot and s/he can't be heard from most of the seating. This web page redirects to a paper that explains the improvement ( for music ) made by adding a roof. Jim

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#4

Re: Why's It So Hard to Build A Decent Music Hall?

11/22/2016 5:29 PM

I dine occasionally with the Birmingham (UK) city engineer who was responsible for the International Convention Centre in which the famed Symphony Hall is located. He told me that the design and building of the Symphony Hall was taken out of the hands of the architect of the rest of the building and entrusted to an acoustics expert who had just completed work on a concert hall in the US (I forget which).

Contrary to the above report, listeners at the very back of the shoebox design can hear every note and every dropping pin.

As a further point of the brilliant engineering, the whole hall sits on a dozen damped pillars because of the train lines which run underneath. It is still stable if one or two dampers are removed for maintenance and replacement.

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#5
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Re: Why's It So Hard to Build A Decent Music Hall?

11/22/2016 7:40 PM

I may have generalized a bit with the worse-in-the-back comment. According to this article, which is not at all authoritative, the shoebox halls in Vienna and Amsterdam are "considerably" worse in the back. I don't have the direct experience to say otherwise.

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Re: Why's It So Hard to Build A Decent Music Hall?

11/22/2016 9:10 PM

Some things we do know.

Acoustics is a black art, mixed with lots of math, and luck.

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Re: Why's It So Hard to Build A Decent Music Hall?

11/23/2016 8:18 AM

Interesting (and correct) that an acoustics expert got the nod rather than leaving the design to architects. The daughter of friends of ours is finishing her last year towards a BS in Acoustical Engineering. She switched from environmental engineering because she missed being involved in music (she comes from a musical family, plays several instruments, and sings). Her program is the equivalent of a bachelor's degree in music along with the engineering degree.

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#7

Re: Why's It So Hard to Build A Decent Music Hall?

11/22/2016 9:53 PM

In chicago we have an excellent venue with superb acoustics.

It's also free... Which makes it sound even better! Come on over and have a listen.

Bring blankets, wine/beer, and a deep dish pizza. The lawn is huge so crowding isn't an issue.

The secret sauce it the vast overhead speaker array mounted on the 'trellis'

First reflection sound dominates.. Additional effects are added as directed

perfect!

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Re: Why's It So Hard to Build A Decent Music Hall?

11/23/2016 8:54 AM

Royal Festival Hall installed electronic enhancement to overcome the dry acoustic in 1964 but I guess they removed it in 1998--it was starting to fail and make weird noises during performances. Pretty revolutionary idea though.

http://www.bnoack.com/index.html?http&&&www.bnoack.com/acoustic/enhancement-history.html

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Re: Why's It So Hard to Build A Decent Music Hall?

12/14/2016 1:47 PM

I hate to contradict you, but that venue does not have 'superb acoustics,' it has a superb 'sound system.' The acoustics from that stage suck, without the amplified speakers you can barely hear anything.

Now the old band shell that he had out there THAT had good acoustics, the music would wash over the audience loud and clear, WITHOUT needing amplifiers or speakers.

(In that photo speakers were erected to provide sound to the people sitting in the far wings, since this crowd was wider than the band shell.)

All the sound generated on the stage got sent out over the audience in a 'sonic beam,' thanks to the parabolic curves the band shell was designed around.

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#8

Re: Why's It So Hard to Build A Decent Music Hall?

11/23/2016 6:13 AM

Well,

A fine building indeed. However to accommodate the aesthetic is as much a priority as the sound. The sound is easy.

Do away with the jerk 'flying the desk' halfway up/down the hall. Saving money as well as eardrums. Do away with the 'accoustic panelling' and such which gets in the way of aesthetics [and usually adversely affects the sound reception of patrons]saving LOTS of money.

To have absolutely accurate sound reception simply wire the seasts with data cabling and 3.5mm stereo sockets and issue everyone with good quality earbuds [to keep as souvenirs???].

If good sound can be enjoyed in a noisy environment like a flying aircraft, the it can be enjoyed in a 'tin shed' wired for cans or buds.

just throwing it in there........

