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‘The future of concert venues’: Behind the scenes at Belgium theatre De Roma’s latest audio installation

The audio configuration is the final piece in the puzzle of this historic theatre's renovation overhaul

De Roma was built as a cinema and events theatre in 1927. Between 1966 and 1982, the venue became the stage for legendary concerts with artists like the Kinks, Macca & Wings, James Brown, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed and Iron Maiden In 1982, when the theatre shut its doors to become a part of the adjacent technical school – the building gradually deteriorated.

In 2003, after six months of cleaning and restoring by hundreds of volunteer workers, De Roma re-opened its doors – but it would take three more years to end the basic renovation of the building. In 2007, De Roma attracted 100.000 visitors, looking back on its first fully fledged concert year. Last year, over 177,000 people attended concerts and events at De Roma.

“Over the years, we had bigger and bigger productions playing De Roma,” explains Toon Van Deuren, programme director of De Roma. “With a capacity of 1,300 seated (hall and balcony) or 1,900 standing, the day comes that you simply must make decisions and be determined to realise these plans.”

A first step in the process was to establish a solid plan for the acoustics in the venue – the De Roma team went on the lookout for a consultant helping them to design the new acoustics. “Bart Willems, CEO of Amptec introduced us to acoustic designer Eddy Bøgh Brixen,” continues Van Deuren. “And he advised us in the application of the acoustics. The big challenge was the building’s architectural heritage value: we had to achieve maximal results in terms of acoustics while maintaining minimal visual impact on the venue’s inside.”

Bøgh Brixen went through a number of tests with several audio configurations – listening in optimal conditions was key to find out where the acoustics could be improved.

“First of all it’s a beautiful venue and it’s an historic space, so of course there are restrictions to possible alterations – any acoustic treatment should be more or less invisible or at least ‘blend in’,” commented Bøgh Brixen.

The acoustic measurements performed showed that the reverberation time was far too long at low frequencies (around 3 sec). “The optimal time for a venue of this size meant for amplified rhythmic music is around – or below 1.8 sec,” Bøgh Brixen explained. “Some parallel surfaces were responsible for flutter echoes, that might be excited by the loudspeaker system. The sound field on stage was problematic, because of several distinct echoes from ceiling, balcony front-, side- and back walls – and inside the stage room itself.”

Bøgh Brixen recommended to reduce some of the low frequency problems by using membrane absorbers on the sidewalls, covering the balcony backwall and (former cinema-)projection backwall with absorbers.

“Next, we started building several installations together with the acoustic department of textile specialists ShowTex. We wanted to safeguard as much as possible the original and beautifully restored inside walls and decoration, so ShowTex had to be very creative in inserting acoustic elements,” Van Deuren adds.

“We have been following the Roma-project since day one,” says Koen Van Kerkhoven, managing partner of ShowTex. “With Eddy Bøgh Brixen’s report on the table, we started brainstorming on the acoustics in this majestic venue – bearing in mind the building’s heritage value interior.”

One of the solutions was a recent innovative development made by ShowTex’ acoustic engineers: the company regularly had remnants of cotton and wool sound absorbing textiles. “These remnants are recycled, shredded and compressed into acoustic baffles of various densities,” continues Van Kerkhoven. “Covering the two walls opposite the stage was one thing – safeguarding the original wall decoration was something else. We decided to print a photographic reproduction of the wall on the textiles covering the baffles. The walls were photographed in high resolution and these big format image files were transferred on the seamless textile covered acoustic baffles, and placed in front of the walls. An almost invisible solution with crucial impact on the venue’s acoustics.”

A second, and none less thoroughgoing intervention were the ceiling’s acoustics. “It’s concave curvature produced strong reflections on the audience area,” says Wim Van den Heuvel, sound engineer at De Roma. “We opted to invert the curvature to avoid this central reflection.”

As the building’s concrete roof structure couldn’t fly any extra weight, ShowTex designed and developed two huge acoustic light-weight inflatable shells and placed them under the ceiling. “It’s the first time ever we manufactured and implemented these inflatables, and an absolute world premiere for De Roma. Its acoustic qualities are excellent, the inflatable is both sound absorbing and partially sound diffusing due do its shape. The big hollow dome became a spherical dome and we resolved the prominent flutter of the past,” enthuses Van Kerkhoven, adding that in 2018, ShowTex will use similar inflatable solutions in other projects. “We like these challenges,” he adds. “There’s no such word like ‘impossible’ – and that’s the trigger for the worldwide ShowTex team.”

