© 2004 The Anstendig Institute

Written by Mark B Anstendig

There is one crucial characteristic that is necessary in a concert hall if that hall is to have a decent acoustic. And this one simple, but crucial, factor is seldom if ever specifically mentioned with regard to the design and execution of concert hall acoustics. Yet lack of this prerequisite for successful concert hall design is the reason why most mediocre halls do not have a good acoustic.

The great concert halls of the world have substantial differences. Yet they are all still considered great halls. Those differences can be as vast as the extremely warm sound of the old Concertgebau, or the much brighter sounding great Vienna Concert Hall, with a number of others somewhere in between, and many even more extreme. Yet even though the halls have different acoustical properties, a really great musician will usually sound pretty much the same in each, if he/she has adequate time to try out the hall or is already familiar with it. While the same performers might sound somewhat different in each hall, the differences in what is ultimately heard are remarkably small, considering the differences in the general acoustic/equalization characteristics of the hall.

Why is it that, in each of these great halls, the same performers retain, essentially, their usual recognizable sound, even though the acoustics of the halls often differ greatly?

The answer is quite basic to all fine music-making. Understanding it is crucial to all acoustical design. The reason an accomplished performer sounds similar rather than different from hall to hall is simply that such performers always adjust the sound they make to the sound they hear. Sensitive performers have a clear concept of what they want to sound like and are constantly adjusting their playing to the sound they hear in each hall. Performers can adjust their touch, embouchure, attack, etc., for a brighter, or more mellow sound. This adjustment, while sometimes quite conscious and intentional, often happens naturally, without special effort whenever a performer tries any new instrument or venue.

Other properties of the sound like focus and diffusion, reverberation properties, etc., also vary in each hall. While a performer can adjust tempi and touch to different reverberation properties, as well as to the focus and diffusion of the sound, such parameters are more difficult to improve through performer adjustment than timbre, and halls with poor focus of the sound or too much sonic diffusion will seldom if ever have a decent acoustic, no matter how much a performer tries to compensate for the problem.

Since even excellent halls still can vary considerably because performers quite naturally adjust their playing to suit a hallÕs acoustical characteristics as the performer hears them, that would seem to indicate that there are no attributes that absolutely have to be exactly the same in each hall, if the hall is to be a great hall. But there is one acoustical prerequisite that every hall does have to have to be a successful, good hall?

The one property is that the audience in the auditorium has to hear exactly the same sound properties that the performer hears on stage. In other words, the sound in the auditorium has to be exactly the same as the sound on the stage. That is the essential, neglected prerequisite that every good hall must have or it will never have a good acoustic. While acoustical perfection is a noble aim, no one really knows what that might be. But if the hall has exactly the same sound quality in the auditorium as the performer hears on the stage, the performerÕs sensitivity will usually correct non-fatal flaws.

Unfortunately, in many or most halls the performer hears something quite different on the stage than the audience hears in the hall. And when that is the case, the hall will never be an acoustic success.

Until the matching of acoustical properties onstage to those in the auditorium is made the overriding basis of all concert hall acoustical design, building a successful concert hall will continue to be a variable, hit and miss, undependable undertaking.

The Anstendig Institute is a non-profit, tax-exempt, research institute that was founded to investigate the vibrational influences in our lives and to pursue research in the fields of sight and sound; to provide material designed to help the public become aware of and understand vibrational influences; to instruct the public in how to improve the quality of those influences in their lives; and to provide the research and explanations that are necessary for an understanding of how we see and hear.