Sounds and Sorcery

Staged in the The Vaults, a maze of disused railway arches underneath London’s Waterloo Station, Sounds and Sorcery is an ambitious immersive audiovisual experience inspired by Disney’s Fantasia.

With 3D projections, elaborate set designs and spectacular lighting set to a specially recorded score from the City of Prague Symphony orchestra, the show relies on elaborate and technically challenging sound design built around Williams Sound Hearing Hotspot technology supplied by CUK Audio and installed by Direct Audio Visual.

Sounds and SorceryOn arrival, visitors receive a pair of headphones and an iPod, and are free to create their own experience. As they move from one scene to the next in their own time, so the music changes accordingly. The man behind the sound design is independent sound designer, David Gregory. ‘No-one else would be crazy enough to tackle a project like this, but I like a challenge, so I said yes,’ he says.

The brief was to take the Fantasia score and reimagine it in stereo for headphones. The first step was to record all the music binaurally. The next was to find a way to create that experience and the feeling, as with surround sound, that sometimes the sound is coming from behind, other times from the side, or perhaps it pans across the room – using headphones. Further, Gregory had to find a way of intuitively switching between tracks as people navigate through the different scenarios so that they hear the right music in the right place at the right time. Enter the Williams Sound Hearing Hotspot solution.

‘Hearing Hotspot is the only product on the market capable of doing what we required,’ Gregory explains. ‘Essentially it allows any venue to stream real-time audio via Wi-Fi from pretty much any source to an individual’s personal device – in this case, an iPod. The sound quality and stereo imaging capabilities (which we tested thoroughly) were good enough to allow me to create the immersive experience that I was looking for.

Sounds and Sorcery

‘The aim was for everyone wearing the headphones to experience the music as if he or she were in the place of the conductor. To enhance the feeling of really ‘big’ sound, we also installed some pretty earth-moving subs in each room to extend the response of the headphones and to enable you not just to hear the sound but to feel it too.’

A custom version of the Hearing Hotspot app was created to override the manual selection of audio sources and instead enable the audio to be triggered via a series of Bluetooth beacons strategically located throughout the venue. The other requirement was for a rock-solid Wi-Fi system to be installed venue-wide. This was a very important point as it’s ultimately the quality of the Wi-Fi that determines the overall performance of the Hearing HotSpot. Music playback is via Q-Lab and thence to the HotSpot server before being broadcast to the iPods. All transmission is 24-bit at 48kHz, meaning that the audio stays at full digital resolution throughout the chain with no loss of signal quality.

CUK Audio staff were on hand throughout to coordinate various demos, field technical questions and assist with system design before introducing the contractors who then bid for the project. Systems integration company, Direct Audio Visual, was selected to design and install the Ruckus wireless system, while Recursive AV came in to customise the Hearing Hotspot app and provide the Bluetooth solution to trigger the audio feed in each room.

Sounds and Sorcery

‘From the outset, this was a challenging project to deliver,’ admits Direct Audio Visual Operations Director, Pete Rutherford. ‘We scoped and surveyed for the Wi-Fi before the show started to come together and our install had to change organically as things took shape and the scenery began to have more of an effect on the wireless performance.

‘With some changes and additional equipment to take account of the final show set-up, we achieved a stable and site-covering network that began to bring David’s vision to life. The initial shows gave some-much needed feedback as to how the system performed with 250-plus iPods all working at once, but a few final tweaks to the network left us with a wireless immersive audio experience that you can only appreciate by hearing it yourself.

Sounds and Sorcery

‘Bringing together all these different technologies in this environment was never going to be an easy task but I’m glad that it all came together in the end and brought ’s vision to stunning aural life.’

‘It was a mammoth task from every point of view,’ agrees CUK Audio’s Simon Druce. ‘Technically, it was a hugely ambitious project and timescales were tight. We were running right up to the wire and it was touch and go if it was all actually going to work, but miraculously, it all came together at the last minute. Having since attended the show as a genuine paying customer with my family the other week, I can say that the results are absolutely stunning.

‘I doff my hat to everyone that was involved – David Gregory did an amazing job of the sound design – as he says, he’s the only guy brave enough to take on something like this. And DAV did a great job with the installation. Without herculean efforts with all of the wireless infrastructure, this show would never have seen the light of day. Finally, Kieron Vanstone, director of the Vaults, has also done an incredible job in implementing extra measures to successfully iron out the inevitable teething problems when a project of this scale and nature goes live.’

‘It’s a superb showcase for the Williams Sound Hearing Hotspot technology – I’m pretty sure that when it was developed, they hadn’t even dreamed of an application like this, but it’s a testament to the technology that it does the job and does it well,’ Druce adds. ‘All of us at CUK Audio are proud to have been involved in the project.’

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