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The Mechanics of McPherson

Inside the Laidlaw Music Centre's McPherson Recital Room

Piling on top of St Andrews’ Architectural Award for Public Building and Pride of Place Award last year, the Laidlaw Music Centre has won one of only seven 2023 Scottish Architecture Awards.

Within the Laidlaw Music Centre, tucked behind St Mary’s Quad, is a room where physics, music, and architecture come together. The McPherson Recital Room. Designed with singers in mind, it is the only recital hall in the world to contain a reverberation chamber, providing an acoustic that is a joy to sing in.

However, it is not only singers who use this room. Adjustable banners and curtains allow the reverberation to be adjusted to the instruments in use, allowing for the perfect balance between clarity and reverberance. Whilst the elegant black banners that descend the walls are visible, the acoustical curtain is tucked away in the reverberation chamber above the hall. This high ceiling also provides catwalk surfaces enabling access to lighting, audio and recording equipment. This is controlled from the high-tech booth overlooking the hall on a balcony, positioned next to the room’s historic 19th-century organ.

Before the creation of the McPherson Recital Room, the design was presented using Virtual Reality. This allowed the users to speak and sing in the virtual room and observe simulations of the sound it would produce once built. As the designer, Nicholas Edwards, explains, there are many misconceptions behind the science of acoustics. Resultantly, it was imperative to him that a room which “obeyed the laws of science” was created in order to “faithfully reproduce by reflection the sound that the musicians are producing.” He explains that, despite the design of many other music venues, the ideal room is one with flat walls to avoid sound scattering at certain frequencies. This “flat response” is particularly important to avoid the absorption of low sound frequencies. The massive, heavy walls, made of concrete blocks, wooden batons, and medium-density fibre (MDF) boards, are perfect for reflecting these low frequencies. However, this marvel of acoustic design is covered with beautiful wood less than a millimetre thick that adds to the stunning interior of the room.

In the same wood as the walls are the 88 motorised lifts that make up the floor. Each two-by-one metre square is able to descend 0.6 metres and rise up to 1.05 metres in height, allowing the entire layout of the room to change with the pressing of a few buttons.

What began as a solution to the lack of storage space for a stage transformed the room into the world’s first chamber room with a moveable floor. Operating with a screw jack mechanism for stability and a scissor mechanism that changes their elevation, each square of floor can be moved up and down individually. They can also be changed en masse and the control cabinet contains multiple pre-programmed room layouts, such as a stage on the north, east, south, or west of the room, or even in the centre.

Chris Bragg, Head of Programming at the Music Centre, sums up its brilliance and importance to the town, commenting that "The McPherson Recital Room is a genuinely world-class venue, truly unique in Europe both for its acoustic and physical flexibility. But, whilst creating a world-class venue was always at the forefront of our minds during the design process, we were likewise obsessive about creating a space which served the wide variety of student and community groups with whom the Music Centre engages. And everyone, whether students, community members, or world-leading performers, loves making and experiencing music here. That, ultimately, is the acid test".

If you are interested in seeing this phenomenal room, there are many upcoming opportunities. At 7:30pm, 10 November, the Music Society’s Chamber Choir and Strings concert is open to the public as is the Musical Theatre Society’s Chronicle in Concert performance at 6pm, 11 November.

Image from University of St Andrews

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