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'Invisible' Sound At The Guildhall School Of Music And Drama

Originally opened in 1880, the Guildhall School Of Music & Drama was the first municipal music college in Britain. It is now one of the world’s leading conservatoires and drama schools, catering for 800 students (of which around 40% are from overseas) undertaking a range of courses in music, acting and technical theatre. It was rated by The Guardian University Guide 2013 as the ‘Number One specialist institution in the UK’ and has twice been honoured with the Queen’s Anniversary Prize.

Since 1977 its home has been the Barbican complex in the heart of the City Of London, a location which has facilitated a unique link to Europe’s largest arts and conference centre, as well as the London Symphony Orchestra whose official home is also there. This connection is now formally recognised with the establishment of the LINK Alliance, a partnership between the School, the Barbican Centre and the LSO to create the world’s leading centre for performance, training and education in the performing and visual arts.

The existing Silk Street building features two fully functional theatre spaces: the Studio Theatre is the smaller of the two and is used for teaching, experimentation, rehearsals and showcases. The Silk St Theatre seats over 300 and is equipped with a flexible infrastructure allowing productions to be presented in a variety of formats including proscenium, promenade, thrust and in-the-round. It also features counterweight flying, easy access to the workshops and even a large orchestra pit. There are yet more performance spaces within the School including one in the basement of Sundial Court (the School’s Hall of Residence), the Lecture Recital Room and the Music Hall.

The Music Hall was the subject of a complete overhaul of its loudspeaker infrastructure which was designed, installed and commissioned by Autograph Sales & Installations, having won a competitive tender to supply. Project-managed and designed by Chris Austin and assisted by Ali Blake as site manager, the new installation presented a number of challenges, not least the requirement for the new loudspeaker system to be removed from sight when not in use by a single technician. This necessitated the design and installation of a new supporting steel structure which not only had to bridge the gap between the roof beams of the listed building, but which could safely support and locate the motors such that the suspended loudspeakers could be raised sufficiently to remove them from view when necessary.

This structural engineering task was further complicated by the very short timescale allowed. From the formal acceptance of the tender, the Autograph Sales & Installations team had just seven weeks to complete the design, arrange for fabrication of the custom metalwork, then install and commission everything before the end of the summer holidays. The new infrastructure also included new AC mains supply, high level containment, custom facility panels and all the necessary cabling and termination.

The original sound design for the Music Hall specified a Meyer Sound Mina compact line-array system, but following on-site evaluation and listening tests it was agreed that a combination of Meyer Sound UPA-1Ps and 500-HP subwoofers would actually deliver a more suitable sonic result for the room and its many uses. This design change also significantly reduced the final system cost to the client. Chris Austin said, ‘This was an unusual project because of the infrastructure required to deploy the audio system in the way the client needed. The equipment has to be raised and lowered quickly by a single technician, so any rigging / de-rigging was out of the question. The loudspeaker cables (a power / signal hybrid) are housed in bespoke spring return reelers to keep them out of the way, and which also allow the cable length to self-adjust according to the flying height. We supplied and installed all the high-level containment, which had to meet the aesthetic requirements of a listed building, and while we were there we also installed a section of motorised truss to support a large projection screen’.

All the loudspeaker components had to be flown, so as well as the motors and controller Autograph Sales & Installations also supplied custom metalwork that allows the 500-HPs to be supported by their own individual grids, with a single UPA-1P then suspended beneath each subwoofer. The new loudspeaker system is controlled by a single Meyer Sound Galileo 616, and the only other fixed item is a Yamaha M7CL console as everything else is brought in on a per-show basis. One of the key design requirements for the project was that the audio system had to be as unobtrusive as possible, a brief that was demonstrably met when one senior manager inspected the room and didn’t notice it until pointed out to him!

Dave Foister AV Manager at the GSMD said, ‘We decided early on that we wanted to aspire to Meyer equipment, because it would clearly provide the quality and versatility we needed, and also because Meyer speakers are widely used across the Barbican cultural quarter. This installation ensures our existing Music Hall is a professionally-equipped venue capable of handling a wide range of events to a very high standard in line with those of our partner organisations’

He continued, ‘Meyer Sound and Autograph have been inseparable in many people’s minds for years, so it seemed natural that Autograph should carry out the installation. They worked closely with us to understand what we wanted and to establish what would work in the room mechanically, operationally and in terms of performance. They completed the installation smoothly and professionally, dealing with one or two inevitable hiccups efficiently and with good grace, and the project cost was kept very reasonable. The resulting facilities have transformed the Music Hall’s capabilities and further enhanced the School’s suite of world-class performance venues’.


Image attribution: Paul the Archivist [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

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