Theater Acoustics Aboard Oasis of the Seas, Part 1

Mix high-diving acts, underwater performers, and music with ocean, wind, and waves on the world’s biggest cruise ship, and you’ve got a formidable challenge for sound. Mark Turpin and Russ Cooper 6/14/2010 8:00 AM Eastern

Theater Acoustics Aboard Oasis of the Seas, Part 1

Jun 14, 2010 12:00 PM

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Oasis of the Seas

Mix high-diving acts, underwater performers, and music with ocean, wind, and waves on the world’s biggest cruise ship, and you’ve got a formidable challenge for sound. Mark Turpin and Russ Cooper from acoustics and audio design firm Jaffe Holden are here to tell us how they helped harness this beast.

Russ and Mark, thanks for being with me here on the Corporate AV podcast. This project on the Oasis of the Seas cruise ship, I think the biggest one around—it seems like you have the odds against you with problems of acoustics and something that’s moving and is open air, and all kinds of possible noises from different things. Russ, how did Jaffe Holden first get involved with the Oasis of the Seas theater sound installations?
Russ Cooper:
Back in the mid ’90s, Royal Caribbean decided when they were going to come out with their Eagle-class series—which at that time, was the largest cruise ship in the world—they made the leap to improve patron experience and decided to go outside the sea-based designers and look for architects that were primarily land-based architects in theater design. In the end, they interviewed several architects, and Wilson Butler Architects in Boston won the commission. We were subsequently brought in as acoustical and audio consultants, and Fisher Dachs as theater consultants, and so we were treating it as sort of a land-based theater at sea. [Timestamp: 1:55]

Well, that certainly makes sense in the case of one of the theaters, but you have one back on the fantail of the ship—I think that’s the Aqua Theater—which, from the pictures that I’ve seen, Mark, looks like a very different animal.
Mark Turpin:
Oh, it’s a very different animal. [Timestamp: 2:08]

Especially acoustically.
Well, both acoustically and technically. I’ll let Russ speak to the acoustics issues there. But it’s very different because it’s taking a number of things that normally get incorporated into some of the water shows in Vegas, and then trying to build a pool big enough to do that on a ship and incorporate high-dive water aquatics. Basically a sound and light show that goes with that plus the ability to do some live entertainment, all on the fantail with the ship moving, with the ship rolling at umpteen knots. There’s a lot of wind back into one of those ships when the ship’s moving. [Timestamp: 2:51]

Yeah, I was thinking that something that big doesn’t just slide through the ocean silently.
Turpin: Huh um. Well, all the stabilizers work great; the ships are typically pretty pretty stable. But it did produce a whole number of interesting problems—mostly for Fisher Dachs [FDA], actually, less so for us. FDA, and with them Boyce Nemec on video, have been working with this team ... since the ’90s—Andy Smith at Boyce Nemec; Peter Rosenbaum at Fisher Dachs. The audio in some ways is pretty straightforward for the Aqua Theater because it is primarily playback; there is some live voice, but it has to also be capable of doing live entertainment because it’s sort of like building a theater in a school. The theater department thinks it’s theirs until everybody sees how cool it is, and then everybody wants a piece of the action. [Timestamp: 3:43]

Oh yeah, that’s always the case.
And so as soon as they saw what a show piece it was going to be as an entertainment environment the scope of what was going to happen there started to expand a little bit. From an audio point of view, fortunately, it is played back, so you can deal with a relatively fixed dynamic range. You can set the levels above a relatively high ambient noise level. And that was a lot of our—Russ could speak to this—a lot of our input at the beginning was, “Well, exactly what kind of levels are we going to have to achieve? How is that going to work? How do we try to constrain the level from a pretty high-energy show from being something that traveled halfway down the ship?”

