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Orchestral Acoustics 101: Vineyard vs. Shoebox

Are visual intimacy and sonic-envelopment mutually exclusive?

Christopher Blair –  full time acoustician, part-time conductor, 2nd time blogger. Following up on our previous discussion of acoustic conditions for orchestral players, comes a discussion of the two most popular ways of arraying the audience for concerts, along with the acoustical and visual advantages and disadvantages typically encountered in each.  The question for today’s exploration is how many of these positive and negative attributes are hard-wired into these configuration options, or might there be a ”middle-way” that can achieve the best of both worlds?

For those readers that may be unfamiliar with insider jargon, traditional “shoebox”-shaped concert halls have their design roots in the 18th and 19th Century court ballroom form in which the classical orchestral concert was born. The prototypical shoebox room is tall, narrow, with parallel side walls, and most of the audience is formally arrayed in front of the orchestra. The main floor seating is on the flat or shallowly raked. Overhanging balconies and side tiers are often employed in an attempt to bring listeners closer to the performers.

Positive acoustical attributes most often associated with shoebox halls are an even distribution of sound to all seats, blending of the various orchestral sections into a unified whole, and the sense of being immersed in reverberant energy everywhere in the room.  On the negative side of the roster for some of these rooms are distance of some seats from the stage, less than optimal sightlines (some side tier seats in Vienna’s esteemed Musikvereinssaal have no view of the stage), and less clarity than might be optimal for some intricately scored repertoire.

“Vineyard” rooms are, for the most part, a 20th Century development in concert hall design, following an arena concept that wraps the audience around the performers.  The result is that the audience is seated closer to the performers, in a less hierarchal arrangement than found in the shoebox model. These rooms are typically wide, with audiences organized in terraces around the orchestra,  and whose wall surfaces provide critical early reflections of acoustic energy.  Audience seating is more steeply raked than is common in shoebox halls for both visual and acoustical reasons. There is a large seating area located behind the orchestra.

In general, vineyard halls are viewed most positively for the intimate physical relationship between audience and performer, and the strong sonic impact which accompanies that condition. Clarity is typically high, which is a real positive for modern works employing large and enthusiastic percussion sections, but may detract from sectional blending, flattering to earlier styles of music.  On the downside, the acoustic experience often varies widely from seating area to seating area, particularly in the seats behind the orchestra when there is a soloist, and reverberation may only be noticeable at the end of stopped chords.

What are the acoustic conditions that create the discrepancies between these perceptions?  If you paid attention to Chapter 1 of this series and think “forward masking”, you are on the right track.

A common design feature of shoebox hall is the zone at the top half of the room known as the “hard cap”. The parallel side walls in this zone and their minimal acoustic absorption give rise to a localized extended reverberation time. Once this resonant reservoir of acoustic energy becomes excited by a transitioning soundwave, it can take a long time for this energy to decay and propagate back downward to the seats. The result is a very audible and enveloping reverberant response, which also serves to even out spatial variations in the room and promote sectional blending.

In addition, because the direct propagation distance from the orchestra to the listener are usually longer, and the lower side walls not shaped to direct early reflections in preferential ways, the early energy arrival at your seat in a shoebox hall is likely to be somewhat less powerful than may be found in vineyard halls. This, in turn, renders the later energy easier to hear.

The early-to-late energy conflict and associated auditory masking found in many vineyard halls may be traced back to a single basic acoustic design philosophy:  that early energy is good (true) and that more is better (not so true, as it turns out). Vineyard halls today are designed with their wall and ceiling surfaces carefully oriented to direct strong first order reflections into the various seating areas.  This design technique serves to “ground” early energy in the audience, thereby increasing loudness and clarity. The louder the early energy, the less audible the consequently weaker late energy will be.  There is no free lunch when it comes to apportioning energy over time.

Moreover, musical instruments are directional radiators, and if the discrete reflecting surfaces are not aligned in a particular way, spatial variations in the strength and tonal color of various orchestra sections are observed.

One possible method for combining the best physical and acoustic attributes of both types of rooms might be to redirect some of the very early reflected energy characteristic of a vineyard-style room design upward, away from the audience, and into a tall hard cap zone similar to those found in shoebox rooms. This redirected energy then can become part of the late sound field.  Removing even a little early energy in this way would rescue a great deal of pleasing late energy usually consigned to inaudibility.


