A Hero’s Journey, Part 4: Pip’s Island Sound Design

Pip's Island 6_crop.jpg
(Courtesy of Pip's Island)

Pip’s Island, a custom-built flagship attraction in New York, encourages children to find their inner spark during heroic journey to save the mystical island from the darkness of the villain Joules Volter. Conceived and designed by its three founders, CEO Rami Ajami, Chief Creative Officer Rania Ajami, and creative director Walter Krudop, Pip’s Island combines innovative puppetry, digital animation, cutting-edge technology, and live actors to create an immersive theatrical adventure for young audiences and families. The new attraction is currently in previews and will officially open to the public on May 20.

Read about the lighting design, immersive set design, and video design.

The Sound Design

While projection designer Rocco DiSanti may say the sound design makes or breaks the video design, sound designer Brett Jarvis says video makes his job easier. “Back in the day, when you had rain people would think it was bacon frying,” he says, “so you'd add a little bit of a stream running to the rain so people thought water. Now you have the visual cue to back up the sound.”

Pip’s Island is a symbiosis between lighting, video, scenery, and sound for the ultimate storytelling experience. The sound design aids the story in four ways: exposition, mood, direction/focus, and action. “The expositional part starts with the sounds of the five unique ‘sparks’ the kids discover on their journey. Each spark is based on some elemental sound from our world: water, thunder, wind etc. I then take that sound and morph it into a sound unique to the Pip's Island world. We repeat these spark sounds and use elements of those sounds elsewhere in the score throughout.” These elemental sounds, in turn, create the mood in each room. In addition to the sound clips are five original songs by composer Bruce Yauger, who performed a song featured in the soundtrack for Django Unchained soundtrack. “I joked during tech that it was like designing ten different shows,” says the Jarvis. “The system and sound palette for each room is so different that it made it quite a challenge.”

sound design for Pip's Island
Pebble and explorers power her ship

Helping the audience know where to look is a significant part of the sound design. “One of the reasons there are so many playback channels in the sound system is to give us the capability to place sounds exactly where they need to be,” says Jarvis. “There are quite a few cues in the show whose prime objective is simply to say, ‘look over here now,’ a must when the action happens all around the audience.” The sound design also aids the action. For Pebble's flying ship, bass shakers in the floor and an 8-point surround system with lots of sub-bass create the feel of the ship launching.

Jarvis’ favorite moment of the show is in the first scene. “The Expedition Leader yells out, ‘Hello, mister park ranger?!’ and we do this delay/echo effect where we hear her voice echo off the ‘hills’ in the distance,” he explains. “It is hilarious to watch. The kids’ mouths literally drop in awe. At that moment, the transition between suspension of disbelief and true belief occurs. Seeing that moment is what makes it all worth it for me.”

“Rania and Walter were very keen on the idea of creating an immersive sonic environment,” says Jarvis. “They felt that other immersive shows they'd seen had a ‘heavy’ kind of one-dimensional sound to them. Consequently, there are over 300 speakers and 256 QLab playback channels in the plot.”

sound design for Pip's Island

The producers wanted to keep the cost of the system within reasonable limits without sacrificing quality. The initial cost projections were astronomical, and it quickly became clear that a clean sheet design was necessary. “Every piece of hardware in the system is something we have not used previously—sans one item: the Apple computer, of which there are fifteen,” says Jarvis.

The sound team spent a year testing different equipment. “Robert Byerly, my production sound engineer, really went beyond the call of duty researching the pros and cons of each approach,” compliments Jarvis. “He must have redrawn the system literally two dozen times.”

Jarvis needed over 100 small loudspeakers so he ordered a pair of every “junk sub-one-hundred-dollar speaker” on the market for evaluation. “There were actually some pleasant surprises! After settling on three types, we ‘boutiqued’ them, meaning we have specific processor settings for each speaker that more or less dials out their transgressions,” he says.

sound design for Pip's Island

The sound team settled on what Jarvis calls a “decentralized” sound system. Essentially, there are eight separate sound systems. Each is driven by a 64x64 Symetrix Radius NX matrix and fed by eight 64 output QLab machines on a giant Dante network. All of these systems are tied together via the ShowPulse show control software, which Sean Beach created and Jarvis designed “into” the system for Pip’s Island.

The sound system extensively uses open-baffle or boxless speaker systems to control sound bleed between adjacent pulses. “I'd originally been interested in using narrow baffle dipoles as a way to achieve broadband constant-directivity and take advantage of a couple of other characteristics they possess that make sense for vocal reinforcement,” says Jarvis. “Another characteristic of dipoles is that they do not transmit sound from room-to-room near as much as regular box speakers. Somewhat counterintuitively, a dipole imparts about 1/3 of the overall energy into a space for the same on axis SPL compared to a conventional box speaker. Because of this tendency and our desire to combat sound transmission in the space, about 90% of the main speaker systems on the Island are dipoles. The effect is quite profound.” For mission critical systems, scenery is built around the loudspeakers with an acoustically transparent facade. “We also used quite a few tiny cube speakers in the scenery, as well as sixty-plus architectural in-wall speakers,” he adds.

The sound, show control, IT, and CC TV systems were all integrated in-house. “Special kudos to Justin Stasiw, who consulted on the CC TV and audio systems, as well as my long-time friend and collaborator Jason Shonk, whose unique perspective and wisdom is a part of every system we design,” praises the designer.

Stay tuned for more on the show control and build for Pip's Island.

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