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Audio transformation for Belgium’s new Queen Elisabeth Hall

Belgium-based AV specialist Face was assigned the essential equipment installation in the rebuilt Queen Elisabeth Hall and Congress Centre in Antwerp. It’s a highly prestigious project in terms of acoustics, and required top class engineering and design

The transformation of the Queen Elisabeth Hall in Antwerp is nearly complete. In 2009, plans were put in place to create a modern multifunctional concert venue and a spacious congress in the facility – the Flanders Meeting & Convention Centre Antwerp.

The original building, owned by the Royal Zoological Society of Antwerp (KMDA), dates from 1890; it was demolished after WWII and rebuilt in 1960.

“The initial [2009] idea was to renovate the building, but we decided to start from scratch,” explains Roel Wouters, senior project manager with KMDA. “Today we’re looking at 25,000sqm of new building holding four elements: the 2,020-seater Queen Elisabeth Hall venue; the accommodation for the Royal Flemish Philharmonic orchestra; the expansion of the congress centre and the integration of the new building in the ‘Historical Wing’. Linking all this together is the spacious daylight Atrium hall, also the main access for the building.”

“The multifunctionality of the Queen Elisabeth hall is two-fold : concerts and congresses but also classical music combined with theatre and dance and modern shows and pop-rock concerts,” Wouters continues. “The hall is designed for fast change-over times: say, a rehearsal of the Philharmonic in the daytime, then a pop concert in the evening. All possible thanks to the new technology in place.”

The complete re-building of the ‘QEH’ and other work represents a budget of some 85 million euros, an investment made by the KMDA, with support of the city of Antwerp, the Antwerp Province and the Flemish Government.

A joint venture team consisting of Ian Simpson Architects, acoustic consultants Kirkegaard Associates, Bureau Bouwtechniek architects and theatre consultants Charcoalblue won the international architectural competition for the redesign of the venue.

“The QEH venue has a classic shoebox design,” explains Paul Franklin of Charcoalblue, the project’s head of technical design. “It was the idea of Kirkegaard to adjust the shape of the building, achieving optimal acoustic qualities of the room – completely driven by the acoustics.”

The design of the theatrical technical systems was carried out by Charcoalblue which resulted in a builder’s estimate holding the specifications for the audiovisual engineering. In 2013 Face, through the main technical contractor Putman, was assigned to do the installation of the audiovisual system, lighting and cabling for the complete building.

“The choice of the speaker system was crucial. The new venue is designed to become Europe’s most ‘silent’ concert hall, so self-powered active speakers, lighting or switches with fans were no option in the venue and the direct surrounding rooms,” says Steven Kemland, manager of Face’s project division.

Steven Kemland (pictured) opted for a FOH combination of Renkus-Heinz VARIAi flown array clusters (pictured below) containing 11 VAX101 front speakers and three flown VAX15S subs on either side of the stage. When not in use, a smart system of pulley blocks above the stage lifts the arrays and hides them in the acoustic ceiling elements. The L and R arrays further comprise two extra VAX101 speakers for the movable choir stall, and three conventional RHX81 speakers serving the side balconies of the hall, ensuring 270° coverage for each cluster.

With the stage being tailor made for the Philharmonic and divided in three moving stage elements, Face had to install 26 customised versions of the RH CFX41 stairstep speakers in the three rows. A mobile ground stack with two additional DRS218” subs, two extra VAX101 array modules serving as infill, plus three RHX101 delay speakers on the upper balconies complete the venue lay out. “Throughout the whole process, engineers of Renkus-Heinz have been thinking along,” adds Kemland. “They drew up the original EASE-design and did the first simulations for the placement of the speakers.”

The wedges consist of a mix of Martin Audio LE1200 and DD6 wide angle enclosures.

The main speaker and monitor sets are powered by three X8 and three X4 new Powersoft X-series amplifiers, while a Powersoft Ottocanali amplifier, featuring a switching device designed by Face, serves the front fill speakers – all amplifiers have Dante networking on board. Processed by the Powersoft Armonia software, with internal DSP and Matrix on board, this amplifier platform allowed the integration of a very complex set-up, to be operated with a very user-friendly interface.

In addition to the FOH system, Face installed a discreet speech system consisting of two Renkus-Heinz ICONYX IC24 on either side of the hall and 2 IC8 enclosures for the balconies, to be used with the FOH’s front-fill and delay speakers.

“I was very keen that it was a single brand doing everything in the main venue, because I wanted that things like the front fills, being used for both the FOH and speech system, had a voicing to be suitable for both,” comments Ian Stickland, sound designer with Charcoalblue.

The venue is also equipped with a hearing loop system, split in five independent zones, each powered by an Ampetronic D14-2 Class D amplifier with Dante cards. “The system is IEC-approved and guarantees a uniform audio level and frequency spectrum on all the seats,” explains Kemland. “We had Ampetronic engineers over who took on the DSP fine-tuning of the system and adjusted the levels and controls. To avoid possible damage in the venue’s building process, we put all cables 30cm below floor level.”

Face also provided and installed the fixed stage and house lights and the work lighting of the building in close cooperation with architectural lighting manufacturer ETC. Face installed Martin Audio CDD5 series passive speakers as public address system in the artist areas and corridors, the rehearsal rooms and backstage dressing rooms.

“The twelve scalable congress rooms are equipped with Martin Audio CDD8 compact two-way passive loudspeaker and C6.8 T ceiling speakers,” Kemland adds.

A Dante-network controls and links up the whole audio configuration for both the main system and the external zones via a MediaMatrix NION platform. “The fact that all the components of all different brands we used, have Dante on board allows full and swift control over the system,” says Kemland.

Face installed an impressive length of audio and lighting cable, adding up to over 100 kilometres in the main venue alone. “We used all low smoke halogen-free cable, manufactured and supplied by Van Damme (VDC), making this the first venue in Belgium using this kind of cabling: the disadvantage being that the cable is more rigid, making it more difficult to install in the 180 connection boxes – with a specific design for each of them – in the building. The whole network consists of Cat-6 ethernet cabling for the audio network, cue lights, DMX and intercom, making the whole installation futureproof – each element in the configuration has its specific cable colour,” explains Kemland, adding that, as from January this year, a Face team of a dozen people worked continuously to install the complete AV cabling.

Constant dialogue between the various parties has been a key factor in the management of this complex installation. “We felt that Charcoalblue were open to our suggestions – such as replacing the initial analogue intercom by the new ASL Digital Flexus digital system,” Face’s Kemland says. “We remained within the financial margin and Charcoalblue backed our ideas – this is a huge project with a massive budget from which we learned a lot. In the two years we have been working on this, no compromises were made.”

“We do a lot of these projects, in the UK and elsewhere, and working with Face was possibly the easiest and most enjoyable project we’ve done,” underlines Franklin.

“The flexibility of the installation: the Queen Elisabeth Hall is built for the future,” says Wouters, “And the fibre cable network is poised to survive the next 25-30 years of technical evolution.”

“It was a challenge, pleasure and honour for myself, our project manager Stijn Vermeiren – on site for more than 6 months – and our entire project team, to arrange this installation,” concludes Kemland.

“It’s probably one of the most complex infrastructures that we have in Belgium. More than 1,000 working days and more than 1,500 drawings and plans made, from the concept to the result that we can see today.

“Yes, we are tired, but more than that, we are proud!”

The new Queen Elisabeth Hall opened its doors during the Nov 25-27th weekend – the congress centre hosts the first events in the spring of 2017.