Stay tuned for future chapters in Orchestral Acoustics 101

  • Chapter 3: “Avery Fisher Hall –what went wrong and how to fix it”
  • Chapter 4: “Beware The Seductive Model “
  • Chapter 5: “Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics”

23 Responses to Orchestral Acoustics 101: Vineyard vs. Shoebox

  1. Tonerl August 4, 2009 at 9:40 am #

    Any thoughts on Disney? I haven’t been to LA since it’s opened, but I’ve have heard glowing reports with regards to its acoustics. Have they made some of the compromises between the two styles you mention to achieve a better integration, or have these reports been colored by the visual beauty of the hall?

    • Chris Blair August 4, 2009 at 11:00 am #

      First of all, I must say that Disney Hall is a wonderfully exciting room in which to experience a concert. Visually it appears conceived as a “musical galleon” in full sail with French fry organ pipes adding a whimsical touch. Everyone should visit this room…and perhaps more than once for the most satisfying auditory results.

      I have listened to concerts while seated in several locations in the hall. The acoustic response I hear (particularly when the hall is full) varies quite a bit from section to section. The room response, in general, is as advertised: loud and very clear. Perhaps a bit too clear for my taste, since on my first visit I could pick out the contributions of individual players in the first violin section during a Schumann symphony. However, for more complicated contemporary music, enthusiastically championed by Salonen during his tenure as Music Director of the Philharmonic, clarity is an asset and this room has as much as anyone would probably want.

      While an “optimal” 2.0 second reverberation time has been claimed for the hall, I only actually hear it at the end of stopped chords. Late reverberant energy is weak, and to my ears seems to live in the corners of the room.

      So Disney Concert Hall does not follow today’s blogged suggestions for a hybrid hall design. Frankly, I know of no existing hall that does, though some come closer than others. These suggestions may be for future designers to consider and try.

  2. Lisa Hirsch August 4, 2009 at 11:25 pm #

    I’ve been to several programs at Disney, both orchestral and chamber, and the sound is indeed spectacularly beautiful: rich, transparent, present.

  3. Deborah August 6, 2009 at 1:32 am #

    You might want to scrutinize the sound (at least from a distance) of two different concert halls that have both used the same acoustician, Yasuhisa Toyota.

    The very newest hall is in Copenhagen, which had a concert taped not long ago for broadcast and can be heard here:

    http://www.publicradio.org/tools/media/player/symphonycast/2009/07/20_sc2.pls

    Then there is the other hall, the one that suggests it is the architect Frank Gehry — due probably to his love of very curvaceous forms, particularly of the ceiling of his concert hall — as much as if not more than the acoustician, who can claim responsibility for the sound being the way it is in Los Angeles:

    http://www.publicradio.org/tools/media/player/symphonycast/2009/06/29_sc2.pls

    Only odd thing is one of the instruments in the performance (of Beethoven’s 6th) makes what sounds like sort of a duck quack. Or is that the conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, getting a bit too exuberant not just gesturally but vocally too?

    Based on the recordings, and in terms of clarity, bass, reverberance and immediacy, Disney Concert Hall to my ears is noticeably better than the hall built in Denmark and designed by Jean Nouvel.

    • Chris Blair August 6, 2009 at 8:10 am #

      Good points.

      For me it is a little bit dangerous to evaluate a hall from recordings. So much can depend upon microphone placement and mixing technique.

      I am certain that my ears are placed closer together than the microphone array in Disney, and there are only two of them (plus the mass of nonsense in between that shields one from the other).

      I have not yet heard the Nouvel/Toyota Hall in Copenhagen, but will do so in January. Preliminary reviews seem positive, but I’ll reserve judgment until then.

      I really look forward to listening for the duck quack in the Beethoven 6th. How “pastorale” is that! I know Dudamel is physically exuberant, but I wonder if he is now into channeling the spirit (and grunting) of Glenn Gould.

      • Tonerl August 6, 2009 at 8:22 am #

        “For me it is a little bit dangerous to evaluate a hall from recordings.”

        I agree. I live in Cincinnati, and when I go to a concert I hear a rich, full-bodied, transparent orchestra. When I listen to their recordings on quality equipment I hear hard, glassy, and opaque.

        As an aside, I think it colors the reputations of orchestras. Cincinnati, for example, has long had a “lightweight” string-tone reputation among listeners who’ve never heard them live. Stick them in a different hall when they’re on tour, though, and the foreign press invariably laud their sound.

        • Deborah August 6, 2009 at 10:41 am #

          Tonerl wrote: and when I go to a concert I hear a rich, full-bodied, transparent orchestra. When I listen to their recordings on quality equipment I hear hard, glassy, and opaque.

