Hall or Nothing

$136m is a lot to throw at a refurb, but Hamer Hall’s technical department isn’t complaining.


20 August 2013

When concert halls have a major overhaul, often times the architect is given a blank cheque and the technical departments have to squabble over loose change like seagulls after a dropped souvlaki.

The Victorian Arts Centre’s Hamer Hall refurb was different. Yes, there are a couple of new restaurants and bars, and there’s now access to the Yarra River walk. But mostly the overhaul was all about the auditorium itself — the acoustics, and the technical capabilities.

And it was very much required. 

Since Hamer Hall’s opening in 1982, ‘concert halls’ have become multipurpose and multi-functional. Concert halls need more than an announcer’s tannoy, they need full-blown concert PA systems and a room that can handle high SPL.

Hamer Hall for some years now has been doing its darnedest to move with the times. In fact, prior to it closing down for renovations, there were actually more amplified gigs than there were Melbourne Symphony Orchestra concerts [the MSO being the principal ‘tenant’].

The $136m overhaul is a triumph for the technical team. Led by Head of Production, Frank Ward, the tech team’s initial ‘blue sky’ brainstorming has been rewarded with a world-leading performing arts centre.

But first, the acoustics.


The Hamer Hall upgrade recognised the fact the auditorium itself needed urgent attention. The sound of the hall was seriously lacking. What could only be described as an acoustics dream team was engaged. Marshall Day and Kirkegaard Associates tag-teamed on the acoustics, while Schuler Shook undertook the theatre consultancy duties.

Identifying the problems wasn’t difficult. The MSO complained they couldn’t hear each other or the room/audience — there was a serious disconnect. This unfortunate acoustic quirk of the room meant the stalls area nearest the stage (for the people in the expensive seats) was less than immersive. In fact, committed MSO patrons would often plumb for the cheap $25 tickets in the dress circle because it provided a better sonic experience.

Superficially, since the refurb, the hall doesn’t look transformed. The differences may appear subtle but they are profound. Acute angles in the stage surrounds have been softened. The upper balcony ‘arms’ and walls near the stage have been removed, allowing a more pleasing reverberation to develop in the room. The floor area of the stalls has been narrowed by three metres and in so doing has decreased the overhang from the circle above — which has made the room more acoustically ‘intimate’, providing for a greater sense of envelopment. Good envelopment brings patrons psycho-acoustically closer to the orchestra and comes as a result of hearing diverse sources of reflections — not just the wall next to you.

Lastly, as a couple of acoustic glacé cherries, a flocked paint has been applied to the rear walls to reduce some of the HF zing for people nearest the boundaries, and deployable acoustic drapes are available to dampen down the room further if required.

Oh, and then there’s the ‘variable acoustical reflector’. If the special paint and drapes are the ‘glacé cherries’ then the reflector must be the gold foil… or the shavings of priceless truffles. This thing is something to behold.


See the variable acoustic reflector in action on the AudioTechnology YouTube channel.


Don’t be fooled by the understated architectural appearance, Hamer Hall’s variable acoustic reflector is a total monster. Each of the five panels tilt on four axes to fine tune the reflected sound, it allows for flybars and mic reelers to drop up and down, and can be folded away for an amplified gig — all in a matter of seconds.


1 x TX-816 rack, 2 x TX-802s, 2 x Oberheim Matrix 6Rs, 5 x Matrix 1000s, and a PC hosting Synthogy Ivory for piano sounds, all fed into a ProTools 5 system running on a Mac G4 four-slot computer housing 2 x ProTools cards, 2 x SampleCell II cards, and an instance of Soft SampleCell. The ProTools rig is just for mixing (no sequences or other virtual instruments or audio playback), with the hardware fed into 3 x 888 interfaces and the SampleCells fed directly into the TDM bus and showing up as inputs (cards) or ReWire instruments (Soft SampleCell) in ProTools.


Any acoustical performance on stage with sky-high ceilings is going to need a reflector overhead of some sort in order to take the sound and bounce it back to the musicians so they can hear themselves playing and also to reflect it out into the audience. Building such a reflector permanently into the architecture isn’t such a big deal, but when you’ve got a rock band with thousands of watts of foldback going full throttle, these reflectors become a total sonic liability.

Previously, Hamer Hall had the traditional ’80s acoustic dishes suspended above the stage but they provided patchy assistance at best. What’s more, the area above the stage was a mess. The acoustic dishes weren’t as ugly as they could have been thanks to the even-uglier PA rigging and lighting bars concealing them from full view.

