From what was once the heart of England's industrial epicenter, a new performing arts venue has risen. The Sage Gateshead is a $128 million venue for live music that is part of the city's blossoming cultural center; it sits adjacent to the BALTIC Center for Contemporary Art, the Gateshead Millennium Bridge, and the Tyne Bridge, further adding to the city's elegant skyline.

The Sage Gateshead is also home to host orchestra, the Northern Sinfonia, who, until the new complex was completed in December, had to play in the Newcastle City Hall next to a community swimming pool. In fact, local teens splashing and diving could be easily heard during many of the Sinfonia's performances, not to mention the constant call of traffic just outside the Hall's doors. There was also a rock venue called the Newcastle Riverside that was very famous in the 1980s when it hosted The Tube television show. However, since its doors closed in the early 1990s, performance venues for rock and pop acts in the area were limited. The new Sage Gateshead has changed all that.

Commissioned by the Gateshead Council, this new landmark building is at the heart of the city's regeneration and is the first performing arts building designed by Foster and Partners, with Theatre Projects Consultants (TPC) serving as consultants, and Arup Acoustics as acousticians. Funded by the largest Arts Lottery grant outside London, this is more than just a concert hall; it also contains a 25-room Music Education Center, two music spaces — Hall One and Hall Two — and the Northern Rock Foundation Hall for rehearsal and performance. The facility is envisioned as a venue where the entire community can congregate to experience music together.

TPC director, Alan Russell, who was responsible for the technical theatre design, notes that good acoustics and superb architecture were not enough for this project. “The Sage Gateshead is first and foremost there for the people — it serves the whole community, and is a home for music and musical discovery, encouraging audiences to cross over from the popular into the more demanding,” he says. However, despite such lofty aspirations, the complex must “pay its way” by offering a wide range of musical performances, concerts with amplified music, conferences, semi-staged events, and even dance. Russell led the TPC team that included Iain Mackintosh, who was responsible for theatre planning and auditorium design, and Mark Stroomer, the company's design director, who was responsible for the concepts for Hall One.

Since the concert halls are going to be used for a variety of purposes, it was essential that the acoustics be just as variable. “The acoustic requirements for choral works, 18th century chamber music, a 19th century romantic symphony, and a solo pianist are different,” Russell explains, “and Arup Acoustics determined the need for variable acoustics for each music space in the building.” For example, the ceiling of Hall One is comprised of six moving sections that adjust to appease the acoustical requirements for the performers as well as the listeners.

CEILING IS BELIEVING

With acoustics among the highest priorities, Arup Acoustics took the lead in the technical design of Hall One. In order to achieve flexibility in both clarity and reverb, Arup proposed a sectioned ceiling that could be raised and lowered. While other facilities have been equipped with movable ceilings, Hall One is the first to use its upper parameters as a controllable, coupled volume. The ceiling comprises six panels, each weighing 14 tons, and TPC, particularly Russell, was responsible for the design and specification of the counterweight and control systems. “Our input started with the process of accommodating the required number of seats, all of which could see the stage, in a way which we knew was sympathetic to the acoustic requirements, and then helping to develop this to satisfy the acoustician and the architect,” he explains.

The ceiling panels are controlled by an automated system installed by Stage Technologies and Street Crane Xpress. Stage Technologies also provided two Nomad control desks and Solo handheld controllers. In addition to the ceiling panels, the Stage Technologies' control system provides automation for three loudspeaker hoists and ceiling hatches, five lighting trusses, four point hoists for single or double purchase, and control of 16 Chain Master chain hoists.

The acoustics were by far the driving force in the volume and the basic shape of Hall One. To that end, the stalls (the orchestra section to us in the US) had to be somewhat shallow so that they would not absorb too much of the sound. The balcony overhangs are also somewhat restricted so as not to inadvertently baffle the sound for the listeners seated below. The width and depth needed to be within calculated limits for a good balance of sound reflection. Sound was not the only concern; to provide improved sightlines in Hall One, subtle “dishing” of the floor was included which is a complex curvature that improves sightlines to the very ends of the rows and even gives a perceptible “3D” effect for the audience.

The decision was made early on to not build a hall that was too large, according to Raj Patel, principal-in-charge, Arup Acoustics. “Too many people have made the mistake of building big, 2,200-seat halls and have compromised the acoustical quality that you get in the great late 19th century classical music halls,” he explains. To that end, the seating in Hall One was limited to 1,650 for a more intimate feel, as well as to be better able to serve the variety of performers that would occupy the space.

“The moving ceiling allows us to configure the room so we can provide a specific reflection sequence from the ceiling, or we can move them in unison to block off the upper volume of the room and globally reduce the reverberance. We also have sound-absorbing curtains that are retractable and cover 95% of the wall surface. So we go from having a very live classical concert hall, with a mid-frequency reverberation of about 2.3 seconds, down to a mid-frequency reverberation of sub 1 second for rock and pop and fully amplified events in there with no problem at all,” says Patel.

Since the facility's opening in December, the acoustics of Hall One have gotten stellar reviews, not just from the lay press and the audiences, but from the one person who should know the facility almost as well — if not better — than the designers, head of technical operations Chris Durant.

“Hall One is one of the most amazing acoustic spaces I have been in,” he says. “It provides a detailed and rich musical experience that is as complimentary for a soloist or a 130-piece symphony orchestra. When we deploy the acoustic treatment, it sounds good for pretty much all types of amplified music. The noise thresholds throughout the building are so low that the music really does now die away to nothing.”

