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Shanghai World Expo’s Culture Center
A Saucerful of Sounds at Shanghai World Expo’s Culture Center
Viewed from a boat on Shanghai’s Huangpu River, it hovers over the water’s edge like a gargantuan seashell – or a recently arrived flying saucer. From the air, it presents the quasi-ovoid shape of an egg morphing into a guitar pick. From any angle, its bold architecture commands attention with asymmetrical curves and an otherworldly flair.
The inside is similarly imposing, if more conventional. Under a swooping roof, the structure enfolds world class venue for sporting events, concerts, festivals or any other large-scale events that require seating for up to 18,000.
The proper name for this striking apparition depends on exactly where we are on the calendar. If it’s January of 2011, then the structure has just been rechristened the Mercedes-Benz Arena, becoming the first major venue outside Germany to bear the famed automaker’s moniker. All operations at this point are assumed by the worldwide sports and entertainment leviathan AEG, based in Los Angeles.
Until that time, however, the proper designation for this stunning new riverside saucer is the Shanghai World Expo Culture Center (henceforth shortened to Culture Center for brevity’s sake). For the 184-day run of the Expo, April 30 through October 31, on weekdays it will host twice daily performances centered on Chinese culture, with weekends left open for special performances by touring acts – mainly Asian-based pop and rock groups. During this period, operations in the main venue are under the umbrella of the Shanghai Media and Entertainment Group.
Regardless of the official name or who’s running the show, the saucer-shaped venue boasts some of the most advanced technical facilities available anywhere in the world, including notable sound systems built around products and technologies of the Harman Professional Group. The lion’s share of the audio systems were designed and installed by the Shanghai operations division of ACE International, Ltd., headquartered in Hong Kong. But, before delving into the details of knobs and networks, let’s take a quick overview of the Culture Center and its appealing amenities.
Peeking inside the Shell
Like the Expo itself (see sidebar), the Culture Center takes aim at superlatives. Granted, the term “multi-purpose venue” is vague, yet the Culture Center makes a strong case for its claim to be the largest of its kind in China. Certainly it was designed – aesthetically, functionally and acoustically – to satisfy the requirements for both major sporting events and a wide variety of entertainment. So “multi-use” applies. As for sheer size, the sleek structural shell encloses 126,000 square meters of total floor space on six levels. Built at a cost of more than 1.1 billion yuan (US$ 148.6 million), excluding land value, the Culture Center complex also houses a six-screen cinema, a public ice skating rink, a 20,000 square meter mixed-use retail space, a (surprise!) Mercedes-Benz dealership, and a live music club to be detailed a bit later.
Although the ancillary attractions will attract a flow of visitors on practically a 24/7 schedule, the main arena will draw the big crowds. No post-Expo bookings have yet been announced, but two of the project’s principal partners – AEG and the National Basketball Association – clearly indicate what’s in store. Expect a steady stream of headliner concert acts, both domestic and international, as well as major locally based basketball action (the sport is immensely popular in China) and high-profile exhibitions by ‘imported’ NBA basketball stars. The arena even sports full facilities for conversion to an ice hockey arena, though there is no word – yet – of impending agreements with the National Hockey League.
As with kindred arenas around the world, the Culture Center does not offer its own a full-blown permanent concert system: sightline restrictions for sporting events leave no feasible options for fixed installation. (A full concert system, to be profiled next, is in place for the duration of the Expo.) Although it would hold its own against concert systems of an earlier era, the permanent system here is designed primarily for sporting events or other activities requiring very high-intelligibility speech reproduction and good full-range sound for incidental music and video soundtracks.
“The original technical brief for the audio system was developed in consultation with AEG,” relates Ben Lui, ACE’s assistant general manager, project division. “They clearly wanted a system with performance specifications that would meet or exceed those of other AEG-managed arenas worldwide.”
Prior to construction, the arena’s development partners assigned overall responsibility for technical facilities to the Shanghai Media and Entertainment Group (SMEG). ACE then responded to SMEG’s request for proposals, and was awarded the contract for the fixed installation system.
At the loudspeaker end of the chain, the main distributed ring system comprises a total of 54 JBL PD5000 Series Precision Directivity cabinets. The specific models deployed are the PD5200/43 mid-high loudspeaker, the PD5212/43 full-range loudspeaker, and the PD5125 low-mid loudspeaker. The “43” suffix indicates a 40 x 30 degree horn pattern which allows precision “spotlighting” of coverage from the overhead clusters. The main bowl system is zoned into six groups, with four side groups each utilizing six PD5212s augmented in lower registers by two 5125 units, and two opposing middle groups, each with nine PD5200s bolstered by two 5125 cabinets.