Yeah, Russ, describe the Aqua Theater.
It’s pretty loud, but if you’ve ever been on a cruise ship, in that portion of the ship, there’s a lot of things going on that you don’t really think of as noise. In other words, you’re not used to hearing a show; you’re usually having a drink or you’re lounging or whatever. So the noise of the wind, the water, and the engines is all part of the experience and is usually not a problem. So they knew pretty much how loud that was because they keep real close track of patron comment cards and if somebody complains enough that, “Boy, you know, we couldn’t hear ourselves think back there,” then they have to adjust that in the next design or even in the next cruise. So they gave us the noise levels of what the engine was going to be doing—and they’re new engines, of course, so they had to predict that—and the speed that it might be traveling at, and it was upwards of, I would say, in the mid-60dB range on a normal type of experience cruising at a certain speed. There was really nothing that we could do to tell them that they needed to make it quieter because these were the engines that operate the ship and they’ve already pretty much gone down the road that that’s what it has to be. So we just had to confirm for them that this was the location of the theater. Is it a good idea; is it a terrible idea; is there anything that we have to do? And we did the calculations and pretty much found that the audio system could get up over that level and not be overly loud or uncomfortable for the patrons that are sitting there listening to it. And Mark will tell you that there’s also a bunch of terraces that you have staterooms that also have patios that look out and watch the show as well. [Timestamp: 6:22]

Yeah, you’ve got a theater on the back end of a ship that’s got a swimming pool in the front of the stage, high-diving acts, people splashing around in the water. And it’s open-air with wind, sea waves, performers, and staterooms near by where people might want to be watching the show or might want to be sleeping while all that’s going on. So I don’t think you could find a more challenging acoustic environment in your wildest nightmares.
Well, there were under-balcony speakers, and we didn’t have to blast sound all the way up into the staterooms if I remember.

Turpin: Right, yeah. What we wound up doing, and this is still something that is being discussed about moving forward—I should mention that when a cruise line, any cruise line, builds a ship, generally they build multiple copies of the same design. I think they built three or four equals; they had built each of the Eagle series, the Voyager series, the Millennium-class, the ...

Cooper: Variations on a theme.

Turpin: Yeah, they are each variations on a theme. So our involvement, typically, is with the initial design of the first ship. As our relationship with Royal Caribbean has matured; they also have contractors that they go to—Funa in Germany, and now what used to be Teledimensions is now part of Funa. They also have had a long-standing relationship. So rather than the nuts-and-bolts design that we often do—we are doing a level that for the cruise ships now, for Royal Caribbean—but more and more as the economics of that situation get tighter and tighter, we devolved some of that responsibility to the contractor because it’s just an economic reality for Royal Caribbean. Also, there is not really any point in us being very much involved other than answering questions about any potential changes as they move from addition one to addition two, addition three of a particular class of a ship.

Now, the Aqua Theater was different because all of the indoor theaters also have been variations on a theme. What they’ve done is they’ve taken what worked in the previous ships, and as they build a new class of ship, they try to massage that into something that will do more, better, bigger, bolder, brighter, contemporary work. The Aqua Theater, though, is a whole new bag of worms because of all the things that you have mentioned before. We did use cross-firing line arrays to try to very tightly control particularly the vertical dispersion of the sound in the theater. As with any ship or theater, the Aqua Theater is relatively shallow and wide. That’s also true of the indoor theaters; they tend to be relatively shallow and wide, and that has to just do with the geometry of the way a ship is built and where you would locate a theater in a ship. In talking vertically, you think about—the Aqua Theater is at roughly deck six, give or take. The top staterooms are at 12, I believe, or 14—12, I think. So that's a pretty big vertical jump as you go up from that point on the ship. We try to keep the primary sound very tightly controlled over the audience—cross-firing the arrays to limit the amount of energy that’s traveling down the center of the ship, past the sail bar, and into the promenade—and then we provide individual audio for each of those stateroom balconies so that they can watch the show or not watch the show. And if they sit out on their balcony, they can watch the show from there and have control of their local audio. If they close the doors and go into the stateroom, there’s not a lot of sound that actually gets in there because the vertical pattern control is there so that the stuff that you would find really egregious—the mid- and high-band stuff—you can’t hardly hear it at all in the stateroom. [Timestamp: 10:05]

