The first chapel built at Cheltenham college was never consecrated, its south window was deemed ‘grotesque’ and its acoustics were (even at the time) considered ‘appalling’. In 1896, following a commissioning process that had attracted many architectural heavyweights of the period, a new chapel was dedicated on 13 October by the Bishop of Gloucester and in stark contrast to its predecessor, possessed rather more in the way of soaring splendour. In spite of an earthquake striking Cheltenham later that day and causing damage, still clearly visible, to the ceiling, the chapel stands as a magnificent example of Neo-Gothic architecture. Designed by Henry Prothero in collaboration with John Middleton, the scale (certainly for a school chapel) is impressive and the beautifully detailed hand-craftsmanship reflects Middleton’s association with Sir George Gilbert Scott and William Morris, both leading lights in the Gothic revival and Arts and Crafts movements of the day.
To this day the chapel sits at the heart of college life. It is in daily use for services and concerts, has the capacity to seat upwards of 700 people and as is now commonplace for such facilities, can be hired by external agencies for a variety of events. Whilst the acoustics of the chapel by no means fell into its predecessor’s category of ‘appalling’, sound reinforcement issues in such a highly reverberant environment are always fraught with challenges and the extension of the venue’s use beyond the traditional, meant that the college authorities felt it was time to act to improve the chapel’s audio provision. The college invited Gloucestershire’s leading installer of professional sound, lighting and AV equipment, River Audio, to advise on a solution and following that consultation, gave the go-ahead for the installation of a new audio system.
The existing budget column speakers were wholly inadequate and the status quo was one of poorly defined sound, prone to feedback when any attempt was made to achieve reasonable levels. The heritage nature of the interior precluded any significant acoustic treatment of such a reverberant and uneven space and so the onus lay firmly on the selection of loudspeakers. River Audio had already traced the signal path through microphone, mixer and amplifier but knew that the final link in the chain had to be the strongest. They surmised that the nature of the loudspeakers would underpin the most noticeable difference of all. Howard Williams of River Audio looked at a range of options before deciding to look more closely at Tannoy speakers. This focus led directly to Audiologic, Tannoy’s UK distributor, who assisted in finalising the speaker specification. A number of factors led to the selection of Tannoy VLS15s for the chapel. First and foremost, their capacity to deliver clear speech reproduction in a difficult acoustic environment was key. River Audio trialled the speakers on site and the deal was clinched by their standout accuracy of coverage and vocal clarity. The volume dials on the back of the speakers meant that although linked, they could be easily set to the appropriate level for their particular area of coverage. As well overcoming the tricky nature of the acoustics, the sensitive heritage nature of the chapel meant that size, build quality and ease of fitting were very important. Audiologic arranged for the VLS15s to be custom painted to blend in with the dark wood of the interior and wiring and mounting was straightforward and discreet.
Howard Williams of River Audio found the project very satisfying: “When we installed the Tannoy VLS15s, the effect was immediate and striking. The college’s capacity to stage presentations and music performances in the chapel has been improved beyond measure. The system is in use every day and in spite of the chapel’s large natural reverb, it is possible to hear everything clearly – a dramatic improvement on what was there before. The client is delighted with the outcome both in terms of the audio and the seamless way in which the custom-painted speakers blend in with their surroundings. We have a great relationship with Audiologic and once again found them to be helpful, flexible and speedy in all aspects of their service.”
Simon Stoll, Managing Director of Audiologic was equally pleased: “The Tannoy name has been synonymous with great audio for generations and an installation such as this demonstrates how the brand remains at the leading edge of loudspeaker manufacture. The performance of the VLS15s at Cheltenham College Chapel has completely changed the face of the audio and enabled the college to stage a wide variety of performance with complete confidence. Ultimately, the success of any performance or production depends on the experience of the audience and this has been improved beyond all recognition. We worked closely with River Audio to support their precise requirements and are pleased to have played a part in a very successful installation.”