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RFID Helps Focus Sound at Opera Productions

Out Board's TiMax Tracker system uses Ubisense's RFID technology to track the location of miked actors and singers on stage, including for a production of Carmen at London's O2 arena.
By Claire Swedberg
Aug 12, 2010When 17,000 people attended each showing of Bizet's opera Carmen this spring at London's 02 arena, the sound experience was unlike other operas. Speakers had been installed above and around the periphery of the stage, and as each performer traveled around that stage, his or her voice reached each seat as if emanating directly from the singer's exact location on stage. This is no simple accomplishment. To ensure the timing and therefore the direction of sound for each performer—to each section of the audience—is still an early science. But in the case of this production of Carmen, as well as a dozen or more theater productions throughout Europe, a company has solved the problem with an RFID-based solution.

British sound engineering firm Out Board has developed a sound-locating system known as TiMax Tracker, using ultra-wideband technology from Ubisense to calculate the location of various tag-wearing performers on the stage. That data is forwarded to the TiMax2 SoundHub audio-controlling software, which determines when a specific performer's voice should reach each of the speakers deployed throughout the theater or arena and consequently determine when that performers amplified voice should be broadcast on each speaker.

The system predicts the arrival time of sound and thereby, says, Dave Haydon, Out Board's director, matches the sound location with the visual location of the performers on the stage using a psychoacoustic phenomenon known as precedence. "The importance is authenticity, realism," he says.

RFID helps accomplish this—a feat that is especially impressive given the size of The O2, which can accommodate as many as 20,000 audience members, in a space that measures 320 meters (1,050 feet) in diameter. Since the TiMax Tracker system was first developed three years ago, it has been used in the 5,000-seat Royal Albert Hall in London as well as 25 to 30 other theaters in the United Kingdom, Sweden, Finland, Norway and Denmark, and is planned for use at an unnamed Broadway musical in New York.

For opera, the quality of sound has been especially challenging once microphones began being used. In a large theater, the sound of the performer's voice can arrive at audience seats a fraction of a second later than the sound from speakers, reducing the clarity of sound. In addition, as more operas are performed in English to make them more accessible to the English-speaking audience, it is even more critical that a singer's voice sounds clear, so that words can be understood. By determining exactly where each performer is on the stage, the system can determine how long the sound delay is, to ensure not only the proper amplification of each voice but also the right localization.

At The 02, a total of six TiMax RFID readers (including the one shown in upper right corner) were mounted on pipes or rails high above the stage.

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