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The Acoustics at the Elbphilharmonie

Frequently asked questions about the acoustics in the Grand Hall

Does that actually work – a concert hall in the middle of a harbour?

Yes, it does! The Elbphilharmonie's architecture cleverly tricks the surrounding noise of ship's propellers, sirens and all kinds of other dockland sounds. Both the Grand Hall and the Recital Hall were built with a double wall. The outer wall is made of reinforced concrete and forms part of the building as a whole. The inner wall is not connected with the outer one: it rests on large groups of springs that shield the concert halls completely from the outside world. There are 362 such groups of springs under the Grand Hall and 56 under the Recital Hall. This acoustic separation guarantees that the concert audience can enjoy the music without interference from any outside noise, while by the same token no music leaks through the walls to the exterior, ensuring that hotel guests and local residents can sleep undisturbed.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra / Riccardo Muti
Chicago Symphony Orchestra / Riccardo Muti © Todd Rosenberg Photography

What differences are there between the two halls?

The Elbphilharmonie contains the best of two (concert hall) worlds: a »vineyard«-style hall and a »shoebox«-style hall. »Vineyard« is the technical term used to describe halls where the seating is arranged around the concert platform, and climbs upwards like the terraces of a vineyard. A »shoebox« in this sense refers to any room with a rectangular floor plan, where the stage or platform is located at one of the narrow sides. The Grand Hall follows the »vineyard« principle that was first used at the Berliner Philharmonie by architect Hans Scharoun in the early 1960s. Since then, this style of construction has been used for many other halls all over the world, among them Tokyo's Suntory Hall, the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and the Philharmonie de Paris. The Elbphilharmonie Recital Hall is in the classic »shoebox«-style, where the audience seating can either be arranged all on one level, or it can ascend towards the back of the hall.

Elbphilharmonie Hamburg / Recital Hall
Elbphilharmonie Hamburg / Recital Hall © Michael Zapf

Why is the Grand Hall a »vineyard«-style hall?

There are several answers to this question. A »vineyard«-style hall has the basic advantage that the audience is closer to the musicians than in big »shoeboxes« like the Vienna Musikverein. Hamburg already has one outstanding hall in the »shoebox« style in the Laeiszhalle. However, many of the seats are a long way from the stage, and some 500 seats in the upper levels have a restricted view of the stage, or even no view at all. Thanks to the oval shape of the Grand Hall, on the other hand, no seat is more than 30 metres away from the conductor's rostrum. Moreover, the arrangement of the seating in a circle means that everyone in the audience also has a view of the rest of the audience, which increases the feeling of community while listening to the music. The hall places the music at the centre of things, both visually and in terms of the concert experience, making it clear that classical music is not something for the elite, but belongs in the middle of society.

Terraced Seating in the Grand Hall
Terraced Seating in the Grand Hall © Mario Lüder

Why is the seating staggered so steeply in the Grand Hall?

That has to do with the ground plan of the Kaispeicher, the former warehouse upon which the glass structure is built, rising up flush with the old brick walls. The architects Herzog & de Meuron had to build rather steeply to accommodate the required number of seats, and also to ensure a good sound and a good view for all seats. There is access to the Grand Hall on the 12th, 13th, 15th and 16th floors.

What's special about the sound in the Grand Hall?

The acoustics in the Grand Hall are very spacious and transparent. That means that all details of the sound can be heard particularly clearly – and that also applies to things no-one wants to hear, such as the odd fluffed note or audience noises (see: »Everything Can Be Heard Here«). Once a musician has got used to the hall, he can play as quietly as he likes without needing to worry that the sound will get lost. At the same time, subtleties and details can be heard well even in the loudest orchestral fortissimo.

Die Fledermaus / Katharina Konradi
Die Fledermaus / Katharina Konradi © Daniel Dittus

Can the music really be heard equally well from all seats?

There are no poor seats in the hall; however, the listener's subjective impression of the sound depends heavily on the kind of music being played. Of the 2,100 seats in the Grand Hall, about 300 are situated behind the stage, and another 250 are to the side of the back of the stage. The seats directly behind or next to the concert platform are closest to the orchestra, and here the difference in what the listener hears is greatest. Depending on which section of the orchestra you are sitting closest to, the horns or double basses, the brass or the percussion come out more strongly than in the seats in front of the stage. Higher up in the hall, the sound produces a more balanced overall impression.

Isn't music composed for a layout where the audience sits in front of the orchestra?

That is true in principle, but the seats behind the concert platform still have a special appeal for many people, because you're very close to what is going on and you can observe the conductor’s face. The unaccustomed proximity to the orchestra means you can almost participate in the music yourself: you can literally read the scores on the music stands; you can watch the percussionists sorting their drumsticks; you can see what the timpanist is doing with his feet; or you can see what the double-bass players put on the chair next to them (such as the rosin they use to treat the hairs of their bow). And you can hear the orchestra as intensely as the singers in a choir, which, in a larger orchestration, occupies the same position directly behind the orchestra.

Grand Hall
Grand Hall © Maxim Schulz

What about vocal music in the Grand Hall?

