From the wild rides at theme park to soothing therapeutic environments, sound design is experiential’s secret weapon, writes LBB’s Laura Swinton
‘To hear a sound is to see a space.’ American architect Louis I. Kahn was well-versed in the interplay of three dimensional space and sound. But it’s not just architects who are preoccupied with this relationship – sound designers and musicians too have been known to get a bit obsessed with acoustics too.
Increasingly, though, that obsession has become richer and more creative as sound designers and composers build sonic experiences for theme parks, museums, shopping malls, pop-ups and even hospitals. Sound and music can transform a space or even create the illusion of space.
It’s an exciting and juicy challenge for sound designers, and companies that are better known in the advertising industry for their work on commercials, film and TV are relishing it.
“The big difference is that with a film you’re a watching a screen and that’s your focus. Knowing this means that I can mix sounds around you because I know your physical location. With experiential sound it’s all about understanding the space and how people are going to use that space,” says Chris Turner, creative director and sound designer at Jungle.
Perhaps the classic example is the theme park. At its best, it’s an immersive, transportive place that can whisk visitors to a different world, or even universe.
“Theme parks are such a unique place to work because the number one goal is to entertain,” says Brian Yessian of Yessian Music. “People are paying money for a ticket to a theme park to be entertained beyond their wildest dreams. For us, creating the audio on these attractions gives us the opportunity to push the creative idea so we can take people out of reality and make them believe they are in a completely new reality. Through sweeping orchestral scores, unique sound design, and new audio mixing techniques, our goal is to transport guest and give them thrills, emotions and chills like they have never experienced before.”
And Brian is well-placed to comment; Yessian Music has worked around the world on theme parks in China, India, UAE, Indonesia, Germany, Holland, Korea, Canada, Singapore, Japan and the US for parks such as Universal Studios, Ferrari World, Disney, Lotte World, Chimelong, WonderLA, Movie Park Germany and many others.
Every job is different – and Brian says that the brief for a theme park job can be long and complex, and proposals involve hours and hours of work. Typically, they’ll receive a heavy pack of information, detailing character descriptions, schematics and media boards before getting to work. And once they’ve been assigned a job, it can take anything up to two years to bring that experience to life – compare that to a live event job, which may have a turnaround of two to four weeks.
Theme parks are a competitive business, each new ride is being created to lure visitors away from any other holiday experience or option before them – which can also include rival theme parks. That means that every job is unique and requires a fresh head and sonic approach, and often technological innovation too.
“Some of our favourite jobs over the years end up being the ones that were the most challenging because we walked away with a completely new skill set and approach to our work,” says Brian. “Ferrari World in Abu Dhabi
was our first multiple attraction projects and we worked with JRA. We created the music, sound design and onsite mixing for three attractions plus the park-wide audio for what is still the largest indoor theme park on the planet. (You can actually see it from space!) It was over two years in the making and we had the opportunity to work with some of the greatest vendors in the industry.
In over a decade of working on sound design for experiential, Yessian has built up quite a resume. In Dubai, they used data from Infiniti test drivers to generate a soundtrack for a magnificent fountain display
. In New York, they created the the full sound installation for the new One World Trade Center
was an epic one with the teams at The Hettema Group. “It was all about NYC rising up and the vision for the future. That was definitely an emotional one for our entire team,” says Brian.
And most recently, they’ve created a bombastic 30 minute pre-show experience for Aerosmith’s ‘Deuces Are Wild’ Las Vegas Show at the Park MGM. They’ve used every Aerosmith song ever – including some surprising gems from the vault – to build the story of band.
“Steven Tyler gave us creative freedom to go as wild and crazy as we wanted…and we did!” says Brian. “Utilising a 40-channel L-Acoustic LISA immersive sound system, we created a unique, tripped out, outrageous and endearing show that took fans on a Aerosmith journey of a lifetime set to an elaborate three story screen that project images that matched our audio created by Pixomondo.”
On the other side of the scale, away from the sugar-rushed throngs of holiday makers and tourists, sound design can also create remarkably intimate experiences too. Jungle Studios has been experimenting with sound and technology as a means to help children navigate one of the scariest experiences there is – being in hospital and heading to the operating theatre.
