AES Section Meeting Reports

U.K. - January 19, 2011

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Fifteen lucky members of the British Section converged on the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in London on 19th January for a technical tour. Arranged by the current chair, Bill Foster, and led by Steven Zissler, Head of Sound at the Opera House, this was a fascinating two hours behind, underneath and in front of the scenes at one of the world's most famous concert venues.

Reconstructed and extended in the late 1990s, the venue houses not only the famous opera hall but also the Linbury Studio Theatre — a 400-seat performance space that lies below ground level. The beautiful iron and glass atrium now known as the Paul Hamlyn Hall can be used as an impressive reception area or for events in its own right. The complex gets used for a whole range of different activities now that it has to pay its way more effectively. For example, the BAFTA Awards are hosted here. In fact the schedule is so busy that it's necessary to plan up to five years ahead to get an event included.

Down in the bowels, which extend three floors underground, lies a substantial studio facility include sound mixing and high definition television production. Operating on a much more commercial basis these days, the opera house produces a number of DVDs as well as hosting broadcasting organisations such as the BBC on a regular basis. It also transmits some of its productions live to selected digital cinemas via a satellite link, enabling remote patrons to experience the thrill of a live opera in high definition with surround sound. This uses high data rate MPEG-2 HD video, with Dolby Digital for the surround audio.

A Studer Vista digital sound mixer and some very nice B&W monitors kitted out the sound control room, while the television studio has a comprehensive array of Sony HD video equipment. Zissler explained that they use a lot of radio microphones these days. These are convenient for quite a lot of applications, although not always what he'd prefer to use for recordings.

Back-stage has a remarkable set of spaces to the sides of the stage where whole sets can be wheeled off in one piece between acts or productions. These are at least as big as the main stage. There's also a lift capable of carrying an articulated lorry for shifting scenery and props, as well as a build area where new sets are constructed. The main set store is miles away in Aberdare, South Wales.

Among the fascinating facts and anecdotes that Steven related, was that conductors have become more trusting of technical staff in recent years. 20 years ago the faith in technology was relatively low, but perhaps it has something to do with the rise of a more tech-savvy generation that opera production and modern technology now live more comfortably alongside each other.

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AES - Audio Engineering Society