Royal Opera House

Latest News: In late 2015, I was very happy to be contacted by Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, for whom I did a considerable amount of freelance design in the late 1990's. The call was in connection with a building-wide, bespoke Paging System that we built then, as the whole of ROH was redeveloped. Having run pretty much blamelessly for the last 16 years (24/7!), the system is now up for some extensions. This is due to a project called "Open Up", aimed at making parts of the building more suitable for smaller, more "organic" performances.

I am very proud of this involvement. In an age of far too much throwaway technology, it is very satisfying to have been responsible for a system which has proved itself such a fine long-term investment, and which has been - perhaps like P.G. Wodehouse's legendary valet, Jeeves - what one might call a "paragon of discreet competence". What follows is my recollecton of this most satisfying part of my career.

Back in the early 1990s, a year or two after moving to London, I found myself working part time at ROH. I already had some solid audio experience at Soundcraft Electronics, Philip Drake, and other companies. The hire came about via an old colleague from Drake days, who needed some help with building and testing audio gear for the ROH.

Front Of House at ROH

It turned out to be quite an experience, and one that lasted almost a decade. It was certainly a very special place to work. The emphasis was most definitely on “getting things done” and also on high quality work. The Sound Department at ROH had their own workshops, and capability to do small scale production of electronics to quite a high standard. Also, a network of small contractors were used for tasks like metalwork, PCB assembly, and so on.

It was also, for someone like me that had been used to working in more conventional work environments, a totally different atmosphere. The whole atmosphere of madcap artistic creation, a very busy working theatre, was something quite special.

Over the following years, I became more and more involved with the Sound Department at ROH. I liked the place. At one point the Head of Sound, Eric Pressley, invited me to apply for a permanent position as a sound engineer; after a lot of thought and some discussion I felt that I would not be able to offer him the dedication the position required. I had originally moved to London to focus on playing music; a permannent position there would have meant working shows on many evenings. The path not taken; but this worked out very happily, and I remained there as the "back room boy", providing all kinds of specialist advice and services for anything to do with audio electronics, over the next years. An added and considerable "perk" was that I often used the premises to practice saxophone in the mornings, when few others, other than a few stage hands and security were there. In London, living always in rented rooms, this was quite an asset to my life! The evenings were still mostly free for me to get out to jam sessions or whatever.

At that time, ROH was an old Victorian era building, and rather antiquated. The whole place had something of a bizarre and pacturesque Dickensian feel at times. In the late 1990s, they tore the whole place down and rebuilt it - an enormous proeject which drew quite some media attention at the time. Part of the rebuild meant replacing or upgrading the in-house communication systems which had been custom built. By now I was pretty much the technical lead in the Sound Department, and so a mad few years of work began.

The amount of work involved was immense, and looking back, it is amazing that we managed to get it all done. We were quite a small team, but I think very efficient, in our way. For me, it eventually meant that I ended up not playing much sax for a few years, anyhow - I was simply too busy. To make things even more hectic, I met my future wife during that time, and by first daughter Beatrice was born in November of 1999.

Looking back, I was very lucky to have been involved. My experiences since showed me that it is a rare thing these days to have such freedom and responsibility, to focus so intensely as we did on simply getting a job done, and with a great freedom from the tedium of meetings, spreadsheets, and reports that plagues the modern workplace. We simply built what was needed, installed it, and got it working.

Technically, these sytems were quite challenging. as well as the audio side, there was really a lot of custom logic. Some was done with combinational logic, some with bespoke microcontroller software - real time control in fact. And the systems were just big - a lot of equipment spread out across a large building, a lot of cable, a lot of cards in central equipment racks. (For those interested in the technical details, I have scanned a four page article which I wrote for Engineering Technology magazine in 2000. Click the thumbnails below to see the full size scans - they take a few seconds to load.)

ROH1 ROH2 ROH3 ROH4

The project had a strict deadline, and after a very full on 1999 (that also saw my father passing on suddenly, and the birth of my daughter Beatrice, all in a few months) we completed the project on time. There were a few loose ends totie up in early 2000, but things were pretty much done. Anyway, with a young family, London had suddenly lost a lot of its charm. I soon accepted a job offer to go to Dublin. A year later we moved again, this time to Belgium, my ex-wife's country of origin. More than 10 years later, and I am still here!