Unrivalled sonic experiences at the Royal Albert Hall

‘One of the greatest, most anticipated, unseen treasures in musical history’ lands at the Royal Albert Hall (RAH) this month. A one-off chance to watch an unseen film of the Jimi Hendrix show there in 1969, warts – build-up and backstage bits – and all.  

The footage, broadcast on a giant screen, will plug into the venue’s new ‘state-of-the-art’ d&b sound system. 

Having seen Buzzcocks’ Pete Shelley tribute show put the kit through its considerable paces early summer, see down page, Event Industry News took the opportunity to talk to Oliver Jeffery, Royal Albert Hall’s Head of Production and Technical, and to Pat Smith, AV partner SFL’s Project Manager, about the installation and its impact on RAH’s burgeoning rock and pop portfolio. 

Number 1

The Royal Albert Hall is the busiest venue in the world. Period. It hosted more than 1,000 events last year, a record-breaking 402 of them in the 5,500 capacity main auditorium. 

While Royal Albert Hall stands comfortably/sits pretty in the glaring Proms spotlight, which wrapped with a wave of flags – union and European – on September 14 this year, its non-stop live roster includes countless classical performances, choirs, brass bands and, crucially, rock and pop. 

Eric Clapton, who refers to the Albert Hall as his ‘front room’, has performed there more than 200 times, the 1968 Eurovision Song Contest was held in the Hall, Hendrix played there, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. The Teenage Cancer Trust has brought The Who, Paul Weller, Tinie Tempah, The Specials, Oasis, Muse, Kasabian and countless others to the room across nearly 20 years and on and on the list goes.

Since the ‘mushrooms’, aka acoustic diffusers, were fitted to the auditorium roof in 1969, reconfigured 32-years later, to contain sonic reflections from the coved ceiling, sound in the hall can be pretty special too. Subject of course to setting up incoming kit, its reach and the FoH engineer’s familiarity with the space etc., etc. 

“[Typically] you had one system coming in at 7am, the load out at 2am and practically the same system back in at 5am, just a different company,” Jeffery remembers.

With rock and pop tours increasingly keen on a Kensington Gore turn, and more self-promoted shows there too, RAH teamed up with SFL in April last year to design a house system to iron out those variables and provide a top spec, flexible option. 

The completion date was set for mid-September, so while the 2019 Olivier Awards marked the official launch of the new rig it, had been practising discretely for six months beforehand. 

Crucially, it had to deliver quality and equality to all areas in the house, consistency across the Hall’s diverse programme and better control for promoters and artists. 

“We didn’t just want a sound system we wanted something that was inspirational,” Jeffery says. “That’s why we spent more money, being frank, than we’d budgeted for. 

“We’re the busiest venue in the world so my tagline for the trustees was, ‘We should have the best sound in the world’. More than the product though it was about the people; this wasn’t just a Royal Albert Hall project it was SFL and it was d&b too.”  

Location location

The £2 million Royal Albert Hall installation, which includes 465 d&b audiotechnik boxes together with the first-ever Circle, Gallery and box relays, the largest ever single-room speaker installation, had to step around an incessant run of events with most of the work done at night 

“It’s an incredible building but it throws up new challenges all the time so we had to adapt and respond flexibly throughout the project,” Smith says. 

“It’s a product of a different architectural era beams that go one way on the original architectural drawings go another way in real life; there isn’t always a lot of consistency throughout the building, so you never quite know what you’re going to find. We had to [take up] floorboards in every box on the Grand and Second tiers, lifting ornate and delicate carpet with the knowledge that, if it was damaged, we would have to replace the whole lot.” 

Boxing clever

The RAH boxes, Jeffery concedes, were going to be part of a later phase until a trial highlighted the impact speakers there would make and they were pushed into the primary package. 

“We went into a box with the trustees on the demo days and that was the thing that impressed more than anything else,” Smith says. “You mute it and it’s like the sound has been sucked out.” 

Installing the Gallery speakers saw SFL working closely with d&b’s Steve Jones who helped to identify unique opportunities for the installation. 

