Perfecting sound in the performing arts

September 20, 2021

By Payam Ashtiani, P.Eng.

Newmont Stage at BMO Theatre Centre started hosting live, on-site theatrical productions in July 2021. Photo by Andrew Latreille

It is hard to recall the last time a live audience watched a play, musical, or concert in a theatre. The arts industry was devastated when the COVID-19 pandemic forced a swift curtain call for theatres, silencing performances around the world.

The return to theatres is difficult to predict. Performing arts of all kinds—music, theatre, dance, and opera—are in the mass-gathering business, bringing people together in close quarters to share an experience. In an age of social distancing, the return to live in-person entertainment remains uncertain.

That said, there have been beautiful expressions of the arts in various forms shared from a distance—from porch performances to Zoom concerts, artists have found creative ways to connect and stay relevant.

As good as these events are, there is a strong desire to return to the way it was, not just for those whose livelihoods depend on it, but for the public whose mental health is greatly boosted by the arts. The arts have a history of resilience, bouncing back from the plague and World War II, so the question is not will these events return to theatres and performing arts venues, but more so when will they return?

When live events do return, the pandemic will have permanently impacted everyone’s behaviour, so adjustments will need to be made to ensure patrons feel comfortable gathering again. There will be many who will not feel comfortable returning to a physical venue and may wish to enjoy virtual experiences only. This is the time to use imagination and creativity to stage performances remotely that replicate the in-person experience and find solutions that will help improve the live theatre experience when an audience can participate.

Plexiglass barriers and staying 2 m (6 ft) apart does not work in performing arts because some social distancing solutions can have a significant impact on acoustics. The following are some key considerations when redesigning performing arts venues to accommodate safety guidelines without compromising on acoustics:

Keep the seats and space out patrons  

Located in Vancouver, the 2800-seat Queen Elizabeth Theatre hosts Vancouver Opera and Ballet British Columbia. Photo by Ed White Photographics.

Many have become accustomed to keeping a distance of at least 2 m. Theatre seating typically provides 0.8 to 0.9 m2 (9 to 10 sf) per patron—much less than required for safe distancing. The temptation may be to remove seats to ensure proper spacing; however, removing the seats comes with significant consequences to the acoustics and can be detrimental to the audience experience. From an acoustics perspective, those empty seats provide acoustic absorption and play a vital role in soaking up some of the sound and stopping it from becoming too reverberant. Rather than removing seats, sections can be blocked off to keep patrons further apart. Retaining seats also provides the venue with more flexibility. For example, if a larger family living in one household or bubble would like to attend, they can purchase their seats together. Another option could be gallery or box seating to help spread out the audience safely.

Do not replace soft surfaces with hard

Wiping down and sanitizing surfaces has become second nature. So, when designing a space with group seating, it may seem like the safest option would be to design a space with non-porous materials for cleaning purposes. Typically, this would be a good option but in a theatre setting, the plush materials are more than just comfort, they absorb sound. The acoustics will change dramatically with hard seating based on the occupancy rates since people in hard seats will provide a similar level of acoustic absorption to plush seating. If the venue opts for wipeable or non-porous materials in the design, creative solutions may be required to return acoustic absorption to the space.

Take a close look at the air flow and exchange

One option to help prevent the indoor spread of the virus is to increase the amount of fresh air coming into the building from windows and doors. This is not an option in a theatre setting where external noise sources would be a major distraction. The alternative is to consider the air flow and exchange within the building. However, HVAC systems need to allow for much higher ventilation rates, which could lead to noisier air flow. To mitigate this, there must be slower air movement which is not only quieter but also provides good return for energy management and patron comfort.

There are other considerations around air flow that do not necessarily impact acoustics but the safety and comfort of patrons around the spread of airborne aerosols. Typically, the design either supplies air from the top so it falls on the audience or sends air upwards from the bottom with a displacement system. In post-pandemic design, the preference is to have air supplied from the bottom to ensure any airborne aerosols are carried up and away from other audience members rather than blowing down onto the crowd. This would need to be analyzed in greater detail using computational fluid dynamic (CFD) modelling that demonstrates the movement of air in far greater detail than traditional mechanical design.

Do not overdo spacing on stage

A pre-pandemic shot of the Royal Conservatory Koerner Hall opening night. Photo by Tom Arban Photography

Social distancing is now the usual but for musicians, this is not natural. Being spaced further apart can be detrimental to their performance because it affects how well they can hear each other which ultimately impacts their ability to play in unison. The farther apart they are, the longer it takes sound to travel back and forth which can cause a delay. This puts extra pressure on stage acoustics to help support the musicians. If the musicians must stay at a significant distance, in-ear monitors may be beneficial. They will also have to rely more on conductor visual cues than their ears.

