AES Section Meeting Reports

Los Angeles - October 24, 2019

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On Thursday, October 24th, we gathered at the Ivar Theater in Hollywood to explore sound design, scoring, mixing, and timing of theme park attractions and shows with two experts from The Walt Disney Company, Robbin Broad and Bruce Healey, moderated by Karen Eckhoff.
Robbin Broad, Principal Designer and Creative Audio Producer at Walt Disney Imagineering has worked on
projects ranging from Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout to Mystic Manor at Hong Kong Disneyland. In
addition, she has done theater design for the La Jolla Playhouse, Off-Broadway, and internationally in Greece and Japan.
Bruce Healey is a composer who spent over 30 years as Principal Music Director/Producer for The Walt Disney Company. He created numerous stage shows, fireworks spectaculars and parades for Disney, as well as composing and conducting many television specials and special events. In addition, he has created special arrangements for the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, Cincinnati Pops, and his own Allsun Music Company.
We began by discussing what goes into the development of an attraction. Both panelists agreed that every attraction and live show is story-driven. Robbin considers her audience when developing a presentation, as young children have very different tolerances than teens or adults. She also considers architecture and acoustics of the space, and prefers to incorporate conduit in the foundation, and meticulously-chosen speaker combinations early in the design process for aesthetics. Her team typically works together for four to five years, including a one-year install. Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout had a much shorter turnaround of one year, so her team began immediately riding and testing in the former Hollywood Tower of Terror space.
Bruce's development period is considerably shorter, usually less than a year, and is often dependent upon the art and scenic changeout. In the case of turning the Haunted Mansion into The Nightmare Before Christmas holiday attraction, the turnaround was about six months from the initial vision. Bruce explained that they cannot install and mix their music replacement until the scenic is installed, sometimes up to the day the attraction reopens. There may be scenic in front of speakers, and of course all that artificial snow and batting in the graveyard scene completely changes the acoustics. Bruce's team often makes
educated guesses for mixing, in coordination with the technical director. They may also remix based on obstacles.
Robbin explained her mix process for Guardians. She would park in a scene, mix that scene, move the ProTools rig off of the carriage, get out, safety check, then test to see if the scene worked. In the QC process, it took 42 rides to completely QC the attraction, and Robbin estimates she has ridden it over 4000 times.
Bruce explained some of the tech behind the magic, telling us that the Doom Buggies in the Haunted Mansion trip sensors that trigger the spiel. The music is in the building, while the dialogue is in the car. The clamshell shape of the car helps to direct sound and the riders' attention to scenes. Which car in a set one is in also impacts the experience slightly, as all cars in a unit are triggered simultaneously. Compromises are made for the optimal experience. The Nightmare music replacement was delivered in stems for mix flexibility, including vocal stems, orchestral stems, and effects stems. New effects were added, specific to The Nightmare Before Christmas, and the score was recorded at the Warner Brothers Eastwood Stage. Some changes were made between the first and second years of the Nightmare overlay, but most of the attraction has remained the same since. The Haunted Mansion typically closes for 30 days for the changeover, much of which is used for scenic changes. There is no time or need to redo the audio system, save for a few additional speakers or audio sources. The audio was designed to be easily swappable, and the remix adjusts the recording, not the infrastructure.
Both guests discussed the evolution of audio technology through the years, regaling us with stories of cartridges, EPROMs, bin loops, digital bin loops, and flash disks. These days, QSYS cores are in use. There is still a bin loop in the park, although it is not currently used.
Bruce explained how parade audio has evolved over the years, and how the parade experience differs from an attraction, where you ride through the music. While watching a parade, the music moves past you. 250 speakers, grouped in zones, are used for the Main Street Parade. The parade may include an opening window (music that starts the parade), then transition to a traveling loop. A clean start with the opening window occurs for each zone. There may also be a fade out or closing window. Different techniques are utilized to manage musical conflicts
between units. For a seamless parade, continuous loops are used, where the previous unit fades on both the float and in-house system. For a parade like the Pixar Play Parade, where each segment is character-driven and has its own theme, a traveling loop is used which becomes an arranging task. In this case, one third will fade during a common theme, and the viewer never hears a conflict. The remaining two thirds may or may not hear a conflict depending on how the audio is programmed. Currently each float has a GPS tracking device. Audio central knows where it is and can control the fades. In the past, orchestrators had to write themes in counterpoint to other themes to avoid conflicts. Both Bruce and Robbin discussed tempos and the need for frame-accurate loops to land at the same time, even if mixed meters are used. Bruce described a 14" reel of 2" 16-track tape in a bin loop, and how a dubber would use a VSO (variable speed oscillator) to control the speed and keep it in sync with other tracks.
During Q&A, Robbin was asked about effects. She prefers all original effects, and has teams of specialists who specialize in various types of recordings. She gave the example of recording wind, where what you are recording is the wind through something. She also explained the difficulty of recording particularly loud sounds like explosions and jet engines. Her mix matrix is never 5.1, but more like 28.1.1. Questions also came in regarding historical
recordings and contemporary audio systems. Disney is careful to honor their history, and don't generally change legacy recordings unless absolutely necessary. We also discussed cultural sensitivity, and the evolution of certain attractions due to the passage of time. Asked about time delay, Robbin discussed how time delay is the antithesis of proximity, where the proximity effect often wins. Bruce emphasized the Haas effect, which is particularly useful in parade audio, as the closest source is what one hears and can be used to advantage.
Thanks to Robbin and Bruce for sharing their expertise and insight into how they make the magic!

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