Centrepiece of Expo2020 to Permanently Showcase Immersive Sound for Dubai’s District 2020

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6 January, 2023
When Expo 2020 opened in September 2021 after a year’s delay due to the pandemic, it more than lived up to its pre-event billing.

Recording more than 24 million visits during its six-month run, the site included 200 pavilions representing 191 participating countries. The Expo was bookended by lavish opening and closing ceremonies which took place in the spectacular Al Wasl Dome, purpose-built for the Expo.

Al Wasl, which means ‘connection’ in Arabic, is the historic name for Dubai and the eponymously named dome became the focal point of the 438-hectare Expo campus. In fact, ‘connection’ was the central theme of the Expo, whose objective of ‘Connecting Minds and Creating the Future’ is manifest in the Dome, which served as the physical link between the three thematic districts of the Expo: Opportunity, Mobility and Sustainability. Its semi-open design also connects the indoors to the outdoors, encompassing both enclosed and open spaces. An extraordinary structure, the Dome boasts an internal volume of 724,000 cubic metres and houses the world’s largest 360-degree projection theatre. Requiring an innovative audio system that was capable of immersing visitors in a diverse array of audio content, the Al Wasl management team turned to Auditoria Pty to design and Creative Technology (CT) Middle East to install L-ISA Immersive Hyperreal Sound technology and DiGiCo mixing consoles for Expo 2020.

The sheer scale of the Dome is reflected in the quantities of L-Acoustics cabinets installed as part of the vast immersive system: a total of 432 Kiva II, arrayed in 27 hangs of 16 each, plus 24 KS28 subwoofers, all powered by 54 LA4X and 12 LA12X amplified controllers. Immersive audio control was provided by two L-ISA Processors.

CT’s systems integration division also managed to pull off the near-impossible trick of making the entire audio system almost invisible. Kiva II, colour-matched to the interior décor, are nestled seamlessly into the dome’s steelwork, allowing the arrays to mimic the structural lines. Andrew Nu of CT Dubai comments, “Everything becomes sort of invisible – if you don’t know where the speakers are, you don’t spot them.” The challenges of physically implementing the systems were met by teamwork on an heroic scale. “The key factor was the brilliance of the team,” Nu continues. “Scott and L-Acoustics came up with a scheme that worked – it was our good luck that Kiva II was the right size, and our ingenuity that allowed us to install KS28 subs into pods that had access holes just a little bigger than subs themselves.”

Creative Technology and Auditoria Pty began working on the sound design for the installation in early 2019 to meet the original October 2020 Expo opening date. When the Expo was postponed for a year, the teams took the opportunity to review designs and begin to work out show control for the day-to-day content management for the Expo.

“On a project of such a scale and one that will have the eyes of the world on it, it’s important to have an experienced team that can be relied on to deliver what’s needed and use their initiative to solve any challenges that come up. CT does exactly that and working with them always give me confidence that the end result is going to be exactly what I’m expecting.” Scott Willsallen

Auditoria also designed and managed audio for the impressive opening ceremony in October 2021, where a global TV audience joined the 3,000-strong crowd inside the Dome for performances from Ellie Goulding, classical pianist Lang Lang and Andrea Bocelli. The March 2022 closing ceremony, also designed by Auditoria, featured concerts by Christina Aguilera, Norah Jones and Yo-Yo Ma. Willsallen notes that “there were a thousand loudspeakers in use at the opening ceremony – and all L-Acoustics!”

“The key for any immersive environment is to ensure that any listener can clearly hear and identify all of the sound sources,” continues Willsallen. “We determined the position of the Kiva II arrays on the trellis by creating a listener zone both within the garden and within the whole site. Having listeners be able to hear every array means that if a sound source is moving across the stage, everyone can hear that same source moving across the sound space.”

The Al Wasl Dome featured myriad original audio content each day throughout the six-month Expo. To support audio creators in their content development, Auditoria built two studios in Dubai, equipped with L-ISA Studio software for immersive sound mixing. “For example, if Emirates were doing a five-minute themed item in the Dome, they would bring their audio files into the edit suite and our team would turn that into something suitable for a 27-channel immersive sound system,” explains Willsallen. “We had an Audio Production Manager, Ethan Curry, onsite for the whole 12 months, while Senior Editor Steve Logan looked after the studio and managing the L-ISA authoring for any content that went into the Plaza. Everything was done in L-ISA and once there was a workflow, we stuck with it.”

The Auditoria team introduced L-ISA Studio software, which can be downloaded to any Mac computer, to their content creators as a way for them to qualify their work before they proceed to recording. It also allowed Auditoria to simulate different listening positions within Al Wasl and then render that to the studio loudspeaker system in live. “Authoring trajectories with the software, the same way you would with any other editing system, is incredibly efficient,” Willsallen says. “The creativity is really in the content that the creators are implementing on those objects; all we’re really doing is moving them within the soundscape. But for us to be able to do that quickly, easily and really accurately within the plugin makes things very straightforward.” Much of the day-to-day content in the Dome was pre-produced and pre-mixed, creating playback material run to timecode. But the Dome also hosted six major concert productions during the Expo, ranging from a 50-piece orchestra to a Coldplay performance.

The Al Wasl Dome is a design, construction, and technical triumph. It is also a testament to those who worked on the project. “This wasn’t about the challenges we faced,” says Creative Technology’s Nu. “It was about the teamwork and cooperation. There are a lot of people who deserve recognition but particularly Peter Herring, Head of Engineering at CT Eddie Hirad, who was absolutely critical in coordination during the installation phase, along with Project Director Simon Pritchard from PMC. The whole of Expo had their eyes on us and everyone was committed to making it work. Despite its size and complexity, Al Wasl was one of the smoothest running projects that I have ever worked on, and we are extremely proud to have been involved.”

Having provided the perfect venue for the spectacular Expo 2020, Al Wasl Dome will now continue to dazzle visitors, developing into a permanent venue and a cultural landmark. The Dome is now a permanent fixture in Expo City. Al Wasl will continue to serve as an event space, capable of hosting crowds of up to 10,000 as well as anchoring Expo City, a mixed-use development encompassing office, hotels, and the new Dubai Exhibition Centre, another expo legacy.

“We don’t yet know exactly what the future holds for the Dome,” concludes Nu, “but we do know it has amazing potential. We’re looking forward to being part of that future and continuing to provide our services.”