Dubai welcomed in 2019 with one of the biggest spectacles ever staged. Dom Jones created the epic soundtrack.
Many composers harbour an ambition to write music for the big screen, but only a lucky few ever experience the thrill of scoring for full-size cinema visuals, let alone for one of those gargantuan IMAX beasts. But that's still small fry for award-winning composer Dom Jones (www.dom-jones.co.uk), who recently scored for a screen more than three-quarters of a kilometre high.
The screen in question is the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the world's tallest bulding, where Dom's music played to accompany the United Arab Emirates' spectacular New Year show, a multimedia extravaganza to greet 2019. Incorporating the building's stunning full-height LED facade, hundreds of automated lasers and spotlights, synchronised fountains, and almost 10,000 fireworks, the show was broadcast to billions of viewers across the world and earned itself two Guiness World Records into the bargain.
To land that kind of commission, it helps to have other large‑scale global events on your CV, and Dom's certainly chalked up plenty of those, providing music for the G20, the World Economic Forum, the Dubai World Cup and World Skills. But, as always, word of mouth also plays a large role. "In 2009 I did a project that had strong links with Qatar and the Middle East," Dom explains. "It was a large event, attended by the Queen. That was a big break for me at the time, and has since led to lots of other work in the Middle East."
"For this project," says Dom, "I collaborated with the film director Nic Cornwall of Little Big Fish Films (www.littlebigfishfilms.co.uk), and Conrado Galves, Creative Director of the animation company Fgreat (www.fgreatstudio.com), both of whom do such inspiring work. We started off with a joint Skype conversation with two or three people in the UAE. I'd already watched every single Burj Khalifa event since 2010, so I had an idea of how it should be, and I explained my concept for the music to them. I don't like going into too much detail during those early conversations, but to give them an idea of what I thought the music should sound like, I dropped a few names — people like Hans Zimmer. Everyone uses Hans Zimmer. He's ubiquitous! But, love him or hate him, people know the name and know that it's going to mean big taiko drums and epic horn lines. Someone also mentioned the theme tune to Sherlock by David Arnold, who did [James] Bond.
"Because I knew there wasn't going to be much time to change things, I was determined to ask as many questions as I could up front, and I followed that up with a document listing specific musical references for each of the sections. I don't normally have to be as firm as this, but it turned out brilliantly, because they annotated my document, so I felt really confident then. I rarely get that level of comment."
Those preliminaries out of the way, Nic set to work refining the event's 'narrative' and selling the client on that, while Dom began preliminary work on the music at his home studio. "I spent a good few days working up ideas in Cubase. You know, which ostinato lines I was going to use, which drums I was going to use. Because I could see that this was a prestigious event, I spent every available moment trying to get whatever I could into it. So I probably over-egged the time I initially spent, but at that point you're still thinking 'I don't want to lose the gig, I don't want to lose the gig, I don't want to lose the gig...' Over that first period of three to five days, any time I came up with an idea, whether inside or outside the studio, I recorded it. Some of that, in one sense, was completely wasted, because it wasn't used for the end product, but it was just to make sure the client was happy."
The musical timeline had quickly developed into a three-part format: an introduction starting on New Year's Eve at 11:57, commemorating Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan (the first President of the UAE); the 10-second countdown to midnight, followed by a three-minute fireworks display; and a final orchestral finale with elaborate light show and sponsor messages. "Because the three sections of the music were very different, the music developed quite organically. I was sending my early ideas to Nic, so we could weed out any that he wasn't sure about before approaching the client with them. At the same time Nick was refining the narrative — in fact, even right up until the last few days of the project, there were still question marks over whether certain sections would make it into the final cut, and of course if the animation changed I'd have to change the music too.
"The first section I put together as a full draft was the central fireworks piece, because the firework people [French pyrotechnics specialists Groupe F] needed that section done first. But the fountains people [WET Design] needed the opener as well, to program the fountain system, so I began that soon after. Even at that early stage, though, I was already following the narrative, which had the countdown in there, and the rocket sequence, and so on. In a broad-brush sense, I realised that the fireworks would be noisy, so I knew the music had to be fairly punchy all the way through that section, but we had no control at all over what the fireworks were going to do, so I just felt we had to follow the on-screen narrative that was going to be projected onto the Burj Khalifa. Nick and I also both agreed that we were going to have to bring the intensity down at some point during the three minutes of the display."
As part of the writing process, Dom sought out plenty of third-party advice. "When I played my first draft of the fireworks segment to various friends and colleagues to get feedback, the consensus was that it needed a bit more variety in the middle. Because I was having to write really fast, there was some cutting and pasting initially. I do a lot of music for choreography, and that cut-and-paste approach, with layers added over the top, sometimes works fine, but here it didn't.
