The Royal College Of Music’s New Performance Simulator Makes Students Sweat

There is an old joke which goes, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” and the answer is “Practice, practice, practice.”  London’s prestigious Royal College of Music might add an addendum to this, “Practice, practice, practice at Carnegie Hall,” and its new Performance Lab could come close to making that a reality.

The legendary conservatoire in London’s South Kensington neighborhood, has produced some of the world’s most well-known figures in the world of music, including Gustav Holst, Academy Award-winning film composer James Horner, conductor Leopold Stokowski, and seven-time Grammy nominee James Galway, OBE. The talented RCM students go through a rigorous training, but the college realized that in addition to practicing for hours in a rehearsal studio, they need to practice as though they are on stage, with all the distractions and discomforts that can happen. The college decided to replicate the experience of live performance, and the Performance Lab was born.

Performance Under Pressure

The impetus came from Aaron Williamon, head of the RCM’s Centre for Performance Science, George Waddell, RCM Performance Research and Innovation Fellow, and Richard Bland, head of RCM Digital & Production who recognized that the college needed a realistic training environment to properly prepare students who were used to a quiet rehearsal room where they could practice alone in a bland space wearing T-shirt and jeans.

The RCM brought in Ammonite Studios  to integrate sound, lighting, and video to create a space that simulates a live performance experience. Setting aside an under-used rehearsal space downstairs in the college’s Victorian building, they embarked on a mission to create a space that would force students to perform under pressure. Funded by a £1.9 million grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council and World Class Laboratories Fund, the College partnered with Meyer Sound to provide a cutting-edge Constellation system which, at the touch of a button, transforms the acoustics from a massive concert hall to a dead box or an outdoor venue. Standing in the space as Constellation runs through its impressive paces demonstrates how much of an adjustment musicians and singers must make to respond to the different acoustic environments, just holding a conversation when the acoustics are dead is difficult and the echoes in a large venue would be shocking after playing in a small rehearsal studio. The RCM also invested in a Steinway Spirio player piano, enabling students to play a piece and hear it play back in different sound environments.

Performance Lab users can select a video of the stage in a few recognizable venues to perform in, and the library of locations will continue to expand in the future to include the Royal Albert Hall, located across the road from the college, and, of course, Carnegie Hall. In addition to selecting visuals for the venue, users can select an audience—packed and noisy, sparse and bored, or tipsy and disruptive are just some of the types of video audiences available. There is also the option for a hostile panel of judges, so that students can rehearse for a competition where the judges may not be overly supportive. To create the visuals, Ammonite collaborated with the Centre for Creative and Immersive XR at the University of Portsmouth, where performers wearing gray suits and ping pong balls for motion capture played audience members in a variety of moods; clapping, looking disgruntled and folding their arms, falling asleep, or coughing loudly to create a pool of assets for the simulator. Ammonite created and installation the video using Unreal Engine. The RCM continues to build up the video assets to create the most realistic and intense experiences for the students.

Other collaborators who were critical to the success of the project are FRAY STUDIO and freelancers sound designer Carolyn Downing and Unreal Engine expert Daniel Orchard.

The system is controlled via iPad and has an intuitive interface so both students and professors can change the audience video, lighting, or acoustics. The set up can be chosen before a rehearsal, or made to change during it, as a light going out or a door left open can change the playing environment mid-performance.

