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Mix Live Blog: Enter the Sphere

Is Las Vegas' new Sphere venue the next big thing in live concert production? Well, it definitely is big.

u2 at sphereSphere. Sounds like the title of a B-grade horror flick, but it’s not. Just a few days ago, U2 christened Sphere in Las Vegas, a new state-of-the-art venue which—boasting a price tag well north of 2.6 billion dollars—is reportedly the most expensive entertainment venue ever built in Las Vegas. Knowing the Vegas tendency to overdo anything it possibly can, that probably makes Sphere the most expensive venue built on the planet to date.

The brainchild of Madison Square Garden executive chairman James Dolan, Sphere is currently the world’s largest spherical structure: 527 feet wide, 366 feet tall and capable of accommodating an audience of more than 17,000. It also boasts the world’s largest and highest-res video screen, which wraps halfway around the seating area and is designed to stretch well beyond the average person’s field of vision.

The Sound of U2’s Vegas Show: A Spherical Miracle?

According to Sphere’s website, the venue is equipped with “168,000 speakers that…create realistic, 360-degree audio environments leveraging a new sonic technology known as ‘wave field synthesis.’” Immersive on steroids, the Vegas way!

Wave Field Synthesis is not really a new idea, dating back to at least 1993 (A. Berkhout, D. de Vries and P. Vogel, “Acoustic Control by Wave Field Synthesis,” J. Acoust. Soc. Am., vol. 93, no.5). Like immersive audio, WFS enables a sound system designer to synthesize virtual sound sources that are located in between the physical loudspeaker arrays. And, localization of sound is consistent regardless of where in the venue you are seated.

Mix Live Blog: The Wrong Kind of Zoo

The first thought entering the mind of most sane audio engineers (there’s an oxymoron) would be: “This is going to be a sonic nightmare.” Tens of thousands of speakers in a spherical room? Yikes. The good news is that the folks responsible for designing and implementing the sound system at Sphere (HOLOPLOT) also employ a technique called 3D Audio-Beamforming, which controls dispersion of sound in the vertical and horizontal axes, permitting precise beaming of sound at listeners, and presenting the illusion that a listener is closer to the sound source than they actually are—all while avoiding uncontrolled bouncing of sound off reflective surfaces such as the back of the Sphere (it also avoids inconsistencies in sound pressure level between the seating areas closest to and farthest from the stage). That’s a big promise, and time will tell if the goods have been delivered.

Thus far, Sphere has announced the U2 shows and The Sphere Experience, a tour into future tech that concludes with Postcard From Earth, a film by director Darren Aronofsky showcasing Sphere technology.

U2 will be doing a residency at Sphere, with roughly 25 performances scheduled between now and the end of this year. When I last looked, ticket prices for the U2 shows were in the range from $500 to $1,500, and dates were selling out quickly (most of the shows in the first half of October are already sold out). You’ll need to move fast if you want a piece of the action.