Theater Acoustics Aboard Oasis of the Seas, Part 1

Jun 14, 2010 12:00 PM

Do they have to specify certain equipment with very definite capabilities in order to suit not only the physical environment, but also to comply with the fact of using minimal construction crew and doing a lot of different things back to back in those theaters—for instance, digital mixers with recallable presets?
That’s pretty much a staple for Royal Caribbean. I don’t want to call them early adopters, but they are aggressive adopters of some new technologies that have to do with the particular dynamics they’re working on a ship—and I mean physical dynamics, not audio dynamics. Obviously, you get a ton of salt spray; the pool that is in the Aqua Theater is a salt-water pool. Everything that goes out there has to have a substantial IP rating—most of it’s 56 or 65. And so, you’re looking at a highly weatherproofed arrays. They actually wound up using EV XLDs for the main arrays in the Aqua Theater partly because, as with any space on a ship, you have a very constrained physical location that you have to work in also. I mean, we had these dive towers, and we had to cram a line array inside the fins of the dive tower. Well, there’s only about three or four boxes that will even fit and get the job done—especially when you’re talking about a narrow dynamic range and a specific pattern control. We would love to say it’s all about getting the absolute best sound—and the sound is pretty doggone good—but sometimes, just as it does in a land-based venue, other factors have to weigh in as to actually what gear you choose. And it may not be exactly the one you wanted to use, but you get something that will get the job done and also fit all those other parameters. [Timestamp: 11:53]

And a lot of this stuff moves around, too, doesn’t it? I mean they’ve got things going up and down and stuff that comes out of the water in the pool and ...
Yeah, Handling Specialty did all of the hydraulics for the ship, all the performance hydraulics. There are elevators in the pool so that you can raise them up and have only have an inch of water setting on top of them, and the performers can literally dance on the water. Then the elevators go down so you can dive into that same pool. And they use some interesting things. When they were first designing it—I know this is really Fisher Dachs territory, but—they started looking at wave dynamics and the fact that the motion of the ship would actually create some pretty substantial waves potentially in that pool because of the width of the pool. So the elevators had to be designed, and they had to design wave baffles that would keep the level of the pool fairly stable. They used turbulizers to break the surface tension on the water for the divers; that in turn has an effect on what you can hear in the water. You've got a crew underwater in that pool; you have a lot of interesting technical challenges that you don’t really see in most theaters. [Timestamp: 13:03]

Right, yeah; now underwater speakers and water nozzles ...
Underwater speakers, because when they’re doing water aquatics, they need to be able to hear both above and below. So there are foldback speakers also mounted inside of the dive towers at both levels of the pool so they can hear on the up-stage portion over the trampoline. And also there are in-pool speakers that allow them to hear when they’re in the water as long as the turbulizers aren’t on; if you turn the turbulizers on, nobody hears anything. All of those little bubbles effectively break the acoustic path through the water. [Timestamp: 13:33]

So they’ve got a lot of stuff to have coordinated, I guess, on these shows—with the lights and water nozzles and things in sync?
Yeah and it all runs on timecode. [Timestamp: 13:41]

Yeah, all on timecode?
Right and on all of that stuff is integrated using Medialon.

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Theater Acoustics Aboard Oasis of the Seas, Part 2
Designing sound systems and handling acoustics for two theaters on the world's largest cruise ship is a whole different animal than tackling that job on land. Mark Turpin and Russ Cooper of acoustics and audio design firm Jaffe Holden are here to tell us how they designed sound and acoustics on the Oasis of the Seas...

And where is all of this controlled? Where is the audio booth for the Aqua Theater?
It’s either deck 12 or deck 14.

So it’s way up above the stage.
Way up; you’re looking almost straight down on the pool. [Timestamp: 13:56]

And obviously, you have no direct audio. You’re relying on your monitors to be able to hear. You’re inside a glassed-in booth. There’s not really any other way to do it; you couldn’t hear even if it was open. And so all the show control is on either side at the top of the balconies, at the top of that stateroom stack on either side above the climbing walls. And there is lighting and water control on one side, and sound and stage management, I think, on the other side. [Timestamp: 14:24]

So what do they got for mixers in there?
They actually have two things because the shows, the aquatic shows, run on Wild Tracks using Meyer LCS systems; same thing that’s used quite a bit in Vegas. So there is a Meyer playback console, and then they also have a [Yamaha] DM1000 that they use for the little bit of live audio that they need to do. The choice of the DM1000 is actually mostly driven by commonality with other spaces on the ship because one thing that’s very important when you’re on a cruise ship is interchangeability of equipment. Spares are crucial, and you don’t have any storage; you don’t want to carry the weight. You have to run shows in highly automated mode, and you need to be able to minimize your spares and maximize your interchangeability. So that’s one of the things that drives using the DM up there, because they have others on the ship in other spaces. [Timestamp: 15:14]