          ……………………

          But is the reverse also true? The following is a critique at highfidelityreview.com from someone named Mark Jordan, who apparently is quite familiar with the hall in your city:

          Mark Jordan at highfidelityreview.com

          I have been to a number of concerts at the Music Hall [in Cincinnati], and thus can attest that Telarc is to be saluted for making recordings there that sound much better than what an audience member can actually hear anywhere in the hall.

          The place is much larger than the average symphonic venue, and one senses that a great deal of sound gets lost above the stage and in the huge space over the audience.

          Another complication is that the stage and its support beams are all wooden, so the entire stage unit reverberates with sound, which helps power the loud passages live in concert, but also has a tendency to make the sound boomy and blurred.

          Telarc seems to have tamed the difficulties of the hall by placing their main microphones high above the front of the audience, giving one an idealized perspective of the orchestra.

          But some aspects remain troublesome. The resonating wooden stage tends to wrap up the orchestra’s sound in quieter passages, resulting in a slight fogginess in the mid-range.

          …Each level up the chain on this hybrid SACD improves the clarity, though. The CD layer is quite enjoyable, but the DSD stereo SACD layer notably improves the sense of where instruments are on the stage by increasing the front-to-back depth. Such depth might not matter in a lot of halls, but here it is critical, as the Music Hall has a rather deep stage.

          …The multi-channel layer clarifies even further, although again I should point out the difference between the audience experience in the hall and Telarc’s idealized sound: The presence of a good-sized audience in this concert hall, combined with its spaciousness, means that there’s generally very little reflection of sound off the back and side walls when you’re attending a concert. Thus, my first reaction to the multi-channel mix here was that it was a little too aggressive, drawing a little too much attention to Telarc’s avowed “discrete surround sound”. But when I considered what the hall would sound like without an audience there to absorb the sound as it rolls through the auditorium, I realized that this probably does accurately portray the amount of reflection one would hear in the empty hall.

          In sum, Telarc has made an effective recording in a less than perfect concert hall.

      • Deborah August 6, 2009 at 10:58 am #

        For me it is a little bit dangerous to evaluate a hall from recordings.

        ………

        Yes, that’s certainly true. However, within the limitations of the recording medium, it would be interesting if one of your future columns featured a variety of online audio files that you provided links to (such as the ones I posted previously), and which gave your impression of the level of accuracy they offered in re-creating the sound heard live and in person. Or sort of what a reviewer like Mark Jordan does at a site similar to highfidelityreview.com when critiquing a recording, which helps a potential buyer — assuming he or she is following honest protocol — determine whether it’s worth ordering online, or picking up at a local store, or downloading from a web site.

        • Chris Blair August 6, 2009 at 12:59 pm #

          In our practice we often make binaural recordings of rehearsals and tuning concerts at a few location in a concert hall using a dummy head with microphones in the ear canals. I usually conduct a portion of these concerts to evaluate the sound onstage as well. (I love my job!)

          When the recordings are filtered to adjust for a specific listener’s Head Related Transfer Function (HTRF for acoustics groupies)and played back at equivalent levels through correct headphones the experience is almost identical to the experiece of sitting in that seat. I know of no other technique so reliable to judge a halls performance.

          Unfortunately these recordings are authorized by the orchestras involved for my company’s research purposes only. I can not share them with the general public. No link possible. Too bad.

          If I may be permitted to blow the horn for one of my company’s projects for those that might find themselves in the Nashville area, check out a concert of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra in the new Schermerhorn Symphony Center. Sit on the main floor. Very different sound concept than found in Disney Hall in terms of clarity, blend, and reverberation, yet still powerful.

          • Robert Everist Greene December 29, 2012 at 1:35 pm #

            Different from Disney would surely be an improvement, Disney is a turkey-it sounds like a bad audio system, “clarity” derived from a cold hard bass-shy sound. Maybe the former conductor(Salonen) who thought that The Rite of Spring was the heart of the symphonic repertoire liked this sound, and arranged to get it, but it is really lousy for music that depends on tonal beauty of the Romanitc sort. I used to be a season subscriber. I no longer go at all to the LA Phil. I hear better sound at home(on a good audio system)

        • Deborah August 6, 2009 at 11:55 pm #

          …the experience is almost identical to the experiece of sitting in that seat.

          …check out a concert of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra in the new Schermerhorn Symphony Center.

          ………………..