“Even though the acoustics are quite good, an 18,000-seat arena has considerable internal volume,” observes ACE’s Ben Lui. “Directivity is critical for maintaining a high direct to reverberant ratio, which makes the PD series a very good choice for this application.”
The above systems are already in place, but an additional sub-system – for the main floor monitoring – awaits later installation as it is not needed during the Expo. Ready for positioning on the retractable video scoreboard are six more PD5212/43 loudspeakers and a single, broad coverage (60 x 40 degrees) PD5212/64.
One Amp (Model) Does All
The permanent system is driven by six corresponding groups of Crown I-Tech HD Series 5000HD amplifiers, 35 all told. “The I-Tech HD Series was specified here because it gives us both the AES3 digital and analog inputs as standard for full signal redundancy” states Gar Lap Tsoi, a project manager for ACE. “And the 5000HD, though the smallest in the line, still has ample power – with 2500 watts into four ohms – for all the speakers in the PD5200 Series.”
Backing up to the start of the signal chain, various audio sources in the arena bowl can be connected into either of two main stage boxes, each with 48 analogue in and 16 analogue out, plus 8 each AES3 digital in and out. A third box in the audio control room offers a 16/32 analogue I/O configuration plus 16 AES3 I/O capability. A fourth box, in the amplifier room, provides 16 each analogue and AES3 outputs. All four boxes are interconnected by a dedicated digital fiber optic link, with additional AES3 connections between the control room and amplifier room boxes.
In the control room, all input sources are routed as needed into a Soundcraft Vi4 digital mixing console, which has facilities for 48 mono inputs and up to 27 outputs. As configured for the Culture Center, all outputs remain in the digital domain, connected by AES3 links to the six BSS Audio Soundweb London BLU-160 units in the amplifier room. Here, in addition to analogue and AES3, the processors are linked by BSS Audio’s propriety high-speed BLU-LINK digital audio bus, carried on standard Cat5e network cabling. The network cabling also facilitates implementation of Harman Pro’s HiQNet network for comprehensive monitoring and control of the entire system.
According to ACE’s Gar Lap Tsoi, the flexible input options offered by the Soundcraft mixer, the BSS London signal processors and the Crown I-Tech HD amplifiers were critical to meeting the quality and reliability benchmarks. “Perhaps the biggest challenge in the design is to avoid multiple AD/DA conversion processes, so we could minimize the resulting losses,” he maintains. “With the Harman Pro products, we are able to maintain the signal in the digital domain from the source through to the amplifiers.”
A Shanghai Summer System
But the sporting system will have to wait until late autumn, at the earliest. For the six month run of the Expo, the Culture Center will rely exclusively on a “touring-style” concert system now in extended residence. This system was also supplied by ACE, although indirectly, as it was purchased from them some time ago by the current owners, Shanghai Media and Entertainment Group’s own rental division.
The Expo-season concert system is designed cover one of the smaller audience-area options allows by the Culture Center’s unique, reconfigurable staging and seating system. The arena can be tailored to suit any type of act or event, with audience seating capacities ranging – through three intermediate levels – from 5,000 to the full 18,000. Staging elements and seating blocks morph through three dimensions, rising and falling, rotating and shifting as needed. For the Expo’s frequent show schedule, the staging was set for a seating limit of about 6,000 to maintain a sense of intimacy.
The all-JBL loudspeaker system covers one end of the bowl with four hangs of 16-each Vertec VT4889 full-range line array elements. Deep bass frequencies are augmented by ground-stacked (and camouflaged for performance) VT4880 subwoofers, and side corner fill is supplied by a quartet JBL PRX512M powered loudspeakers. On stage, a dozen SRX712M provide stage foldback in conjunction with mini-stacks of VRX932LAP powered line array loudspeakers.
Powering for the system is supplied by Crown amplifiers, with 64 MA5002VZ assigned to the flown Vertecs, ten IT6000 driving the subwoofers, and ten MA2402 for the non-powered stage monitors. Drive processing is supplied by six dbx 4800 and four veteran dbx 480 loudspeaker management systems. And finally, following the Harman Pro family tree to FOH, audio mixing facilities are courtesy of dual (primary and auxiliary) Soundcraft Vi6 digital consoles. Each offers 64 mono inputs and up to 35 outputs as well as digital fiber-optic links to the stage boxes.
