Back to the Future

Oct 1, 2004 12:00 PM, By Paul D. Lehrman

AN ANCIENT TOMB REVEALS LOW-COST AUDIO OF TOMORROW

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There's an interesting conundrum in audio these days: As our tools get better and the quality of what we produce achieves new heights, the delivery system for those products in many ways gets worse. Data-compressed audio files; tiny, tinny, under-powered “multimedia” sound systems; and — God help us — cell phones have all somehow become significant elements in the chain that brings music from our 24-bit, 192kHz production systems to our audience.

As “low-end” audio delivery becomes more prevalent, it's finding its way into unexpected new areas. One of these is illustrated in a terrific high-tech “haunted house” — type attraction called Tomb, which should be open by the time you read this. The design and the technology behind it are the very latest, but the audio is surprisingly low-tech. Perhaps even more surprising, it sounds just fine.

The philosophy behind Tomb can be described something like this: Start with a computer game that has several layers of puzzle-solving. Get the player out of his seat and make him walk through different spaces. Use a whole lot of scary content based on ancient myths and classic horror movies. Make the lights flash, the walls groan, creatures crawl over the player's feet and fly around the room, long-dead folks talk from behind waterfalls, the floors shake and the ceilings drop precipitously. Throw in a complex interactive soundtrack of dialog, sound effects and music. Make it multiplayer so that every player can hear every other player scream. Call it the future of entertainment and put it in a high-traffic area full of students and young professionals. Charge admission.

Tomb is located in a former warehouse in Boston's Fenway neighborhood. It's the first of what the creators, who call themselves “5Wits” (www.5-wits.com), hope will be many such shows. They chose a great location — right down the street from the home of the perennial second-place (yet passion-inducing) Red Sox — in an area teeming with clubs, bars, movie theaters, stores and restaurants, only a stone's throw from some of the city's largest universities.

It's the brainchild of Matt DuPlessie, a designer who has done work for Disney, Universal and the Boston Museum of Science, and who holds an engineering degree from MIT and an MBA from Harvard. In fact, it started out as a business school project. “It was an entrepreneurial studies assignment,” he says. “I was supposed to get investors and creators together — and I did.”

In Tomb, groups of between five and 15 would-be Indiana Joneses move through a series of rooms that resemble an ancient Egyptian crypt and solve a series of puzzles at each step before they can move on to the next. The walls use art taken from the real thing: Pharaonic tombs were photographed and the images digitized and cut by a computer lathe into foam and Fiberglas. “We don't have to worry about copyright issues,” says DuPlessie, “since it's all over 3,000 years old.”

When a Tomb-bound group begins their 40-minute journey, they're told that the original discoverer of the tomb never came out and his crew deserted. The goal is to find out what happened to him and to see if the mummy he was searching for is actually there. When the first door closes and the group is plunged into darkness, they switch on flashlights, but it isn't long before the lights start winking out.

Suddenly, there's a splash, and the face of the ancient Pharaoh appears on a curtain of falling water. The Pharaoh speaks, challenging the group to solve puzzles based on each of the “Five Wits,” which are either the five senses or, according to Shakespeare, the faculties of common sense, fantasy, memory, judgment and imagination.

There are hidden buttons in the walls, hieroglyphics, snakes on the floor, falling ceilings, a descending mummy, more puzzles and screams.

“Whether you live or die,” says DuPlessie, “you end up in the gift shop,” where you can buy books and videos about Egyptian history and, of course, have a cappuccino. It's too soon to tell whether it will be a financial success, but the concept and execution, which combine the idea of a haunted house, a “dark ride” and a special-effects show, are a highly effective combination of old and new technologies. “I researched heavily to see if anyone had done this and could maybe advise us,” says DuPlessie. “No one has.”

Music and sound, of course, are critical to a project such as this, and for that, DuPlessie hired two New York composers, Scott Shapiro (who happens to be a former student of mine) and Rich Jacobs, who call themselves Composers' Collective. “Believe it or not,” DuPlessie says, “I met them through Craig's List [www.craigslist.org].” Shapiro and Jacobs have been working together for about a year-and-a-half, making music and sound effects for clients such as CBS, NBC, Showtime, ESPN and the Discovery Channel.

