Although Sunderland had lost its City of Culture bid back in 2017, it did manage to provide a shot in the arm for the arts on Wearside. One of the benefits was the founding of Sunderland Culture—by a consortium of University of Sunderland, Sunderland City Council and Sunderland Music Arts and Culture (MAC) Trust. They now operate a number of venues including the new Fire Station, which for the past 18 months has become a hub of the city’s entertainment scene.
Designed by Flanagan Lawrence, the new auditorium was built next to the Fire Station itself, and technical consultants Clair Willis (formerly at the Sage Gateshead) and Chris Durant (formerly at Sage Gateshead and now at Northern Stage) were brought in to write the specification and seek tenders. They decided to base it on an RCF HDL line array solution (a system with which they were both familiar). Adlib, under project manager Paul Holt, bid successfully for the audio element.
In a statement, Willis and Durant said, “As consultants we wanted to specify a system that would deliver across the full range of programming, while being easy to deploy and able to be used flexibly in the future. An example of this is that we made sure that the front and lip fills were of the same speaker type, with spare flying frames so they could be combined and used as a centre array for speech events or elsewhere in the venue as a smaller system.
“We didn’t hesitate in selecting RCF products as they had delivered world class results for us on previous installations, and felt they would give us the best sound quality and value for this project.”
The venue’s technical manager, Dan Shilling, who joined the team in September 2021, explained that the development had taken place in three stages: the renovation of the old Fire Station into the Engine Room bar/bistro, followed by an extension on the side, and upstairs conversion into dance studios, drama studios and music spaces. The second phase saw the building of the adjacent auditorium out of the ground, on derelict land.
The PA comprises seven HDL 30-A a side, three SUB 9004-AS each side and a stack of three HDL 26-A each on top of a matched HDL 35-AS sub as front fill on each side of the stage. A further three HDL 26-As provide lip fills. Adlib also provided 10 RCF TT25-CXA coaxial active stage monitors, which can be used as required, and four TT10-A for smaller sessions or as effects speakers for theatre.
This complement, believes Shilling, provides perfect coverage for the rectangular shaped auditorium. But the magic is equally in the fact that different scenario presets are stored in RCF’s proprietary RDNet network, the system itself having been expertly tuned to the room by Andy Magee, from RCF Engineering Support Group.
“It means we can adjust PA positions on the front fill, and convert from a 550 seated auditorium, with a 6-metre deep stage, to 800-cap standing,” he says. The stage is on a hydraulic lift so the depth can expand up to 12m, while the HDL 30-A line array is on a beam trolley, so can reset accordingly.
This nimble reconfigurability is essential because with orchestras as part of the mix, music is as likely to be unamplified as powered up. Dante integration and other industry control platforms allow distribution throughout the building. “Whether it’s a corporate event or a DJ on stage it can be pumped through to the toilets, foyers and main bar,” Shilling assures.
Also key to the seamless room transformation protocol has been leading theatre acoustic specialist, Nicholas Edwards (of Idibri), who aside from designing and sound-proofing the space had to compensate for the room transformation when the stage reconfigures from a seated to standing scenario. “The room is 100% our concept for acoustics, staging, sightlines, auditorium design, venue planning, stage machinery, lighting and sound, focusing in particular on sound break-out,” he says. “The sound is kept in with a solid roof consisting of paving slabs on thermal insulation, on solid concrete.”
With such an advanced infrastructure, Dan Shilling has been able to promote the advantages of the house system to incoming productions, enabling them to leave their PA in the truck. “In the time we’ve been open we’ve never staged a single gig that hasn’t used the RCF system,” says Shilling proudly. “Crews have recognised that a system that comes in and out in a day won’t be a match for a house system that’s been tuned to the space,”
One freelance sound engineer who regularly uses the venue, having worked with artists including The Futureheads, Graham Gouldman and Steve Harley, as well as tribute shows and spoken word events, is Simon Flint (of TrueTone Productions). “Aside from coverage of the audience area, what I look for in a PA is clarity for vocals, especially in the high mids, enabling other lead instruments to be able to cut through a mix. The HDL 30-A’s are great for both of these; coupled with the HDL 26-A front and lip fills the system provides even coverage across the entire auditorium. Both have great fidelity and clarity, which means you’re not struggling to get vocals or other lead instruments to sit comfortably in a mix.
“Equally, the SUB 9004-AS subs have a great low end response which means you’re able to have the audience feel a kick drum or the resonance of low notes of a bass. This creates an especially nice effect for a bowed double bass where you almost feel the warmth of the low end rather than just hear it.
“I’ve never felt like the RCF system isn’t capable of handling any of the range of genres I’ve worked with—from high SPL rock shows that require a lot of energy, to folk music with more nuanced and intricate dynamics, to speech requiring clear intelligibility.”
Summing up, Dan Shilling is probably most impressed with the system’s versatility. “With theatre, dance, all different types of music, playing through it, we haven’t found a genre where the sound system wasn’t sympathetic. It hits the mark on everything, and for classical performance the PA also runs extremely quietly.”