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Theme park audio’s licence to thrill

‘More, more, more’ is the mantra for modern theme park rides – a challenge to which audio developers have risen with a fresh generation of high-impact sound solutions.

Published in 1985, theorist Neil Postman’s formidably prescient book Amusing Ourselves to Death contained a stark warning about the individual’s declining span of attention in the televisual age.

More recently, the advent of the ‘digital brain’ – shaped by the dizzying turnover of online content – has given rise to a survey suggesting that a four-second decline in average attention span has taken place in only 12 years (from 12 to 8 seconds…that’s one second lower than a goldfish! Source: Associated Press 2012).

Winning – and, crucially, retaining – the attention of the public has therefore never been more challenging.

Amusement parks can hardly have failed to escape the trend, conjuring increasingly impactful rides virtually guaranteed to inspire in the participant a comprehensive sensorial overload.
This commitment to thrill extends even to the pre-ride areas, hence the abundance of “elaborate queue sets that include audio, video, lighting and prop effects to entertain riders as they await the thrill of the latest extreme rollercoaster,” says Jeff Levison, VP cinema & entertainment systems at Germany-based spatial audio specialist Iosono.
It is indisputable that, as elsewhere in the media world, “the idea of total immersion including all senses has found its way into theme parks”, as Levison remarks.

More often than not, the ride is attempting to relate a concise narrative, and in this context “creating a convincing sonic environment to push the ‘story’ […] makes the overall experience even more immersive”, says Johan Wadsten, product manager – Pyramix Virtual Studio/Ovation, Merging Technologies.
The impulse to specify more powerful loudspeakers and amplifiers has not gone away, but more than ever theme park audio is about the sum being greater than the parts – a development that inevitably calls for increased emphasis on show control technology and overall project integration. Spills and chills In the 1980s, you didn’t have to look too far for theme parks that essentially resembled glorified fairgrounds, combining some decidedly iffy, cheap-looking amusements with maybe one or two elaborate ‘setpieces’.

That all changed during the 1990s when a new generation of rides came onstream, assisted by the arrival of more powerful motion control technology.

In 2012, the high-tech rides of the world’s leading theme parks are entirely in keeping with the ‘everything and the kitchen sink’ mentality of 3D cinema – and frequently utilise some of the same AV solutions.
In helping to deliver more exciting rides, recent developments in audio technology have proven to be a tremendous boon – from the design of more compact loudspeakers and amplifiers for use on on-board carts, to increasingly elaborate show control software able to trigger all manner of effects.
Simon Holley, Bose Pro divisional manager, underlines audio’s role in engendering mood and emotion in every area of the park. These days, he remarks, “audio can be used to create atmosphere – from tense excitement to calm – and from environmental sound to queue line messages”.
Tannoy’s product manager, Mark Copeland, agrees that audio is pivotal in creating what he describes as a “much more multi-sensory [experience] than ever before” – a development that is obviously “great news for AV manufacturers as modern parks look to incorporate both sound and visuals alongside the usual ‘thrills and spills’ type attractions”.
But with theme parks representing a very different audio environment to the theatre, concert hall or festival stage, where exactly does the specifier/installer start? Marc Kocks is managing director of Netherlands-based audio supplier and installer TM Audio, and has been involved in a number of theme park projects. As he perceives it, thinking carefully and rigorously about the nature of the ride itself is priority numero uno.
“The ride determines how audio will be provided to the audience,” he says. “It can be onboard audio if the carts on the ride are suited to build a sound in; it can be audio provided by source along the track; or a combination [thereof].”
The specification process commences, suggests Levison, with “a good understanding of the performance goals and a strong attention to detail. For example, determining the sound pressure levels and then the coverage for the audience will dictate the type of speakers used and their position. If done early in the process the ride designers work hand-in-hand with the audio integrator to ensure maximum performance and maintain the proper look or sightlines for the show.”
In this regard, discreet speaker solutions with minimal – or non-existent – visual impact can be distinctly advantageous. “Concealed speakers work well, including environmental speakers hidden among foliage or speakers built into the fabric of the ride,” remarks Holley.
Withstanding the elements – both real and invented (!) – around the clock calls for robustly-protected, weather-resistant loudspeakers.

Fortunately, specifiers appear to be spoilt for choice here: from Community’s R-Series and WET Series II, which pair all-weather ability “with well-defined coverage angles and throw capabilities”; to Tannoy’s DVS Series, whose certification to IP64, remarks Copeland, makes it “a perfectly capable performer in challenging interior areas such as water parks or general outdoor areas where unusually high levels of dust or moisture may be present”.
For those applications where onboard audio is preferable, the development of more powerful, Class D topology amplifiers – thereby requiring fewer devices and less space in often highly cramped environments – has been hugely beneficial.