“There are five basic pieces of music,” says Shapiro, “which we did based just on Matt's descriptions. When we finally got together with him, we found they all worked with just some minor tweaks. We also did a couple-hundred sound effects, some adapted from libraries and some we recorded ourselves.” Borrowing from techniques used in video game scoring, they broke the music down into loops so that, for example, when a group solves a puzzle or accomplishes some other task, the music can jump quickly to the end of the track or to a new piece. Making the transitions between loops seamless was a critical task. “We did the entire score right in Pro Tools, even the MIDI stuff, since we didn't need to do much editing,” Shapiro says. “The sound sources were GigaSampler and Reason, and we used some samples of Egyptian instruments. We mixed the files to .WAVs and put them on an FTP site where Matt could download and audition them.”

There are a number of alternate shows built into Tomb for different types of groups. One program is for a typical college/post-college walk-in audience, while another is for corporate team-building events, “where everyone sees that it's the secretary who makes the hard decisions and solves all the puzzles, while the CEO doesn't do anything,” says DuPlessie with a laugh. One morning a week, school groups are scheduled and the place goes into “educational” mode: Besides a specialized show, workstations in the café are set up for students to make papyrus and explore hieroglyphics. Of course, each version of the show has its own soundtrack, using different versions and mixes of the tracks.

Tomb is totally automated and totally modular, which makes sense for a show that DuPlessie hopes will be able to travel after its initial shakedown. Every aspect of the show is operated by a self-resetting show-control control system made by AVStumpfl, an Austrian manufacturer of high-end audio/visual systems. The system is made up of multiple modules linked together with Cat-5 Ethernet cable and speaking a proprietary protocol called SC Net. Each module has 16 contact closure inputs, which are programmed to generate commands using the lighting industry — standard DMX protocol to more than 200 different devices.

The show is programmed using software developed by AVStumpfl (for Windows) called Wings, which looks a lot like a music sequencer, in that each show has multiple tracks that can cue other tracks and sub-routines. How and when the various tracks are executed are largely based on user input: What the visitors do inside the tomb. “Disney and Universal rides aren't this complicated because they're not really interactive,” says DuPlessie. “Tomb gives everyone the illusion of control.”

DuPlessie can sit in the middle of his show and program it on his laptop. “We're beta-testing a version of the software for the company,” he says. “They've never had anyone do something of this complexity before.” When the programming is finished, it gets burned onto a 512MB Flash card, which goes into a slot on the AVStumpfl system's control module. “There are no crashes, as you would expect if we had a PC controlling everything. That just wouldn't be tolerable.”

The lighting is mostly intelligent LD fixtures made by Color Kinetics under DMX control, as are the mechanics, which are handled by dimmer and relay packs from Light Stream Controls. “You know them as ‘American DJ,’” says DuPlessie. “They're that company's theatrical arm. It's the highest of the low end.” The mechanics are relatively simple: direct-drive electrical motors to open and shut Star Trek — style sliding doors between the chambers and a pneumatic system to move buttons, statues and walls. “Air is safer,” he explains. “If something gets in the way, like someone's hand, the pressure drops and the movement stops until the obstruction is removed.”

Much of the intelligence in the system is distributed. For example, the flashlights winking out are triggered by a single command from the master controller, which starts a routine built into a custom radio transmitter. The transmitter generates various coded signals according to a set schedule, each of which triggers a dedicated chip inside one of the flashlights, which causes that light to blink a few times and then turn off. It looks random to the player, but, of course, it's not. “Everything that can be driven by an on/off control is,” says DuPlessie. “It makes it much simpler. Why do you need proportional control?” The complex mechanical systems that drop the ceiling and levitate the Pharaoh's mummy are similarly hard-coded: “The DMX system just says, ‘Go.’”