The human voice radiates at a much narrower angle than most instruments, with the result that not the full volume of sound produced by a singer reaches people behind him. If there is a full orchestra playing at the same time, it can happen in a »vineyard«-style hall that a soloist singing from a position in front of the orchestra can not be heard very well by people sitting behind the orchestra. This structural handicap can be avoided by not positioning the singer in large-scale orchestral works at the front, close to the conductor, but at a higher level behind the orchestra. In this way, the singer's voice radiates over a larger section of the hall, that is, more people can hear the singing directly from the front. And the section of the audience behind the stage is sitting close enough to the soloist to hear him well from behind.

musicAeterna chorus of Perm Opera
musicAeterna chorus of Perm Opera © Claudia Höhne

In that case, why is so much vocal music performed at the Elbphilharmonie?

For the reason that the structural disadvantage described above is not really crucial where most other forms of vocal music are concerned. Choirs, from a chamber choir to a body of several hundred singers, sound excellent in the Grand Hall. Big choirs are placed in the rows behind the stage or stand at the back of the stage and can easily be heard from people sitting behind the stage. Chamber choirs, which are usually accompanied by smaller-sized (chamber) orchestras, can take up a more central position, as their singing won't be covered up by the orchestra. The only form of concert where there is no good solution for the seats behind the stage is the song recital with piano accompaniment, where the singer can't really stand behind the piano. Thus the Laeiszhalle or the Elbphilharmonie Recital Hall are better venues for song recitals.

NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra / Krzysztof Urbański
NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra / Krzysztof Urbański © Daniel Dittus

But there are microphones hanging from the ceiling of the Grand Hall: why aren't they used to amplify the singers' voices?

The microphones are only used to broadcast live streams and record radio and CD productions. The Grand Hall was built for the natural sound of acoustic music, and classical concerts are not amplified as a matter of principle (unless of course the composer wants it). For the spoken voice, on the other hand, amplification is generally required: here, however, loudspeakers have to be set up on the stage. The sound is transmitted to the upper circles by speakers that are lowered from the middle of the reflector above the stage.

Why aren't the walls in the Grand Hall made of wood? Wouldn't that produce a better sound?

Many musical instruments are made of wood, which suggests that wood produces a particularly good sound. But the walls in a concert hall are not meant to produce sound themselves, but rather to reflect back into the hall the sound energy that reaches them in controlled fashion. The decisive factor in this connection is not the material mounted on the surface, but the structure and thickness of the wall construction as well as the structure of the wall surface itself, so that the different sound frequencies are reflected or possibly swallowed in either a selective or scattered way, depending on the position in the hall. For the Grand Hall, architects Herzog & de Meuron worked together with the acoustics expert Yasuhisa Toyota to evolve the concept of the »white skin«, a wall and ceiling covering with the requisite thickness and a precisely definable surface structure that is the same throughout the hall. Depending on the position and the requirements, the sound is reflected directly from flat points of the panels and scattered back from areas with deep indentations. The 10,000-plus panels were individually milled from gypsum fibre concrete.

The »White Skin«
The »White Skin« © Gilda Fernandez

If the concert hall was built for acoustic music, why do you offer amplified concerts?

Owing to the fact that the world of good music does not only consist of non-amplified music. In the meantime, for instance, jazz has become a classical music genre. Jazz definitely belongs in a concert hall, among other things because of the outstanding interpreters and the quality of the music. But electro-acoustic amplification is indispensable in a large space in order to achieve a balance of sound between a piano, a double bass and percussion on the stage. The same applies to many kinds of popular music – all the more so where the music is performed on electric musical instruments like the electric guitar or keyboards from the outset. In these genres, the singing is almost always amplified using a microphone in any case. Performances of this kind won't work without loudspeakers.

Can the sound in the hall really be controlled at all at a concert that uses amplification?

Amplified music is per se a challenge in a hall where acoustic music sounds good, as the music is supposed to only be heard through the speakers, carefully mixed of course. The reflections from the walls, which are needed to ensure a good overall sound in an orchestral concert, tend to interfere with the amplification. One also has to take the special features of the Elbphilharmonie into consideration – the seating at the side of the stage and behind it, which call for 360° sound, and the unusual height of the space, which requires 2 – 3 levels of loudspeakers. Thus the requirements for amplified concerts are high. The Elbphilharmonie's team of sound technicians has accumulated a lot of experience, and offers appropriate equipment and advice to all artists and concert promoters. However, many artists and bands prefer to rely on their own sound technicians that they bring along with them. As long as these people understand the hall's special characteristics and check the sound in the different parts of the hall during the sound check, there shouldn't be any trouble achieving good sound for the concert.

Angélique Kidjo's »Remain in Light«
Angélique Kidjo's »Remain in Light« © Daniel Dittus

What is the function of the lengths of material that can sometimes be seen covering up the white skin?

At concerts using amplification, lengths of material can be extended from the floor in many parts of the hall to reduce or neutralise the reflecting properties of the walls.

So which type of concert hall offers the better acoustics – vineyard or shoebox?

There is not a conclusive answer to this question. Acoustics can be measured using physical parameters, but it remains a subjective phenomenon. Many factors are involved here: the size, proportions and design of the concert hall, the materials used, whether the hall is empty or full. And the musicians or orchestra performing, the conductor and of course the repertoire itself all have an equally significant influence. The Elbphilharmonie Grand Hall is one of the world's most unique and fascinating spaces that thrills audiences and artists alike – already in more than 1,000 unforgettable concerts. It has exceptional acoustics that takes getting used to for some musicians. In exchange it rewards its »conquest« with fantastic, intense concert experiences.

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