According to Patel, the other major challenge was getting a sound system that worked well with the acoustics of Hall One. “This was achieved by designing and modeling a line array system for the room with optimized characteristics,” he says. “We then developed this with the eventual contractor, Duran Audio, to the final installed system.” The installed system in Hall One included seven Duran AXYS U-16 mid-high boxes left and right, with six in the center; B215 sub cabinets placed on stage, three on each side, for amplified music; and two Duran AXYS Intellivox DS280 column loudspeakers hidden in the edges of the platform surround. The consoles are a 40-channel Midas Verona front of house, complemented by a 40-channel Midas Sienna for stage monitoring. Stage monitors are Martin Audio LE series, and front of house and stage monitor processing includes BSS, XTA and KT products.

Another innovative piece of equipment used in Hall One was the Chaintrack system supplied by Triple E, which facilitated compact storage of the huge acoustic curtains. Triple E conducted simulated tests of the Chaintrack system, which at the time it was chosen was a relatively unknown product, to ensure it could promise a working life of 20+ years. “The attic provides a home for the permanent and temporary mechanized suspensions,” Russell says. “So it's possible to hang up lights, curtains, screens and banners, etc., yet all the kit can be hidden away during concerts.”

10 WALLS ARE BETTER THAN 4

If Hall One is the traditional “shoebox” concert hall, then the more intimate Hall Two is the polar opposite, according to Patel, and is more avant-garde. Hall Two seats 600, has a flat floor, and a moving stage. “The interesting thing about the hall is that the client said at the beginning that it must be equally well suited for small groups doing chamber music or folk music, but they also wanted us to think about how music will be performed in the future and give them a room that will accommodate that,” Patel says. “One of the things we thought about early on was how to do avant-garde music in three dimensions. We were really thinking about how surround sound technology would affect performances.” The room was also envisioned as a space where electronic music could be created, a concept that Patel says will extend the relationship between the audience and the composer.

Hall Two is very diffuse and has a reverberant space above the audience and performers, making it very much like a traditional chamber music recital room so popular in Europe in previous centuries. “For all intents and purposes it is a circle; it's a decagon,” he says. “The internal walls have a bold surface to them so there are no sound-focusing problems in the room and you can put a loudspeaker on every surface. The circular geometry means that you can have players in the middle with the audience surrounding them.” He added that Hall Two can even become a cabaret space one night and a concert hall the next, “which, unless you live in London or New York, is unheard of.”

Arup Acoustics recommended convex shaping of the walls and tier-front balustrades to provide sound diffusion across the frequency spectrum and counter the focusing tendency of the form. The exact requirements for the height and volume of the upper room were specifically important for a rich sound reverberation. The performers can be at one side, or they can be in the middle of the space, and surround sound loudspeakers can be located around the perimeter of the room to encourage spatial sound composition. TPC and Street CraneXpress translated Arup's recommendations for motorized, sound-absorbing banners into a beautiful architectural feature.

Due to the halls' complex acoustics, Durant has found that it is possible to work at much lower sound levels than most engineers are used to, giving the halls more scope for increased dynamic range and detail. “We don't have to combat background noise levels of hoards of noisy moving lights and building systems like air conditioning,” he says. “We can of course do ‘loud’ but don't need to for every gig. We hope to continue experimenting with the ‘less is more’ approach to amplification so that artists can really deliver great performances that they have more control over.”

WITHOUT COMPROMISE

The design process itself proved to be an interesting period. According to Patel, there are pros in the world of concert hall design who feel that such venues should either be narrowly focused for a specific repertoire or multi-functional to meet a variety of performance needs and, consequently, the design is compromised in the process. However, since the Sage Gateshead has a range of different halls, the designers were not forced to be at one end of the spectrum or the other. “The most challenging aspect was working with [all the various performance groups] and building confidence with regard to the work they were performing and how each of the rooms could reach that pinnacle of excellence for them,” Patel says. “Coordinating that was the toughest thing to do.”

In order to gain that confidence, the design team asked the groups to list their favorite venues throughout the world to perform in and why. “We visited them all,” Patel says. “We went to each one and it allowed us to achieve a common benchmark to understand what we knew as good and bad and allowed us to proceed in earnest with the design with a much better knowledge of what everybody was going to need as opposed to just stumbling through. If we hadn't gone through that, it would've been a lot more difficult to do the project.”

As a “techie,” Durant is ecstatic with being provided such a state-of-the-art environment, but the structure is only the beginning. “We have been provided with great rooms and infrastructure. Of course we have to be happy with that,” he says. “If we had bad rooms and lousy cabling then whatever we put in it would be an uphill struggle from the start. Equipment-wise we got a good base of equipment that we have supplemented with industry-standard tools. My team has worked really hard to create a kit list that will work across a huge range of musical styles — we will continue to develop our stock so that it reflects what people actually want to use.”

The Sage Gateshead is also somewhat of an anomaly in that it puts on many of the concerts that take place rather than just hosting visiting tours. “We engage the artists and they turn up and use our equipment,” he says. “We have a team of sound engineers who come and work with us regularly and we are working with them to perfect the way we work in the spaces.”

Foster and Partners' Norman Foster had a unique vision for the Sage Gateshead, since he has always believed that the arts are an essential part of the life of a city. “The arts can inspire and educate,” he says. “They can also be a force for the revitalization of a city district. When we designed The Sage Gateshead, it was foremost in our minds that the project should not only contribute to the urban regeneration of Gateshead, and symbolize the cultural emergence of Tyneside, but also provide an ‘urban living room’ in which the local community can enjoy a wide range of music.”