Kocks says: “With the use of Class D amplifiers like Powersoft and more advanced digital playback systems, the power consumption, weight and dimension of onboard audio systems is reduced.”
But while it is now easier to specify products off-the-shelf, the exacting requirements of individual rides mean that customised solutions are frequently necessary for onboard deployment. The design and delivery process can be protracted, but it seems that the end results do justify the labour involved.
“Onboard systems are perfect [for telling] the story of the ride and also give the possibility of having different versions of the story [for each cart],” remarks Kocks. For the properly besotted, there will be a desire to experience every variation – a tendency that means lucrative repeat-business for theme park operators. “True fanatic rollercoaster junkies will love to experience all the different versions of this one rollercoaster.”
Indicating the elaborate nature of many new rides, Kocks cites a recent project in which “the proximity of the props to the cart and the localisation required by the user [resulted in the specification of] a 96-output system with individual loudspeakers across the 300m track. Fifteen carts are in different scenes on the track at the same time and all of the effects had to be triggered and timed. In total, this took three weeks of programming on-site, resulting in our crew going on the ride more than 500 times before completion.” Taking control With greater complexity, of course, comes an increased need for effective control. Consequently, show control software is a prerequisite for the vast majority of new installations, where it is selected to trigger often widely contrasting effects at different stages of a ride.
No wonder, then, that Kocks describes show control as “the heartbeat of the system, [precipitating] effects in lighting, sound, motion or other show elements. This show control system can work on timecode or external triggers.”
Apart from issues of practicality, more powerful control also brings the ability to refresh a theme park environment more readily – an important consideration when it comes to ensuring that crowds make return visits year in, year out.
Merging’s Wadsten reflects: “Control software and software that has a control paradigm built into it – like our Ovation Media Server – are able to provide a level of show that can react to the environment in which [they are] placed. So whether it is simply starting a scene running when someone walks into the room, panning a sound to follow a visitor as they walk through an area, or providing an interface for the visitor to control all of what happens, interactivity is where designers are exploring more and more for ways to enhance their productions.”
Logistically and practically, rugged software/hardware ‘combination’ systems often represent the best way forwards. As Wadsten notes: “The time needed to connect up 50 ‘black boxes’ and get them to do what you need can be so much more laborious and costly than employing products like Ovation.”
Along with effective control, the ascendancy of flexible networking technology has contributed significantly to easing the design process. More easily managed networks, observes Levison, have “made the whole process of integrating elaborate sound much more manageable”.
As in other sectors, project specifiers face a variety of possible solutions. Riedel is just one of the suppliers to have benefited, with general manager South East Asia Joe Tan highlighting demand for the company’s RockNet redundant ring topology. Video, audio, data and communications network solution MediorNet is also generating interest.

Tan notes: “An infrastructure that not only transports video in real-time, but also provides the backbone for distributing the communications and audio signals streamlines the installation significantly. With MediorNet being a fully fledged network this also makes the system a lot more flexible, allowing point-to-multipoint set-ups over great distance with high bandwidth.” Going global As to where theme park audio goes next… “From Iosono’s perspective, we see ‘object-based’ production of audio to be a major advance for themed entertainment,” says Levison. “Sound designers can make content in a different environment than the final venue and have successful reproduction that works when the venue opens. I can’t stress how big an advantage this is. Until now the sound designer had a limited range of ability without building a duplicate of the venue in which to prepare the audio and have it make sense. With an object-based creation and rendered output (as in the Iosono system) the end-result will be as expected in the studio where it was designed.”

Tan, meanwhile, pinpoints the continuing drift towards digital. As he remarks: “Switching over to entirely digital systems will prevent noise interference while allowing even longer distances when using fiber systems instead of common copper cabling.”
The prospect of upgrade/renewal programmes can only be good news for suppliers – as is an expanding geographical focus that encompasses the BRIC nations as well as the historic stronghold markets of the US and Western Europe.
“While the traditional markets are perhaps about maintaining what is already there, the emerging markets are where the future business lies,” says Copeland. “As more and more people start to have some kind of disposable income, attractions like theme parks and other leisure centres are emerging in tandem with that.” For audio suppliers, it is evident, this is one thrilling ride that is far from over.

Story: David Davies