Hidden Sound Systems a Success at Winspear Opera House

Toronto AV consultants Engineering Harmonics designed and specified a hidden voice-lift system and retractable music system in the brand new Winspear Opera House at the AT&T Performing Arts Center in Dallas. Designed by Foster + Partners under Pritzker Prize-winning architect Norman Foster, the 2,200-seat hall was engineered specifically for performances of opera and musical theatre. Its stages were designed and equipped with appropriate flooring for performances of ballet and other forms of dance.

A 21st century reinterpretation of the traditional “horseshoe” opera house, the hall features seating that spans five levels: orchestra, box circle, mezzanine, dress circle, and grand tier. While professional opera singers have no trouble being heard in every seat, some amplification—referred to as voice lift—is occasionally required for child singers, announcements from the stage, and voice support for off-stage chorus.

View from the McDermott stage     Martin Van Dijk

Five seating levels seen from the stage (photo: Iwan Baan) Right: Engineering Harmonics' senior designer Martin Van Dijk

Moreover, the incorporation of variable acoustics by Bob Essert of Sound Space Design was required to support performances of popular music, touring Broadway shows and other events requiring the use of a performance sound system.

Engineering Harmonics has gained a well deserved reputation for designing performance sound systems that integrate amplified shows into the prized natural acoustics of concert and opera halls, which are usually tailored to the performance of acoustic music, and—not coincidentally—funded largely through the philanthropy of patrons of symphony, opera and ballet. A substantial portion of a performing arts centre’s revenue, however, typically comes from other types of performance, such as musical theatre, which is sometimes amplified to levels that can swamp the acoustics so carefully crafted into a hall, unless the performance sound system is properly designed.

The mere presence of voice lift or performance sound systems in an opera house, however, has long been anathema to the opera community. The general director of the Seattle Opera and former host of TV’s Live from the Met, Speight Jenkins, once told The New York Times, “If we give in to amplification or enhancement or whatever the catch phrase is, the very personality of the voices will change. If you go beyond this, which is to me a question of morality, you get close to a place where you are taking away one of the most important characteristics of our art form.”

Such terms as “give in,” “catch phrase,” and “morality” in reference to the use of amplification reveal the intense personal feelings that surround the issue. Regardless of the reasons for the antipathy toward electronics in the opera community, it is preferable that there be no visible evidence of the existence of sound systems in the Winspear Opera House. For this reason a hidden voice-lift system and retractable music system were specified by Engineering Harmonics.

A total of 10 Renkus Heinz digitally steerable Iconyx arrays were installed in the walls running up vertically on either side of the proscenium and aimed at precise angles to cover each of the five seating levels. Iconyx units lend themselves readily to inconspicuous installation, each IC8 array being just over 6” wide and about 3’ high. Four IC8s ranging up the proscenium wall on each side of the stage cover respectively the orchestra, box circle, mezzanine and dress circle. An IC16—comprised of two IC8s arranged one above the other some 6’ high—on each side provides coverage of the grand tier’s expanded upper balcony seating.

Additional delay and surround loudspeakers were hidden in the under- and over-balcony balcony areas where sound energy from the stage may be inadequate to satisfy all patrons. Eight Renkus-Heinz PN82/9s were installed for over-balcony coverage, and, according to Engineering Harmonics' project manager Paul Alegado, these are never switched off. Imagine that—in an opera house, where sound reinforcement is a dirty word, we have a hidden voice-lift system, as well as over-balcony speakers that are always on! This is a testament to how amazingly clean the system is, so well designed that even super critical opera buffs will never become aware of its existence.

An all-digital network was designed by Engineering Harmonics’ senior designer Martin Van Dijk to transport audio from the house console to all loudspeaker systems in the hall. In a configuration used here for the first time in a fixed installation, the network has two components: CobraNet and Rhaon (Renkus-Heinz Audio Operations Network). Digital audio is transported over CobraNet from the Yamaha PM5D house console on CAT6 network cable to the sound rack room in the lower basement level under the parterre. From there, it is transported over fiber-optic cable for the much longer run to a small equipment rack on a catwalk high above the stage. There the fiber is converted back to CAT6 for interfacing with the Rhaon system, over which audio is distributed both to the Iconyx arrays in the voice-lift system and 12 STLA-9 self-powered loudspeaker units that comprise each of the two retractable line arrays in the performance sound system.

The Rhaon system not only transports digital audio; it also permits programming of precise aiming of the Iconyx systems using Beamware software, so that voice-lift intended for each of the five seating levels is delivered exactly where required within tightly controlled angles. The efficiency realized from such precise aiming allows for the maintenance of lower than normal volume levels, which helps the voice-lift system go unnoticed.

When different manufacturers’ digital audio systems are combined into larger systems, even with their individual implementations of the same digital audio network—in this case CobraNet—issues relating to latency times and negotiation between the different components invariably arise. 

"It was a challenge to maintain low latency among all devices in the digital audio network, and to ensure that all digital-to-analog conversion times are consistent," Alegado said. "For example, when the audio signal arrives at one loudspeaker box in a 12-box array, it is essential that the signal latency is identical to the other 11, otherwise the array will behave unpredictably, and not as designed. We had to work very hard with the three manufacturers of the major system components—Yamaha, Biamp and Renkus-Heinz—in order to achieve this."

Engineering Harmonics also served as AV systems consultants for the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto, the new home of the Canadian Opera Company.

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