REVEALED: A first look at the Federation Concert Hall acoustic upgrades

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REVEALED: A first look at the Federation Concert Hall acoustic upgradesBy Stephanie Eslake

It may come as a surprise to learn that the Federation Concert Hall – home to the acclaimed Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra since 2001 – remains unfinished business.

When the 1100-seat venue first opened, it was quickly embraced as a staple of the Tasmanian arts community. The unusual exterior – round and brassy – has become an icon of the Hobart waterfront. The foyer is lined with carved wooden panels depicting Tom Samek’s playful artwork. And unmistakable is the venue’s stage: musicians perform against a backdrop of deep-coloured walls and an angular sound diffuser.

While each of these architectural features will ring familiar to locals and visitors, the Federation Concert Hall is about to be cast back into a spotlight of its own. There are big changes on the horizon, and they’ll affect the way this venue will look and sound.

TSO FCH stage - TSO acoustic upgrade

Federation Concert Hall - acoustic upgrades

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the venue’s construction, before the TSO officially moved in one year later (relocating from its previous decades-long home, the Odeon Theatre). With bittersweet timing, the TSO has spent many months away from its Federation Concert Hall stage due to COVID-19 restrictions; this break also allows the hall to be renovated without interruption.

The TSO team is working with multiple industries to fulfil long-term acoustic visions for the hall. And the 2020 upgrades provide a world-class orchestra with the opportunity to access a world-class acoustic.

Before we go on, you may find yourself asking the question: What are acoustics? And, as a concertgoer or radio listener, will you notice the difference these upgrades will bring?

Encyclopaedia Britannica defines acoustics as “the science concerned with the production, control, transmission, reception, and effects of sound”. For most of us, it may be less about the science, and more about the way a venue can deliver the thunderous feeling of strings and brass as they power through a symphony. It may be more about the mysteries of the humble triangle, and how such a tiny instrument can seem to ring out over the top of all other sections combined.

To a musician, acoustics may be less about the science, and more about the simple ability to hear oneself play within the scope of an instrumental section, balancing dynamics and intonation with others to make music as a cohesive whole.

The function of acoustics can be prioritised differently depending on who is listening. But to truly understand how it can affect us, we must return for a moment to the science that underpins it all. And for this purpose, we chat with Andrew Nicol – the acoustician whose job is to make the Federation Concert Hall sound spectacular to concertgoer and musician alike.

Andrew is a musician as well as an acoustic specialist. When he describes the changes being built into the Federation Concert Hall, it sounds equal parts technical and exciting.

Andrew Nicol

“The acoustic will allow TSO to present its great diversity of programming and artistic capability like never before, with a hall acoustic to match each use,” Andrew explains. (Exciting, don’t you think?)

Though the upgrades are new, they are based on the “original vision for the concert hall design”. This vision had included “variable acoustics” (don’t worry – we’ll get to that soon), but costs prevented this component from being included in earlier construction. As a consequence, there has been a 20-year wait to fulfil the original vision.

This wait has also brought about a unique benefit. It has enabled the acoustic experts and musicians to truly understand the nature of this hall, and the way it breathes, resonates, and responds to their music – from amplified contemporary performances through to operatic works, and everything in between.

Thanks to this gap in the timeline, the team has taken into consideration many points of view, with decades of listening experience from all angles: the acoustic committee of the orchestra, musicians, conductors, executives, and technical experts. Andrew has worked on “translating their thoughts into acoustic design responses”.

2019 TSO Season - Swansong

On a physical level, there will be changes to the Federation Concert Hall’s walls, floor, and ceiling to implement “variable acoustics” (that’s the original vision we mentioned earlier). It might sound technical, but it’s really quite simple: it’s a system that can change the acoustic of the hall according to the style of music performed.

While the venue is “fully reverberant” in its present state, having the flexibility to make the hall less reverberant will accommodate for a broader range of performance experiences. For instance, you’ll be able to hear the finer detail in a performance of early music or in a chamber music ensemble.

The science behind this trick can be found in a new suite of material banners. As Andrew explains, these banners will “drop down from storage chambers hidden at high level, using motors to drive them up and down”. A set of horizontal timber blades will line the walls around the stage; the material banners are designed to fall in the space between wall and blade.

While Andrew considers the blades the most obvious design element from an architectural perspective, he also knows the blades will serve a function for the orchestra, “providing even greater numbers of early sound reflections across the stage area and between musicians”.

“Key improvements will be a control of room reverberance and improved musical detail, improved ensemble, greater crispness when required, ‘wet or dry’ sound when required, and a range of settings to suit artistic program from contemporary to romantic to classic.”

In addition to its role in the Hobart community as a live concert venue, the Federation Concert Hall is also a site for national broadcast. The TSO is often heard live or pre-recorded through programs on ABC Classic FM. Microphones are placed in between the players or suspended above them. Though this set-up is tailored to match the hall’s existing acoustic, Andrew notes that the new variable acoustics will “add crispness and clarity to the room recording”, too.

Installing the upgrades

Much of these improvements can be attributed to the choice of material, which affect the final sound. The team partnered with Sustainable Timber Tasmania for its panels, which are made with a base of MDF and have a veneer of Tasmanian oak. This upgrade will see 650 square metres of banner material placed in the hall, in addition to the timber blades; Andrew prizes the velour fabric (wool serge) for its weight, softness, and ability to absorb sound. To install these materials, the TSO approached specialists at Spidertech Industrial Access, who manoeuvre over and around the hall’s interior terrain.

Importantly, everyone on board is working to make it look as good as it will sound.

“We absolutely want integration of acoustics and architecture, and have worked very closely with architect Garry Forward to realise this,” Andrew says. “If the [acoustic components] stick out as an apparent layer of interventions, we have failed as acousticians to genuinely design holistically.”

In other words, the banners and blades need to look great in the home they’re built for.

The challenge of this project cannot be underestimated. It must at once honour its existing surroundings on a visual and material level; stimulate discerning concertgoers while achieving the desired effects of a range of music genres; and accommodate the finely tuned ears, skills, and needs of the musicians themselves.

These upgrades must meet these various and perhaps conflicting goals – all while going one extra step further: they must offer a superior experience in a hall that is already recognised for its excellence.

“The Federation Concert Hall has always been highly regarded on the international list of concert halls,” Andrew notes. “However, it is the orchestra that has amplified the hall’s reputation, and the TSO is regarded as not only a leading orchestra within Australia, but highly ranked internationally.”

“I firmly believe that these further acoustical enhancements will provide the TSO with a platform for a further two decades of incredible artistic diversity, and high standard of musical performance and recording.”

So what should you listen out for when the TSO returns (after COVID-19 restrictions) to offer live performance experiences in the hall?

Federation Concert Hall stage - timber blades

Federation Concert Hall stage - timber blades being installed

Here are a few parting hints from Andrew:

  • Listen to the blend of warmth (reverberance) and detail (clarity of notes).
  • A more authentic reproduction of the intended sound that the composer had in their heads will be present in the sound in the hall.
  • Versatility of the sound (as it is changed for different concerts, or perhaps either side of an interval).
  • Feel and absorb the enjoyment of the musicians playing – it is reflected in how and what you hear.

Keep up to date on the TSO News page and on Facebook to learn more about the Federation Concert Hall’s acoustic upgrades.

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