Interview: Nick Boulter, Arup

Hurrairah bin Sohail speaks with Nick Boulter about SoundLab, an asset that helped propel Arup’s business forward and now, as part of a residency programme, is helping Arup to give back to the performing arts community.

Acoustics are Arup’s business. If Arup’s work is not proof enough of its dedication to the discipline, perhaps the SoundLab will sway your mind. Nick Boulter, Australasia region arts and culture leader from Arup, details: “We established the SoundLab 15 years ago and it started off as a tool to explain acoustics in auditoria to people. A big part of the design work we do is designing auditoriums around the world, one of the many we have worked on is the Victoria concert hall in Singapore.”

He continues: “Big dollar amounts get spent on acoustics in auditoriums. But the work is not always smooth. For example, we may find that the roof needs to be lifted by five metres to improve the acoustics and this is a significant cost. Over the years, we found that trying to explain the benefits that come from the investment we recommend is very difficult if you are talking in terms of the commonly used acoustic metrics such as reverberation times, loudness and envelopment. All of these very subjective things that are difficult for people to understand. We realised that the best way to get our point across was to sit people in a room and let them listen to the difference. This is what drove the development of SoundLab.”

From this realisation, Arup worked to make the SoundLab a space that fit its vision. Boulter says: “What we soon realised was that what we wanted to achieve was not as easy as it sounds. If the SoundLab was to work, it had to be hyper realistic. And what that hyper realism means is that it had to be a three-dimensional sound field. We homed in on Ambisonics, which at the time was the cutting edge of audio technology to help us achieve what we wanted. We developed the design, where we have loudspeakers above the people, under the floor and also a ring of loudspeakers at ear height. With this setup, we found that we could advance acoustic modelling techniques and demonstrate quite realistically, subtle, small changes to the acoustics we were talking about or working on.”

Arup now has 15 operational SoundLabs across the globe and they have become a vital part of its offering to the market. Boulter elaborates on the impact of SoundLab: “After investing the money in SoundLab, we found that it could do much more than what we originally thought. We started finding more and more uses for it. If we can use it to demonstrate auditorium acoustics, we thought maybe it could demonstrate how noisy something would be or highlight speech intelligibility or audio privacy with a PA system. All these things were eventually done with the SoundLab. And personally, I have found that when you explain audio through the SoundLab to people they are more engaged. They might agree with you, or they might not, but it definitely moves the conversation forward.”

Further illustrating the versatility of SoundLab as an extremely effective tool for anyone in the world of audio and acoustics, Björk and her team used it as one of the tools to help the artist stage her concert titled Cornucopia. More specifically, Björk commissioned Arup to design an acoustic reverberation chamber as part of the touring set — a unique approach to live stage performance that projects an encapsulated and solacing moment to a large-scale audience. The reverb chamber becomes both sanctuary and instrument, enabling Björk to sing in a naturally enveloping acoustic.

The intersection point with art and music feels organic and Boulter says: “A lot of the people at Arup have worked in the arts or have a background in the performing arts. So naturally we feel that it is our duty to support the arts as much as we can and that takes many shapes, such as pro bono work, helping our other companies and extending our time and expertise. And from all our involvement in the performing arts scene, the idea of a SoundLab residency came about.”

Arup teamed up with Create NSW, the New South Wales Government’s arts policy and funding body, to create a residency programme for Arup’s Sydney SoundLab. Boulter says: “Any artist would give their right arm to be able to use a facility like the SoundLab. Our Sydney SoundLab is not used round the clock, so we thought in an effort to give back to the performing arts community which has faced a lot of challenges here in Australia, we could donate time in the SoundLab. We partnered with Create NSW and they will be funding the residency as well.”

At the time of writing, five musicians have been selected for the residency programme. The programme will involve four-week residencies, which guarantee successful applicants access to the SoundLab for at least 10 hours per week. With the residency programme underway, what does Arup expect the outcome to be?

Boulter concludes: “We are expecting the unexpected. Of course, it would be great to have the next big artist come into this residency and be inspired by the SoundLab experience and then we can have the bragging rights of giving them their first big break. This residency program is an opportunity for us to really interact with the artists and engineers that are pushing the envelope and work with them to see what fascinating solutions or installations they can come up with.”

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