UCL recreates everyday life at PEARL through groundbreaking research aided by L-Acoustics L-ISA technology
From the softest birdsong to the loudest explosion, how many speakers does it take to recreate reality? That’s the question University College London (UCL) asked when they set out to build the Environment and Activity Research Laboratory (PEARL), a 4,000 square meter laboratory and 10 meters high and a proving ground to simulate real events. The answer is more than 150 L-Acoustics speakers in an L-ISA Immersive Hyperreal Sound installation for this unique environment where entertainment technology meets scientific research.
Ranked eighth best university in the world in the QS rankings, UCL designed PEARL as a facility to explore how humans interact with their environment by studying the effects of design on people. The vision of UCL’s Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatics Engineering is to use PEARL to help create a world where everyone can achieve a better quality of life.
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At 100m from end to end and 40m wide at its widest point – even larger than the floor area of Wembley Arena – the huge experimental space can be divided into four modules and is entirely carbon neutral thanks to a roof of photovoltaic panels. In it, researchers can create life-size environments under controlled conditions, such as a train station or a public square, so that they can study the interaction of the crowd with the environment and with each other. Floor profile, type and material can be changed, lighting can be of any hue and intensity, and different scents can float through the air. When it comes to sound, L-Acoustics delivers dynamic, multi-dimensional sound that enhances the most subtle sound cues to the loudest roar.
Define the technology to achieve the goal
Global engineering consultancy Arup worked with UCL to define the range of technologies that would achieve PEARL’s goal, in particular audio spatialization, and then find the partners who could deliver the project.
Arup’s Tom Brickhill worked closely with L-Acoustics Applications Project Manager and Liaison Officer Julien Laval on the initial design concept. “Being personally passionate about sound, and in particular the science of sound, I was incredibly eager to participate in such an innovative project, where entertainment technology serves academic purposes,” Laval explained. “Working with Tom, I was drawn to PEARL’s phenomenal design vision. During the evaluation phase, it quickly became apparent that L-Acoustics’ product design philosophy and cutting edge the field of immersive audio made it the ideal solution for this project.
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As Brickhill traveled to Australia to work on another Arup project over the summer, Arup site designer James Beer took over at PEARL. “We were delighted to initiate the relationship with L-Acoustics and Adlib, who subsequently won the tender,” Beer said. “We are always looking to create engaging environments that people connect to, and that meant we needed a solution that could create various spatialization scenarios. From live audio stimuli that match an event to creating the atmosphere of a room or an outdoor soundscape, we needed the sounds to be real and visceral.This could be a live source programmed in real time through the L-ISA processor, or a set of plug-ins layered over live sound and reproduced in space. . Flexibility is at the forefront of everything PEARL does.”
PEARL is a unique blend of consultancy, AV and research center. In response to Arup’s specifications, the event production and installation company Adlib was commissioned to provide the L-ISA technology, which can reproduce any real-life situation that the lab team at the ‘UCL can imagine.
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Adlib has drawn on its extensive experience in the entertainment and installation markets to create a tour-quality audio system that can recreate everyday life in its myriad and endless permutations, and down to the finest detail. Meanwhile, Chadwick Professor of Engineering and Director of UCL’s Center for Transport Studies, Nick Tyler, has assembled an audio team, including Head of Technical Services Joe Boxshall and Sound Specialist, Steve Mayo , whose experience in the entertainment industry has provided the ideal mix of skills to be able to control audio content from pre-production to rendering, using a unified, turnkey immersive sound ecosystem.
L-ISA was “tailor-made for this challenge”
“The only way for us to accomplish what PEARL needed was to design a precise and infinitely flexible, fully immersive sound system,” said Andrew Watts, project manager at Adlib. “L-ISA technology is tailor-made for this challenge as it provides the colossal dynamic range required, while being easy to design, predict and iterate with L-Acoustics Soundvision 3D audio design software.”
Adlib provided two spatial audio systems: an extended and flexible system for the main experimentation space and a smaller system for the preparation studio. “A fundamental concept of both spaces is that L-ISA can be configured in any configuration to meet the specific needs of a given experiment,” Watts continues. “The L-Acoustics training, which was delivered this fall, enables UCL to create immersive audio experiences from the concept phase with Soundvision to completion with the well-defined L-ISA workflow.”
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Audio playback for both systems is provided by rack-mounted Mac Pros with Pro Tools and an Avid MTRX Studio interface, or Qlab and Dante Virtual Soundcard, which interfaces with Biamp Tesira servers via Dante. RME AVB tools are used to interface between MADI and AVB for L-ISA processors. A sufficient total of 112 L-Acoustics X8 speakers and 24 A15 Wide speakers are complemented by eight KS28 and 32 KS21 subwoofers. Amplification is provided by 28 L-Acoustics LA2Xi, 14 LA4X and two LA12X amplified controllers.
“The sheer size of the installation and the flexible approach required for the different L-ISA loudspeaker arrangements led us to choose AVB for the audio transport,” says Watts. “This allowed us to design a system where an amplified controller could be connected to any AVB data or fiber point in the building and instantly connect to audio racks without the need for analog or AES patchbays and tielines. .” The amplified racks can be positioned anywhere in the installation. As soon as an amplified controller is plugged in, it receives its AVB stream and is ready to go. Adlib designed and manufactured 82 flight cases specifically for this project to house all L-Acoustics loudspeakers and amplified controllers.
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The separate Sound Lab, dubbed “The Vibe,” has 16 L-Acoustics 5XT speakers and two SB15m compact subs that staff can configure and test before moving into the big space when needed. A custom floor structure for mounting the loudspeakers is built around a workstation, which includes a fiber-based KVM for computer control in the adjacent engine room with LA Network Manager and processor L-ISA. The Sound Lab’s control rack consists of five LA2Xi, a computer that can run DAWs including ProTools, Reaper or QLab, a DiGiCo SD9 console with L-ISA controller for hands-on control, an L-ISA processor, a configurable DSP server, two Milan -AVB interfaces and one 48-port AVB and control switch.
Horticultural lighting fixtures are used to simulate daylight, and sound field microphones help record and measure sounds generated by participants to make the living space feel as close to the outside world as possible. . UCL has previously conducted a platform-train interface experiment for the Thameslink railway, recreating a life-size train carriage and station platform to assess operating conditions. The team can also go on location to measure a 3D soundscape and then return to PEARL to recreate these outdoor environments using L-ISA technology.
“This is just the beginning of the relationship,” said Boxshall, who knows PEARL can count on L-Acoustics, Arup and Adlib to continue supporting the UCL team in their work. “PEARL is not just an academic research space, it is a simulation environment, so it also has great commercial potential. We are all incredibly excited to be part of such a groundbreaking project.