A Mechanical Roof Tweaks Concert Acoustics In Real Time

Imagine a concert hall that adapts to each performer, during the performance.

Since humans started building large buildings, we’ve been obsessed with the acoustics of our theaters and concert halls. And despite all that time to get it right, we’re constantly deploying new materials and computer-calculated designs to create perfection in the sound of live performance.

Resonant Chamber feels like architectural acoustics has, at last, met its natural conclusion. In a huge collaboration spearheaded by design firm RVTR, engineers, composers, and designers have constructed what are essentially transforming roofs that can adapt to the sound of performers and reshape themselves to complement and amplify the audio.

"The goal is not ‘perfect’ acoustics, but rather variable acoustics for different applications," explains RVTR’s Geoffrey Thun. "To enable a single venue to provide ideal conditions for a range of music performance and audience configurations would be fantastic."

The system is described best as "rigid origami," a collection of triangle panels that hang from a track, driven by motors to shift positions on command. The panels themselves come in three varieties: One is bamboo plywood, which reflects sound. Another is porous polypropylene, which absorbs it. And the third is actually a hollow panel that’s been filled with a speaker. With these three counterbalancing tools at its disposal, the Resonant Chamber can play chess with sound waves, creating a strategic structure to match any style of performance.

But the real promise of the system is its potential to go live. "We are currently developing a customized software interface that can track, control, and predict the physical systems performance in real time," Thun explains to Co.Design. In this next model, microphones follow various frequencies to make immediate tweaks to the physical and aural landscape. Imagine a rock concert that could add a real chamber reverb to select songs, or an orchestra that could accentuate a melody without changing the volume at which it played.

As of now, RVTR is also looking to scale their prototype, with the goal of creating a 1,000-square-foot installation. "Our early system simulations suggest that the system is scalable," writes Thun. "We also anticipate that specific geometric patterns utilized to date will likely be modified as will the actuation logics moving forward—that’s why we iteratively prototype." So the Resonance Chamber of today may look much different than that of tomorrow.

Ultimately, with such a duplicable and adaptive system, RVTR could take over, not just the concert space, but any live environment in need of dynamic adjustment (busy restaurants come to mind). But until then, we’ll all have to do what we always do: ignore that obnoxiously loud bachelorette party at the next table over, and pretend the band we’re about to see won’t inevitably sound worse than they did on their studio album.

[Hat tip: The Creators Project]

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  • Bruce

    As someone who has been working in concert halls and theatres much of his adult life, I will add the following.

    Some of the worst acoustic spaces in which I have worked have been designed by "acoustic consultants" working with architects.

    Architects tend to believe that they are Frank Lloyd Wright and Da Vinci rolled into one and most acoustic consultants of my acquaintance have never actually WORKED in the spaces they create nor do they have much musical knowledge.

    The three biggest problems are discrete echos (slap), standing waves and resonance. All three greatly reduce intelligibility. When architects and their "consultants" build halls with CONCAVE rear walls, you know you are in trouble. Parallel side panels, bass traps, weird overhangs do not help either, and that's just for the audience. Concert hall platforms with parallel sides made from "textured" concrete are an accoustic abomination, and yet they keep being built.

    Expecting a string quartet to be equally "nice" in every seat in a 2500 seat auditorium is madness. the name "CHAMBER" gives you a clue. Jamming the Chicago Symphony into a shoebox is equally stupid.

    Then, as soon as you introduce amplification, EVERYTHING changes. You now have point or line sources of extreme power that introduce such goodies as sympathetic resonances in the structure if the building, not to mention nasty comb-filtering effects all over the auditorium. Furthermore, these amplified sources are physically displaced from the actual acoustic source. The current fad for huge "Line Arrays", whilst allowing "focused" coverage, introduces a lot of interestinf interference effects all over the audience space. A good line array is actually curved and should be kept away from side walls. They work well outdoors: amusingly, they are a modern variation of the old column speakers some of us grew up with in the bad old days.

    The problem is that line arrays tend to be used like gigantic home stereo systems; all very nice for the person at the sweet-spot of the mixing console, but not always pleasant for some other folk. I have spent a lot of time rigging audio systems for musical theatre and much prefer the much more difficult but effective old-school method of rigging speakers based on what they are to project and to where they are to project it. This includes the careful use of a CENTRE speaker cluster to ensure focused, coherent VOCALS. Time alignment is ESSENTIAL.

  • Suleman Ali

    It demonstrates the potential that exists for sound manipulation, which presumably could be applied to all sorts of other situations such as restaurants or even people's homes