One of the things I missed during the various pandemic lockdowns we endured over the last couple of years was being able to go to the movies. There’s nothing quite like the big screen experience and the surround sound audio of a properly calibrated movie theater that can bring any film to life. Not being able to see movies on the big screen got me wondering what it would be like if I had my own home theater. What’s involved in designing your dream cinema and what are the kind of choices you must make.
To find out a bit more, I turned to Chris Walls, managing director of Indesign Theatre. The UK-based company designs and installs home theaters for people who value their privacy and love the convenience of being able to have that movie theater experience whenever they like, no matter what time of day it is. I began by asking Walls to tell me a little more about Indesign Theatre.
“Our affiliated companies – Level Acoustic Design, Studio Creations and Indesign Engineering – have created studio facilities for many of the world’s biggest film-makers, broadcasters and musicians. We know how content should sound and look. That comes from designing dubbing and grading theatres that turn out Oscar-winning sound and pictures. That is the difference; nobody else has that pedigree.
“The idea for the company came about when we were working on a private studio for a well-known music artist and they showed us their home cinema. It looked great but was acoustically and technically very poor. Then we found out how much he had paid for it. It was more expensive than the recording studio we had built.
“This was around the time we were finishing off a screening room for Lucasfilm at Pinewood Studios. The room was for reviewing dailies and CGI etc for the last Star Wars film. It was far more technically advanced and sonically accurate than the music artist’s cinema, yet it cost less. We could see no reason why the same principles and rigorous standards couldn’t be applied to all high-end home theatres.
“Since then, our companies have worked very closely on several projects which have served as proof of concept and helped to refine our process and we have now launched Indesign Theatre as a joint venture to focus on home theatre design and installation.”
I wanted to know what makes Indesign Theatre different from all the other ‘luxury’ home theatre installers, such as the company the unnamed musician has used and probably regretted.
“When we first started talking about setting up the company, we thought it would be a compelling offer to have your home theatre designed by the team who deliver industry-leading facilities for Lucasfilm, Netflix, Apple, Sky and Abbey Road Studios. Our clients include Oscar-winning film directors, composers and sound designers, as well as the world’s biggest streaming company. We think that experience ought to give our clients instant bragging rights over their friends.
“Our team includes qualified acousticians, architects, AV professionals, mechanical & electrical engineers and a project management team with extensive experience of delivering the world’s best audio and picture facilities. Between us, we cover every facet of facility design and installation at the very highest level. Put simply, we can create the most accurate, industry-leading playback environments in residential settings.
“There’s a good reason why residential home cinema builders do not work in the commercial domain as the rooms would simply not pass the rigorous acoustic requirements of professionals in the industry.”
What’s the back story behind the company’s two founders?
“I studied music and acoustics at university. I followed by a masters in audio acoustics and I was incredibly lucky to land a job designing recording studios straight out of university. In my first job, I designed studios for U2, the BBC and Dolby’s Atmos screening room in London, which I believe was the first purpose-built Atmos room in Europe, possibly in the world.
“I set up my own acoustic design company in 2014 and have since designed studios for Abbey Road Studios, Netflix, Lucasfilm, NBC Universal, Google and Spotify. Many of whom are now regular clients. I still carry out and oversee the acoustic design for all our projects and generally do the commissioning testing which then feeds into the design of the next project so that we are constantly improving. That’s the really interesting bit for me.”
“My business partner, Justin Spier, started out writing and producing dance music under various guises in the 1990s but continued his career in technical positions within the music industry, including Technical Supervisor of a pro-audio hire company, Head of Technical Engineering for a big London studio and various other consultancy roles before setting up Studio Creations in 2005.
“Studio Creations is the leading studio design, build and technical integrator with a client list that’s like a Who’s Who? of the music and film business, delivering the finest recording studios and post-production facilities in the industry.”
What kind of services can customers expect if they get Indesign Theatre to build their home theater?
“Because each home cinema is a bespoke design, our services will depend in part on the customer requirements. Sometimes our role in the project is a small part of a much bigger scheme, in which case we slot into the wider design team. However, more often we provide a full turnkey design, build and installation service.
“The design process will normally start with an acoustic survey and thorough appraisal of the performance requirements for the build, in terms of isolation, building services, noise, room acoustics and technical integration. This determines the size, shape and construction methods required and forms the basis of the ensuing design. From there we start looking at equipment, technical and interior design & furnishing options, which is where the client often gets heavily involved. We then turn that into a fully coordinated set of construction drawings & specifications for the site team to execute.”