Jon Lyle

Jon Lyle, a founder and director at Ammonite, created an almost 60-page “script” for the projects scope and workflow, and brought on expert collaborators as needed. He also partnered with G2 Digital Ltd., computer hardware manufacturers, to design the computers to play back the software that drives the experience across all the different services including audio, video, and lighting. Lyle says, “It would have been easy just to say we'll get the brightest, shiniest media server, but that is not what this needed, so we are using custom rack-mounted PCs with NVIDIA A6000 graphics cards and Intel I9 CPUs. We use Epson projectors, but because we don’t represent a large market to the company, we might only use two for a West End show for example, we use gear designed for a schoolroom or cinema. That’s when you get challenges such as the migration to 4K pipelines on a show like Frozen, where we had to develop some creative concepts.” Fortunately, Lyle is used to adapting equipment designed for medical and even military applications. He jokes that since he is often looking at gear used in air traffic control or the army his Google searches have probably put him on a government list somewhere. One example of adapting gear happened when he was associate video designer on Frozen, when they were struggling to find a connector that was rugged enough to work. He says, “I ended up looking at how Motorola's walkie-talkies get mounted on chest plates for soldiers using a magnetic connection that aligns the pins and locks them in. It holds the weight of the gear, is IP-rated and exactly what we needed.”

The investment in the Performance Lab is not just paying off for students, since its debut in January all kinds of organizations, from the United Nations and government departments to CEOs preparing to deliver a keynote, have rented the space to train in the simulator.  

Stressing Out The Strings

Nearby Imperial College London  is also involved with the Performance Lab, tracking how users respond under pressure. There are heat sensors and cameras measuring physiological changes in the performers while under duress, and research focuses on how long recovery time is from disturbances and what skills can be learned to improve it. In addition to creating a hostile audience, Imperial measures what happens when the temperature rises 5°, or the color temperature of the lighting becomes much colder and harsher, or the acoustics change radically during a piece. In addition to changes using high-tech solutions, the students are introduced to things that they may not have encountered walking onstage at a school. Some have never heard the backstage calls for 15 minutes, 5 minutes, beginners places, and, according to Richard Bland, making students walk through a heavy curtain into a blinding spotlight while holding their instruments can be very unnerving, so participants are forced to become used to this, too. Each of these micro changes can have an impact on performance.

Ammonite Studios

Jon Lyle, a founder and director of Ammonite Studios, has been involved with live entertainment technology one way or another since he was a child. He says he was playing around with Zero 88 Alpha dimmers while in grade school, eventually ending up at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. His first job was at the Cheltenham Everyman Theatre where Michael Hall took him under his wing. Another huge influence was Britain’s National Youth Theatre, which he attended every summer. He says, “I still go to meetings and there are people sitting opposite me I have known since I was 15. You realize what a real family this industry is.”  While there, he was able to see the mechanics of how everything backstage worked. He was able to continue that multidisciplinary study at the Guildhall, saying, “I think it’s essential to be able to empathize with everyone else when you're collaborating.” Having a working knowledge of lighting, rigging, sound, and scenic design has been helpful since Lyle focused on video programming and design and gaining the experience behind the creation of Ammonite Studios. That experience includes working with Fifty Nine Productions on such high-profile events as the London Olympics in 2012 and with Tony-winning video and scenic designer Finn Ross on projects such as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and, more recently, Frozen, in the US.

Eventually, after working on an array of different projects, he saw a need to facilitate dynamic, tech-heavy storytelling for theatre, installations, and other live events and established Ammonite Studios with Robert Casey.  “We wanted to set up the workflows and break down different steps to give a better experience for designers working with these new tools,” Lyle says. In many cases, best practices are still being worked out as things update constantly and tech-heavy shows, such as Back to the Future and The Picture of Dorian Gray are changing audience expectations. While Ammonite staff and contributors have done rock ‘n’ roll tours and West End shows in the past, its scope of projects has expanded to reflect the changing industry, which now includes show control and multiple disciplines for museum exhibitions, corporate events, and themed retail. Lyle says, “We bring different disciplines together. We are all about storytelling, whether you spend most of your time in a film studio or in a theatre, you still want the audience to experience an emotion in whatever environment they are in.”

The freelance collaborator approach works for Ammonite’s focus because, while 20 people working together on the same projects will hone their skills in the same areas, 20 people working on a wide array of different projects and coming together for a particular event will bring experiences with new technologies and new ideas. The landscape for live entertainment is changing rapidly, and Lyle reflects, “Relationships with Ammonite contributors are incredibly dynamic, sometimes they are employing us and sometimes we are employing them.”

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