Installed Audio

The future of AV collaborations? Inside David Hockney’s Lightroom exhibition

Last month, Lightroom, a new exhibition space in London, opened with an innovative immersive AV exhibit showcasing the work of acclaimed artist David Hockney. Headliner caught up with some of the project’s key players to find out more about the creative avenues the space is set to open up and why the Holoplot sound system at its core can ‘do things no other system can…’

The term ‘immersive’ has been bandied about a lot in recent years. From Atmos mixes of studio recordings and surround sound effects in live music and theatre shows, to cinema multiplexes that can shunt seats around while flicking water at you in the name of creating a more enjoyable experience - it tends to be applied to just about anything that doesn’t sit neatly under the stereo tag. But in the world of experiential events, visual brands and pro audio specialists appear to be exploring collaborative opportunities with greater vigour than ever before in the pursuit of projects that are, indeed, immersive.

In the world of live music, audio and visual providers have a tendency to stand in opposition to one another, with those on the audio side feeling increasingly maligned by productions seeking ever-bolder visual elements. Yet, away from the live arena at least, there seems to be a coming together of sorts. Rather than competing for attention, they are finding new, mutually beneficial ways of working thanks in part to leaps in innovation by companies such as Berlin-based pro audio company HOLOPLOT.

One of the purest distillations of this ethos can be experienced within the simple, no frills setting of London’s Lightroom and its opening collaboration with much loved British painter and photographer David Hockney, entitled BIGGER AND CLOSER not smaller and further away. From the minimalist nature of its box room shell to the subtle application of its extraordinarily powerful Holoplot sound system, it is a consummate example of how technology can be used to complement an artist’s vision. Visuals can be projected onto its four walls and sound can be moved seamlessly around the room via the strategic deployment of just two hidden HOLOPLOT Matrix Arrays and some reflective surfaces.

The effect is mesmeric. As Headliner enters the space, paintings from Hockney’s 1985 Paint The Stage project have become animated, gliding across the walls with something unique to see on each surface. It’s all understatedly accompanied by an original soundtrack from Nico Muhly that is frequently punctuated by the voice of Hockney himself, sharing the stories behind his work and offering unique insights into his artistry.

Playing out over a 50-minute loop, different works from across his career are brought to life in a variety of different ways. Some are almost disorienting, with bright imagery flashing at pace in every direction as the score undulates in tandem. Others are profound in their simplicity, for instance when Hockney’s voice is quietly giving context to slowly materialising static images of various pieces of work. The resulting experience is like seeing splashes of imagination take audio-visual form before your eyes and ears.

While the visual component of the show is plain to see, the sophisticated nature of Lightroom’s audio element, given that the technology and speakers are literally invisible in the room, requires some explanation.

“We knew audio was going to be really important,” says Lightroom CEO Richard Slaney. “The Holoplot system is amazing because it allows us to deal with a really challenging room, and the creative possibilities are endless. We’ve used a lot of reflection around the room, particularly with Nico’s soundtrack. He gave us around 24 original stems and we placed those around the room through different reflectors, so that it encompasses you in the space. It’s incredible.”

There are things that Holoplot can do that I’ve never heard any other speaker system do. Gareth Fry, sound designer

The idea of blending an original soundtrack with Hockney’s own spoken word input was something that came about almost by accident.

“When we did the test with David, we put up some projections and he came and sat next to us, and as we put things up, he just talked about when he made them, how he made them and the stories behind them,” Slaney continues. “We thought, hang on, this is the show. You want him on your shoulder, that voice in your ear talking you through it. We knew that was going to be important, so we took it and ran with it.”

One of the main objectives for the project was to develop an audio system capable of matching the visual impact of the 360-degree projection mapping. Built around a sound design from acclaimed sound designer Gareth Fry, it was vital that the system installed was hidden completely, so as not to compromise the immersive nature of the visuals.

Reflecting on his brief for the project, Fry recalls the key objectives that had to be fulfilled, as well as the vast challenges that had to be overcome.

“We had to consider a sound system for Lightroom that would provide good sound coverage, and also not bother our neighbours in the office above the main space,” he elaborates. “And, of course, the speaker system had to be essentially invisible so that all four walls of highly reflective concrete could be an unhindered projection surface from floor to ceiling. It was an immense challenge because as built, the venue had a reverb time of over six seconds. It’s a huge volume of space and with very audible background noise of projector fans. All of this is the natural enemy of intelligible sound.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was a degree of trial and error in arriving at the final system.

“I initially modelled a few different types of sound systems, eventually ending up with a traditional point source-based design, with speakers hidden in multiple alcoves around the space,” he says. “But I wasn’t happy with what I’d ended up with. It would’ve had very uneven coverage, and just not sounded great. And that was bugging me for months after I’d submitted the final design. But every time I looked to find an alternative; I couldn’t find one that met the brief. And that’s when I went to an early demo of Holoplot.”