So the trick for Hamer Hall was to design an elegant system that could be flown in and out, and, what’s more, not interfere with the operation of fly bars and winches. As far as the team was concerned, such a system didn’t currently exist anywhere, so it needed designing from scratch. Bob Shook, principal of US-headquartered theatre consultants, Schuler Shook, picks up the story:

“We wanted to ensure the hall had a new degree of technical sophistication in order to keep to a schedule: the Melbourne Symphony on Wednesday night, Tina Arena on Thursday night and Circus Oz on Friday night. And the people that do that want the minimum of labour and time spent going from one setup to another.

“Schuler Shook introduced the idea of the ‘Technical Zone’ over the stage. It’s an insertion into the auditorium. Its primary purpose is to contain a sophisticated degree of mechanical and automated rigging. It allows stage lighting, stage scenery and stage effects to be raised above the stage with a minimum of person-power. And it also supports the new acoustical reflector.”

Ah, yes, the pièce de résistance, the acoustical reflector…

Bob Shook: “The new acoustical reflector is the result of a collaboration between the acousticians, Kirkegaard Associates and Marshall Day, Ashton Raggatt McDougall (ARM) as architects, and Schuler Shook as theatre consultants. An acoustical reflector has to fulfil so many different roles: It has to first and foremost work for the orchestra, and for other different types of acoustic music performed in Hamer Hall. It also has to look like it belongs in the space. That was ARM’s task. Schuler Shook’s role was to design something that could be there when necessary and not be there when it wasn’t, and to be there in different configurations depending on the type of event.

“The reflector itself weighs about 12 tonnes and can be reset into a number of different configurations [i.e. it’s not just either up or down; it can be re-shaped] and minimised when it’s not needed for non-symphonic events — all in less than a minute.”

The design was handed to Jands which engineered the five panels, and according to all sources did so ‘magnificently’. It fulfils quite a formidable brief: the assembly of each of the five panels tilts on four axes; the panels house the orchestra lighting; the panels contain penetrations for the microphone reelers and pin spots to drop through; there are slots for the flybars and some lighting rig to fly under the reflectors; each panel is three metres wide but is only 0.8 metres when folded away; one of the panels has a middle section that lifts independently to allow passage for the centre speaker cluster…

We’ve put a short video of the panels in action on our website. Have a look and I’m sure you’ll agree that these panels are as beautiful as they are ingenious.


Keen to hear the PA in action and (perhaps unfairly) blanching at the prospect of a night with Tina Arena, I secured a berth at one of the Philip Glass Qatsi concerts.

For those who weren’t earnest young students in the ’90s, the Qatsi trilogy sees Philip Glass’s music set to film. The music is mesmerising and so are the visuals. 

The Hamer Hall’s new Meyer rig barely raised a sweat during the performance — actually, it barely got up out of the couch. In fact, eight rows into the auditorium there were occasions when I was hearing the sound of the saxophonist keying up and down his horn… acoustically… over the sound of the PA.

Saying that, the PA sounded very, very sweet. The principal instrumentalist, the cello, had an AKG C414 set a foot in front of it and it was gorgeous.

FOH engineer, Dan Dryden, has been with Philip Glass for about 25 years. He keeps a database of all the venues he’s played and could tell you when he was last at the Arts Centre and on how many occasions.

“You just don’t want to make it about the sound system. I mean the sound system is there to serve the music and the performance. It’s not there to be the focus. And it [the new Meyer rig] seems to do that just fine.”

The Philip Glass ensemble is a peculiar beast. Apart from a smattering of instrumentals and a percussionist there are eight keyboardists (including Glass himself, who doesn’t conduct the ensemble). To say the keyboards aren’t anything special would be an understatement — they’re a Peavey model from way-back-who-knows-when. The keyboards send MIDI to a venerable ProTools rig and an even older rack of ’80s synth modules [more detail later].

Although the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ ethos is admirable, there comes a time when if it does break, you can’t fix it. And this is now proving to be the problem with the ageing Yamaha FM synth hardware, where the TX816 remains a permanent fixture on the eBay watch list of Philip Glass’s long-time (he joined the ensemble in 1974) musical director, Michael Riesman. As it happens Michael is well on the way to modernising the keyboard rig, having already had a hit out with the new setup, using host software Plogue Bidule.

Michael Riesman: “The new rig consists of 7 x Mac Mini servers, each connected to an M-Audio ProFire 610 interface for MIDI and audio. Each player in the ensemble has his own dedicated computer. I chose this Mini model because it has a quad-core processor and dual 500GB internal hard drives. I’m not using any server functions on it. The second internal drive is a clone of the first, maintained by Carbon Copy Cloner — whenever the machine boots up, the clone is updated and older files archived. All computers are run headless via Ethernet from a MacBook. All machines have identical software loads, except for their manual IP addresses and desktop pictures which have the computer name embedded in them so I can tell which one I’m looking at. I have written a number of custom Applescript applications to manage sync between machines.

