Many of you know that famous George Lucas quote that “Sound is 50% of the movie-going experience.” For those of us in the themed entertainment business who are tasked with creating immersive environments, I think it’s easy to argue that sound is even more important in the experiences we design.
To put things in context, theme parks attract guests by creating experiences that they can’t find at home. Guess what? A lot of people have flatpanel HDTVs with surround-sound systems at home. This means that designers have to kick things up a notch to make the experiences they offer more attractive than their customer’s couch at home.
How, you ask? For starters, the audio quality has to be superb. That means high-quality speakers designed to survive the abuse of being used day after day, all year round, often in outdoor settings where they are exposed to the elements. It also means high-quality, uncompressed multitrack audio playback systems. (Sorry, gadget lovers, but those tiny, overly-compressed files that we stream on our smartphones just don’t cut it.)
To top it off, this all has to be done in a highly themed environment where the listening space is comprised of things like rockwork, water features, plants, props, animatronic pirates, and lots of warm and noisy bodies (often referred to as “guests”). This means the use of many tracks of audio playback coming from strategically concealed speakers that are tuned precisely for the environment.
To add to the complexity, this audio often has to synchronize with other elements, such as lighting, pyrotechnics, animatronics and/or moving ride vehicles. Mainstream commercial AV gear simply isn’t up to this challenge, so we rely on specialized show control and AV systems uniquely designed to address these challenges.
Here’s a perfect example of a growing trend in our market that demonstrates such a challenge: onboard audio, with the “onboard” in this case meaning “on board” a ride vehicle. Through attraction development and testing, we’ve learned that the guest experience is often enhanced when audio comes from the ride vehicle itself. When audio comes from outside the vehicle, it has to be louder, travel longer distances, and encounters more obstacles that can introduce reflections and distortions. In other words, little Timmy thinks the giant dinosaurs have a bad case of indigestion. With speakers surrounding little Timmy in close proximity, his aural experience is much easier to control.
Just to set the record straight, onboard audio is not a new concept. What’s new are the challenges introduced by new ride vehicle systems, as well as the growing need to synchronize the onboard audio with off-board elements.
We’re now starting to see things like dark-ride vehicles with built-in motion bases that are completely wireless and trackless. These vehicles move through scenes with animatronic figures, video projection, lighting and other special effects that must synchronize perfectly with the audio and motion on board the ride vehicle. It is a symphony of electronics that all have to work in harmony to create the unique guest experience that designers are aiming for.
Again, what works well in boardrooms, schools and sports venues isn’t quite up to the challenge of delivering the type of functionality required to deliver a precisely synchronized experience. This takes specialized devices that deploy show control, high-quality multitrack audio playback, DSP and advanced clock synchronization systems that are capable of operating wirelessly.
Mr. Lucas would probably agree that, without a picture, even the most amazing audio in the world wouldn’t make for a very exciting movie-going experience. I believe the same is true for themed entertainment. The brilliant theming, animatronics, lighting and ride systems are a critical part of the overall experience. Combine them with a cleverly implemented audio system and you have a bliss factory.
As a longtime AV enthusiast, it’s always exciting to be involved with projects like this and have a hand in developing the cutting-edge technologies that tackle the ever-evolving challenges that come along. It’s even more gratifying to witness the reactions of guests who have just had a truly new experience. Though admittedly, it’s difficult not to feel bad knowing their couch will never be quite the same when they get home.