Venue with a menu
Last month a most unusual theatre club opened in London where you can eat and drink while enjoying a live show. Occupying the building that was previously the Metropole Theatre, The Venue seats a total of about 550 people on five levels, all with an unobstructed view of the stage. Although there are several such clubs in the United States - notably New York's Bottom Line - where eating, drinking and good music are considered complementary to one another, central London has lacked a counterpart. Until now that is.
The entrance fee is £3.50 per head, with two shows per night starting at 8.30pm and 12.30am. Meals, which are extra but not obligatory, come from The Venue's own kitchen. After each performance there is plenty of time for those who are eating to finish their meals before the premises are cleared for the next show.
All very nice and pretty straightforward. It's the sound system, however, that really puts The Venue in another league altogether. For the entire acoustic design and construction of the stage and auditorium plus the permanent house PA is the handiwork of Tom Hidley of Eastlake Audio. Hidley is probably better known for his acoustic design of Several dozen top studios around the world, including The Manor, Strawberry North and South, The Los Angeles Record Plant, France's Chateau d'Herouville, DJM and many, many more. But he was also recently engaged to design and instal a PA system at the famous London Palladium, so perhaps this latest project is only the beginning of a lateral drift into other sound-related projects. The Venue's stage and auditorium were designed by Hidley as a studio and control room respectively, with a guarantee that the sound will be identical no matter where a customer is sitting in the auditorium. And that will make a change from the regular sound we have to put up with at live gigs, which varies from marginal to downright bloody awful.
The Venue is the brainchild of Virgin Records supremos Richard Branson and Nick Powell, who three years ago started looking for a suitable building in London. Together with The Venue's manager, Darrol Edwards, who had been running a theatre club in Manchester called the Stoneground, Branson and Powell looked at two other theatres before settling on the present site. One of the possibles was the Kings Road Theatre in Chelsea, home of the Rocky Horror Show. The trio managed to secure the freehold on the theatre, with an option to buy on condition that they could get a late licence. The Greater London Council wouldn't play ball though, and because of the residential area in which the theatre is situated were only prepared to grant a licence to midnight. As this would rule out the possibility of a second house, the search continued.
Next on their list was the Metropole Theatre in Victoria, which being in a less residential area should have posed less problems. They hadn't bargained for further GLC bureaucracy, however. Because of the then recent signing to Virgin records of the Sex Pistols, the GLC were afraid that The Venue would become a 'punk club'. To prevent such an outrage, it withheld planning permission for the conversion work to begin. It wasn't until Powell et al were persuaded to impose a £3.50 entrance fee - hence keeping out the poorer elements of society including punks, we would assume the logic must run - that the GLC gave the thumbs up.
Tom Hidley has been involved in the project almost from the beginning. According to Venue manager Darrol Edwards, Hidley was the natural choice because of his prior involvement at The Manor Studios, which is also part of the Virgin family, and recently with the new Virgin 32-track Town House Studios in west London (to be looked at in a forthcoming issue of SI). Consulted originally to look at the problem of sound leaking from the Metropole Theatre, Hidley suggested that a concrete stage be 'floated' on a foam material to stop vibrations travelling around the building through the walls and floor. (Which is exactly the way the floor of a recording studio is isolated from the rest of the building.) As Edwards explains: 'From that it seemed an obvious thing for him to take the whole room up to studio standard.' The idea was to contain the sound on the stage area, and let it be projected into the auditorium by the house PA. To this end the stage has been shaped, trapped, draped and carpeted to studio standards and dimensions, and features a bronze mirror running the full width of the back of the stage. This can be exposed to produce a 'harder and brighter' sound, or draped to give a softer tone.
By conventional appearances, The Venue's PA is a very modest affair; no piles of bass bins and 'long-throw' horns anywhere. Four Eastlake TM3 enclosures — almost identical to those installed by Hidley at conventional recording studios — are mounted either side of the stage. Each enclosure contains two 15in bass drivers, a medium-frequency flared horn assembly plus a high-frequency tweeter. The amplifier racks contain four White Instruments ⅓-octave equalisers coupled to specially designed two-way electronic crossover units. The outputs from the crossover pass to eight stereo H/H S500D power amplifiers, which operate in 'biamp' mode with one amplifier per enclosure. The total RMS power capable of being produced by the system is quoted in excess of 4-8kW.