A typical scope of services includes the architectural and interior design plus full BIM coordination including technical design. We also sort out the acoustic isolation and design the acoustics of the room. The 3D visualizations, custom lighting design and bespoke cinema seating are all things we take care of. We also do the backroom stuff like designing the machine Room and server rack design. We handle all the cabling and fiber backbone plus the video matrix design, automation systems, room commissioning and calibration before handing over the project to the customer.”
Where does Indesign Theater operate? Is it a global concern?
“Although we are a UK-based business we operate across the globe. Projects outside the UK or northern Europe tend to be design-only, with a team carrying out site visits and commissioning to check compliance with the design. The design team has completed projects throughout Europe, North America, South America, India and the Middle East.
Who have you built home theaters for so far?
“Many of our customers are high profile individuals and we take their privacy very seriously. However, a few household names that we have worked with who are happy for us to mention them include: Noel Gallagher, Idris Elba, James Arthur and Muse. On the corporate side, we have worked with Apple, Netflix, Disney, Warner Brothers and Lucasfilm.”
What sort of kit do you use in your designs?
“Each Indesign Theatre is unique, so we select equipment that is most suitable based on the type of room and the client’s requirements. We only use industry-leading products that deliver identical playback to a commercial facility and have excellent relationships with the world’s best manufacturers – both professional and domestic. But the kit we use is only a small part of the equation; without good acoustic and technical design, you can’t realize the full potential of the equipment. It is the extra attention to detail that turns an average home theatre into an amazing space.
“We approach the technical installation with the same methodology as our commercial cinematic rooms, we use AV processors only as a gateway to the analog domain and our systems are programmed in Qsys or Crestron and completely bespoke. While the backend of the system is likely to be complex, the user interface is incredibly simple and seamless to operate without the user needing in-depth knowledge.
“Audio over IP and IP-based decoding and custom-designed hardware and software integrated controllers are the norm. We only specify a handful of speaker manufacturers that we know can deliver the performance and accuracy our clients demand.”
Where do you see the home cinema industry going in terms of technology?
“Resolutions will increase at some point and as films are often shot in much higher resolution than they are released. But as higher resolutions are adopted throughout the post-production industry that will trigger the push to higher resolutions as 4K is the industry standard and above that is currently deemed unnecessary. We would consider HDR as having far more impact on perceptual quality than extra pixels and potential frame rates increases (the BBC has found as spatial resolution increases viewers prefer an increase in temporal resolution).
“There is about to be a big change with Atmos music due to Apple Music requiring mixes in Atmos. We are building commercial projects constantly for this type of content with all the big mix engineers upgrading their systems to Dolby Atmos spatial arrays from 9.1.4 and beyond.
“Ultimately, there is no substitute for a properly designed room. If your goal is sonic excellence, then an accurate listening environment is key before any equipment is considered. An incorrect listening environment can and will fluctuate up to a margin of 12dB at any given point within the room, which is a complete disaster in a commercial facility so why would you do it in your own home?
What’s your view on laser technology as opposed to OLED screens or projectors?
“When it comes to laser versus OLED, it’s all in the application. Laser offers a larger screen size but doesn’t give the kind of peak brightness as a screen. OLED is a mature technology and, as ever, there’s a cost to being on the cutting edge. Where it’s appropriate, laser technology can be a fine option.”
What is the most challenging install issue you have faced?
“We designed a very high-end space for a client in central London which was directly next door to the bedroom of the nanny’s apartment. The client used the room for watching films as well as playing and recording with his band, which he tended to do until the small hours. The big challenge here was to isolate the noise from a full band sufficiently to enable the nanny to sleep in the next room – not an easy task! We designed, prototyped and built a unique solution for the project as we were repeatedly warned ‘that failure was not an option. Sound isolation is always a big consideration for our projects, but this was an extreme situation that presented some engineering challenges.
“It’s fair to say that not all cinema rooms are created equal. It would be accurate to say that most are fundamentally flawed due to a lack of understanding of the principles and application of room acoustics. Our design team has experience and expertise in creating the finest critical listening environments for the leading names in entertainment.”
It’s interesting to get a glimpse into the world of high-end home theaters, a world that most of us can only ever dream about. The vital takeaway from my interview with Walls is that it doesn’t matter how good your equipment is, if you don’t get the acoustics right then you’re wasting your money. So often we think that throwing a lot of money at a project and buying the best of everything will mean we get the best home theater. Not so, get the acoustics right and you will find that even affordable equipment can furnish great sound that will bring movies to life.
You can find out more about Indesign Theater and the services they offer by visiting their website. For the time being, I’m going to have to stick with my 40-inch TV and Dolby Atmos soundbar, but if I ever win the lottery… I might just give Chris Walls a call.