According to Fry, it didn’t take long to realise that the Holoplot system would be able to cope with the demands of the project.

“I knew instantly that this could be the solution to all our problems,” he continues. “As soon as I left the demo, I called everyone and put the previous system design on hold, and Holoplot were kind enough to arrange a special demo so everyone else could come hear it.

“There are many things that Holoplot can do that I’ve never heard any other speaker system do. It has a bunch of magic tricks up its sleeves. But first and foremost, it gave us a sound system that could provide intelligible sound with very even coverage in a highly reverberant space. For that alone it was worth its considerable weight in gold.”

The system was installed by HOLOPLOT partner Creative Technology and consists of two X1 arrays at either end of the room. Each array comprises four X1 Modul 96s and four X1 Modul 80-S, embedded and entirely hidden within wall cavities.

“The acoustic centre of the East Array is at 4.61m and for the West Array at 6.66m,” explains Reese Kirsh, segment manager performing arts, Holoplot. “These were the only possible positions to create wall cavities for the arrays. They were predefined and not possible to change. With a traditional audio solution, it would not be ideal to have the sources facing each other due to phase issues and spill between the sources. Thanks to Holoplot’s unique optimisation algorithms however, the predefined locations of the arrays weren't an unsolvable problem. The listening area is able to be defined as well as the relative sound pressure level for each area. This allows for uniform coverage from each array no matter where the listener is within the space.

We want each project to be through the eyes of an individual, and this is David’s vision. Richard Slaney, CEO, Lightroom

“Each of the arrays are hidden behind colour matched acoustically transparent material, making for an unspoilt 360-degree projection surface,” he continues. “The immersive effects that are used in Gareth Fry’s sound design were created with X1’s Wave Field Synthesis (WFS) capabilities to create virtual sources.

“It was key at the Lightroom experience that visitors would be able to localize sound from these reflections no matter where they are within the main space. To achieve this, multiple reflections were distributed along the North and South walls of the venue.

Using WFS, the sound waves converge at a set point in space. These ‘bundled’ waves then reflect from the wall as if there is a point source positioned there, allowing the listener to localize the sound from a position where there is no array. It’s the combination of reflections and even sound coverage across the space that make this experience alive with sound,” explains Kirsh.”

For Kirsh, the installation further cements Holoplot’s growing reputation as one of the biggest disruptors on the AV map.

“We’d like to think so,” he affirms. “More often than not, visuals are prioritized meaning audio is often an afterthought. Our 3D Audio-Beamforming and WFS capabilities allow us to tackle even the worst acoustic spaces, without impacting the desired aesthetics or compromising on audio functionality. The user doesn’t have to choose between an immersive or stereo setup. The system can provide both, without the need to physically reposition the units.

“Lightroom isn’t the first project where our technology is completely hidden. X1 systems inside Illuminairum in Las Vegas, Masjid Misr, Africa’s largest mosque and the soon to open MSG Sphere all have an invisible HOLOPLOT system in common.

“Our technology is highly flexible, providing unseen before immersive, as well as acoustic problem-solving capabilities. Our technology simply eradicates the either/or approach to a project. The visuals at Lightroom exist in perfect harmony with the audio.”

The Hockney collaboration at Lightroom is only the first in what promises to be a busy programme of events, showcases, and exhibitions to be held at the new space over the coming weeks and months. Each will undoubtedly come with its own particular set of AV objectives and challenges, and according to Kirsh, the Holoplot system is ready and waiting to be put through its paces.

“Choosing X1, Lightroom has set itself up for the future,” he says. “The next show they produce could be a rock’n’roll show, a narrated documentary, or classical music piece - our technology removes any boundaries to creativity. More traditional exhibitions in museums, with display cases etc. could benefit from our technology’s unique multi zone concept capability. Creating tightly defined listening zones inside an exhibition creates unseen before freedom for audiences by removing the need for headphones completely. Visitors simply walk in or out of a zone to listen to the audio accompanying the specific exhibit.”

For Lightroom’s Slaney, both the Holoplot system and the concept of the space as a whole have raised the bar on what is possible with regard to the future of AV collaborative projects. For him, the aim will always be to harness the power of technology to service the artist’s vision. And on this evidence, that goal has been achieved to the fullest.

“Someone described it to me as the intimacy of a podcast on the scale of an iMAX,” Slaney closes, “which I think it is. It’s intimate but not overwhelming. It’s an immersive experience but it’s very personal, emotional, and there’s story in it.

“The joy of this venue is that we don’t have to close shows to open another. We can run things day-by-day, so it opens up a lot of possibilities. Through the eyes of whoever the person may be, we’ll look to music, art, science… we always want to collaborate with the person. We want each project to be through the eyes of an individual, and this is David’s vision.”