To cover or not to cover?

Wearing a face mask muffles speech, making it difficult for others to understand. So, imagine the impact this would have on singing or instruments. Over the past year, many different workarounds have been used to allow online parades or band performances—from fabric coverings over wind instruments to limit aerosol spread to plexiglass dividers. The challenge is finding a way to effectively reduce the spread of aerosols without deadening sound. While plexiglass dividers are being effectively used in the retail space, they have many downsides for the performing arts. It will decrease the ability for musicians to hear each other and play in ensemble. It could also make sound even louder for musicians, many of whom already experience hearing loss.

Transform virtual broadcasts with immersive audio

During the initial lockdown, businesses began to innovate to find ways to stay relevant with customers. Many in-person activities were (and still are) being converted into a virtual format—from Zoom classes to online workouts to streamed concerts. The performing arts moved to the next best available format. Clients began to stream live and to invest in systems to record and back-up live productions to be able to share on demand or a later date. But it was not long before people started to experience Zoom fatigue. While virtual musical performances are enjoyable and offer a reprieve, it lacks the level of engagement of a live experience.

Fortunately, the pandemic has shown when faced with adversity, innovation is possible and has allowed industries such as the performing arts to rise to the occasion to do things in new ways. Knowing the audience will be slow to return, it is important to find creative ways to emulate the concert experience. One way to accomplish this is providing the audience with a 3D stereo sensation. This can be achieved by streaming what is referred to as binaural sound which is like a virtual reality for one’s ears. Guests would purchase a seat to the online show and pre-designed binaural microphones at the respective seat levels would stream to the patron’s headphones so they can experience the sound as if they were sitting in those seats. All the reflection patterns and reverberance would be captured so the audience feels like they are in the venue. Experimenting with experiences like this will bring more engagement. If done correctly, this could open new opportunities and revenue streams as there would be no limitations to selling only the seats available in the venue to those who can access the location. The engagement can be extended even further by adding the option for visual elements for a virtual reality (VR) experience.

Think outside the box—literally

Meridian Arts Centre Lyric Theatre view from the stage. The venue features bold fabric panels and programmable LED lights, creating a unique theatre experience. Photo by Tom Arban Photography

The performing arts have been traditionally enjoyed indoors, particularly in colder climates. But with many people evaluating the safety of being indoors versus outdoors, it is time to explore opportunities to literally think outside the box and incorporate outdoor space into the design.

To get a sense of what this might look like, consider The Tanglewood Music Center in Massachusetts. The facility is shaped like a giant barn and it opens to the exterior. Unlike traditional theatres, a few guests can be seated indoors, but many others enjoy the performances in the open air, often while picnicking on the lawn and under the stars. While Tanglewood has been open for decades, it has been cast into the spotlight more recently as the arts find creative ways to provide performances in a safe manner.

In fact, Hamilton, Ontario, has a more recent example of such a facility. The city converted a downtown six-storey concrete parkade into a rooftop open-air concert venue. An outdoor component to a performing arts venue design will require special considerations in urban settings where there may be noise from police or fire trucks or even traffic. In addition, weather in Canada can be unpredictable and very cold at times so consideration will need to be made to not only protect patrons from rain, wind, and snow, but also keeping them comfortable during the colder months of the year.

Seek out opportunities that may arise out of this crisis

If there is a different business model or a new way to engage patrons, this is the time to try it out because people are open to new ideas. As vaccination rates increase, there is optimism of returning to crowded spaces again. While there will be a new normal, people may come back slowly and in a modified way that provides a higher level of comfort to patrons.

When theatres were shuttered during the plague and World War II, they did not have the benefits of Zoom or other technologies, yet the arts remained relevant and came back stronger than ever. No doubt, the arts will emerge stronger this time as well and perhaps even better because of the many opportunities to innovate.

[5]Payam Ashtiani, P.Eng., is a professional engineer and a principal at Aercoustics Engineering Limited, a firm specializing in fostering innovation in acoustics, vibration, and noise control. With more than a decade of experience in acoustics, he works with architects to solve noise reduction and noise mitigation issues for a wide variety of projects including theatres and performing arts centres. Ashtiani can be contacted via email at

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