"I also sent that draft to the client, and they were pretty positive generally, but one of the things they came back with was: 'The horn is a bit too medieval-sounding.' And that just gave me this feeling that they wanted more of a John Williams-like family-friendly feel than the martial Hans Zimmer thing, and from that moment I changed the approach slightly, so that there was less of that massive lead horn line, and more harmonic horns and trumpets. Nick is brilliant to bounce ideas off, and he mentioned the guy who did Robocop, Basil Poledouris, and the horns in that score. Out of that conversation came the whole section in the fireworks music where the rocket's going up. Musically, it's nothing like Robocop, but it's that fanfare sound I was going for: the weight of those horns in harmony."
In light of all this feedback, Dom overhauled his first draft, adding new major‑mode thematic material to contrast the otherwise pervasive minor-mode ostinato, increasing the number of variations on the ostinato motif itself, and introducing an uplifting key-change during the final minute of the fireworks display. Alongside the extra harmonic support added to those brass lines, he also filled out the internal woodwind and string textures, which had originally been sketched in roughly, with more detailed performance figurations designed to increase the sense of restless energy and tension that's so characteristic of Hollywood action cues. Transition effects, subtle electronic sound-design layers, and percussion details multiplied too, with things like triangle, timpani, glockenspiel and harp helping to propel the music across section boundaries and towards the most climactic moments. In tandem, the finale also began to take shape, extrapolating from the fireworks section towards a more heroic character, with stronger emphasis on harmonic progression and plenty of sweeping melody. Rhythmic filigree from the woodwind and strings continued to be a key ingredient, but triumphant brass fanfare elements also joined the mixture.
By mid-December Dom had produced a well-advanced draft of the entire piece (although still using only MIDI-driven virtual instruments) that could be tested on a stripped-down version of the planned sound system on site in Dubai. "Fortunately, when we played it back over the preliminary system, it already sounded pretty good," says Dom, "but Nic felt that the bass could be a bit bigger, and the orchestral sound was getting a bit too edgy around 3kHz or so, especially at those moments where the mix was really moving the meters — like during the rocket rise, and then again towards the end of the finale. I guess I was always striving to get all the top strings being heard clearly and started falling into that trap of making it slightly toppy, whereas orchestral works don't really need to be like that, they want to be a bit smoother.
"The system engineers also warned me not to do much in the way of brickwall limiting on the final mix, because they'd found that the musical dynamics tended to work better if they had a bit more breathing space. But I'm already used to working like that anyway, and there is certainly more dynamic range in pretty much everything I do than you get in commercial releases. One unusual thing in this case, though, was that the client had requested a bit of a volume 'ramp' through the music from start to finish. Obviously, they wanted the massive hit at New Year, but they also wanted those last two minutes to be louder than the rest of it, because that was the big showcase for the sponsor Emaar Properties."
With the 28th December music‑submission deadline fast approaching, and the event's narrative timeline becoming more stable, Dom shifted his focus towards refining the realism and expression of the orchestral illusion. "I spent lots of time refining things with MIDI controller messages," he recalls. "All those Hans Zimmer protegés, they always say you have to have your controllers going on anything MIDI. For instance, there's a string patch called 'Cathedral Strings' in Omnisphere, which I'm guilty of using too much of, and if you start moving even just the volume controller, suddenly it begins to come to life. I ended up doing a lot of that kind of thing on this project."
Another crucial component designed to improve the veneer of realism late in the game was a series of acoustic instrument overdubs. As anyone who has worked with orchestral sample libraries will be aware, they're a lot better at simulating ensemble orchestral textures than at generating convincing melodic lines or soloistic figurations. So one of the most efficient ways to make a MIDI orchestral sound more believable is to overdub live performers to replace or supplement just those parts that most expose the software's shortcomings. Fortunately, Dom had previously worked with the BBC Philharmonic and the Hallé Orchestras, and was therefore able to call on players from both those ensembles: violinist Kevin Flynn, cellist Paul Grennan, and trumpeter Tom Osborne (www.halle.co.uk).
Dom handled all the overdub sessions himself, setting up each musician in turn in his home-studio live room. "It's hard, that," he remarks ruefully, "when you have to wear both the composing and engineering hats. You think it's going to be fine, and then they're asking you questions about this, that, and the other, and it's easy to miss things. I had to manage the headphone foldback too, because the track and the click have to be loud enough for the timing, but the player also has to be able to hear themselves well enough for the tuning.
"In every case, I had a stereo pair of old Rode NT1s as room mics about six feet away from the performer, and then a Golden Age Projects R1 ribbon mic and a Neumann TLM103 condenser closer up. With the trumpet, I put the mics on-axis, but maybe two feet away, because the instrument's got a hell of a punch. For the cello, the close mics were both in front, positioned a little to either side, whereas for the violin I had the Neumann behind him, because that was less abrasive, and I had the ribbon in front, which gave quite a smooth feel even though it's a cheaper mic. All of the mics were recorded separately, so with Tom, where he started to get into double figures with the number of simultaneous lines he was doing, we ended up with more than 50 tracks of audio. It got a bit crazy really, but it's that control freakery, isn't it? You're always worried you might have missed something. I had to get quite organised with Cubase's clip descriptions so I could always see which part was which."
