After publishing last week’s Newsletter on noisy restaurants, I went to a concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London. The Albert Hall will seat 5,500 people and hosts over 390 shows ever year. These range from showings of the Star Wars films with full orchestras to rock concerts and the Cirque du Soleil. It also includes “the PROMS” a festival of classic music that runs all summer, which I was attending.
Whilst there I looked again at the “flying saucers” suspended from the ceiling. This took me back to acoustics and solutions for noise. I was a young university student next door when they were installed in 1969 to solve the echo. The Albert Hall is celebrating its 150th anniversary. Ever since it was built in 1871 people have complained about the 11 second echo. It is so famous that there are jokes made about the generosity of the management in allowing you to hear the same piece twice for the price.
The long echo comes from the elliptical shape of the Hall and most particularly from the domed roof. The roof was constructed from 338 Tons of wrought iron and 279 tons of glass. The designers of the Hall were two officers from the Royal Corp of Engineers. They produced a striking building but obviously knew little about acoustics. Over the years traditional solutions have been tried. Various forms of absorbent material have been used to muffle the dome. Within a year of opening a sailcloth canopy was installed. This also helped to protect the concert goers from the sun and the glass roof! It was removed in 1949 and replaced with a fluted aluminium lining to the dome.
The most outlandish solution was the 135 “flying saucers” hung from the ceiling when I was a student. These were large round and up to three meters across. They were hung from the wrought iron and create a “false acoustic ceiling”. The acoustics improved considerably. In 2001 the number of saucers dropped to eight five after improved acoustical testing. They are still there, and I am sure improved the sound of my PROMS concert last week.
In 2018 the Hall embarked upon a different and electronic solution. A replacement sound system was installed in the hall. Over four hundred speakers were installed, but this time microphones were placed around the hall. The microphones provided feedback for a sophisticated signal processing system. The whole set up can create unique separate sound each for each part of the amphitheatre. Front and rear speakers were installed in each of the 160 boxes.
The source sound comes from the microphones around the stage. This is compared with the output of the microphones in different parts of the hall. Noise cancelling is used to reduce reverberation. Sophisticated electronics boosts other parts of the sound. This provides perfect reproduction no matter where you sit.
All over the world this type of technology is used on large halls. It can “retrospectively correct” for bad acoustics designed into the building. One of the leaders in this industry, Meyer, has now extended the idea to restaurants. Their systems can be installed to create a “force field” around even a single group of tables. Its intention is to enable a normal conversation in the middle of a busy restaurant. The result is the noise does not trigger a Lombard “snowball”(see previous Newsletter) . The first installation last year was at a restaurant called Comal in Berkeley.
The acoustic engineers first dampened the noise with absorbing panels. They were in the form of attractive pictures on all the walls. They installed 38 microphones and 95 speakers. The system captures the ambient noise everywhere in the restaurant. It can “leak it back into the restaurant in any desired form” . To do this requires the same sophisticated signal processing software used in the concert halls. To drive everything requires computer capacity equivalent to a dozen MacBook Pros.
The manager can create a "buzz" instantly in the bar area even in the early evening. He can make the restaurant sound like a cathedral if he wishes. He does this from a laptop he carries around the restaurant. All this in a restaurant which still has the stark, stripped back architecture popular today.
At $60,000 it is perhaps out of the price band of a local Italian restaurant. Technology prices are falling fast and the electronic solution may eventually become affordable. What is needed in the short run is a simpler way of isolating groups within the restaurant, particularly the healthy aged Third Agers. The attractive ambient noise needs to be maintained but conversation continued.
Hacking the System
On the 23rd Floor of The Shard, the tallest building in London, is a restaurant call Oblix (in honour of the Asterix cartoon character). It is a large, tall room with floor to ceiling windows for the view. It has hard floors and little soft furnishing. When full, it is very noisy especially since it has an open kitchen. Conversation amongst a group of healthy aged consumers sat at a table for four is almost impossible. In an attempted to provide more seats with good views they created a raised platform in the rear of the restaurant. On the platform are a series of booths. These are high sided with soft padding. The result is an area of calm in a sea of noise – the best of both worlds. Third Agers I am sure are the first to book them. Our Italian restaurant needs booths, perhaps something that it had many years ago.
We consumers have agency. We can support service firms that try to help us. We can also “hack” the experience - use the facilities in ways never intend. We can head for the booths. A reader of the Newsletter in Hong Kong kindly sent me a perfect example. During the design of the new Terminal 5 at Heathrow, the British Airports Authority conducted market research in the existing terminals. Feeding back the results the researchers pointed out that older people go to the toilet more often. This was greeted as “non news” until they explained why. Older consumers were going to the bathrooms to hear the announcements. The acoustics were so much better than the vast open spaces in the Terminal. The designers created areas of the new terminal with better acoustics to help the Third Agers.