The Sonic Wall experience at Alder Hey children’s hospital in Liverpool took a blank, white 20m corridor leading up to the anaesthetic room, and turned it into a lively farmyard full of noisy animals using vinyl images and sounds which are triggered as the child is ferried up the corridor.
“The 20m of vinyl images helped a lot, but it was the sound that really helped lift you away from your location,” says Graham Ebb, managing director at Jungle, who initiated the collaboration after a chance meeting with the then head of the Alder Hey Children’s Charity, Claire White. “The images had little frescos built into them that the nurses could point out, and the animal noises really helped distract the patients. We were told that the impact was almost immediate, with the children much calmer by the time they reached the anaesthetic room, and therefore the procedure was quicker and less upsetting for both the child and the parents.”
It’s one of three phases that Jungle has been involved in, using sound, AR, and VR to turn the hospital into a more comforting place for the young patients – in the waiting room there’s an augmented reality Walk in the Woods experience, with a huge screen that shows animated bunnies and ducks lolloping and waddling through the space.
For the Sonic Corridor, the team created a linear experience, installing multiple speakers in the ceiling, along the corridor, explains Chris Turner. They used a multitrack playback system, allowing fill control of speakers and the audio so they could direct the sound where they wanted.
“The approach to creating this experience was to record a real farmyard, but rather than capturing it in 360 degrees we recorded it in linear intervals,” says Chris. “As you move from one end to the other you either hear mostly the stream at the bottom of the farm or the woodland at the top. To position the animals along the corridor with their corresponding images we recorded them binaurally, on being triggered they are mapped to pairs of speakers giving them greater width as you pass by. Certain elements like birds and planes were panned along the corridor giving movement and bringing it to life.”
A Day In The Life Of Binaural Bert from Jungle on Vimeo.
Each project comes with it its own challenges – the parameters, scale, technology and context can differ wildly. That means that there’s not so much of a standard production process – but what are the common starting points?
“Experiential sound creation typically starts with discussions based on the physical space, guest experience, creative approach, and a myriad of technical questions. Of course the creative idea is key just as it is in any project, and it is still the top line conversation we have with our clients,” says Brian. “However, unlike a TV or film project where we are delivering files for very specific formats, each experiential project has very different technical guidelines with many are in constant flux until we get to the installation phase. The way we approach the creative if directly influenced by the environment and hardware we are utilising.”
In the world of film, the emotional impact of sound and music are well documented – and that’s just as true when it comes to physical experiences. However, the creative and production process draws heavily from another medium. “Sound designing an experience is similar in many ways to mapping out audio and music for a video game,” explains Chris Turner from Jungle.
That’s something Brian from Yessian agrees with – and sometimes the audio experience will actually run on a game engine like Unity or Unreal.
“Video games come closer to what we do in the experiential world because we are creating these virtual audio experiences in a game with simulated immersive audio. In this case the environment is still “controlled". Interactive experiences demand a much more detailed sound approach because we are working on projects such as live events, reveals, installations that have interactive kiosks or activations, live talent integration, and environments that can be anything from a closed space, to trade show floors or even outdoors.”
When it comes to these outdoor projects, it’s not just a case of creating an experience but working out how to shield the listeners from the existing ambient sounds in the environment. “Currently we’re working on an experience that is outdoors and requires us to change the sound of the real world,” says Chris. To do this requires the user to wear noise-cancelling headphones during the experience and the audio is head-tracked so as the user turns their head the sound is faithful to how it would be in that environment. “To achieve this we recorded the real location and then extracted everything from it that we didn’t want you to hear, we then recorded new elements we wanted to add on location using a combination of ambisonic microphones and directional microphones.”
But that extra attention to detail makes the experience all the more impactful and emotional for the listener – and for the creators! Chris and Graham at Jungle are full of emotional anecdotes about children who have become entranced by the magical world hidden inside a hospital. And for the Yessian team, one of their most satisfying experiences was spending six months in the Nevada desert mixing Aerosmith’s ‘Deuces Are Wild’ show. “When Steven Tyler gives the entire team hugs and kisses,” reflects Brian, “you know you did okay.”