For one of the major effects, input to the system is translated into MIDI: The buttons and touchpads that the visitors interact with are wired to an Alesis D4 drum module, which has eight trigger inputs. “It's the cheapest multichannel MIDI trigger ever made,” says DuPlessie, “and it was even cheaper since we got it on eBay.” The D4's output goes to a MIDISolutions R8 relay box, which, in turn, feeds the AvStumpfl system.

The audio is handled by another pair of AvStumpfl modules, Master 16 Players. Each module generates eight stereo pairs under the control of the master system. The output goes through four Crown 660 amplifiers, delivering 24 channels at 60 watts each. The audio is also stored on the 512MB Flash cards so that it, like the master controller, is essentially fail-proof. To get all of the segments and their individual tracks onto the cards, the files are converted to MP3.

All of the chambers in Tomb have multiple speakers for the music and sound effects, which serve to provide a surround general environment and specific locations for effects. Subwoofers handle the ominous rumbles and other low-end effects, and in the chamber in which the ceiling comes down, bass shakers are installed in the floor, adding to the players' anxiety.

Surprisingly, except for the amplifiers, almost none of the audio components are from the usual professional sources. “Only recently has home theater stuff become powerful and robust enough for this kind of operation,” says DuPlessie. “For these sound levels, home theater speakers work fine. The acoustics are horrific in the Tomb, and there's no way you could EQ these rooms to make them sound better, so under these circumstances, people can't tell the difference between this and high-end audio.”

A foot of airspace and 12-inch-thick doors separate each of the rooms from the others, but there is still plenty of leakage. “Since it's haunted house — style, leakage is okay,” explains DuPlessie. “People coming in want to know that it's an emotional experience, and they like to hear the screams of the people in the other rooms. The sound in each room is overpowering enough so that you know what's background and what's foreground.”

The speakers DuPlessie and his team decided to use are from Cambridge Soundworks, the consumer electronics company started by the late Henry Kloss and more recently owned by Creative Technologies, creators of the infamous Soundblaster computer sound cards. Even the subwoofers come from there: 15-inch, self-powered, down-firing Bass Cubes. The floor shakers are from a similar CE source: Car Audio Bass Enhancers from a company called Aura Systems. Sold in pairs, these are typically wired in parallel (through an internal 100Hz active crossover and 100W amplifier) with a sound system's main speakers to provide that added oomph. But in Tomb, they are sent their own dedicated track, which is designed to be felt and not heard.

It's not just the low initial cost that attracted Tomb's designers to these components, but also their practicality for the long term. “The usual approach is to make a bulletproof installation in a steel cage,” says DuPlessie, “but that's expensive and it can still fail. When a show at Disney goes down, the whole thing is down — they put tape over the entrance for a month while they fix it. Here, I have a shelf with spares of everything in the show, so if something goes down, I just swap it out. And since the show will be traveling, it's important to be able to get spares quickly anywhere in the field. If we have to replace everything two years down the road, that's fine. If I need 20, I buy 25. When I have to replace a box, I just plug in the new one and set its address.” Even the lighting control boxes are easily replaceable. It's an eminently sensible approach and reflects the realities of today's electronics marketplace — much like the early adopters of Alesis' 8-track ADAT knew they needed at least four units if they wanted to promote themselves as a 24-track facility.

As a symbol of how the line between professional and consumer electronics has become increasingly vague, the ADAT serves well. But today, the distinction has gotten even more confusing, and as the newest technologies often find themselves in mass-market mail-order catalogs before they make it into our studios, Tomb can be seen as an indicator of where things are going.

Besides creating an exciting new form of entertainment, DuPlessie and his team are valuing replaceability and quick and easy repair over making sure their sound systems are of the highest possible quality. MP3 audio, home theater and car audio speakers are easily good enough for Tomb — and that means, as disturbing as the concept may be to some of us, they're good enough for a lot of things.


Paul D. Lehrman prefers his multiplayer games outdoors, preferably using some kind of ball and plenty of beer.






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