Why AR Rahman’s Expo City Dubai studio is pitch perfect for music - and the movies

The maestro's new home is attracting attention from across the arts

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Perched on the edge of Expo City Dubai, a recording studio with world-class facilities backed by music maestro AR Rahman is hitting just the right note.

The Firdaus Studio by AR Rahman draws on the box office appeal and success of the Oscar and Grammy award-winning composer.

The National took a tour to learn more about the two-storey structure lined with wood-panelled floors, which features state-of-the-art sound systems with precision speakers neatly hidden in wall and ceiling panels.

When an artist walks in, there should be no technical limitations for him or her to produce anything
Navneeth Balchanderan, studio engineer at Firdaus Studio by AR Rahman

Packed with high-tech audio and live streaming equipment, the space aims to draw the world’s best music and theatrical talent to the region to record soundtracks.

It has already hosted some big names. A small studio crew watched as Coldplay’s Chris Martin sang and played on the ivory Steinway piano, which commands the stage in a scoring room with high ceilings.

The soundtrack to the action-adventure Secret Headquarters (2022), starring Owen Wilson, was mixed at the studio.

Tucked away under the shadow of the DP World pavilion on the repurposed Expo site, few know that artists have been composing and recording original scores behind the grey and white walls of the studio.

Hub for music and movie industry

In a previous interview with The National, Rahman revealed how he envisions the space as a creative hub for musicians to experiment in, craft new sounds and deliver explosive performances.

“This will be one of the world’s best studious with all the top equipment,” Rahman said. “This will attract the cream of the industry and musical talent to Dubai.

"I conceived the studio, its function, the quality, what equipment needs to be kept there.”

Firdaus, which means "paradise" in Arabic, was planned as a legacy structure to remain after the gates shut on the Middle East's first world expo.

The Dubai Expo Dubai team drew from Rahman’s experience to construct a studio to cater to Western classical, fusion, pop or rock bands, fit in an entire orchestra and record documentary, Bollywood or Hollywood music tracks.

The aim is to provide the infrastructure and top-notch quality to inspire collaborations from musicians who come to Dubai to record.

Musicians can create in large or small rooms and use a range of instruments such as the harp, violin, flute, Indian sitar or bongo drums.

Studio designer Aditya Modi, a long-time associate of Rahman, said acoustics and audio video integration were core features.

“We had to design the best studio possible, which was acoustically pristine, a motivational and inspirational space to create music and with top-notch equipment,” he said.

“The acoustics had to be perfect for various modes such as recording, filming, concerts, screening, stereo or Dolby Atmos mixes and hence have a flexible, adaptive system of acoustics that can change the characteristics of the room for every mode.”

The ceiling in the main stage area literally moves as a suspended structure or truss strapped with sound and light fixtures can be lowered or raised to focus on the performers.

From a control room overlooking the main stage, engineers adjust light strobes that shift from exuberant colours to mood lighting depending on the performance.

It also has a collection of 300 microphones of varying sizes and power to capture the loudest boom to the smallest hum.

Working with legends

Coldplay's Chris Martin visited the studio while in the emirate for a performance at Expo 2020 Dubai. Photo: Reuters

The studio opened in February and has been booked by bands such as Ben&Ben from the Philippines as well as hip hop artists, Bollywood composers and Arabic musicians. It has even been used for poetry sessions.

A 50-strong orchestra plus a 30-member choir have rehearsed in the main studio.

“This studio is designed so that an artist can literally do anything here,” said Navneeth Balchanderan, a studio engineer who leads the sound section.

“When an artist walks in, there should be no technical limitations for him or her to produce anything.

“The entire studio is wired up so you can record from the lounge, the cafeteria or anywhere in the facility you prefer."

Cameras, screens and audio in every room are linked via network connections to the main control zone.

It has been inspirational for engineers to work with established and new artists.

Famous for the soundtrack of the Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire, Rahman has won two Academy Awards, two Grammy Awards and a Golden Globe for melodies that cut across genres.

His Bollywood songs are hummed by millions of fans and tens of thousands flock to his concerts worldwide.

“When I first saw Rahman play, I honestly didn’t know that anything could be so magical,” Balchanderan said. “He sat on the piano, started playing and there was nothing like it ever.”

Watching Coldplay's Martin work in the studio — after he lit up the Expo stage in February — was exhilarating for the sound crew.

Martin recorded the piano section of the single Let Somebody Go, which features Selena Gomez, at the studio.

“It felt like we were listening to an entire Coldplay album take off right in front of us,” Balchanderan said. “It was a very surreal experience. He did five or six takes and every single one was perfect.”

The venue can be also used to screen movies with a large projection screen in the scoring room doubling as a theatre.

Vocal booths in four recording rooms are equipped with cameras to enable live streaming of performances.

The minimalist facade was built to enhance sound quality allowing for outdoor performances in good weather, with speakers fitted to a short zigzag walkway leading up the facility.

Bookings can be made via email and the cost varies between Dh1,200 to Dh2,000 ($326 to $544) an hour depending on the work and based on customisation an artist or company requires.

As the studio builds its reputation, Rahman's team is working to build a recognisable global brand for high-quality sound in Dubai.

“Expo 2020 Dubai was a hub to bring in people from all over the world and we wanted to make a facility to bring in musicians from everywhere,” Balchanderan said. “We wanted a place where everyone can pitch in their ideas and make music happen.

“There is no such facility in this region so we wanted to grow the artistic capabilities.

“Dubai is a cultural hub so we want this to be the creative space, the centre of whatever happens here.”

Expo City Dubai - in pictures

Updated: October 02, 2022, 9:30 AM