And how do they handle stuff like stage monitoring and things for the performers?
Well, as we said, there are in-pool speakers for the acrobatics in the water. There are also all-weatherproof surround speakers and there are weatherproof foldback speakers at the two levels of the deck that are primary performer levels up-stage. [Timestamp: 15:33]

Have they got any kind of assisted listening? Some of these people, I guess, are on up in years on these cruises.
Yes, and that was an interesting discussion that we had with them. They have a wireless RF-based listening assist available for the Aqua Theater. We usually use infrared-based on the indoor facilities, but you can’t effectively use infrared-based outside during the day—it’s very difficult to do that. And also you’ve got a really very variable environment there where people may be watching from any one of a number of places—it would be very hard to cover that. So whereas you have a more controlled on the indoor theaters—and using infrared allows you to contain the signal within the theater and not interfere with other things—the only real solution outside was to go to an RF base. [Timestamp: 16:22]

So Russ, I guess you didn’t have to worry too much about feedback then since it’s mostly playback.
No, but they do have—when the live entertainers are there and they raise that deck up with no water, they will do just a regular land-based show, live. [Timestamp: 16:39]

I guess that’s the real name of the game in being able to do anything that’s in that tough environment that you could do in Vegas or anywhere on dry land. So did they have to use any special isolation devices to avoid AC ground loops or having engine or pump vibration getting into the sound or shaking up the equipment?
I don’t believe they did; not on the acoustic side.

Turpin: Most of the loudspeakers on the ship are isolation-mounted because one of the things that we’re very concerned about is noise transmission—structure-borne transmission of the loudspeaker to the hull of the ship. [Timestamp: 17:15]

And vice versa…

Cooper: Everything’s on neoprene isolators.

Turpin: Yeah, everything’s on spring hangers or neoprene isolators. Even the little surround speakers are all mounted elastically. But they also have to be fixed, whereas in a land-based theater you might fly in array—you might fly a line array on a couple of lines of aircraft cable. No, can’t do that.

Cooper: Can’t do that there.

Turpin: Because that has to be stable and fixed. The ship is moving, and in rough weather, you can’t have stuff wondering around so everything has to be mounted in a fixed manner. And then you have to isolate it so that because it’s fixed it’s not also transmitting and receiving structure-borne noise to and from the ship itself. [Timestamp: 18:00]

And then they’ve got—I guess they have to have production communication. They’ve got an intercom system and everything there?
Right, they’ve got an intercom which includes underwater com because the divers—you have crew on scuba gear in the water at the Aqua Theater, and they also have to be on com. They also have breathing loops so that the performers can breath underwater. There’s a breathing line that runs around the perimeter of the pool. [Timestamp: 18:23]

Absolutely incredible.
Yeah, but you do—one advantage that you have is as you embrace—you were talking about isolation, of course. All of the boxes on stage are in weather-tight enclosures where you have connectivity point. There are connections in each of the dive towers to allow them to do some live show. If they want to put a steel band on the barrel roll deck and have daytime entertainment up there, there are connection points that allow them to do that. They’re in weatherproof boxes and they’re inside the dive towers, so they’re as protected as they can be. Same thing with the tech table position, which is out in the seating area. It’s only typically used to tech a show; there’s no reason to mix a show live from there, but you could. But if you connect all of this stuff digitally using fiber and categoric cable, then you have increased your immunities to certain noise problems tremendously. That’s one of the reasons, one of several reasons, that the cruise ships tend to be fairly aggressive adopters of digital technology. Because you had asked me earlier about conduit on the ships, and when I saw that I laughed because there is no conduit on the ship; everything is in cable tray, and that’s anathema to us. When we do land-based theaters, we want everything in conduit, and we want the conduit separated, and we want different voltage levels and different conduits. Well you can’t do that on a ship. Everything is run in cable tray. [Timestamp: 19:41]

All right, it sounds like the set up on this type of thing would have to be very involved and time-consuming in order to have it come out to be very simple to operate and reconfigure while you are out there on the ship, out of reach of any support or service calls. This has been great having you, Russ and Mark, on part one. In part two, I want to get into the wireless systems and what’s in the control racks and so forth. But I sure appreciate your being here for part one.
Our pleasure.
Turpin: Thank you.

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