ShowTex also installed a new, heavy backdrop on the stage, drastically improving the acoustic comfort for the artists performing.

The side walls of the hall were covered with bass traps, manufactured by students of Het Keerpunt (The Turning Point), a social education project. “These bass traps over the full length of the venue were instrumental in absorbing excessive low frequencies and have been carefully incorporated in the infrastructure, invisible for the audience,” Van Deuren explains.

For the new fixed audio system, De Roma invited several manufacturers to go over acoustics and audio system set-ups – but van Deuren points out that the choice for a d&b set up came up quite rapidly – the choice of the venue’s three audio engineers was determinative. “We have been involved with the project from scratch,” says sound engineer Wim van den Heuvel. “The idea behind the new sound system is to cater for the needs of productions coming in, and d&b is featured on the majority of the riders we get. Our working relationship with the brand and Amptec has grown organically, going through a number of demo’s and tests.”

The main FOH system consists of a long 14-unit line array (two d&b Vi subs on top, serving the balconies, 10 Vi8 and two Vi 12 loudspeakers on either side of the stage. “The biggest novelty is that De Roma is the first venue in Belgium to use a sub-array featuring eight d&b V-SUB subwoofer speakers,” comments Frank Geerts, audio sales manager at Amptec, who supplied and installed the system and cabling. “The speakers are concealed under the central stage which is covered with a speaker grill front – the whole mechanical structure is custom built by Amptec.”

On top of the eight-strong subwoofer array, the stage is equipped with two d&b down-fill V7P cabinets, and four E6 lip fill loudspeakers. covering the first rows of the audience. Two more E6 side balcony fills and 14 M4 wedge monitors complete the set-up.

The main FOH configuration is optimized by d&b ArrayProcessing, making De Roma the first concert venue in Belgium with this control technology. “ArrayProcessing allows us to carefully define the sound pressure towards a specific area of the hall,” says Van den Heuvel. “The system calculates the internal distribution of the arrays resulting in a perfect balance for the audience.”

With some 450 productions (of which 200 concerts) per year, swift installation is key. For the audio system, the venue’s FOH position is connected via analogue and CAT6 and Madi multicables connected with an Amptec custom-made patch panel on the stage allowing engineers to opt for either analogue or digital inputs. “We have a DiGiCo SD10, an Avid Venue SC48 and an analogue Midas XL3 console – they can be used either as FOH or monitor desks; it’s part of our service towards the production teams and they appreciate it,” Van den Heuvel underlines.

In addition to the new FOH system, De Roma also invested in a new concert system for the venue’s 350 capacity lobby: a set of one d&b ViSUB top and a Vi10P, flown on either side of the stage caters for concerts, lectures, presentations and performances.

“Finally, we also decided to put in place a new cinema sound system, serving the balcony seats,” adds Van Deuren. “A dedicated configuration consisting of three d&b 10AL two-way line array modules on each side of the hall is used during movie projections or events staged on the balcony. A removable projection screen in the centre of the venue completes the cinema set-up.”

Both the main and the cinema system are powered by a combination of nine d&b 30D (main) and one (lip fill and side balcony) 10D 4-channel installation amplifiers, placed under the backstage ceiling. A separate set of two D12 amplifiers serves the lobby sound system.

The new FOH system was first used on Sept 3, with the opening of the new concert season and the Glenn Miller Orchestra. “The main difference with the past is the system’s excellent speech intelligibility,” notes Wim Van den Heuvel.

For Van Deuren, the improvement of the acoustics in combination with the audio system’s flexibility is a major forte. “An engineer dropping in, opens his console and gets to hear a pristine sound without flutter – that’s crucial…A good start of the day – in rock ‘n roll this is very important,” he enthuses. “The big test of fire of the system was our sold-out concert with DJ Shadow (Sept 25) – lots of bass and a full house, but we had a perfect sound.”

“With the d&b V-series, a sub-array and ArrayProcessing, De Roma has become a reference for future concert venues,“ concludes Frank Geerts.