“Steve is one of the best sound designers,” Smith adds. “He knows the perfect acoustic solution and he’s so passionate – ‘this is the Albert Hall and this has to be as close to perfection as we can achieve’.

“He pushed hard throughout the project, challenging us to deliver a solution with absolutely minimal compromise. 

“Steve wanted to float a loudspeaker in front of each Gallery bay in a location where there was no existing rigging position. By way of a small miracle, we got heritage approval to create 23 new penetrations in the ceiling.”

“If there’s a problem, anywhere, we can react so quickly now, go straight to those seats and sort it out,” Jeffery says in summary. “System engineers from all around the world say it’s amazing.”   

Harmony in my head

We become our parents, so the saying goes, and while Derek Block tried and failed to get The Damned a gig at the Royal Albert Hall in 1977, knocked back by a team chastened by their renown, which must have played well with Damned fans in those heady punk days, that’s now noise noise noise under the bridge. 

The Damned celebrated their 40th anniversary with an incident-free three-hour set in the main room. 

Formed around the same time, Buzzcocks were booked to play RAH this summer before the singer/frontman’s sudden death in December. The show morphed into a Pete Shelley tribute, with the band bolstered by former members and a host of special guests in front of a sell-out crowd. 

It’s an example of the increasing weight of rock and pop shows the venue is there for and provided a perfect opportunity to hear the d&b system in action. Everywhere.

Opening act Penetration sound checked last. It’s not a representative test, judging a PA in a room like that when it’s empty, but it provides a perfect point of contrast. 

Watching their eight-song set properly, which fittingly opened with a cover of Buzzcocks’ Nostalgia, from the stalls, the sound found its place.

For second act the Skids, I worked my way around all the project hooks, checking out the boxes, the Circle and the Gallery level hearing how they deliver on the big promises, then back to the stalls for Buzzcocks. 

I remember interviewing Pete Shelley and Steve Diggle at Shepherds Bush Empire in spring 2003, both of them affably batting away any production questions. ‘We just have the basics. I’m still learning stuff about the guitar, noise and sound,” Diggle shrugged. 

“Mixing desks are a lot shinier. They are not the beer-stained Bakelite things they used to be,” Shelley chuckled. 

More than 16 years on, fans old and young filled the Royal Albert Hall for a unique show from big band Buzzcocks, with up to 11 singers and players banging out an unforgettable set of songs, thick with emotion. Steve Diggle shifting from his traditional spot stage right to Shelley’s place in the middle.

“He’s up there, he’s in here and he’s watching you,” Diggle says as he opens the show with the band’s current line-up augmented by guitarist Noko late of Luxuria and Magazine. 

Buzzcocks burst through Fast Cars, Promises and Why She’s A Girl From The Chainstore, Diggle handling vocals on all three, before the guests start to come on. ‘Classic line-up’ drummer John Maher and bassist Steve Garvey provide the rhythm behind Captain Sensible, Pauline Murray, Peter Perrett – who looks equally vulnerable and moved in his take on Why Can’t I Touch It? – all of whom give the lyrics their own interpretation. 

Then comes the Damned’s Dave Vanian who’s chosen the weaving, Shelley ad-lib-style What Do I Get and, aptly, Something’s Gone Wrong Again. The words escape him pretty much, beyond the titles, which he trots out when the band least expects it, but Vanian’s charisma carries him through and it’s fabulous. 

The much more studied, and very loud, Thurston Moore follows with Time’s Up and Noise Annoys and we’re into the home run culminating with everyone on the Royal Albert Hall’s famous stage singing Pete’s signature song, Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve). 

The applause, the whoops, the cheers and the tears are huge. A fantastic night of perfect pop songs in an amazing setting with razor-sharp sound. Pete Shelley would have loved it, grandeur et al.

I believe in the web of fate
And I believe in I’m going to be late
So I’ll be leavin’
What I believe in…

Adam is the co-founder and editor of www.eventindustrynews.com Adam, a technology evangelist also organises Event Tech Live, Europe’s only show dedicated to event technology and the Event Technology Awards. Both events take place in November, London.