          I would think that unless a taping of a live concert is very poorly managed by a sound engineer or group of such engineers — or is very greatly tinkered and toyed with by such people (naturally, to enhance the sound) — that at least the basic, general acoustical properties of a music hall will be detectable and preserved on a recording.

          It would be nice if you listened to the following audio file of the Nashville Symphony and described your sense of how faithful it is to actually being in that orchestra’s new home:

          (The caption of the link is: “Polyphonic.org is proud to offer a streaming audio file of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra performing Samuel Barber’s Essay No. 2…. This high quality audio file was recorded during their live Preview Concert in the Laura Turner concert hall of the brand new, $120 million Schermerhorn Symphony Center on August 31, 2006.)

          http://www.polyphonic.org/music/play.php?pls=nashville

          I listen to that recording and the sound in it seems rather decent. But it’s not until I listen to this one…

          http://www.publicradio.org/tools/media/player/symphonycast/2009/06/29_sc2.pls

          …that I realize there is a difference between decent and a situation that’s a notch or two above that. A situation where I can’t help but smile and feel my hearing is being caressed, stimulated, soothed and massaged.

  4. Tonerl August 6, 2009 at 8:54 pm #

    @ Deborah:

    Certainly, despite it’s reputation among casual concert-goers, Music Hall has significant acoustical issues. But Mr. Jordan is just plain wrong, or perhaps caught in a bit of hyperbole, when he says that Telarc are making it sound better than one can hear “anywhere in the hall”. If you sit in the middle 3 sections of the gallery or in the front few rows of the balcony, the place can sound pretty decent live. Regardless, it stands that the recording sounds different (whether that’s good or bad) from a live event in the hall.

    With regards to the recordings, it’s remarkable when you compare them with what Telarc is (was, I guess) getting out of a junky venue like Atlanta. I know of nobody who thinks that hall sounds good live, but the recordings work pretty well.

    For what it’s worth, I’ve been one of the few people I know arguing for the proposed renovation of Music Hall, mainly from the desire to fix it’s acoustical issues.

  5. Lisa Hirsch August 7, 2009 at 10:13 am #

    Deborah – There is a tremendous amount of monkeying with the sound on modern recordings, starting with issues such as the number and placement of microphones. The engineers use from a dozen to twenty, placed very close to the orchestra as well as above. This allows spotlighting of particular instruments and permits fiddling with the balances in the final mix. Under these conditions, I don’t believe you get an accurate picture of the acoustical properties of a hall.

  6. Deborah August 8, 2009 at 11:34 am #

    Christopher, I just read about the acoustical design of the concert hall in Nashville — which is a fine example of a very nice building constructed on a suprisingly reasonable budget — being supervised by you. So forgive me if I put you on the spot. I’m just trying to understand the way that different people perceive and respond to sound.

    Tonerl, please know that you’re not alone. Most of us are like you, including me. There are times when my reaction towards the quality of sound can be positive in the beginning but negative to mixed towards the end. Or visa versa.

    This ambiguity can be summed up by a comment I recall seeing from a musician with the Philadelphia Orchestra. In so many words, he said that he had grown cautious through the years when learning (probably through an orchestra’s public-relations department, or a city’s tourism bureau, or just casual conversation throughout a community) that the acoustics of some concert hall he and his fellow musicians would be visiting and playing in were good. Apparently that’s because their actual experience of a particular hall’s sound often has not been quite as positive as advertised.

    I’ve never experienced Vienna’s famous Musikverein in person, but it’s long been lauded as having the best acoustics in the world. I do enjoy tuning in annually to watch its New Year’s broadcasts shown throughout the world. But based merely on the recorded sound from those presentations, but also from the sound on compact discs (and even cassettes too) of the Wiener Philharmonic playing in the Musikverein, I’m not quite as big a fan of its acoustics as others are.

    (For what it’s worth, I think that among the three concert halls traditionally cited as the best in the world — referring to the Musikverein, the Concertgebouw and Symphony Hall in Boston — the latter has the nicest sound to me, mainly because of its greater clarity.)

    Lisa, I would say you’re definitely correct when it comes to the handling of recordings made for sale to the public. That’s likely due to the popularity of a product and its potential profits being seen as dependent on one another.

    However, I would guess that recordings, such as the ones I linked to above, that are for same-day listening (through the medium of the radio or television, or a web site accessible to any visitor) and are distributed in a non-profit manner, aren’t as likely to be noticeably enhanced or greatly modified.