In the centre of the audience area of tables and chairs will be situated a rather large Midas PA mixer. Of modular design, it is capable of handling 32 inputs, eight sub-group outputs and two main (stereo) outputs. Each input channel features a very comprehensive eq section: up to 16dB cut or boost is available at three low-frequency and three high-frequency settings, plus up to 16dB cut or boost at six mid-frequencies selectable from 300Hz-5kHz. An interesting feature is the provision of a LED display beside each channel fader, to enable the operator to adjust pre-fader levels. Four auxiliary sends per channel, selectable either pre- or post-fader, are available for foldback, echo send, cue etc. Level monitoring is on 11 VU meters assigned to the eight sub-groups, stereo output and pfl buss. Midas have also supplied a smaller 16-input/6-output console for independent stage foldback, which is situated in a recess on the right-hand side of the stage. The monitor desk is also modular and can be expanded, should the need arise at a later date, to accommodate 24 inputs and eight output groups. The on-stage monitoring system comprises three more H/H power amplifiers feeding six Martin Audio LE200 floor-standing wedge monitors.
Each stage microphone/power panel (of which there are six) is recessed within the floating concrete floor, and houses 50 XLR sockets in one section plus eight mains outlets in the other. Of the 50 XLRs, 32 are microphone inputs to the Midas desk, six are for foldback and two are for video use. All microphone channels pass through splitter transformers so that a second entirely separate set can be established for mobile recordings. Given the excellent acoustics of The Venue, this latter facility is expected to be used quite frequently for recording live albums.
Even a band's road crew haven't been forgotten. Direct access to the stage is only 10ft away from the street - with no steps either - so that loading and unloading should pose few problems. Under the stage there is a band room with a shower and another with an acoustically-treated tune-up room with a variety of amps already installed.
A rather unusual feature is the 3-ton saucer-shaped object suspended over the front of the auditorium. Originally this acted as a screen for the laser light shows in the days when the Metropole was offering such visual treats. It has since been carpeted and acoustically treated before being lowered and set at a different angle to prevent sound being lost into the upper (unoccupied) balcony.
With such an outstanding sound system and not inconsiderable entrance prices, isn't there a danger that The Venue would become the place where acts are showcased before embarking on tours, or where they can be shown off to the record biz and media in general? Manager Darrol Edwards sees this as a distinct possibility, and one that he will try to reduce where possible. 'Yes, there will be a certain element of this anyway, but we want to keep a certain street feel to it. Which is why the decor side is very basic. The tables and chairs are just wooden, there's no luxury furnishings at all - no Art Deco stuff! We haven't made it flash at all, just nice 'n' simple.' This possibly spartan simplicity will also be reflected in the type of food served: hamburgers, hot dogs, steaks and other fast food mainly, but with vegetarian dishes as well as possibly a cold buffet.
To help keep the auditorium noise down to reasonable levels meals are served off wooden plates. In addition, the waitress service should prevent too many people moving around and getting in the way of the rest of the audience.
On opening night The Venue crowd was wowed by Graham Parker and The Rumour. Other acts who have appeared recently include Dean Friedman, Marshall Hain, Fairport Convention and Magazine. As you read this Todd Rundgren's Utopia will have finished a week-long residency of shows. And already interest in The Venue is growing. 'There are a lot of things you can do,' says Edwards, 'once you get the room set up with a PA in there. All a band has got to do is fly over, plug in and away they go. A lot of LA acts want to get on a Laker flight, pop over and simply go home again.' With a dependable PA on site, bands are certainly going to be spared a lot of hassles with equipment and road crews.
What's it all cost, you may ask? Rough estimates put a price tag of around £100000 on the total project, with around £25000 going to Eastlake for the design and construction costs of the stage and auditorium (plus various consultancy fees to Tom Hidley going back over the three years since the idea was first mooted) and an additional £21000 for the house PA system (monitors, enclosures, amps etc). But once you have had the opportunity to hear for yourself how a studio-quality sound system and acoustics can radically improve the atmosphere at a live gig-no more ringing ears or wondering what the hell the lyrics were 'cause they were incomprehensible - you will agree that it is certainly money well spent.
Should any of you tour managers want to book The Venue, Darrol Edwards can be reached at (Contact Details).
Sound Reports & Views
Feature by Mel Lambert
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