Breaking barriers of sound and language at Auto Shanghai 2023
At first glance an inconspicuous cuboid venue, Lightroom presents a blank canvas set to host a varied program of original creative content. The opening show ‘DAVID HOCKNEY: BIGGER & CLOSER (not smaller and further away)’ is set to be the first in a series of unique exhibitions, created in collaboration with leading artists and innovators.
The Hockney experience is as astonishing visually as it is alive with sound. The show features a specially created score written by American contemporary composer Nico Muhly and sound design by Olivier and Tony award-winning sound designer Gareth Fry. Lightroom’s sound system is supplied by Berlin-based pro audio company HOLOPLOT’s revolutionary X1 Matrix Array and was installed by the industry-leading integrator and HOLOPLOT partner, Creative Technology.
Four and a half years in the making, Lightroom was conceived by award-winning design studio and production company, 59 Productions, and is a joint venture between them and London Theatre Company, the creative engine behind the Bridge Theatre. The ‘Bigger & Closer’ exhibition allows the audience to enter into Hockney’s thought process and creative motivation, generating new perspectives on some of his most well-known, as well as more recent works.
“We’ve produced many large-scale projection mapping shows, exhibitions, and theatre shows, but we’ve never had our own space,” says Lightroom CEO, Richard Slaney, the former CEO of 59 Productions. “With immersive shows cropping up all over, we wanted to do something different. Hockney was top of our list of artists, so we emailed him to see if he was interested. Not only did he say yes, but he’s dedicated the last three years to the project. The idea of working with him was ours, but the show itself is entirely his creation."
“It’s hard to imagine from the outside, but the basement itself is 14m deep, allowing us to get projections up to 11m high,” says Slaney. “During the test phase, David came and sat next to us and talked to us about how he’d made the artworks and the stories behind them. It was then we realised this was the show we were meant to create. You want David on your shoulder, his voice in your ear, guiding you through his work. The harmonious marriage of David’s voice and Nico’s beautiful soundtrack were the two core elements, accompanied by some subtle sound effects that truly underscore the importance of audio in this unique production.”
Looking for a suitable audio solution that could turn Lightroom’s ambitious concrete structure into a smooth-sounding gallery space without compromising the 360-degree visuals, the team quickly realised that conventional loudspeaker solutions would need multiple wall cavities or mounting positions on all four walls to achieve the desired immersive effects.
“The initial brief was to consider a sound system for Lightroom that would provide good sound coverage, and also not bother the neighbours in the office above the main space,” says Fry, who has a long association with both 59 Productions and the London Theatre Company. “It had to be essentially invisible so that all four walls of highly reflective concrete could be an unhindered projection surface from floor to ceiling. It was an immense challenge because as built, the space has a reverb time of over six seconds and there is very audible background noise of projector fans. All of this is the natural enemy of intelligible sound.”
Fry’s initial design was a traditional point source-based sound system, with speakers hidden in multiple alcoves around the space. “But I wasn’t happy,” he recalls. “It didn’t feel like it was going to end up sounding very good with very uneven coverage. That bugged me for months after I’d submitted the final design. But every time I looked for an alternative, I couldn’t find one that met the brief. Then I went to an early demo of HOLOPLOT. I knew instantly that this could be the solution to all our problems. As soon as I left the demo, I called everyone and put the previous system design on hold - and HOLOPLOT was kind enough to arrange a special demo so everyone else could hear the system."
Fry suggested HOLOPLOT and a system design that only required two positions within the room, yet delivered more creative tools that could be used to generate immersive effects. The system not only provided the answer for the current exhibit but also paved the way for future shows.
“There are many things HOLOPLOT can do that I’ve never heard any other speaker system do. It has a bunch of magic tricks up its sleeves. But first and foremost, it gave us a sound system that could provide intelligible sound with very even coverage in a highly reverberant space. For that alone it was worth its considerable weight in gold!” he exclaims.
The final system design consists of two HOLOPLOT X1 arrays at either end of the room. Each array comprises four X1 Modul 96s and four X1 Modul 80-S, embedded and entirely hidden within predefined wall cavities, each at a different height. The acoustic centre of the East Array is at 4.61m and for the West Array at 6.66m. A traditional audio solution, with sources facing each other, would have created phase issues and spill between the sources.
Thanks to HOLOPLOT’s unique optimisation algorithms, the listening area can be defined as well as the relative sound pressure level for each area. This allows for uniform coverage from each array no matter where the listener is positioned within the space. Additionally, each array is strategically placed behind colour-matched, acoustically transparent material, which preserves the integrity of the 360-degree projection surface.
The immersive effects that are used in Gareth Fry’s sound design were created with X1’s Wave Field Synthesis (WFS) capabilities to create Virtual Sources. These Virtual Sources are positioned at a set distance from the North and South walls where it was not possible to integrate arrays or point sources.
The positions of the Virtual Sources are defined inside HOLOPLOT Plan, the recently launched sound system design software allowing sound designers to visualize the impact of X1’s unique capabilities on any given space. The ‘bundled’ waves are reflected from the wall as if there is a point source positioned there, allowing the listener to localize the sound from a position where there is no array. It was key at the Lightroom experience that visitors would be able to localize sound from these reflections no matter where they are within the main space. To achieve this, multiple reflections were distributed along the North and South walls of the venue.
“The biggest challenge for the installation was getting the speakers into position,” explains Jack Strong, Creative Technology Business Development (Integrations). “But with specially designed dollies to help maneuver the cabinets, an experienced team and good planning, everything went smoothly. And now the system is in place, any adjustments needed for future projects can be done via HOLOPLOT’s software, dispensing with the need for mechanical steering or for additional cabinets to be added, which is a huge advantage.”
“The notion of having a freely adjustable speaker array without making any physical changes to it is very much a paradigm shift,” says Fry. “As sound engineers, we’re used to having microphones where you can adjust its directivity from omni to super-cardioid by flicking a switch. With HOLOPLOT, this is essentially the same, but for a loudspeaker.”
“Lightroom is huge, but it feels intimate. It’s an immersive experience but done differently. It’s more personal and evokes emotions. There’s a story within it, and it’s sequential, but you can enter at any point,” concludes Slaney. “I think we’ve raised the bar in terms of technology here. We may not be changing the base of art exhibitions, but we are certainly at a landmark moment within that range of different experiences. This is how you do it in a very particular kind of way, and HOLOPLOT has been the key to making the show ‘alive with sound’.”