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Sound solution at York’s Merchant Adventurers’ Hall

TFA looks at the issues when installing modern audio technology into an historic, 650-year-old timber building where no aesthetic compromises were possible.

TFA looks at the issues when installing modern audio technology into an historic, 650-year-old timber building where no aesthetic compromises were possible. It could be widely and perhaps fairly assumed that when modern audio technology is installed into a 650-year-old timber building, some degree of aesthetic compromise is inevitable in order to achieve a successful sonic outcome. When POLARaudio, in conjunction with installers Saville Audio Visual, was approached to provide a new speech and background music system into just such a building, the brief did not allow for such luxury. Construction of The Merchant Adventurers’ Hall in historic York began in 1357 and today, over 650 years later, it is still in use as a fully functioning museum, wedding and hospitality venue and meeting place. As one of the finest surviving medieval guild halls in the world, the facility is Grade I listed and is the largest timber-framed building in the UK still being used for its original purpose. The architectural and historical significance of this beautiful building cannot be underestimated. During its existence it has been victim to weather events and to changing fashions and each has altered its appearance to a greater or lesser degree but still it remains as a striking and evocative link with the past. Naturally, English Heritage was adamant that the fabric and appearance of one of England’s finest medieval buildings should remain as undisturbed as possible by any outside intervention.@page_break@Historically, the Merchant Adventurers were involved in the buying and selling of goods and traded with far-flung areas of Northern Europe, exporting their cargoes and returning with exciting new goods to display and sell to the people of their city. Those medieval traders would, one might think, approve of the notion that their meeting place was to be enhanced, a long time in the future, by the installation of products from equally far-flung destinations. Where mirrors, seal meat and squirrel skins from Iceland and the Baltic might once have been the order of the day, it was now to be audio equipment from the UK, Germany and the USA. POLARaudio was embarking on their own merchant adventure. The installation was to cover two separate rooms, having the capacity to operate independently in each, or across the venue as a whole. The interior of the entire building comprises a timber framework of pillars and beams, wooden floors and very little in the way of soft furnishings or surfaces. The first action was to remove some 16 existing speakers. At a stroke this would improve the aesthetic, provided that the new solution could be more discrete. Three systems were installed across the two rooms to best serve the requirements of the brief. The large room was equipped with a speech and background music system as well as a conferencing system, whilst the small room had its own speech-only system. Audio from each of these systems could be fed across all or part of the venue to retain maximum flexibility. Central to achieving the aims set out in the brief was the utilisation of two colour-matched Renkus Heinz Iconyx IC 16 speakers in the main room. These architecturally transparent speakers are designed to be heard but not seen, mounting flush on walls and pillars. In this case the two speakers blended almost invisibly on timber pillars. Replacing the aforementioned 16 speakers with two might have indeed reduced the visual impact of the system in the hall but of course that was only half the battle. The other side of the equation was to achieve near perfect sound reproduction across the whole area. The IC 16s met the challenge with style and great efficiency. The speaker technology enables sound designers to cover almost any audience area perfectly. Multiple sonic beams can be individually shaped and aimed from a single array with great precision.@page_break@In the main hall this precision was fundamental not only to ensure accurate, natural sound across the required area but also to avoid some of the pitfalls associated with the interior’s many hard surfaces and vaulted ceilings. It is no exaggeration to say that far from compromising the visual aesthetic of this most atmospheric of spaces, the installation constituted a net improvement on what had existed before, as well as improving, beyond all measure, the quality of the sound on offer. Captain Stephen Upright RN, clerk to the Company of Merchant Adventurers of the City of York could not disguise his enthusiasm: “The nature of this ancient building, which was not designed with acoustics in mind, undoubtedly presented a challenge for the design of a system to perform as the Merchant Adventurers wished it to do. In addition the 650-year-old fabric of the Hall, which makes it such a spectacular place to be, requires sensitive treatment when modern equipment is being introduced.
 “I am happy to say that all of these challenges were met in this project; the installation was trouble-free and completed to time, the quirks of fabric of the Hall were accommodated seamlessly and the appearance of the new equipment does not diminish the beauty of the space – in fact it is barely visible. Members of the Company who have for years struggled to hear speeches and presentations in the Hall are unreservedly happy at the transformation in the quality of their experiences in the building and commercial customers have been absolutely delighted by the performance. All-in-all the Company of Merchant Adventurers is an extremely content customer.”@page_break@This collaboration between POLARaudio and Saville Audio Visual demonstrated the highly constructive nature of their on-going relationship. Having operated under the acute gaze of English Heritage in a sensitive Grade I listed building, POLARaudio business development manager Mark Bromfield, was entitled to express satisfaction at a job well done: “The Heritage people were understandably quite stringent in their demand that the installation should sit as invisibly as possible in its surroundings. The Merchant Adventurer’s Hall is a beautiful building inside and out and we were conscious of our responsibility to meet this part of the brief as sympathetically as possible. 
 “Having colour matched the speakers as closely as we could, they were then installed to blend with the timber-work…the sophistication of the Iconyx speaker technology meant we could overcome the many difficulties that a space like this might present. We felt confident that we had succeeded when the first post-install visitors didn’t actually notice the speakers and yet were knocked out by the quality of the sound.”