“We have the capability to tie a touring concert system into the permanent system, if necessary,” notes ACE’s Ben Lui. “In some situations, this could extend the coverage of the temporary system, particularly in the upper bowl. But the Expo system covers all the available seating areas, so that won’t be necessary. The permanent system serves only as an emergency backup, and we don’t anticipate any need to use it in that capacity.”
Down to the Nightclub
After the concert, or after the game, or even when there’s no event at all in the main arena, Shanghai music lovers and night-lifers can continue extend their enjoyment at the conveniently located music club. (The stylish 600-seat nightspot has yet to adopt its own distinctive name, but expect a moniker with an automotive flair come January.) Music program is expected to vary widely, with live music and DJs both from the Shanghai area and on tour.
The ACE-supplied audio system here is scaled to the club’s intimate size and its seating area, which is considerably wider than it is deep. With no need for a long throw power of Vertecs, the ACE design team instead opted for the wide coverage of JBL’s VRX932LAP powered line array system. Five of the two-way mid-high cabinets are flown per side, with visceral sub-bass support provided by three-per-side VRX918SP powered subwoofers.
“The VRX line was a perfect match for this room,” explains Ben Lui. “The cabinets are very compact, which made it easy to fly them out of sight lines. But they can still generate very high SPLs, and with excellent quality. Also, using powered speakers made the cable runs much simpler.”
The self-powered theme carries over into two of the foldback speakers (PRX512M), with the balance of the stage monitor complement being six MRX512M wedges powered by a trio of Crown CDi2000 amplifiers.
At the audio mix position we find, predictably, yet another Soundcraft digital board. This time it’s a compact Si2, with 48 inputs mapped to 24 faders. For analogue fans who like all channel faders under fingers at once, the club also provides a 40-channel Soundcraft MH2 which can be employed as an alternate FOH mix console or as a dedicated monitor board.
Kudos to an ACE Team
World expositions are famous for putting construction on a high-pressure fast track, and Shanghai’s 2010 Expo was no exception. The elaborate saucer was the last of the five permanent structures to start construction, with groundbreaking only in the waning days of 2007. Yet everything was completed on schedule, with all audio systems in place (except for, of course, the under-scoreboard speakers) and fully commissioned well before the May 1 opening deadline
“This project was a significant accomplishment for the ACE companies,” comments Ben Lui, “and it demonstrated an outstanding effort on the part of everyone at our Shanghai division. In particular, congratulations are in order for Xiang Jue, the general manager and project chief; Wu Xiao Lu, chief engineer; Pan Gui Hua, assistant chief engineer; and Zhou You Xun, the site manager.”
The curtain is just now going up on the Expo at the time of this writing, so in-depth reviews of performance sound have yet to appear. But initial reactions from pre-opening festivities, according to Ben Lui, look very promising. “The Expo sponsored a full rehearsal the week before opening, and many important dignitaries were in attendance. We’ve had some early feedback from officials, including some from the central government, and the comments received were very good.”
It’s always good in China when the central government is happy, and that certainly bodes well for the eventual success of future stakeholders AEG, Mercedes-Benz and the NBA. In the coming years we can expect a bountiful mix of music, sports and general revelry –not to mention appreciable sales of imported luxury cars – inside Shanghai’s shimmering riverside saucer.
Got to Admit It’s Getting Better: Expo 2010 Shanghai
Trumpeting the theme of “Better City – Better Life,” the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai runs from May 1 to October 31. The Expo sets new records for size and participation. The sprawling site, straddling the Huangpu River, covers more than 5.28 square kilometers, and 190 countries plus 50 international organizations are taking part in the festivities. Total costs for the expo are estimated at slightly over $50 billion, setting yet another exposition record and eclipsing the $44 billion spent on the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Organizers expect between 70 and 100 million visitors over the six month period, banking primarily on the increasing mobility and leisure time of the Chinese populace.
The Expo’s arresting, shell-shaped Culture Center is one of five permanent structures that will stand as a legacy of Shanghai World Expo 2010. (The others are the sprawling Theme Pavilions complex, the Expo Center, the China Pavilion and Expo Boulevard.) Designed by Shanghai Xian Di Architectural Group, the multi-use arena is a joint development of China’s Oriental Pearl Group, AEG, and the National Basketball Association.