One useful rule of thumb when doing these kinds of overdubs (as indeed for orchestration in general) is to avoid double‑tracking. In other words, either record a line solo, or layer it at least three times, because any discrepancies of timing or tuning will be most obvious between pairs of unison overdubs. Given time constraints, Dom recorded just a single track for many of the lines, reserving the triple-tracking for the most exposed string- and brass‑ensemble parts. "It was the solo lines that we spent more time on," says Dom, "the slightly more lyrical legato lines. Most of the ostinatos were just a single line, although occasionally if there was a really obvious figure, I'd layer three times on that.
"For the overdubs I provide them with sheet music, and because all of them are top orchestral players, they're brilliant sight‑readers. I've done things with the Qatar Philharmonic and the National Symphony Orchestra of the UAE, and obviously the parts in those cases have to be right, with all the appropriate dynamics and articulations. In those cases I do a rough version, and then send it to Ivor Hodgson, a double-bassist at the BBC Philharmonic who's quicker than me with Sibelius, and he works up all the proper parts. But when I get solo artists here, I usually do the parts myself the basic way by quantising the parts in Cubase, and then export the MIDI files into Sibelius for printing. There are no dynamics markings and no articulation, so when the musicians first arrive, or sometimes even the day before, I'll get them to mark those things in for themselves. I'll tell them what style I want, and they'll listen to the Cubase playback so they can get some of the dynamics from that."
While annotating the sheet music in this way, the musicians occasionally suggest useful adjustments. "So, for example," remembers Dom, "Tom pointed out that one part I'd copied over to the trumpet part from the strings provided no opportunity to take a breath." That said, they clearly take a certain amount of professional pride in delivering what's written. "There was one part," laughs Dom, "where Kevin said he'd never ever had to play something as difficult as that. It wasn't written by a violinist! So he did it in several little bits. He did one bar and then the next bar and we pieced it together. He really is a marathon man! What's interesting with those guys is that they all see it as a real challenge. They're not going to give up! Even if I'm saying I've written the wrong thing, they go 'No, no, I'm going to do it!' Tom was also up for trying things out, like switching between piccolo trumpet, Bb and Eb. He just had a go at everything. I was really pleased with what he did. He was warm and lyrical when it needed it, but when it had to 'ping' out he really achieved that. And Paul simply makes a beautiful sound on the cello!"
One thing Dom particularly wanted from the live players was fortepiano swells. "That's something the samples are quite good at, and you can control the swell using the mod wheel. But it often takes a long time to get it right, so I tried to get all three of the instrumentalists to do some fortepiano crescendos. There was a bit of discussion as to the best way to do that, because I wanted them to crescendo all the way to the following 'hit', but they would all naturally stop a fraction beforehand. And I also wanted the swells to match. When you've got a whole orchestra playing around you, it's easier to go with what everyone else is doing, but when you're playing solo and overdubbing it's more difficult to judge the timing."
With three days to go, the final mixing process began. This is something Dom is usually confident handling himself, from his own well-appointed mix room. However, knowing how intense this project was likely to become, he was concerned that he might not bring enough objectivity to the mixdown process late in the game, when stress levels were likely to be at their peak. "I've never spent so long on just eight minutes of music, and you find yourself going slightly crazy because you've not had enough sleep." As it happened, I'd been one of the people he'd contacted for feedback on his early drafts, so he subsequently asked me to help him with the mix.
There was one important logistical hurdle to overcome, though: Dom wanted the ability to tweak any aspect of my final mix directly on his system, right up until the very last moment. With normal music mixing projects, the client just sends me a list of mix revisions, and then I carry out the necessary changes before sending them a new mix version. However, both Dom and I felt that this traditional workflow wouldn't be nimble enough to deal with eleventh-hour mix changes here. Sending DAW projects back and forth was also off the cards, because he writes in Cubase, and I mix fastest in Reaper. So in the end we came up with a kind of stem-mixing approach.
Firstly, he sent me the in-progress mixes of each of his three musical sections in stems form: in other words, bouncing out groups of similar sounds as audio, with all the channel processing in place. So for instance, there were stems for the main rhythmic drums; cymbals and high percussion; risers; transition effects; strings (split into high, mid and low); brass (split high, mid and low); woodwind (split high and low); harp; choir; solo vocals; live overdubs (split per instrument, and also by musical function); and various stems for keyboards, synths, tuned percussion and assorted sound effects/Foley elements. This came to about 30-35 stereo tracks per musical section, which afforded me a great deal of flexibility to finesse the mix's timbre, balance, and effects without my first having to 'reinvent the wheel' by building a new mix from scratch. There were a couple of occasions when I needed a little more control over some individual instrument within a single stem, but it was then very quick for Dom to generate and send further-deconstructed replacement audio files just for those bits.