Cheers,

Stu.

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#11

Re: Why's It So Hard to Build A Decent Music Hall?

11/23/2016 2:29 PM

I don't believe there has ever been or will ever be a "perfect" music hall. In fact, no one can define a perfectly projected sound. Obviously the acoustics associated with materials, air temperature, humidity, numbers of listeners and the fact that everyone hears sounds differently means no two people hear a sound the same. What may sound pleasing to one ear can be different to another. If it sounds "good and pleasing", that's about all one can expect. One would think music played outdoors in a plain flat terrain without trees or hills would be the purest sound available, free from vibrations and resonances, but we know it sounds flat. Music depends on resonance and multi-path vibrations to bring music alive. While music itself is subjective, so is the perception of sound.

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Re: Why's It So Hard to Build A Decent Music Hall?

11/23/2016 2:43 PM

Everyone has a different set of ears, too. I know that mine aren't sharp enough to detect small differences in speakers. Mr. Best in Show and I go to Boston Symphony concerts at Tanglewood every summer, usually sitting on the lawn unless we are feeling rich (for non-US readers: Tanglewood is an outdoor performance venue owned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra) . Lawn seats are fine with me; my ears ring all the time anyway and that interferes with the music. The "shed" sounds fine to me too. But I know aficionados who turn up their noses and tell me that they are such music lovers the idea of sitting on the lawn deeply offends their aesthetic.

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Re: Why's It So Hard to Build A Decent Music Hall?

12/13/2016 9:42 PM

Same here. I've had tinnitus all my life due to childhood ear infections. My eardrums, middle ear and parts of my inner ear is a mass of scar tissue. It has gotten considerably worse in the last few years. Now, whenever there is a loud sound, I hear what sounds like thousands of little ball bearings falling onto a tin roof. It's actually painful. I'm also losing my actual hearing completely at higher frequencies. I can no longer hear piccolos, only the lower registers of flute. Can't hear triangles and other high-pitched percussive instruments. At the rate I'm losing my hearing, I will be totally deaf in five years - and I'm a musician. Even with the loss I try to get as many concerts in as I can whilst I can still hear them.

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#13

Re: Why's It So Hard to Build A Decent Music Hall?

11/24/2016 2:30 AM

In my past I designed, sold, and installed hundereds of very high end sound systems of all shapes and sizes. The best were the most simple. A single listening position a turntable amp and two channels.

The space is as important as the equipment.

Even people that claim to not know a good sound system can immediately tell when something is truly superior. They can also tell that the old Bose is not worth the hype.. All highss no lows must be Bose was not just a saying.

Anyhow.. Hearing and taste may be subjective, but doing it wrong or right is black and white.

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#14

Re: Why's It So Hard to Build A Decent Music Hall?

11/28/2016 11:24 AM

Check out spiveyhall.org for a great shoebox style hall. I'm sure it was done for a very modest price and while seating is quite limited, the acoustics are some of the best in the USA.

I studied some acoustics and interned for one of the professors designing and building testing apparatus for a semi-anechoic chamber. Among the acoustics professionals in the Atlanta, GA area, this hall was very well regarded.

So, my point would be that great acoustics don't have to cost an immense fortune, but adding seats and keeping great acoustics can become an exponential cost increase. The absorption of the sound by the human body plays a large role, in addition to the reflected sounds around the structure.

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#16

Re: Why's It So Hard to Build A Decent Music Hall?

12/05/2016 9:22 PM

When Michael Moore visited Germany in his movie "Where to Invade Next" the Hamburg Music Hall was prominent in the background.

I heard the Avery Fisher Hall which was computer designed was too "bright" and they had to add curtain to deaden the sound.

When they built a new "Opera House" in Spokane, Washington, it was too "dead" and it took them a while to get it sounding right.

There is a nearby church where the chapel is a perfect auditorium and they have a great pipe organ. I went to a funeral there and it was an almost otherworldly experience.

There's another quite famous cathedral nearby that doesn't sound as good but it has a "surround sound" feature: a set of pipes in the rear which they demonstrated for one of the "Kids Concerts"

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