    • Chris Blair August 8, 2009 at 3:21 pm #

      I lived in Boston for 24 years. Know Symphony Hall well from both the audience and conducting perspectives. It is truly a great room. And noticeably better on the main floor now that they have recently reopened the clerestory windows (closed for WWII blackout reasons).

      The acoustic design of the new Nashville hall was modeled after a mixture of Boston Symphony Hall and Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw. They both have approximately the same cubic volume.

      Boston has 2600 seats, Amsterdam 2000, and Nashville 1860 more or less.

      Nashville is approximately the same width as Boston and both have two side tiers enhancing clarity.

      The result of all this is that Nashville has reverberation and bass power similar to the Concertgebouw and clarity similar to Boston.

      Worth hearing in person, if I say so myself.

  7. Deborah August 9, 2009 at 11:29 am #

    Worth hearing in person, if I say so myself.

    ……………….

    I’m going to guess the next best thing to that is listening to the audio file I posted previously:

    http://www.polyphonic.org/music/play.php?pls=nashville

    I notice the general quality of the sound changes as the Nashville orchestra moves from a solo opening, from a level of pianissimo to a level of fortissimo. The amount of inherent reverberation at that point seems to be different from what it appears to be during quieter moments.

    It’s a very subtle difference, but I do notice it. However, throughout both the quieter and louder passages, the clarity, as you noted, is excellent.

    To understand what is being detected more easily, I listen to the following audio file of the Los Angeles orchestra (duck quack and all) posted earlier. I sense the intrinsic amount of reverberation (and a small amount of immediacy) is the crucial difference in one recording from the next.

    I have a harder time fully appreciating — or understanding — this until I listen to sound where the level of echo isn’t quite as inherent (referring to the Polyphonic.org sound file).

    http://www.publicradio.org/tools/media/player/symphonycast/2009/

    I purposefully avoid describing these two audio files as faithful duplications of where a recording took place, because I’m using them merely to test my sense of hearing. In other words, it’s a way to judge the acoustical quality of a recording, regardless of how accurately or inaccurately it mimics a live performance.

    I’ll finish off by saying thank you, Christopher, for your guest columns! They’ve been very informative, interesting and helpful. They’ve allowed me to look more closely at the nature of sound.

    PS: Yes, the removal of the opaque covering on the windows of Symphony Hall is long overdue! Now if something can just be done about those new curtains. If you know someone in the Boston Symphony’s front office, whisper to them: “roller shades!” :)

  8. Alex September 21, 2014 at 11:47 pm #

    Just stumbled across this series of blog posts and it’s very interesting to see the “behind the scenes” view of concert hall acoustics. I’m not sure if this blog is still checked, but in case it is I’ve been curious for a long time how the level of diffusion required on the upper walls of shoebox concert halls is evaluated? If the walls are too flat then flutter echo seems like a major problem, but too much and you end up with the 19th century plaster wall sculptures (worked great for diffusion I’m sure, but doesn’t seem to work with modern architecture). How do you know how much diffusion is enough on those large surfaces? – Alex

    • Chris Blair September 22, 2014 at 9:51 am #

      Hi Alex-
      If you examinee the upper walls of the most highly regarded old hall you will notice that most of the major diffusion/scattering surfaces are vertical elements which scatter sound in the horizontal plane.
      There are fewer horizontal elements kicking energy down to the floor. You are correct that perfectly flat upper walls result in a very long and unattenuated reverberant tail (not so much flutter) that can create an unnatural elevation in source image. A little of this is pleasant (what Russ Johnson used to call “float”) but I heard it in places with large flat parallel walls strong enough to be a little weird. Although room design affects the decision of how much diffusion and where is appropriate for these surfaces, I have usually found that diffusion covering 30-35% of the area is a good initial recommendation.
      -Chris

      • Alex September 23, 2014 at 1:08 am #

        Interesting, I wouldn’t have thought that. Why doesn’t sound bouncing back and forth between walls concert halls sound the same as flutter echo in smaller auditoriums (where it’s a generally problem to fix, not an acoustic feature)?

        • Chris Blair September 23, 2014 at 9:42 pm #

          As the distance between the walls goes up the basic repetition rate of the flutter goes up in frequency. Diffusion breaks up the higher frequency components of the pulsation. For a room with parallel walls 80 feet apart the fundamental frequency of modal energy between the walls is around 6Hz well below audibility as a frequency. As the dimensions become smaller the response may become progressively tonal. These effects are most easily heard when there are few competing reflections.

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