Sound wave-tracking technology and meticulous modeling have transformed modern concert halls to create a richer audience experience.
The sweeping, sloping wooden walls of the Philharmonie de Paris, a concert hall that opened earlier this year, make it look like a shiny, abstract work of art. Yet its acoustics — some of the best of any hall in existence, with the curves helping to diffuse the music — are more a work of science.
The hall’s designers ran countless simulations using custom-built software, testing how sound waves reached every single seat in various designs until they got it just right.
“We can know almost everything about each audience member’s experience,” said Yasuhisa Toyota, who designed the acoustics for the Philharmonie de Paris, as well as many others.
Breakthroughs in processing power and software development have enabled staggering leaps in 3D imaging and modeling. Architects and acoustics engineers equipped with advanced software can more easily experiment with and test designs that wouldn’t have been practical when most models were made with wood and cardboard.
Instead of producing hundreds of physical models while planning a building, architects today build many more digital models, saving time and money.
“The highest possible value for knowledge is to know the right thing, at the right time and in the right place,” said Eric Mantion, Developer Evangelist at Intel. “Because 3D modeling will soon be possible on the same mobile platform that will support 3D scanning, the utility that the construction industry will enjoy should climb immeasurably.”
Mantion also explained that using tools like Intel’s RealSense 3D camera technology, architects can compare 3D rendering with the real thing.
In the past, concert hall design was a process of trial and error. Some halls, like the Musikverein in Vienna, built in 1863, are still revered for their acoustics. But much more often, halls “were knocked down because they had bad acoustics,” Toyota said.
Designers of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, built in 2003, used about 50 digital models and 50 physical models of differing scales, said Craig Webb, the lead architect on the project.
Webb’s firm, Gehry Partners, started by legendary architect Frank Gehry, launched its own tech subsidiary in 2002 to develop software and tools that enable architects to scan as many as 50,000 points on physical shapes to generate 3D digital models.
These models, Webb said, help architects and acousticians test and design curved walls and ceilings in ways older, 2D software couldn’t support. The ease of modeling has encouraged them to try things they previously wouldn’t have.
“Today, we can do sound and light wave tracing to anticipate volume and quality of sound distribution,” said Jürgen Reinhold, project director for German acoustics company Müller BBM, who helped design the Mariinsky II opera theater in St. Petersburg, Russia. “With the sounds we get from computer calculations, we can modify the room digitally, [then] listen again to the sounds with changed seat patterns, materials, or surface design.”
He added that while altering a physical model could take a week, testing something new on a computer can be done on a single workstation within a day. Mantion adds that as the technology comes to the handheld form, and architect can use a tablet to scan spaces and go from there.
The result: concert halls full of subtle design details that improve the aesthetics and acoustics of the concert-going experience. Here are some design secrets in three modern concert halls that were only made possible by new modeling technology.
Walt Disney Concert Hall
A state-of-the-art hydraulic system enables easy reconfiguration. Sections can be raised for choral groups to stand on; entire sections of seats can be removed to expand the stage.
They are 2.25 inches thick, and don’t have any hardware, locking devices, or latches. Vestibules between them lock in sound.
The hall’s wooden walls are backed with 4 inches of concrete to provide better bass reverberation.
The flat surfaces of the vineyard-style terraced seating increase sound amplification by reverberation.
Designed to give performers and audience members a sense of time and weather while blocking out city sounds, the skylights are made with four layers of glass. Four feet of air is contained between the top and bottom layers to create sound vacuums.
Mariinsky II Theatre
The orchestral pit
Musicians in this opera theater play in a pit with movable platforms to achieve the desired sound balance. Louder instruments like the tuba and timpani can be positioned toward the back of the pit on a lowered platform, while string players can play on a raised platform.
The balcony floors
Two layers of large beams below the balcony floor enable the parquet surface to carry vibrations to the legs of audience members, allowing them to hear and feel the music.
The horseshoe shape of the theater focuses the music in a small point. Back walls with convex elements spread around the sound.
The best seats
The theater’s cheapest seats, in the front of the top gallery, are acoustically the best. This section receives lots of direct sound and ceiling reverberations.
The wood backrests of the seats reflect sounds. Ceilings and walls are made of plaster to provide bass support, and the railings are made of single pieces of heavy wood cut in acoustical shapes to spread sound energy.
Philharmonie de Paris
Designed to act like an instrument itself, the wooden stage with a large pocket of air beneath vibrates from contact with the instruments like the double bass, cello and piano. This reflects sound back into the space.
The tiers and parterre seating are retractable, increasing the audience capacity from 2,400 to 3,650 people.
Audience members and performers face one another in close proximity — the maximum distance between the conductor and a spectator is 105 feet — which intensifies the intimacy of the experience.
The design process
The designers made many small-scale models to test sound. Mini microphones and speakers tested sounds on the model stages. The team then made adjustments to eliminate any echoes.
Womb-like sections surround the stage. Curved wood surfaces reflect sound. The audience of this “vineyard style” concert hall sits in tiered rows surrounding the stage.