For the most part, my contributions to the sonics were about keeping the low end under control, avoiding lower mid-range build-up, and combatting some 3-5 kHz harshness during the most high-energy sections. There were some important solo vocal moments that needed bringing to the fore (including samples of Zayed's speech and of his favourite song), and the overdubs also had to be blended convincingly with the programmed parts. In addition, I also paid a lot of attention to the long-term dynamics, trying to ensure that each build-up and climax had enough subjective power, without having to rely too much on sheer volume level.
Once I'd completed a draft mix for each section, I'd send Dom a simple stereo bounce in the first instance so he could evaluate the results and request any revisions. "I think we're all control freaks to a certain extent, so there was a certain element of letting go," says Dom. "But it's good, because it can be quite a lonely business, writing music, and it was great to collaborate from the perspective of having someone stepping back and looking at it from both a musical perspective and from a mix perspective. What was slightly shocking was waking up in the morning and it's Mike's mix rather than mine, and it sounds quite different, but that's a learning process for me. That sort of warm low‑mid‑range thing that I like clouds the mix quite quickly, and Mike managed to hollow it out in a way that doesn't sound hollow, and gets everything coming through and sounding a bit more contemporary and a bit more punchy. He was also able to control the bass more. It was lumpier before, and more likely to do unexpected things, but in the end we were actually able to have more bass in the final mix, because it was more controlled."
With my revisions complete, I then exported all my mix project's channels as stems, such that Dom could import those into his Cubase system, set all the faders flat, and recreate my mix sound exactly. That meant he could quickly reprocess or rebalance anything he wanted during those critical final hours before deadline. "It felt slightly bass-light overall," remembers Dom, "so I upped the bass on the master EQ a couple of dB, and Mike also suggested we raise the level of the sub-bass synth part. I pulled down the overall reverb level maybe a couple of dB too. Other than that, I just did a whole load of little level tweaks, although I didn't really trust myself at that final moment not to cock it up, so I first turned things up to where I thought it was about right, and then pulled it back to kind of split the difference! I played it to my wife Catherine, too, who's very good at taking the 'general public' viewpoint, and she doesn't hold her tongue if something doesn't sound right, which helped make sure I'd not gone mad with it." (It seems that music is something of a family affair in the Jones household, as Dom's kids have all featured in his soundscapes and his dad sang at the Queen's coronation in 1953.)
With hindsight, the stem-mixing process also offered Dom a little extra peace of mind in the run-up to the event. "Even though I'm religious about backing up everything on my system, it'd still take a day or two to get it back to where it was if something went wrong with the computer — reinstalling software instruments can take forever! That means if the mix needs changing in the three or four days before a live event and your system falls over, you're screwed, really. So it was quite comforting to have the whole mix laid out as stems, because it meant that if my whole studio system went down, I could at least work with the stems on my laptop, and that's not a bad backstop."
Most people can afford to take it easy for a little while after the New Year bash, nursing their hangover, eating leftovers, and questioning the wisdom of their New Year's resolutions. But there's no rest for Dom Jones, because he's already working on a new documentary for ITN. Plus, he's been appointed musical director and composer for the opening ceremony of the Special Olympics in Abu Dhabi, and it's not long until 14th March, when that airs live on ESPN...
Because Dom Jones needs to cover such a wide range of musical styles in his work, he uses a list of software instruments as long as your arm on his custom Scan PC. ("I sometimes wonder how Scan keep going," laughs Dom, "because they seem to give you so much of their time, especially Pete Gardner and Tom Francis. I think they're phenomenal, really.") For this project, though, the core orchestral sounds mostly came courtesy of EastWest/Quantum Leap's Symphonic Orchestra.
Spectrasonics Omnisphere and Native Instruments Kontakt provided additional textural support there, but each also contributed other non-orchestral sounds: Kontakt provided the bulk of the taiko drums, for instance. The more electronic elements of the music, such as the risers and sound effects, came from some Prime Loops REX files as well as from instruments like Omnisphere (the 'Scary Barkcello' and 'It's A Trap Catwoman' patches were featured, for instance) and iZotope's Break Tweaker.
There are many YouTube videos of the Dubai event, but few capture the music clearly; the best I've found is probably the one from Emaar Properties at www.mydubainewyear.emaar.com.
Fortunately, though, Dom has hosted his final music mix directly on his site so that you can hear it in all its glory. Just head over to https://dom-jones.co.uk/burj-khalifa-2019.