Fantasia at the Royal Albert HallA series of screenings of famous movies accompanied by a live soundtrack is earning London’s Royal Albert Hall praise on many fronts – the choice of films, the musical performance and the sound system among them.

Performed to 10,000 paying guests, the production also provided the commercial premiere of EM Acoustics’ Halo Compact speaker system with sound mixed by renowned classical sound engineer Phil Wright on a DiGiCo SD5 console.

One of the most ambitious showings saw the London Philharmonic Orchestra accompany selections from Walt Disney’s original Fantasia and Disney’s Fantasia 2000. Disney’s ground-breaking marriage of music and animation enjoyed a new lease of life at the high-definition screening, with live performance of some of the most memorable classical music ever composed: Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony and Paul Dukas interpretation of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

Desk job

Fantasia‘Our typical work at the Royal Albert Hall is very much in the 100-plus channel count, especially with the amount of orchestras and large scale concerts that we provide for,’ says Stephen Hughes, Sound by Design’s project engineer for all of the company’s Royal Albert Hall events. ‘As shows have grown in tandem with the amount of physical inputs, the space in which we mix has remained the same.

We used to use customised DiGiCo D1s with a fifth processing card, which gave us the channel count, processing and effects of a D5 Live but in a D1 footprint – this was the only console that at the time that fulfilled the I/O required and the footprint.

‘As the technical demands of the shows we do are ever increasing, we were finding that even the D1s were reaching the limits of what we could achieve in the space needed, whether it was the physical Inputs and outputs, or the creative ways in which the desks cope with intricate shows such as the BBC Proms and the Royal British Legion Festival of Remembrance. The SD series, for us, is the new standard of digital console that all others should strive to be, and now there is a desk that perfectly slots in the gap between the SD10 and SD7 that ticks all of the boxes.’

‘With events like the Royal British Legion Festival of Remembrance and the BBC Proms, eventually we found that the consoles were starting to limit what we could do creatively. So we kept badgering DiGiCo for a console with the footprint of their original D5, but a high channel count and all the advances of the SD series.’

The SD5 delivered what Sound by Design needed – to the extent that the company ordered three. Wright’s first show using the SD5 was two days before the Fantasia event, at the 80th birthday concert for composer John Williams with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. ‘It was absolutely great,’ he says. ‘We had done other film screenings with live scores here this year, like West Side Story and Lord of the Rings, mixed on the customised D1. So I was very much looking forward to mixing Fantasia on the SD5.

‘I brought TC Electronic M3000 and Lexicon PCM91 reverbs with me and I never even turned them on, because the SD5’s hall reverbs are so good. I was mixing a full orchestra and the desk was nowhere near its full capacity.’

‘With the D-Series consoles, we had to constantly check the DSP, how much processing power we were using and what we could compromise on. Now the FOH engineer can just keep adding without worrying about it. It’s just amazing,’ Hughes adds.

‘The newest SD software, whether it’s the multichannel folding, the set spills, the DiGiTubes, or any of the other unique functions, has meant that we are now mixing in a completely different way to how we were on the D-Series, or could hope to on a desk by any other manufacturer. It really does open up the possibilities and allow for different approaches for a FOH engineer to take on the myriad of unique shows that we work on in this venue, whether it’s a standard classical, theatre style musical gala or rock concert.’

Introducing Halo Compact 

‘I can say without a shadow of a doubt that Halo Compact is simply the best-sounding system I’ve ever mixed on,’ says Wright, of the new EM Acoustics system. ‘The transparency, linearity and headroom that EM Acoustics have achieved is quite simply amazing.’

Sound by Design’s Phil Wright‘Having heard nearly every conceivable combination of speaker brands installed in this venue by the great and the good of the PA world, I can confirm that – although this system may deceive in terms of its size – it delivers far more than any other system in terms of intelligibility and clarity, consistency of coverage and headroom,’ Hughes agrees. ‘Scoring one or two of these goals is considered a good day’s work by most system techs in such a tricky venue, but for EM to nail all three reiterates that this box is just a little bit special. It will confound you as much as it pleases.’

The FOH system for Fantasia comprised main LR hangs of two Halo-CS and 12 Halo-C cabinets per side. Additionally, there were four EMS-61 for front fill, four EMS-81X for stalls fill, two EMS-122w for circle fill and three MSE-218 subs in cardioid array under the stage. The system was powered with EM Acoustics AQ-10 and AD-9 amplifiers.

Halo Compact is derived from EM Acoustics’ original Halo line array system launched in 2009, retaining the plane-wave AMT high-frequency unit in a more compact form factor. A wider 95° horizontal coverage adds flexibility, while a more powerful 8-inch low-frequency drive improves the overall performance and SPL capability. Halo Compact claims an extremely flat frequency and phase responses, and an HF wavefront that is ‘truly plane without manipulation of a spherical wavefront’.

The uniformity of response and controlled dispersion in both horizontal and vertical planes also allow Halo Compact cabinets to be used singly as front or under-balcony fill, where precise vertical directivity is a priority. When used as complete systems, Halo Compact elements partner with the Halo-CS flyable subwoofer and the FG- Halo-C flying grid. For additional low frequency support, EMS-215 or EMS-118 subwoofers, or for larger systems the MSE-218 subwoofer may be used to underpin the arrays.

‘In an ideal world, everyone would use ribbons for curved linear arrays because the high driver would be continuous along the entire length of the array – there would be no breaks to introduce distortion or other unwanted elements,’ Wright observes. ‘The difficulty was that in the past, ribbons were very low efficiency. Twenty years ago, ribbon loudspeakers tended to be (a) enormous, (b) need 3kW amps to drive them and (c) catch fire quite a lot.

‘All of the major manufacturers have spent decades emulating the line source that is ribbons to create the ribbon effect, but no-one has achieved what EM Acoustics have produced with the Halo Compact system. They have managed to design and build these cabinets in such a way that all of the issues that other manufacturers have to work so hard with electronics to overcome have simply gone away. They’ve hit the nail on the head with these new drivers, and Ed [Kinsella of EM Acoustics]’s attention to detail with the crossovers and system directivity has resulted in by far the smoothest system coverage we’ve ever achieved in the RAH.’

‘I hope they’re gearing up for major production of this product, because when the word gets out, they’re not going to be able to build it fast enough’ he adds.

Reviews of the show have been overwhelmingly positive, describing the blending of the images with the live music as a much more interesting experience than seeing Fantasia at the cinema with the original, recorded soundtrack. ‘It was a great show to mix,’ says Wright. ‘There was no dialogue, no playback – just lovely music to iconic images.’

As a footnote, the Band of the Royal Marines now has one of the customised DiGiCo D1/D5 hybrids. ‘As an environment, the Royal Albert Hall is very kind to equipment. They served us very well and, despite being six years old, they were in mint condition. It is really good to see it go to a good home,’ Hughes concludes.

EM Acoustics will be running a series of sales launch events across the UK over the coming months, and details will be provided on the company website.

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