“What I like most about the new rig is how compact and simple it is. We are going to be saving a lot on shipping. For redundancy, because all units are essentially identical, we will carry only one spare Mini and one spare ProFire 610. All seven of the Minis and the spare fit into a single vertical-mount 4U rack shelf unit. Additionally we have 2 x eight-port Gigabit switches on another shelf (two because we actually need nine ports, counting the controlling machine, but if one of those should fail we could still function). An interconnect panel for audio and MIDI on the back of the rack finishes out the hardware.”

As for a preferred soft-piano, Michael has been using the Synthogy Ivory grand piano emulation, specifically the New York, Berlin and Vienna Grand, each handling part of the register. “It’s good. But Synthogy has switched from challenge-response authorisation to i-Loks. It’s one more thing to worry about. No i-Lok, no show. I won’t do it. Everything has to be pre-authorised. Forget any dongles. So that’s why I’m not using the Ivory yet on the laptop.”

Thanks to www.plogue.com for some of this info.


Filling the acoustically-transformed auditorium with amplified sound is a new Meyer Sound PA. It replaces the old Meyer MSL4-based system and was selected as a result of a rigorous appraisal process. With Meyer’s D-Mitri acting as the digital matrix backbone, 12 system inputs feed a whopping 102 outputs. From input stage, there are three Digico stage racks (two on stage and one upstairs for the flown orchestral mics) addressed by the two Digico SD7 consoles via an Optocore fibre-based network loop. The audio travels out of the Digico systems via AES digital into D-Mitri, with D-Mitri going about its business in AVB (Audio Video Bridging protocol) via a dual-redundant Cat-6A network.

Nick Caroll, Head of Sound: “We have two DCM [D-Mitri Core Matrix] units. One’s a redundant unit. Then from three DCPs [D-Mitri Core Processing units] — one of them is a spare — we run AVB [a new audiovisual transmission standard] to all the output/input boxes and two AVB streams on different switches to get to the different nodes.”

With 102 outputs you’d think perhaps that every speaker in the house is individually addressable. Erm… not quite.

The main L/R Milo arrays (nine elements per side) are complemented by four Melodie delay hangs (six per side with an HP500 flown sub). A low-profile centre cluster of eight Minas takes care of conductor announcements. UPM-1P speakers are used for under-balcony fill to refresh the high-end deeper into the room. Two lines of front fill speakers are installed, depending on whether the orchestra pit is being used or not. Additional, high-powered front fill can be brought in to line the front of stage for high-SPL shows.

If seating is occupying the orchestra pit floor space, the main PA hangs can track back, downstage, by 2.5 metres to ensure those front rows don’t have sound directly overhead.

The system design allows for a ‘clean stage’ configuration — for dance events, AGMs, smaller amplified shows and the like — where two layers of recessed Mina arrays in the stage surrounds take care of infill duties. These arrays sit behind perforated panels and are all-but invisible. For acts that require a greater level of amplification and have on-stage monitoring, the technical team can bring out ground-stacks on stage — each comprises five Meyer Melodie mid/high units and two 700HP subs.

In its acoustic configuration, doors close over the ‘invisible’ in-fill arrays, ensuring the room gets the full benefit of those crucial first reflections from stage. Saying that, two slots remain either side of stage for Meyer’s brand new CAL steerable array to ‘poke’ through. CAL is being used for emergency announcements and in conjunction with the Mina centre cluster when the conductor has something to say. It’s the first installation of CAL worldwide.

How’s it sound? Probably the best person to answer that question would be Head of Sound, Nick Caroll, who can’t wipe the smile off his face.

Nick Caroll: “We had [legendary system optimisation engineer] Bob McCarthy in to align the PA and like us he was amazed by how even the sound pressure levels are in this room. Front to back he couldn’t remember a more even room.”


In extensive, expensive and complicated renovation jobs such as this, rarely does the operator, the engineer, or the resident ensemble really get what they want. Everyone goes in with the best intentions but budgets and technical compromises more often than not blunt the scope and execution.

Occasionally we hear about good news stories, and Hamer Hall looks to be one of them. From the outset, Head of Production Frank Ward sat his team down and asked them to forget about budgets for a minute and simply dream — what would their ideal setup look like? ‘Sure, sure…’ you can sense the scepticism that must have been in the room even now. But according to Frank, 36 of the 40 points on the wish list have been realised. And in my book, I give that an ‘A’. 


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